Honestly, I can’t recall the last time I played a traditional “Beat ‘Em Up”. Double Dragon, Final Fight, and so many other arcade classics come to mind when I think about the genre, and hell, I can even recollect the times when my friends and I would all line up at the front of the arcade machines in Timezone, coin in hand, and ready to take on the next challenge! However, change was imminent. It was the early 90s for me personally, and I can still remember the excitement I felt when my parents brought home a Sega Mega Drive. Sure, it wasn’t technically my first console as I had grown up with the Atari 2600, but come on, there was no comparison between the two! And of course, like any kid from that era, I quickly embraced platforming games like Sonic, and tried to sneak in rounds of Mortal Kombat with my friends whenever my parents weren’t watching. It was awesome, and there was no looking back.
I’m not sure if was an era thing, or it’s just what all kids do, but swapping games with friends was an absolute necessity growing up. Although, considering the recent blow up with Microsoft’s attempt at DRM, I’d say the whole concept is still very relevant! Anyway, one day I decided to branch out and swap games with this strange kid that lived down the street, and from his collection I chose to take “Altered Beast” home with me. Love it, or hate it. I loved it, and proceeded to play the absolute hell out of it. Soon, I invited others, and it wasn’t long before Beat ‘Em Ups were the “in-thing” to play at home with your friends. Now, I’m sure you might be asking, what’s with all the nostalgia? Well, the latest title from Vanillaware, Dragon’s Crown, has effected me in such a way that all these memories have been flooding back during my playthrough, and now it makes me wonder, what ever happened to this genre?
In Dragon’s Crown, players will need to select a character by taking on the role of one of six different Adventurers. Each character comes with their own unique fighting style as well as a skill-tree to develop, and unique sets of equipment to collect. Essentially, the game takes place in a fantasy world where a sinister group of magic users have used their sorcery to create a gate that allows them to travel instantly between all the mystical locations that lay hidden throughout the land. Naturally, we’re talking labyrinths, catacombs and all the other places you’d expect to see within this type of setting. Why would they do this? Simple. They are searching for the Dragon’s Crown, and should they get their evil hands on it, there would surely be dire consequences for everyone else.
I’m sure the premise doesn’t sound very original, but as you might expect, the game is filled with a unique charm that carries it well. In fact, the entire story is spoken by a Narrator, and I have to admit, he did a pretty good job. Well, except for the moments where I would switch between screens and he would constantly repeat the same line, over and over. To be honest, I often found myself telling him to shut up, which I know my fiancé finds amusing, but that’s also a part of what makes it fun. The narrative itself is presented via hand-drawn slides that use a minor amount of animation, and of course, text. Just think visual novels, and you’ll have a good idea of how it works. I wouldn’t say the plot is engaging in terms of the events themselves, but it’s enough to make you feel like you’re a part of the world. In summary, it works well, and will more than likely leave you with a smile once it’s over.
Let’s assume some readers might not know anything about this title, so I will stop now and clarify that Dragons Crown is actually a unique hybrid genre that combines Beat ‘Em Up and RPG mechanics. Personally, I’ve never played a Vanillaware game before, which means this concept is completely new to me, although, it does feel like a natural progression for the genre. To put it simply, the game functions between two distinctive sections. Initially, you have the main town which acts as a sort of hub throughout the experience. This is where players can sell or purchase items from the stores, adjust equipment & skills, or stop off at the adventurers guild to accept additional questions. However, when you’re ready to embark on your adventure, you can use the magical gate at the end of the town to travel to all the unique locations around the world. Prepare yourself, this is where the fighting begins!
Dragon’s Crown is available on both the PS3 & PS Vita, and for the most part, both versions are nearly identical. Okay, yeah. Cross-platform, what’s the big deal about that? Well, just like the recent release of Hotline Miami, you can actually upload your save file, and then continue playing the game on the alternative device. This does not require PlayStation+, and as you might imagine, works very well for a game that you can easily pick up and play, or lose yourself in for hours at a time. Naturally, there are a few advantages for each version. As expected, the Vita implements touch controls, which is useful for finding treasure and using runes, however, on the other hand, the PS3 version benefits from having the action laid out on a larger screen. It can become a real “cluster-$@%#” at times, and my preference is to have as much screenspace as possible. Although, it’s still great to take it on the go.
We have to admit, Dragon’s Crown is well designed game, and the transition between the levels and your activity within the town feels quite natural. The game implements a lot of good ideas that will appeal to a large variety of demographics. If you’re a classic Diablo fan who enjoys loot hunting, you’ll certainly enjoy what’s on offer, and yet, if you’re really into fighting games, you’ll also appreciate the challenge that comes with mastering the mechanics of each the different classes. There is a lot to do within the game, and it can serve you well for a single playthrough (approximately 20 hours of gameplay), or keep you going for weeks at a time with more than 50 sidequests, increased difficulties, and a unique experience playing with each of the different characters. And yet, all of this is before I’ve even mentioned local & online co-operative play. Honestly, this is where the magic truly happens!
