Sunday, November 27, 2016

My Videogame Club: Dragon’s Crown

By Patrick Hawes-DeFrias
Each week, I meet up with a group of friends to play through a game that at least one of us hasn’t finished. This week, we beat a game that pretty much all of us had played before, but never beaten. I’m talking about Atlus and Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown, a side-scrolling beat-em-up RPG that may be familiar to those that frequented arcades back in the day.
The first thing you’ll notice is the amazing art style, done in that striking Vanillaware hand-drawn style. You see every sinew of a character’s muscles, see them breathing, and every tiny detail in their design. However, the art is simultaneously the game’s biggest accomplishment as well as its biggest source of controversy. Vanillaware wanted to amp up the sex appeal of this game, and thus most female characters in the game are highly sexualized, drawn in provocative poses, scantily clad, or both. This is also true for two of the playable classes in the game, the Amazon and the Sorceress. It’s a big point of contention for many people, and I can’t say I blame them. HOWEVER, if you can get past that, there’s a very interesting and fun game to be played. But I know it’ll probably be an issue for some players right away, so fair warning.
Dragon’s Crown is a side-scrolling beat-em-up, much in the same style of Guardian Heroes or Streets of Rage. The core gameplay has you choose from one of six different classes, each with their own niche that they fill. There’s the Fighter, a huge, armor-clad warrior that uses a shield to protect the party using various defensive skills, as well as a one-handed weapon such as a sword or axe to perform various attacks and combos for high damage. He’s basically the tank class, though he can be built to be more of a damage-dealer if you want. The Amazon and Dwarf are essentially variations of this play style- the Amazon being much less tanky (perhaps because she wears almost nothing) but can be one of the most powerful melee fighters. She uses two-handed weapons like poleaxes and scythes, and she can go into a frenzy which boosts her damage. Most of her skills either give her new attacks or further amplify her damage in some way. The dwarf is an interesting oddity in the game- he’s also a melee fighter, but most of his damage comes from ranged AOE. He’s perfectly capable of going to town in a fight, with dual small weapons that swing pretty fast and the ability to flex to temporarily increase his defense. But, his main ability is being able to pick up and throw things, mostly your enemies. This allows you to temporarily remove one threat, and kill or displace most the rest. He also eventually gains the ability to make an exploding barrel, which can also be thrown. Basically, he runs crowd control. The Elf is the game’s ranger or rogue. Her main ability is to shoot charged shots from her bow, but just as a rogue from D&D gets a ton of skill points to be able to do all kinds of tricks and fill several roles, the Elf gains quite a few varied abilities that allow her to get creative with her build. This includes the ability to do bonus damage using the dagger sub-weapon from behind, being able to poison or enflame her daggers and arrows, and a thing called “spirit magic” which gives her the ability to use VERY basic spells for free, thereby giving her something to fall back on when her arrows run out. Her spells even change based on how close she is to another element, so you can use the spell cast by a party member to temporarily give yourself better magic. On that topic, the last characters are the Wizard and Sorceress, the game’s caster classes. Both of them control almost the same way- you use the circle button to shoot elemental magic that’s based on what kind of damage your staff or wand does. When your mana runs out, you can either charge your mana meter back up, or use your basic attack to gain a bit of mana for every hit. They mostly differ in their skill and spell choices, much like the various D&D classes. The Wizard is definitely the black mage of the group, as his spells are very rarely centered on buffing allies or giving support, but instead are based on blowing things up. He does have a few support spells though- a fire ward, and the ability to slow time for enemies. He can also use his magic on wooden objects like boxes and barrels to create a wood golem. Lastly is the sorceress, who mostly plays support. I hesitate to call her a white mage, because she doesn’t have any straight-up healing magic, and she has a couple attack-based spells that can be devastating, such as creating a blizzard that hits the whole screen and freezes enemies, as well as smashing the ground with a giant boulder. It’s like she’s a cleric from D&D that for some reason took every spell EXCEPT the healing ones. Though she can heal people, just in a roundabout way. She has a spell called “create food,” which is a bit misleading. When you first get the spell, yes, it does make food, which is good because not only does food heal you after waiting for a bit to let your character eat, it can also “over-heal” you, making your health extend past its maximum, and of course you normally have to find food in your adventures. But at higher levels it also generates various items that you’d normally find throughout the levels, including sub-weapons like daggers and crossbows for the party to use, barrels of oil that you can either let the Dwarf pick up to throw at enemies and then ignite for bonus fire damage or have the Wizard turn into a wood golem. It can even generate bone-piles, which can be brought to town to revive at the church to create AI-controlled partners (which fill empty slots in the party), or the Sorceress herself can turn them into skeleton warriors. This is a good spell to get as her, as it helps her have excellent symmetry with all the other classes in some way.
The combat is fast and frenetic…too much so, in some cases. You see, there’s another issue with the game’s art style- the sheer level of detail and expansive use of special effects make it so that it’s very easy to lose track of your character in the middle of a fight, especially if you have a spell caster in your party. The phrase I found myself saying the most throughout the game was, “Where the hell am I?!” Should you decide to play this game, I recommend making sure every character is different and, if possible, has different color schemes, just to make it harder to lose yourself. There’s a few other issues I found in the game, notably with early-game balancing, and progression. The Elf has some problems keeping up with the other characters in terms of usefulness early on, but this changes as you level.
