The developers at Vanillaware have made a name for themselves by making a series of small-scale, remarkably exquisite RPG gems that are as much video games as they are interactive paintings. Though the widespread appeal of Vanillaware’s products has grown steadily over the years, with their latest effort, Dragon’s Crown, they may have finally broken free of the ties that bind them to a limited audience. The game is both a throwback to the golden age of side-scrolling beat ’em ups that devoured the spare change of many an arcade-infatuated youngster in the late ’80s and early ’90s and a firm continuation of the extravagant artistic style present in every Vanillaware release. Imagine a visually overhauled Streets of Rage or Night Slashers set in a medieval mystical fantasy world infused with exceedingly flamboyant homages to Norse mythology and you get the basic idea of what Dragon’s Crown brings to the table. Though its central storyline is its weakest aspect, the level of addictiveness instilled into the chaotic combat mechanics, intriguing loot collection, and incentivizing experience system render the game Vanillaware’s most immediately accessible to date.
The available six job classes are straightforward in theory, and each is accompanied with its own particular adversity curve and skill tree. The Fighter is the proper place to start for beginners, offering an all-around balanced battle methodology, while trickier choices like the hex-lobbing Sorceress and the brutish Amazon should allow genre veterans to strut their stuff. The latter two of those options are indicative of the gaudy visuals Dragon’s Crown prides itself on. It’s easy to see why naysayers grimace at the sight of them; really, there’s no practical reason why a witch has to possess such a bulbous ass, or why the musclebound Amazon should look as if she was conceived by a manga-obsessed Robert Crumb. Nevertheless, as soon as the enslaving skirmishes get underway, the undulating bust of the zaftig enchantress dashing across the horizon becomes much less of a distraction.
There’s plenty of time-consuming stage revisiting to be had throughout Dragon’s Crown, but thankfully the gothic microcosm of Hydeland is as entrancing a hub destination as Vanillaware has ever created. Consisting of nine individual locales, each passing opens up a new string of avenues and secret areas, complete with a pair of increasingly tough bosses to put your abilities to the test. Given the amount of polish applied to these locations, it’s never much of a bother when backtracking quickly becomes a necessity. From flourishing woodlots to feudal acropolises and sunless crypts, the degree of artistry is repeatedly staggering. Enemy designs are equally awe-inspiring, whether your opponent is a first-round grunt or a towering endgame behemoth. The score, composed largely by Hitoshi Sakimoto, Masaharu Iwata, Manabu Namiki, and their prolific music company Basiscape, is one of their best contributions to the medium, full of thundering war anthems coupled with quieter, dynamic drama tracks, every note bolstering the volatile action taking place.
As with all of Vanillaware’s games, Dragon’s Crown avoids explanatory handholding and doesn’t shy away from punishing the unprepared. Turbulent encounters rarely let up, and whether playing solo or with a trio of friends, gathering a stockpile of important items and paying proper attention to character refinement is key. There’s a unique gamble element to the treasure menus, and dropping hard-earned funds on something you might not urgently require is a frequent occurrence, yet every once in a while a powerful piece of equipment is stumbled upon by chance. An assortment of sidequests will quell wandering attention spans long after the approximately 15-hour main campaign is put to bed, as well as an unlockable bonus difficulty in the form of a NG+ scenario, as if the standard playthrough wasn’t already challenging enough.
The most protrusive sin committed by Dragon’s Crown has nothing to do with the size of its sirens’ breasts, but rather an unfortunate economical decision made by the publisher. Although cross-saving between the PS3 and PS Vita is possible via PSN, cross-buying isn’t. So, both enjoying the game’s glorious melees on a massive screen in the comfort of your own home and the middle of a transatlantic flight will cost you a pretty penny. Similarly, those playing on the PS3 can’t partner with Vita players simultaneously, and the portable device’s multiplayer is online only. A shame, because, other than that bantam blip on the radar, Dragon’s Crown is a nearly stainless example of a conceptually old-fashioned brawler modernized for the masses.