I was in love with Dragon’s Crown long before I could play it. Not only was it obviously inspired by one of the best beat ’em ups ever, King of Dragons, but it was also full of Vanillaware’s delicious artwork. Fresh off of playing Muramasa Rebirth and thinking back on games like Odin Sphere and GrimGrimoire, I was beyond excited just to look at it. Once I got it home, I was stoked to pick out my character and start slapping orcs around. I excitedly chose my character and color scheme, and within a few minutes I was already losing myself within the game…in that I could not find my character on screen almost any time I was in a fight. I’ll admit that Dragon’s Crown has some things going for it, but I am hardly a happy knight right now.
The game starts you off with a horrible travesty, one that will strike a chord in the heart of many a gamer: you have to beat nine dungeons before the game decides to unlock its multiplayer portion. I found it really, really odd that you had to earn the right to play the game in multiplayer for some reason. I’ll admit that I’m happy that there’s online multiplayer at all, but really, why is this kept from people who just started the game? I imagine someone at Vanillaware thought it would be nice for players to have to practice a bit before they hopped online with everyone else, but screw you. If I want to start playing online multiplayer right from the start, that’s my business. I tend to stick to single player modes for most of my games, but holding out on the multiplayer just seemed ridiculous.
It’s not like I’m not stuck dealing with other characters joining my game anyway. The game will flesh out your party with up to three AI partners so long as you’ve resurrected some allies. There are piles of bones in dungeons, and you can pay to revive them so they’ll permanently join you. You can go back to town and request that certain ones follow you into the dungeon; letting those lonely first time players have some AI help since they’re not allowed to have backup from actual people playing online. Even if you don’t pick out specific ones, the game will send random ones from your available pool of partners into the dungeon at odd points. The only way to keep the persistent buggers from following you is to go into the menu in town and shut off the ability for them to join.
While in town I decided to switch from my knight to someone else just for fun, mostly to see how silly it looked to watch the sorceress run. In doing so, I found out that the game has a lot of variety in how the characters fight; something that’s really great for a beat ’em up. Most games in the genre are content to just have different characters to play as without giving them any appreciable difference or even many differing moves for combat (Fist Puncher, take note). The sorceress played completely different from my knight, possessing ranged attacks that needed to be recharged at certain intervals in order to be used. It felt like I was playing a completely different game when I played as her, and it made a huge difference in how much I wanted to play the game again. Even picking the Amazon, another melee class, felt completely different from my Knight due to her unique offensive abilities and attack speed.
Switching didn’t have many downsides, I have to admit. I was a little leery of switching characters late in the game, but the game lets you share gold, items, and allies among all of your characters. It was pretty cool to be able to take a level 58 ally into a stage when my poor sorceress was level 2, and made a big difference in helping me play through levels quicker and reach the same level my knight was at. It’s slightly less nice to be able to share found items since all items have a mandatory level you have to be at before you can equip them, so you can’t overpower the game in that way. The extra gold from the other character was good, though, and let me buy pretty much anything I could want right from the start. I was impressed with how easy Vanillaware made it for me to try new characters, and I’m pretty thankful for it.
Like I said, the different characters all play uniquely. With the knight, all I had to do was mash the attack button and keep pushing forward, really. You can unlock more complex moves as you level up, but fundamentally your knight will be doing a lot of walking toward the enemies and hitting them. When I switched to a magic class, my whole plan was out the window. I had to hang back a bit, picking off enemies at certain ranges with magic attacks. I had to worry a whole lot more about taking any damage whatsoever, and also had to manage how much mana I had to cast my attack spells with. This is hardly news for anyone who’s played a magic class in any other video game, but having to do it in a beat ’em up was something else entirely — giving the game a whole new life whenever it might have gotten stale.
No matter what class you picked you’ll want to keep away from the enemies. On the most basic difficulty and playing as the knight (the toughest character), I could still get taken out in six or seven hits. Weaker classes could survive considerably less damage, and it added some nice challenge to the game, although most of the enemies on the basic difficulty are pretty passive in combat. If I was being dumb with the Amazon I’d often take a couple of hits, but with the Knight’s higher attack speed I was hitting the enemies so fast they never got to hit me back. It almost seemed like the game was going far too easy on me. I was playing on Normal, not Complete Wimp mode.
I was still taking hits, though, if only because the game gets hopelessly tangled whenever you get in a fight with more than one enemy. Enemies in this game tend to attack in groups of four or five, and when you add that on top of your character, the three AI characters on screen, your thief, your fairy, and magic effects, things start to get all jumbled together. There is a ring around your character to help you tell where you are within the various things that are going on, and your damage is color-coded to your ring so you know that you’re hitting something, but I still found it just about impossible to know where I was once there were a bunch of enemies and allies running around. It typically took me four or five seconds to locate where I’d ended up in any given fight once it really got going, and that’s only assuming I didn’t have any other copies of my character running around. A tip: never travel with multiple copies of your character unless you never want to know where you are.
