If you’re a gamer (and why would you be reading this if you weren’t) you probably know what Dragon’s Crown is. Vanillaware’s latest, a fantasy-themed beat-um-up has found a great deal of controversy in the west, mainly due to its depiction of the female form, but has found even more praise from the review community. All of this has left me scratching my head a little… allow me to break down why, in 3 simple steps, and address some of the controversy while I’m at it.
I became a Vanillaware fan through experiencing Muramasa on the Wii. I think we can all agree what a beautiful game that is. Although, now that I think about it, my relationship with Vanillaware dates back to Princess Crown on the Saturn. I had a friend who was really into it, and I would watch him play. I was enchanted by the beautiful and unique art of the game, but the actual game just didn’t strike me as… well, fun, I guess; so I never owned Princess Crown, although I’ve often felt it deserved a second chance.
So my first real taste was Muramasa (yes, I know they made other games between the two; but they weren’t on my radar at the time). I really loved this game on the Wii… loved it. I especially loved that I wasn’t boxed in by gimmicky waggle controls when I played it (where are we exactly when being able to play a game with a proper controller becomes a breath of fresh air?). Everything about the game oozed quality and attention to detail. In fact, the beauty of the graphics in motion were enough for me to forgive the game it’s biggest flaw: that there’s no skill to it. It’s basically just run from one screen to the next whacking the attack button and occasionally switching swords for effect. But like I said, the presentation was so spot on perfect that I continued to give myself repetitive stress disorder just to soak in the art of it all. In fact, I enjoyed the presentation of the game so much that I purchased the Vita version, and the game’s 3 disk soundtrack as well.
You can imagine how I felt when Vanillaware announced their Muramasa followup, Dragon’s Crown. It appeared in every way to build on the beauty and atmosphere of their previous offering, while giving us something new: exploration and gameplay options. The trifecta. I was actually on the fence about getting it… sure the game looked good, heck, it looked great! But in Japan, where I live, the cost of Dragon’s Crown weighs in at around $80. That’s right… $80 for the bare bones game. No art book, no special first day of purchase swag. $80 on Playstation 3 or $80 on Vita, take your pick. Yep, $80 for a Vita game. Now if you preordered it in Japan you did get the art book, but how Japanese preorders work is that you have to give them the full purchase price up front, and I just wasn’t that committed; but come release day I caved because the game store had it on sale for the bargain price of $61. Thus, my adventure began…and what an absolutely beautiful adventure it is. What an absolute pleasure to behold. I don’t even think I’m going out on a limb when I say that Dragon’s Crown is the most beautiful game of this console generation. But let’s be honest… beyond the beautiful art, Dragon’s Crown is pretty hollow. I actually went as far to describe it to a friend of mind as “a beautiful turd”. I’m not going to waste your time with plot description or play mechanics, you can get that elsewhere- the entire internet is one big Dragon’s Crown jerk-fest right now. Let’s break down just why Dragon’s Crown is a steaming pile of doo encrusted in diamonds and gold.
REDUNDANCY REDUNDANCY REDUNDANCY REDUNDANCY
The game is redundant. No, it’s beyond that… it’s redundantly redundant. Period. Sure, you can pick from one of 7 characters, and sure, they all play sort of different… but you’re doing the same thing with each. It’s not like you choose the elf and get one story and then after you beat that you choose the dwarf and get a completely different experience. It’s the same exact game no matter who you choose. The plot is the same, the dungeons are the same, all hidden items are in the same places. The only thing that changes are the characters upgradeable skill set. Yes, there are branching routes through the dungeons after you’ve beaten all 9 of them… wait, what’s that? 9 dungeons? 9 DUNGEONS??? That’s right, there are only 9 levels to the game, none of them particularly long. And like I said, there are branching paths; but these are only available to play after you’ve beaten the game, which leads up back to… redundancy. You have to go back and play the levels you’ve already played, your only reward being a slight difference at one point in the level. Additionally, you’re only allowed to play online with others after you’ve beaten the game, so now you can explore the 9 levels you’re already explored twice over with other people who have explored those same levels twice over themselves. For an exploration beat-um-up, that certainly takes the exploration out of the picture, doesn’t it?
