I’m really enjoying this generation’s coin-op remake revival craze. Thanks to the myriad of digital download services out there, I’m able to eat up both retro and newly-made games with the same sensibilities that may not necessarily survive a full, $60 retail release. And for the most part, these revamped coin-op games typically have an extra layer of polish such as improved assets, polished interfaces, or robust online modes.
Dragon’s Crown is possibly the first Vanillaware game I’ve ever played that didn’t manage to wear out its welcome.
Dragon’s Crown (ironically, a full retail release) to me, feels like a culmination of sorts for these bite-sized neue arcade experiences, one that successfully blends the pick-up-and-play mechanics of the beat ’em up genre with modern game design sensibilities. Oh, and sweet, sweet loot. Yes companies, you don’t need boobs to market to me: as long as the game has numbers coming out of critters when I whack them with stuff, and better whacking-stuff appears when I whack enough critters, you already have me by the love spuds.
The Art: Of Bosoms and Blades
I really feel that Dragon’s Crown enjoyed an unfairly tumultuous development cycle in the years leading to its release. I really felt that people jumped at the game’s decidedly-tacky character design and that seasoned artist George Kamitani got a bad rap from the public’s outcry when far more detestable games manage to slide by with little public ridicule. I’m not defending the man’s severe obsession with drawing females possessing 50DD chests, but then again there is some merit to the argument: the game’s supposedly a spiritual sequel to Capcom’s pair of Dungeons and Dragons arcade games, which featured more balanced depictions of its female characters.
Maybe it’s because I have the innate ability to not get hung up on details like that (which from recent experience appears to be some sort of superpower), but playing through the game as the Amazon and Sorceress, even as silent avatars I never felt that the game treated them as mere eye-candy: they were equals of their male counterparts. Sure, the Sorceress’ breasts flopped with every step, but her support magic (cue brassiere joke) was invaluable for online matches; and I noticed the far-seasoned Japanese players enjoyed playing as her not because they wanted to furiously masturbate to her gigantic ta-tas, but because she was actually useful. The Amazon was my character of choice, not because the game’s perverse artists drew her jumping animation by having her face the screen and expose her thong-covered posterior, but because she had a lot of overpowered melee attacks that I could spam, which reduced frustration on boss battles.
I understand that some people have a hard time mouthing off “oh Japan” and letting things be, but on the flip side it’s a lot of fuss for what’s essentially a niche game that will sell to a very select, hardcore audience that understands the cultural context that formed the game’s art style. If that wasn’t clear enough, let me repeat: who gives a shit? Certainly not the mortifying crowds of “englightened” gamers out there that feel their passive-aggressive swipes at the industry somehow helps anyone in the grand scheme of things. Then again, as I played through the game I found it increasingly difficult to defend its art style (see below for an example).
You Got Vanillaware’d!
On first playthrough, Dragon’s Crown seemed to be rife with content, which was very uncharacteristic of the genre, to say the least. Five hours in, and I was in awe of the variety and complexity the game’s very detailed levels presented. Every single stage seemed more impressive than the last, and each section’s tableau bloomed with wonderful, hand-drawn art that matched the intricacy of the game’s character design (almost too much at times, as it got progressively difficult to watch what my character was doing). I think you all know where I’m going with this, but the game presents a huge gotcha right around this point where you have to replay each stage again. But unlike, say Wind Waker’s pointless fetching of Triforce pieces (which is my all-time least favorite artificial extension of a game, ever) Vanillaware gives the player even more content to explore, as there are alternative paths the game takes you, featuring bosses far more imaginative and engaging than the ones you have encountered prior. What a twist!
And only at this point is the game’s online functionality unlocked. It may seem cumbersome at first to have to unlock online co-op play, but it makes sense: at this point, your character has sufficiently leveled-up and has enough decent equipment to actually hold his or her own while battling with more seasoned warriors. No pa-tank puh ate beggars. The co-op experience was fantastic: even on the Vita version via Wi-Fi, I had very little latency problems playing with three other Japanese-based players. It is worth noting that I had a more difficult time playing with fellow 30lives editor Shin on the PS3 version on a wired connection; but I’m placing the blame solely on our country’s dire broadband infrastructure. This fantastic online component is only hindered by the esoterically Japanese way its online features function. I swear, Japanese developers are almost unilaterally 10 years behind their Western counterparts in terms of defining UI and abstraction layers on top of their netcode. It’s not that the actual network modes are bad, but the severely clunky and unclear way that you connect to peoples’ games is almost laughable compared to the seamless co-op experiences I’ve been spoiled in with games past.
