Gaming for Grown Ups
31st October 2013 09:00:00
Posted by Lewis Brown

Dragon's Crown

Sony PS Vita Review (also on Sony PlayStation 3)

A new fangled brawler? From Vanillaware? Yes please!
Boobs. Boobs boobs boobs boobs boobs. Boobs. If you’ve heard or read anything about Dragon’s Crown it almost certainly revolved around boobs. Instead of luring you in over the course of our review and then hitting you with the boob paragraph when you least expect it, we’ve decided to have the boob talk early, get it out of the way and then actually concentrate on the game rather than the divisive artistic style. They’re insidious things, boobs, so it’s best to get them out in the open. Arf. And with that, dear readers, our immaturity quota is full and we are able to discuss sexualised depictions with the grandeur you should expect from us.

So then, boobs. More specifically, the Sorceress’ boobs. They’re ridiculous. Ridonkulous in fact. They are, without a doubt, the most unrealistic boobs you will see in a mainstream game this decade. Whenever the Sorceress moves, or casts a spell, or does anything, these things fly around with a mind of their own with no consideration given to the effect of gravity. They can even move in opposite directions, and I can’t even begin to imagine the long-term implications for back pain from that. Just when you think you’ve become immune to them you’ll do something like spam off a series of simple spells and there they are again, shaking unnecessarily furiously as she rains destruction.
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Subtle

It’s not just the Sorceress however, and to assess her and the rest of the art properly you need to take a step back. Dragon’s Crown is full of stylised art, although instead of being explicitly sexualised in a modern way it feels as if the game’s art director, George Kamitani, has looked to past master Frank Frazetta, fused the style with some trashier early pulp covers and then thrown in a little bit of modern day anime convention. Male characters are Real Men™, muscle piled upon endless muscle and then matched with jaws sculpted from granite. Lats and traps pop from bodies, putting even the most comically pumped WWE Superstar to shame – I’m actually sure I remember the barbarian Roland winning a title in the late Eighties. It’s nice to see the use of this style is consistent in theory across the sexes, although it's clearly far easier to deploy to a male physique without causing consternation.

Onto the Amazon then. A cracking female melee character armoured in stereotypical lady-armour (read: bikini and up-the-bum-g-string). The characterisation of the Amazon is as ridiculous as the Sorceress, or indeed the male Fighter or Dwarf, but it’s easier to accept perhaps as she is as muscle-bound as the male melee characters. With thighs that could destroy even Daniel Craig’s Bond she struts her stuff looking all the world a warrior – apart from the lack of any protective gear of course. But then, the facade is destroyed – run with the Amazon and she hunches over forwards, her boobs jiggling back and forth as she jogs. Jump up in the air and her bum is transformed from muscle-bound to glamour model, and notably you can ‘bum attack’ an enemy by performing a down-attack while disarmed. These are the touches that make you question the depiction of women in this game, the added ‘fan service’ on top of the chosen style. Other works of cynicism appear in fits – the female monk with her legs wide open, chastity belt in full view, a bound spirit sensuously depicted instead of being quite irate at being kidnapped by evil magicians. The intention, be it homage or parody, is simply not matched in the character delivery.
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Check out those bombs

Perhaps the last clue to the direction behind the female depiction here can be seen on the Sorceress’ skill card (which appears when levelling up her class specific skills) – in the style of a playing card, on one end we see the Sorceress as she is now, this stylised image of womanhood, a Nuts reader’s idea of perfection. On the other end however is a crone, the typical Disney witch from Snow White, apple and all. Compare this to the Fighter’s skill card – a muscle bound, bare-chested warrior on one end, in full armour on the other. A subtle hint perhaps that the Sorceress’ appearance is just her ‘armour’, her way of appearing to the world to disguise her true self. Regardless, the level of caricature reached with this one character simply ensures that it misses any point it was trying to make, and the depiction of women within the world of Dragon’s Crown is far from ideal, an unhappy marriage of the idealisation of past Americana and modern Japanese gaming culture.

