Dragon’s Crown is what some might call a lover letter: a throwback to retro, side-scrolling brawlers in the same vein as Streets of Rage and Golden Axe. With its rich art style and multitude of playable classes, it seemed like a perfect modernisation of the aged genre, sculpted specifically for PlayStation 3 and Vita.
Sadly, that isn’t the case however. Though it may succeed in satiating your nostalgic needs, Dragon’s Crown soon loses its initial appeal, mainly due to basic gameplay and a sluggish pace, neither of which complement the depth of content on offer.
As one of six robust (and often ill-proportioned) characters, you take up arms and scour the realm of Hydeland for riches and glory. Each of the six classes are fundamentally different and determine which abilities, equipment, and powers you’ll have on-hand. The Dwarf, for example, excels in close combat and swallowing a lot of damage where the Sorceress (no doubt a favourite for some) opts for elemental, long-ranged attacks.
No matter which character you play, the controls and mechanics are largely the same. Aside from unique attacks and powers, you’ll have to jump, dodge, and navigate your way through the many labyrinths in Dragon’s Crown. It’s simple, and for the first hour or so, rather enjoyable. Even those who missed out on Golden Axe can appreciate the fast-paced 2D combat, especially during boss battles.
The game’s main flaw, however, is that its combat and gameplay systems fail to develop over the course of your adventure. Straight off the bat you have access to the majority of a character’s attacks and combos with little room for experimentation after beating the first few dungeons.
Luckily there are a few nuances that keep the game fresh. Unlike Golden Axe, Dragon’s Crown has a number of RPG elements in tow such as experience points, dialogue options, and a particular focus on loot. The game also lets players move an on-screen cursor with the right stick, allowing them to highlight interactive objects and uncover hidden items.
It’s these items (usually coins and other treasures) that help to drive the game’s arcade appeal. The higher score you get, the more experience points you acquire, although loot is often more deserving of attention. Found in chests scattered through Hydeland’s dungeons, each bit of gear is graded and needs to be approved (at a cost) before you can make use of it. Though it’s pretty easy to tell if an item you have is junk, it adds another layer of intrigue and mystery, fuelling the game’s fantasy setting.
A number of other systems are also present, separating Dragon’s Crown from its predecessors. You’ll be able to take on side-quests, for instance, and can even resurrect the bones of fallen NPC heroes found while on your travels. It definitely adds substance, providing players with a hub which they can explore when out of battle.
There’s multiplayer too, though only through local play – until you beat the campaign, that is. It’s certainly more fun than milling around with NPCs though things can get chaotic. The 2D art allows players to eclipse each-other in the heat of battle, creating a continual problem, especially if you are all whaling on the same target.
Vanillaware has never been afraid to indulge its artistic side and it really shows in their latest game. All environments and character models are completely hand drawn and coloured. It’s great stuff and though there are odd moments of inconsistency, its charm is undeniable. Sure, some models are slightly over-sexualised and exaggerated but it doesn’t really detract from the overall experience.
Dragon’s Crown delivers in a number of areas, though not in the ones that matter most. Stunning visuals and nods to the roleplaying genre simply aren’t enough to outweigh the repetitive combat and a so-so narrative.