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Dragon's Crown review: not quite worthy of the crown

Dragon's Crown is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to Golden Axe more than any other beat 'em up--there are occasional beasts you can mount and, every now and again, a thief will steal your treasure and you will have to whoop him good to get your treasure back. I was a fan of Golden Axe and Dragon's Crown does add a lot to the basic formula that is Golden Axe and other classic beat 'em ups, but, sadly, Dragon's Crown doesn't advance the genre in every aspect and ends up as a pretty good--and very pretty--game that falls just short of greatness.

Now, before I delve into the actual game, I feel obliged to comment on the visuals and, more specifically, the artistic design because it has been the most prominent and controversial aspect of Dragon's Crown both pre- and post-launch.

I am not a fan of the design choices for many of the female characters; I don't have a problem with scantily clad characters, but I do not like seeing characters with such ridiculously anatomically incorrect bodies in order to show off their irrationally proportioned body parts--e.g., the Amazon's body is twisted in such a way to show off her entire body at once and it is extremely off-putting. In addition to the ridiculous proportions of characters in-game, what I find most problematic is the various still images used to deliver story during levels--there is a mermaid that looks more like a woman with a giant fish swimming up her ass and an armored nun with her legs spread wide open. All that said, my problems with the artistic design never took away from the game and had no affect on either my enjoyment or disappointment.

Tell me that doesn't look like a giant fish swimming up a woman's ass.

With all that artistic crap out of the way, let me get into the actual game; though, despite any opinions about the actual design, there is no denying that Dragon's Crown is a beautiful game and, while it looks great in screenshots, it is absolutely gorgeous in motion, on both PS3 and Vita.

The story of Dragon's Crown is throwaway and not memorable, but I doubt anyone is looking for an engrossing story with Dragon's Crown. You start off by choosing one of six classes--there are three melee-focused characters and three ranged-focused characters--and then begin your journey to save the world and blah, blah, blah. The only part of the story I enjoyed was hearing the narrator's voice because it is a pleasant voice, but I can't remember a single thing he said, even though he repeats himself every single time you exit a building in town before venturing out to battle in one of the game's nine levels. There might be a great story hidden under all the layers of generic plot and bland characters, but I never found it and if you're looking for a great story, don't go looking in Dragon's Crown.

Once you get past the story and into the gameplay, that's when Dragon's Crown shines; the combat is strategic and more complex than the typical beat 'em up and everything from your environment to your opponent to your equipment comes into play when trying to leave a fight on top. Every class feels unique--each class has their own class-specific leveling tree along with a common tree for non-class-specific upgrades--and, while the melee-focused classes are more forgiving and easier to succeed with initially, the range-focused classes are very powerful once you master their move sets; and mastering their move sets is a must because the game, right from the start, is challenging and never holds your hand or tries to trick you into believing you can fly through the game by button-mashing (you'll die if you try this).

Combat is what Dragon's Crown does best.

As fun as the combat is, the game gets old real fast--something common with beat 'em ups--as you end up revisiting the same areas over and over again and they never change other than the opening of an alternate path once a certain point in the story is passed. The repetition might have been alleviated had each area featured randomly generated layouts, but, as each level is always the same, I quickly grew tired of seeing the same places filled with the same enemies and the same bosses. There is an attempt to add variety by forcing a randomly-selected level system--which can be bypassed by spending some gold at the stables--but just because I don't pick a level doesn't change the fact that I've played them all many times. It's a disappointing aspect of the game that may not bother most, but I just lost interest real fast once I saw a level more than a few times.

The repetition is annoying, but there is one saving grace in Dragon's Crown: co-op. The best part of Dragon's Crown is the ability to play with friends and strangers both online and offline--though, the online functionality is locked until a certain point in the story (I don't know why)--and, if you have friends interested in Dragon's Crown, ones who you will be able to play with, that might be enough to justify purchasing the game alone because every great moment I had with Dragon's Crown came while playing co-op--every encounter I had with an unknown player living somewhere else in the world was great, with little to no lag and zero trash-talking (it is a co-op game after all). And the online system is implemented well, allowing other players (and yourself) to drop into someone else's game regardless of whether they just started a level or are in the middle of a boss battle. Co-op play is where the most fun is found in Dragon's Crown and, while it would have been nice if there was cross-play between PS3 and Vita, I never had trouble finding people to play with on either system. (And if you can't find real-life people to play with, you can hire A.I. partners at the inn; they're kind of stupid, but they do make the game easier.)

I struggled a lot with this review and trying to figure out just how I felt about the game as a whole; I was very excited for this game since it was announced and, while there are some things I really love about Dragon's Crown--I wish more games looked this beautiful--I can't help but be disappointed. The repetition exhausted me way quicker than I expected and, only a few hours after starting the game, I wanted it all to end--I couldn't play the game for long stretches of time, usually playing about two levels, quitting, and coming back a bit later to continue. If you don't mind repetition and are a completionist, you'll easily find over a hundred hours of time to kill in Dragon's Crown, but, as it stands, I only like Dragon's Crown and am far from loving it.

And to those wondering which version they should buy--PS3 or Vita--the game runs well and looks great on both systems--the Vita version has some occasional slowdown--but I found the controls more comfortable on PS3 and the bigger screen let the game's beauty shine brightest while making sure I never missed any of the small details Dragon's Crown offered. And, if you happen to buy both versions, transferring your save between systems is extremely easy; all you do is upload your save on one system and then download your save on the other system.


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