the artistry and psychology of gaming


Dragon’s Crown (PS3)

Dragon’s Crown (PS3)

Review in Brief
Game: A side-scrolling fantasy-themed two-dimensional brawler with RPG elements.
Good: Somewhat entertaining and playable: games are fun, Dragon’s Crown is a game, and therefore it’s inherently fun to an extent.
Bad: Overloaded controls on an overly chaotic battle screen; several blatantly annoying elements; poor tutorial and player instruction; repetitive, generic, and restrictive game structure; lazy storytelling of a bland plot; outdated and over-sexualized graphics.
Verdict: Perfectly fine as a budget-priced downloadable, but has no business pretending to be a full-price game.
Rating: 5/10 – “Playable – nothing special about it”
Recommendation: An alright pick-up once the price comes down, but not worth more than $15.

“Pretty good for a budget downloadab-… wait, this is supposed to be a full-price release?”

The most recent console generation and its explosion of original, light, downloadable games through services like the Wii Shop, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Network has had a profound effect on the game industry. When every game costs the exact same amount of money, there is an implicit expectation of size, quality, and polish that all games are expected to match. It squashes creativity; it’s as if every novelist was told their books all had to be between 180 and 200 pages, or if every movie director was told their movie had to be between 90 and 120 minutes. Different genres, different stories, different gameplay demand different levels of sophistication, and until the dawn of downloadable games, you could not supply that at one flat price point. Journey, Braid, and Limbo are all magnificent games, among the best released in recent years, but are any worth the same $60 price tag as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, or Uncharted? Probably not. Their short, simplistic, artistic nature is part of what makes them so good, but that quality doesn’t necessarily translate to a justifiable demand for a higher price point, through a combination of available playtime, graphical realism, production costs, and a variety of other factors. There might come a day when games like Uncharted can only demand $20 because games like Limbo are so highly-regarded that they lower the industry’s overall expectation for pricing, but that day has not yet come.

There might also come a day when smaller, scoped, budgeted releases can command the same big price tags as bigger games with higher production values. That day is not here yet, either, and that is the ultimate problem with Dragon’s Crown. It simply does not warrant the big price tag on the box. The $10 discount compared to most disc-based releases is welcome, but it’s still about $35 too much. This isn’t inherently a knock on the game’s quality; the game has objective flaws, but what game doesn’t? The problem is that Dragon’s Crown simply doesn’t set out to do anything that would justify dropping $50 on it. It has a simple, repetitive game structure, an attractive but outdated graphical style, very little plot, and lazy storytelling: all things that would be excusable for a low-budget downloadable release, but all elements that are unacceptable for a game with a big-budget price tag. You wouldn’t pay for a $10 admission to see a made-for-TV movie, you wouldn’t pay Showtime-level prices to watch TNT-level programming, and you shouldn’t pay big release dollars to play a game like Dragon’s Crown.

The Game
Dragon’s Crown is a side-scrolling brawler set in a fantasy world. Choose from one of six classes – a melee Fighter, Amazon, or Dwarf, a magic-wielding Wizard or Sorceress, or a ranged Elf – to start your quest. You are headquartered in a town for a hub world where you can buy new weapons, armor, and accessories, obtain new abilities and power-ups, accept new quests, and manage your active battle party. From the town, you head out on quests by selecting from a menu of a set of nine dungeons. Each dungeon has a boss fight, as well as potentially some sidequests that can be completed in it. After each dungeon, the player returns to the town to witness the next plot point, upgrade their weapons, and take on the next quest.

The plot of Dragon’s Crown is entirely told by a narrator. The narrator describes the plot points between each quest and often gives the plot description for exactly what the player needs to do next. At a broad level, the plot focuses on a duel for power between rival royals in a fantasy kingdom, each trying to get their hands on royal artifacts that would ensure their claim to the throne. The most powerful artifact like this, the Dragon’s Crown, is their ultimate goal, and it is the player’s task to ensure that the crown does not fall into the wrong hands.

