Dragon’s Crown is a game you can’t quite put your finger on until you play it. As a game by Vanillaware (Odin Sphere, Muramasa: The Demon Blade), should I be expecting another brawler with an RPG twist? As a game with Atlus involvement, should I be expecting a game with dozens of hours and a deep story? With such scantily-clad character designs, should I be expecting a shallow game built around fan service? Because you are reading this review, you can probably tell that I have played Dragon’s Crown, and as a person who has played Dragon’s Crown, I can tell you one thing about this PS3/Vita game: expectations are worthless.
At its core, Dragon’s Crown is actually an amalgamation between the 2D brawler and Diablo-esque RPG genres. At the beginning of the game, you can choose between one of six classes to play as: Fighter, Amazon, Wizard, Elf, Dwarf, and Sorceress. Fighter is your knight class with high defenses, Amazon and Dwarf are your berserkers who focus on taking a bunch of hits and dealing a ton of damage, Elf is your archer, and Wizard/Sorceress are the classes focused on magic damage and team support. All of the classes feel unique and fun in their own right, but the class set-up is definitely standard fare. Although, choosing a class at the beginning doesn’t marry you to it — you have the freedom to make tons of characters from all of the classes and change between them as often as you like before entering combat.
Furthermore, the game is set up in a way that is extremely reminiscent of these action-RPGs. Split between a hub world and the world you actually fight in, the hub world consists of several key locations: a tavern where you gather your party, save, and switch between characters, shops, places to get new skills and take side quests, a church where you can get new AI party members by resurrecting their bones that you find during quests, and a castle where some story stuff goes down. The game thankfully allows quick travel between each location instead of forcing you to walk from place to place, so it’s very easy to run all of your errands in a few minutes before jumping right into battle.
When you get to the gate where you can jump into battle, you can only go to any level that the story dictates for the first half of the game. After beating the first 9 stages, you can then go to any level you want, as well as any of the second chunk of nine stages that unlock at this point. The levels themselves are standard well-put-together beat ’em up stages where you go from left to right fighting different enemies for 10-20 minutes until reaching a boss at the end. The stages are complemented by great tough bosses, tons of enemy types sometimes exclusive to one level, and interesting themes like a mage’s tower, a pirate’s cove, and a dark forest.
The gameplay within these areas are mostly standard brawler fare; though the classes do feel as different as they need to, the combat, as satisfying as it feels, plays similarly to the best in the genre (which is certainly a complement). The part where Dragon’s Crown becomes an RPG, however, is mostly under the hood. As you fight and accomplish side quests, you gain EXP that makes your character more powerful and eligible for better armor and weaponry (which requires a certain level before becoming equip-able); these equips, mind you, are picked up as loot as you play through a stage, making the comparisons to these aforementioned RPGs far more palatable. Thankfully, the gameplay fusion feels entirely cohesive and appropriate, and the entire package feels like a very beefy beat’ em up instead of a beat ’em up with weak RPG elements.
Dragon’s Crown isn’t just polished and derivative, mind you — the game has a few tricks up its sleeve. Accompanying you on journeys is a thief who assists you by unlocking chests and doors as you go about your journey to get loot or go to areas off the beaten path. To do so, you’re required to set a marker on what you want him to unlock, which can be done easily with the Vita’s touch screen or slightly less so with the right stick on PlayStation 3. The marker can also be used to activate hidden runes on the level, able to give various bonuses like an extra weapon pick-up or temporary invincibility. It’s a basic addition, but one that goes a long way towards giving the game a unique flavor.
The game further draws comparisons to loot-based action RPGs through its storytelling and encouraged play style. Specifically, the story is an extremely weak tale about quelling an ancient evil, and is a plot that sits entirely in the background as an explanation to why you’re going out on quests rather than trying to spin a novel and substantial plot. And despite the beautiful hand-drawn visuals in the game, this is especially apparent through the low production values that went into the story on both versions of the game; a narrator (voiced by the great J.B. Blanc) voices 90% of the story while everything else is presented through text and nearly still images. Most importantly, the writing is extremely forgettable and the characters are even more so.
As for playstyle, the game asks you to go through the story once on Normal (an endeavor that should take 12-15 hours) before basically letting you loose on higher difficulties to get better equipment, further leveling, and a paltry continuation of the recently finished story. In other words, after you finish the story, the appeal of the game is to go on further quests on these 18ish levels and collect better loot. It’s well done if you love games like Earth Defense Force and Monster Hunter and love the idea of dropping dozens of hours with friends to deck out your main character and go on quests, but anyone who goes into this expecting a deep plot with mammoth levels of content and a JRPG-like experience will come away with a 14 hour save file and mild disappointment.
One great strength of Dragon’s Crown is its insistence on having a robust online and ad-hoc multiplayer component. It’s extremely easy to jump right into a random match with people around the world playing Dragon’s Crown at the same time, and playing with people on your friend’s list is equally smooth. And without spoilers, beating the game unlocks one extra multiplayer feature that is slightly more competitive in nature. Unfortunately, the game features no included voice chat (which is less problematic on Vita thanks to Party play but still an issue) and provides no cross-play between the PS3 and Vita nor their online communities. The only real feature connecting the PS3 and Vita versions is the ability to upload saves and download them on either version should you have both.
A shining point of Dragon’s Crown is undoubtedly its art direction. Despite any qualms about character design being over-sexualized (Which is barely present and hardly noticeable), the 2D art is some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in a video game, looking more like a storybook than something interactive. It looks great on the Vita, but if you can only look at the game one way and don’t mind losing portability, the HD visuals on PS3 are superb.
Dragon’s Crown is a substantial, well-made brawler that takes inspiration from a vast array of quest-fueled RPG adventures. The appeal is certainly limited by your tastes, and the size of the experience is limited by how far you are willing to dig. However, should you be inside of this specific target audience, be prepared to watch your hours melt away this summer.
PS3 and Vita review copies provided by Atlus. Dragon’s Crown is available from August 6 on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita.