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August 20, 2013

RE: Dragon's Crown

You know what I just realized?  I don’t know what it means to be “old-school.” 

That’s a description that’s popped up a couple of times in discussions about Dragon’s Crown, and I’d agree that it’s a good adjective to use (and on top of that, I agree with others that think it’s a good game).  But what exactly does it mean to be old-school?  I suppose that means being a part of the gaming chronology for any period before this current console generation…but where’s the cutoff point?  What’s the system that definitively defines who’s a part of the old-school collective?  The Nintendo 64?  The Commodore 64?  I’ve been gaming for a while, but apparently my mom was seriously into the arcade Pac-Man games at one point.  Fancy that.

And that only begs the question of what capacity one has to play games to qualify as old-school.  Lines have been drawn this generation between casual and hardcore players -- both with their own strengths and weaknesses -- but there’s a lot to consider both in terms of games and the players themselves.  I mean sure, I’ve owned games, but for the longest time (and even to this day) it’s my brother clearing them while I watch.  It’s almost contradictory that I’ve spent so much time being a passive observer for an interactive medium.   So what’s the deciding factor?  Who judges who’s a part of the club?  Are there symposiums held in order to sort out all the vital details and ruminate on the particulars of games of old?

…Whatever, Dragon’s Crown is still pretty friggin’ good.

Let me back up for a bit.  I know I said that describing Dragon’s Crown old-school is something that I agree with, but that’s something I agree with to a certain extent.  It’s part of a genre that hasn’t gotten the attention it needs this generation (seriously, Capcom -- with all the Final Fight characters you’re putting into your fighting games, you can’t make ONE new title?) and as you’d expect it’s not exactly a title with any delusions of grandeur.  What you see is what you get.

But on the other hand, what you get is more than what you’d expect.  A lot more.  I’m not so presumptuous as to start pointing out problems in old-school games -- especially those that I haven’t played -- but upholding every title as the undisputable gold standard isn’t a wise move.  There have to be flaws in those titles, and even if they are flawless, there have been other fantastic games since then.  The technology’s certainly evolved, and standards and ideas have evolved to suit them.  So you could say that Dragon’s Crown is half-old-school, half-new.  From what I’ve played of it so far, it’s a very pleasant experience. 

And yet…I have my doubts that it’s an experience everyone will enjoy.

One of the first things that I can’t help but note about the game is that there’s a lot more talking than I would have expected.  A lot more.  To be fair, that’s only because all I’d seen of the game before release was gameplay footage and scattered art, but my expectation was that it’d be a brawler/RPG hybrid that’s light on the story, not a brawler frequently interspersed with…well, it’s too early to call it a straight-up story (and certainly a good story), but there is plenty of context provided for your actions.  There’s political intrigue and a bold new world to be explored, and while your hero of choice isn’t doing much conversing, the NPCs you’ll meet along the way offer up plenty of dialogue to color your perception of the story and world.

I will say this about the context, though -- it’s not just much-appreciated, but it does its duty surprisingly well.  Political intrigue (with the right to ascension and the pursuit of a powerful artifact) is one thing, but the game goes to great lengths to establish the mysteriousness and dark majesty of the world.  You’re an adventurer -- one out of a potential party of four, if that -- and while there are incredible mysteries to be solved and sights to be seen, it’s established that this adventure is not without its perils.  One of the first things you do in the game is go to the Adventurer’s Guild to get a quest…and the guy in charge boots you out and orders you to repair your equipment first.  He knows how dangerous it’s going to be, and not long after you see it firsthand.  Ignoring the fact that you have to start fighting through enemy waves, your first actual mission -- while still acting as a tutorial -- is to retrieve the bones of adventures that have fallen before you.  In the same area that you’re trying to clear.  Otherwise known as the easiest area in the game.

It is true that you can take those bones to the local church and have a prayer performed to resurrect the fallen adventurer (and fill out your party with computer-controlled players if need be), but the concept of resurrection is an interesting one.  At first I was a little skeptical of the concept of just waltzing down the street to bring someone back to life, because that would dramatically alter the way the world works (and likely never be explained in the game’s context).  But as I thought about it, I realized the resurrection is in place to reinforce the game’s ideas.  First, only those who manage to win the favor of the Goddess -- and have died before “their time” can receive her blessing and be reborn.  Second, in order for someone to be resurrected, their bones have to be found, meaning that it’s up to an adventurer to go in and save them.  Third, as an extension of the last point, if no one knows who they are and that they ventured into an area in the first place, if their remains aren’t stumbled upon then they’re going to stay dead.  Lost and forgotten forever. 

