Dragon’s Crown review
We’d honestly love to discuss Dragon’s Crown without so much as a mention of its art, but that simply isn’t possible. The hyper-sexualised fantasy style has found itself at the centre of quite the controversy shitstorm, and it isn’t hard to see why – you can barely go ten minutes without most of the screen being taken up by an impossibly large pair of breasts or (as certain outraged media outlets have been far less eager to report) a rippling, monolithic man-chest. We’re not here to cast moral judgment on either players or creators, though. We’re here to tell you whether games are any good or not. And it’s for that reason that we sincerely hope you can look beyond Dragon’s Crown’s divisive art direction, because the action-RPG underneath is one of the finest examples of the genre that we’ve ever seen.
In any case, when it isn’t flashing flesh or commissioning portraits from questionable angles, Dragon’s Crown is gorgeous. Most games with such lush hand-drawn visuals suffer in terms of animation (or vice versa) but Vanillaware has nailed both aspects; characters and backgrounds alike are both beautifully drawn and pulsing with life, and some of the character-specific animations are nothing short of jaw-dropping. The whole aesthetic package hits the same lofty highs actually – in a gaming rarity, unlockable art is actually worth going out of your way to see for once and the music… jeez, that music. The score is outstanding and fits the fantasy world perfectly, while most of the voice acting comes courtesy of a reliable narrator who effectively plays dungeon master for you, dropping clues as to what to do next and often describing scenes and interactions rather than having the game show you them pan out in full. It’s slightly odd at first but, as with any good DM, you’ll be more drawn into the story and world the more you get used to his narration style.
It looks the business, then, but this is the part where we say that Dragon’s Crown plays like ass, right? Wrong, thankfully. Side-scrolling fighters have a history of being unfairly tough left-to-right button-mashing affairs – this is a genre that grew up in arcades and where games were often designed with robbing players of as many quarters as possible in mind, let’s not forget – but compare the complexities and depth of the combat mechanics here with those of, say, Golden Axe and it’s like comparing DMC3 to Assassin’s Creed. It might take some learning, but this system is hugely technical, with each of the six classes offering a slightly different way to play. The Amazon and Fighter are solid entry-level characters, the Dwarf and the two spellcasters your intermediate options at two very different ends of the spectrum – the former good at isolating and beating on single foes while magic users specialise in crowd control and support – leaving the Elf as the tricky top-end acrobat, bouncing around the screen in a shower of arrows once you manage to get your head (and hands) around the dash cancels and other finger gymnastics that really make her sing.
As much as its combat might borrow from one-on-one fighters in terms of technicality, Dragon’s Crown is still very much an RPG. Base stats for each class are fixed to begin with but grow as you level, although constant loot drops will ensure that you’ve soon got plenty of toys with which to grow stats further and bend your character more towards your own style of play. There are skill trees of sorts too, one communal one for generic abilities and one per class, the latter laced with interesting new abilities and buffs for existing ones alike. This aspect is a little on the clunky side, truth be told, and the ability to respec is relegated to endgame content, meaning you’ll likely be stuck with a few skills that sound better than they are by that point. But given that you can amass a fair pool of upgrades just by grinding previous missions or completing side quests, these misspent points shouldn’t harm your build too much.
Although the questionable AI means that the game is better in local multiplayer, things take a turn for the better once you tick off all of the regular dungeons and Network mode is enabled, changing up the game in a massive way. It’s as organic an online mode as that of Dark Souls, with numerous ways to interact with your fellow heroes – parties are thrown together based on what dungeons are being played, the bones of fallen adventurers can be reclaimed and later resurrected to create powerful allies while downtime between quests can be filled with… a bizarre multiplayer cooking game. Yes, really. The whole thing is brilliant, tempting players to push on through a series of increasingly rewarding quests but with the caveat that the only recovery available is that which you boil or grill for yourself between levels.
With the UK release delayed until October (we’ve been playing the US version), we can’t help but worry that Dragon’s Crown will be lost amid bigger releases and next-gen fever. Frankly, it deserves better. It’s rare that a fusion of genres manages to go so in-depth on all fronts, so it’d be a shame to see timing – or boob-based outrage, for that matter – hold Vanillaware’s latest and greatest back from a place in PlayStation history. Cult status is guaranteed either way, though. It’s amazing that the vocal critics of Dragon’s Crown’s fondness for flashing flesh don’t seem to realise that they’re just giving the game more exposure…