Review: Dragon’s Crown Pro

Returning half a decade after its PlayStation 3 and Vita debut, Dragon’s Crown‘s new “Pro” edition for PlayStation 4 brings back everything that was great about the original, addresses some technical issues, opens cross-play online co-op between all three Sony platforms, remasters the soundtrack with a live orchestra (you can switch back to the original music if desired), and touches up Vanillaware’s signature suggestive (and often controversial) art style so that it’s now even glossier and sexier than ever before.

As a returning player, slipping into Dragon’s Crown Pro couldn’t have been any smoother, my years old PS3/Vita cross-save file waiting for me in the cloud, allowing me to continue my hard mode run where I last left off. Now with over 30 gameplay hours under my belt, I’ve since moved into the Infernal difficulty, up to level 74 on my way to the level 99 cap. Trophies are unified across the three systems, so any progress you made in the previous versions carries over, and any progress you make moving forward is maintained no matter where you play the game.

In terms of content, story, level design, and gameplay, the game itself is unchanged. Optional use of the DualShock 4’s touchpad brings the cursor interactions at least a little closer to the still-superior touchscreen input offered in the Vita versions, but other than that the controls feel identical to the PS3 version.

In addition to the gloriously refined HD artwork, Atlus was able to tighten up the game’s performance. Whereas the old game suffered from frame rate dips during especially busy action, the PS4 version plays with a consistent, buttery-smooth fluidity. As sharp as the higher resolution graphics are, though, gameplay is still hampered a bit by unclear character visibility when the screen fills up with enemies and flashy spell effects. Particularly when playing with a full 4-hero party (either co-op or with AI companions), it can be difficult at times to track where your character is amidst all the swords and sorcery chaos.

An unexpected boon of the Pro version’s 4K visual upgrade is the in-game art gallery of collectible portraits, which, as before, pairs paintings with bits of lore as rewards for fulfilling side quests. Thanks to the PS4’s capture and sharing features, being able to take screenshots of your favorite pieces and then use them as wallpapers only heightens the collector’s appeal. For more than just extra loot and experience for my hero, I’ve become obsessed with doing every side quest just so I can complete the art gallery and find new images to potentially transfer offer to my PC. Here are half a dozen favorites I’ve put into my wallpaper rotation so far:

Dragon’s Crown Pro is the definitive version of a game that, if you ask me, was already a masterpiece. If you never played it before, you owe it to yourself to play it now. As far as whether or not it’s worth it to pay full price to upgrade from a previous edition, I would say definitely get it as a home cross-save companion if you already own the Vita version. Upgrading from the PS3 version is a little iffier since the enhancements are less prominent, but if you’d like to migrate as many previous-gen games over to PS4 you can rest assured that this is the superior version.

For those of you who missed out on the game the first time around and want a deeper dive into its core gameplay and features, the text below is a repost of my review of the original PS3/Vita release. What I wrote then still very much applies now, so I’ll let my previous summation take it from here.

Offering the cooperative hack-and-slash fun of a vintage arcade beat ’em up with the depth and longevity of a role-playing dungeon crawl, Dragon’s Crown is the latest production by Vanillaware, the same team responsible for artistic masterpieces like Odin Sphere and Muramasa. Once upon a time, Vanillaware founder and artist extraordinaire, George Kamitani worked on a little game called Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom. That game’s influences on Dragon’s Crown will be detected by anyone familiar with Capcom’s classic arcade game of swords and sorcery, only now the genre has been elevated to a higher degree of execution and excellence.

Dragon’s Crown takes place in the high-fantasy realm of Hydeland, where brave adventurers come to explore trap- and monster-filled dungeons in search of fame and treasure. Your journey begins here with the creation of a hero from a choice of six class types, including Fighter, Dwarf, Amazon, Elf, Wizard, and Sorceress. A story of typical fantasy tropes ensues, with the main objective of the game being to collect nine talismans and defeat the legendary dragon to claim the titular treasure, the Dragon’s Crown. You’ll meet up with interesting characters and get caught up in some light political intrigue along the way, but don’t come into this game expecting a robust narrative.

Like a storybook, Dragon’s Crown’s tale is more about the visual than in-depth plot development. A story-telling narrator immerses you into the world, but the real attention-grabber is the art direction. Every environment in the game looks like it should be framed and hanging in an art gallery, the detail and coloring is that impeccable. I imagine some folks will take issue with the character designs, particularly the inflated chests of Hydeland’s female citizens, but I happen to like the overly exaggerated style. It gives the game that distinct, larger-than-life charm that can only come from Vanillaware. On the downside, at times the art overload makes the screen a wee bit too busy, to the point that it can become difficult to track where your character is amongst the chaos of hand-drawn swarms of goblins and spell effects. On rarer occasions the frame rate will even take a hit for a few seconds.

The picturesque art isn’t just for show. Anyone who has played a beat ‘em up will be able to jump into Dragon’s Crown and immediately feel comfortable hacking enemies to bits, it’s that fundamentally basic. You walk your hero from left to right through side-scrolling environments and utilize the simple commands of a few buttons to attack, jump, and dodge. But thanks to the silky smooth animation, the gameplay achieves a heightened level of response and fluidity.

