October 23, 2014

That's A Wrap: Dragon's Crown

warning: may contain spoilers

Well, well, well. Long time no see, gamers! Today I'm back with another article in which you will probably skip all the reading to stare at the pictures: Dragon's Crown! The game is allegedly an action RPG, although it feels more like a classic hack 'n' slash to me. But! it's bloody gorgeous, as per usual for Vanillaware, who also developed-in-part the (recently logged) Muramasa Rebirth, which was also absurdly good-looking. Dragon's Crown is available on PS3 and PSVita, and due to my lack of being home as of late, I chose to experience the adventure on Vita.

I vividly remember the massive hype surrounding DC at the time of its release. Many people seemed to purchase it right away and I saw lots of boobs screen caps and comments on twitter. However, I'm kind of glad that I waited as long as I did to play DC, because I ended up going into it completely blind, with little more than the aforementioned boobs hype for expectations. The first notes I jotted down were, "I can already tell lining up hits is going to take me back to my retro days. Not sure if that's a good thing…" and, after my first hour of play: I'm intrigued. It's fun to play, and a little overwhelming. I know I'll become accustomed to gameplay as I go, but it feels like a lot to soak in.
Regarding the game's visual output: typical Vanillaware. You know it when you see it because it's unique and beautiful, and completely over exaggerated.
The character design will cause you to make a few faces, but the backgrounds are stunning and props and environment blend the two together beautifully. Even on the Vita's small screen, this game makes an impact in the graphics department. I don't know what else to say on the matter, Vanillaware knows what's up!

If you poke around your options you will find you can choose English or Japanese vocals for your character, and as little as this contributes to the game, I appreciate the option. Having a Japanese amazon amongst your English elves and dwarfs is fucking hilarious. The character "sound effects" are very prominent, but don't overwhelm your ears. I imagine having a party of the same character class would be super annoying but as long as you spread it out, it's manageable.
The musical accompaniment for DC is surprisingly lovely. For some reason I expected the OST to be lacking, but I really can't complain! The tunes are fitting for their levels, but subtle - you may find yourself pausing just to try and catch the song. They really help blend the game together! I found the song heard during your time at Dragon's Haven Inn particularly mesmerizing.

The plot in DC is narrated to you throughout the game. The initial plot is pretty simple, you are introduced to your character and your partner, and briefly reminded how they met. Afterwards the game guides you through a pretty basic "you have no job so go join a guild" story, and later, the plot incorporates quite a few "fantasy" arcs. The ending ties them all up rather well, while also providing a bit of background on the character you chose to beat the game with! A nice surprise.

When you boot up the game, you're asked to create a character to adventure with. You can choose a:
Fighter - typical, armor-clad, sword-wielding, high-attack-but-sucks-at-everything-else knight.
Sorceress - incredibly well-endowed, staff-flinging, female mage.
Wizard - significantly less physically impressive, male mage.
Dwarf - booze-loving wielder of random, heavy weapons that he never seems to hang on to.
Elf - smart ass archer.
Amazon - very large - in every way - scantily clad, axe-wielding lady.
I chose an amazon. No idea why. Was feeling Wonder Woman-y, I guess. Then I made her Japanese. (A Japanese amazon! Teehee!) Additionally, she always walks ass-out, which I don't understand. And I thought Bayonetta was odd! The game recommends less experienced gamers choose the fighter, and mages are reserved for the pros, but the way I see it, mages are incredibly boring in DC, so I have no idea why an experienced gamer would choose a mage. The amazon class was plenty fun; tons of action, a little bit of magic and demands lots of attention to accessories, including the all-important axe. Or scythe. Or whatever.
Regarding your companion's AI, I found fighters and mages to be predictable and dependable - wizards seemed to have more repetitive (and therefore hit more) attacks than the sorceresses - while elves proved to be either incredibly effective or incredibly useless. Dwarfs continue to puzzle me; they're great fighters but are absolutely careless with their bodies and weapons, making them inconsistent and often unarmed fighters. They hit hard, but not often. Amazons seemed to never stop moving, but I failed to properly assess them otherwise because I was always confusing my amazon companions for myself - in spite of their different-colored hair.
The "partner" I mentioned earlier is your good pal Rannie the Rogue, whom you order around by tapping the Vita's screen (or using the in-game cursor). You have no other control over Rannie, he's not considered a party member (you're allowed three in addition to yourself) and he serves no other purpose but to open doors and chests. I found Rannie to be a disappointing addition to DC; the game would have been the exact same without him. He basically only exists to chant George Takei's motto "Ohh, my" all the damn time.
In the end, I found the dream team usually consisted of myself (the amazon), a fighter - for extra melee power, a magic user (I preferred the Wizard) - just in case, and either an elf or a dwarf. Elves have better range, but dwarfs hit harder. You can hoard up to thirty potential party members at the inn, which will vary in class and level as well as equipment, so after you decide on your dream team, you can let the others go.

