Which could be good or bad news depending on your feelings about the first
Vanillaware has always been one of my favorite studios, one of a small number of smaller scale developers that, instead of participating in the race toward the newest trends and the best graphics, focus on a homegrown aesthetic. After the magical, ground-up remake that was Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir, hearing that Dragon’s Crown was also getting a PS4 port with PRO was welcome news. As with the first Odin Sphere, I felt Dragon’s Crown was a tremendous game that had a few flaws keeping it from being perfect. I dialed back my expectations a bit after hearing that PRO was going to be a visual upgrade but it’s impossible not to get excited at the prospect of playing a brand new Vanillaware game.
Dragon's Crown’s core gameplay remains the same, but for newcomers it’s an arcade-style fantasy side-scroller with up to four players and six characters that have diverse play styles ranging from “staying in the back to alternate between casting spells and recharging mana” to “soaking attacks and picking up enemies to bounce them off the far side of the screen into an air combo”. It’s a gloriously fun beat’em up that you can play solo or with friends from a company that keeps on stubbornly innovating on a genre of video game that most major developers have left behind.
In addition to some great gameplay, the real selling points of the title are the unmistakable hand-painted art style that has become the trademark of Vanillaware and the tabletop adventure feel of the title carried by its dramatic narration and some surprisingly funny references to gaming, western fantasy, and even Monty Python. Everything about the game from mechanics to visuals is deliberately crafted toward a single aesthetic goal. Even in our modern era where gameplay graphics can easily be mistaken for cinematics it’s easy to see how much love and dedication went into it.
The benefits of the cross platform play definitely show even pre-release. No sooner was the multiplayers option than my groups were immediately filled out on every quest by fellow online players. I’m not sure if it’s in anticipation of the upcoming release or if people are still regularly putting in hours on the original Dragon’s Crown, but I had no trouble finding enough drop-ins to replace all my NPCs. Given the AI’s penchant for walking into damage, taking on the harder bosses with three other people feels really good.
The only hitch is that many of the quests in Dragon’s Crown still require either tackling a boss alone or performing tasks counterintuitive to the normal flow of a quest which means other player may move through the area before you’ve destroyed the statue or activated the hidden runes. I can’t help but think that adding a function where the game highlights quests each player has in that area at the beginning of a mission might have allowed a bit more collaboration. As it stands, if you’re tackling quests it's better to just go it alone.
Although I reliably love all Vanillaware titles, my gripe with Dragon’s Crown is that it doesn’t have enough content to justify a drop-in and play structure. 10 dungeons each with 2 diverging paths felt very limited in scope for a game trying to emulate a Dungeons & Dragons campaign or even the Capcom arcade title Shadow Over Mystara to which it acted as a spiritual successor. Once all three dragons are defeated and you’ve collected all the in-game art there isn’t much left in terms of replayability besides starting all over again with a new character. I don’t know if something like daily’s would keep things fresh but as it stands it feels more like a game you finish and then move on.
It was a bit tough to keep in mind Vanillaware had different objectives with Dragon’s Crown PRO than Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir. Where Leifthrasir was an ambitious, ground-up rebuild of Odin Sphere that took the game from 9 to 10 out of 10, Dragon’s Crown PRO is a PS4 port that adapts all the title’s beautiful hand-painted glory to 4K with a new orchestral soundtrack to please the senses. It’s an improvement for the aesthete more than the gamer, but, that said, I had a ton of fun starting it all over again and retreading the same ground after 5 years to forget all the small charming points of the game, so the title obviously still has quite a bit of charm. If you played the original, you know what you’re getting into. If you didn’t, it’s definitely a quality title for the price point and a rare title you can all drop in and play together on the same couch.
+ Same wonderful side-scrolling action
+ Great visual and audio improvements
+ Crossplay means eternal co-op
- Replayability is the same
- AI still isn’t too bright