Feels good to get that out of the way doesn’t it? Like old friends meeting decades later with shiny dome heads instead of embarrassing haircuts, let’s start again. Dragon’s Crown is a modern update of the classic brawler/beat ‘em up genre, taking almost every element of those classics you remember and making them relevant for current gamers. Presenting six distinctive classes over nine story levels, as well as ad hoc and online co-op, Dragon’s Crown ticks nearly every box you could want on paper. Unlike earlier entries (classic or otherwise) in the big box of brawlers, Dragon’s Crown manages to present a fairly coherent tale. Voiced throughout by an inoffensive narrator the story drives you through all of the nine levels and once you hit the halfway mark you’ll unlock both co-op and an alternative B route for each level, usually presenting a shorter trip but a more difficult boss. Defeat all of those B route bosses and you’ll be able to finally face the true boss of the game – and then, after that, you can do it all again on a harder difficulty, as well as unlock a PvP Coliseum and the randomly generated challenge of the Labyrinth of Chaos.
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Fear...of...the...dark!

Up to four characters can tackle each stage, although before you unlock co-op you’ll be restricted to using AI companions (the PS3 version allows you to play local co-op from the very beginning). You’ll gain these by picking up bones found within the stages and then having them resurrected in town, giving you a nearly endless stream of randomly generated helpers. These guys really only exist to help bulk out your party and deflect some of the attention from large mobs, and their woeful AI is shown in any fight that requires them to do anything more impressive than stand and spam their main damage ability. The drop-in co-op option is very welcome, and the game comes alive when played with other real people – the lack of any kind of a decent lobby however makes it very difficult to ensure that you’ll be joining a balanced group, or even one with players around your own level, while players joining and then dropping out instead of staying for a full chain run can cause real issues with the group set up. In fact, for functionality that really should have been considered necessary for Dragon’s Crown to shine in a modern sense it’s difficult to dissuade yourself of the feeling that the online portion feels fairly bolted on.

As you can imagine, you’ll be visiting the nine story levels quite a few times over the course of your Dragon’s Crown career then. While the A and B routes provide the largest source of difference (and more on the various bosses later) the more observant of you will notice that the enemies you encounter within the levels will change over time too. There are a few seemingly randomly generated groups, but on the whole differences are subtle yet welcome – a new monster variant with new skills turning up perhaps, or a bigger reskinned version that hits harder or requires new tactics (crazy red pirate that destroyed my AI party on my first Hard run in Ghost Ship Cove, I’m looking at you!). The feature that will keep you coming back over and over again is chaining. This is where after you finish a stage instead of heading back to town to repair and assess your loot you continue on to another stage, receiving various bonuses for your prowess. These bonuses can stack massive score (which directly feeds into experience), gold and treasure increases on top of one another, giving the whole shebang a ‘just one more turn’ feel that can quickly see you tied to the run for far longer than you initially expected.
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Hand-drawn art fills the game

Chaining is all the more fun in co-op with human players who actually know how to use their characters. A good set of individuals with sufficient gear can make short work of nearly any normal encounter the game can provide, and helpfully any skeletons you pick up while in co-op will give you an AI companion based on the gear that player was using at the time. While the AI of these companions has them firmly in the ‘stands in fire’ group they should (you would hope!) at least be well geared and adequately specced, especially when compared to some of the comic random builds the game throws you with the standard AI companions. Once you’ve reached this stage, completion of any of the Ghost Ship Cove, Old Capital, or Temple Ruins levels will throw you into a cooking minigame, with health, attack, score and defence buffs added to your character (depending on what they eat, of course) for the next three levels. It’s a brilliant little touch, there’s something quite magical about some rare meat appearing and allowing your character to cook and eat part of the boss they have just beaten, and the minigame turns into a little score attack of its own as you look to maximise benefit and score from your cooking endeavours.

Character wise each class will present you with different challenges, each bringing various unique abilities to the battle. The Wizard, for example, suits more offensively-minded players, and can turn wooden crates into a treant minion to help guard him while you spam his magic off. The Sorceress, on the other hand, favours a slightly slower playstyle and has several crowd control options that can easily make the difference with large mobs of enemies or boss adds. Of all the six classes probably the only one that doesn’t feel as interesting as it could be is the Fighter; skills exist that help him act as a semi-tank, and with the right skill options you can keep him juggling enemies in the air for an almost indefinite amount of time. He suffers because almost his entire moveset is linked to spamming the square button, and his team buff ‘Cover Allies’ move requires you to stand still and block to create an aura. Dragon’s Crown really isn’t the kind of game to stand still in, with action taking place over the entire screen you’d easily be forgiven for learning the ropes with the Fighter and then moving onto a character who offers you more interesting tactical choices. Fair warning too – there are some frame rate drops when the action gets crazy, but these seem linked to particular enemy moves at busy times rather than simply linked to a busy screen, and while unfortunate they don’t impact the gameplay enough to be too concerned by.
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Who doesn't like a cooking mini-game?

