Sunday, September 1, 2013

REVIEW - Dragon's Crown.

Dragon's Crown is a 2D side-scrolling co-op brawler, from Vanillaware, masters of the 2D form.

A love letter to classic home console and arcade RPG beat 'em ups like Golden Axe and (director) George Kamitani's own Dungeons & Dragons : Tower of Doom, Dragon's Crown recaptures the childhood vibe of wandering a fantastical world and getting into awesome fights with otherworldly monsters.

If you, like me, lost hours to those action-RPGs of old, sitting cross-legged in front of an old tube television with a sibling, cheering each other on, riding lizard mounts and finding hidden treasures, I can promise you will lose many, many more to Dragon's Crown.

After a brief tutorial that provides the absolute basics of each character, you step out of the Dragon's Haven Inn and onto the cobbles of Hydeland, a lovely castle town with a few NPCs wandering about.  You're soon introduced to Samuel, the master of the Adventurer's Guild, and tasked with your first foray into the dungeons beyond the city - the ruins of the old Elysian temple, where you must fight your way through ranks of foes and defeat its master - the Harpy.

You must go in alone, save for the company of your dear AI companion, Rannie the thief.  Rannie's a coward, no doubt - never around when there's trouble - but when the foes have been cleaned out he'll slip into the room and pick up treasure off the ground, saving you the trouble.

As he works, you may munch on an apple or mince pie (dropped by enemies or found in crates), increasing your health beyond its normal limits, and scan the room for spoils hidden in the background - tiny shimmers of light give them away, and you draw the (right stick/touchscreen) cursor over them to pop gemstones and goblets and strings of pearls from bookshelves and pillars.  Rannie picks these up too, until you point his attentions towards a nearby chest, and he darts forward to pick the lock with a haughty "oh, I can do that."

Upon returning to town, a new zone will become available to you, and a quest will appear encouraging you to return to the Ancient Temple Ruins, with the promise of gold and a precious Skill Point as reward.

As you progress through your initial time with the game, you soon discover you can pick up the bones of defeated warriors and raise them from the dead at the temple of the goddesses, heading in to the next challenge with AI backup that's far more potent than Rannie.

You meet Tiki, a tiny fairy and another AI companion.  Aside from one (adorable and very rewarding) quest, she's a pleasant little addition to the user interface as she points the way forward when you've cleared a room - her little arm darting out in time with a gentle chime - or drawing your attention to chests by reclining across them like a blues singer on a piano until you send Rannie over.

You meet Lucain the Wizard, who teaches you the ways of rune magic - powerful spells that play off a handful of stones you carry with you, when combined with a few rare symbols found in the environment.  Open The Sesame is only used once - fittingly, just before a boss fight in which you lay waste to forty thieves (while ensuring they don't use a genie's lamp against you, or perhaps picking it up and calling his wrath down on them).  Petrify The Flesh flashes all enemies onscreen with Medusa's gaze, while the thrilling Treasure Hunter's Friend produces a golden chest for Rannie to pillage.

You'll fly magic carpets being chased by sentient lava, you'll scale the Mage's Tower and stop a demonic invasion.  You'll slay Medusa and ride dragonlisks.

Remember riding around on dragons in Golden Axe II?  So does Dragon's Crown.

After a dozen or so hours, you'll have cleared nine dungeons and defeated nine bosses - and unlocked online co-op.  You'll have uncovered the secret of the Dragon's Crown and know what must be done to save the world (which, naturally, is in terrible peril).  In order to challenge the Ancient Dragon that threatens to consume existence, you must go once more into the nine dungeons - but this time you must take a separate path, and defeat nine much more challenging bosses to obtain the talismans that will render the ultimate foe vulnerable to attack.

The Wyvern drake may have once offered a challenge on the parapets of the Old Capital, but the mighty Red Dragon slumbers beneath the city, resting on a mountain of gold.

And you're a hero.

You kill dragons.

Once you've gathered all nine talismans and vanquished the Ancient Dragon, the game throws you right into Hard mode - a different beast, and now a wide-open experience.

No longer a linear and prescribed sequence of story-driven dungeons, Dragon's Crown becomes a playground to frolic through - a world to be mastered.  Both A and B paths are open in all zones, there's no story to speak of, new side-quests become available at the adventurer's guild, the level cap extends from 35 to 65, and you're free to pack up several bags worth of worthy gear and "chain" dungeons with your friends - defeating the Pirate's Cove, Old Capital, Castle of the Dead, Lost Woods, Mage's Tower and Bilbaron Subterranean Fortress in one hour-long haul.

Every time you defeat a single dungeon, a score multiplier will appear - increasing the gold or experience or (crucially) quality of treasure you'll find in chests in the next.  Soon your results screen looks something like this :

...and once the treasure rank multiplier hits ninety per cent, you never want to head back to town.  You want those S-rank treasures - you lust after them, because while they're rarely exactly what you need, they may be exactly what you need - so eventually, you head home to the Dragon's Haven Inn.  You'll have your mysterious items appraised and pour over their statistics and passive buffs, comparing the new to the old and perhaps finding a single item that offers exceptional power.

