Review: Dragon’s Crown (Sony Playstation Vita)

Dragon’s Crown
Developer: VanillaWare, Inc.
Publisher: Atlus USA
Genre: Side Scrolling Beat ‘Em Up
Release Date: 08/06/2013

Dragon’s Crown is one of those games I’ve been really looking forward to this year even though Vanillaware’s games don’t excite me all that much. Grim Grimoire was one of my least favorite games of 2007 and while I enjoyed Odin Sphere and Muramasa, I can’t say either of them inspired me to keep either game in my collection after I beat them. So what about Dragon’s Crown made me want to knuckle down and get this? Well, for one thing it’s the spiritual successor to games like Golden Axe and the two Dungeons & Dragons arcade games. For another, as an owner of both D&D arcade cabinets, I was more than a little disappointed with the quality of the Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara port Capcom had Iron Galaxy do earlier this summer as there were multiple bugs and some very noticeable edits and cuts made to it. It’s why I’m imported the PS3 disc version from Japan – because Capcom actually members of the original dev team to do THAT version (that will be my second Japanese version of the games for consoles too…). So if I can’t have a high quality version of D&D for my PS3 or Wii U, I decided to make do with a game that was made and directed by one of those same original members of the D&D arcade game teams. I’m happy to say that while Dragon’s Crown isn’t a 100% replacement for those classic licensed arcade beat ’em ups with RPG trappings, it is a pretty awesome game in its own right and it’s definitely one of my favorite games of the year. I’ll slogged through the entire game as the dwarf and am now finishing up the game with the elven archer and sorceress. I honestly don’t see myself putting this down anytime soon and honestly, it was a test of willpower to take the time out to write the review – it’s that good. Let’s talk about why.

One of the things I loved about the game was that it was completely narrated ala a Dungeon Master. It really gave the game a tabletop feel and made the story come alive where otherwise I could see people speeding through the text just to get to the button mashing. There will be DLC for the game when it is officially released which will change the voice of the narrator to one of the six playable characters, but I personally love the default narrator as it’s perfect for a D&D style fantasy game.

The plot of Dragon’s Crown starts out a bit weak as you are a generic nameless character who goes into dungeons and completes quests for the sake of gold and items. As the game progresses though, you’ll meet recurring allies and enemies and the results of your quest will be shown later on both in your HUB town and also in later adventurers. For example, someone you think is an ally and someone you think is an evil antagonist will have their roles reversed unexpectedly. You’ll also see people come and go from the town due to your actions. It’s all extremely well done and the story plus the options sub-quests you can unlock really hide the linearity of the game as well as the lack of any character development on the part of the protagonists. Think of it akin to the days of the old silent NES or 16-bit system RPG heroes where your character is just kind of there to do the killing, looting and day saving.

You have six characters to choose from: The Wizard, the Sorceress, the Knight, the Amazon, the Dwarf and the Archer. Each character has their own benefits and drawbacks. Generally in these type of games I go for the Cleric or distance attacker, but as there is no cleric in the game, I decided to go with the dwarf to mix things up. The Dwarf is basically the strongest and most damage dealing character, but has a short range. It’s fine though because as you level up and customize your character he learns a crazy gliding attack, where he flies across the screen dropping bombs. Short range my butt! The Warrior is the best defensively and has a nice mix of offensive and protective abilities. The Sorceress isn’t the best at magic defense in the game and has some fun spells like turning people into frogs or animating the dead to give your team a fifth character! The Wizard is pure magical offensive. The Archer is your ranged attacker who sucks up close (but can use poison then) and the Amazon is kind of a jack of all trades, but master of none. I do find the Dwarf is my favorite as he’s basically a long lasting meat shelf and once you start unlocking the other three modes in the game, you’ll come to love his crazy high hit points and ability to do copious amounts of damage. Each character is worth playing as to see which works best for you though, so give them all a try.

As you level up you’ll earn skill points which allow you to customize your character. Each character can choose from a pool of Common skills that each class can learn, along with a set of classic specific skills that are unique to that character. I do recommend heavily investing in the skills that give you Hit Points back in various ways and magic regeneration abilities for the two spellcasters. You’ll also earn armor and weapons to equip by going through various dungeons. Some of those items might be for other character classes, and so it’s nice to be able to trade those to other characters/players. I was extremely impressed with how deep the character customization aspect is and I could have say, three AI controlled Warriors in my party and each would be noticeably different from the other based on stats, equipment and skills.

