Almost the moment I started playing Dragon’s Crown, I could feel the decades falling away. I was rusty at first, while my brain’s gaming orientation system dug deep into the darkest recesses of my head, looking for my long lost “side scrolling beat ‘em up skillz” template. But once it was located and loaded into my muscle memory, I began to draw on years of early 90’s gaming experience to tackle this modern interpretation of a genre staple of the 16-bit era.
Dragon's Crown is a weird mashup of Golden Axe and Capcom’s classic mid-90’s RPG side scrollers, Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara, with lashings of Dungeons and Dragons gravy. But while its game mechanics are clearly rooted in the last century, the graphics and presentation are the stuff of today. The game's rich, detailed backgrounds are lush, and are brought to life though a myriad of subtle, neat little graphical touches. I particularly liked the parallax scrolling effects, which are another nod to 90’s gaming, but are much more sophisticated than any game of yore. It’s like strolling through a gorgeously drawn, living comic book – especially on Vita, which was my primary play platform.
The characters are presented in period 2D animated sprite format, and look absolutely terrific, but… and here’s where I have to take a tiresome detour… their styling is ridiculously sexed-up. Vanillaware cofounder George Kamitani comes across like Frank Frazetta’s manga-drawing progeny, who has an even bigger boob fixation than his Dad. End result, Dragon’s Crown’s characters are proportioned in legendarily ridiculous fashion. Move over Dead or Alive, and make way for gaming’s new high jiggle-mark of boob wobblage. And butt cleavage. And bare bloke chestage and muscleage.
Depending on where your views sit on the hyper sexualized graphics spectrum, your reaction will likely fall somewhere between “ZOMG, look at the bangers on that lol lol” or feeling inclined to write a righteous, 15,000-word essay on the evils of taking ludicrous artistic anatomical liberties in gaming. Either way, it’s an unnecessary distraction from the game itself, which I’m enjoying infinitely more as a player than a voyeur. So I’ll get back to that and leave the postulations on perverse proportions to other, more academic folk.
I’ve been playing single-player mode mostly, and it’s a lot of fun. The action is arcade-immediate, and quickly becomes quite frantic and challenging. The game’s combo-control system is a bit fiddly, but doesn’t take long to adjust to, assuming you’ve experienced this sort of jump-and-press-O, then double-tap-to-slide action before. Once you’re up to speed, you’ll be hacking, jumping and blasting through hordes of enemies, and using the 2D screen’s pseudo 3D to sidestep monsters like a pro. It’s all classic stuff, and the enemies are varied and fun. Besting some requires learning patterns and tactics: others can be defeated in a button-mashing fest of carnage. For the most part, though, it’s skills and reflexes that will carry you through, along with some perseverance, and patience with the game’s sometimes-unforgiving hazards, which harken back to the olden days of death by, “Are those things on the floor something I should pick up? Onoes, they’re deadly spikes! WTF? Gah!”
But while the gameplay mechanics are clearly on an old-school arcade tip, Dragon’s Crown’s RPG elements help deliver contemporary new genre depth. There’s a classic Dungeons and Dragons inn that provides a quest hub. A Guild Master doles out missions, and the game is narrated like a story. There’s plenty of treasure and items to pick up on your travels, which help you tweak and customize whichever one of the six characters you chose as your main.
This aspect of the game isn’t explained particularly well, but I nevertheless enjoyed the experimentation, and through a combination of basic D+D understanding and a bit of trial-and-error figured out what I really needed to help give my appropriate playstyle stats a boost, while down-ranking other, less-necessary ones. Although stats and gear don’t seem to be a truly fundamental requisite for success, they do give a helpful boost as you and your chums work through nine levels of side-scrolling shenanigans, journeying across fantasy landscapes and beating down their end-of-level bosses in good ol' golden age of arcades style.
I’ve really enjoyed my time with Dragon’s Crown. It’s a wonderful mix of stuff I used to love back in the olden days, spiffed up and modernized into a contemporary game. It delivers a beefy challenge, is chock full of pure arcade challenges that seem almost mindless until you realize how much it’s making you think, and it’s all wrapped up in an absolutely sumptuous visual package. Yes, it does also have flapping great yam bags, but that’s not what Dragon’s Crown is all about. Unless the game’s visual style really does offend you – and I can understand why it might for some – what we have here is a retro-modern treat that’s well worth a whirl. It’s not perfect, and it can sometimes be a little frustrating, but it made me smile a lot. And not for that reason.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Gorgeous, highly stylized graphics deliver a visually rich experience. Character styling is hyper sexualized to the point of ludicrousness, which might be a turn-off for some.
- Music: It's fine, but it feels a bit derpy. You know. Orchestral noodling wallpaper music that's not unpleasant, but try remembering any of it 5 minutes later.
- Interface: If you're chubby of finger, and are playing on a Vita, prepare for some pinky-poking, since some of the menus are a bit fiddly. But overall, it's nice-looking and solid enough. Just feels designed for a full-screen console, not a mobile thing.
- Lasting Appeal: Dragon's Crown packs a decent challenge. Six different characters, and the multiplayer option give plenty of scope for replay value, but like most arcade-type games, there isn't much variability in the gameplay - simply in the style in which you tackle it.