A Tarnished Dragon’s Crown

8 08 2013



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.



Muramasa is now Japanese slang for “gorgeous”


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.



Seriously, I bought the soundtrack for the music. No, really!



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.



Really well protected glittery poo, but poo none the less.




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…


Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 9.54.40 PM


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:


  1. Both these series are developed in the west.
  2. 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?


So apparently the image up top is hyper-sexualized, but this one isn’t. Got it.



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.

PS3 REVIEW: Tales of Xillia

11 04 2012

Let me preface this review by giving you a little history of myself and games in the Tales series of role-playing games.  I first heard about Tales of Phantasia probably in about 1997 or so, before any of the sequels, when it was available for the Super Famicom.  Back then, games that came on cartridges were much more expensive to import, and I remember it being somewhat hard to get as importers had turned their eyes away from 16-bit systems, and expensive… somewhere in the $125 range.  So I played it on an emulator.  At that time, nothing could emulate the special sound chip that was used to give the game an actual opening theme and voice throughout the game; but never the less I was blown away by the beefy graphics that seemed to hold their own against modern RPGs.  Additionally, I was struck by the attention to detail the programmers had shown, and it had me hooked.  I eagerly imported the limited versions of Tales of Destiny and Tales of Eternia.  Then I took some time off from gaming.  I would pick up with the Tales series four games later, when Tales of Vesperia was released for the Xbox360.  Vesperia, like the previous games, also impressed me.  So when it came time to get a new PlayStation 3, I went searching for the limited edition Tales of Xillia bundle, not only because I liked the design of the console; but because it included a game I planned to enjoy as well.


That machine is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Until it gets dusty.


The first thing that struck me about Tales of Xillia was the lushly animated eye catch it has.  Very beautiful.  What it does, though, is set your expectations up for a level of quality that ever materializes.  You begin by choosing a main character to play as, Jude, a boy, or Milla, a girl.  I chose Milla.  We’re then treated to a console rendered opening scene where Milla senses the death of a spirit, and travels to right the wrong that’s occurring.  The PS3 is a pretty powerful piece of hardware, and Namco had already set the standard for current-generation Tales  games with Vesperia (Tales of Graces F doesn’t count because it was made for the Wii and then ported over to the PS3).  Gone is the anime look of Vasperia, replaced with shocking low-res textures and jerky movement that had me flashing back to the marionette look of Star Ocean: The Last Hope International.  I really was shocked.  I expected more graphically than what I was given; but I trudged on, and I mean trudged.  For me, there wasn’t a lot to like about the game.  In fact, I’m not even going to give it the benefit of my prose, I’m just going to list what I liked and didn’t like:



–       You can actually rely on the characters you aren’t controlling to act intelligently in battle and to heal you when you need it.

–       One of the pieces of background music sounds like the Back to the Future theme.

–       The character of Tipo is awesome creepy.

–       You can set all party members to attack automatically, so you don’t actually have to play a lot of the game.

–       One of the characters gets hurt and actually has to go around in a wheelchair for a bit.  That’s new.


That little purple bowling pin thingy is made of pure awesome.



–       Gameplay is boring and repetitive.

–       Characters are beyond cliché, reminding me of hollow copies of characters from the last RPG I beat, Ni no Kuni, and then every RPG before that.

–       There’s no sense of urgency in the entire game.

–       Character customization is unnecessary and, well, dumb.  Why would I want my characters running around dressed as other characters from other games?  Why would I want my characters to have a wolf’s tail or wear bunny ears and funny nose glasses?

–       Areas beyond towns have items that replenish every time you enter that zone, and they’re marked on your map so you can just going back to that place and get more stuff.  Where’s the challenge?

–       Monsters are overpopulated, and advancing becomes a grind fest.  An easy grind fest.

–       Items that you can pick up are shine and are readily identifiable from a distance.  What is this, Resident Evil?

–       Characters movements are jerky and unnatural.  They move their head, pause, move arm, pause, etc.  And when they walk, it doesn’t look like their feet are touching the ground.

–       You can’t go in most of the buildings in the game, and when you can go into one, there’s nothing to do, you’re just in that building.

–       I didn’t die once, and only had to use healing herbs 6 times in the entire game.

–       One of the characters gets hurt and has to go around in a wheelchair.  That’s retarded.

–       The plot is pure cellophane.


OK, everybody attack while I go into the kitchen and make a sandwich.


I could go on; but I won’t.  Really, this game is just another hollow JRPG; the kind that gives JRPG’s a bad name.  And that’s so sad, because the Tales series and Tales fans deserve so much more than that.

