Dragon’s Crown Pro – Review

Publisher – Atlus

Developer – Vanillaware

ESRB –Teen

MSRP – $49.99

Note – This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 with the review copy provided by the Publisher (Atlus)

Introduction

Video games have become more than just games in recent years and in many cases, not for the benefit of the industry. Worldbuilding, sequel baiting, dabbing emotes, spin-offs, political influence, skyrocketing development costs, season passes, game-breaking bugs, social media connectivity, and micro-transactions accompany a decline in passionate game development or games with their own identity. Sometimes a game just needs to be a game, and the folks over at VanillaWare answer the call with Dragon’s Crown Pro, a love letter to simpler days of gaming, from a game that just wants to be a game.

Dragon’s Crown is a 2D Side Scrolling beat em up, that attempts to incorporate many RPG elements such as equipment management, skill trees, elemental status and status ailments while retaining the spirit of the fallen Arcade centered genre of side-scrollers. The spirit of fundamental gaming classics such as Final Fight, Double Axe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade and many others. Dragon’s Crown has encoded these old design philosophies and inspirations of gaming’s past into it’s DNA, whether these design philosophies still have a place in 2018 is the question Dragon’s Crown will try to answer.

Story and Narrative

The Dragon’s Crown is a powerful magical object that is rumored to influence and control dragons throughout Hydeland, you choose 1 of 6 traveling adventurers who will embark on a journey through the many varied environments and threats that await you in Hydeland.

Objects of power are often objects of want and the Dragon’s Crown is perhaps the most powerful object in the world. Attracting the most vile and also noblest of people who want preserve or usurp the throne of Hydeland, and only you can maintain peace and save the day

Dragon’s Crown story pretty much starts and stops there with some exceptions, but the game does not lack identity at all, it probably has more of an identity flowing through it’s old school veins then big budget games that try to pad out their story with meaningless dialogue, characters or plot points.

dragon's crown pro gameplay of sorceress in the lost woods

This absence of story and plot provides a chance for the games identity, art-style and presentation to grab your attention, bringing Hydeland to life the old school way – by exploring and conquering it.

Unfortunately, the beloved simplicity of old Beat Em’ Up games is also perhaps the reason the genre has almost faded away entirely, trying to capture past charms is not an excuse to forego all story elements entirely, especially if you are trying to make your own mark on a genre that hasn’t seen any true innovation or relevance to the industry in decades.

VanillaWare does absolutely nothing to actually establish the Dragon’s Crown itself to a detrimental level. The game simply says “you want this Dragon’s Crown” when in fact I really don’t. I never cared once about what the actual goal of the game was at all, when it was mentioned it was about as appealing as an undercooked burger on stale bread being sold on the corner of Cliché Ave and Nostalgia Blvd, so if that’s where you wanna eat your stories you’ll be satisfied with whats been cooked up.

Most of the games story and characters dialogue is relayed directly to the player by a well-spoken and charming narrator Dungeons and Dragons style. He can be a bit one tone when voicing the majority of  the plot and characters’ dialogue, but will occasionally feign an accent to help sell a couple sentences, it’s charming and simple but perhaps to a fault. Especially when he chimes in during late-game boss battles.

dragon's crown pro forest hermit warning the player

Graphics and Environment

If shallow plot points in Beat Em’ Ups and RPGs are like the breath of 20-year pack-a-day smoker who just brushed his teeth with a hot dog for today’s gaming industry, then Dragon’s Crown visuals and presentation are a breath of fresh air from an unpopulated paradise in 2018. I’ve dungeon crawled through dozens of 2d caves, towers, volcanos, forests, and swamps, but never any that look as incredible as Dragon’s Crown on a PS4.

The artistic style loves to mess with proportions especially with its character models, and Dragon’s Crown also loves itself some really big proportions on both its female and male characters.

Most male’s arms and chest have muscles upon muscles that make mountains look like used condoms and the Sorceress’s chest is so massive they had to make the character model arc her back when she runs, cus even in fantasy game those breast weigh a ton each. Some would say its over-sexualized for those people I would say your over-thinking the characters hit-box.

dragon's crown pro riding a sabretooth

If there ever was a perfect example of a living painting, it is the world of Dragon’s Crown. While most of buildings architecture and environments themselves are unmistakably purely fantasy, it still has a realistic feel to it at times and looks like a beautiful painting coming to life.

This is thanks to the games excellent color palette, lighting and dozens of small animations in its character models and even its environment. Trees sway, water flows, fire flickers, chests expand and contract (some more than others ^_^)

Elemental and particle effects flow beautifully across the screen in a whirlwind of bright colors. Light pours in from behind treelines before revealing tropical sunset colored skies, torches flicker and light dances as you crawl through a dim dungeon filled with threats. Mountains of rotting corpses and simple cobblestone paths lead to both fantasy and gothic cathedrals tower in the background and other wonders

Water somehow even has its artistic flair in this game. Occasional 3D models like staircases wrapping around towers that reach to the heavens, cauldrons of magic and molten stone lie hidden underneath decaying, overgrown ruins.  Mountains Tiny bugs and insects scurry across the screen when you walk into a room and there are loads of hidden interactables scattered throughout all of it.

dragon's crown pro panoramic map of Hydeland

Gameplay and Customization

Dragon’s Crown does all it can be innovative in it’s gameplay by merging RPG elements into the Beat Em’ Up formula, while still never forgetting its identity. While its choice of playable characters seems shallow since it consists of only 6 characters who also seem to be male and female counterparts. A tanky knight who fills the role of Fighter and a thick Amazon Warrior, a mysterious Wizard and a beautiful Sorceress and the outliers – Archer and Dwarf.