Disclosure of Biases
Dragon’s Crown has an online mode that, I’ve learned, is actually a major part of the game’s appeal. The game lets you and a party of four tackle its dungeons and quests, and online, you can have three human allies instead of three AI allies. In order to take a character online, you must defeat the game’s single-player mode, and for most fans of the game, beating the single-player mode is just a means to an end to access the online mode. In that way, I find it similar to an MMORPG: you level your character to a certain level in order to participate in new dungeons and instances, and that’s the main motivation behind leveling in the first place. However, I don’t really enjoy playing online and I play games mostly for the single-player mode. So, in many ways, I’m reviewing Dragon’s Crown as a single-player game when it was intended in part to be a multiplayer game. I think most of my criticisms are still true, however it might have a bit more appeal to fans of the online mode than I’m giving it credit for.

The Good
I’ve struggled a lot trying to find good things to say about Dragon’s Crown, but oddly I didn’t hate it: as described above, I just think it isn’t big enough for its box. It’s a decent enough downloadable game for around the $15 to $20 range, but why would it be acceptable at that price? Ultimately, the reason I settled on is a strange one. Bear with me.

GameFAQs helps reviewers by giving small descriptors for each of its numeric review ratings: 10 is “Flawless”, 7 is “Good”, 3 is “Bad”. GameFAQs’ description of a rating of 5 is apt here: “Playable – nothing special about it”.

That’s an excellent way to describe Dragon’s Crown: it’s playable. There’s really nothing special about it, and it doesn’t really aspire to be anything special anyway. It’s a fairly prototypical side-scrolling brawler. It makes itself a little unique with its artistic style, but other than that it doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen lots before. Quest-based gameplay is nothing new. Side-scrolling brawlers are nothing new. Selectable classes with their own unique abilities and a mixture of melee, ranged, and magical combat are nothing new. There are no new ideas, concepts, or experiments anywhere in the game. It’s a game like many you’ve probably played before, wrapped up in a slightly shinier new package.

And, ultimately, that’s okay. Dragon’s Crown is fun not because of anything it inherently does particularly well or differently, but because games are naturally pretty fun. It’s a bit of a button-masher, sure, but for light, simple gameplay, that’s not a bad thing. The game is playable, and by the very nature of a game being a ‘game’, being playable is moderately entertaining. The problem, which I mentioned above and which I’ll mention below, is that the game is not sufficiently entertaining, groundbreaking, or interesting to justify a $50 purchase. It’s a bit mindless, extremely repetitive, and very generic, but none of those things inherently make the game unworthy of being played. They do make the game unworthy of paying $50 to play, though.

All that begs the question, though: would I give the game a higher numeric rating if it was a PlayStation Network downloadable game for $15 instead of a disc-based $50 release? Absolutely. Some reviewers include price in their considerations while others do not, but I definitely do. Journey is a great game for $15. Uncharted is a great game for $60. Angry Birds is a great game for $1. You can’t separate the price and value of the game from the rating: otherwise, you’d be forced to give games like Angry Birds low scores for failing to achieve something they never set out to achieve in the first place. Part of giving a game a score is in assessing how much value it delivers for the monetary and time investment, and Dragon’s Crown simply does not deliver much for the investment. It’s not a bad game, it’s definitely playable and fun in many ways, but it just isn’t a $50 game.

The Bad
The flaws of Dragon’s Crown fall into two categories. First, there are objective problems that would be here in this review whether the game cost $50 or $0.50: the controls have issues, the display is overcrowded, the tutorials are lacking, and the game has an amazing predisposition to some stupidly annoying habits. The other category of flaw, though, is a little more subtle: they are things that the game only needed to do because it’s trying to sell itself as a full-price release. As a $20 downloadable, it would not really have these same expectations, but if you’re selling yourself for $50, there are certainly some features you must have, such as a plot, deep game structure, and modern visuals.

I tend to try to prioritize my criticisms from most significant to least significant when I review, and in the case of Dragon’s Crown, sadly the most negative feature of the gameplay experience for me was how flat-out annoying the game can be in several ways. I’m not talking about gameplay annoyances like dying too often or limitations on skill structures that can actually serve a purpose in the gameplay; I’m talking about things that the game does that serve no purpose whatsoever that are just plain irritating.

