Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Review - Dragon's Crown (PS3)

Back to the old school!

The scrolling beat-em-up doesn't get much love these days, as developers struggle to find new ways to keep them fresh for modern audiences, but in their heyday they were incredibly popular. Capcom were undoubtedly the masters of the genre, and were also responsible for injecting some much needed depth into an otherwise simplistic type of game when they released the excellent licensed Dungeons and Dragons games, Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara. These titles added RPG-lite elements, a decent fantasy storyline, and magic spells and equipment to be used in battle, and proved to be a great success in the smokey arcades of the 1990's. The next big title that would follow a similar path was the sublime Guardian Heroes on the Sega Saturn by the talented folks at Treasure - with a Japanese anime visual style and far more levelling up options and alternative routes through stages - this game remains the pinnacle of this hybrid genre. Then things went quiet... until now. 

Clearly inspired by the titles mentioned above, Vannilaware and Atlus have seen fit to have a stab at resurrecting the rpg beat-em-up genre, using the beautiful visual style of their previous titles, Odin Sphere and Muramasa The Demon Blade. The graphics really are a treat, with some truly spectacular painted backdrops, and incredibly detailed sprites and some great magic effects. The camera effortlessly pans in and out as required, sometimes showing your battles incredibly close up or at a distance, and the fluid 60 fps frame rate never falters, not even in the most chaotic of encounters. The musical score is one of the best I have heard in a fantasy game and is genuinely epic, with some wonderful choral pieces sitting comfortably alongside rousing orchestral pieces that could easily have come from movie such as Gladiator. The story is told by a narrator, who does a sterling job and keeps your finger away from the skip button while the, rather generic, story is being told - something about locating the titular Dragon's Crown in order to save a kingdom, y'know, the usual fantasy drill.

Get 'yer tits out! (sigh)

Now I know that the visual style has attracted a lot of attention, not only due to the fact they are gorgeous, but because of the overly sexualised female characters in the game, so I can't go without mentioning it. As a gamer of over 20 years I am well accustomed to every female character in a fantasy RPG being assigned the mandatory bikini armour and huge tits, but Dragon's Crown crosses the line into pure ridiculousness. While all of the characters - both male and female - possess hugely disproportioned bodies, there has clearly been too much focus on the women, most obviously the breasts of the Sorceress. They are HUGE! They stick out about a meter in front of her and are coupled with the most unrealistic and obscene jiggle physics I have ever seen - and yes, that includes Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball. Every female character you meet along your journey - shown as slightly animated screenshots - are either completely naked or in incredibly suggestive positions. It damages the credibility of the game world, turning it into a weird Japanese masturbation fantasy. I wasn't offended by it, I just find it slightly cringe-worthy really. I'm not interested in getting into a debate about sexism in games (as many reviews of this game have descended into) so I will leave it at that.

Anyway, back to the game itself. Choosing from a selection of six different characters that include the standard Warrior, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf, Amazon and Pole Dancer.. I mean, Sorceress, you begin your quest in the town that acts as the central hub. The various places can either be travelled to by walking there, or by using a map to warp to your desired location, and include the temple, inn, shop, castle etc. After a few initial quests, obtained via the Adventurers Guild, the story line kicks in and the game starts properly. You must visit nine different stages, each with two different routes, and defeat the huge bosses that guard each path, in order to obtain the nine orbs you require to face off against the final boss. 

Gameplay takes the form of the old school fighters like Golden Axe and Final Fight - you move freely around the screen, but must be on the same plane as any enemy you wish to attack, at which point you can pummel them with your sword or axe, throw them, or launch magic attacks, depending on your chosen character. The spells range from wind and fire attacks, to summoning evil beings that fight alongside you and are the most visually impressive, as well as damaging (in the right hands) methods of attack. You can fight alone or with three other computer controlled comrades - chosen in the Inn. If you go into battle without any comrades then CPU characters will jump in and join you - though this can be turned off if you truly want to go it alone.

