Platforms: PS3 (Reviewed), PS Vita
Dragon’s Crown. What can you say about Dragon’s Crown? The entire gaming community has been following the release of Vanillaware’s 2D sidescrolling beat ’em up ever since we first caught a glimpse of the Amazon and Sorceress character art. The buildup leading to the game’s release has been a volatile cauldron of controversy and finger-wagging, while others on the opposing side of the fence defend the game in the name of art and stylistic integrity. Last week, the big buzz surrounded Polygon’s review of the game, as written by Danielle Riendeau. (As if she needs me to link to her story, ha!) Since then, it seems anything that’s written about Dragon’s Crown is compared or contrasted directly with this singular opinion.
With that in mind, I’m prefacing this review with the following: My Dragon’s Crown review will reflect my own opinions and is not in any way meant to be held up against the views of others. Every reviewer has the right to their own opinions, and shouldn’t feel beholden to the general consensus when it comes to judging a game. While it’s nearly impossible to review each game as if it exists within its own vacuum, every title should be judged on its own merit and not against the standards set by what’s come before. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the actual review.
Dragon’s Crown is a unique take on the beat ‘em genre thanks to its infusion of RPG elements that are well fleshed out. The adventure begins once players choose from a variety of six different class types. There are the bruiser/tanks in the form of the Amazon and the Fighter, the male Wizard and female Sorceress magic users, and the mid-range fighters; the Dwarf and Elf. Each class comes with two skill trees: A Common tree full of abilities any character class can access, and a specialty tree with abilities unique to each character. With this basic understanding of characters and classes, players are quickly thrust into the world of Dragon’s Crown.
The first thing anyone will notice about the game is the art style. There’s no two ways about it: Dragon’s Crown is a beautiful game. The environments, the characters and creatures, and the detailed dungeons all paint a glorious picture that is consistently visually appealing throughout the entire journey. What really helps sell the world of Dragon’s Crown is just how alive the scenery is. Crates can be broken as wood splinters in every direction, fire pits can be tipped over causing a literal hot mess all over the floor, and statues crumble to dust after delivering a few hard blows. Even the townsfolk aren’t safe as player characters can accidentally (or purposefully, for the mischievous folks out there) knock NPCs down or cause them to drop whatever they’re carrying, much to their dismay. All of these detailed little touches really offer a satisfying sense of player agency, as characters genuinely alter the state of their environment. Nearly every action a character performs in Dragon’s Crown has some sort of visual payoff, and that’s very rewarding as a gamer.
What isn’t nearly as gratifying, however, is the storyline. The story Dragon’s Crown is basically a series of menial tasks strung together with little interest in whether or not the players is paying attention. It becomes very clear early on that the developers understand players are picking up Dragon’s Crown for the sole purpose of getting to the action, so they put few obstacles in your way between booting up the game and jumping into a dungeon. The game also suffers from a confused narrator that isn’t sure which tense he should be speaking in. While most of the story is told as if it has already happened, the narrator also reminds players what their next objective is; often times in the very same sentence. Phrases like “You go to the Adventurer’s Guild to speak with Samuel” will often be directly followed by “You have five talisman’s left to collect.” It’s a bit disorienting, and quite amusing if I’m being totally honest, but it isn’t anything game breaking. If anything, it highlights what little thought Vanillaware put into spinning any sort of meaningful tale within the universe they so painstakingly created.
Luckily, since Dragon’s Crown so obviously wants to be critiqued based on its action sequences, the game does a commendable job polishing the beat ‘em up genre to an elevated level beyond anything in recent memory. One of the ways it does this is by offering a truly diverse group of characters to choose from. While the six characters can be grouped into three traditional class categories, they all have playstyles varied enough to feel unique. The Fighter and Amazon may both use heavy weapons, but one can be leveled to focus more on crowd control while the other can become lethal in one-on-one or boss scenarios. Throw in magic users and ranged characters that offer arrow attacks, screen-sweeping spells, and a variety of temporary weapons/items, and the possibilities and combinations are nearly endless. This encourages players to not only try out different character classes, but also mix up the team composition before every adventure to see what works best. Dragon’s Crown supports up to four players, with both drop-in drop-out couch co-op and online network play included. But even if there’s no one around to jump into the fray, Vanillaware wisely included the option to bring along a few NPCs, in fact it’s a big component of the game.
During each romp through a dungeon, there are a number of things to look out for and collect. Collectibles such as piles of bones that can be obtained and later revived back in town, which is how players recruit NPC characters to join their party. Slaying foes will net points and lead to coin drops, and treasure chests can be looted. Additionally, the right stick is used in a mouse-like fashion to control an on-screen pointer. During dungeon’s, this can be used to find hidden treasure or activate magic runes scattered throughout each stage, which offer temporary stat boosts and other beneficial bonuses. It’s a bit awkward and seems much more intuitive for those playing on the PS Vita, but it’s functional. Success in Dragon’s Crown relies heavily on earning a high score on every dungeon excursion. Basically every action taken while inside a dungeon will earn points; whether it be lock-picking chests, picking up loot, or slaying the end-boss of each level. At the end of each session, these score points are converted into experience points, thus allowing characters to level up, increase their stats, and earn skill points to spend on new abilities.
