"The depth of Dragon's Crown may not be readily apparent when you first fire it up, but there's a lot more to this game than I initially anticipated."
I spent hours fighting to defeat Death Adder, countless sleepless nights pushing towards Shredder in the Technodrome, and body slammed punks as a former pro-wrestler-turned-mayor. I've spent A LOT of time playing old school side-scrolling beat 'em ups. They were my bread and butter games as a kid, particularly when I was rocking the Sega Channel (remember that one, fellow old people?). Short, to the point, and brimming with fun and memorable moments (I can ride the dragon, and it breathes fire!), the genre slowly faded away over the years, though there were certainly a smattering of smaller releases to quench my thirst. But here comes Vanillaware with Dragon's Crown, a game that plays on the surface like it belongs in an arcade next to Street Fighter II or that awesome Punisher cabinet, but also features the depth and online sophistication of today's modern fantasy land.
Story never really mattered in Golden Axe, and that's pretty much the same here. You play as an adventurer in Hydeland, the local fantasy kingdom that has quite a few problems. There's the promise of a great dragon's return, local girls have gone missing, and there's a power struggle between the prime minister and supposed heir to the throne. Though presented with stunning artwork (yes, I will weigh in on THAT controversy in a moment) and told with the best narrator this side of Bastion, Dragon's Crown isn't concerned with politics, story structure, or even real character development. The story actually falls away when playing on higher difficulties, allowing for the focus to shift towards cracking skulls and blowing things up with magic. Hitoshi Sakimoto's outstanding music plays an integral part in making this world feel alive and lavish. This is probably the best soundtrack I've heard all year so far, and it fits the world of Hydeland perfectly.
Dragon's Crown features stunning 2D artwork from the game's director, George Kamitani. Characters move and flow with amazing levels of animation, and there's some really clever work with the environmental details and crazy battle effects. There's been a lot of talk about the game's portrayal of the female body, unfortunately, and having played the game for nearly thirty hours, I can say that I did find it a bit unsettling and distracting in places. The men are all the big burly type (the dwarf's body actually ripples like stonework during his idle animation), while the women basically "present" themselves in revealing poses and stances. Several of the storytelling pieces of art also feature scenarios and reveals that I wouldn't want anybody to see while I’m playing. The art is beautiful, don't misunderstand me, but it limits the appeal of what's supposed to be an amazing party game because of the rather polarizing nature of its vision. I really want to show Dragon's Crown to some of my friends, but I think the art might give them the wrong impression about what kind of game it actually is. More confusing is the fact that certain female characters, the elf most notably, are amazingly detailed and realized without the need for sexual poses and larger than life proportions. There's real skill at work here, which makes it difficult to accept some of the more risqué pieces.
The game's art could end up working against what is actually a thoroughly fun action game with lots of loot-hack sensibilities. You start by selecting a character, and this is the most important decision gamers will make when starting DC. Each class is remarkably different, almost to the point of seeming unbalanced at first (the game even suggests that you leave the spellcasting classes for expert players), but everyone gets the chance to dole out death in their own specific way. On the less aggressive side, the fighter focuses on some defensive skills to round out his awesome sword attacks, while the dwarf protects himself from getting stunned or knocked down by pumping up his stone body. In contrast, the wizard's limited mana resource means he must rain fire in a disciplined and deliberate way. Those expecting each class in Dragon's Crown to play the same with some minor differences in weapons and stats à la The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are in for a rude awakening. There's real depth here that makes each character feel like they came from a fighting game, and it presents you with even more variety in the skills you can specialize in. I mostly played as a dwarf on my first run and chose to focus on damage reduction and defense rather than some of the more offensive-minded attacks. This means that my dwarf (my wife named him Raegor) holds the front line on bosses with a frenzied series of hammer blows while the mages can rain death from behind.
Equipment and loot round out the final touches to your character. You open treasure chests during dungeon runs and receive ranked treasure that has to be identified back at town. You get the standard increases to damage and defense, but there's also a plethora of unique percentage modifications to key stats. One necklace in particular made me immune to petrifaction, and that came in handy during a nasty boss fight. Unfortunately, DC's user interface can't handle the loot experience. You can't compare equipment when given the opportunity to appraise at the end of the dungeon, so you must appraise, return to your own equipment screen, check the equipment, and then move to the shop to sell back your assessed junk. You can't even compare equipment while in a shop, which means you better be damn sure of your decisions before you decide to sell. It's an odd oversight given the abundance of stuff you can find.
