When I was growing up, the side-scrolling beat-em-up was a pretty standard thing in gaming. I grew up with games like Golden Axe and Knights of the Round, while others I know played Streets of Rage and Battletoads. The arcades were full of them, too – including Dungeons & Dragons, X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons. However, recent years have seen a decline in the genre as consoles have moved heavily toward 3D graphics, with only the odd digital re-release and rare gems like Castle Crashers bringing anything to the genre.
However, Dragon’s Crown seeks to breathe new life into the genre with a brand new title on PlayStation 3 and PSVita - a full-fledged, disc-based title that takes the classic arcade side-scroller style and incorporates new features for today’s console gamers. Developed by Vanillaware and published by Atlus, can Dragon’s Crown be the Golden Axe of today?
Keeping to tradition, the game is built purely from 2D environments and characters. However, the thing that really stands out is the quality of the game’s artwork and it’s animation. The game’s design looks like a painting, with detailed characters that move beautifully - you can see the characters breathe as the artwork morphs and animates in ways that classic side-scrollers could never have managed. The environments are similarly impressive – water ripples, light shimmers and fire glows beautifully, bringing the backgrounds to life.
The game features six different classes to play as, each one with a specific character design – three male (Fighter, Dwarf, Wizard), and three female (Sorceress, Elf, Amazon). Each class has its own fighting style and abilities – the Fighter, Dwarf and Amazon are heavy types with strong melee abilities with a few differences - the Fighter can equip a shield to block and protect allies, the Amazon has a wide reach, and the Dwarf has raw strength and the ability to throw enemies. The Wizard and Sorceress forgo physical strength for powerful magics, using MP to cast powerful spells but needing to keep an eye on their reserves - the Wizard focusing on offense, while the Sorceress has a mix of attacks and support abilities. Lastly, the Elf is my personal favourite - having a good mix of physical attacks, and long-range bow attacks to take enemies out from afar. It’s a well-rounded selection of classes, and each one feels unique in its own way.
Levels consist of traditional side-scrolling action, either single-player or co-op. Progressing through levels, you must of course fight various monsters and baddies using the abilities of your chosen hero. Each character has a regular attack, and several others activated by holding different directions when tapping attack – Up + Square generally acts as a launcher, whilst Down + Square performs a slide attack. Characters are also able to perform aerial attacks, and slam attacks by pressing different combinations in the air. Holding the attack button on the ground has different effects depending on your class - some characters block, whilst others charge MP or other effects. The Circle button is similarly different per character - the heavy types tend to perform strong attacks, while the magic types can press it in combination with various directional buttons to perform different spells. The Elf’s bow is similarly attached to this button, allowing normal shots, upward shots or charged shots, among other things.
Of course, the game has a variety of enemies to do battle with, and there’s a great selection in the game. Earlier levels feature various goblins and mages, but later levels will see you facing off against skeletons, pirates and more. Of course, no side-scroller would be complete without bosses – and Dragon’s Crown has an array of huge beasts to defeat as well, each looking as good as the last.
One thing that really distances Dragon’s Crown from traditional side-scrollers is its heavy RPG elements. Progressing through stages, you are accompanied by a thief called Rannie who can open locked doors and - more importantly - treasure chests. When you get to the end of a stage, all of the chests that you opened are tallied up, and you are granted all of the spoils in the form of different weapons and equipment. Reminiscent of games like Diablo, you need to pay gold to appraise equipment before you can use it, and also must be a high enough level to equip certain gear. New weapons improve attack strength, and new armour and accessories can improve defense or add extra bonuses such as elemental resistance or bonus strength. Chests don’t always give the same loot – so levels can be re-played or side missions can be undertaken to earn new equipment, earn more money or build on your character’s level.
Levelling up grants you the choice to upgrade certain aspects of your character. For every level up, you are given a skill point to choose an enhancement. There are two types of ability - Class abilities, that are specific to your class and can upgrade your characters core attacks and extra skills, and Common abilities, which act as passive skills that all characters can obtain such as health upgrades and improved efficiency for temporary weapons or health items picked up during stages.
Levelling up and accessing shops are all done from the game’s main hub, a small side-scrolling town area with different entrances to a few menu-based shops and story related locations. The Adventurer’s Guild allows you to accept side-quests that take place in the game’s various levels to build up your loot, gold EXP and unlock bonus artwork. The Chapel allows you to resurrect the bones of dead adventurers found in stages to add AI teammates to your party, or bury them to obtain items. The Tavern is used as the game’s party organiser, where you switch characters, change which AI partners are tagging along, or save your game.
The storyline serves it’s purpose – a reason to traverse the various environments the game has to offer under the pretense of undertaking various tasks for different people. While it’s solid enough, it takes a while to get going and I wasn’t too keen on how the game is largely narrated by a single voice, rather than having all of the game’s characters voiced individually to comprise the game’s narrative. It’s an interesting way of telling the story and works adequately - but I found the narrator a little dull and thought that I might have enjoyed the plot more if it had been told in a slightly different way, perhaps with some simple animated cut scenes with more varied voice-acting. In a way, the game feels somewhat like having a book read to you with pictures to accompany, which was probably the idea. I think it’s largely just a matter of taste to whether that works for you.
While the artwork is mostly fantastic, there is another issue that I must address in terms of the character design – and I want to stress that this is only a small element of the overall product. It’s a bit of a hotly debated topic, but I personally found some of the female character design to be a bit too sexualized. While some would argue that it’s purely the art style and that I’m being over-sensitive, I thought that the artwork and character animations for the Sorceress and Amazon were depicted in a way that was a bit tacky. While I’m not “offended” by it, I did think that it cheapened the characters and I would have been more interested in using them if they had been done in a more respectable way. The artwork just makes me feel a bit awkward and it seems unnecessary, but I’ll let you decide for yourself on this one.
For the most part, the PlayStation 3 and PSVita versions feel very much the same. The Vita manages to capture all of the smooth artwork on a smaller scale. The PS3 version actually has a kind of cursor that you can control with the right analogue stick, which can be used for a multitude of different tasks – such as selecting menu options, ordering Rannie to unlock doors and chests, and revealing hidden coins to collect. With the Vita, its a simple matter of using the touchscreen, which is actually more accessible than the console version. It’s really up to whether you want the larger screen that the PS3 has to offer, or the Vita’s capability to play Dragon’s Crown on the go. Better yet, if you have both versions you can easily transfer your save file between platforms for the best of both worlds.
+ Beautifully drawn and animated side-scroller that feels like a classic
+ Character variety and side-quests give plenty of play value
+ Solid RPG elements allow you to really build characters up as you play
- Returning to the same areas for side-quests can feel a bit repetitive
- Story isn’t told in a very engaging way, narrative a bit emotionless
It’s great to see Vanillaware and Atlus bringing the to modern consoles, and Dragon’s Crown proves that there’s plenty of room for the genre to grow to the modern market. The 2D artwork is beautiful and the animation is really something to behold. While some of the character designs are questionable, it really is a solid title that’s worth picking up - a detailed 2D beat em’ up really stands out as something unique in the market at the moment.