Dragon’s Crown Review
The Playstation 3 is in an awkward place for me right now, lacking the decent screenshot capacity of the Playstation 4/Xbox One while being new enough that getting around that by emulating its games isn’t really an option. A Playstation 1 or 2 game is as simple as ripping a disc to the computer and playing through it, but PS3 games require setting up this big Frankenstein’s monster of wires that feed into my temperamental capture device. Needless to say, I’ve avoided covering a bunch of games for the system because of the hassle required. That hasn’t stopped me from slowly building up a backlog of PS3 games that I originally missed out on, though, and none of them were more tempting than Dragon’s Crown; a beat-em-up in the style of the arcade Dungeons & Dragons games, this game received rave reviews on release and everyone seemed to love it without reservations. Having now spent a bit over 40 hours with it (which is what it took to unlock all of the art and do everything there is to do outside of the randomized Labyrinth of Chaos levels), I can say that I definitely loved Dragon’s Crown at times, but most assuredly not without reservations. There are some things that I really like about this game, but there are also certain things that are downright annoying about it, and in some ways it’s actually surpassed by Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara.
There’s interesting story stuff here, but little is done with it
You start out by selecting your character from the 6 possible classes and choosing one of several color scheme presets that help differentiate your character from that of allies. Personally, I went with the elf—the game may state that she’s best for expert players, but I had to play using all 6 classes to unlock all of the art, and the elf definitely felt the most natural and consistent. I’ll circle back around and cover the different classes a bit later on, but right now I want to talk about how the game begins so exceedingly well. Your created character (and non-playable partner Rannie, who is really only around to pick locks) joins an adventurer’s guild in the city and is quickly called on to help with various tasks. These introduce you to a handful of interesting characters with their own motivations and histories, and it’s honestly pretty great.
If that was the entire game, I’d have no problems with the story or characters whatsoever, but the second half of your first playthrough suddenly shifts and tasks you with going through 9 dungeons to beat the harder B-route bosses in order to collect a bunch of random magical talismans so that you can go beat a dragon. Then you do, and the game goes, “congrats, but that was only the first of three dragons, and you’re not technically done until you’ve collected 18 more talismans; also, each dragon has to be beaten on a harder difficulty setting or it doesn’t count!” This is where the story ceases to exist anymore and the game becomes a grind. A grind to level up. A grind to get better gear. A grind to refresh the item stocks at the town vendors so that you can buy incredibly important offensive and defensive items. A grind for the money you’ll need to resurrect your suicidal computer-controlled allies on the harder difficulties.
This is definitely the point where I fell out of love with Dragon’s Crown. Part of this was my fault; I had expected beating the dragon to be the definitive end of the game, so I finished off all of the available sidequests beforehand. There were a handful of new ones when the first dragon was beaten, but no new ones when the second was defeated, leaving me with no interesting content to play outside of the grind. The sidequests are the best and worst of the game, too, involving traveling to the game’s various levels and doing specific things to fulfill quest conditions, at which point you can return to town and receive a reward of money, experience, and new artwork. Some sidequests task you with defeating certain bosses without the help of any computer-controlled allies. Others have more vague and random conditions, such as one where you have to destroy a statue. That one was infuriating because I tried everything I could to destroy it, only for it to remain intact no matter what. It turns out you have to use the right stick to bring up a pointer (this is usually used for finding treasure hidden throughout the levels and directing Rannie to open doors and chests) and tap the statue so that the narration hints that it’s destructible. Only then are you able to smash the statue with normal attacks and finish the sidequest. For how annoying moments of poor communication like this are, however, I found myself looking forward to further sidequests because they always have a short story attached to the artwork that gets unlocked. It’s one of the game’s smaller touches, but one that makes a big difference.
There’s also a welcome sense of humor
Computer-controlled allies aren’t recruited out of nowhere; you have to find their bones littered throughout levels and interact with them to pick them up, then visit the temple once you return to town and pay money to have them resurrected. At that point, you can visit the tavern and add them to your party, which is one of the things that Dragon’s Crown does a million times better than the Dungeons & Dragons beat-em-ups it was so clearly inspired by. The reason I bring this up is that their bones always come with messages attached, and these are very rarely serious—off the top of my head, I remember seeing references to both Futurama and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. That’s hardly the end of the game’s weirdness, either, because one of the later bosses is a killer rabbit straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (because of its infuriating, Oddjob-esque hitbox, that’s not the last you’ll hear about this rabbit). It’s an odd mix of seriousness and humor, but it works well enough.
