Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dragon's Crown: Good, But Not Great

Side-scrolling beat-em-ups are not usually my cup of tea, but Dragon's Crown looked interesting nonetheless. With its classic western-fantasy theme, evocative hand-drawn visuals, and randomized loot and skill trees, it seemed like it had the potential to transcend the typical shallowness I often experience when playing side-scrolling beat-em-ups. As it turns out, there's quite a lot of unique charm and variety in Dragon's Crown's presentation and gameplay, making it a generally satisfying experience, but it still seems lacking in overall cohesion. 

After spending 20 hours in the first playthrough, the game tried encouraging me to do it all over again in a sort of "hard mode new game plus." I said "no thank you" and was content to be finished with it. As much promise and potential as there is within Dragon's Crown's formula, it just didn't compel me to keep playing.

Dragon's Crown features six playable classes, a hub system, and nine self-contained levels. After picking a class, you start out in the Adventurer's Guild and pick up quests that eventually get you involved in the game's story, and which send you out into the world to battle enemies and eventually to reclaim the fabled dragon's crown. The story is barely existent; reflecting back, I can't even remember what it was supposed to be about. Something about a missing king, and you having to settle a dispute for the heirship to the throne and a resurrected dragon that has to be stopped. It's basically just a bare-bones premise to get you into combat situations.

The six playable classes

The six playable classes all have unique movesets and unique skilltrees, meaning you can have a vastly different gameplay experience depending on which class you choose. I tried the tutorial for each class and eventually went with the sorceress, briefly considering the elven archer, because I preferred the flashiness of mage spells and having to regulate mana usage. With the two melee-centric classes, I often felt like I was just mindlessly button mashing, whereas with the sorceress and elf it felt a little bit more strategic. 

Combat can be pretty fun, with each class having a handful of basic attacks, a handful of unique class-specific skills, as well as equip-able spell books and rings. When playing solo, you have to block and evade at the right times and manage your positioning on screen to avoid being surrounded. Playing as the sorceress, different staves used different elements, which meant completely different skillsets depending on which element I was using. There are also a ton of different enemies that require different strategies to take down, and boss battles that feature unique gimmicks or more nuanced tactics to take down. 

As you defeat enemies, complete quests, and clear levels, you gain experience points towards leveling up, which increases your stats and grants you skill points to be used on class-specific skills or general skills for all classes. This system offers you the opportunity to more uniquely craft your own playstyle and character build, but the unfortunate problem of the game's leveling system is that it rarely feels like you're actually improving. Except for when you learn an entirely new skills, most of the points you'll dump into the skilltree will only make you marginally more efficient.

Riding a fire-breathing velicoraptor

The loot system likewise falls victim to this. Equipment drops (earned from treasure chests and from defeating bosses) are scaled based on level and rarity, with different base stats and the possibility of unique additional effects. The unique twist on this formula is each piece of equipment's stats and effects remain hidden until you spend money appraising it, so it's kind of a gamble each time you appraise an item and sometimes it might not be worth appraising them at all. The problem with the loot, however, is that as you get better and better equipment, you can rarely ever tell the difference in actual performance. 

While the enemies don't scale to your level, the game is balanced so that as you get stronger and progress through the main questline, the enemies will all be appropriately leveled for you. So with marginal improvements in your equipment, marginal improvements in your skills, marginal improvements in your stats, and marginally harder enemies, you don't get to appreciate getting stronger because things always feel relatively the same. It's not until the second half of a first playthrough that you run into the possibility of tough difficulty hurdles, but this basically just requires you to visit whatever stage happens to be appropriate for your level at the time.

After beating the game for the first time, you get to go through it all over again in "hard mode" and later "inferno mode." These new difficulties are actually written into the story, sort of via a retcon -- after spending the whole game striving to kill the dragon and stop the threat, it's revealed that there are actually more dragons, and the goddess statue requests you kill two more to revive the other two god statues. I barely struggled at all with the first playthrough and never went out of my way grinding for levels or loot, but entering "hard mode" it appeared I was vastly under-leveled and would have to grind my way up to face the new challenges, which just didn't seem appealing to me.

A voiced narrator tells the story over animated stills

The levels are pretty satisfying to play through, at least initially, on account of the variety of things to do in each one. The game follows the basic formula of "go to the right" through each and every level, but there are lots of hidden rooms to discover, unique contraptions with which to interact, and later on, branching paths that lead to different areas and different bosses. But even despite that, the game demands that you replay chunks of each level within the same first playthrough and for each and every side-quest, which usually send you into stages you've already cleared to kill x number of enemies or to interact with something you saw long ago but couldn't use without the requisite quest. Even with slight randomization within levels, it gets to be kind of repetitive.

The one thing that makes the level-grinding a bit more appealing is the way the game rewards you for staying out in levels longer. After a while you unlock the ability to continue adventuring into a random stage after clearing a stage, as opposed to going back to town, and doing so will net you better rewards the longer you stay out. The challenge therein lies with maintaining your equipment's condition and your stock of consumable items and spells -- in order to stay out longer, you have to pack extra bags of equipment and pace your item usage. There's even a fun little mini-game between every couple of stages that has you cooking food at a campfire to give your party buffs for the next stage.

The best boss in the game: the killer rabbit

Perhaps the most compelling reason to play Dragon's Crown would be the possibility for cooperative play, locally or online. But since I don't usually like playing with random strangers, I stuck to solo mode, which allows you to recruit NPCs to join you in battle. As you explore levels, you come across the remains of other adventurers, and once back in town you can choose to resurrect the fallen adventurers or lay their bones to rest. The issue I ran into with the NPCs is primarily that the screen gets so cluttered that is becomes a confusing, chaotic mess with attack animations and damage values obscuring everything else on screen. I typically had more fun and felt more challenged when I disabled the option for NPCs to automatically join your party as you adventure.

Dragon's Crown is kind of a simple game that has a surprising amount of depth in it, something that I can see some people really enjoying and spending a lot of time playing. I enjoyed the initial playthrough, but it's kind of slow-going as the game takes its precious time unlocking all of its various features and letting you enjoy the full game experience. And by the time I was finally able to get that full game experience, I'd kind of gotten tired of the repetition and didn't feel compelled to continue with the arbitrary grind. It's an easy game to recommend if you're looking for cooperative gameplay, and it works really well as an on-the-go game for the PlayStation Vita, but it's still not nearly as satisfying as it had the potential to be. 

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