Monday, June 1, 2015

Dragon's Crown Review

Vanillaware is an example of an auteur game company that more companies should aspire to be.  A company whose games are filled with love, care and everything that the developers like that, by extension, a good portion of players like them should like as well.  Indeed, I have liked Vanillaware's games in the past.  Odin's Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade were both excellently-presented fantasy action games with substantial stories and simplistic head-on combat that only needed a few buttons at their core.

With Vanillaware's latest title, Dragon's Crown, I don't think me and the developers share the same tastes as well as in the past.  Everything in its core is the company's enjoyable signature, but the smaller aspects around it keep Dragon's Crown from reaching greatness.

Dragon's Crown harkens back to much simpler times, both in its gameplay and storytelling.  The story is set in a very old-school classical medieval European fantasy world (because the other games took the Japanese and Norse fantasy settings) and is told entirely through narration.  Outside of small lines in-game, the entire story is told through the game's narrator, voiced by voice actor veteran JB Blanc doing a hokey accent.
The narrator describes everything that happens and what every character says, rather than have a character's voice actor speak any dialogue.  As such, you'll hear the narrator's voice more than any other, so for those of us who wanted to play a game that sounds like you're in a D&D session with Ryotaro Dojima, Dragon's Crown finally delivers on that obscenely narrow niche.

And he's watching... Always.
That isn't entirely a joke either.  Dragon's Crown is meant to be a nostalgic trip back to the times of playing tabletop medieval role-playing fantasy games with friends, with the narrator in this case meant to be the one who sets up the scenarios.
The problem is this is not a tabletop game, this is a video game, and having everything explained rather than shown means there's a constant violation of the show don't tell rule.  I can accept having the narrator explain everything, but portraying the story through nothing but barely-moving character portraits with almost none to display any emotion or action smacks of extreme laziness.  Skullgirls tells its story through still images better than this and it's an indie game!

Not that it's a riveting story in the first place.  Again in its attempt to be retro, Dragon's Crown has a very basic story that more serves as an excuse to get you into the different settings than anything else.  It starts out with varying unconnected mishaps involving the local royalty, but the second half of the game has you going through new paths in the worlds you've already been through, fighting new bosses to gather 9 macguffins so you can beat a big baddie in order to get the primary macguffin, the titular Dragon's Crown.
Every character is flat and is only designed to play a role with very little characterization.  It's expected that the varying shopkeepers in the hub town are just there to provide services, but in Dragon's Crown such characters make up almost the entire cast!
For the nerds who miss the days of such simplicity this can be overlooked, but for those who care about stories in games (like, say, those who played Vanillaware's previous games), it's tough to get invested.  The best the writing gets is in flavor text, the occasional meme and bits of ironic humor that should crack some smiles.  In particular is a boss taken straight out of a certain movie involving King Arthur's Knights and a Holy Grail.

I suspect his name is... Tim.

Thankfully unlike the story, the gameplay is largely up to par with Vanillaware's previous titles.  Like Odin's Sphere or Muramasa, fighting is largely regulated by the square button and there are items to pick up, equip and use mid-battle, some of which are limited-use skills you can buy for your character as you level up.
Rather than be on a strictly 2D plane in which you can only move left or right, Dragon's Crown is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that allows for movement in all directions, like Final Fight, Streets of Rage and the first Senran Kagura.  There are 9 levels, each with two bosses, and with Vanillaware's usual flashy effects, detailed artwork and rapid-paced combat, fighting enemies small and large is just as fun as ever, even moreso if you play with friends.  It can be a bit of a clusterfunk at times though.  Even with the circles indicating each player's location you're likely to lose track of yourself in the game's more frantic moments, but if anything that challenges you to stay focused.

Sadly Vanillaware seems to have missed how important it is to be able to play with friends for beat-em-ups such as this.  Computer allies are available, including ones you can choose to resurrect from bones you find in dungeons, but it's inherently more fun to play with friends and Dragon's Crown makes you work for it.  This doesn't happen in the PS3 version, but in the Vita version I have you can't play with other players until the second half of the game when you start your talisman hunting.  I hope you didn't intend to buy Dragon's Crown to play it from beginning to end with your significant other or a group of friends!
In a saving throw by the designers you can skip the first half of the game and start at a decent level when you make a new character, provided you've beaten the first half already, which is good because the different classes and customization is where a lot of Dragon's Crown's depth comes from and constant repetition of the same stages every single time you made one would overshadow it.

