Dragon’s Crown is a 2D side-scrolling fantasy beat-em-up for up to four players (local or online) developed by Japanese firm Vanillaware. Released first in Japan and then North America, the game is now getting a European release on both PS3 and Vita. I checked out the upcoming PS3 release and had tons of fun with both four-player co-op and single player.
Despite the 2013 release for the game, Dragon’s Crown looks and feels like a homage to retro beat-em-ups of yesteryear, from the nostalgic (and exaggerated) art style to the gameplay mechanics. Players select one of six characters with their own styles and skills and after a brief tutorial are thrust into the game with up to three other players, either locally or online. AI companions can fill the party slots if friends are not available to play with, and although the game is still fun as a solitary experience, it’s the multiplayer that really brings the experience to life. The gameplay itself is fairly simplistic – fight your way to loot and glory in closed dungeons. But the simplicity is a blessing for easing you into the game, and especially when you have four players running around the screen, handing in quests and buying/selling/repairing equipment in the town – it’s good that players know what they need to do without too much hesitation or drawn out tutorials. The town is a safe haven, a port of call that players return to after dungeons where the story can be progressed, skills can be learnt, items and equipment can be bought and repaired, and the party managed. Players can also resurrect bones they found in dungeons which are AI companions that can join your team if you are lacking local/online players. Bones can also be ‘buried’ for a chance at gaining an item. From the town, players accept quests primarily from the Adventurer’s Guild and then head to the Gate to leap into dungeons. Once in dungeons, it’s a case of fighting your way through the enemies and defeating the boss at the end. Other side quests can be picked up which offer alternative requirements in dungeons, but for the main part it’s a case of beating up mobs and grabbing loot along the way.
The variety of classes adds some depth to the game. There are six classes to choose from: the fighter/brawler classes of Amazon, Fighter and Dwarf, the magic-based Sorceress and Wizard, and the archer class of the Elf. Each has their own skills to purchase with skill points (gained through levelling and completing side quests) which lets you build your own character using active and passive skills – a set of skills specific to each class and a set of common skills that any character can unlock. It’s impressive how different the characters play out, with each class playing and fighting differently which adds some variation. Despite playing the game on different occasions with different friends, it didn’t ever feel boring or stale playing through the same dungeons as I swapped between characters, trying out their different styles and abilities – even building the same class in different ways. In fact, the game encourages you to replay previous dungeons once you progress far enough and unlock an alternative path in each dungeon, culminating in a different end boss. There is also rune magic which plays an important role. On the walls in dungeons there are often rune stones inscribed on the wall. The right stick brings up an on-screen cursor, used for opening chests and doors and also hovering over ‘sparkles’ in the scenery which drops hidden loot. The cursor is also used to activate these rune symbols, and different combinations have different effects. Once you unlock rune magic, you can then purchase more rune stones and head back to previous dungeons, trying out rune combinations which cause effects like temporary buffs to the party (damage increase, invulnerability, etc), effects like petrifying the on-screen enemies, as well as opening hidden passages and unlocking hidden chests. It gives some more incentive to play through previous dungeons, which rarely feels like a chore, as the action is fast-paced and dungeons never really seem to drag.
I played the game with different friend groups utilising the multiple save files, playing with 2 human players, 3 players and again with a full party of players. The game appealed to both ‘hardcore’ gamers I played with and casual gamer friends who rarely play games. Both ‘types’ of gamers enjoyed the experience, as the game is very easy to jump into and not overly complex, meaning that within minutes of creating a character and finishing the brief tutorial, they were immersed in the game and ready to take on the first dungeon. It’s not overwhelming, and helps ease players into the game quickly. Thankfully, there is still a challenge due to the number of enemies, their variation, and more importantly the variation of the characters. Dragon’s Crown labels characters based on difficulty to control and master, so it’s easy to see which character you are suited to based on your gaming proficiency. For instance, magic classes like the Sorceress are harder to master, due to having to manage a variety of different spells (which take up inventory slots) with set uses per dungeon, while brawler classes like the Amazon are less in-depth, favouring brawn over tactics and having more combat skills. Personally, I enjoyed trying out the different characters, and even when I felt like I had ‘mastered’ the game in a way, it was still fun playing as a fighter/brawler class recommended for novices.
The story in Dragon’s Crown is a take-it-or-leave-it sort of thing. That’s not to say it’s bad in any way. It’s fully voiced and is certainly interesting enough, but when I was playing with four players on one PS3, it was clear that people were having too much fun to listen to the story when questing, so these parts where generally skipped whereas I payed more attention to the story during my solitary playthrough. It’s a good thing, as the story is not too intrusive and allows you to simply get on with questing if you are having too much fun to stop and listen to what’s going on. There is some running back and forth in the town hub, talking to people and handing in quests, but it doesn’t get in the way too much thankfully. The story could be a bit more engaging, as I was more interested in the fighting and questing than the plot, but it does a good enough job and is not the main focus of the game.
The art style is one of the appealing features of the game. The graphics have an old-school feel to them but are still crisp and sharp, and the animations and magic spells are done well. With the mage classes able to resurrect bones and golems, the party size can extend beyond four players (at least until the minions die) and when you add this to the mobs on screen, the action can get pretty crazy at times as the screen is filled with battling characters, but the action remains smooth and fast-paced. It’s a testament to the art style of the game, with varied locales, enemy types, and attack animations which helps keep the gameplay fresh and interesting. Yes, the character designs are over-the-top (especially the females…) but the game has a tongue-in-cheek humour with amusing references (such as the Monty Python reference which I won’t spoil now) and doesn’t ever take itself to seriously. If you rush through the game without doing all the side quests, it can be completed fairly quickly, perhaps 10-12 hours or so. But then there are the harder difficulty modes, challenge mode and second paths to take in each dungeon. Couple this with the number of classes and there is a lot of replay value, and if you complete all the side quests the game becomes a much longer affair. Personally, I still found the game to be a lot of fun even when replaying previous dungeons – especially with three other players. On the negative side, the game world can feel quite small if you rush through it, and the story is not the most immersive but is perfectly functional. Rushing back and forth in the town to speak to people also can get in the way of questing, especially when trying to co-ordinate four players who are too busy brawling (you can fight each other in the town but don’t take damage). Despite these reservations, it doesn’t get in the way of a great experience that lets players sink in as many hours as they want, replaying levels and finishing all the quests and difficulty modes. All told, Dragon’s Crown offers a greatly entertaining experience for both hardcore and casual gamers, and is well worth a look.
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