The pace of combat and exploration will probably seem stilted to players at the start of their adventure. Each dungeon (they're not all dungeons, some are castles, catacombs, enchanted forests, etc.) takes about ten minutes to finish. Once the boss of each dungeon is defeated, you return to town and watch the story progress. At this point you only have two options for multiplayer. Dragon's Crown allows for four player carnage, but you're stuck with either AI allies, who are dumb as rocks, or local co-op. Online play is locked until you finish the first nine stages, which should take around four to five hours for the average player. Why the game would lock its best feature is beyond me, but what's worse is you have to unlock online play for each and every character you make. That means that after playing for nearly twenty hours with my dwarf, I have to go back and replay the first areas again with my new wizard before I finally get the privilege to go online. I understand that the game wants to teach you how to play each character as there is a pretty steep learning curve, but locking this feature again and again seems like a massive oversight. Here's hoping something is done about it in the future.
Thankfully, once the internet is open for adventure, the true genius of Dragon's Crown can be seen. Those ten minute dungeon runs seem perfect for online play. You get the option to keep adventuring at the end of each level and receive huge bonuses to loot and gold pickup for each subsequent area. There's a real risk/reward system at play, especially because you could find your equipment on the brink of breaking and desperately needing a return to town to replenish and refresh. While the dungeon layout is the same each and every time (with small changes like enemy and trap placement), the order is random while playing online, leading to a real sense of danger when you start to realize what you're walking into. You can pay a small fee to visit a particular area, which is important as you must defeat a certain boss in each dungeon to properly advance to the finale.
Enemies scale nicely with additional players, and the difficulty that starts out fairly tame at the start ramps up at a decent pace. Some of the challenge comes from just trying to figure out what the hell is going on, however. When four players are spamming huge spells, attacks, and general lunacy, it's very easy to lose your character in the fray. This is usually when you'll end up dead without quite knowing what happened. Trying to figure out the proper hitbox on some of the larger creatures can also prove quite frustrating. It may look like you're planting a hammer in the dragon's backside, but you won't notice any real damage until you hit his face for some reason. A number of bosses can only be hit in the air while others that look like they require an aerial assault can be easily hit while remaining rooted to the ground. This strange dissonance in enemy design is thankfully limited, but it's excruciatingly aggravating during your first fight. I hope you have a smart crew when you take on the dreaded Red Dragon. I wasn't so lucky.
Finishing the game on normal opens up hard mode, an infinite dungeon and even more loot for your character. Better still, enemies learn new attacks and tactics. I was surprised when the harpy, the game's first boss, raged out and nearly killed my crew as we had her close to death. The depth of Dragon's Crown may not be readily apparent when you first fire it up, but there's a lot more to this game than I initially anticipated. This is a game that's meant to be played over and over again, and the sense of progression and power is truly amazing. I helped out fellow editor Derek Heemsbergen with my completely overpowered dwarf, and it was a blast to help him beat some of the earlier bosses that gave me so many problems. Vanillaware also peppered the game with some unique scenarios and sequences to keep DC from being a mindless hack-and-slash. You'll ride on a magic carpet, probably scream at your teammates when you spring a nasty trap, and laugh yourself stupid when you fight the best boss fight of the year. You'll know when you get there….
Dragon's Crown is an amazing co-op experienced slightly hampered by a rather nasty UI and baffling obfuscation of its best feature. Playing reminded me of my hours with Gauntlet on the NES, right down to the bum rush for foodstuffs flowing out of a downed enemy. But Dragon's Crown feels uniquely modern in most of its systems and mechanics. You'll revive fallen players to aid you, companions can drop in and drop out at anytime, and there are even worldwide servers to keep people fighting (though I did find a great deal of lag while playing with Japanese players, naturally). Dragon's Crown will probably stay in my PS3 for a long time, and I can't wait to pop some beers with my friends and fight the armies of darkness.