With the semi-passive enemies that wasn’t so bad, but the bosses were another story. The game shines brightest against the bosses — all of which are huge creatures that attack aggressively and usually have some gimmick going on while you fight them. You might have to break cocoons to keep the boss from cloning itself, keep a magic lamp out of the hands of the enemy so they don’t summon a genie, or keep a golem protected from damage so it’ll fight the boss for you. It made the fights pretty neat, and it didn’t hurt that the bosses all had flashy attacks of their own. The problem there is that these flashy attacks and giant creatures obscure your character even more than typically happens in melee, so I lost myself even more frequently than I did in regular fights. With a few AI partners the bosses might be too preoccupied to be hitting you and you’ll count on that a lot, but eventually those big creatures will turn on you and you won’t even know you’re about to get hit.
You can try to protect yourself with some decent equipment, but the system’s a mess. There are chests in each stage, but instead of getting something specific you get a random item of around your level that you can get when you beat the level. Well, get may be a strong word since you have to have your items appraised at the end of the level to know what they are. You will know what kind of item it is, but as for damage, defense, or bonuses, you’ll be guessing. It costs money to go through the appraisal to find out if the item’s worthwhile, too, but you can always sell the unappraised item for a low amount of gold if you don’t feel like bothering. So, every item that you pick up is a bit of a gamble, and you really don’t know if anything’s worth spending money on until after you’ve already wasted the coin.
You’ve got better things to spend it on, too, as everything in this game costs money. Appraising costs money, getting your items repaired between levels costs money, raising dead allies costs money, and even traveling to the level you want to go to costs money. Yes, after letting you choose which level you want to go to for most of the first half, you then lose the ability to do so without paying a fee. You can always let the game randomly choose a level for you when you’re trying to complete a quest, hoping that the 1 in 9 chance you have of getting to where you want to go works out. Thanks for that, Vanillaware. Anyway, the costs are all negligible unless you actually appraise most things, so it’s manageable. I’m not exactly happy that I have to throw away potentially amazing items so I can afford to go to the level I want, though.
The characteristic Vanillaware artwork is there to make everything more appealing to play. I love seeing all of these fantasy monsters brought to life in their particular art style, and everything seems to move and breathe like a living oil painting. The bosses are still the best part, all looking very animated and detailed during combat. I’m in love with the Gazer, their take on the Beholder from Dungeons & Dragons lore – it just looks fantastic in action. Also, while part of the game’s problem is that the characters are so big that they get in the way of each other during combat, it means you get some nice, close-up looks of all the details on them. It’s a lousy trade when you want to actually play the game, but if you’re here for the art you’ll appreciate the close-ups. If you’re not admiring the creatures, though, you can always savor the background artwork and all of the various statues and decorations in the environment. At least that doesn’t get in the way.
I was almost prepared to dismiss the rampant T & A in the game. The whole thing seems inspired by the works of people like Frank Frazetta, what with all the waifish, half-naked women and powerful, half-naked dudes, but it starts skewing pretty hard into creepy territory. At first I was willing to give it a pass, feeling that the game’s theme was in pushing every single fantasy stereotype as far as it would go. The knight is a hulking pile of metal, the dwarf is a hulking pile of muscle and beard – that sort of thing. The men in the game were exaggerated, I’ll admit, but then they started to look a bit more normal (for fantasy stuff, that is). The women, on the other hand, were all posed as provocatively as possible every single time one showed up. Clothes apparently aren’t in fashion with the women of Hydeland, either, as few of them wore more than a few stitches of cloth.
I don’t have a particular problem with enjoying attractive women in a game, but this moved into this hyper-vulnerable, over-sexualized state that was jarring me out of the game and making me wonder why it was all being presented this way. Adding on the little finger you can move on-screen and click on everything just made me feel really dirty. There’s something about seeing a woman in these kinds of vulnerable positions, and then being given a way of interacting with them that feels a little bit like rapist behavior, doesn’t it? Do I really need to see an image of a wounded woman with her legs splayed open, watching her heaving in gasps of air, and then be given the option to start poking and prodding at her? I really didn’t go in expecting to be bothered by the game’s portrayal of women, but this really did make me uncomfortable.
I want to like this game. The neat combat abilities and concessions Vanillaware made to coax me into trying new characters make for a solid game. Locking out multiplayer until later in the game, the tangled nature of the fights, the silly appraisal system, and the uncomfortable depictions of women just made it impossible for me to enjoy it for any period of time. The game is bogged down by lots of small mistakes and problems, and they ultimately take what could have been a beautiful, interesting game and render it quite difficult to enjoy. I wanted this to be so much more, but it looks like I’ll be going right back to my copy of King of Dragons instead.