It’s amazing how many things Dragon’s Crown gets right, and unbelievable that one of those is the only acceptable Monty Python reference of the past forty years. It’s amazing how willing Dragon’s Crown is to throw away tradition in order to be a very traditional sort of game, and it’s amazing how Dragon’s Crown is perfectly willing to steal from the best. Which is not to say that Dragon’s Crown doesn’t have some original and delightful design as well, but while learning what works in one game and implementing it in a completely different game might seem common sense, it’s rarely simple to actually execute.
Dragon’s Crown is meant as an unofficial sequel, of a sort, to Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom and its sequel Shadow Over Mystara. The design team features a few of its creators, long since departed from Capcom. Advanced for their time, these arcade games were of the genre I unfortunately have to call “beat-’em-up”, in which people would beat up other people, as if on a street of rage or in some form of final fight. This was the era in which Dungeons and Dragons was in the twilight of its heyday, Capcom (and not EA or Activision) was the top developer of licensed western games, and arcades were still the main place to play videogames with friends.
Today the brawler might seem like a very strange template for a game based on the most famous role playing game, but back then it made all kinds of sense. Keep in mind that the earliest versions of Dungeons and Dragons were more structured and boardgame-like than the genre is currently known for. It was also, critically, a team sport, with a team of people working together to defeat the scenario created by the dungeon master. In an era where online gaming as we know it barely existed and arcades were places people went to, a brawler made a huge amount of sense. Capcom experimented with the formula, introducing experience points, item shops and even dialogue choices to bring the game in keeping with the design unique to the Dungeons and Dragons pen and paper game.
Dragon’s Crown is positioned to recapture this mid 90s arcade experience, but things have changed in the past two decades, and in order to feel like a 90s arcade game, Dragon’s Crown needs to be almost nothing like a 90s arcade game. Beat-’em-ups in particular were designed around the needs of an arcade setting, an environment that’s now largely insignificant.
In addition to quarters being a real limit for how long you could play a game (and how much you were willing to spend to get good at it), arcade games were entitled to a certain degree of unfairness and memorization because you weren’t expected to play them all in one day. The point was to come with some friends, play until you lost too many quarters or got frustrated, then come back again and hopefully do a little better the next day. These games were meant to last months and did, but since a digital download on a modern console gives you infinite virtual quarters and all the time in the world, all of that careful design falls apart. You can beat games like this in a few hours.
In an arcade brawler, the extremely high difficulty and memorization required forced players to play the same level again and again, to keep groups of friends together, working as a team, getting better so they could eventually beat the game. The closest equivalent game, derived as well from Dungeons and Dragons and supremely excellent at getting groups of friends to play it over and over again, would be Diablo, which Dragon’s Crown lifts a liberal amount of inspiration from. Both share a series of unlockable difficulties, high level caps and extremely rare randomized gear that requires many additional sessions to acquire. This formula is to online multiplayer gaming what quarters were to the arcades.
Here it sounds like I’m just praising Dragon’s Crown for its capacity to suck up your time, which it will do. It’s significant, and unprecedented in this genre of game, to implement such a smart system for keeping players coming back and, most importantly, playing together and having fun together. What happened to the beat-’em-up isn’t that designers stopped making them, or stopped making fun ones, but that they depended on the actual design of the arcade itself to do what online matchmaking and loot drops do today, and this is a good thing because Dragon’s Crown is a real good time.
In practice Dragon’s Crown doesn’t feel anything at all like the slow and imprecise play of the games it is based on. You can press a button to send your character soaring across the screen, leaping through the air or rolling nimbly past enemies. It is so simple and easy to do that you might not realize that you can cancel every single move with another move. That means that it is possible to instantaneously stop doing one move and start doing another move, which means that as soon as you realize that the Cyclops is about to punch you, you can cancel out of the way with a roll, an air attack or pretty much whatever you can think of. At this point, Dragon’s Crown’s combat borrows far more, mechanically, from Devil May Cry and God of War, the 3D successors to the brawler, than it does to the originals in the arcade (there’s even the aforementioned roll dodge). It’s all the better for it. Instead of memorizing tedious patterns Dragon’s Crown is about reading enemy tells, reacting to avoid attacks and extending combos as long as possible. It feels wonderful instantly but still has a very high ceiling for skill to improve your game.