Which is lucky really as some of the boss fights can get amazingly full of shiny effects, adds and screen-exploding action. Ignoring content away from the storyline, you’ll face nineteen bosses over the course of the game, each of which manages to be memorable with a unique skillset. No simple reskinning here then! While, on normal at least, you’ll be able to brute force your way through the encounters with sufficient gear and levels, later difficulties are more challenging and demand that you recognise the tactics for each fight and are able to read the bosses’ tells and react in an appropriate way for your class. B route bosses also come with the added complication of a built in timeout – take too long to finish the fight and it will be finished for you, allowing your party to live to fight again but without the greater reward that would have come with a complete victory.

It’s a nice touch then that each character has access to moves or abilities that can render them invincible for a small number of frames. While some of these may be fairly pointless on their own for their strategic or damage causing value, used in the right place they can easily swing a fight, allowing your character to be untouched by attacks that could otherwise have killed them. There really isn’t anything more fun in Dragon’s Crown than being skilled enough with your character to evade and invincibility-frame your way through a particularly difficult boss section, while still managing to ping away the odd attack too.
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Winning!

Also worth pointing out are the touchscreen controls available on the Vita. The right analogue stick can control a small ‘clicker’ hand, which you can use to direct a rogue companion to unlock doors, chests, and so forth, as well as use environmental rune magic and locate hidden treasure. Far easier though for you to tap away at the touchscreen, calling forth your unlocks much faster than the move and click option. It’s still a little easier to sweep the screen for hidden treasures in an absent minded fashion with the right stick, but this ability to fuse the control inputs means that the interaction with these mechanics never feels as clunky as it does in the PS3 version.

We’ve already given you War and Peace on the character depictions back at the beginning of this piece, but we said nothing on the general artistic style. For shame - because it’s a doozy. Wonderful hand-drawn backgrounds fill each level, a beautiful use of colour in both the fore and background drawing you ever deeper into the world while you explore. Darker sections of the levels demonstrate rosy glows from torches or other firelight, water surfaces reflect perfectly the action taking place above them and each one of the nine levels on offer is sufficiently distinct to be readily identifiable. Unlockable art is gifted for completion of side missions, and while some of these again haul out the old fan service conventions they help to further flesh out an already breathing world.
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Some of the graphics look utterly fantastic on the Vita

Yet it’s not all rosy. You are free at any time to change characters, but when you do create a new one you start again at the very beginning of the game. This is especially galling if you’ve unlocked co-op, cooking and chaining as the removal of these features leaves you feeling as if you are missing out on some of the best features of the game. Luckily you can use the same pool of items, money and AI companions you may have unlocked on your main, and the use of high level companions certainly speeds you through the early levels, but it all just feels like an inelegant forced grind. You’ll also encounter issues if you ever want to respec any of your character’s skills – to do so requires a rare potion, and while this can be farmed somewhat later on in the game it all seems a little bit inaccessible. While we can appreciate the hardcore focus of Dragon’s Crown it seems to have ignored many of the lessons learnt (especially in the MMORPG sphere) over the last ten years around character respecs and fresh starts. Each one of the six characters will offer you a unique play experience, but you may just not be bothered enough to sink another six to eight hours of grinding gameplay in just to level them up to where they get fun.

Dragon’s Crown is, without a doubt, the most ambitious, most accomplished brawler of this generation. Fans of the genre have something here that will keep them busy far into the next generation, with the game providing hundreds of hours of content for those willing to put the time in. This makes its faults that much more painful to consider – the diverse character depictions, the grind-barriers that may prevent you from swapping characters, the basic online offerings. The RPG elements, the story elements, the huge array of characters you are gifted to play with – these should have all old-school brawler fans swooning. There’s certainly a game here for them, and with a little bit more accessibility it could have been for everyone else too.
Details and Specifications
Review Platform: Sony PS Vita

Publisher: Atlus

Developer: Vanillaware

UK Release Date: 2013-10-11
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