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Why Dragon’s Crown didn’t turn me on (hands-on preview)

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LOS ANGELES — Sitting behind a row of game journalists hammering through Dragon’s Crown’s four-player co-op at a special pre-E3 event, I kept hearing phrases like “What’s going on?” and “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Jumping on the sticks myself a few minutes later, I experienced a curiously extended sense of What the hell? that lasted my entire playthrough.

And because this is Dragon’s Crown, that feeling didn’t just apply to the gameplay.

The character designs by Vanillaware cofounder George Kamitani (Muramasa: The Demon Blade) drew fire for their hyper-exaggerated style from the second they went public. More specifically, the Amazon and Sorceress characters caused great offense with their (to put it mildly) overtly sexualized designs. At minimum, it shows a fairly big disconnect from the industry’s recent attempts to recognize gender equality issues — a shift some people feel veers too far into overreactive political correctness.

Maybe Dragon’s Crown (due Aug. 6 on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita) simply got caught in that crossfire. I’d love to side-step those issues and evaluate this game based purely on how it plays, but that’s just not possible. It’s not one thing. It’s everything. It’s everywhere. At all times.

Dragon's Crown

Let’s get some basics out of the way. Dragon’s Crown is a 2D, side-scrolling, slash-’em-up where up to four players choose from six character classes — three male, three female (three of which are semiclothed, male and female) — and go adventuring in a lush, high-fantasy world that’s borrowed almost chapter and verse from Dungeons & Dragons. Its secret weapon? A fairly detailed skill upgrade system that lets you trick out your characters to taste, whether that’s a knight who soaks up damage or a ranger who fires three arrows at once.

You also get a few branching paths to go with the role-playing options. A nonplayable Tinkerbell-type fairy and a thief tag along to provide access to bonus areas. Branching pathways give you an option to face the level boss head-on or take a softer approach for less treasure. Hey, we were there to kill us a wyvern, so we charged right in.

Turns out when that boss wyvern isn’t busy raining fireballs down on everybody, it calls in some of its wyvern buddies. We had three dive-bombing us at once. Yeah, I hate wyverns now.

Just don’t ask me how we handled it, because I couldn’t tell you with any accuracy.

Dragon's Crown

Most four-player co-op games feature smallish avatars so everybody can fit comfortably. By comparison, the characters in Dragon’s Crown are huge. A party of four fills up a major chunk of the screen. Then Dragon’s Crown throws a bunch of bugbears and lizard men at them, plus a few giant sabertooth panther mounts players can jump aboard and a ton of blinding “hit” flashes as the fighting commences. And because it’s 2D, they all overlap on top of each other, foreground characters blocking out everyone and everything in the background.

When these guys all scrum together center-screen, bashing away surrounded by Kamitani’s genuinely beautiful art direction, it’s the very definition of a hot mess. Consistently choppy animations didn’t help.

I honestly didn’t know what was going on half the time and had to resort to straight-up button mashing. That bothered me. But not nearly as much as the amped-up, in-your-face sex drive that threatens to make the rest of the game, good or bad, entirely moot.

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