Nobody does high resolution art the way Vanillaware does. Ever since the SEGA Saturn, the team has taken out all the stops and delivered game after game with breathtaking visuals and a consistent sense of style that carries onward.
Dragon’s Crown is no different. Vanillaware’s first trip into full HD is exactly what the world has come to expect from the unique studio. The game delivers a fantasy realm filled with classic monsters re-envisioned under a new light and over-exaggerated humans, all drawn to the highest quality imaginable.
I’ve always been a big fan of pixel art in my video games, and more often than not prefer it to high-resolution art. Vanillaware is one of the few video game companies that makes me question my loyalty to the older days of 2D gaming.
One would think that these masters of visual style would be able to create the perfect modern-day throwback to the classic beat ‘em ups of old, and with Dragon’s Crown, it exceeds when viewing the game from the surface. However, a few weak underpinnings hold it back from being a classic in its own right.
Pushing Quarters Ain’t Like it Used to Be
As mentioned before, Dragon’s Crown is a beat ‘em up at heart, meaning the main character and allies are pitted in fight after fight with another group of enemies on a multi-layered 2D plane. Both squads proceed to duke it out until the other one collapses. It’s a simple formula that is very hard to get wrong.
Typically, you and your trusty allies will emerge victorious; but, every now and then an enemy has the opportunity of getting the upper hand.
Dragon’s Crown never proves to be too difficult during the first half of the game thanks to an in-depth RPG system which constantly improves upon your customized character. Stat boosts, extra abilities, passive skills make sure there is enough of a skill tree to make your character a truly unstoppable force in the face of puny beasts.
Comparisons to The X-Men Arcade, Aliens vs Predator, Final Fight, and the rest of the Golden Age of Arcade classics are well deserved. Dropping quarters into a machine over and over used to be the social norm for a game of this genre, and if I was forced to do so to play Dragon’s Crown, I just might have back in the day.
However, beyond the combat system of the traditional beat ‘em up style, which Vanillaware pulls off very well, similarities end with Dragon’s Crown and its forefathers in its approach to taking on missions, raising the challenge, and pacing itself over a long amount of time.
Learning a Learning Curve
Classic beat ‘em ups have a very steady learning curve, meaning enemies slowly improve and become stronger with each level, and your character will remain the same no matter what. No stat boosts, no extra moves. Practice makes perfect, and trial and error is the law of the land. Nothing but the gamer’s intimate knowledge of the game and its mechanics will help prevail in the end.
Ideally, if you play Double Dragon or Streets of Rage over and over again, you should advance further and further each playthrough if you bring the same amount of quarters every time.
Dragon’s Crown lacks this natural progression, and its RPG elements are mainly to blame. Very rarely does knowledge of an enemy’s fight pattern or the floor layout affect the outcome of a fight. More often than not, its the level of progression which determines the victor. If you have gained enough levels, you will win, simple as that.
The first half of the game is a cakewalk, but upon a certain event in the storyline, you’d better hope you gained enough experience because it will come back to haunt you if you haven’t. It’s an artificial learning curve where enemies become more challenging because the developer puts more hit points and strength points into them rather than creating a more difficult situation.
Brilliant Bosses, Weak Level Variety
Not all situations are mindless fights, though. As the game progresses into its final levels, some minor enemies and situations will arise to add an extra layer of thinking.
Boss fights shake up the gameplay the most. You can only beat a monster when his tentacles are down or when an angel candle is lit. Some vampires attack helpless girls and turn them into vampires, creating more bosses to kill. Cyclops pour through a gate you must keep shut while battle the ones already in play.
Far and away, the most annoying is a fight in which you must keep a cannon intact to destroy a gate, while also responsible for loading it and firing it with a torch.
It’s a shame not as much thought is put into some of the levels.
Riding on rafts, injuring ghosts only with torches, or dodging spikes and arrow traps from the ground appear every now and then. A difficult battle on the top of a boat with a kraken will test your patience as on-screen slow down, straight from the SNES days, ruins perfect opportunities to win. By and large though, each level is the same with a slightly thematic difference to it, like snow, cave, castle, or forest, and you’ll be taking on enemies. A lot of enemies.
Not to say the classic beat ‘em ups of old weren’t so repetitive, because they were. The difference is that they can be beaten in a single afternoon if you know what to do, and replay value goes up with improving with each attempt if you don’t. Playing a few repetitive stages over and over again isn’t a problem if you can do it in under a solid hour of gameplay.
Dragon’s Crown is a beat ‘em up on the surface, but is a long, sprawling RPG underneath, and the replay comes more with improving your character or playing as a different one altogether.
An RPG at Broken Heart
The problem really stems from my character never seeming to improve. Jumping into the game, my elf ranger already was able to do some serious damage and perform acrobatic feats. From the get go, she was flipping in the air, kicking enemies in the face, and raining arrows upon her enemy with her long bow.
Each level up might have boosted her stats or granted a small ability, and while I felt my character becoming more powerful, doing more damage, I could very rarely see why. Throughout the entire game, she was still the same elf ranger I had started with but just had more points added to her character sheet.
Compare this to an RPG like Etrian Odyssey or Skyrim, when you begin to see your characters improving right in front of your face, pulling off moves and stunts their level one selves couldn’t even dream of.
Hard to Be the Best of Both Worlds
I don’t want to sound too down on Dragon’s Crown, because I enjoyed it; however, I felt it could have been a lot more
Taken as a straight up beat ‘em up, it’s a lot of fun that can kill a mindless afternoon of bashing through a gorgeous world full of beautifully designed demons.
The problem is that Dragon’s Crown is also an RPG, and I never really care to play beat ‘em ups for twenty hours of doing the same combos over and over again, barely seeing any changes in my approach to fighting.
Beat ‘em ups were created as games designed to take your money. Punish you, chew you up, spit you out, but still give you the motivation to come back with more quarters the next day. Vanillaware was wise in believing that an RPG system could create this need to come back, but came up short on putting that system in place.
I don’t want to sound too down on Dragon’s Crown, because I enjoyed it; however, I felt it could have been a lot more.
Blending two genres is a very difficult task to pull off. I like Dragon’s Crown for its wonderful sense of style, for throwing back to a genre I’ve always enjoyed, and for taking a risk in game design not many would take anymore.
However, it either needs to be trimmed to a shorter length like a beat ‘em up or packed in heavily with more abilities like an RPG. It dances along the middle a little too much, and doesn’t exceed at either.