Friday, August 30, 2013

An in-depth REVIEW - Dragon's Crown.

This is a very long review.  A very short review can be found here

Dragon's Crown is a co-op 2D fantasy brawler action-RPG.  From Vanillaware.

For the un-initiated, allow me a moment to explain what that means.

Remember playing Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario World and thinking "man, if this is how good graphics look now, imagine how much better they'll be next gen"?

Then the next gen happened, games went polygonal and things looked like crap until the PS2/oXbox gen - but there's one studio that kept plucking away at 2D sprites, and their name is Vanillaware.

No developer in the world - not Ubisoft Montpellier, not Klei Entertainment - can touch Vanillaware when it comes to 2D presentation.  They are masters of the form.

Dragon's Crown is the first purely HD game they've ever made, and the studio's most expensive to date (development came in at just over one million dollars US - a paltry sum by modern triple-A standards).

How is Dragon's Crown, you ask?

Most of the shots I'm going to show, here, will be cropped images from direct-feed Vita screens.

It's absolutely spectacular.

Presentation, gameplay, challenge, fun factor, replay value - this game is, in all ways, an exemplary showing.

The action-RPG has long been Vanillaware's genre of choice, beginning with Princess Crown for the Sega Saturn in '97 and further reinforced by the deep leveling and buffing mechanics of Odin Sphere in '07.  They cranked the combat to 11 in '09's Muramasa: The Demon Blade (which saw a glorious Vita port this year), and Dragon's Crown easily represents their most accomplished realization of their ever-mutating formula to date.

As if Muramasa were their trial-run for a fast-paced, open combat system, Dragon's Crown offers six vastly different heroes - an equal number of ladies and gentlemen, in classic Vanillaware style.  Unlike Muramasa, however, and unlike Odin Sphere, each of the six player-characters have totally different mechanics, abilities and balances.

Kayla's class of choice.

The Fighter is slower, but nearly impossible to kill with the appropriate skills selected, can deal excellent damage with the right tools and has a rather pleasant air game.  He's the natural tank, with optional talents designed to draw all enemy attention while his party wails away on the problem at hand.

A charged, airborne shot with the shockwave skill, delivering damage to multiple foes.

The Elf has low defense, but is extremely light on her feet, bouncing across the stage to deliver a perfectly-placed arrow to the eye of her target, cheerfully calling out "gotcha!" as she looses a powerful shot - her bow and unusual air game (which can keep her aloft for dozens of seconds at a time as she leaps, charges and fires a shot, air-evades, charges and fires a shot, et cetera) is totally different from any other class. The nature of her arrow shots - straight horizontal, diagonal or horizontal in the air, or a ground shot that arcs up before slamming down into an enemy in front of her - demands the Elf be far more conscious of her positioning than any other class.

Of course, if you prefer, you could specialize your Elf in daggers - which allows her to produce a limited-use dagger up to nine times and backstab the holy crap out of stuff.

The Rock Crusher spell (the large dark object on the left, which just came crashing in from the heavens) never gets old.

The Sorceress, while equally susceptible to physical attacks, is nearly impossible to kill with magic, and is a triple-threat as an area-of-effect damage-dealer, crowd-controller and support character - buffing her party with protective spells, freezing enemies in their tracks and conjuring snacks out of thin air.  While careful positioning is still important for her more powerful abilities (dropping fireballs while flying does major damage, but requires real precision), the Sorceress has a trick up her sleeve for any enemy type or formation that may approach.

The Wizard is a purely offensive spellcaster (with a few nice enemy debuffs), the Dwarf is a rough-and-tumble off-tank with cool crowd-control options (he can pick up and throw enemies), but my personal favorite - by far - is the Amazon.

The Amazon is the classic glass cannon, incapable of taking much damage but dishing it out at a rate that borders on lunacy - once you've mastered her abilities.  Incredibly mobile, she can quadruple-evade.  Between each evade, she has a beautifully controllable mid-air pinwheel attack she can break out, or a rising air attack, or a falling smash attack.  She can zip through the air across the screen in a half-second and crash down axe-first into an enemy spellcaster, obliterating him with one mighty whomp.

Swinging her (ridiculously) huge man-sized axe, her ground combos (which start at four strikes but can be extended to nine) begin slowly.  Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh - big, arcing swings of her giant weapon that do massive damage to enemies all around her.  The more she is able to attack without being knocked down, the faster she goes.

Within a few seconds, she is wrecking battalions of skeletal soldiers with lightning-fast combos of her massive weapon - shikshikshikshik goes the blade, while still dealing thousands of damage per wide, arcing strike.