Don’t judge these characters early, while they share some common traits and even a common skill tree, all 6 operate completely differently when it comes to offense, defense, and especially ground and air mobility. There is actually a surprising amount of depth and physics in the gameplay and potential for juggling combos. Enemies can be stunned, tripped, knocked back, bounced off walls and popped up in a number of ways and then can be further juggled around in the air like a piñata with physicals, projectile and magic attacks which can also be upgraded and modified in a number of ways for each character

dragon's crown pro character select screen

Each of the 6 Adventurers has their own separate unique skill tree that will slowly unlock as you level up each individual character and invest skill points alongside the common one that is shared. VanillaWare should consider renaming the game Dragon’s Options because between the 6 diverse characters you could also become addicted to experimenting and developing your own unique play style within their framework.

This is bolstered by a rewarding loot system that I could honestly compare to Diablo 3, in many ways this game kind of feels like a side-scrolling Diablo when it comes to its loot and economy and combat, except perhaps even smoother and not as unfair with its RNG. Each character has unique armor and weapon pieces in addition to common ones that are shared between all or just a few characters. Equipment often comes with its unique perks and stats.

The Sorceress who I played the majority of the game as for instance can change her Witch’s staff with a variety of options that drop from chests and bosses. While she starts out with a variety of Ice-based horizontal and vertical projectiles, other staffs can change instantly and change the element/ form of her projectiles and hitboxes themselves.  You can trade whirlwinds of sheer cold for a massive thunderstorms or a wall of fire, and each changes the MP cost for the attack. Each character has a wealth of basic attacks, and also skills and abilities unlocked through the skill tree like ice traps and massive shockwaves, shields and much more.

You can also deck yourself out with a variety of defensive buffs as well, perfect for heading into areas that fancy themselves some status ailments. However, the game is forgiving enough on its initial playthrough that you could simply keep repairing your equipment, manage your allies, and maybe just hop into the skill tree once in a while.

Another unique aspect of the game is its ally and level scaling system. On any given stage enemies and loot will always scale up to meet or surpass the players level, especially once you unlock the games B routes. Frequently players will come across a pile of bones, these are fallen Adventurers, pick these up and for a small price that adventurer will join you on the next quest controlled by decent enough CPU with some piss-poor pathmaking skills. It’s good enough if you want to see a sample of other Adventurers in action and need a meatbag to distract enemies.

dragon's crown pro gameplay in lost woods

However the true Dragon’s Crown experience is with other players, while I wasn’t able to find too many players during the review, I could tell that true Dragon’s Crown experience is on higher difficulties with 3 friends, and can only imagine how intense and chaotic combat gets on the highest difficulty and max level. This is where character building becomes crucial unlike the games starting difficulty.

Boss battles and enemy variety is another strength of the game. Each boss has had some level of time and effort put into to try and make each something unique and memorable. On the initial difficulty however players can kind of button mash there way through even some of my favorite bosses but my time spent on higher difficulties throws that away. There is some truly excellent boss design at work here that can unfortunately only be truly appreciated on higher difficulties after beating the 15-25 hour game depending on how much of the optional sidequests you peruse which are usually just run of the mill collectibles and challenges.

Sounds

Just when I thought Nier: Automata was going to quietly run away with the greatest soundtrack in gaming this past decade, Dragon’s Crown swoops in from the heavens and dares to challenge it. I’m honestly completely blown away by the quality and variety of the soundtrack within the game and it’s easily in my top 10 favorite gaming soundtracks of all time, a list I am very meticulous about personally.

Haunting choirs, epic orchestras, war drums and electronic beats combined with soaring melodies further add to what makes Dragon’s Crown a unique experience – it’s gameplay and replayability. The quality of the game’s soundtrack truly reflects the quality of the gameplay and visuals itself, both of which are works of passion, do yourself a favor sit down with the game’s soundtrack even if your not interested in Dragon’s Crown, if I could I’d give the soundtrack a separate 10/10 score.

dragons crown gazer boss battle

Verdict

Dragon’s Crown does all it can to be innovative in both it’s basic and advanced gameplay by seamlessly marrying RPG elements, tons of speed and mobility options and some light combo mechanics into the fading Beat Em’ Up genre, which leads to an experience that is surprisingly deep, complex, rewarding and relevant especially on higher difficulties. A true experience will require some friends who can sit down enjoy the charms of simpler games based on simpler design philosophies and appreciate the fantastic visuals and art style. If there was a Guilty Gear in terms of visuals for side-scrollers this is it.

The game’s soundtrack is of greatest I’ve heard in years behind Nier: Automata, it is tragic how o one is talking about passion that went into and is matched by the visuals of the game, it will add a sense of meaning and depth to the already mind-blowing artistic style that truly is the closest we may ever get to masterclass painting coming to life

For all of Dragon’s Crown innovations and creativity in gameplay, it follows a predictable and stale formula when it comes to its story and narrative elements, thus affecting its overall world. The narrator is as one-tone as they come and his well-spoken charm will fade off quickly along with any characters dialogue.

I know this is partially a love letter to days long gone, but you can’t half-ass innovation and I don’t think Dragon’s Crown will be able to start a side-scrolling/Beat Em’ Up resurgence until it can do a bit more with its lore and world. I will, however, be grabbing my friends to come and enjoy an experience I’m glad I went through.

8

Overall

8.0 /10

Pros

  • Seamless blend of looting and RPG elements into classic Beat Em' Up gameplay
  • Outstanding visuals turn the game into a living work of art
  • All 6 characters and their skill trees are diverse and enjoyable
  • Unique and memorable boss designs and concepts
  • One of the best soundtracks this decade

Cons

  • Stale, dated and detrimental storytelling and plot
  • One-Tone narrator becomes a pest quickly
  • Gameplay loop can become very repetitive and boring
  • Rune puzzles feel tacked on and pointless half of the time