Like most action games, combat is laced right into ordinary gameplay, so you're always armed and ready to fight. The story in DC is basically divided into two sections, the first is simply unlocking each of the dungeons and familiarizing yourself with enemies, and the second introduces the need to seek out nine talismans. Each talisman is held by a second boss found on a previously unavailable path in the dungeons you've already unlocked. You're also offered the ability to chain dungeons, at the cost of your ability to return home to restock items (such as spells - which can only be used so many times per adventure) or repair equipment; you will however receive an adventure boost or two for your bravery: a boost in score, experience, money and so on. After you've defeated the final boss, your level cap and difficulty are bumped up a level, and you're asked to once again seek a set of talismans to defeat and additional final boss and blah blah blah blah blah…

When not crawling through dungeons, you spend time in the city of Hydeland - which is currently experiencing a "change in management." The city offers a number of locations for you to explore:
Dragon's Haven Inn - where you can create and choose your hero, build your party (or dismiss them forever), save your game, review options and return to the title screen. You can create multiple characters but you can only control one at a time. I chose to stick exclusively to my amazon.
Canaan Temple - where you can pray for a miracle (temporary upgrade for the level) for a donation, or resurrect slash bury the bones you've collected during your journey. Resurrecting them means they can join your party at the inn; burying them will put them to rest forever, but you may get a cheap item as a token of appreciation - a rare occurrence. You can only have 32 sets of bones collected at any time, so burying low-level finds is an eventual reality. There's also a curious fellow outside the temple to whom you can flick a coin…
Morgan's Magic Item Shop - where you can buy and sell magic items, appraise items and most importantly: repair your equipment. Appraising gives you the opportunity to discover anything you failed to check out before you left the tavern after your last quest.
Lucain's Tower - becomes available after you rescue and resurrect Lucain - a magician friend of yours who counsels you in rune magic and sells you items and runes.
Adventurer's Guild - where you pick up extra work, learn skills, and review the art you've earned by completing quests. Skills are character upgrades that can be swapped for skill points (earned from combat) to one of two categories: your character-specific (i.e. amazon skills) or common skills, which affect everyone equally.
Castle - you frequently visit the castle to help the royals maintain peace in Hydeland.
Stables - an alternative method for traveling to any of the unlocked dungeons. Each time you use the stables, the cost of the horse rises, but it eventually becomes the most dependable option after the deterioration of…
Gate - gives you warp access to all of the dungeons you'll have conquer.
While in town you can quickly warp to any of the above on your town map by pressing select or tapping your screen.

