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Dragon's Crown Stakes Claim to Beat-'Em-Up Throne

Yes, the sorceress' chest is absurd. But the rest of Vanillaware's beat-em-up is a resurrected and refined take on a classic arcade genre.

Dragon's Crown was the first game I preordered for the PlayStation Vita, but I wasn't looking forward to actually playing it for the first time at E3. I thought I knew what to expect: an old-school arcade brawler cut from the mold of Capcom's Dungeons & Dragons games with a fresh coat of paint in the form of Vanillaware's stunning visuals (the roll-your-eyes juvenile approach to the sorceress' anatomy aside). I checked out both the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions of the game today, and my first impressions were disappointingly in line with my expectations.

Up to four players choose characters from one of six classes, and then walk from left to right beating the holy hell out of anything dumb enough to spawn in front of them. There are small branching areas, an experience system to level up an assortment of Dungeon Master-approved stats, and a few beasts to tame and ride, Golden Axe-style. There's also a loot system where players collect items during each level and later have them appraised for value and magical characteristics, which can be stat boosts, increased damage against certain types of monsters, or similar effects.

As you might expect, the game is gorgeous, and the impressive art comes through much better on a big-screen TV with the PS3 edition than on the Vita's diminutive screen. However, the Vita version's visuals are more than acceptable, and the system's touchscreen actually gives it the edge when it comes to controls. To order the game's thief sidekick to open a treasure chest or inspect an area for hidden treasure, Vita players need only touch the appropriate part of the screen. But on the PS3, players have to use the right analog stick to control what is essentially a mouse cursor and push the left trigger to spring the thief into action. It may not sound like much of a difference, but right now it makes the thief interaction tedious on one system, but almost joyful on the other.

Dragon's Crown sports some huge characters that animate fluidly.

After playing through a few levels with a couple different characters, I walked away from the Atlus booth less than excited. The game was everything I expected, but seemingly nothing more. It felt at first blush like a beautiful but empty rehash in a fairly shallow genre. Then I remembered that Capcom actually had the downloadable port of Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystaria on display at its booth, and I went over to refresh my memory on the game I was essentially using as the measuring stick for Dragon's Crown. I'm glad I did, because it underscored just how different, and how much better, the moment-to-moment gameplay in Dragon's Crown is. There was so much about Vanillaware's game, from the smooth controls to the variety of attacks to the ease with which players can execute a dash, that its arcade progenitor simply didn't handle as well.

Nostalgia is like looking at the past through a lens smeared with Vaseline. All the wrinkles, all the flaws made fuzzy and hidden. The fact that Dragon's Crown measures up to that nostalgia without the aid of such distortion is impressive indeed. That Dragon's Crown preorder was cancelled long ago when I decided to go straight digital with all my Vita purchases, but I wouldn't be surprised to find myself picking it up on August 6 when it finally launches.

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