Dust off those elf-kicking boots and put on your +1 trackpants of dexterity, because a new 2D side-scrolling swords 'n' sorcery game has arrived.
In the grand tradition of Golden Axe and the Dungeons & Dragons arcade series, Dragon’s Crown attempts to breathe life into an oft-neglected genre – with a few tweaks for modern sensibilities, of course. With a character levelling system, an abundance of side-quests, masses of loot to be collected, and the ability to play online, the game adds a slew of bells and whistles to appeal to the 21st century gamer while maintaining a classic, arcadey feel.
Following the traditional side-scrolling formula, Dragon’s Crown sees up to four heroes travelling through dungeons, forests, caves and so on, fighting monsters, gathering treasure, and ultimately facing a boss battle before clearing each stage. It’s an unabashedly retro experience, fuelled by the memories of those classic arcade cabinets and the simple joys of pummelling monsters with an enchanted longsword.
Players start the game by choosing their adventurer from one of six stock fantasy classes, with each bringing a different set of moves and abilities to the party. The elf wields a bow and is a long-range specialist, the sorceress and wizard can cast a variety of spells, and the fighter, dwarf and amazon are all really good at hitting things.
Yes, elf, dwarf, wizard, warrior; those old familiar archetypes instantly recall the pulp fantasy of decades gone by, and the game is hardly shy of drawing deep from that particular well. With a story that includes a long-slumbering dragon, a wise old wizard, a brash young king, and a devious politician, Dragon’s Crown is a worn treadmill of fantasy tropes. In fact, there’s a point where paying homage turns to recycling clichés, and Dragon’s Crown veers dangerously into this territory with its bland melange of a plot. Its wooden-voiced narration does it no favours either.
However, with its anime-influenced visual style, Western and Eastern sensibilities combine to ensure Dragon’s Crown at least looks unique. Its sprites are big and bold, its enemies colourful and varied, and its animations are smooth and wonderfully expressive. It really is a beautiful looking game, and it’s a reminder that 2D graphics need not be consigned to the past. Having said that, with four heroes and half a dozen enemies on screen at once, flashy spell animations and the like tend to make big battles tough to follow, meaning the nuances of combat are sometimes overshadowed by bouts of button-mashing.
Those nuances do exist, though, and combat is surprisingly deep. Each character has a unique set of moves that can be levelled up, unlocking new and more powerful abilities, and if players can get past having to plod through the early stages of the story each time, trying out the different play styles is rewarding in itself. Additionally, every stage contains secret areas and puzzles to solve that make returning to the same areas a more appealing prospect – although it must be said that certain puzzles are frustratingly easy to “miss”, and the game forces players to replay areas in their entirety in order to retry.
There are a few other poor design choices that hold Dragon’s Crown back from greatness. For one, the town hub that players visit between quests is really just a clunky menu system that is tedious to navigate.In addition, unlocking treasure chests and doors, finding hidden gold, and accessing rune magic is all mapped to an annoying and clumsy cursor, controlled by the right analogue stick. It’s impossible to cast a strength-boosting rune spell without leaving a character wide open to attack, for example, so the entire rune system tends to fall by the wayside.
But the elephant in the room, and the issue for which the developers have copped flak since the first concept art surfaced on the net – is Dragon’s Crown’s obsession with cheesy, over-the-top T and A. The character designs for the amazon and sorceress, with breasts literally the size of watermelons, are embarrassing enough, but the game is rife with perverted “fan service” from start to finish. Parts of the game seem lifted straight from the adults-only section of a Japanese magazine rack: in one story scene, a female knight in full armour lies wounded with her legs spread towards the screen; in another, a spirit woman in a sheer, clingy robe lies chained up on her back, her hips rocking back and forth suggestively. Its leery tone is surely enough to turn off a number of gamers who might otherwise have been willing to give the game a punt.
Dragon’s Crown is a pretty enjoyable hack n’ slash dungeon crawler; one that – when it's not making visual overtures to an audience of 13-year-old boys – looks great and has surprising depth. It's limited by its clunky story and over-reliance on repetition, but that, in the end, isn’t a dealbreaker. Taken in short bursts, its small but detailed levels, extensive levelling system, and piles of lootables should be more than enough to keep fans of the genre happy.
It’s a shame, then, that the game will probably be remembered not for its tight gameplay, its fun hero abilities or its dazzling boss battles, but for its weird, porny aesthetic, a cheap veneer of titillation that tarnishes a fun, old-school gaming experience.