Sometimes, in the dungeons, you will encounter a more unique level, including one almost exactly the like magic carpet level in Aladdin, and another where you ditch whirlpools in a river, which kinda reminds me of Uncharted, but for the most part, you travel from screen to screen, eliminating enemies, cracking open chests and destroying certain obstacles or boxes, which may contain items or food. Once picked up, your character will automatically eat up to four pieces of food once you give them a moment to stop and do so. Otherwise it is casually set aside until you stop moving. Food will provide you HP, even if your HP bar is already maxed out, so it always a welcome find! Speaking of HP, it is interesting to note that this is the only game I've played in recent memory in which your whole party can die and it will not mean game over! Characters come with handy auto continues, which means if you are killed, you will automatically revive (a slow process…) until you run out of life points. However, if your allies are on their last leg and should perish… I hope you've brought your piggy bank.
You may also encounter additional weapons, like daggers, crossbows or torches, which will help you take down the baddies for a short period of time. You can also use the items you've brought with you, which you'll have to have equipped to your character beforehand. Your item menu can be accessed quickly with your D-pad, scrolling left and right to choose and item, and down to use it. You can also set up "quick" use options in your menu, but honestly, I found remembering these shortcuts difficult, and the multiple buttons required were cumbersome anyway. Such items include healing potions, stat-boosting potions, and magic rings or scrolls - which is how my melee amazon was able to use magic. Using items comes with a cool down period, so time your uses carefully! You can upgrade this time period - thereby shortening it - but upgrading the common skill at the Adventurer's Guild!
Bare in mind that all your purchasing and equipping must be accomplished while in town, you will not have access to such menus while in the gate or dungeons. Your bag comes with a predetermined amount of item slots, and each item you equip comes with a number of uses per dungeon or a sort of HP bar. If your item's health bar empties, the item will break, rendering it virtually useless in battle. You can repair items by visiting Morgan, which I recommend doing BEFORE it breaks. In the case of chained dungeons (during the "second section") you'll have to watch items closely for health and uses, but remember that you can switch bags when choosing your path (I promise this all makes sense when you're playing the game). Multiple bags can be purchased from Morgan, and you can fill them with your additional equipment.
Not all doorways are adorned with convenient, lit-up arrows.
At first, navigation can be a bit tricky since the art is so seamless, it's easy to miss doors or boxes until you've become acclimated.
At the end of each dungeon you're greeted by a results screen, and then taken back to the inn where you'll witness your potential level up, and have the opportunity to appraise your spoils (which costs money) or sell, if you choose. Appraising an item will tell you exactly what it is and what it has to offer (stat boosts, for example). Items not appraised will not be available to equip, but you can still keep them and appraise/sell them at a later time with Morgan. Such items come with a letter rank, and will hint to you how many skills the item has, which will help you decide what to appraise and what to toss. Again, you can only stock a max of 500 items, so you may need to relinquish less impressive items, especially if you are using multiple character classes. Using one is easy - you simply sell all of the items your character can't equip and you're in good shape! Also note that you can escape dungeons at any time if you wish, you'll simply miss out on items and experience. Otherwise, you will encounter a boss and the end of each road.

Bosses are often on invisible timers, and failing to beat them in time means you'll have to redo the dungeon. Their health is demonstrated at the bottom of the screen.

Initially, combat is quite fun, but as you move along, the screen becomes very crowded and it's really difficult to see what the hell is going on!
Seriously. Where am I?
Even with a cursor hovering over my head, I still seldom could find myself or see what I was doing, made even more difficult by the presence of another amazon; further hindered by magic users and their top-to-bottom screen attacks. On top of that, you have to watch your allies very closely. If they should die, and be plum out of life points, you'll have to tap and pay to "continue" them (which tethers nicely with the story of Althea). This can be very annoying during tricky boss battles. There is already so much going on! Additionally, I found at times combat actions loaded very slowly, causing lag and making combat incredibly frustrating.
Basically, you have your ordinary melee attacks, magic items and one unique attack to take down your enemies. For the amazon, this last attack is called a 'power smash,' and is instigated by pressing circle. The amazon will perform a powerful attack worthy of the name, but will also drop her axe for a time afterward.

I'll also mention that I found the final boss unfairly difficult. I was at my maximum level with great equipment and literally tried everything: all mages; all melee; flying solo; playing healer... No matter what I did I could barely get past the halfway point of the battle, at which point the boss rubs salt in your wounds by healing himself! When your companions die in this battle, they die for good. There is no costly continue option. Also, for some reason you can only have two life points in the final zone. I had started to believe I must have missed something critical - in spite of my meticulous gameplay - that was necessary to finish the game, and ran each of the dungeons again before giving up and attempting the boss a final time. Of course, I finished the battle in record time, with my full party alive and well. I have no idea why it was so difficult for the first few attempts.

If the main quest isn't enough, or you require motivation for leveling up, you can take on side quests from the Adventurer's Guild. As you unlock each dungeon, related quests will become available. You may take on five side quests at any time, the conquering of such offers you additional money, skill points and experience. After completing each quest, the guild rewards you with an absolutely beautiful piece of artwork. This offers nothing to you game-wise, but you're treated to some magnificent pictures and accompanying stories.
There are also a very few instances in which you may take on the occasional in-dungeon quest, such as an escort mission.
Sometimes, when you string dungeons together, you're offered a cooking side quest between them. This simply consists of dropping food into pots and pans, stirring them, and feeding your party in a short amount of time. Remember that you must manually eat your own food (tap tap tap!). The more food you eat, the more boosts you'll receive.