The game’s progression system is also really bizarre. You see, the first half of the game turns out to secretly be an elongated tutorial, with entirely new gameplay elements opening up in the second half, such as deciding to keep playing random levels rather than going back to town in order to get better loot, a cooking mechanic that lets you buff yourself between levels, branching paths, and so forth. Then there’s the end-game, which opens up some interesting new features, such as a Pit of 100 Trials/ Bloody Palace-esque challenge dungeon to get character-specific loot, and a PVP arena, but also throws a strange little monkey wrench into the game’s story. I won’t spoil anything, but basically upon reaching the end credits and seeing your character’s ending, a certain character appears and states (in so many words) that to get the true ending you’ll have to beat the game twice more in increasingly harder difficulty settings. It’s neat that this game has so much extra content if you’re looking for it, but it does kinda deflate everything you just did to save the kingdom.
Don't worry though, there's plenty of good to be had in this game. While the flashy animations seen in the game can make it incredibly difficult to tell what's going on, there's no denying that it all looks stunning, and the controls for this game are incredibly tight and responsive, as well as surprisingly deep. I'm still finding new tricks I can pull off with the Dwarf and Elf. While the branching path element comes much later in the game than it probably should have, and the choices literally never diverge from “Go to path A or B”, but it still grants the game a real sense of adventure. You know what else does that really well? The narration. The whole game has a narrator, who handles the voice work for all the NPCs you talk to outside of actual gameplay, as well as describe what your characters do or see in certain situations. It feels very similar to having a dungeon master in a game of D&D. There was even a DLC available that was free for a time, but now I believe costs a few dollars, that allows you to change the narrator's voice to one of the player characters. It's interesting to hear how the other voice actors interpreted the same lines. I'll never forget the game's opening line, though, as it's one of those lines that's just perfect as the phrase that starts an adventure- you go to the character selection screen and see all the characters hunched over a table, planning what they're about to do, when the Dungeon Master chimes in “You seated yourselves, and call for a stein of the finest mead.”
The bosses, while occasionally difficult to navigate due to the aforementioned problems with magic attacks, are all very interesting and require careful. Later areas might require you to grind a bit as some of them become so damage spongy that you might just need bigger numbers to deal with them properly. But grinding isn't too bad as it offers a chance to bag some better loot with interesting effects, while also delving into the side quests. Most of the stories in these quests aren't that significant, but there are a few real kickers in there, such as one where you have to stop some goblins from getting a certain blueprint, and when you beat it you discover that they were intending on building a giant death-blimp called a “Sky Terror” that would've destroyer the entire kingdom. You even get a cool picture of the Sky Terror as a reward- which is another neat little detail I appreciated. Upon completing a quest, you get “treasure art”, a painting that depicts something related to the quest you just did, usually the outcome or some kind of revelation discovered. They're all really well done and match the game's art style nicely. Why did I bother mentioning that the art style matches? Well, it seems that the developers brought in a team of artists to draw these treasure art pieces, as all of them are annotated with the creator responsible in the gallery. Whether these artists had anything to do with the general style or drawing for the game, I don't know, but it is nice to see artists getting recognition in a video game so that later I can look them up to see what else they’ve worked on. The game's music is fairly well done as well. Nothing truly captivating, just lots of music that puts you in a certain mood. If anyone out there plays lots of tabletop RPGs, here's an entire playlist of background music for you to work off of.
Lastly, I just like the many little details in the game. Whenever you find bones to be revived, you see a silly quote, which almost reminds me of River City Ransom. Speaking of which, you can set text as quotes your character will say under various circumstances (so obviously, one of my first characters' death quotes was “BARF!”). You have a constant NPC traveling companion, Rannie the Thief, who unlocks doors and chests for you. He doesn't fight or anything, he just carries your money and picks doors. Interestingly, Rannie actually levels up. I don't think it actually does anything, but it is a cute little feature that shows that your buddy is getting better during the course of this adventure along with you. As a side note, if you play as an Elf, during boss fights Rannie will pop in every once in a while and toss out a few arrows, that way you don't completely run out. You eventually get a little fairy companion named Tiki, who' s CLEARLY a reference to Tinker Bell. She allows you to use Rune Magic, a little feature that lets you generate spells by linking letters together. The effects range anywhere from doing some plot-mandated method of progression, to generating a cache of sub-weapons, to healing everyone, or even to killing all enemies on-screen. I also enjoyed the numerous references and jokes to certain movies and games laid throughout Dragon's Crown that are sure to get a laugh or two.
So, have you figured out what this game is reminiscent of? The playable classes include Elf and Dwarf, there's significant RPG elements, there's branching paths...  There's even a few classic D&D monsters to fight, including Owlbears and a Beholder-like boss. This game is a massive callback to the classic Dungeons and Dragons arcade games. I played them on the Chronicles of Mystara collection on Xbox 360, and they're still great games, but to think that a spiritual successor to them exists is fascinating to me. And it is a good spiritual successor- don't get me wrong, the game has problems, but Dragon's Crown is still a great experience. The loot system is interesting and requires you to carefully consider your load out. The characters are so different that every playthrough will feel fresh and new, and there's just SO MUCH content in this game.  With as many criticisms I had with the game, I still can't help but admit that this is one of the most enjoyable side-scrolling beat-em-ups I've played in quite some time.
I recommend getting Dragon's Crown. You can get it on PS3 and PS Vita, and if you decide to get it for both, you can even use cross-save.



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