Vanillaware always seems ready to strike gold. Their house style has broadcast gorgeous, lavishly detailed art across three different hardware generations and yet their work never rose above cult appreciation. Whether it was Odin Sphere stepping up to properly demonstrate action RPG's on the PlayStation 2 or Muramasa: The Demon Blade's subdued attempt to add legitimacy to the Wii's third party library, Vanillaware couldn't seem to catch a break. All of their talent never led to much traction. Enter Dragon's Crown.
As close as a Vanillaware magnum opus as we're going to get, Dragon's Crown incorporates their trademark 2D aesthetic and warps it around, of all things, the ailing beat 'em genre. On one hand it's a natural progression from the more traditional role-playing game focus that consumed Odin Sphere and Muramasa, but on the other hand the beat 'em genre has kind of been creatively stymied for a decade and trying much of anything new typically results in a resounding thud of consumer appreciation. Don't get me wrong, I loved Castle Crashers and God Hand but I also recognize the limitations of their narrow appeal.
Dragon's Crown feels different. Almost self aware force of nature, it seems to understand the player's expectations and responds formidably with a wildly imaginative and impressively deep experience for its audience. Not intended audience, mind you, but rather any audience one might have in mind. Disinterest doesn't appear to be an option, as Dragon's Crown provides an entry point aimed directly at any player type or skill level across its six classes. Confident in your ability to methodically wear down the hoards of aggressors? The Wizard's where you want to go. Rather bash brains incoherently while paying only the slightest bit of attention to your surroundings? Roll a Dwarf and oblige your primal bloodlust.
Character classes give way to two different skill unlocks. One offers a set of skills and abilities common to every class, and other goes down the road of specialization for that specific class. There are a lot of different ways to play each character, and Dragon's Crown is constructed with that idea in mind. Across one save file you can roll twenty different characters, ensuring that if at first you don't succeed, you, well, it's difficult not to succeed in Dragon's Crown - a myriad of difficulty options support virtually every need - but options are there if you happen to get bored with a particular play style.
A determined style of play isn't buoyed by a lack of support; Dragon's Crown is intended as a cooperative experience. While you're forced to play a significant amount of the game before online multiplayer is an option (likely delayed to ensure every participant is both committed and learned), it's both a treat and inevitability once it’s available. Dragon's Crown, through later quests and advanced difficulties, can be hard game, and working the right balance seems essential to reaching its ceiling. If you can't manage the chaos of trying to rope friends in or simply prefer to play games offline, Dragon's Crown has you covered. AI companions can be found (in a manner of speaking) and up to three can join you along the way. They're probably not going to be as intelligent or agile as a human being, but in my experience they got me through non-abusive difficulty just fine.
Dragon's Crown boasts nine distinct areas ripe for different adventure. That may seem like a relatively small number of maps, but Dragon's Crown provides plenty of ammo to keep its precious guns loaded. Each area is packed with hidden rooms and randomized items, and with moderate investment branching paths and adjusted boss encounters help keep the inevitable grind from feeling like, well, a grind. Make no mistake, Dragon's Crown is all about the grind to keep getting better loot to help you keep getting better loot so you can get better loot, but it masks its dark addiction better than most of its peers. The ceiling's high enough for anyone.
Dragon's Crown's boorish narrative gets in the way early on, but it's rescued by George Kamitani gorgeous art direction. Vanillaware might be interactive entertainment's premier 2D side scrolling art house, and their trademark style manages to feel both familiar and fresh by establishing overly embellished takes on known tropes. They literally don't make them like this anymore, and any opportunity to absorb art this detailed feels like a gift.
Dragon's Crown's provocative art style may also work against its mission. While Vanillaware has been drawing women with exaggerated sexual features since their inception, a rise in social consciousness over the last decade makes it a bit harder to swallow. Or, in other words, having to justify the game to my wife who starred in pure disbelief at what I was playing brought pause to the situation. I'm of two minds of this subject. On one hand I can't get over a deliberate exploitation of a woman's more prominent features; the constant focus on the Amazon's ass and Sorceress' chest is objectively offensive. While the Warrior, by comparison, may have an obnoxiously ripped physique, I don't see a giant dick dragging across the screen. On the other hand I can sort of appreciate a complete lack of censorship and I want to applaud Atlus' decision to let Kamitani’s work remain untouched. That's extremely rare in this focus grouped and corporately polluted day and age. It's a tough line to walk, and whichever side you happen to fall on may greatly impact your impression of Dragon's Crown.
Thanks to cross-save functionality, I played through Dragon's Crown alternately on my PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. Each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses. The art is gorgeous either way, but in my experience it looked crisper and prettier on my Vita's OLED than it did on my aging Samsung 48'' LCD. The Vita's touch screen functionality also proved to be immensely more satisfying for finding hidden items and plain 'ol menu navigation. The PS3 interpretation of Dragon's Crown, on the other hand, damns the player with a dragging a plodding cursor affixed to the right analog stick. It feels like a game built for Vita and ported to PS3 - and Vita would be the preferred platform if online play didn't chug with a moderate amount of on-screen activity. It's tough to go wrong either way, but I'd give the Vita an edge over the PS3.
Dragon's Crown responds to the routinely shallow beat 'em up genre by raising its ceiling so high it's hard to tell when or where it may end. The relationship between play style and potential is cyclical, ensuring any lingering curiosity over a different class or build feeds into a completely new experience. There are some more abrasive aspects that might render Dragon's Crown inaccessible, which is unfortunate, but it’s currently near the top of its genre otherwise.