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Dragon's Crown Review: Stunningly beautiful beat-'em-up turned RPG

on 31 July 2013

What does a 15-year wait give you? A blast from the '90s past as Atlus and Vanillaware bring you the beat-'em-up that tries to end all beat-'em-ups. Get ready to delve into a controversially artistic world that mixes Dungeons & Dragons with Final Fight, from the creators of GrimGrimoire and Odin Sphere.

Welcome to the world of Dragon’s Crown, adventurer. Pull up a seat and listen to a tale of grand adventure as you try to rescue the kingdom, and the world, from an ancient, all-consuming dragon. Play as one of six characters: Fighter, Dwarf, Amazon, Elf, Wizard, or Sorceress, and team up with others from around the world to fulfill this destiny. Okay, so maybe the narrative of the game is nothing original, but it doesn't claim to be. Sacrificing narrative for fun is what a beat-'em-up is about and Dragon’s Crown is no different. It gives the player just enough to keep them going, and just enough to not let the remarkable artwork go to waste.

What defines and differentiates this game from others on the market is the artwork, which combines the best of both worlds. In combat, all the characters have a distinct, anime feel to them and their movements, but outside of combat the artwork shifts to a more realistic style, as if Da Vinci had a part in its direction. That realistic style is also exaggerated in typical video game fashion by the cast of characters being turned into caricatures of their namesakes from past titles. Lots of people know about the Sorceress controversy, but everyone is given equal treatment. The Fighter makes Schwarzenegger look like a creampuff and the Amazon is sporting a six-pack that would make Jay Cutler feel like he needs another year in the gym.

Dragon’s Crown stays true to the traditional SNES/Genesis-era beat-'em-up formula. Scroll right, beat up enemies, wait for the go sign to flash, pick up some weapons, lather, rinse, repeat. It even has a score gauge and lives. Further expansion to the formula can be seen outside of combat, namely with the introduction of RPG mechanics. Chests give you equipment to power-up your characters, your score is turned into experience points for leveling, and there is even a gauntlet-style mode that allows you to keep grinding through more stages to boost your rewards. If you choose not to, or cannot, play online then you can select three NPCs to bring along in your party, which you recruit by bringing their bones back to town for resurrection.

In the beginning, this will be a slow game because you have to keep progressing through the story to unlock vital abilities. In fact, you’ll be over halfway done with the story before being able to cook food at a camp for in-stage bonuses and before what I've termed 'gauntlet mode' is unlocked and usable. Even online is not unlocked right away, which made me forget it even existed until it automatically switched on and sent me into another player’s party.

Online multiplayer is where a lot of the fun is to be had in Dragon's Crown, because of how random it can be. As long as you do not turn off online or make character slots private then anyone can join you at any time. In the middle of battle, one of the NPCs or empty slots can suddenly be a real person. However, what's really innovative and impressive is if a real person suddenly leaves the party for any reason their character remains as an NPC, allowing players not to suddenly die at a boss because his party suddenly vanished.

If there is one failing in the game, it is the lack of an epic musical score. Obviously, Yuzo Koshiro doing the soundtrack would not fit the game's thematics, as much as a Streets of Rage dubmix would be great to smash heads with. However, with the popularity of medieval combat music being a dime a dozen on YouTube, it's something of a let down when you find yourself turning the volume down on the game, and up on the computer. Needless to say, it was actually quite surprising to find I was more interested in having a movie on in the background than listening to the in-game soundtrack.

Dragon's Crown is available for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita but I found myself playing it almost exclusively on PS Vita because of one particular element. In the background there will be chests, hidden loot, runes and other stuff that needs to be clicked on by scrolling over it with the DualShock 3's right stick and pressing a button. On PS Vita, however, the touchscreen can be used instead. The precision and quickness of just touching the screen for your rogue ally to open a chest or door is infinitely less frustrating in combat. With up to a dozen enemies on the screen at any given time, not including your own party, it can get extremely irritating trying to maneuver AND use the right stick. While the Vita is better for that piece of innovation, it does make things cluttered with so many characters on the screen. Choose the PS3 version if you want an easier time knowing what is happening on the screen, but conversely choose PS Vita if you want to maximize the ease of clicking everything in the background.

The last trinket of awesomeness that Atlus and Vanillaware offer gamers with in Dragon’s Crown is the ability to play your game with ease on both systems. It has a built-in cloud service designed for easy switching between devices. All the player has to do is upload their data to the server, download it on the other device and keep playing--it's simple and quick. The only limitation is having to use the same PlayStation Network account, so make sure to buy both versions on the same account for those of you with multiple ones.

Both Atlus and Vanillaware are known for making great, exciting, original games. Dragon's Crown is no different. If you are the type of gamer who is going to get offended by caricatures and outlandish art direction then you will have nothing but total, absolute disdain for this game. However, if you enjoy the concept of fantasy to its absolute fullest, where the world and characters are taken at face value without being needlessly scrutinized, then this game will make you petition for Haggar to get a cameo in a sequel.

Dragon's Crown Review by Dane Smith

-The Final Word-

Atlus and Vanillaware make a strong case for the greatest tag team in modern gaming. Dragon's Crown is a brilliant reimagining of a classic genre that wields the depth of an RPG while keeping core elements intact.
  • Stunningly beautiful artwork
  • An original take on the classic 'score' system
  • Depth not seen in a beat-'em-up ever before
  • A soundtrack lacking in appropriate epicness
  • The slow build-up for all game elements to unlock
See PSU's reviews scores on Metacritic, Gamerankings and Opencritic