Despite its steady footing within the boundaries of an arcade brawler, Dragon’s Crown goes far deeper into RPG territory than you might expect. Each class earns experience, loots and equips upgraded gear, and levels up over the course of the adventure, learning new abilities that greatly distinguish the play style from one character to the next. The Fighter is the entry-level melee master and tank, capable of dishing out major damage with his sword or axe and deflecting/absorbing enemy attacks away from fellow party members. Playing as the Elf is completely different, requiring a ranged attack approach and agile dodging skills. Characters like the Elf and the Wizard are balanced away from being straight up ranged spammers, too. For example, the Elf is limited to a certain number of arrows in her quiver at any one time, so as enemies are killed you must pick up additional arrow drops to restock on ammo. Similarly, the Wizard runs low on mana as spells are cast and must stop to recharge his staff before lobbing out the next fireball or conjuring another ice storm.

Certain classes can combine their talents, such as how the Elf’s elemental attack, which is normally a mini tornado, will absorb the elemental affinity of whatever spell the Wizard is currently casting. Level design is a real standout as well, with dungeons that change enemy placements, contain numerous secrets and hidden rooms, and occasionally introduce little set piece gimmicks like a magic carpet ride or a certain boss battle in which you must reanimate a giant statue and protect it from waves of enemies while it clashes with an equally huge golem. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg as far as bosses are concerned. Be prepared to face mythical fantasy beasts like Medusa, the Kraken, Cyclops, Chimera, Vampires and even a terrifying Killer Rabbit (clearly a fun nod to Monty Python). Each boss has its strengths and weaknesses to avoid/exploit, but taking them down never feels like an exercise in dull pattern recognition.

Subtleties like this add layers of complexity beyond what is typically found in a simple beat ‘em up. Then there is the multiplayer. Soloing is a perfectly viable and enjoyable method for clearing the campaign. By collecting bone piles of deceased adventurers, you can resurrect AI companions to fight by your side without need of nearby friends or random online players. The AI is more than competent, but the computer allies do seem like they are following scripts coded by the developers. Playing with other live players just feels so much more dynamic and unpredictable, like every player’s role is vital to the party’s success. As long as you leave your party open, players will be able to jump into your game at any time. Any open slots will randomly be filled in as you go by an AI from your pool of resurrected characters.

The one bone I have to pick is with the way Vanillaware decided to structure the game. (Well, OK. I was also peeved at not being able to pause the game while in dungeons, but at least on the Vita there’s always sleep mode as backup.) As it turns out, the first four to five hours are nothing more than a glorified tutorial. You go through the nine stages and defeat the bosses one time and feel like you’ve progressed a long way, only to then receive the main mission to collect the nine talismans, which in turn requires going back through the same nine dungeons. Hell, key features like multiplayer and the party cooking mini-game (during intermission between dungeons you can cook food to increase hero stats for the next dungeon) aren’t even available until after this preliminary period has been cleared. Fortunately all of the levels unlock a secondary pathway and higher tier bosses to counter falling into a rut of repetition. Still, the whole format just seems like unnecessary padding.

Dragon’s Crown doesn’t need any extra padding either; it would’ve been an enormous game without it. Most players will need 12-15 hours to clear the campaign with a single character on Normal. After that, the difficulty switches to Hard and the level cap increases so you can re-run the dungeons at a higher level of challenge. (An even higher difficulty setting and a max level cap of 99 becomes available after that, but I haven’t cleared my Hard mode run to unlock it yet.) Completing the game once unlocks additional bonus content, including a player-versus-player multiplayer arena as well as a new labyrinth dungeon much tougher than the existing stages. The extensive side quest system only packs on more hours of play time. Earning extra experience and treasure is incentive enough, but the true reward lies in the piece of artwork and companion short story text associated with each side quest. Collecting all of the artwork becomes its own meta-game obsession. Another nice touch is how you’re able to create new characters from the town inn and freely switch back and forth as you choose. My main hero is a Fighter, but it’s been fun to be able to start campaigns and dabble with the other classes, all from within the same save file. Progress for each character in terms of unlocked content and quests is separate, but your inventory and gold are shared globally for all heroes.

Unfortunately cross-buy isn’t an option, so unless you’ve saved up enough to pay full price for both versions (that’s $50 for PS3 and $40 for Vita) you’ll need to settle on just one. Both versions are great, but if you have the choice my suggestion is to go with the Vita. While I mostly played on the Vita myself, whenever I did transfer my save data over (yes, cross-save is supported) I didn’t find the PS3 to offer any graphical or technical supremacy. In fact, having the touchscreen proves to be a major plus for the Vita version. During gameplay an AI rogue named Rannie is always tagging along. Rannie doesn’t fight, but can be commanded to unlock treasure chests and doors. Eventually you will also unlock the ability to activate magical runes by clicking on symbols hidden in the background combined with rune stones carried in your inventory. On the Vita, these commands require a quick tap to initiate, but on PS3 a cursor needs to be scrolled across the screen with the right analog stick before pressing a shoulder button to click, which simply isn’t as intuitive.

Whether you choose to play on PS3 or Vita [or now on PS4] ultimately doesn’t matter. The only thing that truly matters is that you play Dragon’s Crown, period. Vanillaware once again manages to successfully blend straightforward yet expertly implemented gameplay concepts with the sophistication and elegance of fine art. The result, as usual, is nothing short of brilliant.

BuyIt

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Vanillaware
Release Date: 5/15/2018
Genre: Beat ’em up RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-4 (local and online)

Source: A PS4 code for Dragon’s Crown Pro was provided to VGBlogger.com for review consideration by Atlus USA.

Buy From: Amazon.com for $49.99.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!