She tears through enemy ranks like the Tasmanian devil.  Wind her up and set her loose on a boss.

She's an absolute monster.

That's jump, down and square.  She slams into the ground axe-first, producing a shockwave.
Big numbers are pretty numbers.

Once, during a boss fight, I was throwing down with two gigantic cyclopes.  On the far-right of the screen was a slowly-closing gate, and - occasionally - a massive cyclops hand would reach out to hold the gate up to prevent its closing (potentially allowing another beast into the fray).

On the left-hand side of the screen, the cyclops I was working on drew back its giant fist, preparing for a major attack that would toss me against the walls and spoil the vicious momentum I'd built up.  I held square and tapped the analog stick up, in a rising attack, and tapped R1 to air-evade off his shoulder to the left as he let loose with his swing.

At that point, I noticed the hand had appeared under the gate on the other side of the screen.  I air-jumped, tapped evade, tapped attack to pinwheel, air-evaded again and was then at the hand.  I tapped square and pinwheeled the hand, tapped up and square to perform a mid-air rising attack, pinwheeled again, jumped vertically one last time and hit down and attack to slam into the ground, through the hand with Neck Splitter - my single most powerful attack - destroying it.

I love you, Neck Splitter. 

It wasn't until after I'd done this crazy thing - evading on one side of the screen, zipping to the other side and destroying the hand without touching the ground - that I realized it had all been unconscious expression.

I hadn't bothered to think of how to do it - I only realized that it needed to be done - and so, I did.

The Gargoyle Gate boss fight requires the player to load and light a massive cannon to destroy the living door.
As an alternative, you could just fire an Amazon at it. 

In the same way Muramasa offered a simple but expressive combat system with a bare minimum of inputs, Dragon's Crown offers rich, lightning-fast action with a profoundly simple control scheme.  It's easy to pick-up and play (R1's evade, square is attack, X is jump, circle is your special), but each of the six classes - while all using the same basic controls - play and feel completely different.

Each character offers a unique pace, a unique weight, and unique strategies - a complete departure from the standards Vanillaware kept for Muramasa and (to a lesser extent) Odin Sphere, where each character played identically to the next.

In terms of fun factor and mechanics, Dragon's Crown is the most ambitious and successful action the company's ever offered.

It's also the sexiest.

The last thing a thousand goblins ever saw.
"She is a girl in a bikini, but I can't think of her as just a girl in a bikini. Having spent time with her, I can only think of her as a seething mass of muscle and iron will, with a seven-foot axe at the business end."
-On the women of Dragon's Crown-
Yes, the Sorceress is very top-heavy and yes, the Amazon has a battle bikini, rock-hard glutes and a penchant for showing them to the audience.  Moreso than any previous Vanillaware title, Dragon's Crown - perhaps simply due to how much of the game is inspired by or references classic western fantasy from throughout the ages - presents women only as sexy and powerful (in the case of the heroes) or sexy and damseled (in the case of almost everyone else). But always sexy.

If you'd like an in-depth look at the game's presentation of women, I've laid it all out right here.  It's so pronounced that my lady love wouldn't even watch the game if I was playing as the Sorceress (at first - now she tools around on her Fighter with a Sorceress or two for backup) - but while I can be conscious of it, I must admit it doesn't damage my enjoyment of the game.

I like beautiful things, I like sexy things, I like fun things, and I loved Golden Axe as a kid.  Dragon's Crown is beautiful, fun, sexy, and a wonderful modern-age Golden Axe.

Dragon's Crown is nothing if not a love letter to the co-op side-scrolling action-RPGs of old, from Golden Axe to (director) George Kamitani's own Dungeons & Dragons: The Tower of Doom.  It's... almost moving in how beautifully it offers a modern take on the classics we adored as children.

Each of the game's nine main dungeons are drastically different from each other, and each has two routes which can be taken, leading to different exploration opportunities (hidden rooms, hidden chests, et cetera) and different bosses to face.

Within the game, (like those old gems) you'll find temporary-use weapons like daggers (let the Elf take those), crossbows, arbalests, cranequin and torches that allow non-magic using characters to take advantage of a wood golem, slime creature or ghost's extreme weakness to flame.  The game's roster of enemies is massive, from spritely little goblins to lumbering owlbears, to the creepily-laughing homunculi - soulless alchemically-created artificial people, they're semi-translucent, slightly-rubbery figures until they leap through the air and slam into a member of your party, and take their shape.