There are a whole bunch of mechanics to cover here
You really don’t realize how many eccentricities a game has until you have to put them all into words, and Dragon’s Crown has plenty. For one, your score—raised by defeating enemies, picking up treasure, and finishing levels—is basically the amount of experience you’ll earn, though the different difficulty modes divide or multiply the amount you receive by a certain amount (you get 10% of your score as experience on the default difficulty, 50% on hard, and 200% on “infernal” difficulty). You can also get a multiplier for your score by chaining together multiple stages without returning to town, though the issue then becomes weapon durability. All weapons and armor items—which are found in chests and given as a reward for finishing stages—degrade over time, losing their effectiveness. You can mitigate this by purchasing additional bags and switching at the mid-point of levels once you’ve unlocked the B-routes, but that’s a lot of item management and it’s surprisingly easy to forget to put an important spell in your third or fourth bag.
One of the more helpful features is the ability to use left and right on the game pad in the equipment menu to set shortcuts for items and equipment. Setting shortcuts for equipment seems pointless because there’s really no reason to unequip anything in the middle of a level, but being able to hit L1 and circle/square/cross/triangle to perform a powerful offensive spell or use a healing item can be a godsend in the middle of a chaotic fight. In fact, I’d have gone crazy trying to defeat the third and final dragon without the aid of a ton of offensive magic that I could quickly spam at it.
This game didn’t start out in arcades like Tower of Doom did, so the infinite number of retries you get in Chronicles of Mystara (a side effect of the original arcade release encouraging players to keep pumping quarters in) obviously doesn’t make sense here. Instead, you and your allies have “life points” that determine how many times you can die and come back. If you or they run out of life points and then die again, it’s possible to continue, but you have to pay money for the privilege. This is usually not a big deal since you’ll accrue significant money reserves over time, but each continue costs exponentially more (and the fights against the three “ancient dragons” don’t allow you to continue at all). That means that if you’re in over your head, you can potentially wipe out your reserves and have to grind for more money. This really only ever becomes a problem immediately after each post-dragon difficulty bump, though.
Finally, there are skill points. These are earned both by leveling up and finishing sidequests, and they can be used at the adventurer’s guild to purchase perks. You can buy character-specific perks (like one that increased the number of arrows my elf could carry in her quiver) and general ones for all characters (like one that increases the chance that a slide attack will knock down an enemy), and they have ranks with prerequisites that ensure that you’ll be gradually upgrading them as you continue to play.
Different characters play differently… mostly
I mentioned that I started with the elf, and that definitely felt like the most natural starting choice: in addition to arrows (which are consumable, but enemies frequently drop a small number of them), she’s agile and can do a surprising amount of damage with arrow volleys and upward kick/downward kick chains. Of all the characters in the game, her dodge move is the only one I ever felt truly comfortable using, and there was something weirdly rewarding about getting hit, only to dodge out of the falling animation before hitting the ground and immediately go back on the offensive. She’s also one of the more unique characters to use; while the other characters do play differently when you really get down to it, it does feel like there’s some overlap between their skills. For example, the fighter and amazon and dwarf are all physical damage-dealers who can throw their weapon, and while their movesets are all fairly different, it’s not a night-and-day difference, either. Same with the wizard and sorceress, who both build up magic points by attacking normally (you can also charge these points to full between fights) and then use them to cast more damaging spells.
Things Dragon’s Crown does better and worse than the D&D games
You’d think that Dragon’s Crown would mop the floor with something like Shadow Over Mystara, but that’s not entirely the case. Granted, the general combat is far superior to Mystara’s cheap deaths, and the ability to ride certain enemies like in Golden Axe is awesome, but Mystara also has better level design in general. Not only do Mystara’s levels sometimes branch (not only in a “to different levels” kind of way, but also mid-level splits where the road literally branches), putting Crown’s fairly linear “just walk forward” design to shame, but there are also secret routes in Mystara that only become available if you’re using certain characters. Being able to use a bunch of different characters is also a plus in Mystara’s favor. Granted, you can create multiple characters in Crown, but the farthest it lets you skip new characters ahead is to the talisman collecting. You can recruit high-level allies from your main playthrough to make grinding your levels up a bit an easier task, though, so this one is kind of a tie. Crown outdoes Mystara when it comes to picking up items, though: whereas attacking and picking up is the same button in the older games, you pick things up with a non-attack button in Crown.
