First, let’s address the elephant in the room. I could easily spend the length of this review fashioning cheeky witticisms to describe all the lascivious ways in which the Sorceress character’s breasts have been animated. For instance, when she sprints, they sway like a ghost that’s caught in a pair of windshield wipers, or when she casts spells, they look like a pair of albino ferrets trapped in a tumble-dryer. It calls to mind that old Matt Helgeson gem from Game Informer’s review of Dead or Alive Xtreme 2, “these aren’t breasts, these are alien parasites trying to escape from their host body.” Without a doubt, it is impossible to play Dragon’s Crown and not feel compelled to evaluate one’s personal threshold for tasteful art design.
The point is, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of trite ways to dismiss an aesthetic element of Dragon’s Crown that I found to be fairly gross (in both the classic and modern sense), despite the fact that it didn’t give me the vapors. My instinct is to downplay Crown’s more indulgent flourishes because they had little impact on my experience, and I honestly love what Vanillaware has done with the art-style. This has to be one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played; nevertheless, I can’t ignore that certain elements are quite off-putting, and that double-truth needs to be acknowledged without reservation. To refuse is, I think, to resign oneself to either ignoring the issue, or debating about breasts for the rest of the critical window. And while Dragon’s Crown’s artistic druthers definitely merit the kind of critical examination that keener minds than mine can provide, this game is about much more than breasts.
This is a game about archetypes. Dragon’s Crown is a slick, grotesque fantasy beat-em-up that invokes Golden Axe by way of Terry Gilliam (in fact, Monty Python fans can expect a Thanos-level cameo waiting for them). The player is afforded six characters to select from; swift Fighter, slinky Sorceress, cunning Wizard, boorish Dwarf, devilish Elf, and domineering Amazon. Each of these characters is brought to life in an oily, two-dimensional portrait that seems to embrace and accentuate every stereotype and cliche ascribed to elves, dwarves, knights, etc. from their earliest legends until now. The art design serves as an overt reminder of what each character’s strengths, weaknesses, and fighting styles will be. Dragon’s Crown is the type of game in which the player knows a priori what they’re getting when selecting a certain character.
Like all of Vanillaware’s previous games, polygons are nowhere to be found. Players traverse beautifully articulate, two-dimensional environments, from ghostly, pirate-infested shipwrecks, to over-thatched, mushroom-laden forests in the name of conquest and commerce. A simple narrator guides the player along the story, but befitting Dragon’s Crown’s devotion to obvious, innately understood heroes and conflicts, every bit of dialog and plot direction is spoken in terms of “you do this, so-and-so does that” without any of the characters speaking for themselves or naturally developing. It’s a boring conceit for storytelling, but it works for the established goal of providing a baseline fantasy experience that won’t run the risk of subverting anyone’s precious preconceptions.
More interesting is the combat. Like Dragon’s Crown’s risk-averse approach to storytelling and artwork, the side-scrolling fisticuffs have no combos to memorize, and no meta systems to game. Each character has a basic set of moves and a couple of special abilities that can be mixed in on the fly for flavor. What makes things interesting is that enemies are absolute putty in the player’s hands. Much like certain fighting games, Dragon’s Crown allows players to keep performing combat moves on their opponents for as long as they can keep their attack going, so while there is no traditional combo-system, players are allowed to improvise for as long as they can with a given character’s moveset, and this is where Dragon’s Crown’s true value lies.
I started out as a Dwarf– heavy, short-range melee attacks with the ability to throw enemies –and took great pleasure in belly-flopping on orcs, only to grab them in mid-air, throw them against the edge of the screen, and then catch them again to throw them back into the din of my partners. The Elf offered a similar tactic: pop the enemy up, fire the bow directly up to catch them, then pop them back up before they hit the ground. In its early hours, Crown does an excellent job of setting players free to discover what works best, and then it unleashes those skills by introducing 4-player co-op.
At the end of the campaign’s first third, Dragon’s Crown politely asks every player if they want to go online before embarking on a level. Upon agreeing, random players who are also running the same level are introduced, and any open spots are subsidized with AI characters. It’s a great turning point, trusting players to take the skills they’ve honed over a few hours and parlay them into combos with other people that push the boundaries– and the framerate –of the game design. Using a Wizard or Sorceress to freeze a line of foes in place, and then steamroll them with the Dwarf, or cast them up with the Amazon, only to refreeze them upon landing and trap them in the Elf’s line of fire makes for terrific cooperative play. The amount of timing based, improvisational combinations afforded by each character is delightful to explore, rewarding quick-thinking in a way reminiscent of Super Smash Bros. Melee, and the rush is made even greater by the fact that not a single word ever is exchanged between players. It’s an intuitive maelstrom of spells and blades.
This amount of freedom does come at the price of simple enemy AI, and an underlying RPG framework that isn’t especially robust or well-supplementary to the core fun of developing your own combat skills. The inventory system is basic, letting characters swap weapons, specialty items, and different clothes, but only the weapons show up as a cosmetic change. As for the narrative, the narrator always points you to the next stop in line, which makes Crown easy to pick up after long absences, but further cheapens the story by making each of its sequential plot points feel fairly disposable. The story doesn’t serve much but to open up new levels for players to mine and grind.
Dragon’s Crown is designed for repetitive, character-strengthening play, but without the procedural environments and roguelike elements that have become so recently fashionable. Every level is the same, every time through, and repeat visits to each locale are mainly in service of various sidequests, and secondary paths that open up in the second half. However, to Crown’s credit, each level has its own unique boss fight or set-piece moment, which Vanillaware skillfully builds from one level to the next. Every level is about killing baddies and gathering treasure, until the crucial moment when a gargantuan beast erupts from the scenery to bring things home with a show-stopper. It’s as much fun to see what crazy, incredibly animated Big Bads there are waiting around the corner as it is to forge new combat tactics.
Dragon’s Crown is terrific fun, with the appropriate mindset. It may or may not be distasteful, depending on one’s tolerance for cliches and objectivity, and it may or may not be fun, depending on one’s tolerance for 2-D beat ‘em ups that put the onus of combat potential on the player. However, the strength it has in aesthetic character and gameplay is mighty indeed. Dragon’s Crown doesn’t offer any much needed enrichment of its various genres, but it makes up for this by committing to its visual identity and the frenetic, empowering possibilities of its game design.