Visually, Dragon’s Crown is gorgeous. It’s one of the best looking 2D games I’ve ever seen and it’s easily the best looking game for the Playstation Vita so far. Everything is animated fluidly and I’ve yet to encounter any slowdown apart from the purposeful slow motion that occurs when you kill a boss. I absolutely love the character designs, especially as all the main characters are over the top. The Amazon is more ripped than 99% of male protagonists I’ve seen in any game. Sure she’s wearing next to nothing, but so is the Dwarf! The Sorceress is definitely designed to be sexual in appearance and personality, but I think the same could be said for the Wizard and Warrior. Whether it’s the unlockable artwork, the static cut scene images or the animated characters that litter the game, I can’t help but be impressed by every aspect of the visuals in this game. It’s that good looking.

I was also extremely impressed with the audio aspects of the game. The core game has English voice acting only, but I’m more than fine with that because of the high quality job the actors do here. The narrator, as previously stated is awesome and this is a good thing, as he is 95% of the voice acting you’ll hear in the game. The rest comes during battles when you get hit, do a special attack, or the like. I was thrilled to hear that the Warlock boss sounded a lot like the Lich in the Dungeons & Dragons arcade games, especially when he said, “Animate Dead.” So while there isn’t a lot of voice acting, it’s all very solid and will keep you entertained. The soundtrack is equally wonderful and this it’s one I’d buy if the option was made available to me. Each tracks just exudes that high fantasy feel and whether you’re in an old vampire’s castle or making your way through a creepy forest, the music will set the tone and keeps you invigorated.

So let’s talk the actual playing of the game. It’s pretty simple. Square is your basic attack and you can use it in connection with the D-Pad to do different attacks like a slide or higher hitting attack to get pesky airborne foes. Circle is your strong attack. Using this does a ton of damage but also causes you to lose your weapon for a while, so it’ll just be fists until you can get it back. X is for jumping, the R trigger is for Evading rolls and the L trigger and right analog stick work together as a mouse if you prefer not to use the touchscreen, which I strong recommend you do as it works far better. The left analog stick controls your items. Use right and left to cycle through them and then down to use whatever item you have selected, be it a healing potion or ring of fireballs. Playing the game is exceptionally easy and simple, although you the key is deciding what move to use and when. Each stage has an end boss, many of which are ripped straight from the D&D arcade game, but with new visuals and attacks, like the beholder Gazer. Along the way you’ll have treasure to unlock and secret rooms to find with the help of your rogue ally (who will not fight). You can also have up to three AI controlled allies. Eventually you’ll unlock online co-op but only after you beat the first nine stages. This will take a few hours, but don’t worry as the game is quite fun whether you are using computer or human controlled allies. Really the only complaint I have is that when there are a ton of characters on screen and the action gets fast and frantic, it can be quite hard to find your character…especially when you’re the diminutive dwarf. Still, I’ve yet to encounter any lag, be it move detection or movement. The entire game performs flawlessly, although as this is a 2D side scrolling beat ’em up, the experience may feel shallow and/or repetitive to some. I love it though, and this is exactly what I wanted. Sure it’s a little more than twice the cost of the Dungeons & Dragons Collection for consoles, but it also looks better, plays better (Frickin’ Iron Galaxy…) has character customization options, IS PORTABLE and two or three stages of Dragon’s Crown is actually longer than a playthrough of both D&D arcade games back to back. That’s awesome.

