Dragon’s Crown is a testosterone-fuelled romp through a medieval world that sets you on a heroic quest to loot treasure, quell the fires of rebellion and – ultimately – retrieve the eponymous Dragon’s Crown itself. Brought to life with hand-painted sprites and backgrounds, the medieval realm of Hydeland is rife with labyrinthine dungeons to explore, monstrous enemies to vanquish and barely clothed women to rescue.
The premise of the game rests on you wanting to prove yourself as a worthy adventurer, so after making your way to the local Adventurer’s Guild you’re given a few simple quests to undertake. One thing leads to another and eventually you find yourself enmeshed in a political scandal that sees you questing to stop malevolent forces from getting their hands on the all-powerful Dragon’s Crown (the bearer of which is said to control all dragons in the land). The plot of the game is purely functional, never too involving or immersive, and acts simply as a springboard to get you into the dungeons where the real gameplay begins.
At the outset of the game, you’re asked to choose from one of six classes – Dwarf, Elf, Amazon, Fighter, Sorceress or Wizard – and each has their own distinctive style of play. To successfully fight your way through the dungeons of Hydeland, you’ll need to utilise each class’s specific strengths and create teams that complement one another’s abilities. Close-range stalwarts such as the Fighter and Dwarf benefit from the ranged support of the Elf, for example, while the magic-toting Sorceress and Wizard require physical attackers on their team to destroy enemies immune to spells.
The team-based gameplay is much more satisfying when playing in co-op – while there is an option for AI controlled allies, their actions can sometimes undermine specific strategies you’re trying to employ, and they seem unable to keep themselves alive for very long. Try to go solo, and the game will automatically choose allies for you to partner with – Dragon’s Crown is supposed to be a social experience, and it’s keen to remind you of that.
The combat mechanics are pretty much what you’d expect from a side-scrolling brawler – levels are 2D and require you to strafe into the foreground or into the background to align yourself with enemies. Once within striking distance, there are a limited amount of combos to take advantage of to dispatch your foes. Due to the nature of the combat and the limitations of the move list, the game can sometimes become tedious – playing as the physical classes will see you repeatedly mashing the Square button because, frankly, there isn’t much else you can do.
What depth the game has comes from the RPG elements used to build your characters’ skills. Skill points are granted by levelling up and, like most RPGs, this is done by acquiring experience (which is rewarded at the end of each level and is calculated by combining the amount of treasure looted, total enemies killed and life points preserved). In the hubworld, you can visit the Adventurer’s Guild and trade acquired skill points for a variety of game-enhancing abilities that range from extra attacks to passive stat-boosts.
Once you begin to unlock to the area-effect spells and attacks, the dungeon fights start to become almost overwhelmingly frenetic. The screen fills up with enemies and amid the chaos of combat it’s easy to lose track of your character. No matter how crowded the screen becomes, however, the frame-rate never drops. Considering the sheer weight of enemy numbers that are routinely thrown at you, this is an impressive achievement.
The environments you are tasked with traversing are well realised and atmospheric – so it’s a shame there are so few of them. There are nine unique levels overall, and after the middle section of the game each level reveals new paths to explore. Between the forced repetition of the main quest and the plethora of optional side missions, you’ll find yourself revisiting the same area multiple times. The environments are rich with detail and strikingly rendered, however, and in every visit you’ll notice something you’ve missed before.
At the end of each level, you’re faced with a boss battle. These are consistently the best parts of the game, and will see you facing off against mythical beasts that fill the majority of the screen, or pack bosses that attack in hordes and share a health bar. While the levels proper can at times feel like a grind, the bosses offer a fresh challenge and really make you think about your approach to defeating them – some of the bigger bosses even have platforming elements built into the fight, and having to change up your tactics to defeat them stops the gameplay from ever becoming too stale.
Dragon’s Crown is a simple game, but one that is presented so beautifully you’ll often find yourself playing it just to ogle the artwork. Some of the female characters are presented in a questionable manner (the Sorceress’s running animation is /ridiculous/), and some of the NPCs you’ll meet in dungeons border on the obscene, but you can forgive the game its adolescent obsession with breasts and buttocks once you realise there is a bit more depth to it than just being a high fantasy romp.
With a satisfying and lengthy post-game, a wealth of artwork to unlock and a slew of side-missions to indulge in, the game has a lot to offer if you can look past the insubstantial combat mechanics and repeated environments. Dragon’s Crown is challenging and dynamic, and breathes life into a genre that many have written off as something to be left in the arcades.