Just to avoid any confusion, it’s important to explain that whilst you can play local co-op from the beginning, the online mode does not open up until you reach a particular point in the game. Initially, you will need to overcome each of the nine levels, at which point you will receive a new set of objectives that requires to you to take on an alternate and more difficult pathway within each stage. Finally, players could then team up with friends as well as other players online to proceed through the various stages in order to obtain a talisman. Alternatively, players could also opt to continue that playthrough without stopping in order to earn bonuses, and jump onward to a randomly selected location (great for collecting loot, and level building). It was at this point I began thinking about the genre and how much I missed it. Whether it was local, with friends, or even with strangers. It was simple fun.
Of course, the game isn’t without its problems. The companion AI can be downright awful at times, which is especially noticeable when there is any fire in the immediate area. For example, I would expertly navigate the flames as I’m not stupid, but often the AI would happily stroll through, lighting themselves ablaze and then creating more fire as they moved onward. To be honest, it was more than a little agitating at times, but they still worked okay for the most part and helped get the job done. Besides, I actually enjoyed the unique system that allows you to collect various AI companions during your playthrough. Essentially, within most of the levels, you will come across piles of bones that you can pickup and take back to the temple and resurrect. Each character has their own unique equipment & skills, and this provided a great variety of companions to team up with offline.
Dragon’s Crown is simply a game that I had a lot of fun playing as it took me back to an earlier time. It almost felt like I was playing something very traditional, but at the same time, I always knew that my character had the ability to develop further because of the many RPG influences that tied heavily into the experience. It doesn’t ever feel dated, and the controls mostly work well. As you would expect, players can pick up special weapons, ride on beasts and unlock hidden rooms and treasures. Nothing out of the ordinary really. However, what I liked most is the fact that I could potentially use my own skill to overcome an enemy that stronger than me, but then again I could also walk away to train, and then come back with an entirely new approach. If anything, it felt empowering.
Just to clarify, which is something I need to do often with this title, the equivalent mechanic for the touch screen on the PS3 version of the game is a cursor that you will control with the right analog stick. It’s going to take a little getting used to at first, but it won’t be long before you’re moving it around all the time to open treasure boxes, cast rune spells and hit the continue button for a fallen comrade. It’s always going to feel a little awkward, but it works. Otherwise, when you’re not fighting, you’re more than likely going to be trawling through your spoils at Morgan’s Magic Item Shop, appraising the items you plan to use, and selling what you don’t want for gold. It’s a good way to make some income, especially if you come back with a large haul. Either way, you’ll always be busy.
What else can I say other than it’s unbelievably charming, and the music in the game always put me in the mindset for an adventure. Absolutely everything within the game has been hand-drawn by the artists at Vanillaware, and it looks stunning no matter what platform you’re playing. The movement is always very smooth, and each of the characters are well designed. Personally, I think it’s a joke that the sorceresses breast size got so much negative attention within the online media as at least half of the character bodies are designed well out of proportion. I often played the game with my fiancé in the room, and never once did I feel “awkward” when she appeared on the screen. The amazon warrior has a fat arse, and the top heavy warrior has a set of chicken legs. Internet, let’s move onto the next controversy, please. I have no problem with it, and I honestly don’t think anyone should. It’s just art.
Initially, I asked the question to myself: what ever happened to this genre? And to be honest, the writing is on the wall. It simply evolved into something different and is actually alive and well in the industry today. Basically, when 3D graphics were introduced back during the 32-bit era, the design style for these types of games shifted in the direction of stylish action games such as Devil May Cry and God of War. So, technically, beat ’em up games never really disappeared; they just changed, and in fact became quite popular again. The problem with this particular approach, however, is the fact that it essentially removed the inclusion of multiplayer, and instead focused on large scale set pieces and making the action fast-paced. Of course, I appreciate those type of games, but playing Dragon’s Crown took me back to a different time, and reintroduced me to a type of fun I had long since forgotten.
I admit I may have exaggerated when implying the entire genre disappeared, but in terms of what was primarily one of the most popular game styles of the early ’90s, it definitely fell out of the mainstream in terms of what was traditional. Ultimately, Dragon’s Crown is the logical evolution of how a Beat ‘Em Up game probably would have developed if not for the introduction of 3D gaming, and despite a few minor issues, I think it all comes together really well, and not in a way that’s tied into the current trend of dumping RPG mechanics into something to make it feel new again. This is the type of game that has a lot of content and depth for players who want that type of experience whilst still being simple enough that anyone could pick up and play. It’s charming, well designed, and fun to play with other people.