Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Happy Anniversary, Dragon's Crown.


Dragon's Crown was released in North America one year ago, today.  Over the past twelve months, deep within my gamer's heart, it has overtaken Okami and Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  It has overtaken me. 

It would be my official selection, if I were trapped on a desert island.  Dragon's Crown is my favorite game of all time. 







The word "Vanillaware" holds a certain weight with gamers, and the explanation is simple: 
"Remember playing Super Nintendo or Genesis back in the day, looking at those big, gorgeous, animated sixteen-bit sprites and thinking "man, things are gonna' be so much better-looking next gen"?

Then the next gen happened, and polygons became the name of the game.  But there's one studio that never stopped with the 2D.  One studio that just kept getting better and better at it over the years, and its name is Vanillaware."
-from The Games of August 2013-
As such, as soon as Dragon's Crown was announced, I was hyped, simply by virtue of it being the next thing from Vanillaware.  The company began as a team within Atlus, headed by artistic director George Kamitani, who worked on an action-RPG called Princess Crown (1997) for the Sega Saturn.  


After leaving Atlus, they formed Vanillaware, and after ten long years they released two games in quick succession in 2007 - the action-RPG Odin Sphere (a fifty hour magnum opus of spectacular presentation and narrative, with deep crafting and capable combat) and the less-successful real-time strategy game GrimGrimoire, both for the PS2.   


After that long haul, they got a bit better at turning games out, with the fabulous Muramasa in 2009.  A narrative-driven, combat-centric Metroidvania lite with the studio's now-trademark blissful presentation and much sharper, more expressive combat, Muramasa holds the distinction of being the only Wii game I've ever finished (and it's far better on Vita). 


Finally, in 2011, they released Grand Knights History – the only turn-based “traditional” RPG the studio has ever offered.  Tragically, it was never localized, but just by going so far off their beaten path, the game was in keeping with Vanillaware’s style.  That is, kinda’ like Bruce Lee’s – relying on no true formula or framework.  The strongest kung fu has no style.

They’ve never made a sequel.  They only, always, offer these sweet, intensely detailed, thoughtfully-constructed games that are decidedly different than anything you’ve ever played and anything they’ve made before.  They’re constantly experimenting, constantly pushing themselves with deeper systems and more original mechanics.  Most of Muramasa’s combat, for example, takes place in the air, but the original Wii version lacked a jump button.  Odin Sphere is an action-RPG without traditional experience points.

-Penny Arcade-

The studio can be relied upon to consistently offer something exciting and new.  Likewise, when a new Vanillaware game drops one can rest assured that it will, rather like Naughty Dog, become an instant frontrunner for best presentation of the year, as no other developer can touch the efforts of a crew who’ve bent their talents to the task of realizing the most beautiful 2D sprites in the world for what is now approaching two decades. 

While other studios offer 2D games as a retro treat, Vanillaware only present it as an exercise in absolute triple-A production values, consistently elevated by a long-standing partnership with an exemplary music studio called Basiscape.



Not many people – not enough – know the name Vanillaware, but as soon as they announced a new game, I was in.  Sold. A co-op action-RPG.  Rock on.

Now, hype is a dangerous blade - one that often harms our ultimate experience with a title.  It directs our gaze to games we might not otherwise be aware of, but more often than not builds expectations to untenable levels.  Once that takes hold, it's almost impossible for the game a developer presses on a disc to live up to the standards we've created for it, in our minds. 

Sometimes, though, a game comes along, thusly hyped, that manages to exceed our expectations.

-quest reward art from Dragon's Crown-

The game's flaws - or at least, its sticking points for many people - lay in its controversial art direction.  Dragon's Crown is a title which prides itself on being an all-you-can-eat buffet of reverence to classic western fantasy, and as such it is an all-you-can-eat buffet of highly sexualized female flesh.  

On the one hand, we, collectively, have come to note such one-sided representations with a critical eye, and are painfully aware of the harm the omnipresent message of women-as-objects does to our society.  On the other, it's hard not to be impressed by Kamitani and team's encyclopedic references to everything from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to the sculptures of ancient Greece, even if, in doing so, it offers an uncomfortably clear reflection of the culture that inspired it - ours.

Is Dragon's Crown the most artistically-gorgeous game to come out in 2013?

Yes.  

It's a painting come to life.  It's what you saw in your head when you played a gorgeous 16-bit game and imagined how incredible games could look in the future.  It's shocking when you return to it - when you see it moving after having played any other game in your library.  The load screen fades and your hero dashes out of the Dragon's Haven Inn, and it's like oh my


I'd forgotten how beautiful you were. 

