After a long and tumultuous development period, Dragon's Crown is finally upon us. It has been years since we last received a title from Vanillaware, bastions of the wonderful hand-drawn 2D art design, and it was definitely well worth the wait. Taking place in a genre that has become almost completely saturated over the years, the developers have taken just enough inspiration from what came before it while also providing plenty of wholly original elements to keep this addictive game unique and highly entertaining.
The story itself serves as a nice backdrop to the action. An ancient dragon is threatening to awaken from its long slumber to terrorize the countryside of Hydeland. Corruption, political intrigue, and world-ending prophecies are all found here. This is all told extravagantly by an amazing narrator, doing well to pull you in and never let you step outside the realm of this fantasy world that has been crafted so well. As I said, though; you don't come to this genre expecting to sit through a bunch of cutscenes - stages can be completed in a relatively short span of time, allowing easy access for those quick sessions.
Speaking of which, the RPG mechanics work well here. The score points earned from beating up monsters to grabbing loose treasure contribute to a character's experience points. This can be spent on unlocking a volume of new skills that are either class-specific or general abilities like increasing one's health or defense. There is also many different types of equipment to pick up that are the real focus in differentiating between party members, where the right weapon and armor can make all the difference in each fight.
The beautifully refined art style is classic Vanillaware. The wonderfully hand-drawn designs are a real sight to behold, and provide this intricate attention to detail that only this company is able to pull off in an era where photorealism is the typical aim. Showing that they can make everything a gigantic fire-breathing dragon down to a small, meticulous piece of bread, everything looks impeccable.
The production values alone are amazing, and there are a ton of eye-catching moments that could easily become paintings that you could hang up on the wall. The game is also arguably their biggest technical achievement, with relatively few moments where I could notice any noticeable slowdown in the framerate, which is amazing considering how much action can be happening on the screen at any given moment.
What I enjoyed the most were the levels themselves which are a wonder to behold, with each one being categorically different from the other. From ethereal catacombs to a castle under siege, there's a nice variety to both the landscapes and to the distinctive creatures that players will encounter throughout the game. There are definitely strong traces of inspiration to be found in a lot of the monsters, but also some cool originality. Everything just felt so refreshing in a way that only George Kamitani and Co. can deliver.
Even after beating the game, there is so much more content for me to explore. After the credits roll, there is a new location that appears called the Labyrinth of Chaos which provides randomly-generated dungeons filled with handsome treasure to be found, along with a PVP battle arena that allows up to four people to fight each other. I only dabbled a little bit with this, but it seemed like an interesting excursion for bouts between friends or to test out a particular character build.
Along with enemies that scale to the player and the number of party members, a choice of difficulty level, and the large number of boss fights that can play out differently based on the party you are traveling with, the game has a solid amount of depth for this style of game. Granted, beating the core game multiple times doesn't really offer much, but it's the adventure that certainly matters more here.
The multiplayer mode works as well as it should. All you need to do is hit pull up the Start menu and go online. From there, I was able to access a random game or join a friend's room. Jump-in, jump-out functionality is weaved into the game so that at any point, I could quit from an adventure and still earn whatever gold and items I had found up to that point, just like in the single player mode. If you or a live party member decides to leave the game in the middle of a battle, an NPC quickly takes its place to avoid any unfortunate disasters.
Of course, continuing on with a party that works well unlocks additional bonuses for that endurance, whether it brings a higher percentage of gold or a higher chance for more quality drops. Players have the option to run an oline game but blocking other players from taking over certain slots so that I could keep my Level 92 in the second slot but have the other two open for access. Oddly enough, there is also the option of blocking all three of the extra slots and still head online, but at that point, I have no idea what that mode offers in that situation. You have to play through the game for a few hours before you can unlock online multiplayer, but it's fairly easy to do so. On the other hand, Local cooperative play is available from the very beginning.
The game also has a Cross-Save feature. Located right on the main menu, it is easy to upload and download saved games locked on your PSN ID. Speaking of which, the game tends to operate a bit better on the Vita due to how the game naturally wants you to hunt the screen for hidden treasure and runes, and simply because it can be a bit quicker just to poke where you want to go instead of having to find a gap in the combat.
I loved every moment I spent inside the world of Dragon's Crown, from the very first moment I set up my character to the time I spent in its world and online right to the ending moments. There's plenty of content here to keep one engrossed with for a counless number of hours, and who knows what they may come up with for additional DLC down the line. As the crowning achievement of the genre, Dragon's Crown provides the peak of what the sidescroller beat-'em-up can provide in the modern era, and definitely comes highly recommended.