The three easiest to use classes, Amazon, Dwarf and Fighter, play as distinct flavors of a very fast and easy to understand melee attacker. The Fighter is very quick on the attack, and has long air juggles and lots of defensive moves. The Amazon can spin in the air and leap across the screen, crashing down like a meteorite with reckless, high risk attacks. The Dwarf has the ability to flex his muscles and look super buff. He can also pick up and throw just about everything in the game, which is about as fun as it sounds, and fly around like an angry badger. You press a button and something really exciting comes out. These hand-to-hand warriors are simple but also perhaps the most fun to play because there’s so much to do and they all move at the speed of thought with no planning required. That feels good sometimes, to only have to think about the moment.
The Wizard and Sorceress have powerful magic that ranges across the screen. They are trickier, because you have to think and manage their supply of mana. My least favorite thing about games that have some kind of mana bar is that characters that need it are useless and thus no fun without it, but in Dragon’s Crown there are a couple of distinct ways to restore mana. They can get some back each time they kill an enemy, or hold down a button to rapidly replenish it (which they can do while walking, so they aren’t completely vulnerable). Their basic attack also restores a substantial amount of mana on hit, and while it deals almost no damage, it also stuns, knocks enemies down, and dizzies them, which is a powerful supporting attack for the other classes who can do lots of melee damage. Managing mana is a big concern but it’s turned into a fun and clever problem. It’s sometimes nice to play a class that requires more thought.
The last class, the Elf, is a little of both and a little more. She flits quickly through the air with quick kicks, but she can also shoot arrows from all positions and all directions, and even has a little bit of magic too. She has a lot of options but isn’t as limited as the casters, so even though she’s labeled as an expert class, it’s not because she’s hard to play so much as there’s so much to do with her. She’s kind of ideal, and covering so many bases at once makes her my favorite character.
I haven’t even talked about the clicking or cooking yet.
The clicking, oddly enough, is what feels most like Dungeons and Dragons, because Dungeons and Dragons is as much about poking around dangerous places for treasure as it is about fighting, winning and getting experience points. There is a small pointer that’s controlled with the right analog stick and pokes around for treasure or trouble. The point is, maybe there’s no really point to it, except, the beautiful hand drawn environments seem like a living place, and not a backdrop. And with the cooking, well, this is a Vanillaware game, so there must be cooking. Online matchmaking is unlocked late in the game, and you can string together dungeon runs in order to get bonuses or find items or gold (until your gear breaks, which is a handy way of capping how long sessions get and is quite respectful of player time). Between missions a campfire stacked with all manner of ingredients will appear. You can cook food with your friends, shovel it on your plate, and eat as quickly as possible within the time limit in order to receive buffs for the next mission. The food is, no joke, the most beautiful and lovingly drawn art in the game. It looks really good. I’m hungry again.
At this point, what is left of Dungeons and Dragons are small touches, like the fantasy aesthetic, pulpy like Frank Frazetta and other fantasy illustrators. This style is, in general, extremely traditional and professionally executed, but also generic , like how Dungeons and Dragons was meant as a nearly blank slate for the players and dungeon masters to write on. The game is fully narrated even, without spoken dialogue in most cutscenes, as if intoned from behind a stack of dice and graph paper at a kitchen table in 1990.
But the aesthetic brings up Dragon’s Crown reputation for its character designs, and I’m not entirely okay with the art even though on one level I really love it. Jenn Frank wrote the best article on this, better than I will ever write, so I’m leaving it here. The body is a body, and bodies are okay. People who draw bodies can be creeps and homophobes, and that seeps into how they discuss bodies and the context they put around bodies, and that can make the resulting game (like, uh, this one) uncomfortable. I like naked barbarian men and women and there are lot of both in this game, which is an okay thing to be into or not be into, but not okay to be creepy about.
It’s 2013. Why do I still have to write a paragraph basically apologizing for what an embarrassment this game can be, while still hoping others will play it? (Because, again, as a game, it’s wonderful.) Why did Vanillaware go out of its way to ensure many people would be uncomfortable playing their game? It is so possible to make characters that are sexy and awesome without being gross about it, but the game industry can’t seem to help themselves. Square-Enix can’t even change their flagship character’s design without leaning in and whispering that you should equip a smaller shield so you can see her boobs bounce. That is the opposite of sexy. Dragon’s Crown wants to be sexy, but it thinks that means it doesn’t have to be respectful. Vanillaware can do better. Vanillaware has done better. We deserve better.
Dragon’s Crown was developed by Vanillaware and published by Atlus. It is available for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita.
Andrew Vanden Bossche is freelance writer who maintains a surreal video game terror blog at http://mammonmachine.com/ and a twitter account, @mammonmachine, which is both a popular resource for anime puns and flirtation advice.