The developers at Vanillaware have long been masters of a certain kind of action RPG, mixing old-school left-to-right brawling a la Final Fight and Streets of Rage with JRPG principles, with absolutely stunning art direction holding the whole thing together. The results have been among the strongest and most enjoyable titles in either genre—specifically, Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade—but certainly not the most accessible. Which is to say, not the most friendly to mainstream Western audiences.
Dragon’s Crown is an attempt at meeting that audience halfway. It’s a game that feels like the medieval brawlers of old—such as Golden Axe, Guardian Heroes, and Magic Sword—but without the overly kawaii aesthetic of Vanillaware’s previous titles, and with the RPG complexity dialed way down. These are all acceptable choices, and Dragon’s Crown Pro is bolstered by a sumptuous new orchestral soundtrack that’s befitting of the astounding nature of the game’s world. The trade-off is that players still have to endure some of the most visually obnoxious character designs in gaming history.
When it was first revealed back in 2013, Dragon’s Crown generated some controversy, in part for the way the Sorceress seemed to break her back in her horrifyingly successful attempts to bend her ass toward the camera, her floating, gargantuan breasts looming almost ominously in every direction at the slightest provocation. Then there was the Fighter, a sort of bog-standard hulking knight character with a hideously swole torso atop inexplicably puny legs. Every character’s body is disgustingly distended and mutated, beyond even the wildest dreams of anything Rob Liefeld has ever committed to paper, straight into Tetsuo-at-the-end-of-Akira-level body horror.
And yet, these are the characters with whom we’re meant to travel the realm of Hydeland—through hordes of orcs, giant animals, and wizards—for upward of 20 hours. Not even the striking painterly impact of the game’s backdrops can dull the unnerving look of these character designs, which are demeaning to human evolution when they’re not being demeaning to women.
Dragon’s Crown is, thankfully, a bit less extreme in the mechanics department, almost to the point of banality. The game is, at heart, a basic sidescrolling brawler, with a few twists. You and up to three allies fight enemies from left to right with a delightfully fun and fluid mix of ground and aerial attacks. One helper character, a thief, can randomly appear in the midst of a battle and open chests for you; another, a fairy—ironically, the only NPC with normal proportions—helps find hidden items and secret passages. You can even choose from a nice variety of fantasy characters, each of whom bring some nice strategic dimensions to the gameplay as the enemies get more difficult.
Stages are teeming with loot, which can be appraised, sold, and divvied up among allies. Money can buy enhancement items, perks, and new maneuvers. New weaponry upgrades your stats, and XP raises your strength and defensive capabilities. Combined with a near-endless supply of sidequests for extra money and XP, Dragon’s Crown admirably serves the twin masters of Western RPGs: loot and exploration. The game is fun, breezy, and accessible enough to be worthwhile, especially since online co-op is just a screen away after you’ve reached a certain level in-game, and Dragon’s Crown Pro’s cross-play function means players still stranded on the PlayStation 3 or Vita versions of the game can join in with their friends playing on the current gen.
But like most games where the focus is moving players toward ever-bigger and ever-better caches of loot, the narrative of Dragon’s Crown ends up as the victim, which is disappointing given how well Vanillaware’s previous efforts delivered on that front. The game’s overarching tale tells a story about the titular crown, with a B plot about a count attempting to usurp the throne from a saintly princess, and her Tudor-like father, but it’s all very slight and never sticks to the mind. Which is to say that this game would still be hard to fall in love with if it didn’t absolutely assault the laws of human physics.