So here’s how the game flows. You have your nine stages. Then you have to play all nine stages again where you’ll find a slightly new pass with a brand new end boss. Beat this new boss get a talisman. Get all nine talismans and you fight the final boss. Sounds good, right? Well once you’ve “beaten” the game, you can unlock hard mode. This resets the game, but raises both the difficulty and level cap. Once you go through all this again with hard mode you unlock INFERNO mode, where for the third time you go through the game but everything is a LOT harder and your character can reach a maximum of Level 99. It will take you approximately 120 hours to beat the game with all six characters and do all the optional sub-quests, so there is an amazing amount of replay value to this game. There’s even more when you factor in the online gaming. I set my game to allow drop ins and I ended up having a Wizard, Elf and Sorceress drop in while I was doing a sub-quest. After we killed the harpy boss and the level ended, I found their characters as bones (you find characters in levels as bones, resurrect them and gain a new AI controlled ally for your party), the next time I played, complete with Japanese dialogue (instead of English) and text. VERY COOL. Honestly, Dragon’s Crown offers more replay value than any other Vita game I can think of save for The Pinball Arcade. You will easily get your money’s worth out of this.

Balance-wise, the game is well done. Each character gets three lives, although you can earn more through blessings, rune casting or achieving a certain score (varies per level). If an ally loses all their lives and you don’t restore them (by spending money), they get permadeath. If you lose all your lives, it’s game over. I never actually got a game over in my playthrough on normal, but on hard/inferno…yeah, you’re going to want to save regularly. I never lost an allied character either, but it came close because they don’t always have the best strategy or “thought process.” AI allies rarely do though, am I right?

Dragon’s Crown isn’t the most original game, but it does stand out from the pack of games similar to it. It is an homage to fantasy arcade beat ’em ups after all, but it is amazingly fun. It gives you six playable characters that are highly customizable and instead of being a quarter gobbling monster, the difficulty is more balanced to allow for challenge instead of insta-death designed to make you furiously look in your pockets for more change. At the same time, the lack of unlimited continues does mean you have to actually get good at this game instead of plowing your way through it. Dragon’s Crown is a wonderful natural successor to the D&D arcade games, Golden Axe and other beat ’em ups – even those like Data East’s Captain America and the Avengers, another arcade cabinet I own and cherish. So while it is very reminiscent of older games we loved as kids, it’s also better looking, longer, offers more options, online co-op and far more to do.

As you can imagine from reading this, I had an extremely hard time putting this down. It’s been a long time since I can honestly say I’ve really been excited for gaming or had a hard stop turning a game off, but between this and Shadowrun Returns, it’s like I’m a teenager again, playing beat ’em ups likeDragon’s Crown at the Pirate’s Den and coming home to play Shadowrun on my Sega Genesis. Dragon’s Crown just has so much to offer and surprisingly deep options with fairly easy gameplay. It’s definitely one of my favorite games of the year, and it’s so well made, I honestly prefer it to any of Vanillaware’s previous offerings.

Is Dragon’s Crown for everyone? No, probably not, but it’s definitely for me. Do you like action RPGs? You’ll probably like this? Button mashers? Ditto. Beat ’em ups? Definitely. Really, the only people I can see not liking this game are the ones with a stick up their butt about the artwork for some reason which makes no sense as both genders have a hyper-sexualized beefcake/cheesecake character and at least one that looks and dresses sensibly. It’s a video game people; if it plays well and you have fun with it – that’s all that matters. I think the vast majority of Vita owners will have a field day with this game and honestly, it’s a bit odd being the only Westerner that seems to be online right now with it. Atlus USA has done a great job localizing the game and right now it’s too hard to say what my favorite game of the year is – this, Shadowrun Returns or Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut. Either way, Vanillaware has outdone itself and has given us a must have game for both the PS3 and the PS Vita. Sorry DC fans – there’s no cross buy or cross buy however. Cross saves work though! The bottom line is – Dragon’s Crown is awesome and I’m going to go back to playing it now. It hits shelves on August sixth and if you’re in need of a high level dwarf to help you plow through your opponents, you know where to find me!

Short Attention Span Summary
Dragon’s Crown is awesome – simply awesome. Whether it’s the wonderful homages to all the great fantasy beat ’em ups of the 80s and 90s, the gorgeous 2D artwork or the awesome gameplay where the different character build for the six playable classes are nigh unlimited, Dragon’s Crown succeeds in nearly every way possible. Online is extremely tight without any lag or slowdown and I never had anyone drop out of my game. This is easily the best game I’ve played on the Vita that was released this year and it’s one of the best games of the year regardless of system or genre. Pick this up if you’re even remotely interested – you won’t regret it.


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