Dragon’s Crown is the best beat-em-up this generation — maybe ever. There’s been a resurgence of late — cycles come and go as they often do — and while Double Dragon Neon and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game scratched the brawler itch, they were only only appetizers to Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown, a gorgeous ode to Disney, Frank Frazetta and Capcom’s classic Dungeon and Dragon games. Makes sense! Director George Kamitani worked on those Capcom dungeon-brawlers and he’s wanted to do an update for years. The wait was worth it.
Unlike Capcom’s recent efforts, Kamitani and his crew craft an experience that pulls from the genre’s past and pushes it forward for the better. The large 2D graphics, typical of Kamitani’s exaggerated illustrations, flex, morph and stretch with an anime-meets-Renaissance style that must be seen in motion to truly appreciate. Each new animation, whether an explosive flame spell or a giant enemy’s death wail, is an impressive display of digital artistry. It makes you you wonder why Capcom can’t paint Mega Man or any number of titles in its stable this way. What keeps Konami from doing a Castlevania like this with the same level of detail and effort — without recycled sprites? (Though Arc System Works succeeded in giving Contra an HD face lift with Hard Corps: Uprising.) As far as visuals go, Vanillaware makes other studios look complacent, if not primeval.
None of that, however, would matter without a solid foundation underneath, and I was surprised to find how deep Dragon’s Crown went. Responsive combat, intuitive controls and interlocking systems — loot, skills, a cooking mini-game (!!!) — enhance what could have been an aesthetically pleasing if simple and derivative experience. Although, when I first played, I selected the Amazon and I was very disappointed. I thought all I had to do to win was button-mash. She’s just a melee fighter, right? What more could there be to it?
Each new animation, whether an explosive flame spell or a giant enemy’s death wail, is an impressive display of digital artistry.
Each character has a variety of skills to learn, as well as common skills to master. You learn new skills by accruing skill points at the end of each level — of which there are nine in all, each with a branching path (A route is the easier one you go through first, B route is the harder one that unlocks later on). You also do so with experience points that you gain by defeating enemies and meeting certain bonus conditions such as how much HP you have left at the end of a level, and staying alive while fighting the game’s many large, fun bosses (the mythological and D&D roster is well-represented and I wouldn’t dare spoil any). Most battles aren’t rote scuffles either, many require the solving of certain puzzle elements, such as keeping torches lit to expose a boss’ corporeal form.
You also gain loot at the end of each round that you can either appraise on the spot or at a shop in the hub town. These are items you need to pay money for to figure out what they are, and there are are many, many many weapons, pieces of armor and and accessories to wield, wear and sell. You will want to hold onto them, even if they aren’t “S” rank as you can outfit your character with various equipment sets called “Bags” that you can switch between levels. The town also offers places to accept accept side quests (kill ten types of an enemy, perform specific strange tasks, etc.), buy magic items like lightning spell rings and rune stones (necessary for casting certain buffs and other rewards), and a chapel to resurrect AI-controlled partners from bones you find in levels. It’s even possible to collect the bones of fallen comrades in online multiplayer, making it possible to discover very powerful bot buddies. I gained some very valuable Japanese players’ characters while online. I couldn’t take their powerful equipment, but I could have them fight alongside me.
A warning though: AI companions can be dumb sometimes. Mine attacked Rannie the Thief, an AI companion constantly at your side who unlocks doors and treasure chests. (Good to mention: you control what he unlocks by pointing with an on-screen cursor and clicking with the right stick or L1.) She attacked poor Rannie a lot, ignoring many more dangerous attackers around her. Not very wise. On the other hand, I’ve had AI partners act very intelligently and cast buffs on the party at just the right time. The bots also tend to die frequently and once they’re out of lives you will have to decide if it’s worth it to spend money to revive them. The same goes for yourself when you have no lives left, and the price goes up with each K.O. Take weapon appraisals, staying stocked with health, strength and defense potions (that you can assign to the face buttons as hot keys; up on the D-pad acts as a Shift key), and resurrecting bones into account, and money can go fast.
With various side quests, tons of weapons to gather, six classes to master and local and co-op multiplayer, your time can go fast too. I want to find more to nitpick about the game, but… there isn’t a whole lot to knock really. When you’re just starting, co-op can take some getting used to. Introduce two or more slayers to the fray and the screen will clutter with fancy attacks, large beasts, excitable fairies and all sorts of confusing stuff. It can take a bit to acclimate to the chaos. One boss boss fight is so packed with tentacles and stalactites poking out of the foreground that I had a frustrating time keeping track of where my character was and where my attacks were landing. That’s probably my lowest moment with the game, though I only played maybe a quarter of the total thing. Atlus promises 20 hours per character, which is an accurate estimate from my standing. Dragon’s Crown is a game with long legs… in more ways than one.
Oh, there’s a Vita version too. It’s completely identical save for framerate slowdown in dark, torch-lit areas and whenever the screen gets crowded with tons of enemies and characters. Not a deal breaker. The Vita is actually a fine tool for taking your character (or characters — you can have multiple characters on the same save file which is awesome for families/roommates/buddies/etc. in the same dwelling space) on the go and then resuming on the PS3. Online multiplayer works just as well as it does on the PS3 version. Ad-hoc mulitplayer couldn’t be tested because I’m the only one on this side of the universe with a Vita. The best thing about the Vita version is the option to “transfar”, to borrow Kojima’s term, your save data between the PS3 and Vita versions. It works even better than Peace Walker. You just select “upload” data and it’ll go straight to the cloud. Then select “download” and voila. No wires necessary. Fast, too.
A ton of detail, work and heart went into Dragon’s Crown. And it shows. The level select menu alone is proof of that. The music, by former Square composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, while not as memorable as Vagrant Story or Final Fantasy XII, lends the onscreen action a bombastic, driving feel that fits the adventurous tone of the game perfectly. It seems that man was born to compose fantasy games. Meanwhile, the British-y narrator makes the game feel like a dungeonmaster is behind it all, and while he will give away a few things I would have rather discovered on my own, he rarely outstays his welcome. The various character’s chime in and charm as well, especially while they chow down in the cooking mini-game.
Dragon’s Crown surprised me with its depth, its beauty and its lasting power. The sense of speed and urgency reminds me of the recent Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and like that charged-up action title, Dragon’s Crown ought to be remembered when the obligatory end-of-the-year accolades are handed out. Don’t be deterred by the erotic extravagance, or the typically shallow structure of the beat-em-up genre. This able-bodied video game fantasy upgrades it in a way we haven’t seen or likely will see for some time.