"So how we gon' do this?"
Playing with computers does make it so that you don't lose anything when you use the Vita's home menu to pause the game, which you need to do because there is no pause function!  And in the PS3 version there's no way to pause at all!
Why in the hell would they design their game with such a fatal flaw?!  Why couldn't the game allow for the computer to take over temporarily like in Left 4 Dead 2?!  It's a tolerable grievance with tagalong computer partners that will follow you wherever you go, but random players you find online aren't going to wait for you!  They're going to move on while you get your helpless ass mulched into ground beef!

I believe James Rolfe said it best when he played Ghostbusters 2:
"If you have to answer the phone, or take a shit, it's like, "Tough shit if you gotta take a shit!"  You gotta take a quick shit!  You gotta have turbo turds!  I'm trying to play the game, I've got shit stains in my pants, and an answering machine that says "Sorry, I'm playing Ghostbusters 2 on Nintendo."  What a selfish game!  Bottom line, have a fucking pause button, god damn it!"

But even if Dragon's Crown online play mishaps are ignored and you don't mind playing alone, it runs into the bane of any game: arbitrary padding.  There's genuine longevity and depth in playing through the game with its 6 classes, giving them stronger armor and skills as they level up and seeing their story epilogue.  Plus, with (essentially) 18 different levels plus a final boss, a lot of gamers will be satisfied with the 15-20 dollars they're likely to buy the game for now.  However, those who expect more beyond those levels are going to be disappointed.

Once you beat the final boss, you've seen just about everything the game has to offer.  The only content Dragon's Crown offers after that point is less an incentive to go back and more a desperate plea to.  After winning and concluding the weak story, the game tells you to fully beat the second half two more times on two higher difficulty levels for the true ending.  There's no change to any of the levels outside of stronger enemies, so it is simply padding.  Padding that isn't even worth it.

There are MMORPG-style quests to partake in that give you experience, gold, skill points to strengthen your abilities and a gallery item with each one you complete.  Each of the game's many art pieces and the quest descriptions themselves have their own flavor text that help build the game's world (even though it should be doing that in the game).  These would be a good incentive to play the game more if they weren't such chores to do.
Many quests ask you to kill a certain number of enemies or find a specific place in a specific level with vague hints as to just where in the level it is.  The enemies you're asked to kill often only show up in one specific place or are very rare and require playing through the same level multiple times to meet a quota.  I could accept this more if the game let you accept all the quests available and do them passively as you play, like in most MMORPGs, but you can only accept 7 at a time, meaning you'll have to go out of your way to do them.  The artwork you get for finishing these quests is beautiful, but the majority of them are obtained through padding, not a challenge like they should be.

If Dojima's monologuing gets too repetitious, there's also an unlockable option to have the playable classes be the narrator, but the requirements to unlock them are absolutely ridiculous!  You have to get the true ending with a character just to get their voice in the shop, requiring you to beat the same levels three times, and once in the shop they cost 1 million gold, so if you haven't gotten sick of repetitive grinding to get that far you will be when you're only playing for money that's potentially lost to the game's various adventuring expenses!

One of such expenses is one of the most arbitrary of all: the horses.  You're forced into choosing levels at random in the second half of the game unless you pay gold for them.  Long play sessions after selecting a level are encouraged too; after completing one level, you can move on to another for bonus gold and experience, but that one is selected at random, meaning you're likely to end up in an area for a talisman you already have or for a quest you haven't accepted!  I find it rather ironic that Dragon's Crown asks the player to play their game for so long yet doesn't let them pause!

If I didn't know any better I'd say all the padding was added to try and justify the game's status as a major company release, because, as previously mentioned, without it the game is about a few steps up from a beat-em-ups like Castle Crashers or Golden Axe in terms of content, just with much higher production values.
If Vanillaware wanted to justify the initial price point the right solution was to add more to it, not repeat what it already used ad nauseum.

Just like Castle Crashers, Golden Axe, Gauntlet and the other games that inspired Dragon's Crown, it's fun while it lasts.  You can ignore all the lazy side questing and there's still a very fun, lengthy action game at its core.  The padding may even serve as an excuse to go back to it and play with random people online for some quick fun when you're in the mood.

This place reeks of magic.
There's no getting around that it's probably the weakest Vanillaware title I've played though.  Beat-em-up fans and fantasy geeks will be getting their money's worth, as it fulfills both of those genres very well in true Vanillaware fashion, but for those who want something more substantial, it's one that can be skipped.  I give Dragon's Crown a 6.5 out of 10.

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