It’s a dark implication, but it’s something that unites the gameplay and story.  This is a world (and a game) that’s built around adventurers, meaning that you have the chance to save others that have fallen.  But in order for them to be saved in the first place, they have to be worthy of being saved in the first place…and in the context of this game, that means you have to be an adventurer getting in over his head.  It reinforces the dangerousness of the world, but also the opportunities (and treasure) that lie in wait -- assuming you have the skill to make it past each area’s boss, of course.  It’s some seriously interesting stuff; even if there isn’t an out-and-out narrative to follow in the game, the fact that there’s something in the game that gets my mind geared up is really impressive.  I’m hoping that there’s more of it in the game.

Unfortunately, it’s the non-gameplay that could be an issue for some.  There’s more story/context than I would have expected, but by the same token there’s also a lot more downtime than I would have expected.  There is a loot factor in this game that’s bound to appeal to some, but as a result there’s also equipment to manage, items to buy, skills to upgrade, and sidequests to undertake.  So if you’re the sort expecting to go from one stage to the next in rapid succession, you probably shouldn’t.  There’s stuff that needs to be attended to (though if you’re anything like me, you’ll WANT to attend to your skill upgrading so you can learn some new tricks).  

The problem, then, is that every additional player has to attend to their character’s needs.  So that means if my brother and I play together, he has to choose his weapon, his armor, his accessories, and his items.  He’ll also have to go to the item shop to get his equipment repaired, go to the guild to learn new skills and take on quests, and if need be go to the old tower to get some special items.  And then once he’s done I have to do the exact same thing, meaning that I have to wait for him, and then he has to wait for me.  And if my, my bro, and our buddy played together, that means outside of stages we’d each have to take turns waiting on each other to get ready to fight…so we can finish and start preparing for the next fight all over again.  Couple that with the story stuff, and if you’ve got any impatient players in your midst looking to bash some monsters, don’t expect to play for very long. 

Is that in any way a detriment to Dragon’s Crown?  No, of course not.  It’s just proof that there’s something else to enjoy besides the action -- an attempt to balance out the game, and make it about more than just action.  (And if you want to be realistic, it’s probably the best way to make sure the game isn’t over in about an hour.)  There’s something to sink your teeth into in this game beyond just the gorgeous art design -- though make no mistake, it certainly helps -- and I can’t wait to get back to the game and get in deep with its particulars.

So.  How about that gameplay?

There’s an argument to be made (and easily proven) that games nowadays have done their best to take on elements from the once-nerdiest of all genres, the RPG.  Some games are improved by them, while others can’t even begin to do anything meaningful with them.  Even so, I think I’m starting to figure something out about myself and what I look for in game design: the more a game takes on the properties of a fighting game, the more likely I am to approve.  Okay, I’m not demanding a Shoryuken in every game, but since games often define themselves with combat, and fighting games are almost entirely dependent on combat, then…well, it’s not exactly a hard concept to follow.

Remember that Scott Pilgrim game that came out a while back?  It was a fun game, no question -- definitely a colorful and stylish throwback to a long-gone gaming era.  It was simple, and often could reward button-mashing, but it did its job very well.  And if Dragon’s Crown just matched that game, then it would have been fine.  Or if not fine, then good enough.  But as it turns out, it isn’t.  It goes above and beyond to offer something special for players, depending on their playstyle preferences and, more importantly (and thankfully) the character they choose.

Prior to release, I had every intention of playing the Wizard, because I have a secret weak spot for magic users.  And when I got my hands on the game, I practically flung the cursor onto him.  And as I played with him, I realized that yes, this was going to be an awesome class that I’d want to play, even if the game suggested he was for “expert” players.  (I think clearing Sin and Punishment: Star Successor qualifies me as an expert player.)  The implication was that he’d be a support class best suited for attacking from the rear lines, and on some level that’s true.  But if -- and when -- he’s forced to handle enemies, he can do it with gusto thanks to his bag of tricks and the allotment of the game. 

