At times chaotic, featuring an occasionally frustrating menu system, the Vanillaware-developed "Dragon's Crown" nonetheless has enough addictive hooks to keep you and your party returning to its dungeons to make it a worthy successor to hack and slash games of the past.
Set in the fantasy kingdom of Hydeland, "Dragon's Crown" tasks you and your party of three other adventurers with discovering the artifact in the title, which is rumored to have the ability to control dragons. "Dragon's Crown" features a surprisingly busy story of royal succession and inter-kingdom conflict, with your party in the middle of it as the explorers brave enough to challenge the many dungeons, towers, and layers strewn throughout the land. "Game of Thrones," it ain't, but the story woven through "Dragon's Crown" offers just enough surface detail to keep the world from feeling like just a pretty space where your Amazon can crush skeletons.
Ah, the Amazon--she's one of the game's six classes which include a Fighter, the Dwarf, the Elf, the Wizard, and the Sorceress. Each offers a strategic benefit in combat as well as to the rest of the party: the melee-focused Fighter not only has a higher defense than the others, he can use his shield to protect the rest of the party from incoming attacks. The Sorceress, meanwhile, can not only summon creatures from the ground, but transmute objects into food for the party. The variety offers more than simple button mashing during combat (Vanillaware even has difficulty ratings for the individual classes given that some such as the magic users offer a more complex combat experience beyond simply pointing at the enemy and attacking).
Your party also includes and NPC thief who you can direct to open chests and doors using the game's cursor, making loot collection a little easier. It's not just that the classes are varied that makes "Dragon's Crown" so easy to pick up and come back to, it's that their interdependent, and you want a party to join you down in the dungeons of Hydeland. Each is upgradeable through the game's simple progression system with boosts character stats between levels while offering the chance to dump points into general and class-specific skills at the local guild.
But what if you can't three other players online (or aren't able to round up a party locally)? "Dragon's Crown" borrows a cool feature from "Dragons Dogma" in allowing you to recruit AI players, whose bones you'll stumble across in dungeons. They can be resurrected at the town priest and carry their own gear and progression. Unfortunately, "Dragon's Crown" doesn't offer any way to customize or outfit the AI characters, and at one point, my party's AI Elf's weapon broke and I couldn't repair it at the shop. It's fine as far as that goes--I was set to replace her anyway with a higher-level Elf I found in a later dungeon, but it's unfortunate that I couldn't outfit the character myself.
Some other quirks to be found in the game: in order to keep the multiplayer action moving, there's no pausing while in dungeons, so what you've outfitted your character with going in is what they'll be using. Additionally, on the PS3, the cursor occasionally makes "Dragon's Crown" feel like a hidden object game as you scroll around looking for items and objects buried in the environment. It's an inelegant solution, but really, you'll only be searching for treasure and activating runes when most of the enemies have been cleared off the screen.
The story is told through the ever-present narrator, who also provides updates to your quests while in dungeons or regrouping in the cities, and it's a fine storytelling device, but can prove annoying at times when you hear the same quest objective after you've entered and exited a shop or location in the town.
Sadly, if you want to play "Dragon's Crown" on you PS3 with your friends on the Vita, that's not going to happen, thanks to some still unclear technical limitations during development. Likewise, the digital version doesn't offer cross-buy functionality via PSN, so you'll have to choose one platform or the other (on the plus side, the game does offer cross-save, so you can carry your game across consoles, at least). These are dealbreakers, but "Dragon's Crown" would have been the perfect game for this type of functionality.
I haven't really gotten around to the art style--which caused a flashpoint of controversy when "Dragon's Crown" was first announced. With its bulging and busty female characters, "Dragon's Crown" entered the gaming and sex conversation as just another case of an art team taking the easy out of objectifying women in order to get eyeballs on their title. The thing is, director George Kamitani's designs are too odd, too idiosyncratic for that simple label of sexy for its own sake. Both the male and female characters are exaggerated to an extreme, almost grotesque level, and some of the still images used throughout the campaign (the mermaid with visible butt cleavage is one that comes to mind) have that hint of the male gaze about them, but they're... well, they're too weird to be sexy, if that makes any sense. Let me try again: Kamitani's aesthetic--which I think is elaborately beautiful--takes the kinds of illustrations you would have found in old-school D&D manuals, and filters them through this odd, slightly squished vision.
It's like that with much of "Dragon's Crown": a game that offers unexpected depth at every turn with only the occasional flaw to mar the otherwise perfect execution.
"Dragon's Crown" will be available now for the PS3 and the PS Vita on August 6.
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