Then, in the middle of a brawl with some zombies and sabertooth tigers, you find yourself also fighting two Elves and an Amazon.  It's crazy.  And wonderful.

Like any Vanillaware game, little, beautiful touches abound - none more welcome than the inclusion of Tiki and Rannie. Rannie the rogue once happened upon you in a dungeon in a far-off land, and thought he could take advantage of your young hero's naïveté - but soon learned it would be much more profitable just to make himself a full partner.

As your adventurers clear a room (treasure, jewels and goblets erupting from the corpses of your foes), Rannie will busy himself picking up the loot so you don't have to.  When you come to a locked door or a treasure chest, you'll have to sweep the right analog stick up to it and tap L1 (or just a screen-tap on the Vita), and Rannie will dart forward to apply his lockpicks with a haughty "oh, I can do that."

Tiki, meanwhile, is an adorable little fairy and totally not a copyright infringement against Walt Disney.  After freeing her from a cage early in the game, she accompanies you on your journey and helpfully points out secrets.  When a treasure chest is in the room, she'll flutter in and recline across it like a jazz singer to bring your attention to it.

When a room is clear, there's no giant hand pointing the way forward - it's Tiki - positioned at the right side of the room, her arm shooting out in time with a gentle chime to let you know it's time to go.

What a lovely pair of touches.

Open The Sesame!

If that weren't enough, Dragon's Crown throws in an interesting degree of interaction with its environment.  Clicking the cursor (or tapping the screen) on hollow walls or strange statues reveals hidden rooms to bust in to, while shinies in the background will pour forth rich spoils when you draw the cursor over them.

Throughout the game, you'll find strange runes carved into the world - tapping on these allows you access to twenty hugely powerful spells, from room-clearing damage to an extra life point to an additional stock of one of your precious limited-use items.  It's a good idea (and a natural education) to memorize a few of the more potent ones - a nice touch, and a welcome addition of depth to the world.

It's worth noting, all of the cursor mechanics feel a bit more natural (and can be executed much faster) on the Vita's touchscreen than on the PS3 version.

The treasure you find, meanwhile, is... extensive.

This will set your heart a-flutter every time.

Taking a page from the book of Diablo, Dragon's Crown employs a random loot system.  Each treasure chest you open will always contain an item - E, D, C, B, A or the prized S-rank - which you won't be able to view until you return to town, and have it appraised.

After a good run - if you've made the right prayers to the goddesses (which is a real thing and provides any number of passive buffs) - your treasure screen will look like this:

I saw a review from one guy who said he'd only ever gotten two S-rank treasures.  No idea what his problem was.
Praying to the goddesses for higher-ranking treasure and chaining dungeons really helps.

Then you head on back to town, toss the crap, appraise the good stuff and potentially swap out your gear - comparing the old to the new and thoughtfully stroking your chin.

One day I may find an amulet that grants immunity to more than poison, burning and petrification,
but I haven't found it yet.

Their random nature ensures that you'll stumble across gear that compliments every conceivable build, and also ensures that you'll (almost) never find one object that's perfect in all ways.  I've got an axe right now with a damage range of 252-255 - the highest I've ever seen, with the thinnest range - but it doesn't have the potential to turn my enemies to stone...

No, there's gotta' be somethin' better out there.  I'd best keep looking.

And so I do.  The game ensures you may never stop looking, by way of its ever-expanding challenge and the fact that each character can possess nine different bags of gear - one tailored to each and every dungeon in the game, always swappable at the dungeon's branch point.

Or you could just try to put together nine perfect loadouts - the better for taking a trip through the Chaos Labyrinth.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  There is a potentially-infinite amount of gear to find, and you can hold up to 500 pieces in your bank (banked gear is shared across all characters on the same save file.  Find a sweet S-ranked staff?  Save it for your caster alt.)

It's deeply counter-intuitive that Dragon's Crown does not (initially) lend itself as well to couch co-op as it does online, given the game's spiritual predecessors.  Completing story missions while in co-op mode (while both players can participate and earn rewards) only counts for the player on port 1, though side-quests work normally.  [update] This issue has since been patched! [/update] This is, I suppose, why online co-op doesn't open up until after you've cleared the first half of Normal mode and completed the story.

Fortunately, Dragon's Crown's narrative is the thinnest, most insubstantial story Vanillaware has ever offered - perhaps a disappointment to fans of the developer, given how delightful and moving their narratives have been in the past - but the reasoning is clear.  The story is not in any way, shape or form the point of Dragon's Crown.  It is a game whose purpose is found entirely in the playing of it - particularly with friends - which is a grander accomplishment than any other Vanillaware title can lay claim to.

