Vanillaware’s latest game, Dragon’s Crown, is a completely over the top side scrolling beat ’em up that falls somewhere between homage and caricature on the spectrum of classic fantasy fanboyism. Its vividly exaggerated art style, an extreme version of your favorite Dungeons & Dragons book cover, grabs you and draws you in, promising grandiose adventures with burly, bare-chested dwarves and sultry sorceresses. This emphasis on appearance can at times leave the game feeling more decorative than functional, lacking in appreciable depth, but the fun you’ll have pummeling untold legions of hand-drawn enemy sprites will go a long way towards making up for that.
Your journey begins with one of six character classes: Sorceress, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter or Amazon. For the most part their abilities follow the traditional offensive models, offering ranged, melee, magical, and physical damage in varying proportions. The Amazon does heavy melee damage with her massive pole-arm but is weak defensively, which can likely be attributed to her itty bitty chainmail bikini. Alternatively, the Fighter’s plate mail affords him substantial physical protection, but at the cost of some speed. These differences mean that some characters are more difficult to wield than others, and the game will helpfully tell you as much while you’re deliberating about your selection. While the characters all appear very diverse, for the most part the melee classes play pretty similarly, though the spellcasters do offer some novelty with flashy moves like blizzard and lightning storm.
Once you’ve chosen your class you’re ready to begin your adventure, a task that starts in town at the less than imaginatively named Adventurer’s Guild. The guild is where your character will train up, acquiring new, more powerful skills. These skills are divided into the general and class specific, and range from simple fighting moves to being able to convert gold into health. The guild also prescribes quests that direct you through the game, though the information is provided in character and somewhat cryptically, at times telling you what to do but not where or in what manner. The overwhelming majority of quests will simply involve the clearing of a stage and the monsters therein, however sometimes you’ll need to meet an unknown criterion as well, which can become frustrating if it causes you to repeat the same area until stumbling upon the answer. For example, as it turns out assisted dragon suicide isn’t quite as laudable as actually doing the deed yourself.
Equipped with a predictably convoluted royal plot and tenuous reasons for venturing out of town, you’ll set out on your search for the Dragon’s Crown: The crown, a relic said to control dragons, is missing along with the king, leaving the political kingdom in a state of turmoil and you, random joe-shmoe from the street, to help figure things out. Frankly the story is extremely forgettable, feeling like the flimsy excuse for violence that it is. It isn’t bad enough to ruin the experience of gameplay, but it will be disorienting when you try to recall what you’re supposed to be doing and why.
The outside world is revealed to you as series of sequential two-dimensional levels, each one its own hyperbolic variation of a magical trope like the mad scientist’s laboratory or the castle of the dead. Sometimes it’ll feel cliché, but the scenery is absolutely stunning anyway. It’s particularly striking watching the picturesque landscape rotate around the mage’s tower as you run up it. Even the mounts look legendary. Like the best kind of 80’s power metal song, this game will have you riding velociraptors around and spitting a hail of fireballs into the faces of your foes.
Levels progress in the standard manner from left to right, and consist of about ten frames of button mashing that culminate in a boss fight. Each section of the level will have an assortment of chests to unlock, yielding an item of random quality once you’ve cleared the final area. You’ll also come across the bones of other fallen travelers which you can return to town and resurrect, providing a replenishing stable of NPCs to accompany you through the single player campaign. Completing levels will yield gold used to buy and repair equipment and experience used to level up your toon. Players may be underwhelmed by the leveling up, however, as there is little visual evidence of the progression: Your level one sword will look suspiciously similar to its level 40 counterpart, a consequence of the game’s insistence on being epic from beginning to end.
Where the notable exaggeration remains appropriate to the subject it does really work. The genie’s muscular arms and the old beggar’s wrinkled skin bring out their essential qualities of strength and weakness respectively. It even makes sense for the Sorceress, a class that’s traditionally charismatic, to have sexually suggestive garb. However, in the case of the nun with her legs spread it feels at best lazy and at worst downright regressive.
If the game’s questionable portrayal of women and lackluster storyline aren’t enough to put you off, though, there’s still plenty left to enjoy about it. Wrapped in its hauntingly pretty watercolor design, Dragon’s Crown has all the delightful face smashing one might expect from a brawler plus the added incentive of character development and randomized loot. The repetitive nature of the genre is even slightly mitigated by a random level generator at the game’s end, a tool that’ll give you at least some reason to keep coming back for more.
Bottom Line: Dragon’s Crown is gorgeous, and though at times its flavor may be of questionable taste, ultimately it does still manage to strike a lot of the right nostalgia chords.
Recommendation: Best for lovers of fantasy brawlers and retro enthusiasts.[rating=3.0]