The long road to Dragon Crown‘s release was fraught with drama. The game was handed off to a different publisher (Atlus), delayed (about a year), and early in-game images generated a lot of discussion about the depiction of women in games. Thankfully, all that is (more or less) behind us, because the game comes out today. Was it worth the
wait drama? I’m excited to be able to say: hell yes, it really was.
Dragon’s Crown begins as all good adventures tend to: in a tavern with a bunch of explorers drinking ale and shooting the proverbial shit. As the player, you get to pick which adventurer to play as: the sultry sorceress, the buff and hairy dwarf, the chiseled amazon, the stalwart fighter, the dark and brooding wizard, or the nimble elf. Each fights differently, and the important distinctions are explained before you make your selection. In addition to your character class, you may also select your character’s color palette, name, and audio language (English or Japanese — the game’s narration is in English only, however). Any game that begins with a bit of character customization is already winning me over.
Back to the story. A thief by the name of Rannie has an attractive offer for you: together you’ll explore dungeons — he’ll unlock treasure chests and doors blocking your path; you take care of the baddies. It’s a decent arrangement, and soon your skill at infiltrating dungeons is recognized by the country’s royalty. From there things get… well, uninteresting. There’s a touch of political intrigue — kings and princesses, double-crossing, and lots and lots of fairies and magic. Almost nothing new is brought to the table when it comes to these themes, but the game doesn’t get in its own way and keeps story elements brief. If nothing else, these moments help give the player an understanding of where to go in town for managing equipment and items, which is a huge part of gameplay — more on this later.
Keeping dialog brief allows for more time spent adventuring, and this is where the game really shines. Dungeons scattered around the kingdom can be explored by leaving town through a magical gate. What, your town doesn’t have a magical gate?
Each dungeon consists of several rooms where enemies will spawn and need to be beaten down. Some fly, some grab you, some teleport. Each creature will require the player to approach them differently. One enemy I always stay on my toes around spawns in the catacombs. He’s a big bloated zombie filled with green poisonous goo. Once you’ve dealt enough damage to kill this undead monstrosity, he’ll spew his gooey insides (plus bonus writhing maggots!!!) all over any unfortunate unit in range. Naturally I keep a healthy distance from this guy when I see him. There are a number of similar enemies that will quickly condition the player to change their tactics on the fly. This variety in enemy type keeps a somewhat repetitive formula from getting stale.
After making your way through a dungeon, you’ll eventually arrive at a boss battle. You know the drill: big ol’ HP bar at the bottom of your screen, chip away until it’s empty. Again, a bit of variety in how these enemies behave goes a long way. A number of bosses can be beaten in different, more effective ways than swinging your weapon wildly. For instance, one of the early boss battles pits the players against a huge mob of scimitar-wielding pirates. Now, you can either mow them down conventionally, or wrestle a magical lamp from one and summon a massive genie to lay the smackdown on them with powerful AOE magic. Adding a bit of dimension to how the player can approach boss battles means more strategy and less hack-and-slash fatigue.
Mounts are another element of dungeons that keep things interesting
Dungeons themselves are more than just a straight hallway. There are crates filled with food which bolster your max HP, temporary weapons which help conserve MP or arrows, and tons of treasure along the way. Treasure adds to your overall score and can be found in chests or by searching every nook of a certain room. You can explore in this way by using the left analog stick on the Dualshock 3 or the Vita’s touchscreen. There are also hidden doors which can only be found by destroying terrain or making use of the game’s glyph system. One secret door I recently discovered only unlocked for me after equipping a massive shield (temporary weapon) and using it to deflect the magic of a certain enemy back at them. Not only do these interactions make dungeons feel real, but you’ll often discover something new you may have walked by several times before.
When it comes to how your character fights enemies, there’s a ton of customization available. Each successful quest rewards the player with EXP. When your character levels up, their stats will increase and they’ll earn skill points. Clearing quests (which require revisiting a past dungeon) also rewards the player with skill points. Normally I hate to backtrack, but in Dragon’s Crown’s case, the reward makes it more than worth it.
