The first time I beat Dragon’s Crown, I beat it without going online. This was a mistake.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad game offline, quite the contrary. Playing offline gives you a chance to acclimate to the game’s 9 stages (with two routes through each and numerous hidden doors and secrets). In fact, the game demands that you go through each stage’s first, easier route before it even allows you to go online.
When I first started Dragon’s Crown, I decided to start with the Fighter. The Fighter is very direct. He’s got one combo on the ground and a lengthy sword-spinning attack in the air, but aside from that he’s mostly like everyone else: launcher, slide kick, running attack. This is changed up a bit when you stab your sword into the ground with circle, sending out a shockwave that hits everything in the immediate vicinity and switching to hand-to-hand combat. The Fighter’s fist-fighting, however, is similar enough to sword-based combat that you’ll hardly need any time to adjust. He’s also the only character with a shield, somewhat awkwardly activated by holding square instead of tapping it.
At first, I was a bit worried by how limited his moveset seemed. He felt almost too basic, like I was playing a brawler from the early ‘90s instead of one from 2013. However, as I played through the opening few missions, I’d both level up and unlock side quests that asked me to return to areas I’d cleared. In typical RPG fashion, every time I leveled up, I’d get a skill point that I could funnel into either generic (i.e. extra storage or gold takes on healing properties) or Fighter-specific (enemy-stunning shield bash possible after blocking an attack or extended attack patterns) skills. Leveling up alone still didn’t give me a whole lot of options. The side quests, on the other hand, did. Depending on the level of quest difficulty, I could get multiple skill points, and redoing certain stages might have me level up in the process.
Before I knew it, I had crafted a Fighter that fit my attack-heavy playstyle and started tweaking the way I played to better match the abilities that I could upgrade. I funneled points into stronger attacks and the chance to auto-block attacks so I could basically constantly stay in harm’s way and survive, but I also began using the shield bash against enemies that outleveled or overwhelmed me so I could start a combo against them when they were stunned. This gradual evolution of my playstyle allowed me to survive against some of the later, tougher bosses when my AI compatriots were being less than helpful.
On your travels, you’ll find the bones of various wanderers who have supposedly died mid-adventure. Pick them up and you can pay a small fee at the church to revive them when you get back to town. They’ll wait for you in the town bar and you can recruit them to go with you on their adventures. While this is handy at first, the further you play, the less helpful AI becomes. I basically only was able to beat the last boss on the standard difficulty because my teammates acted as distractions for it as I attacked, getting torn to shreds and hardly getting out of the way of the boss’s screen-spanning attacks. Add to that the fact that you have to reselect your teammates (and resurrect new ones) every time you return to town (whether it’s after a successful quest or a crushing defeat) and dealing with AI gets a bit tiring after a while. It’s easier just to select the option to have AI compatriots drop by in the middle of an adventure, even if that doesn’t necessarily let you build the party you want and might leave you in the lurch before a boss.
Despite my complaints about the AI and my initial trepidation toward the Fighter, I had a great time with Dragon’s Crown. There’s a sense of storybook adventure to it that I haven’t seen in many other games. From the narrator who describes your adventure and will occasionally provide a few hints for your exploration or combat (shouldering the majority of the game’s voice work in the process), to the gorgeous backgrounds that are given a bit of history and personality through the various side quests’ flavor text, to the way that each stage has secrets that can be revealed and hidden paths that can be unlocked by “clicking” parts of the stage with the right analog stick or the touch screen, there’s something about the game that feels a lot more alive than most other 2D sidescrollers tend to feel.
All of that is mixed together with little nods to other games, Disney (you talk to a mouse named Rickey who’s a magician’s apprentice), movies, and even works of art. It feels more personal than a lot of other games, like you’re having a chat with the people who made Dragon’s Crown as you play through it. It’s like you’re a kid again and one of your parents is telling you a story but they’re putting on voices and embellishing things in ways that only they’d do.
After I’d beaten the game, I figured I’d be able to pick another character and just hop right online with them. I chose the Amazon and was excited to play through the game online with her until I realized that I couldn’t. I needed to go through the first run of stages again. I shared item stocks with my Fighter, but nothing else. I needed to earn my online play for each character, and at first I was a bit disappointed by that.
After playing through a couple of stages offline with the Amazon (whose aggression-rewarding berserk modes fit my playstyle even better than the Fighter did), I decided to switch back to my Fighter and try hard mode. Despite the fact that he was level 30, the first route of the first mission seemed to have me completely outmatched, with the boss outleveling me by 10 levels. I figured I’d give online play a try instead of taking those chances with only the AI on my side.
As soon as I stepped online, I realized why you need to earn the right to do so with each character. Multiplayer is madness in comparison to single player. Instead of shepherding your AI around and hoping they do the right thing, you’re working on keeping up with the rest of the team. To be an asset you need to know your character back to front. All of a sudden, I was very grateful to have had 15 hours of experience under my belt as the Fighter. I’d gradually developed him into a killing machine. I could defeat most standard enemies off of a single wall bounce (which handily, I could start by running up to an enemy and shoulder-ramming them), stay in the air for obscene amounts of time by abusing aerial launchers and air tackles, and I had some basic strategies for surviving each boss… but everyone else knew their characters just as well (if not better) than I knew mine.
A single skirmish online might have Sorceresses flying through the air and reanimating skeleton knights, wizards bringing down the game’s frame rate (at least on Vita) with screen-covering tornadoes and blizzards while teleporting all over the place, and Dwarves tossing enemies all over the screen like professional wrestlers. Even with the additional bit of slowdown online, everything seems faster and more chaotic. I didn’t even notice that the damage numbers that popped out of enemies were color coded until I started trying to keep track of where exactly I was in the explosions of particles and numbers. It was frantic, but also joyous. Everyone was playing the game as it was meant to be played.
Once you’ve unlocked online play, you also gain the ability to keep playing another quest immediately after finishing one with a bonus to your spoils, experience, or score (which, in proper arcade fashion, grants you an “extend” or extra life if you get beyond a certain value). Offline, I was always too battered by the end of a mission to have any desire to play another one immediately afterwards. I’d need to repair my equipment or grab myself some new AI after my current set was slaughtered, so I didn’t really see the point. However, online, it’s fun to be able to continue the adventure with your current set of people and reap the rewards for sticking together. My first time playing online had me play two quests back-to-back and resulted in my gaining three levels. This is clearly the right way to play Dragon’s Crown. I’m just disappointed that getting started on multiplayer took me this long.
Food for Thought:
1. Most of the people I played online with were Japanese players who had their Vita mics turned off (as I did). However, the ingame cursor (which you use to click on things) served as a handy means for expressing joy or annoyance.
2. I played entirely on Vita, and while the game looks great (as you can see from the screenshots), as I mentioned earlier, there are noticeable framerate drops when there’s a lot going on.
3. Definitely try everyone before you decide on your character to play through the game with. I’m currently happy with my Fighter, but still kind of wish I chose the Amazon first.
4. I like that there are multiple ways to defeat bosses on the B route, but don’t like the fact that they’re effectively time limits that don’t provide you with the rewards you’d get for properly beating them. These usually look really cool though.