Is Dragon's Crown's treatment of women problematic?


Its stories are thick with large-breasted, helpless damsels, large-breasted, helpless mermaids and large-breasted, bound (and helpless) slave girls.  Its heroes are lithe, long-legged women of progressively-more-ridiculous proportions, culminating in that symbol of the game’s impropriety, the Sorceress.

-promotional art for Dragon's Crown-

So striking are her curves, so energetic are the leaps and swings of her mighty bosoms that my own sweet paramour, Kayla, could do little but roll her eyes each and every time I excitedly showed her a trailer for the game, and refused to so much as be in the room when I played the character after the game’s launch. 

Almost all discussion of the game prior to its release featured her in prominent display – she was the game’s poster child, and critics were quick to denounce her as shameless pandering, designed to titillate potential players and condemned the game’s regressive sensibilities.

There is an irony to such reactions.  The righteous anger at the thought of a character whose value lies solely in her bombastically sexualized appearance is informed by the sort of thinking that cannot perceive anyone valuing her as anything beyond a sexual object. Well-intentioned though it may be, disregarding the Sorceress as nothing more than eye candy perpetuates the (damaging) concept that the only purpose a woman with Jessica Rabbit curves can have is to arouse a man. 

For shame.


The funnest characters in the game are (in descending order) the Amazon, the Sorceress and the Elf. The gentlemen are no slouches - the Warrior’s handy to have in your party and can certainly hold his own, the Dwarf’s often-crazy abilities are a sight to behold and the Wizard is unmatched when it comes to room-clearing damage output, but for straight fun factor, it’s all about the ladies.

A bit like that friend of yours who’s so distractingly, distressingly attractive that it took you a while to just get past it and learn to enjoy the company of the person beneath those glittering eyes, there comes a point where what you find most beautiful about the heroines of Dragon’s Crown is not how they look, but how they play.  The sense of vicious, sniper-eyed elegance that is the Elf, skipping and tumbling through a horde of enemies before coming to a stop with her bow drawn and loosing an arrow that tears through their ranks with a shockwave.  The controlled, explosive anarchy of the Sorceress’s air game as she showers the field with fireballs – jump, BOOM, evade, BOOM, double-jump, BOOM, evade, BOOM, levitate (she rides her broom across the screen), BOOM, evade, BOOM – laying waste to legions without ever touching the ground.

Getting to know the girls of Dragon's Crown reveals them to be so much more than eye candy.  

My Elf is on the cusp of 80, my Sorceress - who, it turns out, does require expert skills to get the most out of and is tons of fun - has broken level 100, and my Amazon leads the pack at around 160.  Ever since we met, I have been absolutely in love with my Amazon. 


"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-
 "I can't hate her, Kayla.  Battle bikini or no, she's got a gigantic fucking axe and I want to hit goblins with it."-personal correspondence-

Like the Sorceress, Kayla didn't care for the Amazon at first - this big, tanned lady showing almost nothing but skin who can't point her booty anywhere but at the player.  I think she disapproved of the game entire, at first. 

Then she saw me play it.  Sometimes - not often - Kayla will go out and buy a game for herself, to play at home, off nothing more than having seen me play it.  A week or two after I bought Dragon's Crown, her copy arrived in the mail (it was sold out in every brick-and-mortar store in the city). 


She was frustrated with the game's action-centric sensibilities at first, so I suggested she try out the Fighter.  The game lists the Fighter as a good class for "beginners."  (It's worth noting, another game Kayla bought after seeing me play it is Dark Souls.  She's not a beginner at anything.)

On her PS3, Kayla beat the game's "campaign," and set it aside in the name of Grand Theft Auto V.  When she got her birthday present this year - a brand new Vita slim - the only game she decided she needed for it was Dragon's Crown, and she dove back in.  


I've found, for many games, the Vita is the best place to play them.  Its portability, perfect controls and flawless fidelity to the console versions of (most of) its games make it, basically, better.  I have to think this is doubly true in the case of Dragon's Crown - I don't think I would've invested half the time I have in the game if not for its Vita version - and this proved true for Kayla as well. 

She's since abandoned her armored Fighter.  Longing for a greater challenge and a more exciting playstyle, I encouraged her to try out the Amazon, and she loves that girl in the bikini.  She rolled with her Amazon through Hard mode, through Infernal, and has now broken the game's original level cap and graduated to Ultimate.  Her play time is approaching a hundred hours.  

A few weeks ago, I asked Kayla if there was any gaming art she'd like to have up at my place, and she picked out four pieces.  They are all from Dragon's Crown.  