First, there’s pausing. Or, rather, there isn’t pausing. When you’re in a dungeon, you cannot pause the game. Pressing Start does not pause the game, pressing Home does not pause the game. There is literally no way to pause the game once you start a dungeon. Dungeons are about 10 minutes long, which isn’t egregiously long, but long enough that on at least a dozen occasions something happened while playing that demanded I stop: a knock on the door, my wife calling from the kitchen, a cat about to vomit on the carpet. It’s inexcusable not to have a pause function; I understand that when playing online, pause is unfeasible because you’d be inconveniencing others, but when you’re playing offline there is absolutely no excuse not to have a pause function.

Secondly, as mentioned in the description of the game, you can take up to three AI characters with you on a given quest. Then, when you get back, they’re removed from your party, and you have to go back to the tavern and add them back to your party. Why are they removed from your party? Why do you have to go back to the tavern between every early-game mission to reassign the exact same characters to your party? It’s as if after every battle in Final Fantasy 7, you had to go back into the party select screen and add Tifa and Vincent back to the battle party or risk having to solo it with Cloud in the next random encounter.

But easily, without a doubt, the most annoying element of the game is the narrator. Oh my goodness, the narrator. The narrator narrates the plot of the entire game, which is extremely lazy on its own, but one element of that is telling you where the next plot point is. “Having finished the quest, you decide to go back to the Adventurer’s Guild to collect your reward”, which is just a slightly more subtle way of saying, “Hey, go to the Adventurer’s Guild”, and a slightly less subtle way of just putting a waypoint on the map to say, “Go here, stupid.” The problem, though, is that the narrator will repeat this description every time you exit a building. So, you get back from a quest, and the next step is to check the guild; but first, let’s repair our equipment, shop for some new weapons, call up some newly-available party members, add a couple of them to our party, and buy a couple magical items. All pretty standard stuff, right? And you’d be right, so there’s no problem as long as you don’t mind hearing the narrator repeat the same directions six different freaking times. The only way to disable is to completely turn off the narrator’s voice, which is just overkill and loses some of the experience elsewhere in the game.

Poor Controls & Indiscernible Action
There are a few different problems with the control scheme in Dragon’s Crown, but I’m going to focus on two of them that both address the idea of overloaded controls. An overloaded control is when a particular action does different things based on context or even based on other buttons being pressed. Dragon’s Crown has two ridiculously overloaded controls. First, the Square button basically does everything in the entire game: it’s used to defend, to attack, to dash, to charge, to recharge mana, and to execute the vast majority of the game’s special attacks. How does the game know which of the various Square commands you want to execute? Half the time, it doesn’t. You’ll dash when you want to defend, defend when you want to attack, and attack when you want to recharge. In theory it’s based on a few other features, like whether you’re in the air, the direction of the control stick, and the location of the enemies, but in practice it’s very difficult to predict. The abundance of commands mapped to the Square button is also why the game can feel so button-mashy a lot of the time: even if what you’re doing is strategic, you’re still pressing the exact same button over and over.

The other overloaded control is up and down on the control stick. In some contexts, these move your character vertically along the dungeon area. Paired with the attack button, though, these jump attack up or slide to attack down. Generally, if you’re not attacking, it goes with the first option, but if you are attacking, it goes with the second. What, then, do you do if the enemy you want to attack is below (not under, but below) you? If you push down and attack, it executes a downward attack where you are, hitting the ground rather than the enemy. If you just push down instead of attacking, you have to wait for your character to get in line with the enemy, weathering blows from that enemy on your own. Having the control stick map up and down to both jump attack/slide attack and to moving up and down makes the game very hard to control. Combined with the frequent button-mashing, this also means that you find yourself spending most of the game jumping around just because if you breathe on the control stick while attacking, it interprets a command to jump.

