I used to love playing Golden Axe in the arcade, and one of my favorite games for my old Sega Genesis was Altered Beast. Needless to say, fantasy beat-em-ups were a big part of my childhood, and that’s one of those genres that I have been wishing would make a comeback.
Luckily, this seventh generation of video game consoles just so happens to be “The Nostalgia Generation,” as we’ve seen more old IP revivals and HD remakes than I can count. In addition, we’ve also seen a number of new IPs, particularly from indie developers, that have been producing games of an “old school” variety.
Atlus Games’ newest entry, Dragon’s Crown, bears more than a striking resemblance to those fantasy beat-em-ups that I loved so much growing up. Of course, those games were great for 10 minutes at the arcade, so what do you do to give players a nice, meaty adventure for a console? Why, toss in a story and RPG elements, of course.
This review is for both the PS3 and Vita versions of Dragon’s Crown, though I should point out, the game is NOT Cross Buy. Cross Save is enabled, but if you want both versions, you’re going to have to shell out money twice for it. I’m not really sure why that’s the case, but I suppose not all Cross Save compatible games can be Cross Buy (though that would be nice, wouldn’t it?)
Dragon’s Crown has a nice mix of RPG elements and beat-em-up gameplay. All the setup portions to the actual dungeon crawling are carried out like any other RPG. You have towns that you can explore, where you can interact with NPCs, buy/sell equipment, pick up quests, resurrect dead characters to add to your party (if you’re playing single player), etc. It’s basically a central hub to take care of all business before heading out to do battle.
The actual fighting portion of the game consists of levels broken up into a series of interconnected “rooms” ending in a boss battle. The game plays out very smoothly with lightning fast animations that rarely, if ever, lagged on both the Vita and PS3 versions. The only complaint I had regarding the Vita version is the fact that having a 5 inch screen packed with characters all attacking at once made for a somewhat confusing situation. It was hard to tell who’s who, and in those situations I usually just button mashed, hoping to kill whatever was around me so I could see again.
Graphically, the game is gorgeous, especially on the Vita’s OLED screen. You would think that having the game stretched out on a large HDTV with the PS3 version would be the way to go, but overall, my preference was the Vita. There’s something about that screen that makes the imagery seem more…”clear.” Regardless, either version looks fantastic, and if you take a look at the screenshots posted in this review, there’s pretty much no noticeable difference. It doesn’t matter which version you get, it’s a gorgeous game with rich colors, beautifully animated characters, and some of the most ridiculously gratuitously endowed characters I have seen in quite some time. Seriously, the “physics” were very distracting.
Combat is where the game really shines. Props to Vanillaware for giving us a side scrolling beat-em-up that’s actually pretty difficult. In Dragon’s Crown, the enemies will level up in difficulty as you level up, never giving you an opportunity to become so overpowered that you just breeze through the game. The combat in DC is pretty straightforward on a basic level. You have your melee attack, a “special” attack (which differs between the different classes), and a variety of attacks based off directional button inputs (like Down + Square, Up + Square, etc). The directional pad scrolls between different items you can use, and the right analog stick manipulates an on-screen cursor, which acts to give commands to the rogue/thief member of your party. You can use him to open chests, unlock doors, etc. Between the different classes you have a nice mix of melee specialists, ranged, spellcasters, and those that are a combination of all of the above. Whichever one you choose will be up to your own preference; though keep in mind that the game does tell you which character classes it feels is for beginners, and which ones are for more experienced players.
It really depends on how you play the game. If you’re the type to charge into a battle face first and swing your sword around like crazy, then you might not want to play as the Sorceress, who has mostly spells, low HP, and the ability to recharge her own MP. Maybe stick with the Fighter, who is built like a tank and can withstand a lot of punishment. I found that lining your character up correctly with the enemy can be somewhat challenging at first, so ranged/spell characters may struggle a bit in the hands on a novice. I suspect this is where the game’s difficulty suggestions come into play.
While you can go into any level and just mash the attack button until everything on-screen is dead, the real fun in Dragon’s Crown lies in working with your other team members (whether it’s AI or co-op) and using different attacks and combos. It’s one thing to slash and hack a zombie until it dies; it’s another to launch it into the air, juggle it a few times with your sword, then finish it off with a well placed arrow. As far as creating a team goes, I liked to use a Fighter while filling the other three spots with Elves and a Sorceress. That way if I ever needed to fall back to use a health potion or something, I still had other team members who could occupy the enemy from afar while I beat a hasty retreat. Again, it all comes down to your individual play style.
The other aspect of Dragon’s Crown’s gameplay that I loved was the loot aspect. I’m a sucker for games like Diablo and The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. I like collecting loot, and I like constantly swapping out my equipment for bigger and better components. As it stands, DC’s loot system isn’t nearly as deep at something like Diablo, but it still tickled my loot cravings. For starters, you can’t really change your appearance. Sure you can choose from a few preset colors, but other than your weapons, there’s not going to be much of a difference in the way your character looks. The loot drops are also not tied to slain enemies; rather, you will find points of interest scattered throughout the level represented by a flashing light (your fairy can also point these out to you), and piles of bones scattered about. Send your rogue to “unlock” the loot, collect whatever you can find throughout each level, and at the end of each stage, you can spend gold to appraise each loot item (which basically tells you what each item is). Keep what you want, sell what you don’t want, rinse and repeat. It’s a simple system, yet addictive as hell.
On the surface, Dragon’s Crown actually looks like a fairly short game, but take into account the fact that each character plays dramatically different from each other, the fact that most dungeons encourage exploration for hidden rooms, and the fact that there is a New Game + “Hard Mode” where you can level to 99, and you have a game that will take you approximately 20 hours to complete with each character. By completing the game, you will also unlock additional multiplayer features, such as a PvP Arena. And of course, being a game with four player co-op, playing with live humans as your party member makes a huge difference compared to playing with AI partners. It may be a full priced game, but don’t let what DC appears to be on the surface throw you off. There’s quite a bit of depth and re-playability here.
Dragon’s Crown is gorgeous, brutal, addictive, and judging by the character designs, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Other than not having Cross Buy, I don’t see too many issues with this game. Honestly though, the Cross Buy thing is really confusing to me. Why have a game with Cross Save functionality, but ask people to pay $49.99 for the PS3 version, and $39.99 for the Vita version? Who in their right minds would purchase a game twice just to move a save file back and forth? I guess that’s not really my concern; what people do with their own hard earned cash is not my call.
It is one of the best games on the Vita, and one of the best beat-em-ups I have played in years on any console. The fact that it adds in so many different RPG elements only makes the whole experience that much better. Dragon’s Crown definitely sets the bar pretty high for any other beat-em-up in the near future, especially fantasy themed ones; because simply tossing in a few levels is now no longer enough.