-Kayla's cell phone lock screen and background (Dragon's Crown quest reward art)-

Nowadays, when we don't feel like watching some Mindy Project and have a few hours to kill, we'll stretch out bed with our Vitas and go into ad-hoc mode, just running through the game's irresponsibly gorgeous dungeons together, wreckin' bosses.  Her presence has made the obscenely difficult Demon King fights an intense pleasure.  


She plays as a girl in a bikini, and I play as a chesty witch named after Roger Rabbit's loving spouse.  And we wreck shit. 

We kill dragons. 


I must admit, a year on, I'm rather amazed by what Dragon's Crown has become, to me.  I've always loved Vanillaware's work, always invested a surprising number of hours in them (50+ in Odin Sphere, 40+ in Muramasa), but Dragon's Crown is something very different.  

It is, at once, the most infinite and compact title the studio has ever produced.  Its environments could fit in one corner of Muramasa's sprawling recreation of 1690s Japan, but it manages to be a game that... 

...hm.  That still holds my imagination.  That casts a shadow over every other game I play on my Vita - because why should I play Ratchet & Clank or Rogue Legacy or when I could be playing Dragon's Crown?  


And that's weird.  It can't just be that the game is fun.  Lots of games are fun, and they don't do what Dragon's Crown manages. Guacamelee and inFamous are pure, unadulterated fun, and I'm not still playing them pretty-much every day. 

That same quality of fun is present and accounted for, here.  That gleeful, childlike thrill that comes from the simplest things - running and jumping and crashing into your foes with a man-sized axe - but Dragon's Crown remains an infinite distraction thanks to its canny design.  

It's bit like Far Cry 3 in that, no matter what you choose to do, you're gonna' have a great time doing it.  Hop on your Dwarf, run some randomized dungeons on your Elf, take on the Ancient Dragon with your Amazon, and it's always a wide-eyed adventure.  Each character offers a vastly different feel and requires vastly different playstyles, and the game is always rewarding you with experience points and sexy new toys and oh my God these glasses give me a fifty percent chance not to use mana when I cast a spell!


It's absolutely gorgeous, it plays beautifully, with zippy, expressive combat and a gritty challenge, it's constantly rewarding, deeply customizable and has been designed for hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of hours of play time - but the important part is this: it is so much fun.


After two hundred and fifty-five hours with it, tearing through crowds of goblins with great, swooping slashes of my axe is still a bloodthirsty pleasure.  Flooding a room with fire still satisfies.  Loosing a charged shot still feels impactful, and I never tire of pounding the ground so hard a shockwave rips across the screen and obliterates an evil wizard. 

Killing evil wizards never gets old. 


Dragon's Crown is a modern classic, and I have, perhaps, said too much on the subject - but that's what comes of a subject I can't seem to grow tired of.   

This is, after all, the eightieth post on The Games of Chance to feature the Dragon's Crown tag, and it may be reasonable to suggest I might prove a bit of a resource...   

(Dragon's Crown is officially announced)

(the Bound Spirit is a challenge)

(in which I am pronounced a nerd)

(in which I fall in love with the Amazon)

(a critical look at the game's representation of women)

(a very long review)

(a very short review)

(PS3 versus Vita)

(Megahouse's Dragon's Crown figures are gorgeous)

(patch 1.05 extends the game's replay value to the stars)

(reflecting crossbow bolts with an axe swing is hella cool)

(winner)

(winner)

(Kayla bought me the Amazon figure for our anniversary)

(turns out the Sorceress is tons of fun)

(I got a broom!)

(Vanillaware have turned me into one of those people with PVC figures)

(Finally, a cure for nakedness)


It is, now, possible that I may move on from the game.  My Vita keeps welcoming other, newer titles... I'll keep looking for something that thrills and pleases with the same quality and quantity as this inordinately special brawler, but I must admit that, after a year in its company, I don't expect it to be usurped any time soon.  

Got the Platinum yesterday. 


Happy anniversary, Dragon's Crown.  I wouldn't have traded our time together for all the first-person shooters in the world. 

The only tragedy of this game is Vanillaware don't make sequels.
...but they do make spiritual sequels...

2 comments:

  1. ¿Tragedy, pal? I prefer it remains as a GREAT ULTRA SPECIAL UNIQUE RPG BEAT 'EM UP that this ecstasy will become a unlimted sagas... this is the beauty of vanillaware! Masterpiece from their ages!! Don't you?

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    Replies
    1. It just kinda' makes me doubly hyped for whatever they come out with next. The way their combat has evolved from Odin Sphere to Muramasa to Dragon's Crown... whatever they release in 2015/16 is gonna' be amazing (again).

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