Role-playing games are often about the “grind”. The need to attain levels, gold or experience to keep pace with growing threats is a given in the genre. Grind in games is not a bad thing per se, but it can be woeful in design. Some of the more maligned of these titles are criticized for having a small “feedback loop”. Others are able to get away with constant repetition due to design or accessibility. When grind is expected as a core gameplay mechanic, it puts the game carrying that into an awkward position. This ties a game to a niche audience looking for the grind as their mechanic of choice. Dragon's Crown Pro, the remaster of Vanillaware's Dragon's Crown, is such a title.
Dragon's Crown Pro is defined by two aspects. These are its visual presentation and its beat-em up gameplay. Like many of this generation's remasters, its a title coming back to consoles years after its original release. Added to the package are the standard bells and whistles; a 4K resolution, an orchestrated soundtrack and Japanese and English voice-overs. Director George Kamitani, who started work on the concepts of Dragon's Crown back in 1998, offers players a game that is paradoxically modern yet anachronistic in achieving its ultimate goal; revive the arcade beat-em-up for an online generation. Does Kamitani succeed in bringing it back to the fold?
At its heart, the game is a side-scrolling beat-em up RPG in the vein of Capcom’s famed Dungeon's and Dragon's arcade cabinets. Kamitani, who worked on Tower of Doom, wanted to “advance the genre” even further, harking back to such titles as Golden Axe. The game effectively lives or dies on one thing, and that is its co-op play. This big innovation isn't really groundbreaking, but having both drop-in drop-out online multiplayer and couch-style co-op at a player's fingertips gives the game the legs and modes it needs to succeed.
The biggest challenge then is variety. Part of the appeal of old-school beat-em ups is their challenge. It's that impulse to feed quarters to the machine, hoping to play another round and maybe advance to another level. Today, quarters have been traded for infinite continues and online connectivity. The modern era of gaming has transformed these titles into short time-wasters at best. Dragon's Crown Pro simply doesn't have enough content to sustain long sessions of play. It's ultimately a permanent grind for loot, points, and levels as you conquer challenges of increasing difficulty.
There are nine levels in Dragon’s Crown Pro, each divided on two divergent paths towards a final boss. You also have some sections on each level to locate hidden items or secret rooms. For the most part, your path is a linear, beat-em up experience. One of the issues to arise is that variation is really only in the strength of the enemies. After a while, a skilled player will easily memorize what monsters they'll fight on any given path. They can recall how to access each hidden door or locked gate, where each puzzle is encountered and so on. The challenge and discovery that fuels the first impression of the game is essentially replaced. All that is left is a need to grind for loot and points to keep leveling up your avatar.
Everything else is essentially window dressing to that core mechanic. The story follows a whimsical, narrative style fetch quest which ends within the first 10 hours and barely given much thought in the grand scheme of the game. Vanillaware does try to diversify the experience by providing sidequests to follow in the subsequent dungeon crawls. These quests are fairly rewarding, giving the player high-quality artwork and in-character ability points for special abilities to use in the dungeons. Once these quests are finished though, all that is left is the grind.
Despite all of this, the game is still fun. One of the best features in Dragon's Crown Pro is the ability to play all the levels in an infinite loop. Hopping from level to level, collecting tons of treasure and experience points, participating in a cooking mini-game in between some sections, this is where the meat of the gameplay really is. Players with a full party can set up different bags and builds for their character stacking all the equipment they can carry. Weapons and armor also degrade over time, so multiple sets are required to keep the loop going.
It may not seem like fun, yet despite its repetitiveness, the continuous adventure is often rewarding in an organic way over a mechanical one. For example, if your wizard is down to his last spellbook, should the party push forward anyway for one more treasure run? Or, if the player has no more life points (essentially free continues, before you pay your hard-earned gold to keep playing) do they gamble on their skill in fighting a tough boss? These moments seem small but are dilemmas that naturally arise when weighing the options of maximum point gain versus the grind of your adventures, keeping the challenges fresh for players without thinking about the grind.
There is also a third option, two “tower crawls” that offer the ultimate challenges for players to conquer. The first, the Labyrinth of Chaos, randomizes the battles and baddies you face for up to 99 floors. The second, the Tower of Mirages, is an endless grind on the hardest difficulty of the game, where players will fight hordes of enemies with innately higher stats than they can achieve. Both of these modes borrow from another game franchise that featured co-op grinding; the Borderlands series. Both modes also offer a sort of parallel to the expected repetition by maximizing the difficulty – and reward- for the player and their party if they are willing to put up with overwhelming odds. It is a good addition, giving the grind a purpose and a hook to keep playing beyond the linear dungeons.
The second major selling point of Dragons Crown Pro is the now patented Vanillaware visual style. Their entire catalog can be described as ‘artistic porn’ for many players. Each game by Vanillaware is full of eye-catching aesthetics that stand out due to their color and presentation. One of Vanillaware’s other titles, Muramasa: The Demon Blade is often hailed as a major example of games as an artform. From a gameplay and visual standpoint, it certainly was at the time of its release.
Dragon’s Crown never met those same lofty heights. Kamitani also served as art director on both games, yet the Japanese-styled aesthetic was much more consistent when compared to the western fantasy style found here. While it is eye-catching, it also gives the game an identity at a glance. Dragon's Crown Pro is loud, full of color and character that makes it stand out. The game is simply endearing visually, paying homage to an '80s-esque adolescent glee over what fantasy can be.
Dragon's Crown Pro takes this aesthetic and transfers it to a 4K resolution. The results are an intricately detailed living diorama. The game is one of the most gorgeous titles on the PlayStation 4, but in a way that is opposite of the visual presentation of recent hits such as Far Cry 5 and God of War. In a sea of realistic graphical fidelity, sometimes the simpler, stylized aesthetic is the perfect foil when it comes to visual presentation.
Dragon’s Crown Pro captures the look and feel of a beat-em up almost perfectly, but it also captures their repetitive nature. For some, the challenges of Dragon's Crown Pro will feel right at home with the co-op grind. For others, it's a loop that will wear thin quickly. This is a good game that really does depend on the mood of its players; it is pick up and play friendly, but does it really hold your attention long enough to play it? If nothing else, it is a game worth trying out for yourself to see how much of the grind you’re willing to sit through.
Our Dragon's Crown Pro review was conducted on PlayStation 4 with a code provided by the publishers.
Dragon's Crown Pro easily captures the feel of an arcade-style beat-em up, despite some nagging issues of repetition. Still, it is a fun game that will be a pleasure to play through in the right circumstances.
- Visually Striking...
- Beat-Em Up Action...
- Grinding Challenge and Co-op Play...
- Excellent Orchestrated Soundtrack.
- English and Japanese Voice-Overs.
- ...May Not be to Everyone's Tastes.
- ...That Becomes Repetitive Quickly.
- ...The Grind Is All You Have.