HIGH The Amazon's jumping animation.
LOW The incredibly finicky "shield" sidequest in the Wizard's Tower.
WTF None of the playable male characters show an inch of skin. (And the Dwarf's chest hidden underneath all that beard doesn't count!)
Vanillaware is a developer renowned for its outstanding visuals, but their gameplay has never equaled the lofty standard of the artwork. I've tried every title that's been released domestically, and this has been true with GrimGrimoire, Odin Sphere, and Muramasa. They all look fantastic, but I'd rather play anything else.
Although I was expecting Dragon's Crown to be another another undercooked title with a sparkling veneer, I couldn't have been more wrong. Vanillaware has finally put their house in order, and they've delivered not only one of the best beat'em-ups that's ever been, but also what's sure to be one of the top titles in 2013.
The core formula here will be familiar to anyone who's been playing games for any length of time—choose a character from one of several fantasy archetypes and then walk from left to right while pummeling the holy hell out of everything that appears.
Dragon's Crown is not reinventing the genre here, but what makes the game stand out (apart from the artwork) is the incredible amount of care that's gone into the details. Plenty of developers can manage the basics, but the days when bare-bones brawlers could captivate have long since passed. Vanillaware recognizes this, and by rolling their sleeves up and genuinely updating every aspect for current sensibilities, what could have been another yawn-worthy looker instead becomes a knockout punch.
Wisely, the game starts off by nailing the linchpin of the entire experience: the combat. While the animation is smooth and attractive, it never hinders the crisp, responsive feeling of control needed to satisfy. Commands are easy to input, and the control scheme makes sense. Each character also feels different from the others, and has a diverse range of skills which can be leveled up, letting the player mold their combatant to a certain degree.
My chosen warrior was the Amazon. Although she started as a typical axe-swinging character, the richness of her design became evident after a few upgrades when I found I could start with a running dash, bash an enemy with a flying knee, slide kick another enemy into the air, follow them up with a slicing spin, air dash to the other side of the field, double-jump while still airborne and then come crashing down with a bone-shattering ground pound.
This vicious attack string all happens in the blink of an eye, yet every strike is measured and intentional. Amazingly, the other characters each feel just as developed, yet they're all so different from each other that learning the nuances of each is a game unto itself. The quality of this combat is a commendable to be sure, but every other aspect of Dragon's Crown is just as polished.
Take the environments, for example. Rather than simple hallways filled with thugs, each level looks different than the last, and they all feature their own unique spin or twist. One section contains ghosts, requiring a magic user or a torch in order to dispatch them. Another has the player rescuing prisoners and keeping them safe until the boss is defeated. Another will offer giant beasts to ride in a clear homage to the genre classic Golden Axe, and yet another has the player fighting to control a magic lamp and the devastating genie held within. It's all fresh and intriguing.
Gameplay is further enhanced play by shockingly generous amounts of loot, secrets and side-quests. Any level can be revisited an infinite amount times for those who want to grind, but there are also specific tasks for players who need a little more purpose. Whether collecting spider webs for a cloak, finding a hidden room behind a painting, or locating a lost item while not waking the sleeping enemies that guard it, these little adds greatly enhance both longevity (in a good way!) and entertainment value.
Dragon's Crown is just as deep in other respects. Weapons and equipment can be mixed and matched in any combination the player likes. There's a surprising amount of story sequences which are concisely told, yet keep the game moving forward. A magical "rune" system rewards players for carefully scanning the backgrounds for hidden sigils, and multiple elements in every area can be interacted with—shields can be knocked down from a wall and held, shadowed doors can be unlocked, and little bits of treasure can be found wherever there's a sparkle.
The list of niceties just goes on and on with additions that show me Vanillaware is respectful of real life. As someone who loathes unnecessary repetition, I love that I can exit a level after clearing an objective and retain all of the experience and items gained, even if the entire area wasn't completed. There's also a system to pick and choose AI characters for backup when friends aren't around, and it's a treat to see them jump in halfway through a level, as if they've just dropped a quarter into an arcade machine. Little things like this aren't typically found in brawlers of this type, but the thought in care that's gone into making sure Dragon's Crown is playable for gamers of every sort pays off in spades.
As a critic who's not afraid to point a finger when necessary, I honestly find myself at a loss when trying to come up with places where Dragon's Crown falls short, because… it doesn't. Of course, some people may mention to the hyper-exaggerated and obviously sexual art style as a possible concern, but I find no fault in it.
In my view, everyone's entitled to their own taste and preferences, but I'll also be the last person on earth to criticize an artist for exercising their imagination. I find the visuals here to be as gorgeously attractive as they've always been with Vanillaware, although in fairness, it would've been nice if some of the playable male characters showed some skin. As a mature gamer, I think there's a time and place for content that's not meant for kids, but I'm also a believer that if a game is going to go down that route, it never hurts to offer a little something for everyone—a rippling barbarian or two for those with a taste for beefcake would have been a great gesture.
The lack of half-naked men aside, it's impossible not to see what a superior, rewarding effort Dragon's Crown turned out to be—it looks great, it feels great, it's smart and deep, and it utterly revitalizes a genre that went stale years ago. Without overstating the case, this game is a must-play tour-de-force that surprised the hell out of me, and I couldn't be happier about it.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Vita. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. (Currently working on sidequests with only the final boss remaining.) One hour of play was spent in multiplayer mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, partial nudity, suggestive themes, use of alcohol and tobacco, and violence. The most risqué thing about the game are the Amazon and Sorceress characters, and the insane amount of skin they show. There are also some pieces of unlockable art which might be a bit brow-raising. Otherwise, the violence is standard hack-and-slash stuff that's not especially graphic or worrisome.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You will have no problems. All spoken information is subtitled and there are no significant auditory cues. I played about 50% of the game with the sound off, and had no difficulty whatsoever.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway or contact him at bradgallaway a t gmail dot com