Vanillaware games are stunningly gorgeous. This isn’t really up for debate. In this modern era of photorealism–meets–theUncanny Valley, their intricate, hand-drawn designs give a tantalizing hint of the direction videogames could’ve taken had polygons not been crowned king 15 years ago.
But whether it’s Odin Sphere’s unique take on Norse mythos or the Japanese woodblock paintings come to life in Muramasa: The Demon Blade, Vanillaware games have a bit of a problem. They’re unbelievably intoxicating and immersive at the start and draw in the player with impressive, unparalleled visuals—and then proceed to overstay their welcome with recycled assets and repetitive gameplay. Odin Sphere was a particularly grave offender in this regard, as it promised the potential of five playable protagonists…and then made players clear each story to unlock them all. The diversity between characters was welcome, but the lack of choice meant that many players simply grew bored before they got a chance to experience it.
Dragon’s Crown has the opposite problem. It’s incredibly slow to ramp up and doesn’t even allow you to take advantage of a back-of-the-box selling point—online multiplayer—until several hours into the game. Like Odin Sphere, it offers multiple playable characters (six in all), but this time, you can actually choose between all of them from the start. Plus, you can always create a new one at any time; even though you’ll have to start your adventure from scratch, that won’t overwrite any previous adventures.
This game is the culmination of Vanillaware president and art director George Kamitani’s 15-year-long dream to craft a spiritual successor to classic side-scrolling arcade brawlers like Golden Axe and Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, two games that I poured plenty of quarters into during my formative years. Kamitani’s longtime musical collaborator, Final Fantasy Tactics legend Hitoshi Sakimoto, returns as well, and his medieval-styled score is perhaps more fitting for what’s on display here than any previous work he’s done.
Kamitani’s stellar art, Sakimoto’s stirring compositions, and the impressive pedigree of quarter-munching brawlers should be a surefire recipe for success—and it generally is. But Dragon’s Crown, while certainly a worthwhile epic quest, never quite comes together as seamlessly as it should, even though it’s still Vanillaware’s most complete experience to date.
True to its roots, the game unfolds like a typical pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons outing. You form your traveling party at an inn over a flagon of the finest mead, while a British-accented narrator plays the role of “Dungeon Master,” giving hints as to where to venture next. There’s always a story-based goal to tackle, but you’re free to attempt all manner of sidequests, which give experience and gold but also a greater reward—stunning artistic renditions related to the task you just undertook. Gold and jewels just aren’t enough motivation for me in a game like this, which is why I greatly appreciated having a tangible bonus I could truly admire after completing a hard-won mission.
Unfortunately, the game can’t exactly re-create the camaraderie of a real-life coffee-table gathering of nerds. Dragon’s Crown’s major problem is that it doesn’t feel quite right as either a single- or multiplayer adventure. When playing with human companions either on the couch or online, you can’t help but feel like you’re simply a bit player in their story. Does the plot demand the protagonist visit Morgan’s Magic Item Shop? Oh, hey, what are you doing in here, Amethyst the Sorceress? This story is for Ray the Dwarf only! Get out—and take your heaving bosoms with you!
And when you’re playing by yourself, you feel like you’re simply harvesting warm bodies to go adventuring with. No, really! You stumble upon piles of bones you find in dungeons and then resurrect them at the local temple—and these serve as mere interchangeable parts for your party. They don’t level up. You can’t change their equipment. You can’t even fix their equipment. And when their weapons and armor ultimately break, they become like a horse that you have to put down. In fact, I was offended more by this portion of the game than by any of Kamitani’s questionable stylistic choices.
It’s the opposite of my experience with Pikmin 3, where I struggled mightily to keep my squeaking cohorts alive because the game gave me a reason to care about them. Dragon’s Crown didn’t give me any reason to give a damn about my computer-controlled adventuring partners—I could revive any of them an infinite number of times, so long as I had the cash on hand during a mission.
On that note, however, Dragon’s Crown captures that old-school arcade feel of helplessly running out of quarters perhaps better than any game I’ve played on a home console. Younger readers may not remember, but there was a horrifying sense of dread when you realized you’d spent the last of your $20 you’d taken to the arcade on a Saturday afternoon. It’s always been a challenge to match that feeling in the days of limitless playtime, but here’s where Dragon’s Crown brings some innovation. As you enter a dungeon, you’re given a set number of Life Points for each character. If you or your comrades happen to perish in battle, you can revive without penalty.
But once you’re out of Life Points, you have to pay to revive a party member. If you happen to run out of coin…well, that’s where Dragon’s Crown successfully, brilliantly matches the feeling I’d always have when Elf, Warrior, Wizard, and Valkyrie all needed food, badly—yet none was to be found, and my adventure came to an end in the middle of Chuck E. Cheese’s. And should a computer-controlled party member expire at this point, they’re gone for good.