Timed enemies, camera issues, and miscellaneous annoyances
Some levels have really annoying A-routes, while others have really annoying B-routes (which is worse since you can only collect talismans on the B-route—more on that in a bit). The problem with a few of the A-routes is without a doubt the minigames; there are two levels that introduce a “move the object you’re standing on to dodge incoming dangers” minigame, and they’re both incredibly awkward. I hate the lava one in particular because there’s just not enough of a sense of depth to get a feel for exactly which lane the lava is attacking from. The other involves dodging whirlpools, which is more manageable, but there are also enemies jumping around and attacking your boat all the while. I think what bothers me the most about both is that it takes all control of your tempo away from you; in most stages you can rush through, running past some enemies and quickly dispatching those you have to fight. These minigames are on a timer, though, so the game dictates the tempo rather than allowing you to.
That bit about timers brings me to the fact that talismans can only be collected on the B-route. It also brings me back to the killer rabbit boss. The problem at the heart of both of these are timers: most B-route bosses are timed, and you only get a talisman out of the fight if you defeat the boss before the timer runs out (at which point a scripted event happens). I hate boss timers with every fiber of my being, and them being present means that you can’t play skillfully at a low level to progress in this game. You won’t do enough damage in time, and you’ll never actually get the talismans. As for the killer rabbit, it’s a B-route boss and timed as a result. One of the sidequests required beating it without any allies present, but it’s a tiny little thing and I had trouble hitting it with my arrows because of its obnoxiously small hitbox. On one occasion, I finished it off right as the scripted event happened, which happened to involve a bunch of knights coming to help me. As in, allies. As in, the sidequest didn’t complete even though the knights had just walked into the room and I dealt 100% of the damage, final blow included. Little things like this aren’t designed as wonderfully as they perhaps could be.
The camera is also a fairly significant problem throughout the game, moving randomly based on where your party members are, whether there’s anything the game wants you to focus on, and the whims of an evil and capricious god who cares little for where you think you want to go. It’s not uncommon for it to sweep in a direction opposite the one you’re moving in, pushing you back. Midway through the game, there was a portal that led to the next area, and the way the game handles area transitions is that you can only use them once (no backtracking). There was a chest in the room, so I told Rannie to pick it. Then the camera lurched to the left and pushed me into the portal against my will before he had opened it. No way back except to play through the entire stage again. Annoying beyond words. Speaking of unspeakably annoying things, my companions often proved themselves to be complete and total idiots, oftentimes standing in the middle of danger or walking into fire jets (which I swear not only happened, but on multiple occasions). I’d have played with online players instead, but for some reason I could never get the online stuff to work. Finally, there are small trivialities that are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but annoying in the moment: slowdown and one chest that behaves differently than others. The slowdown happens when the screen gets busy, something that’s easy to do when you fill out your party with spellcasters. The chest annoys me even more, honestly, because I thought for the longest time that I needed something special to open it. Turns out that its hitbox is offset a bit and you have to move the cursor to the bottom-right of the chest for the pick icon to appear.
Oh, and runes are the worst
Eventually you’ll find yourself given a rune stone, and the way this works is that some areas have 1-2 runes on the wall that can be selected with the right stick’s cursor. There are numerous rune combinations (and you can create even more by buying the three others available for sale) that can do everything from create treasures out of thin air to granting you temporary invincibility. Honestly, besides one or two places where using runes to create a magic carpet to progress is mandatory, I wouldn’t bother with them. There are too many combinations to remember, and about three times more possible wrong combinations. The end result? Sitting around like an idiot going “click, click, click… nope,” over and over again every time you spot a rune. And that’s assuming you can even reach the runes in the first place; a lot of times you’ll try to click on a rune, but it’ll be blocked by something like your character’s health bars. Then you finally hit it, but the runes time out and you have to start all over again. On several occasions, I’d sit out of a fight against a bunch of skeletons to try out rune combinations, only for an anti-undead rune to trigger long after my companions had finished them off anyway.
The graphics are great, and the music is decent fluff
There are many things one could criticize Dragon’s Crown for, but the graphics are definitely one area where it’s unimpeachably good. The art is consistently gorgeous and colorful, and there’s a ton of personality that shows in things like the idle animations. Seriously—just look at the screenshots. Each level has areas that heavily focus on a single color scheme, such as the Lost Woods with its yellow and green starting location or the Castle of the Dead and its deep blues and blacks. The music I’m not quite as enthusiastic about, though it’s not necessarily bad so much as largely underwhelming. That’s mostly because it tends to be a bit on the generic-orchestral side of things, alternating between atmospheric stuff and bombastic fluff. The softer stuff is fairly high-quality even if the soundtrack as a whole has a lot of forgettable tracks.