Don't judge a book by its cover. Exceptional graphics alone don't necessarily make a top-tier game, and sometimes, even games with terrible graphics can sport very strong gameplay. Sometimes, all it takes is a traditional genre and good realization to make something great. It shouldn't be too surprising that Vanillaware, makers of the Wii classic Muramasa: The Demon Blade, add a distinctive 2-D art style to some of the best gameplay on consoles today. Frankly, my initial reaction to Dragon's Crown was quite negative due to the art choices. The barely dressed Amazon and excessive Sorceress both left me actively disinterested in the game. Fortunately, a chance to see and play the game convinced me that it's actually worth checking out. It'll be a definite classic for the PlayStation 3 as we begin to enter the PS4 generation.
Fundamentally, Dragon's Crown looks at classic arcade brawler/RPG Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, which shares an art director with this newer effort, asks how to turn up the idea a few notches, and then runs with it and sees where it can go. Evolutions are both obvious and subtle. All of this is accompanied by Vanillaware's iconic, painterly art style, which is now coupled with the smoothest animation yet, and there are a few more unusual mechanics in the mix. It's worth pointing out that the more sexualized characters don't look that way in actual play.
More importantly, Dragon's Crown brilliantly mixes new and evolved ideas. Character combos are smoother and more varied than in Capcom's brawlers of the past (while sticking to the same fundamental perspective), enemies can now be lifted and thrown, spell effects are turned up in style, backgrounds run in beautiful parallax, and some environmental objects are now destructible. More unusually, there are point secrets hidden through the levels, which are uncovered using a PS Vita's touch-screen or a virtual mouse controlled with the PS3 controller. This made a lot more sense in actual play.
Items found during play are randomized, and after you complete a mission, you can identify them and then either sell or equip them. Identification costs money out of a gold supply that's earned during the mission, but it may or may not make the item sell for more, thus adding a mild but intelligent gambling element to the proceedings. The requisite four-player support is in place and allows for multiple people on one PS3 to let other players join in via online. Further, if an ally runs out of lives, another ally may collect their bones — and use that character as an AI-controlled partner when playing solo.
Vanillaware knows good gameplay, and Dragon's Crown is a conceptual capstone of this. Look past the art and see the art, and you'll find a gem for the PS3 and PS Vita. While the game doesn't feature cross-play functionality between the PS3 and PS Vita, their save files are compatible, so the game can be enjoyed on the couch or on the go. It's out in a month for $50 on PS3 and $40 on Vita (no cross-buy) — and right on time for its spiritual predecessors to become a lead-up to its release.
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