Vanillaware breathes new life into a worthwhile but rarely attempted style of gameplay with Dragon's Crown, a brilliantly executed tribute to arcade gaming's past that offers up an endlessly satisfying loop of questing, looting, and character progression.
In comparison to its Vanillaware-developed predecessors Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, Dragon's Crown forgoes in-depth RPG elements in favor of traditional beat-em-up gameplay. Combat in Dragon's Crown is fluid, satisfying, and intense, and represents a major, necessary evolution of the style introduced in Capcom's Dungeons & Dragons series. The resemblance to Capcom's D&D games is no coincidence, as Dragon's Crown is directed by Capcom veteran George Kamitani. Like Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara (and its spiritual successor, Castle Crashers), Dragon's Crown expands on the brawler formula by allowing players to use subweapons and stat-boosting items during battle.
While some of Capcom's beat-'em-ups from the '90s were sluggishly paced, all of Dragon's Crown's selectable characters (including the "heavy" types) are surprisingly agile, and there's a high level of visual spectacle in watching them zoom across the screen and chain together combos.
While you'll have your hands full with the standard brawler classes, Dragon's Crown also includes a selection of expert-level classes, which play helpful supplemental roles in multiplayer sessions. The bow-equipped Elf is able to pick off enemies from afar, for instance, while the Sorceress has a collection of powerful magic attacks at her disposal. Magic-based character builds frequently need to retreat and recharge their magic points during battle, however, making teamwork a necessity.
Each character is vividly drawn, and Dragon's Crown's art style as a whole is unique and eye-catching. The game's character artwork has drawn its share of criticism, however, due largely to the overtly sexualized portrayal of its female characters.
Taken in the full context of the game, this aspect was less awkward than I expected it to be. To its credit, Dragon's Crown at least makes an attempt at consistency – a male warrior's ridiculously muscled chest expands the full length of the screen in one cutscene, and many of the enemy characters are depicted in a similar, hyper-exaggerated style. That doesn't excuse the Sorceress' impractical wardrobe or improbable proportions, but her portrayal is at least in line with traditional fantasy artwork, with all of the problematic elements that entails.
You may think that you have a good idea of what to expect from Dragon's Crown after a few hours of play, but at the quest's halfway mark, a crucial multiplayer mode becomes accessible, introducing a new set of possibilities. The decision to lock away the multiplayer component until after you've put several hours into the campaign is a little unusual, but it also makes sense in terms of balance. With some experience under your belt, you're sufficiently leveled up, and you should have a good grasp on how your chosen class plays, hopefully resulting in more effective teamwork and cooperation among your online pals.
Enlisting teammates definitely helps in tackling the latter half of Dragon's Crown. After a certain point in the story, you're challenged to take a more difficult route through the levels you've already traversed, allowing you to to collect a series of items needed to complete the quest. These paths have high-level bosses waiting at the end, and taking them on solo is no easy task.
These new bosses are also timed, making them a likely source of frustration for low-level or solo players. Fail to beat any of these bosses quickly enough and you won't receive the necessary quest item, forcing you to restart the level from the beginning. With a couple of experienced teammates at your side, these challenges are much more reasonable, and the powerful loot you earn afterward helps to smooth out what would otherwise be a steep difficulty curve.
Online matchmaking was fairly consistent in my experience. Combat is sometimes difficult to track with four simultaneous players and a screenful of enemies, but matches almost always concluded with little interruption. On a couple of occasions, mid-quest connection errors resulted in the loss of loot and progress. These incidents were frustrating, but thankfully rare.
Dragon's Crown's painted backgrounds are rich in detail, and the game actively rewards the time you'll spend gawking at them in between battles. Hidden items gleam in the backdrop and are uncovered when you tap them on the Vita's touch screen, adding an incongruous appeal akin to a "find the hidden objects" adventure game. Later on in the quest, you'll need to keep an eye on the backgrounds for rune symbols, which can be tapped and combined for various status-boosting effects.
These mechanics work well on the Vita, but they're somewhat annoying in the PlayStation 3 version. To make up for the lack of a touchscreen, PS3 players need to use the right analog stick to sweep a cursor across backgrounds while using the left shoulder buttons to click on hotspots. It's clunky in practice, and breaks a flow that remains consistent in the Vita release.
Dragon's Crown might be Vanillaware's best game to date. While it scales back the complexity that defined Princess Crown and Odin Sphere, its focus on deep, varied fighting mechanics make it one of the best beat-em-ups released for any platform in recent years.
The repeated content in the game's latter half could be a concern, but Dragon's Crown's online mode encourages players to adopt new strategies to suit their party's strengths as new classes drop in and out. This helps to keep things fresh and interesting – as do additional unlockable difficulty levels – even after your twentieth trek through the Ancient Temple Ruins. The promise of new and powerful loot after every battle is similarly enticing, and if you're committed to leveling up all six playable classes, you'll be playing Dragon's Crown for a long time to come.
This review is based on PSN downloads of the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3 versions of Dragon's Crown, provided by Atlus. Dragon's Crown launches on August 6.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.