Japanese game developer Vanillaware has posited that video games should be considered art for over a decade. With Odin Sphere, the developer presented a take on Norse mythology that played out like a childrens story book. Muramasa: The Demon Blade escalated the drama with a thrilling homage to the NES classic The Legend of Kage. Before any of those existed, however, there was Dragon’s Crown. As Vanillaware’s president George Kamitani tells it in the Dragon’s Crown Artworks, “I drafted the first plan for this game about 15 years ago, immediately after I created a game called Princess Crown. It never saw the light of day at that time, but ever since in the depths of my heart I’ve been wanting to make it exist if the opportunity ever arose.” After years spent languishing as a shelved idea Dragon’s Crown is finally a fully realized product, and the end result is a breathtaking artistic statement indicative of its laborious development process.
Dragon’s Crown is a side-scrolling action RPG that supports cooperative multi-player. Players start the game by choosing from six character classes. The Fighter class is easily the most balanced, with damaging sword combos as well as shield skills that can guard the entire party. Next is the Dwarf class, who functions as a grappler while dual wielding hammers or axes. The elf is a combination of rogue and ranger character types found in other RPGs. She favors a bow but can be just as deadly with a dagger if she back stabs the enemy. The last of the physical attackers is the Amazon class, a lithe female warrior that waltzes across the battlefield with graceful combinations and punishing parries. Rounding out the cast are two mages, a Sorceress and Wizard. The former is a female caster who wields protection magic and status effects, the latter is a male counterpart with highly destructive spells.
The various classes add a depth rarely seen in action RPGs. What at first appears to be a rote brawler reveals itself to possess a depth akin to Blizzard’s beloved Diablo series. The play style for each of the six characters differs wildly, offering an option for any type of gamer. A robust set of skills further differentiates the play style of each class, with a variation on the skill tree progression system. A single skill point is obtained at every level up and every time a side quest is completed. With such a scarcity of points the decision of which skills to upgrade can be daunting, but each increment is important enough to be a scale tipping difference.
Dragon’s Crown’s gameplay is augmented by a number of features that are not present in many other side scrolling games. The most obvious of these is the rune system, wherein players can tap on symbols in the background of each area to cause temporary status boosting effects. Myriad traps, secret doors, and treasure loom in every corridor, an obvious reference to the pen and paper RPGs that so heavily inspired the developers. Once the player has defeated the first nine bosses an alternate boss is unlocked for each area. As such the stakes are raised, and perhaps the key element that makes Dragon’s Crown so addicting is its unique system of chaining together dungeon runs. Every time an area is completed the option to return to town and heal is given. However if intrepid dungeon delvers decide to press on, they receive incremental boosts to gold earned, treasure rank and score. It is a simple idea that often keeps the controller in hand far longer than anticipated. With multiple difficulties and literally hundreds of unique items available for each class to locate, Dragon’s Crown has a staggering amount of replay value.
Without a strong art design, the prospect of combing these dungeons multiple times would seem tedious. Instead, the jaw dropping two dimensional hand drawn art assets make each area an absolute joy to traverse. The static backgrounds can be absolutely mesmerizing because of their intricate detail, but never detract from the action onscreen. The character designs are interesting as well, with completely unique representations of archetypes that have been drawn nearly the same way for decades. Vanillaware has truly spared no effort in presenting the world of Dragon’s Crown in resplendent detail. From the scenic view of the Lost Forest down to the scratches adorning every blade that swipes at your character, the game is truly a feast for the eyes.
The flaws are sparse but must be considered. Even though Dragon’s Crown is all about combat, that does not excuse a jejune narrative. As each dungeon is completed the player is bombarded with monotonous narration and humdrum conversations between static images. Often the unlockable paintings tell a more intriguing story than the dialogue does, proving the game is at its best when it is showing instead of telling. Another issue is that while cooperative play is exciting, at the completion of every dungeon each player has to individually shuffle through numerous menu pages to get their skills and equipment in order. Perhaps this micro managing is unavoidable in such a complex RPG, but nonetheless it ultimately subtracts from any immersion the game offers. While the soundtrack is appropriate to the setting, it never deviates from typical fantasy style arrangements and as such sounds flat and pedestrian. It is a shame that perhaps the most inspired art design and two-dimensional battle mechanics this console generation has yet seen is complemented with lackluster audio and story elements.
Dragon’s Crown is a visually stunning achievement with a few minor setbacks. The game truly shines as a cooperative experience, and even offers artificially controlled characters to take up the sword during the single player experience. It possesses a staggering amount of challenge and replay value, encouraging players to tackle dungeons in quick succession to gain more loot and experience. The combat system itself contains layers of depth that gamers will be peeling back for dozens of hours. Vanillaware’s 15 year old idea has finally come to fruition, and even though the execution is not flawless, they have still created a video game that is the very pinnacle of its respective genre.