Those control issues only really matter if you can thoughtfully, deliberately plan your attack on your enemies. The good news, then, is that you can’t! The battle screen tends to be so busy and convoluted that discerning your own character and the enemies is an exercise in futility. At any given time you might have six or more of your own characters (your party of four, the thief Rannie that follows you everywhere, a creature summoned by your Sorceress, and perhaps NPCs you rescued along the way), plus six or more enemies. All of the character sprites are two-dimensional, so all are rendered one on top of the other. On top of that, these characters can use spells and abilities, meaning that the battlefield might be covered in fire or other elements. As a result, in a battle, there might be three sprites rendered in front of you and two behind you, making tracking your character borderline impossible, much less tracking the direction of the battle as a whole: and heaven help you if there’s another character on the screen of the same class as yours.

Generally, it’s just extremely hard to tell what’s going on in battle in Dragon’s Crown. That’s the other reason why the game lends itself to button-mashing: when you’re not sure what’s going on and can’t thoughtfully, deliberately plan your strategy, the natural reaction is to swing mindlessly. It actually works a lot of the time: there are boss battles, of course, and occasionally other battles that demand more advanced tactics, but generally you can choose a particular attack and spam it all the way through most dungeons. Some people well say, “Well if you don’t like that, don’t play that way”, but that’s not how gaming works: it is the game’s responsibility to incentivize playing a certain way, not the player’s responsibility to intentionally choose an approach that lessens their chance of success out of some misguided sense of proper play style.

Poor Tutorials
The game starts with a tutorial on how to actually play in the battle screen, including how to walk, use attacks, pick up items, etc. That tutorial is decently well-done, but unfortunately the entirety of the rest of the game is essentially left to the player to figure out. There are no in-game tutorials or guides regarding the function of different stats, the role of different weapons, or the real meat behind the battle mechanics. It feels like you’re going in blind most of the time with lots clearly going on and none of it actually explained to you.

That’s a general, nebulous criticism, so let me try to root it in three different specific examples. First of all, the spell system in the game is rather confusing. You learn spells if you’re playing as a Sorceress or Wizard, but those spells also have a corresponding item that needs to be equipped, which kind of goes against the normal idea of learning to use spells. There’s nothing wrong with the mechanic, but the mechanic is never adequately explained; no, passive tooltips when you’re equipping items does not constitute an ‘adequate explanation’ of a gameplay mechanic. Secondly, your character can hold up to eight items or so in their inventory and switch between them in battle. The game has a shortcut system that lets you jump straight to items, but that is never explained either; on the menu it shows you that you can set it up, but it does not give any explicit attention to it, and it is extremely easy to miss entirely. Third, the thief that follows you unlocking chests and doors will sometimes get a “level-up!” message above his head. When does he level-up? What does leveling up affect? None of it is ever explained. That’s the general modus operandi of the game: aside from the very basics of battles, nothing is ever explained to the player.

Lazy Storytelling, Non-Existent Plot
The above three critiques all needed to be fixed for the game to be very good in the first place. These next three critiques, however, are a little different. These are things that the game only needed to fix if it was going to try to be a full-price disc-based release. If the game was content to be a $15 or $20 PlayStation Network downloadable, it would be fine to exist as-is in these respects; but for $50, the game really needed these features. These are the types of things that differentiate a budget downloadable from a full-price game.

The first is relatively simple: full-price games need decent plots (or if they don’t have decent plots, they need a lot of extra appeal otherwise to compensate; e.g. Super Smash Bros.‘s massively replayable multiplayer, Civilization V‘s deep strategy, etc.). Dragon’s Crown has a plot, but it’s lazy, lackluster, and poorly integrated into the rest of the game. The plot itself actually has some potential, telling the story of a King’s death and the ensuing battle to claim the throne. Ultimately it does not really go anywhere, instead settling for a very simplistic glorified fetch quest, but the plot at least had some potential with a couple interesting characters and early twists. Ultimately, there are three major problems with the plot of Dragon’s Crown: it is overly retrospective, integrated poorly in the game’s structure, and presented lazily.

The structure of the plot of Dragon’s Crown is simple: you receive a quest or mission in town, you go complete the quest, and you come back. After each quest is a plot point. What this means, though, is that the vast majority of the plot happens when you are not even looking. Events like nobles battling over royal treasures and stabbing each other in the back all happen while you’re out on your quest, and you never actually see the game’s most significant plot points happening. This is why, as stated above, it does not feel like the game has a good story in the first place: it actually kind of does, but you see so little of it actually transpiring that you might never even know it. It’s like trying to discern the plot of Hamlet from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead alone.