Dragon's Crown appreciates that it's the type of game one doesn't play just once - just as we didn't play Golden Axe just once as kids - and has designed itself for limitless replay.  Upon defeating Normal difficulty, Hard mode opens up - which lacks any and all story and is the exact same game you just played with harder enemies, a higher level cap (more skills to purchase!) and new side quests.  Once you defeat hard, Infernal becomes available (raising the level cap to 99) - which feels like the "correct" difficulty for the game, and what Hard and Normal mode had been preparing you for.

On Infernal difficulty, story progression is moot and enemies come in massive swarms, hard and fast.  You'll meet new versions of old foes like the Red Caps above - dark Goblins who love stunlocking you with viper-fast combos of their evil little blades.  You'll meet shadowy pirates with nasty teleportation and crowd-control skills, and Blue Caps - vicious Goblin spellcasters who'll turn you into a frog (!).

It is here, at the end of the path, that Dragon's Crown reveals and can truly showcase its real point and purpose - infinite co-operative play.

Wanna' fight a Cyclops outside the Mage's Tower?  Welcome to the Chaos Labyrinth.

Once you have defeated Infernal mode and vanquished the Ancient Dragon (again), the Chaos Labyrinth bears its teeth.  The Chaos Labyrinth is, simply, random everything.

You'll stroll through a few screens of the Lost Woods, fighting enemies that have no place there, dealing with environmental hazards from different areas of the game, stumbling across random treasure chests and random runes to exploit.  When you walk off the right-hand side of that screen, you may find yourself in a room from the haunted Castle of the Dead, fighting enemies from Bilbaron Fortress, and bosses will come out to play alongside normal enemies.  It's ninety-nine floors, each of which is about the size of three normal levels, with three main bosses to defeat - and once you're past the ninth floor (which is incredibly hard) it gets even harder.

A single dungeon can be defeated in ten minutes (making it great for a few stolen seconds on the Vita), but once you've seen all there is to see, the game revels in allowing and encouraging you to chain dungeons together, defeating them one after the other - which adds multipliers to your score, gold collected, experience earned and crucially the quality of treasure you find - and after certain dungeons, the cooking mini-game will pop up.

"Eat well, for you will need your strength for the day ahead," the narrator advises, and then you and four folks will desperately try to cram the best food into the pots and pans, jostling for the spices and wine and salt to really give your food some kick - which adds major buffs to hit points, defense and attack power - before you head back in to the dungeons for more fun.

And, fortunately for a game that relies on so much repetition, it is so much fun.  Normal mode with a single character can be bested in twenty hours, but I can say I've put nearly 100 hours into the game, and still don't feel done with it.

I want to keep plucking away at my Elf and Sorceress (I named her Jessica, after Mrs. Rabbit), I want to invest in the Fighter and Dwarf, and most telling of all, I still absolutely love hopping on to my level 99 Amazon and chaining dungeons, racking up a few dozen S-rank treasures and pouring over them back at the Dragon's Haven Inn.

I've invested more time in Dragon's Crown than I have in any game since Fallout 3 (probably more, now) - and it is perhaps the familiarity with its world, its enemies and its mechanics, and how fun they remain after all that time that continues to draw me in.  Yes, I've seen it all - but I've yet to feel like I've seen enough.

I kill dragons.

The Vita suffers a bit of slowdown during hectic encounters, but is more comfortable for pointer-clicks and rune activation with the touchscreen, allows Party Chat, and the colors really pop on the OLED screen.  The PS3 version never suffers slowdown, but using the right stick to guide the pointer takes some getting used to - and there's no voice chat for online.

Even taking the odd exclusion of voice chat from the PS3 version into account, this is probably the single most valuable, bang-for-your-buck game to release in 2013. 
  • Absolutely gorgeous 2D presentation from the masters of the form.  It's a living, breathing painting. 
  • Fast-paced, vicious, expressive combat that's hugely fun. 
  • Great netcode for online co-op.
  • Couch co-op is a ton of fun (shame about story mode in Normal). [update] Patched. [/update]
  • Swapping your save back and forth from the Vita to PS3 is, as always, a boon.
  • Six vastly different classes to master.
  • The spirit of Golden Axe.
  • The loot system of Diablo
  • A wealth of enemies.
  • Spectacular boss fights, nearly all of which employ a cool secondary mechanic.
  • Nice character customization through skills and gear.
  • Beautiful music. 
  • Purpose-built for replayability - after 100 hours, I'm nowhere near tired of it. 

Buy this game.

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