As someone who grew up during the heyday of 2D gaming, I’ve got a special place in my heart for developer Vanillaware. Under the watchful eye of president (and infamous artist) George Kamitani, the team from Osaka, Japan, has been hard at work keeping the spirit of non-polygonal gaming alive and well in an era when such projects are usually considered too costly or time-consuming.
One of the Vanillaware’s titles that perfectly exemplified that dedication to its craft was 2013’s Dragon’s Crown. Born in part from Kamitani’s time working at Capcom on games such as Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, Dragon’s Crown blended the traditions of arcade-style side-scrolling beat ‘em ups with deeper character progression and exploration elements. While the game caused a bit of controversy that’s long since become exhausting to rehash, its true legacy was that of an ambitious and beautiful adventure, albeit one that could have used a few tweaks.
Now, almost five years later, that adventure returns in Dragon’s Crown Pro, a slightly updated rerelease of the game for the PlayStation 4. My use of “slight” is fitting because—to just get straight to the point—this will be pretty much the exact same game that those of us who played it before remember. The “Pro” part of the game’s name comes in the fact that its visuals have been upgraded to look better on 4K televisions when played on the PS4 Pro; those hoping for a major upgrade in that regard, however, should temper their expectations. Really, there wasn’t a whole lot that this game could gain in the jump from one resolution to the next, beyond an increase in finer details and sharpness. The original Dragon’s Crown already resembled an ancient painting come to life, and the inherent differences between 2D and 3D games will always—past a certain point—lead to the latter seeing bigger improvements the more pixels there are to work with. The one other major difference here is that the entire soundtrack now comes in both original and fully-orchestrated forms. It’s definitely nice to have that choice, but the option certainly isn’t worth the cost of upgrading for those who already own the game on PS3 or Vita.
And—well, that’s it really. Otherwise, Dragon’s Crown Pro—for good or bad—is the same game you may have played all of those years ago. That original product was something that I don’t think needed upgrades or additions in order to remain relevant in 2018, and yet, five years is a long timein video game lifespans. It’s hard not to think that we shouldn’t have gotten something after all that time—a new character, maybe a new location, a rework of gameplay (more on that in a moment), or so on. Given the lack of updates, the nearly-standard priced release at $49.99, that price tag becomes a little hard to swallow—I mean, even Nintendo at least gave us an ape on a flying surfboard when the did the same recently.
So, Dragon’s Crown Pro has to be taken simply for what it is (and was), and that’s an experience that I think still holds up incredibly well. Of course, there’s no questioning the game’s utterly gorgeous art, from its detailed and distinct character designs to its backdrops that whisk you from one fantastical location to another. This is all of your favorite Dungeons & Dragons module covers come to life as seen through a Japanese lens, and it’s hard for me not to fall in love with this world all over again. The gameplay of the original Dragon’s Crown remains intact here, and it was interesting how jumping back in felt both familiar yet fresh at the same time. The uniqueness of what the Vanillaware team put together continues to shine through, and still feels different than what gaming typically tends to give us.
Dragon’s Crown Pro’s failings are those it carries over from its predecessor, and while none do any serious damage to the game, it’s hard to get past that nagging feeling that an even better game is only an extra bit of polish away. While the repetition didn’t bother me even after going through all of this yet another time, the game’s requirement for replaying stages and bouts of mandatory level-grinding can definitely wear on some. Going online to play with others is still locked away until around the game’s halfway point (though kudos for making this cross-play with the PS3 and Vita versions), and filling out your character’s skill tree remains a frustratingly slow process. Finally—in the one complaint that does rub me a little raw, and which really could have received a rethink in this rerelease—I’m still not a fan of how the game handles AI partners. If you’re journeying through Dragon’s Crown Pro solo, at some point you’re going to have to add some CPU-controlled allies or risk things becoming an utter slog. Such companions are plentiful in the game (once you find and resurrect them), but—similar to my personal nemesis, Dragon’s Dogma’s Pawn system—these teammates are basically disposable, as they can’t level and you can’t alter any of their equipment. I really, really think there was a chance here to offer you the ability to use your created characters as companions, and then have them level and mature alongside whoever you’re currently using as your main. This would have given your team more of a personal connection, and would also have alleviated the problem of having to run through earlier parts of the game all over again if you want to try out a different main character choice.
It’s easy to come back to what I played years ago in Dragon’s Crown and revisit the nitpicks I had with the overall experience, but the far more important thing that I remembered was how great of a game this is once you get past any misgivings. It’s certainly not for everyone—mostly due to its style of gameplay, but, sure, also because of some of its artistic choices—but those with the patience and passion for games like this will find a lot to dig into. I’m glad to have what Kamitani and Vanillaware put together return for the modern era, though I’d also be remiss if I also didn’t admit that Dragon Crown Pro’s value can be broken down into simple if-then statements. If you loved the original and want to have it playable on the latest PlayStation platform, then picking this up is an easy choice. If you’ve already played through and enjoyed the game but would need something new to encourage you to go back for another playthrough, then you’re probably better off passing. Finally, if you’re new to the world of Dragon’s Crown, then I absolutely encourage you to take a chance on it if it seems like your kind of game—so long as you appreciate that experiences like these have only gotten more niche as time passes, not less.
It’s tempting to call Dragon’s Crown Pro a lazy rerelease, because beyond a slight visual bump and new orchestration of the soundtrack, this is basically the same game from 2013. The thing is, five years later, it’s still an incredibly engrossing experience, so I can appreciate the effort in simply bringing that same game to modern hardware.
T – Teen
|Dragon’s Crown Pro is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Atlus for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.