For one thing, he’s got a teleport that lets him zip out of danger…and much like a fighting game, you can cancel Wizard’s attacks with a dodge if there’s a heavy blow coming your way.  He has a mana meter that needs to be refilled regularly, but when he’s topped off he can A) blow enemies off of him with a ring of fire, B) summon a pillar of fire that harasses downed or nearby foes, C) fire midair shots that home in on enemies, and/or D) shoot an explosive ball of flame.  And that’s what he can do at the start of the game, before he gets new weapons that change his attacks or the big whompin’ spells that can wreck the battlefield.  And while I haven’t experimented enough with him to confirm it, many of his moves can be seamlessly transitioned into with deft uses of the Square and Circle buttons.  Simply put, 10 out of 10, would play.

And then there’s the Dwarf.  Holy shit, there’s the Dwarf.

This guy is an absolute blast to play.  He’ll pound the ground with massive force.  He’ll body-slam baddies into oblivion.  He’s got rolling attacks that would make Blanka green with envy.  He’s got axes and uppercuts, and can power himself up just because he damn well feels like it.  He can tackle enemies so hard they’ll bounce off walls.  But the best part?  He’s a grappler.  So that means you can tackle an enemy, and as they bounce off the wall you can grab it, then toss it back to the ground, creating a shockwave that sends other enemies flying, and then spin into a rolling attack that slams down and grinds against enemies like a monster truck wheel.  THIS IS THE MOST METAL CHARACTER EVER CREATED AND I LOVE HIM.  My only regret is that I named him EDDIE (in all caps) instead of Haggar.  I guess I was just too blinded by awesomeness.  And that beard.  This magnificent S.O.B is one quarter beard.

Can somebody give this guy a lifetime achievement award for…hell, I don’t know.  Just existing?  Yeah.  Let’s go with that. 

So like any good fighting game, there’s some good character variety (though I don’t know how different the Sorceress is compared to the Wizard), and no matter which character you settle down with, you’re bound to find a lot to love even before you start pouring in those skill points.  Controlling these characters feels so right, and it feels as if there’s something you have to, and want to learn with them so you can get the most out of combat.  The only issue I have is that for some reason, dashing with the left stick -- i.e. how you dash with pretty much every fighting game ever -- is strangely cumbersome and almost seems to work/not work at random.  Fortunately, you can dash on command with 100% reliability by holding Square and moving the stick, so there is an alternative.  A strange one, but it’s something you can quickly get used to.  It’s certainly good for getting you ready to do a dash attack.

The one thing that I definitely want to note about the gameplay is that from what I’ve experienced, it’s constantly trying to find new things to throw at you. Not just with enemy variety, though that helps.  It’s as if the scenarios and what you’d expect from them are constantly changing -- as if you’re on an actual adventure facing unknown mysteries, instead of just going from room to room killing things.  Investigate an old labyrinth, and you may find yourself locked in a room full of dangerous slime-monsters -- monsters that come at a rate too fast for you to stop.  Your only hope is to try and fight them off until you find the key to the door, and escape as fast as you can. 

In another instance, you’re suddenly tasked with rescuing young maidens -- and the boss fight that transpires on the way out is a battle to protect them from assault by vampires.  One of the boss fights is essentially you and your team against a HUGE number of pirates -- just a handful at first, but as the battle progresses you WILL get swarmed.  There are mounts you can ride, traps you can run into, golems you can take control of, and secrets to be found; punch a back wall in one room, and you’ll find a hidden enclave.  You never know what you’re going to get next, and the fact that the game’s managed to throw stuff at me that makes me go “Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding!” so many times already tells me that there’s a lot to discover and experience.  They’re things that are bound to keep every encounter fresh and keep the player on his/her toes.

At this point, I’d say that the takeaway from Dragon’s Crown is that, yes, it IS an adventure.   I don’t know if it’s old-school, but it feels like it captures the essence of being old-school, imagined or not.  But at the same time, it feels distinctly modern.  Overt gameplay mechanics and complexities, an emphasis on playing your way, and of course no shortage of money spent on creating the finest visuals possible.  It’s an earnest and appreciable attempt at making something genuinely special, managing to bring old ideas and concepts into this HD age of ours.  It’s trying to give you a shot at becoming a famous explorer, and a conqueror of evil, in a way that not a lot of other games will or can.  And in a sense, that makes it newer than new…but strangely familiar at the same time.

So what do you say we call Dragon’s Crown “timeless” and leave it at that?  I wouldn’t mind.  I just want to do some more Dwarf-wrestling.

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