Atlus has forged something of a rocky relationship with European gamers. It's hard to remember a time when its titles haven't been delayed for seemingly ridiculous periods before making the journey overseas – but thankfully, the Japanese publisher has somehow managed to deliver quality games over and over again. Developer Vanillaware's Dragon's Crown – a co-op enabled side-scrolling hack and slash RPG – is no different.
You may have already perused our review of the North American PlayStation Vita release, and it goes without saying that its PlayStation 3 counterpart is essentially identical – after all, you can transfer your save file between both platforms. However, there are some subtle differences between the two. For starters, the frame rate drops that occur when the action gets suitably hectic on Sony's handheld don't make an appearance here at all, resulting in a consistently silky smooth experience, even when online. Secondly, without the aid of a touch screen, it can be difficult to control your investigative cursor with the right analog stick, while simultaneously trying to keep your character out of harm's way. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, playing on a television means that you won't have to strain your peepers quite so hard, as allies, enemies, and various visual effects flood every inch of the screen.
Whichever version you decide to try, there's no doubt that the game will leave a lasting impression. Much like Atlus' fantastic Persona series, Dragon's Crown blends addictive RPG elements with an absolutely stunning art style. The result is a product that oozes charisma and manages to keep you coming back for more, whether it's to join up with friends for a spot of questing, or to hunt down some rare new equipment.
In essence, the title is split into two parts. The first is a story driven adventure, which will slowly mould your chosen hero into a seasoned adventurer as it guides you through the game's nine stages. The second begins near the end of the narrative, when the release's co-op component is made openly available to you. At this point, proceedings become freeform in nature, as you're left to build upon your success to any degree you see fit by hunting down better weapons and accessories.
The main plot itself will take around ten hours to see through, and for that reason it can seem like you're being denied the enjoyment of partying up with friends – especially when the game has been primarily billed as a cooperative experience. Persevere, though, and you'll be rewarded with a bulky character who can handle the endgame without hampering your allies.
That said, the fairytale story gels well with the title's fantasy setting. Initially, it's an intriguing tale of heirs to the throne and other royal affairs, but unfortunately, this theme is abandoned later on in favour of a rather generic plot that consists of clichés like the resurrection of an evil power. It's an absolute shame, too, as the colourful cast tend to weave interesting, secondary storylines that get cut woefully short because of the impending doomsday.
Narrative disappointments aside, the release's gameplay is responsible for keeping you entertained, and thankfully, it more than makes up for any shortcomings. Before each journey, lengthy or otherwise, you'll need to prepare yourself in town, which acts as a hub. Here you can buy items like healing potions, repair your equipment, pick up odd jobs, and trigger scenes that advance the story. Every feature is laid out in a linear fashion so that you can easily stroll to whatever it is that you need, and once you're done, it's time to venture out into the dangerous kingdom of Hydeland.
As previously mentioned, your quests and innumerable battles will take place in one of the title's nine memorable dungeons, which range from strongholds full of orcs to ancient ruins that are home to ferocious dragons. None of the areas on offer are particularly original, but once again, the superb art direction really helps each location feel vibrant and engaging, even after brawling through them multiple times. Although the number of stages on offer is quite low, it's worth mentioning that each level features an alternative path that's automatically unlocked later on. While the altered routes don't deviate aesthetically, they provide fresh challenges thanks to a menagerie of new enemies and totally different boss fights.
However, what really keeps the gameplay feeling fresh is the fantastic random loot system. Every so often during your rampage through a picturesque lair, you'll come across a locked chest. Instructing your constant companion Rannie to pick it open with a click from your cursor, you'll obtain ranked treasure which ranges from the not-so-impressive E to the rare and powerful S. You're unable to see or equip the trinkets that you've gathered while you're still out and about, but once you've returned to the cosy inn, you'll need to decide which pieces are worth spending gold on to appraise, revealing their stats and bonus attributes. It's a system which glorifies the treasure that you've just discovered, and makes it feel like you've genuinely returned home with bags full of riches, eager to examine exactly what it is that you've grabbed. Needless to say, appraising a deadly weapon or potent magical amulet that perfectly meets your current needs is incredibly satisfying, and sums up the title's rewarding nature extremely well.
Of course, in order to get your filthy mitts on these legendary artifacts, you'll need to force your way through infestations of varied and brilliantly designed adversaries. The release may operate on a two dimensional plane, but you're free to move in any direction. At first, correctly lining up your character with an enemy can take some getting used to because of this, but the simple button layout, responsive controls, and graceful attack animations make the combat system inherently accessible. Every attack, whether you're a sword-swinging fighter or a spell-slinging sorceress, connects with a satisfying crack as damage numbers pop into view. Fights are fast-paced, fluid, and above all, well balanced.
Speaking of balance, difficulty in Dragon's Crown is a tricky subject. Only one player class has access to a block mechanic, while the others must rely on pushing R1 in a timely manner to dodge. Along with a few other technical factors, this means that some classes are far easier to get to grips with, effectively altering how tough the game is from the beginning. That said, much of your time with the title will be spent replaying levels, which means that you'll gradually adjust to enemy spawning locations and your foe's tactics, giving the release a rewarding learning curve. The same is true of bosses: initially, some of the tougher baddies may have you pondering if it's even possible to overcome them without getting beaten to a pulp several times, but going back to a particularly menacing trial and succeeding with ease makes you realise where you were originally at fault, highlighting just how far your skills have developed since.
Meanwhile, teamwork isn't necessarily a key part of being successful in your endeavours, but at all times, you'll be able to journey with up to three other companions. Before you unlock the game's co-op features, you'll need to rely on computer controlled warriors who can be resurrected at the local temple after retrieving their battered bones from a dungeon. Like the loot system, these party members are random, and they come equipped with pre-set gear and a static level, therefore you'll always be switching them out for someone more reliable once the option is available. During the early hours of your quest, the artificial intelligence gets the job done, drawing away onslaughts and dealing out decent damage – but later they become a frustrating liability as they foolishly walk into obvious traps and refuse to move away from devastating blows.
Fortunately, each member of the group is automatically revived a set number of times when defeated, meaning that you'll usually be able to power through tricky scenarios despite your companions' stupidity. When you eventually team up with like-minded human players, though, the difference in efficiency is jarring. By simply setting your status to online, you'll find that strangers can seamlessly jump into your game to lend a helping hand, and, although you'll be separated when one of you decides to head back to town rather than fight through another scenario, the networking is reliable and hassle-free.
For an action RPG, this release has it all: an addictive loot system, responsive, satisfying combat, and the ability to grow and customise your hero to better suit your play style with skill points. However, what really solidifies the experience is the title's glorious presentation. Aside from the menus which can prove to be a little cumbersome, and the fact that sometimes it's incredibly hard to discern what's even happening during huge fights, the game is an absolute joy to behold. From the character design to the background, it's like watching a painting in motion – a cliché, we know, but there's honestly no better way to describe it. And, complemented by an orchestral score that usually borders on nothing less than beautiful, it's hard not to become hopelessly ensnared in the title's velvety world.
Dragon's Crown's narrative may get burned alive by a winged terror before it manages to even draw its sword, but the title's simple yet incredibly refined gameplay and well-crafted co-op component manage to save the day. The adventure glistens thanks to an astounding art direction that's laced with a magical musical score – but we just wished that there was a little more content to gaze lovingly in disbelief at.