There are two distinct skill trees: one that all 6 character classes share, and one specific to their profession. Unlocking or boosting skills can noticeably accent certain play styles. I play as the elf and she has a skill that lets her whip out a dagger (temporary weapon) at any point in a dungeon. Another skill causes her to do way more damage when dagger-ing up an enemy’s backside — never a good place to get a dagger-ing. Combining these two skills with a generic skill that increases the durability for temporary weapons results in a super efficient way to conserve arrows and hack away at boss HP from a safe location. Each character has skills that build upon one another in this way, dramatically changing combat at higher levels which keeps the action fresh, fast, and fun.
Weapons and skills are level dependent, meaning you can’t use them if you aren’t the at the required level. Because of level requirements, a lot of item and skill management goes down after leveling up since a bunch of new stuff is unlocked. I enjoy taking a break from the action once in a while to make sure I’m equipped to a T, but sometimes it’s just too much. Sometimes I don’t want to make any important (read: permanent) decisions with my valuable skill points or money (which is nearly always in short supply — more on this later). The game doesn’t help make this feel less daunting since all equipment you find in chests needs to be appraised when you come back to town before it can be worn. Appraising costs money, and you’ll occasionally appraise something you’ll wish you’d just sold because it doesn’t have any skills that help your character. If you’re not the type who has the patience for such micromanagement, this can be a real turnoff.
In Dragon’s Crown, multiplayer is where it’s at
You can play Dragon’s Crown solo or with friends. Playing solo is a real drag, as the game will try to help you along the way with some AI companions. I hate AI companions in Dragon’s Crown. They steal my kills and eat my precious food. I will say the game’s AI isn’t bad, so if you must solo up until you unlock online multiplayer it can definitely be done. In dungeons you will find the bones of fallen adventurers who can be revived back in town to accompany you on future quests. You can turn this option off if you’re a crotchety old man like myself. If you have a friend who lives near you, playing together locally is an option available right away and makes the game way more engaging. I started my journey by playing with Sarah (a known Vanillaware veteran) and she set her sorceress up so that she could summon delicious foodstuffs in the middle of a dungeon. It feels good to help friends and combine tactics.
Important note: when progressing in the story with a character, only Player One’s character actually advances. I found this out the hard way, when my character had to repeat everything I’d already cleared in order to catch up with Sarah’s character.
At a certain point in the story (about 5-10 hours or so) online multiplayer becomes available. You can either barge in on someone’s adventure in progress, or go at your own pace and folks will join you. There is also an option to join the room of a PSN friend. A full group of four real people can really go the distance. A helpful bag system allows the player to assign multiple loadouts which can be changed before delving into a dungeon. This allows you to customize your gear based on the situation. For instance, I have a bag with a talisman that protects against burning. I always bring this bag when fighting dragons! Since your weapons need to be repaired (something impossible in a dungeon) and certain exhaustible skills are equipped just like items, having multiple loadouts is integral to extending your journey as long as possible — something the game rewards you for handsomely.
A cooking mini-game players can enjoy between dungeons
Dragon’s Crown is never unfairly difficult, and the player and their character are constantly evolving. The hardest part of the game, believe it or not, is balancing your adventurer’s checkbook. Repairing and appraising gear, praying before the goddess at the church… it all costs money. Adventuring is an expensive business! What’s more, if you should fall in combat more times than you have lives, you’ll be able to pay in gold to be revived. The cost to be revived fluctuates based on the dungeon and how far along you are in your adventure. More than once I completely exhausted my wallet by failing to notice just how much I was paying to be revived. Once you’re broke, it can be irritating to take the time to build a decent bankroll back up.
A note regarding PS3 & Vita versions: You can transfer save data between your PS3 and Vita by uploading/downloading it to and from the Playstation Network. This is quick and easy. There is, however, no cross-buy option with this game, meaning you’d need to purchase both versions.
Now that I’ve finally played Dragon’s Crown, it’s clear that any hiccups the game encountered along the way haven’t compromised a thing. Granted, the story is a snooze-fest, repeating the same circuit of dungeons gets repetitive, and character management will surely turn away impatient gamers. But Dragon’s Crown is all about the gameplay, and in that area the game is as strong and firm as a Dwarf’s bicep. I actually lost sleep over thinking of the best ways to customize my character. Combining tactics with friends on the couch or playing online with complete strangers — either way Dragon’s Crown provides a beautiful take on the classic brawler with some welcomed modernizations.