The second issue is that the plot gives merely superficial justification for the dungeons and locations. Every single quest is very transparently an excuse to send you to a new dungeon location, meaning that the plot is ultimately very poorly integrated into the actual gameplay. It’s merely a narrative excuse for the existing structure of the game rather than an actual driving force behind it. To illustrate this, Dragon’s Crown plays like the world was created, then the writers were told to create a story within this world. For the plot to truly drive the game structure, however, the plot needs to actually be the motivating factor behind creating the world. In Dragon’s Crown, it’s clear that the world design came first and the plot game second, and that is a recipe for a lackluster transparent plot.

The third issue is simply an issue of laziness: the game does not show you a story happening, it tells you. The entire game is narrated by a single narrator, including all characters’ dialog outside of battle sound effects. When you witness plot events, it is not the characters speaking, but rather a series of still images with the narrator narrating what happened in this particular scene. The best comparison to this storytelling structure I can think of is in games like The Rise of Atlantis: Bejeweled-like puzzle games that provide a simplistic little narrative around the levels. Between each level a voice typically says something simple like, “You have found the dagger and conquered Babylon! Now you move on to Egypt.” The storytelling in Dragon’s Crown is barely any better than that, and while that’s perfectly fine for a $1 Android game, it is unacceptable for a $50 disc release.

Poor Game Structure
Perhaps driven in part by how simple and transparent the plot is, Dragon’s Crown has an extremely simple game structure. There are nine main dungeons that are presented to the player one at a time through the plot. The entire game’s structure, then, is as follows: get a quest in town; go complete the quest; return to town and do your usual post-quest errands; repeat. Some of the quests are mandatory story quests, others are optional quests that involve replaying a dungeon you’ve already played a slightly different way or going to a slightly different place within it. The entire structure of the game is overly simple and very repetitive.

In addition to that poor, repetitive structure, the game also has a very generic structure in most ways. Earn EXP and gold by completing quests, EXP leads to leveling up which increases your stats, gold leads to buying new equipment and spells. You also gain skill points through battle which you can trade for new skills or upgrading your current skills. I’ve heard that latter system get some praise for some, but ultimately it’s very simple: it isn’t a skill “tree”, it’s just a discrete set of potential skills to choose from and upgrade. Overall, the usual shop, level-up, and equipment systems in Dragon’s Crown are entirely generic, the same as what you’d find in dozens of other RPG-ish games. And, of course, generic isn’t inherently a bad thing; it can serve as a good consistent foundation for the more interesting decisions that a game makes. Dragon’s Crown doesn’t make any interesting decisions, though, so the generic systems are just another place where something unique could have been done but wasn’t.

There are also elements of the game’s routine that just seem silly and a bit artificial. For example, as mentioned previously, you can have up to three allies accompany you, and if you’re playing single-player, these are all AI allies. You recruit them by finding their “bones” in other dungeons then having them resurrected. However, allies never level, never change equipment, and do not develop at all. For much of the game, every dungeon has higher-level potential allies’ bones, so at the end of each quest, part of your routine is to just add on the new allies you found. They’re always better, and there is no intelligent strategizing or decision-making to be had with them. It becomes something of a stupid little chore with how predictable the decisions are quest after quest.

That plays into another major weakness of the game. The game offers you six potential classes: a melee Fighter, Amazon, or Dwarf, a magic-wielding Wizard or Sorceress, or a ranged Elf. These are also the classes of the allies you recruit. However, in your game you can only play as one class: you cannot switch classes, take control of your allies, or create a new character and preserve your plot progress. While that makes some sense from a plot perspective, it’s frustrating because it means to play around with all six classes, you have to start essentially six separate save files (although the structure of saves and characters is so convoluted that that probably isn’t the best way to describe it). It’s a little presumptuous, really: the game so strongly assumes you’ll want to replay it that it essentially locks 85% of its gameplay away solely to be used when you replay the game. Ultimately, the classes do not play very differently: the melee fighters are all essentially the same with just a couple interesting abilities differentiating them and the Elf is too niche to really be the main character, although the Sorceress and Wizard to differ in interesting ways. Still, it would have been nice to experiment with different character classes and play styles without having to completely start the entire game over.