Immunity to poison, burning and petrification?  I love you, Gladiator's Force Amulet. 

You sell the crap and keep the good, get your gear repaired at Morgan's Magic Shop, pray to the goddesses at the temple for even better gear next time, raise a few new friends from the dead - and then you do it all over again.

And again and again and again until you reach the level cap of Hard mode, challenge the Ancient Dragon once again... and discover the game's not over - for over that hill waits Infernal difficulty, level 99 and the Chaos Labyrinth.

By this point, the player knows the game.  We've discovered the only door that requires The Skeleton Key rune spell, and know that - behind that door - a hidden chest can be revealed not with Treasure Hunter's Friend, but D.I.E (a dark joke by the demonic denizens of the Forgotten Sanctuary).

By this point, we have absolutely mastered the abilities and natures of our chosen hero - each drastically different from the next, each with strengths and weaknesses, each with a unique pace and weight, with each offering multiple strategies to (beautifully, stylishly, viciously) get the most out of them.

But we're not wide-eyed level 1s stepping out of the Dragon's Haven for the first time, Rannie hot on our heels.  We kill dragons.  For fun.

It is here, in the clearing at the end of the path, that Dragon's Crown opens up and reveals its true nature.  It's spent the last forty hours flashing some ankle and winking at you - letting you get to know the Rune spells, the location of every hidden room, the master strategies for every boss and the unique attacks and threats of every monsters in its rogues' gallery - engaging in an extensive long-form dialogue of play that has permitted you to become deeply familiar with its ways and wiles.

Finally, when you've done all there is to do, the game is wide open to you.  It invites you to keep going, to keep playing it after dozens upon dozens of hours with the promise of sweet, sweet new randomly-generated loot and the knowledge that each and every time you venture in to the Chaos Labyrinth, you'll face a set-up you've never seen before.  You'll fight the Warlock from the Mage's Tower, flanked by slime creatures in Ghost Ship Cove as the artillery from Bilbaron Fortress rains down around you - and then you'll walk off the left side of the frame into a scene from the Lost Woods to find yourself beset by lizardmen before you get to that floor's actual boss.

The game has the audacity to believe one could conceivably keep playing it forever, and has designed itself accordingly.  What is, perhaps, most mind-boggling about this painstakingly crafted, slickly executed game is that I find I agree.

Or at least, after a hundred hours, I don't feel the least bit tired of it.  I've found no greater pleasure on my Vita (or any game on any platform, in recent memory) that's such a total pleasure to just play.

My Amazon warrior hit the level cap a week ago, but I'm nowhere near done with her.  For the sake of joy alone, I love spending an hour or two chaining together dungeons and returning home to the Dragon's Haven to divvy up the choicest loot.  I love crashing in to a battalion of goblins and orcs and sending them flying with arcing swings of my mighty axe.  I love dashing through the shallows and right up into the Kraken's grill before I pop Iron Will and lay waste to his octo-ass.

I've got alts of every class, and I am really looking forward to beating at least Normal difficulty with each of them - poking around their skill trees and seeing how they bend - seeing how one skill compliments another and becomes silly-strong.

I love the way this game looks.

Luxurious is the word for it.  I love the painstaking detail and sharp silhouettes on every character, friend and foe.  I revel in the tiny animations - the way a pair of squirrels will loop around the Elf as her idle animation, the way the Amazon will tousle her hair.  I'm still enchanted by the lush environments and the soaring score (why oh why isn't a soundtrack available?)

But what keeps me coming back to Dragon's Crown - more than any other title Vanillaware's put out, and insanely more than any game in recent memory - is how beautifully the thing plays.  This is a brawler through the lens of a fighting game - lightning fast, and supple.  Beginning with profoundly simple controls (square to attack, X to jump, circle for specials and R1 to dodge), it extrapolates itself out into wonderful, slick, expressive action.

Every character feels vital and powerful and always in the player's complete control.  When an Orc Chieftan takes a flying leap at your Sorceress, both mighty barrel arms raised high for a two-handed ground pound and - as he flies - you tap up and circle, producing a pillar of fire, and tap R1 to poof! disappear and reappear ten feet away, safe from his powerful attack as he slams into the ground and begins to burn - it feels really cool.

When an Amazon evades a one-hit kill attack on one side of the screen and pinwheels, evades, pinwheels again to the other side of the room and destroys a floating enemy before touching the ground - it feels incredibly responsive, and expressive.

The boss fights are huge, cleverly-designed spectacles, often with a unique secondary mechanic to take advantage of (loading and firing a cannon to destroy a gate, protecting one stone golem so it can help you kill another), and still - after dozens upon dozens of hours, thrilling and rewarding.

And then, it gets better with co-op.

Dragon's Crown is a remarkable game. It is beautiful in all ways.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Buy it.


  1. I am really glad you were able to get a copy for me...I think Dragon's Crown might be first game I break 100 hours on - Usually I lose interest after the first few hours of a game but this makes me want to keep on playing and see how powerful my Fighter can get. This one is definitely my favorite game of 2013 - despite my initial reaction to it.