Vanillaware's spellbinding beat 'em up takes the crown.
The beat ’em up genre has sadly been neglected the last few console generations. The days of slotting coins into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or ruining controllers in the name of Streets of Rage are unfortunately, mostly a thing of the past. It’s true that there is the occasional game following similar formulae, and the genre is enjoying a bit of a revival among indie developers with games like Charlie Murder and Guacamelee!, but rarely is the beat ’em up touched in a bigger budgeted environment. Enter Vanillaware, a developer lauded for their knack for amazing visual presentation and smart combat design, along with Atlus, a publisher well renowned for taking risks and bringing such games overseas for us Westerners to enjoy. It is these two companies that bring us Dragon’s Crown, a daring hybrid of beat ’em up and RPG, and a game you absolutely must have in your library.
Graphical fidelity means nothing in the face of ingenious art direction, and art director George Kamitani can add another masterpiece to his name.
The very first thing you’ll notice in Dragon’s Crown, as is the case with any Vanillaware title, is the jaw-dropping visual style. Continuing their trend of being able to sell games on their looks alone, Vanillaware have seamlessly synthesised the stylings of anime and Western fantasy, creating a visually striking world in the process.
They once again prove that graphical fidelity means nothing in the face of ingenious art direction, and art director George Kamitani can add another masterpiece to his name. The game’s backgrounds and scenery are reminiscent of paintings from the Renaissance era with a unique touch: warm colour schemes married with subtle, yet vivid lighting effects. It’s the player characters that steal the show, however, richly animated as they are. My personal favourite being the elf, whose cape believably blows around in the wind as she looks from side to side at her surroundings. This is but one example of the elegance displayed through the characters’ animations, and while some are unarguably juvenile (let’s not get into the sorceress debate) the attention to detail within each character is staggering nonetheless. Special mention must also go to the bosses, whom are as breathtaking as they are intimidating.
As previously mentioned, Dragon’s Crown is part beat ’em up, part RPG, and the two systems compliment each other in a way not seen since Guardian Heroes way back on the Sega Saturn. Much like beat-em-ups of old, you start your quest by selecting one of six characters: the fighter, the dwarf, the amazon, the elf, the sorceress, or the wizard; all play different from one another and have incredibly diverse movesets. Some work better from a distance with ranged attacks, while others benefit from more tank-like and up-close roles. Thankfully the variety doesn’t end there, as the characters do a lot to go beyond typical RPG class roles. The dwarf is immensely powerful, but he can also ditch his weapons in favour of his fists, which also adds to his mobility. The elf is deadly from range with her bow, but she can also be legitimately played as a melee character thanks to her fast kicks and ability to zip around the screen at a rapid pace. There’s more than one way to play each character, and mastering one is not unlike the process of learning a character in a fighting game; and indeed, knowing one inside out is the only way you’ll beat the game’s brutal higher difficulties.
The Sound Of Battle
Dragon’s Crown follows a somewhat rhythmic flow in regards to how it plays out. You’ll start your quests in town where you can recruit AI or player companions to aid you, obtain blessings via prayer that can buff your stats and mission bonuses in various ways, repair your current gear, spend skill points and obtain quests, and acquire various perks and items that will make your life that much easier out in the field. At first, you’ll have a choice of which stage to undertake, but as you reach the game’s midway point, this privilege will come at a price, instead offering random stage selection as the free alternative. If you’re thinking opting for a random stage is pointless, you can rest easy, as this option piles on experience and treasure bonuses if you play subsequent stages in a row. In addition, Dragon’s Crown’s mid-game requires you play an alternative route to each stage in order to unlock the final level, so assuming your equipment’s durability can handle the burden, playing the game in this fashion is immensely beneficial.
There’s plenty added to the tried and true beat-em-up formula, and this allows Dragon’s Crown a unique identity among its fondly remembered peers.
Throughout the game’s stages, combat is not the only thing you’ll be focused on. Scattered at fixed locations are treasure chests containing precious loot. As with Diablo or Borderlands, loot is graded by quality, ranging from ranks E to S, with E being the most common, and ascending in rarity from there. Using the right stick (or the touch screen on the Vita) you can guide an on-screen cursor to perform various activities. Mostly, you’ll use it to command your thief companion to open treasure chests. But it can also be used to uncover hidden valuables that add to your score, which directly translates to more EXP when you finish the stage. Each area also has runes etched into the background that when used in combination with purchasable rune stones, apply various buffs to your party. There’s plenty added to the tried and true beat-em-up formula, and this allows Dragon’s Crown a unique identity among its fondly remembered peers.
Upon finishing a stage, all your loot and EXP is tallied up. All loot found must be appraised if you wish to identify what it is and view its stats. Naturally, higher grade loot costs more to appraise but is often of a better quality. This system is especially useful when playing with friends, as it does away with the bitter arguments that follow over stealing each others’ loot. This way, players can instead make rational decisions over who gets what. Dragon’s Crown is a team game, and players will get nowhere through pointless bickering!
After dividing your loot, it’s back to town to do it all again. The praying, the repairing, and maybe the odd appraisal or two. Which leads to Dragon’s Crown’s biggest problem: by nature, it’s a very repetitive game. Addictive, certainly. But very repetitive; so much so that playing the game solo does eventually come with a degree of fatigue. It doesn’t help that AI companions are as dumb as the come, frequently sprinting straight into spike traps and fires. Thankfully, Vanillaware made the smart decision of implementing local co-op as well as online, and as always, questing with three of your friends is the best way to play, and alleviates a lot of the repetition you’d otherwise suffer through.
Dragon’s Crown looks gorgeous and plays amazingly, but attention must also be given to be stunning soundtrack, which brings the game to life with its glorious sweeping orchestral scores. Special mention must also go to the haunting stage select music, which is an absolutely breathtaking track.
Despite problems with repetition, Dragon’s Crown shines as one of the finest 2D games this generation, and truly sets the bar for the revival of the beat ’em up genre. It nails pretty much every aspect of stellar game design, with a superb art style, intensely fun and rewarding gameplay, and a fantastic soundtrack to match. Just make sure you bring some friends for a truly unforgettable beat ’em up/RPG experience.
A review copy of Dragon’s Crown was provided courtesy of Atlus. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 3.
Rock The Dragon
Dragon’s Crown is, in a word, superb. Its existence alone is something of an anomaly, particularly in a generation filled with publishers too arrogant to take risks. However, Dragon’s Crown is a risk that more than paid off, and you should take this opportunity to play one of this generation’s most unique titles.