Overall, the impression I got early in the game stuck with me through my entire playthrough: Dragon’s Crown, in many ways, is structured just as the sidequests that would be included along with a real RPG. Completing quests, unlocking the spoils, and running errands are a structure that is commonly used for sidequests in RPGs that otherwise have the normal epic plotline, vibrant game world, and deep mechanics. Dragon’s Crown tries to make an entire game solely out of those sidequests. The result is decent, but not worth the $50 price tag at all.

Visually Inexcusable
Among all the other reviews I’ve read for Dragon’s Crown, the one consistent element of praise I’ve heard is for the visual style. I get it. The game has some beautifully-drawn 2D sprites, gorgeous backgrounds, fluid animations, and a clearly distinct artistic style.

I understand the praise, I just wholeheartedly disagree with it. Yes, the 2D sprites for battle characters, enemies, and attacks are pretty, but that doesn’t excuse them for being simple 2D sprites in the first place. This is a full-price release, a game that by that very nature has to compete with the Uncharteds, Assassin’s Creeds, and Grand Theft Autos of the world, and it’s handing us two-dimensional sprites? It is not acceptable for a full-price release to use such an outdated graphical approach, no matter how pretty what they create within it ends up being. To give a brief comparison: Journey featured full, beautiful 3D graphics, cost several million dollars to make, and cost $15 on the PlayStation Store. Dragon’s Crown had a budget just over $1 million, is entirely 2D, and yet it expects to cost $50? That’s just entirely unacceptable. This is like McDonald’s trying to sell a Big Mac for the price of a steak just because it came in a nicer box.

The other problem with the visuals of Dragon’s Crown has been thoroughly documented, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it, too. The gratuitous sexual content of the Sorceress, Amazon, and several NPCs throughout the game is just completely unacceptable. Others say that it does not ruin the beauty of the game, but it does distract from it: I disagree. Show some gameplay footage of Dragon’s Crown to anyone that includes the Sorceress’s watermelon bosom, the Amazon’s stripper thong, or the gravity-defining body wrap of the magic shopkeeper and see if the first comment they make isn’t on the gratuitous sexualization. It’s the first thing you notice whenever it’s on the screen, and that essentially ruins the game’s visual appeal. It’s possible to do sexy in a classy way, but Dragon’s Crown is so absurdly gratuitous, overblown, and downright anatomically impossible that in my opinion, it does ruin the visuals of the game. Six months from now, “Boobwitch” is the only thing half of gamers are going to remember from Dragon’s Crown.

The Verdict
Dragon’s Crown has all the hallmark features of a budget-price downloadable game from PlayStation Network or Xbox Live Arcade. It has a simple plot, lazy story-telling, a repetitive and generic game structure, a primitive (though well-executed) visual style, and very limited appeal. All of those things, though, are excusable in a budget game. If you go through my reviewing history, you’ll notice I’ve reviewed games of various sizes and scopes. I never criticized Angry Birds for not having a plot or Space Miner for having somewhat repetitive gameplay. Why? Because those games cost $1. The amount of entertainment they deliver for $1 is absolutely remarkable. The amount of entertainment Dragon’s Crown delivers for $50 is inexcusable.

But of course, one day, the price of Dragon’s Crown will come down. As I mentioned, I predict that in six months, the only thing anyone is going to remember about the game is the controversy surrounding the over-sexualized Sorceress and Amazon. At that point, the game will cost around $15 and might be a decent pickup. Of course, by that time, most other recent releases will be down to those similar prices as well: Uncharted 3 is down to $20, Batman: Arkham City is down to $15, and the entire Mass Effect trilogy is down to $43. So, while Dragon’s Crown isn’t bad for a budget price, it won’t be able to compare because it set its sights too high in the first place.

My Recommendation
Won’t be an awful pick-up when the price comes down, but definitely don’t pay more than $15 for it.

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