After years of glimpsing its provocative and beautiful art style, I finally witnessed an extended demo of Vanillaware’s upcoming brawler. The game is a clear homage to the best side-scrolling brawlers of the ‘90s, but a number of features ensure that Dragon’s Crown is far more than a throwback experience. While several of the playable characters, customization features, and upgrade mechanics remain under wraps, my playtime rocketed my feelings on this title from tentative enthusiasm into the must-play category.
Dragon’s Crown is a love letter to Dungeons & Dragons fans, filled with monsters and other elements that recall the roots of the iconic role-playing game. More specifically, Dragon’s Crown shares a number of traits with the classic Capcom D&D brawlers. It’s no coincidence; Vanillaware president George Kamitani was part of the team that created those old D&D games, and this new title echoes their design and structure.
Players begin by choosing one of six classes: the armored fighter, axe-wielding amazon, agile elf, spell-flinging sorceress, gruff dwarf, and mysterious wizard. Classes have their own tutorials, since they all have a distinct battle style and controls. I checked out the fighter, whose straightforward tactics put him on the front line in a multiplayer game or allow him to hold his own playing solo. Controls are flexible and varied, offering much more than standard single-button attacks. Directional button presses in combination with a sword swing have the fighter sliding and leaping around the screen, while a separate button slams his sword into the ground for a damaging shockwave to all surrounding enemies. Afterward, the sword remains stuck in the ground for a few seconds, and the fighter can swing his fists in fast jabs and uppercuts while he waits.
In contrast, a few minutes with the sorceress shows off a dramatically different playstyle. Basic attacks create a magical burst at close range, but leap into the air and she fires off a cascade of magic missiles. On the ground, she wields a number of different ice-focused spells to slow down and damage enemies, but she’s best served by staying back from the thick of the action.
The game opens in a large city filled with shops, stables, and other areas not available for exploration yet, but all of them speak to features that promise to add customization and replayability. Out in the countryside, a gorgeous rotating map offers a number of levels to explore.
With a fellow editor playing at my side, we dive into the first few levels. Drop-in multiplayer is available for up to four players, and can be played either locally or online. The early battles we fight are against cowering humanoid monsters and lizard people, but their difficulty scales to the number of players in the game. Occasionally, massive riding mounts become available, like a striped saber-tooth cat or a fire-breathing dragon.
From time to time, paths open up to the side, allowing for brief trips into hidden rooms, or even a separate branching path through the level. As we battle, both of us can use the right analog stick to direct a small arrow reticle around the screens, seeking out flashing hidden nooks that hide treasure and power-ups. A seventh non-playable party member, Rannie the rogue, sprints out of the shadows to grab treasures, unlock doors, and investigate secrets as our reticles find them onscreen.
Between stages, a treasure screen pops up that lets us spend gold to identify magic items, sell unwanted loot, and equip new weapons and armor. It’s the first hints of what looks like a robust suite of tools to make a character your own. The menus indicate other fun features, like the presence of some sort of character creator, as well as multiple difficulty settings that alter the experience point totals that characters receive.
The hyper-sexualized character models and exaggerated monster designs may not be for everyone, but there’s no denying the incredible detail and animation work that has gone into the game. Dragon’s Crown is a sight to behold in motion, filled with colorful spell effects and towering sprites.
Brawler games aren’t known for their length, so I remain curious about how much we’ll end up getting out of Dragon’s Crown, especially since it’s a retail release. But if gameplay quality and visual fidelity are your priorities, this title proves that the brawling genre still has something new to offer.
[This preview originally appeared in Game Informer issue 242.]