There is a large emphasis on loot and equipment in Dragon's Crown, so if you enjoy the acquisition of new gear and gold then you will be in heaven. Not only do enemies and smashable crates reward you with treasure, but there are also locked chests that can be opened on command by your little thief buddy Ranni (who otherwise stays out of the fray), giving you a treasure rating, depending on the quality of goods obtained. Once a stage is complete you can see the spoils of battle and take or sell whatever you wish. Much of the loot you acquire is unidentified, and so must be appraised by another sorceress (with huge bazongas, naturally) in the town shop, for a fee (probably to pay for more breast enlargement surgery). Equipment such as armour, weapons, amulets and potions can only be equipped, bought and sold upon your return to town, meaning forward planning is required before heading into battle. The bones of dead adventurers can be collected during the stages and resurrected at the town temple, granting you the ability to select these newly un-deceased chums as part of your four man / woman team in the Inn. Skill points are earned via levelling up and taking on side quests - available at the Adventurers Guild - and can be spent on character upgrades and new moves or spells. There really is a great deal of depth on offer here and it soon becomes extremely addictive, with the constant urge to level up and improve your character keeping you hooked.

Once you beat the nine stages, the option to play online with human players becomes available. Quite why Atlus decided this should be the case - not letting you do this from the  start - is unknown, but I don't mind as I was too engrossed in the single player campaign to notice. Playing with human team mates is great fun, and certainly shows up the rather flakey A.I. of your computer controlled allies, but I did experience a few network connection issues that forced me to quit the game on several occasions (though, thankfully, I kept all my experience and loot). Japan have already received a patch to fix this, so hopefully it won't be long before we get it too.

Playing Dragon's Crown is extremely enjoyable, with some hectic and tense battles that require team work to emerge victorious. The characters are all very well balanced and perfectly designed to work as part of a team. I find it best to have two fighting characters up front laying the smackdown close up, while two magic characters fire a plethora of offensive spells into the fray, while simultaneously providing some protection via defensive magic. Battling the strange and varied roster of enemies is a real joy and exploring the fantastic environments is utterly absorbing. There is a strange mechanic in the form of a hand cursor - brought onto the screen and moved around with the right thumbstick - that is used to select chests or doors for Ranni to unlock, rune symbols to activate or simply touching a certain parts of the background in order to make more treasures appear. It is clearly something designed for the touch screen of the Vita, but it works well here too - though reviving dead CPU teammates by clicking on their name can be fiddly mid-combat.

Aside from a few tiny niggles, my only real gripe with Dragon's Crown is the fact that, with four characters unleashing hell on the multiple enemies on-screen at once, it is often very hard to see your character or tell what the hell is going on. On a number of occasions I couldn't see my character, and kept hammering away at the attack button, believing I was hitting something, when in fact I was on the floor on the other side of the room getting stomped by an entirely different foe. It can also get quite repetitive - especially when playing as the fighter - as it often descends into simple button mashing, though the excellent visuals, intriguing locales and hideous bosses maintain your interest. I completed the main quest in ten hours, only to find that the game doesn't end there. Not by a long shot. So there is tons of replay value here - not to mention how addictive playing online with human comrades is.

I was very excited about Dragon's Crown, and paid the high entry fee in order to experience a slice of retro beat-em-up action and was not disappointed. It is the natural evolution of the RPG scrolling beat-em-up and is now the benchmark for the genre. After Double Dragon Neon and now this, here's hoping we start to see more of these types of games, with new ideas, hitting the shelves. If you miss the days of shoveling coins into Capcom's many excellent scrolling fighter coin-ops, or the crazy anime antics of Treasure's sublime Guardian Heroes, then Dragon's Crown is a must-buy and will provide you with hours and hours of frantic, yet deep, action-RPG gaming. 

The Good

  • Beautiful visuals that are utterly mesmerising
  • One of the best soundtracks to a game I have ever heard
  • Old school hack and slash gameplay resurrected perfectly
  • RPG elements provide a great deal of depth
  • Loads of replay value
  • Online multiplayer is great fun

The Bad

  • Can often be hard to see what's going on
  • Combat can become repetitive
  • Occasional online connection issues
  • Too much sexualisation of the female characters

Title : Dragon's Crown
Developer : Vanillaware / Atlus
Year : 2013
System : PS3
Also on : PS Vita
Price : £30 - £35 (retail)