I am still constantly floored by how great Dragon's Crown looks on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. The condensed visuals on the OLED screen for the Vita are particularly impressive, but even when it's blown up on a 40–plus-inch screen, there's little detail lost on the gorgeous artwork from developer Vanillaware. Say what you will about the more juvenile aspects of their character designs, but these folks are masters of their craft when it comes to artistic ability and translating that art into a 2-D environment.
Thankfully, Dragon's Crown isn't just about pretty art. It's an impressive throwback to a genre that's long been relegated to Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, and Steam-only releases. While beat-'em-ups might not garner the audience they once did when titles like Dungeons & Dragons, Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lined the walls of local arcades, the genre still has a lot to offer, as Dragon's Crown proves. Many of the core mechanics haven't changed since the previously mentioned titles of yore, but Dragon's Crown offers up enough content and production value to warrant the retail price tag.
You have access to six character classes: Amazon, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Sorceress and Wizard. These represent an equal mix of melee-focused fighters and characters capable of raining down ranged devastation across nine stages. These six characters might not sound like an impressive assortment, but each character has useful characteristics and a fully defined set of distinctive skills and combos. I opted to run through the majority of the game with the hard-hitting Dwarf, but I also found that there's a lot to love in each class. There's a learning curve involved with a couple of classes, like the Sorceress and her mix of casting and necromancy, but you'll do quite well regardless of your character class selection.
The core story is the same for all characters. You're tasked with finding the titular dragon's crown for the Kingdom of Hydeland to cement the royal right for your friends in the capital. This has been called into question and threatened by outside sources, so it's up to you to combat evil in the form of goblins, ogres, spirits and other high-fantasy fare. The neighboring environments of the city serve as a central hub throughout the game. The plot is pretty well written and given a certain amount of flair via the narrator's verbal delivery, but the star of Dragon's Crown is the addictive, loot-driven gameplay that keeps you coming back for more.
While the concept of mixing RPG elements into a beat-'em-up isn't new, Dragon's Crown is more in line with loot-driven action-RPGs like Diablo and Torchlight. As you venture into the world, you gather a variety of loot to customize each character. Character class dictates which loot can be equipped, with certain restrictions for different characters. Outfitting yourself in loot is somewhat open-ended, giving you a number of inventory slots that you can fill with gear or consumables — or neither, if you're feeling brave.
The loot system is well done, with just about every new run of a stage netting you something worth equipping or replacing. This slows down once you finish the game on Normal and start making a run at the newly unlocked Hard mode, but there are some neat elements that can boost loot amount or rarity. Most of the gear you find also has some randomized stat boosts that'll increase damage against different foes, improve stats like strength or dexterity, and enhance health or other elements. You'll eventually gain a number of optional bags to carry, allowing you to create different builds of gear to swap between stages.
My only real complaint with loot comes from sorting. You can sort by level or type, but oddly enough, you can't sort by class, which would be really beneficial if you plan to run through the game with all six characters. It can be difficult to scroll through the long list of loot, especially if you're reluctant to let stuff go. You'll eventually be swimming in gear if you don't sell things, and it can be a bit of a hassle to find the stuff you want if you often switch between classes.
Another element in Dragon's Crown that I'm not particularly fond of is the character of Rannie, an AI-controlled thief who accompanies you on every stage. Rannie's sole purpose is to gather loose coin or treasure and unlock treasure chests and doors. Using Rannie to gather up loose change is fine, and he'll perform that task without any direction from you. Using him to unlock doors or chests is tedious. You must use the right analog stick to move a pointer around the screen and direct Rannie to unlock something. Sometimes he's not responsive, forcing you to point at a treasure chest multiple times while everyone in the party waits. It's a task that is exacerbated by online play, especially when another player isn't patient enough to wait and forces the party into the next room.
The only other complaint I'd level against Dragon's Crown is that it's a pretty repetitive experience, but that's sort of part and parcel of the genre. It's lessened with the optional B pathways that unlock once you've run through the nine stages, along with the occasional secret. Considering the high level cap for characters and multiple difficulty levels that are only available after the previous difficulty has been completed, you'll definitely feel some burnout creeping in around the 20-hour mark. The constant lure of new and better loot, along with the gameplay variety associated with different character classes, is enough to keep you coming back for more.
There's very little in the way of significant differences between the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions of the game. The Vita version benefits from touch-screen controls, making the pointer features feel more natural than the analog stick on PS3. The tradeoff is some noticeable slowdown when the action gets heavy, mostly when running with a full, four-character party and five or more on-screen enemies at the same time. The PS3 version doesn't suffer in this regard, maintaining a consistently smooth framerate throughout. But both versions look and play extremely well, with no cut content between the two. While the game doesn't participate in the Cross-Buy feature in other PS3/Vita releases, it does have feature Cross-Save functionality, allowing you to move a save file between the two systems by uploading it to the cloud and back. It makes this title well worth a double dip.
If you're concerned by online play, you'll be happy to know that both systems perform really well in this regard. I had no trouble locating games and people to play with on either system, since Dragon's Crown doesn't restrict online partners by region. Even though I was playing with people around the globe, I never experienced any substantial issues with lag or dropped connections. This is pretty impressive since most online titles have trouble maintaining smooth connections within the same country. Of course, you can also play offline or partner up with AI.
Dragon's Crown is definitely worth checking out. It's one of the most impressive beat-'em-ups I've ever played, and I feel confident you'll say the same once you purchase it. While it's not a genre that typically lights up the sales chart these days, Dragon's Crown is going to do pretty well. There's a lot of fun packed into this game by Vanillaware, and in my opinion, it's the best we've seen from the developer since Odin Sphere. It has me sincerely looking forward to Vanillaware's next project.
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