The gameplay is also a bit on the wonky side. I really appreciate the idea of exploring the dungeon for hidden treasure and items, but the way it was implemented leaves me a bit at a loss. I have been playing the Vita version of the game, and I’m given the option of either using the right analog stick to move a curser around the screen to search, or I can jab my finger at the Vita’s touch screen. Either option grinds the game to an absolute halt. The game becomes an endless cycle of: move a little bit… fight… drag my finger across the screen… move a little bit… fight… drag my finger across the screen… You’re telling me they couldn’t have come up with something better… like a simple button press? They felt that having a character walk up to an area and search it via a button press was too complicated? I mean, it’s only worked in RPGs for the last 30 years. But now that I think about it, Chrono Trigger would have been so much better if I had to smear my hand across the screen every time I wanted to open a chest or search an area of a room. Mapping the triangle button (as an example) to search an area seems like a no brainer to me; but then someone at Nintendo noticing that Kid Icarus Uprising’s controls were completely broken was also a no-brainer, and we all know how that worked out.
Finally, Dragon’s Crown does something that, for me, is an unforgivable: it gets me lost. There are plenty of times when I have no idea where my character is on the screen. This is an experience that’s been repeated in many of the reviews out there, so it’s not just me being an idiot. Think about that… a game where at times you completely lose track of your character. No, seriously, think about that. Would that be acceptable in a Super Mario game? How bout in Sonic? What about in the combat in a Tales game? Tomb Raider? Final Fight? Golden Axe? The answer, of course, is NO. It has never acceptable in any game for the player to lose track of their character. Back in the 8, 16, and 32-bit days that would have been a game breaker; so it absolutely flummoxes me as to why Dragon’s Crown is getting a pass on this in the modern gaming press, which leads me to…
I’ve been reading game criticism since at least… 1985. That’s 28 years. I have twice worked as a professional games journalist, and I’m also Kotaku contributor. Them’s is my chops. What I’ve seen is as games have become more mainstream, game critics have become less and less… critical. It’s true. Gameplay use to be held to such a high standard. Loose controls would kill a game in the press. Glitches would be a show ender. Short, redundant gameplay would send a game packing. But now it seems almost everyone loves everything, and why is beyond me. I have to conjecture that it’s one of two things: either gaming outlets are afraid that if they hold a game’s feet to the fire that they’ll lose access to that companies future offerings, or (and I believe this to be more true) today’s game critics have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t know what makes a good game and a bad game- it’s just whatever they fancy at the moment. Dragon’s Crown has received absolutely glowing review scores, even though critics admit to the game being redundant, short, and sometimes losing track of what’s happening during the levels. All those are absolutely cripplingly damming things, yet reviewers are more apt to take points off a score due to how a character is drawn over how a character handles. Can you see what’s wrong with that? And of course that brings up…
Several outlets have made a huff about how the characters of the Sorceress and the Amazon have been represented in the game. What you’re seeing here is the western mindset at work. In Japan, nobody gives two flying flips; and to be honest, it surprises me that people in modern America care. Look around you… look at how women are portrayed on magazine covers, in music videos, in movies, in comic books. Look at how women dress at the mall. It’s like the pot calling the kettle black. I would say that before we go fixing the non-problem of the women of Dragon’s Crown, we should turn our eye on why it’s considered OK to eviscerate characters in games, disembowel them, shoot them in the head, decapitate them, and crow about how realistic rag-doll physics can handle the movement of dead bodies; but not OK to have a busty woman in a halter-top. I mean, even putting the “violence is OK, but sexuality is not” argument aside, I never heard one peep from anyone how offensive the extremely popular God Of War games are to women, even though they feature scores of topless women and actual sex. Not a word about the Grand Theft Auto series where you can hire a prostitute, have sex with her, and then beat her to death and take your money back. Nothing. People outside of the gaming community have raised a fuss about Grand Theft Auto, but not the gamers; they rush to its defense. This is the only difference I can see:
- Both these series are developed in the west.
- They associate extreme violence with sex.
Therefore I must come to the conclusion that sexuality is acceptable to western game critics only when coupled with acts of extreme violence. How messed up is that? How sad is that?
In the end, you’re going to get what you get out of Dragon’s Crown. Is it the perfect game? No. Is it a great game? No. It’s is an acceptable game? I guess. If I was reviewing it, I would probably give it a 5 out of 10. If it was the same game with Atari graphics, it’s probably a 2 out of 10. Dragon’s Crown is, at its core, a grind-fest. It just floors me that reviewers glaze over the games flaws simply because it looks good… and boy does it look good. I have a saying that when I buy a game and really like the artwork but hate the overall game that I should have just bought the art book; but Dragon’s Crown is different. It’s beautiful in motion in a way that still art can’t capture; but beyond that I don’t have much good to say about it. And it really is such as shame that it’s sold so well based on the glowing reviews, because that just teaches Vanillaware that it’s OK to continue on this path, and it’s not.