[Shin butts in: Although you will need to unlock online and even adhoc play on the PS Vita version, on the PS3 the local multi-controller co-op mode is available out of the box. That’s a big thing to consider for buyers, I think.]
Exploring Bolder Lands
The game’s weakest points are ironically the game’s most initially-laudable ones. Both the loot and mini-RPG systems seem way half-baked once you get down to it. It’s an odd comparison, but I hope Dragon’s Crown drums up enough sales to receive a sequel, because I can see the developers exploring a similar jump in the quality of both aspects as we did in Borderlands. The similarities between the first Borderlands and Dragon’s Crown as far as gameplay-related pitfalls are actually quite striking, as both games attempt to kind of blend two genres that don’t necessarily belong together. Take the skill system, for instance: you complete sidequests to gain skill points among other rewards, but there is hardly any motivation to do so as the game does not reward you sufficiently for progressing and gaining more skills. There are combo/attack modifiers, and some sweet perks like being able to auto-block, but those are handled individually instead of with a skill tree, which means there is no risk/reward system of min/maxing sets of skills. Ultimately, there is no motivation to pick up skills, and I found myself going back to the guild surprised that I still had leftover skill points that I was almost forced to spend.
The loot system seems fairly intriguing on the surface, as you can choose after the end of round to either sell or appraise the mystery loot you and your thief underling picked apart from the various treasure chests littering the stages. You can either sell the loot outright without taking any risks, or appraise it for a higher price and see if you end up with an item you can either use for yourself or (rarely) something that’s worth more than the price of appraisal. The game ranks loot via a letter-grade system, but doesn’t provide enough quirks or modifiers in the lower-level tiers to make them worthwhile, so you end up just selling everything with a Treasure Rank of B or below, and keeping the rest.
Subversion in Version Control
I was fortunate enough to be granted access to both the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions of Dragons’ Crown, and they are fairly identical apart from interface differences (using the touch screen instead of the analog stick to boss Rannie the erstwhile thief companion around), the higher-resolution assets in the former and pinches of slowdown on the latter edition. Content-wise, they are the exact same game. Cue my puzzlement at the game not featuring any cross-play features. I believe Atlus’ official review guidelines for the game addressed this omission with something to the effect of “becaz aliens,” so I’m thinking this is a Sony-side issue. At any rate, this would have been a perfect showcase of synchronicity between the PlayStation Vita and PS3 systems, but alas, it’s a missed opportunity. For people who want to buy into both versions of the game, the developers thoughtfully included a cloud-saving feature that allows you to upload/download your saves from either system and pick up your progress from there. The only other game I own that does this is Retro City Rampage, and it’s actually pretty slick… when it works.
Though no fault of the game (I blame my own idiocy for relying on the feature in the first place), I lost two hours of progress thanks to the game’s cloud save feature erasing my progress as I moved my save back from the PS3 version to the Vita. Thankfully, completion time per character is a scant ten hours, which honestly is a little longer than I’d care for a game of this genre. But that’s an achievement! Dragon’s Crown is possibly the first Vanillaware game I’ve ever played that didn’t manage to wear out its welcome.
Snide remarks aside, I’d really be sad if that and “boobgate” are the only things Dragon’s Crown will be remembered for. Quite frankly, it would probably be the perfect game for my twelve year-old self: taking me back to the days as an arcade rat, playing games like Knights of the Round with my equally-broke friends on germ-infested arcade machines in Cubao. Even my tastes in women were much different then: I could recall myself fantasizing about tall, large-chested women, where the fashion of engorged mammaries toppled the function of saving the owner from immense back spasms. But hey, awkward nostalgia about puberty aside: Dragon’s Crown is a game that deserves your attention and financial support. They don’t make games like this anymore—not only in the technical sense of it being the first game of its kind to come out in quite a while, but in a more lachrymose sense of its artists and developers putting so much care, love and soul in the game’s construction. Polarizing art aside, if you can’t get over that and play the game for what it is, then I’m just going to straight-up assume that you are a terrible human being with bad taste.