Do you remember games arcades? Before they choked to death on a glut of shooting galleries and dancing simulators — after home gaming consoles finally caught up to them in the early days of the new millennium — they were home to gaming experiences that simply couldn’t be replicated in any other environment.
A dominant species in this environment was the side-scrolling fighter, commonly referred to as the “beat’em up” or “brawler.” Groups of players would march from one side of the screen to another, stopping only to pummel the latest wave of foes that impeded their progress.
It was a simple concept, designed to suck down quarters at a fast pace — and for a few years, this genre reigned in bowling alleys and outside movie theatres across North America.
Developer Vanillaware is looking to recapture those glory days with its latest, “Dragon’s Crown,” a hybrid born from the parentage of side-scrolling brawlers and weekly sessions of “Dungeons and Dragons.”
As with any release from Vanillaware, the first thing that will catch a player’s attention is the hyper-detailed, stunning 2-D graphics. Every character has been meticulously painted, and they all animate fluidly to a fault. Like “Odin Sphere” and “Muramasa” before it, “Dragon’s Crown” looks like a storybook unfolding. There’s not a single scrap of visual stimuli that won’t cause saliva to run down the back of the mouth.
Combat, which makes up the bulk of the “Dragon’s Crown” package, is deceiving, to say the least. On the surface it has a remedial appearance — lots of button mashing and simple combos.
Each character has his own little quirks that make discovering their depth a true joy. From heavy bruisers to speedy projectile throwers to images with unbelievable destructive capability, out of the six available classes, there’s always a great option when playing with a full group.
And playing with a complete squad is advised, as groups of enemies — bosses, especially — unleash mayhem on a scale that can level a life bar in short time.
There’s always the option of AI controlled partners, and while bots will do in a pinch, I can’t help but lament their existence as opposed to the true feeling of a “Golden Axe” style session with three friends.
Maybe that’s why I felt slightly unfulfilled with “Dragon’s Crown.” The visuals, the combat, the abundance of loot to be spent on upgrades — it’s all too much marzipan to cover the two bitter pills that loom in the darkness, threatening to spoil “Dragon’s Crown’s” flavour.
This game is short; or rather, it would be, if not for the rampant retreading of levels previously conquered, and the abundance of quests and objectives that are two hairs shy of being identical. There are even a couple of escort missions, which in 2013 should exist only in the nightmares of naughty children.
See, the game is fantastically fun to play, and the combat is fast-paced and hits with the force of heavy construction equipment. But man, can it be a chore when one takes a second, longer glance at what one is doing.
Having friends to play with, again, will alleviate the tedium, but it’s a sad design choice to return so frequently to each area.
Unlike the late ’80s fantasy novels and games that “Dragon’s Crown” takes inspiration from, the storyline here is a narrative mess. I’m not saying the former was any better, just a lot more tightly focused.
“Dragon’s Crown” tends to ramble quite a bit, forcing gamers to sit through what feels like hours of talking heads and tiresome dialogue without really moving anywhere. It’s confusing, meandering and more than a little pretentious. Especially if you just want to hit a Gnoll in the face with a hammer.
“Dragon’s Crown” is a gorgeously crafted, fundamentally concrete, old-school brawler. And that is its biggest problem. For all its beauty, grace and furious fight, it’s still a love letter to an archaic genre — the artificial length and constant repetition of levels and objectives can make even a regular session feel like trotting through a bog. But in bite-sized chunks, every minute can explode like juicy steak.
Beating up ancient villains, unlocking powerful attacks and swimming in glittering loot is all tons of fun, but expecting gamers to sit through the same handful of levels over and over for 20–25 hours is more of a stretch than the artificial length we were talking about.
In that regard, “Dragon’s Crown” is a lot like an old Prog Rock album. What is there is brilliant, but you can’t help feeling like that solo could’ve lost a few minutes and still have been great.
Platform: PlayStation 3, PS Vita (PS3 version reviewed)
Release Date: Aug. 6, 2013
Rated: T for Teen.
Walking through the wastes of the digital frontier, Jon Mercer fights a lonely war against the nefarious agents of boredom and mediocrity. If you seek his help, or wish to join his cause, send a communiqué via email@example.com.