From 2013’s Muramasa: Rebirth to 2016’s Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir, Vanillaware are on a roll at the moment. They’ve shown a great deal of attention to their best games, adding new features while preserving the charm and fun they’re known for. Next on Vanillaware’s list is another old favourite: Dragon’s Crown, an action RPG that takes inspiration from arcade brawlers and makes for an extremely fun co-op experience. The newly released Dragon’s Crown Pro on PS4 was my first chance to experience the medieval mayhem, and if you missed it the first time around, this might be just what you’re looking for.
Like most brawlers from the 90s, the story is of little importance here; rather, playing Dragon’s Crown Pro is like starting off your own Dungeons & Dragons campaign. You begin by picking your class (Fighter, Amazon, Elf, Sorceress, Dwarf or Wizard) before the narrator introduces you to the world of Hydeland and the myth of the Dragon’s Crown. Powerful magicians and greedy kingdoms across the land are trying to grab this artifact, some for good purposes and some for evil. You, the adventurer, are tasked with retrieving this crown before the Ancient Dragon is revived to wreak havoc on the world.
Unlike Vanillaware’s previous two re-releases, Dragon’s Crown Pro is a straight-up port of the original PS3 and Vita games — there’s no new DLC like with Muramasa: Rebirth, and it’s not a remake like Leifthrasir. All of the patches from the previous versions of the game are included straight away in this release, so story progression is shared between each of the six classes rather than being locked to one character. Also included is the voice pack DLC, where you can change the narrator’s voice to one of the six main characters, further allowing you to customise your own D&D-style adventure. I think it’s a shame they haven’t added anything new to entice old fans, but the game still has plenty going for it. Perhaps the best thing about this release is that you can play Cross-Save with your PS3 and Vita save files, so all those hours of grinding you’ve already put into the original game won’t go to waste.
One thing that shouldn’t ever go unnoticed is George Kamitani’s stunning artwork. Vanillaware’s games always blow me away with their gorgeous visuals, like watercolour paintings that come to life, and with a little bit of HD polish, Dragon’s Crown Pro is one of the best-looking games on PS4. From the stunning lighting in the catacombs to the beautiful pieces of art given to you upon completing a sidequest, every single shot leapt out at me like a fantasy book. Of course, there are some particularly exaggerated female character designs in this game that make a return, and for the record, I’m still not okay with them five years later. I don’t buy that female characters need to be so sexualised to stand out; there are plenty of other ways to stand out in the fantasy genre without depicting the female body in such a perverse way.
The graphics aren’t the only thing that’s been tidied up — Hitoshi Sakimoto has returned to rearrange his beloved soundtrack, and the results are wonderful. Sakimoto is always at his best when given a high-fantasy world to experiment with, and his already excellent work in the original release has been cemented as one of his very best compositions with this re-orchestration. I know this will be the soundtrack to my next D&D campaign.
Getting into the main game, your job is to explore nine different dungeons one by one, getting to grips with the hack-and-slash combat and experiencing the thrilling boss battles. These first few hours dragged on a bit for me, as the dungeons felt slow and the mobs of enemies were small and uninspired. The saving grace was being able to play with friends, which brought the action right into my lounge — we shouted at each other when one of us died and egged each other on, and it was brilliant. The second half of the game allows you to pick one dungeon — or choose one at random — and if you fancy your luck, you can venture further and explore more than one dungeon at a time. Once all of Dragon’s Crown Pro’s features are at your disposal, it becomes the modern day brawler it aspires to be. The mobs are larger, the enemies are dangerous, and the bosses all have different quirks you need to take advantage of in order to beat them. Even more exciting is the return of online co-op, which allows you to drop into someone else’s game, or have them come and visit you. And things just keep getting better as soon as you’ve finished your first campaign.
The game plays exactly the same as it did back in 2013. As someone who was brought up on Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, I love what Dragon’s Crown Pro trying to do. As expected from a Vanillaware game, combat is silky smooth. Executing combos and pummeling your foes to death is so easy, and there’s a variety of different playstyles to experiment with. I spent most of my time playing as the Elf, an archer who specialises in fast and furious combos and long range combat. She dances across the stage with immense grace and speed, and I found her a delight to play as. Then there’s the Sorceress, who focuses on powerful magic and tactful MP management. Every single character feels and plays differently, and I kept going back to try each of them out. I revisited every dungeon to collect more loot, get the best weapons I could, and recruit more AI characters for when I needed to make progress on my own.
My biggest gripe with the gameplay is hard to come to terms with because it’s inherited from those very arcade games I played as a kid. Running in this game is very awkward, as you have to double tap the analogue stick. This hardly ever registered for me, but there was at least a solution by holding down the square button instead; it just means my character might charge into an oil barrel and set the room alight in some dungeons. I can’t deal with walking around for long periods of time because, just like with the arcade cabinets, walking movement is painfully slow. The other downside is enemy placement. You can move deeper into the background by moving up or down, so naturally enemies will be placed further back or forward, but if you’re surrounded by a large group of enemies and you want to help a friend out, you can’t attack and move up at the same time. It feels a little awkward in a game that’s otherwise smooth to play, and it can cause the action to stutter a little.
If you’ve never played Dragon’s Crown before, I highly recommend picking up Dragon’s Crown Pro, especially if you’ve got three friends willing to have a crack at it. There’s endless amounts of replayability, what with bonus dungeons, harder difficulties and a handful of characters to experiment with even after the credits roll, but the repetitive nature won’t be for everyone. Even after nearly 20 hours, I’m still having a lot of fun, but I have to admit that while this takes from a genre I loved so dearly growing up, those old-school hang-ups really stick out in 2018. Regardless, if you’re one of the eager people waiting for some more 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim news, this one might keep you occupied for just a little bit longer.