The areas you’ll visit are impressive, but as in all Vanillaware games, you’ll be visiting them a lot. To begin with, you’ll need to clear all nine levels before you can even unlock multiplayer, which took me about 10 hours—I took my time and completed all available sidequests—but others have reported reaching this point in as little as four to five hours. After that, you’ll need to complete a reworked version of each area, and if you want to complete the substantial amount of postgame content, you’ll have to traverse these same nine backdrops again and again. Sure, each realm brings its own fantastical look and feel, and the boss encounters at the end of each area—which take 10 to 15 minutes to traverse on average—are exhilarating wars of attrition against some pretty formidable foes. However, after playing through the game for 30 hours, I couldn’t help but yearn for some different settings to fight through.
But here’s where Dragon’s Crown separates itself from previous Vanillaware action fare: As you level up and unlock new abilities and wield powerful new weapons and armor, combat becomes far more enjoyable and rewarding. While the incredible visuals are what initially hooked me on the game, the diversity in classes is what keeps Dragon’s Crown fresh even after 20 or 30 hours. I was always discovering new strategies and tactics, and if I ever got tired of hanging out in the corner powering up spells as the Wizard or Sorceress, I could always switch to the long-range arrow blasts of the Elf or the close-quarters combat of the Fighter, Amazon, or Dwarf. The aesthetics may have gotten the publicity, but it’s impressive how differently each character class plays.
So, yeah, about those character designs… I generally try to keep out of the “gaming controversy of the week,” so I haven’t really commented on the furor that the over-the-top character portraits—particularly the Sorceress and Amazon—conjured up a few months back. I will say, however, that I was frustrated at the stunning lack of context throughout this debate.
As a young child, I remember thumbing through my dad’s tattered Dungeons & Dragons books from the ’70s, years after he’d stopped actively playing the game. It would be a few years before I’d make the leap to tabletop role-playing myself (most 7-year-olds don’t have a Dungeon Master at their beck and call, after all), but those images of an Umber Hulk crashing through a wall and accosting a group of adventurers or a Beholder gazing upon a terrified wizard and his cohorts struck me with a sense of wonder when it comes to fantasy epics that hasn’t let go for the rest of my life. And, yes, these images were filled with strapping barbarian oafs, scantily clad sorceresses, and damsels in distress—these themes are hardly new in the realm of fantasy.
But even though the Sorceress and Amazon may have gotten the most attention, everything in Dragon’s Crown is misshaped and grotesque to a degree, whether it’s a wizened old warlock, a helpless beggar on the street corner, or even a scaly dragon. It would be one thing if the Sorceress and Amazon clashed with the overall aesthetic, but they don’t at all. If you’re offended by these images, that’s certainly your prerogative, and I respect your opinion—but please understand the context that created them. These aren’t the crude, mindless scrawlings of a 13-year-old middle-school boy bored in history class. These are an attempt to channel the likes of fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, intricate Renaissance portraits, Classical Greek sculpture, and much more. Whether Kamitani succeeded in his goal is another question—I think he did more often than not—but his intentions were clearly far less prurient than your average Japanese RPG character designer. And that’s a fact.
I also think it’s a shame that some players only seem to be discovering Kamitani’s work with Dragon’s Crown and aren’t taking a look at his entire body of work, none of which points to a history of objectification or sexist tendencies. This isn’t former Team Ninja head Tomonobu Itagaki we’re talking about here—an utterly crass man with a history of blatant, lowest-common-denominator pandering and real-life sexual harassment issues. Kamitani may not have articulated his viewpoint as well as I’m sure he would’ve liked—and I think the language barrier may have played a role in the misunderstanding—but I truly think his intentions were simple here: recapturing some of the magic many of us felt growing up in the arcades of the 1980s.
I wish this game could simply be judged on its own merits, but I think the reaction by the gaming public has been so visceral, so judgmental—on both sides of the debate—that’s it’s simply not going to be possible at this point. Either Dragon’s Crown will turn you off and you won’t ever give it a chance as a game—and you have every right to do that as a consumer—or, as you play through, you’ll stop noticing anything that might have originally bothered you. Or, heaven forbid, you may actually enjoy the art.
Dragon’s Crown may not be the perfect package, but I’d love for more developers to stick their necks out and deliver something that provokes a reaction like this—even if it may not please everyone in the end. It’s worth taking a risk, even if it offends.
George Kamitani’s controversial art may have grabbed the headlines, but that overshadows what’s really on display here: a love letter to the classic side-scrolling arcade brawler. The gameplay feels caught in a weird void between optimizing the experience for single-player and multiplayer, but this is as close to a trip to the old-school arcades of the late ’80s as you’re going to get on home consoles.
T – Teen
|Dragon’s Crown is available on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. Primary version played was for PlayStation 3. Product was provided by Atlus for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.
A proud Japanese RPG and serial-comma enthusiast, Andrew attended E3 for more than a decade. His least-proud moment? That time in 2004 when, suffering from utter exhaustion, he decided to take a break on the creepy, dilapidated—and possibly cursed—La-Z-Boy at Konami’s Silent Hill booth.