Dragon's Crown Review
An enjoyable dungeon crawler that suffers from repetition
Fantasy games have come a long way since the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. From Gauntlet to Elder Scrolls, we have been building fantasy worlds in the spirit of J.R.R Tolkien for decades. Like many different genres, fantasy has expanded in different ways, providing story heavy content like the Dragon Age series, immersive worlds like Elder Scrolls, or multiplayer focused content like World of Warcraft. Since we could put pixels to screen, orcs, goblins, elves, and dwarves have picked up sword and staff to capture our imaginations. In our rush to create deeper fantasy worlds and better stories we sometimes forget to stop taking things quite so seriously.
That is far from Dragon’s Crown’s biggest problem, as it feels a bit more akin to Monty Python than it does to Lord of the Rings. The game avoids outright slapstick, but can’t help itself from peppering the hours of its gameplay with the same jokes you would find being bantered across a table of friends with pen-and-paper creatures. While most of today’s fantasy games shrug off the beginnings of a fantasy setting, Dragon’s Crown warmly embraces it, sometimes clinging a bit too tightly to dated tropes of the side scrolling beat ‘em up genre.
From day one, the most controversial aspect of Dragon’s Crown has been its over-the-top art style. The men are big and burly, the women are curvy and suggestively dressed. You can form your own opinions about how objectionable the material is, but know that it is inescapable. There’s no way to exclude the Amazon or Sorceress from your game, there’s no way avoid the suggestive poses from the warrior priestess. The game - for better or worse - exudes its art style with reckless abandon.
To call Dragon’s Crown a beat ‘em up feels a little disingenuous - sure it’s a side scrolling barrage of enemies that you hack ‘n slash your way through, but there is a bit more skill required under the hood than your typical brainless dungeon romp. Different characters require different strategies and different disciplines; the Elf requires precision to use her bow while the Sorceress uses area-of-effect to maximize damage. Working together as a team feels important and picking the right allies can tilt fights in your favor.
While there are numerous strong aspects to Dragon’s Crown action, the core combat leaves a bit to be desired. The game’s 2D world can throw your depth perception, making it hard to comprehend if you are lined up with an enemy. This is not much of problem when dealing damage on a larger scale, but trying to aim with arrows or other thrown objects can be cumbersome. The combat revolves around stringing together attacks and battling through hordes of enemies that wander onto the screen. While the variation of foes isn’t impressive, it’s enough to keep you from getting bored. Where the variety is really lacking is in the dungeons. There are nine dungeons available in the game with two routes in each, however each dungeon takes about a handful of minutes to complete. When you are talking about a game that has a playthrough expectancy of about 20-30 hours you begin to realize how often you will be repeating these dungeons. Their design isn’t bad, and each has distinctively different feel, but that doesn’t prevent them from becoming boring after the fifth or sixth time you trudge through.
You start the game in the hub city; here you will find everything an adventurer needs from inns to stables which are unlocked through quests in the first section of the game. Exiting the hub will bring you into the fantasy world of Hydeland where you will choose one of the nine dungeons to visit and conquer. You complete the dungeon with your allies (which can be CPU or player controlled), review your loot, sell unwanted items, restock, and repeat. As well as collecting items in dungeons, you can also find the remains of fallen warriors; if you take these remains to the temple in town you can resurrect them to gain CPU allies to join you on the journey. These CPU allies are mediocrely skilled, usually helpful in dispatching waves of smaller enemies, but quick to die against the bosses at the end of the dungeon. Their worthlessness against bosses can lead to some frustration as you either have to pay money to resurrect your dead allies or risk losing them forever. It is not hard to see that Dragon’s Crown wants you to reach a certain level before going toe-to-toe with tougher enemies, and if you try to stretch beyond your skill the game is not forgiving. This turns Dragon’s Crown into a grind, not an unpleasant one, but still a grind where you spend numerous dungeon crawls trying to reach the necessary level and acquire the money to revive your numbskull allies before attempting any progression in the game.
Dragon’s Crown has more tricks up its sleeve than simply sending you through the same dungeons like a medieval episode of Groundhog’s Day, as it also boasts a smattering of side quests. Some of these side quests are pretty straightforward, but others require you scouring dungeons time and time again, looking for the right rune to trigger or lever to flip. It is impossible to retread explored ground without completing the dungeon, which plays to the game’s desire to push you through the same levels over and over again. This is where the multiplayer can help, as having friends or simply a human element can make playing dungeons a little less tiresome.
Narratively, Dragon’s Crown is a mess, which may or may not be intentional. Front loaded with plot and exposition, the game tells well over half its story in a couple of hours then seems to forget what its point was and wander off track. Characters pass through the story without really seeming to know why they are there, mostly serving to populate the world as extras with more dialogue. While the structure is a disaster, the writing and narration aren’t half bad, just in need of a better story. In the end, if you’re looking for a fantasy game with story, you can find them elsewhere. Dragon’s Crown doesn’t have much plot, but it doesn’t pretend to. It is simply trying to keep you grinding and coming back for more.
While the art of characters is all about being over the top, the background art is really where the game shows off its beauty. The world in which Dragon’s Crown is set is drop dead gorgeous. Whether you are scrolling through world map or battling your way through dungeons, the one aspect that never gets old is the hand drawn backgrounds that create illusion you are playing in front of oil on canvas paintings. So much of Dragon’s Crown is tongue and cheek that having this part of the game being treated with such subtle reverence is a nice change of pace. Adding to the ambiance of the game is the subtle, yet pleasant score. Much like the background art, the score takes itself a tinge more seriously, lending more credence to the game’s pedigree. The presentation comes together to prove that Dragon’s Crown is not all about being outlandish and over the top, but also knowing when to be subtle to create contrast.
There are highs and lows to Dragon’s Crown, and it all depends on what you’re looking for. The game is not about a grounded world with an engaging narrative - it is about cutting up bad guys in dungeons, collecting your prizes, and managing your character. While there is something soothingly engaging about the routine, it doesn’t really round itself out into anything more than a decent distraction. The Vita capitalizes on the disposable nature of Dragon’s Crown, allowing you to build up your character while watching TV or on a road trip. However, the small screen can make the chaotic battles difficult to follow. The PlayStation 3 version runs smoother and gives you a bigger screen to take in the awesome art, but it seems like a bit of a stretch to expect someone to commit the 20+ hours while playing the same levels over and over on their couch. There are some really enjoyable things in Dragon’s Crown, however they fade away after fighting the same fight in your 25th hour.