I'm also obligated to touch on the fact that with the Playstation Network, DC can be played online. To be frank, I know nothing about this, as I have yet to explore the option. What I do know is that online play or local multiplayer must be enabled by accessing the menu while in the gate or stables. From what I can gather, the game simply offers you the ability to play through with your friends, rather than an A.I.-controlled party. Online play does not become available until you've unlocked all of the dungeons, or completed the "first section".

Shall we peruse the menu? It is short and sweet.
Equipment> View and edit you bag(s), which possesses all the items available to you once you leave town.
Armory> View items currently not equipped, and safely stored away.
View Skills> Review all the skills you've acquired and upgrade at the Adventurers Guild.
Stats> Character summary.
Check Requests> Review the guild quests you've currently accepted.
Options> Change game settings.
Beneath that you'll see a quick summary of your work so far: difficulty; your talisman count; the runes you've acquired and your wallet!

And for your enjoyment, here's a look at the Inn's menu:
Select Player> Choose which of your own created characters to use.
Choose Allies> Choose from your collection of resurrected bones to form your party!
Report Adventures> Save your game!
Options> Self explanatory.
Return to Title> Also self explanatory.
Leave Tavern> New York, New York, a helluva town…

Controls will feel very familiar to fans of Vanillaware's previous effort, Muramasa Rebirth ('The Demon Blade' on Wii):
As always, your left stick moves your character, X is jump, holding square will allow you to run and pressing the right shoulder causes you to roll away! The right stick is your cursor, this is rather unnecessary on the Vita because you can simply tap the screen instead. Otherwise, the left shoulder is the "tap" button. Pressing triangle, when prompted, picks up things, sometimes off baddies!
You attack using square in various combinations with your left stick and jump (X), and circle is your powered-up attack. You scroll through your equipped items using the D-pad, and press down to execute.
Pressing start opens your game menu and select opens your town map, where you may select unlocked areas to warp to.

Regarding difficulty, DC takes on a rather unique method. You do not choose your difficulty upon game start, you are automatically tossed into "normal" mode. Once you've beaten the game, rather than restarting the game from scratch on your newly unlocked difficulty, you're simply asked to continue (essentially repeat) the story in the harder mode. You keep your characters and items, but your enemies will be much more powerful, causing you to repeat the game as though new anyway. I think I like this idea. It's certainly not plausible for every game but I love the fact that I don't have to forfeit my entire inventory and all my hard work to play on another difficulty. For more of a challenge, I would simple create a new character and start over that way. I found normal mode to be quite easy, which actually fuels my interest in continuing on hard mode.
It took me 17 hours to complete the first pass of the game (on normal mode), baring in mind that I played "completionist style," finishing every side quest and searching relentlessly for items and exploiting runes. Which reminds me, I haven't touched much on runes! At some point in the game, Lucain offers you some runes for purchase, and these can be used in conjunction with the curious "letters" or "scratchings" on the walls of the dungeons, creating spells. Each spell does something different, and Lucain will educate you on these as you discover them.

So is Dragon's Crown the perfect game? Certainly not. Aside from the troubles in the combat department, the game is rather repetitive and best played in small bursts. I'd also love to be able to pause the game. There is no means to pause the game, if you open your menu, you are still vulnerable to attacks or other environmental dangers. The only way around this is to push the Vita's PS button and freeze the game. Additionally, while I enjoy the narration of the story, it is typically delivered during moments of combat, and it's difficult to read or hear what the narrator is saying while concentrating on the battle. It would be nice if I could review the story afterward, in case I missed something interesting.
That said, Dragon's Crown was still very enjoyable, and I reckon I'll revisit it again someday and try out the increased difficulty. I'd recommend DC to fans of the hack 'n' slash genre, and particularly to fans of Muramasa. It is a simple, beautiful piece of work that plays seamlessly on the Vita.

LOTIPS
  • If you see little glittery bits on the screen: tap them, Uncharted style!
  • In fact, poke around. Literally.
  • While at the Inn, you'll notice in the words "Join ON" on your party slots. What this means is, in the event that you do not hand-pick your party, random allies will show up at random intervals during your dungeon crawl. If you want to go alone, you'll have to turn this feature off.
Yep…



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