Players will need those skill points if they want to survive their time with the game. About halfway through the adventure, Dragon’s Crown ramps up the difficulty and will task adventurers with either grinding needlessly, or perfecting their mastery over a particular character class, most likely both. But a reasonably manageable difficulty spike isn’t the only thing hampering the experience of dungeon crawling, there are a few other hiccups with Dragon’s Crown that can lead to frustration. It’s worth mentioning that while AI companions manage to hold their own and prove quite useful during boss encounters, they are incredibly inept at dodging traps and avoiding attacks. At one point, I stood still for a few minutes and watched as my three AI accomplices repeatedly stopped over a spike trap, taking continuous damage each time the spikes popped back up until they died. During late-game boss fights, they seemed to go out of their way to jump straight into the line of fire and absorb damage as if it were a fetish of some sort.
Another grievance, and this may be a sign of old age on my part, is that there is no pause button in Dragon’s Crown. While I’d love to spend countless hours immersed in the experience, sometimes the phone rings or work comes up that needs to be done ASAP. The point is, my life doesn’t revolve around Dragon’s Crown, so I need to be able to play the game on my time, not Vanillaware’s time. And that’s coming from a guy who’s single with a very limited number of responsibilities, let alone the folks with families and all other sorts of stuff going on. This can also cause frustration during frantic moments of on-screen chaos against a large group of enemies, when it becomes impossible to keep track of the player character. Having the ability to pause the game and get a better look at what the heck is going on would’ve been much appreciated. Instead, it becomes a “hope for the best” scenario of button mashing or constant evading in an effort to I Spy what one can only pray is a still-alive character.
One final minor grievance is an issue of depth perception. In 2D games, it’s sometimes hard to gauge exactly where characters need to be in order to successfully attack nearby opponents. While this may not be as big an issue for tank characters who get up close and personal, it becomes an issue for those wanting to play as the Elf, who happens to be my favorite character. In many situations, the Elf is at her most dangerous when firing arrows from a distance, but that strategy sort of falls apart when it’s difficult to tell whether or not a shot is lined up properly. Again, this isn’t anything game breaking, but it does make me feel rather inadequate when my AI companions are decimating enemies and my arrow soars past its intended target by what I assume is a hair’s length away.
Not to get too down on Dragon’s Crown, there’s a lot to love about the package as a whole. Boss battles in particular are an absolute highlight, and are instances that perfectly accentuate everything that can go right about the combat mechanics in place. Bosses are as equally wonderful to look at and appreciate as they are to bring down through educated understanding of team work and character class playstyles. Outside of those frightening challenges, each stage is littered with numerous enemy types that come at the party while employing a number of tactics. Once the story is half-over, a secondary “B” route becomes accessible for each of the nine main dungeons, offering a greater challenge with new enemy types and an even more devastating boss encounter. Between the secondary routes and the plethora of sidequests that open up through story progression, on top of the unique character classes that each deserve some play time, Dragon’s Crown offers up a ton of replayability; which more than makes up for its potentially quick completion time and limited number of dungeons. Personally, I enjoy a good challenge, so Dragon’s Crown also gets some brownie points for not holding the player’s hand at any point past the opening stage/tutorial. The avid adventurer with a keen eye who is willing to experiment and explore will make the best of their time with the game, and Dragon’s Crown is all the better for it.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to discuss some of the controversy surround the game leading up to launch, and now that it’s finally out I may as well pass my final judgment. I’m okay with the stylistic choices the game makes in regards to art style. On its own, the design choices of the Amazon and Sorceress are not inherently sexist. Where the issue lies is in presentation and context. In this regard, Dragon’s Crown does come off as problematic. Within the context of the game, outside of the protagonist character, women are either objectified, “damseled,” or hypersexualized, often some combination of the three. While I can only recount a single male character who isn’t fully dressed, the majority of the females presented in Dragon’s Crown are mostly nude, and if they are clothed they are literally spreading their legs and thrusting their pelvises into the screen. The Amazon and the Sorceress stand out as having face-palmingly awkward sprinting animations; with the intentional goal of flaunting their butts and breasts in an exaggerated manner, whereas the four remaining classes run normally. I actually made a note that the Sorceress should actually take damage while sprinting, because there’s no way bouncing those things up and down like that doesn’t hurt. At that point, it’s not art for the sake of art: It’s sexist, and it’s objectivist, and it’s a problem. I can honestly say that I stopped using the sprint function whenever I partied with a Sorceress or Amazon because it felt awkward and embarrassing, as if I was doing something wrong.
I’m not saying all copies of the game should be destroyed; but if the gaming community as a whole is going to improve in terms of maturity, then there needs to be some sort of accountability. We need to recognize that depictions of women as provided in the case of Dragon’s Crown are no longer acceptable, and that even though it’s a great game and plenty of fun to play, it and all other games that include similar content should be criticized, because such criticism is valid. The only way this issue of sexism in gaming is ever going to be resolved is if we start holding developers accountable for their representations of women in the games they make. While I don’t believe a game should be scored any higher or lower based on its moral stature, it’s something that should be critiqued as part of a review, like any other aspect of the experience. So, there you have it. I hope that wasn’t too preachy.
Controversy and depictions of women in gaming aside, Dragon’s Crown is a worthwhile experience. Improving upon the classic beat ‘em genre with an added RPG flavor and four-player co-op, Vanillaware’s latest endeavor is definitely a step in the right direction, mechanically. Packed with exciting boss battles, gorgeous art, incentivized replayability, and a truly diverse range of playstyles to choose from, there are few people who won’t be able to find a suitable reason to spend some time looting chests and crawling through the dungeons Dragon’s Crown has to offer. Plus, coming in at under the usual $59.99 price tag might just make the game too tantalizing to pass up. Either way, it’s worth a look.
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