It wasn't long ago now that Vanillaware released Muramasa Rebirth for the PlayStation Vita, and showed us exactly what it's capable of doing with an OLED screen. In an apparent effort to prove that it isn't done yet, the developer’s second game has already landed on the handheld in the form of Dragon's Crown. Though it may share similarities to the aforementioned release – and countless other games that came before it – this hack-and-slash RPG brings a fresh experience to the platform that isn’t easy to put down.
All about the action, plot points in Dragon’s Crown are kept to a minimum. Legend has it that there is a mysterious treasure know as the, er, Dragon’s Crown, and it's your task to seek out this prize before it gets into the wrong hands. There is also the archetypal plot point involving you trying to prove that you're a worthy adventurer, but that’s so standard in fantasy and adventure tales that it’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s not necessarily a strong plot, but the way that the narrative unfolds through story vignettes and character dialogue keeps it feeling fresh. The narration and personalities are mostly voice acted, further adding to the game’s ability to hold your interest through the lively presentation.
Fans of SEGA classics Golden Axe and Guardian Heroes will feel right at home with Dragon’s Crown’s gameplay. The heart of the action can easily be dismissed as side-scrolling hack-and-slash, but in this case the simplicity works to its advantage. The basic yet addictive gameplay is accompanied by RPG elements that blend together nicely to form a broader experience. There are six different classes of characters to play as, ensuring that the gameplay is kept unique and the stages are worthy of revisiting. Once you’ve selected the class of character that you want to play, you are immediately dropped into the narrative. While there is a main story that remains mostly linear and can be worked through without interruption, there are plenty of side quests and extra missions that you can choose to tackle. These additional quests obviously result in more experience and different items to pick up and equip, but they also unlock pieces of art. Side quests are not only reserved for those insistent on levelling up, but also for players intent on seeing everything that this gorgeous game has to offer as well.
Levelling up is a simple process as the game automatically upgrades character stats rather than allowing for customisation. To counteract this lack of depth in the levelling system is skill point allocation. As you climb in levels, you'll be awarded points that can be attributed to either common or class specific upgrades. The levelling system may lack depth on the whole, but it does allow for just enough gravity that upgrading your characters’ skills can make him or her feel like your own.
As you explore dungeons and different areas, you'll happen across piles of bones. Collecting bones and returning them to the local temple will allow you to resurrect fallen warriors who you can then choose to accompany you on quests. You can have up to four members in your party at once, yourself included, and these additional allies can be especially helpful in some of the more difficult stages. Your non-playable character allies do not gain experience or level up alongside you, but finding new piles of bones the further along that you are in the game will result in the resurrection of stronger support. After reaching a certain point in the story, the game will then allow to join other adventurers on their quests or have them join you instead. Multiplayer is available via Wi-Fi or locally using the Vita’s ad hoc system.
At the heart of the gameplay in any game is way that it controls, and Dragon’s Crown feels perfectly natural on the Vita. The combat inputs feel tight, with no discernible lag or stickiness hindering your flow. While almost everything follows the standard of what one might expect – the left stick controls character movement while the face buttons allow you to attack and jump – it’s the portable’s touchscreen that makes the game feel at home. Throughout your adventure you'll have the option to use the right stick to control a cursor that can select menu options as well as hidden objects in stages. This input can be a bit slow and frustrating, but the Vita’s touchscreen allows you to circumvent the right stick completely. The integration of touchscreen controls along with the hard buttons is smooth and makes for a fluid experience.
At the risk of touching on the current state of games journalism or moral ambiguity, we would be remiss not to discuss the graphics and art style of any game when reviewing it. Whether you find an art style to be aesthetically pleasing or downright disgusting, when it works, it just plain works. In this case, the hand drawn characters and painted environments in Dragon’s Crown are absolutely gorgeous, adding to the fantasy atmosphere. Some of the character designs can be a bit grating and scoff inducing, but on the Vita’s small screen the action takes precedence, effectively drowning out the over-the-top body proportions and physics and placing the focus on the gameplay itself. Unfortunately, once you’ve explored all of the different locations on offer, they then begin to repeat themselves with quests taking place in previously explored territories. The repetition is bothersome as it limits the original areas to explore, but the environments are so gorgeous that it’s a really difficult complaint to make.
Though everything may look sharp and neat, sometimes it’s all just too much for the Vita to handle. By no means is it game breaking, but there is noticeable slowdown when the screen is absolutely filled with enemies and allies in an all-out brawl. The drop in frame rate is disconcerting, but again, it doesn’t do much to hinder the experience or make it unplayable.
If you’re a fan of old-school action games, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be playing Dragon’s Crown. Taking a page from the books of Golden Axe and Guardian Heroes, this hack-and-slash adventure set in a fantasy universe combines fast-paced combat with RPG elements to deliver a fresh experience on the Vita. The missions can be repetitive and the levelling system simplistic, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a well-crafted RPG that is sure to keep you entertained for hours on end.