George Kamitani’s career in video games runs parallel to the second movement of 2D beat-em ups in the 90’s. Post-Golden Axe, Capcom had the Dungeons and Dragons license in their portfolio, and blasted arcades with iconic genre offerings Hillsfar, Tower of Doom, and Shadows of Mystara, all entries he had his hands on in some way. By the end of the 90’s, Kamitani would direct his first game and cult classic, Princess Crown, which would turn the genre on its head.
The genre would be largely devoid of stellar entries throughout the 2000’s until around the end of the decade, where relatively new developer, Vanillaware, would release Odin’s Sphere, one of the PS2’s best games, and among the best 2D side-scrollers ever. No real surprise that Vanillaware is a Kamitani joint, then.
There’s been many entries over the decade of note – River City Ransom clone Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Castle Crashers, Double Dragon Neon, Broforce – but it’s been Vanillaware’s consistently impressive entries that have become a sort of beacon for the genre. Kamitani’s best, and most D&D of his offerings, Dragon’s Crown, remains king of the 2D beat em ups 5 years removed from it’s debut, and Dragon’s Crown Pro allows a wider-reaching, more connected audience to experience it.
It’s truly hard to innovate on the foundations that games like Streets of Rage have built, because the games are so straightforward. Walk right, sometimes left, punch and kick, repeat. But Dragon’s Crown used decades of beat-em lineage to refine and elevate what seemed like basic core concepts into something we hadn’t seen before.
Attacks have a weight and bite that doesn’t exist in other genre entries. Each of the six characters have extensive movelists, which give all of their attacks tactical purposes outside of just button mashing. You’ll do plenty of that too, but the difference between getting clobbered by tough enemies and seeing one of the nine multi-pathed stages to their ends is using trips, shoves, and juggles to your advantage.
The six different characters have very dynamic identities that make them feel incredibly unique. The ferocious Dwarf is a combo fiend, dual-wielding weapons to clobber enemies with flurries, where the Fighter is more of a stoic that leans heavily on his rock-solid defense to dampen enemy aggression. On the flip side, the Wizard can blast the field with elemental spells that can whip a screen full of enemies, and the Sorceress can raise minions to even the numbers in your party’s favor.
Though not the deepest of Vanillaware faire, Dragon’s Crown has an expansive RPG-like suite of abilities and equipment that further modify your character’s combat acumen. The Amazon can gain skills that makes clones of herself, turning her wide, singular sweeps into a blizzard of blades for a short period of time. Weapons, armor, and accessories can be bought from the shop in your main hub town or in chests while questing, which come in a wide scale of rarities, and can do something as simple as boost a stat, or as exotic as add a chance on hit to freeze an enemy, for example.
All of these little factors make dungeon crawling feel less like the roulette wheel grind that it is, at its core. If combat and progression didn’t feel compelling, the fact that you’ll be running through dungeon paths a hundred times for the campaign-related stuff would be an instant turn off. Another big factor: Dragon’s Crown features some of the best boss fights in the genre.
In the second, more difficult paths especially, these big encounters ask more from a party than simple pattern recognition. One features a Wraith that can only be damaged when in the vicinity of special torches, and he and his undead horde chase you through most of the map until you either escape, or deal with him. You can stop and light one of these holy braziers, but skeletons and zombies will crowd to destroy the statues that hold them, giving you both limited time to take advantage and limited number of opportunities to actually kill him.
Another, completely different fight involves laying siege to the front gate of a fortress, whose portcullis is open, and letting giant monsters out. You have to close the gate, and keep it closed, while allied knights wheel cannons up to destroy it. From behind the game, giants work to open it again, attempting to undo your work. Balancing the safety of the siege weapons, the flow of monsters out of the gate, the gate’s open/closed status, and your own life is the juggling act that really elevates these moments and makes them truly memorable punctuations to these little journeys.
The chaos can be blinding though. When the screen fills up with beasties, it can be very hard to pick one out of the line up, or to find yourself in the pile. Doubly so, if there are more than one of the same character type on the screen. Even with different shades and color palettes (and a bright color coded player marker) the hardest challenge in fights can be finding out where you are in them.
The vision difficulty compounds when you take into account all of the environmental interactivity you can partake in. Magical runes are etched into walls on almost every screen in the game. Selecting them in combination with rune stones in your possession spell out three letter acronyms that can have powerful effects, like creating a stash of temporary weapons or turning all enemies on the screen to stone. Good luck finding the time to navigate the game’s cursor to do all that scanning and clicking without getting punched in your face first though. The same goes for inspecting walls for secret entrances or opening doors/chests, the initially simple inputs become unruly once fights start, and can discourage interacting with that stuff altogether.
Even though it can get too busy for normal sets of eyes, there is no controversy in calling the general art direction a stunning achievement. Tezuka-style Japanese Anime and Frazetta/Hildebrandt Brothers-style fantasy art come together, both pushing the boundaries of realism to create a unique, twisted-yet-heroic interpretation of swords and sorcery, Euro-centric fantasy. Buildings are unfathomably large. Monsters are jagged and gnarled. Men have double wide shoulders and more abs than physically feasible, while women have weapons grade bosoms and impossible thighs. Even the logo font has the grotesque brutalism of a metal band logo. All of these things are weird and maybe even problematic in pieces, but as a part of a whole, it all makes sense.
What didn’t make much sense were the network features. Once you unlock online multiplayer, you’ll have the option to join other folks on their quests, or allow randoms to drop in on yours. Half of the time, I couldn’t connect to the network at all, and when I could, I could barely connect to other people online. When it did happen, the quality was a crap-shoot. Often times it was just laggy, but I had more than one game fall apart thanks to crashes. All of this may change after launch when far more PS4 players log on, and PS3 and Vita players get energized to return to the fray (since Dragon’s Crown Pro miraculously allows for cross play between all of those systems).
The noticeable differences between the original Dragon’s Crown and Pro are slim. Pro is in HD (and 4K if you have the capabilities) and clearly this will make an already gorgeous game look even more incredible. There are orchestra remixes of the background tunes that you can choose to listen to while adventuring, but I didn’t notice a frame rate boost, or any gameplay-specific additions.
Let none of this deter you, though. If multiplayer side scrolling action is your jam, the best game in the genre has finally come to your modern console. Dragon’s Crown Pro is the definitive version of the game if you don’t have it already on older consoles, but maybe not so definitive that it’s worth buying all over again, considering you can play it with newly converted PS4 players online.
Review code was provided by the publisher and reviewed on a Standard PlayStation 4 system.