There’s a reason why in Japan the almost three year old Tales of Vesperia still retails for ¥5480 ($68.00) used, while the newer Xillia goes for a much lower ¥1480 ($18.00).  It’s because the ball has completely been dropped by Tales Studios.  Where past entries in the series stood for quality and meticulous design, Xillia feels more like a cash grab.  It feels like Namco just slapped it together, threw it out the door, and said, “Here… now give us your money.” They set the bar so high with their efforts on other systems, Tales fans deserve so much better from the first true outing of the series on the PlayStation 3.  Maybe the next one will be better, or maybe Namco’s just trying to milk you for every penny you’ve got.  If the way they handle their DLC is any example, I’m betting on the latter.



As a final note, I’d like to mention that I was finally able to pick up an actual copy of the original Tales of Phantasia for the Super Famicom.  It rocks so hard, and what they did with that special sound chip is simply amazing, even 15 years later.  It’s mind blowing to hear a SNES game that actually has an opening theme song that not just bleeps and bloops, but is sung.  If Tales Studios could be half as inventive now as they were then, we’d have another gem in our hands; but as of now, we only have a lump of coal.

PS3 REVIEW: Journey 風ノ旅ビト

16 03 2012


There are some people who argue that video games are art.  They like to point at pretty, stylized graphics and moody, adult stories as the basis for their judgment.  Of course, modern video games are just aping movies, which in turn copied stage plays that just brought to life the images we see in our heads when we read.  What is art?  Is it a painting… a sculpture?  Can a well-cut lawn be judged a work of art?  Part of the problem with modern video games is that they try too hard to be art, putting style over substance.  I would say that video games are not an art form, although they can be artistic; sometimes too artistic as in the case of Journey.


I am very beautiful. Love me.


I would love to tell you what the plot of Journey is, I really would.  It seems like most games tell a story of some sort; but I can’t find one here.  I mean, the whole point of the game is to walk to a mountain, and then walk up it.  There’s no text anywhere in the game telling you why you’re walking up the mountain.  There are cut scenes here in there, but they paint a picture that you aren’t privy to the meaning of.  The game hints at things, and then deliberately doesn’t tell you what the hints lead to.  In the beginning, you see a shooting star, so I suppose that’s as good a reason as any to start walking.  It worked for the wise men.  Journey is an artsy-fartsy kind of game, so I assume the developers would tell you that the story of Journey is the journey itself; although that’s really a cop-out.  Plenty of games have journeys: Mario journeys across many lands to rescue the princess, every RPG ever made has a journey in it, heck, you even journey here and there in a fighting game to find new people to beat up, so don’t get all aloof and tell me that walking to a mountain is the story.  I could walk to any number of mountains and find more things of interest than there are in this game; but I digress.  Everything you need to know about Journey is in the title.



Graphically, the game really shines.  It’s downright beautiful, juggling between being drop-dead gorgeous and simple run-of-the-mill gorgeous.  Sometimes the game is so good looking that the camera chooses to linger on the good-lookingness of it all as if to say “forget about a point, look how goooooood this looks!”  But it didn’t fool me.  Real life looks good, but if I have nothing to do I’ll go stark raving bonkers.  That’s why I blog.

Musically, the game also stands out; but then most arty independent games have great soundtracks.  The control is OK, but there’s really not much to complain about because there’s not much to do.  The analog stick moves your character, one button allows you to jump (when you have enough power) and another button makes you sing a tone.  That’s it.

It’s hard to rate Journey as a game, because as a game it completely fails.  You can’t have a game with no point, and no I don’t believe “walk to the mountain” is a valid point.  You can’t die in the game, in fact the only way to fail at beating it is to get bored and turn it off, which is what I did three times.  The game is beautiful, and the atmosphere is extremely moody and epic feeling; but with no payoff and taking less than an hour to beat, it’s difficult for me to not just rip right into it and tear it a new one; but something about the game holds me back.  It has a kind of charm and good nature that you don’t see in many games now days.  Playing Journey is almost like fast-forwarding through a Miyazaki film: you know you’re going to see crazy wonderful things, it’s going to be beautiful, and nobody’s going to get hurt.  Here’s same gameplay that illustrates that very thing:



Journey does include multiplayer.  It’s not something you select, it’s an automatic part of the game where people join you on your mountainy quest as you progress, coming and going.  Sometimes, it was pretty cool traveling with a “friend”; but most of the time it just gets in your way.  If you’re keen on unlocking all of Journey’s trophies, you have to complete different task throughout the game.  Because your randomly chosen partner might have already unlocked what you’re going for or might be trying to get it themselves, or might be completely oblivious, it makes getting said trophies all that more difficult.  And because the only way you can communicate is with a tone, it’s impossible to tell them to bugger off, which is what I wanted to do most of the time.


Bugger off


My advice to you is, if you want to experience Journey, then by all means, watch someone else play it.  It’s much too short and nebulas in concept and execution to warrant the $12 that Sony is asking for it.  Bide your time, and if you really have a jones to make an incredibly short, metaphysical trip, wait for it to go on sale.