Well I think we may have found it, the VITA’s killer app, the game that plays best on the VITA and really defines the system. A bit hyperbolic you might say but I think it will prove true as time goes on. Not a lot needs to be said about why this game is immediately interesting, it’s another beautiful looking Vanillaware game that combines genres as it defines them, funny how VW keeps doing that. This was one of the games that had me excited for the VITA way back when it was the NGP and while the VITA may not always live up to its potential, Dragon’s Crown sure did.
Gameplay wise it’s not too dissimilar from past Vanillaware titles such as Odin Sphere or Muramasa: The Demon Blade in that it uses a strong base of classic brawler gameplay and then layers another genre on top of it, in this case a traditional fantasy RPG. The actual brawler base of the gameplay is very well made and feels incredibly fluid once you get the hang of the class you’re playing. That said each class does play quite differently and has a different focus; the warrior for instance is your more traditional attacker though he has some interesting defensive tanking techniques whereas the Sorceress and Mage focus on various magical spells but have to manage MP and have little offensive power outside of those spells. Hell, this game even has a grappler class in the magnificent beard sporting Dwarf who can whip enemies and environmental objects around at will. There’s a lot of nuance in each class and as you level them up it only gets deeper, not necessarily Elder Scrolls deep or anything but far more than you would normally expect from this genre.
Of course then you get to the RPG aspects of this game and simplicity flies right out the window. Again in classic Vanillaware style they have gone whole hog with extra systems and created a massively loot heavy RPG as a result. In each level you’ll find myriad treasure chests, each with a rating that results in you getting an appropriate piece of loot at the end of the level. Loot can be class specific, have a variety of unique qualities, have a special appearance, or just have really good stats. The game is also entirely persistent between characters so if you find something really good early on for another class you can save it for when you eventually start a character of that class up. The game also has a secondary type of loot in bone piles, which rather than give you items can be resurrected back in town to create new randomly generated NPC allies for you. As is well known round these parts, I am not one for multi-player, and the fact that this game essentially allows you to emulate a perfect version of actual multi-player without ever having to interact socially is a real plus. You can have up to three NPC allies join you and the AI behind them is pretty decent, they’ll use whatever goodies the game throws at them but give you a good chance to use it first and you can easily make them drop stuff you wanted to use. Also score (and I suspect loot) is cumulative and cooperative so you never have to worry about anyone upstaging you, it’s all one big team effort.
Now to move onto the hot button issue with this game, the art style, and this is one where I can see both the positive and the negative of the situation but I feel the positive wins out. To get the elephant out of the room, this game features overt to the point of almost being grotesque depictions of both the female and male form. Women have ample swinging breasts and butts and every dude is built like a more athletic version of The Hulk; this is particularly unnerving with the female characters as it can feel more than a little pervy at first. That said, I had a revelation while playing this game that made the art style make 100% total sense to me: They aren’t going for an overly sexualized fantasy novel style so much as they are trying to evoke the classic forms of renaissance art. Now I make no claims of being some great art scholar but the idealized forms presented (specifically the more curvaceous forms of the females) clearly mimic those of the renaissance style when they would represent great epics and tales through art. Larger than life heroes in epic poses and goddess like heroines exuding strength and sensuality were staples and while they’ve clearly updated the forms to match our current vague idea of beauty that influence is still very much there. Yes there is most certainly the hint of classic Conan-ian fantasy art styling but there is certainly something more meaningful here if you can look past the pulp.
That heroic fantasy overtone mind you works very well with the story which goes for an epic “tale for the ages” sort of thing. The premise is that your hero is a recent immigrant to the kingdom of Hydeland whose king has been lost looking for the legendary Dragon’s Crown which is said to give one the ability to control dragons. You start out small with requests from the adventurer’s guild and quickly move onto performing feats of true daring on behalf of the both the country and the world. From there it goes into some fairly predictable patterns including a good old-fashioned MacGuffin chase but because they are going for such a traditional vibe it all feels quite genuine. Also, and this is a minor point, when you accomplish something truly hard the game praises the living fuck out of you for it which personally I like.
So the last important thing to talk about is the differences between the VITA version and the PS3 version which are surprisingly few. For the most part the games are at almost pure parity, looking the same and controlling almost the same, but there is a downside to each version. On the VITA the problem is that the game can get a little framey when the action gets to its zenith just because there are so many characters on-screen emitting so many attack effects, it never lasts long and doesn’t detract from the experience but it is noticeable. On the PS3 the issue is the lack of the VITA’s touchscreen as there are multiple systems, some vital, that require touching the screen. They get around this by having you use the right stick to manipulate a cursor and while you do quickly get used to it, the stick will never be as quick to use while in battle as the touchscreen. Also worth mentioning is that while the two versions are not cross-buy and not cross-play, they are cross-save compatible if you’re willing to chip out the $90 plus tax to get both versions ($40 for VITA and $50 for PS3). Personally I would say if you have to pick one version out of the two, I would recommend the VITA version, it simply feels more designed for that console.
Even so, this is a worthy purchase regardless of platform as there is oodles of content here with just a normal difficulty run of a single character taking a good 15 hours or so. More importantly there is a lot of variety and flexibility to the characters and a good addictive RPG edge to make spending those 15 hours (and probably a good 100 more after it) worthwhile. As I said at the start, I think this just might be the VITA’s killer app and if you’ve already invested in Sony’s oft misaligned handheld then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up. I can happily give Dragon’s Crown a 5 out of 5 stars, Vanillaware continues its reign of quality beautiful 2D side-scrollers with another stellar entry. While I don’t necessarily think it’s super worth it to buy both versions, you should definitely pick it up on your Playstation platform of choice.