December 17, 2013

Dragon's Crown Diary #1: A Prelude of Punches

I've always had a penchant for side-scrolling brawlers, perhaps more than anyone ought to. Having grown up in the heyday of the genre, a younger me was content with the simple "walk right and punch badguys" formula of so many games like Double Dragon, Final Fight, Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles titles. Those games are still fun to pick up every now and then, but even when they were fresh there was a part of me that would have appreciated more spice.

Sure, River City Ransom on NES is the one infamous exception, for introducing character growth and shops run by friendly NPCs. And then there's my guilty pleasure, Dragon View for SNES, which is for all intents and purposes a (kind of bland) RPG that just happens to stage its dungeons and battles within "brawler" confines. Aside from those, almost all of these beat-'em-ups seemed a little too comfortable with the conceit that monotonous, repetitive fighting was a perfectly satisfactory thing to build a genre around. That could be part of the reason these games gradually became much more rare, as other types of genres became more complex. Or, it could be that the addition of deeper combat and expanded gameplay simply caused the genre to disperse and be subsumed by the likes of Diablo, Yakuza, Onimusha, and other fashions of action RPG.

Lately, there has been a bit of a niche resurgence of interest in side-scrolling brawlers, thanks largely to digital rereleases of classics and the rise of indie "retro" gaming in general. Castle Crashers was at the forefront of the movement for the genre, offering accessible hack-and-slash action packaged in zany humour. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was essentially a love letter to River City Ransom, and like Crashers it offered the chance to earn upgrades to character stats, gear, and skills. One of the key factors that unites the genre is the reliance on 2D visuals, an art which Vanillaware and Atlus have demonstrably mastered in their recent offering Dragon's Crown.

Like its spiritual ancestors, Dragon's Crown is a 2D, side-scrolling beat-'em-up. Up to four players can choose any of six character classes to take into battle against hordes of enemies in a chaotic arcade-style melée, with each dungeon usually culminating with a huge boss monster. Enemies, crates and treasure boxes hide gold coins and health-replenishing food. In that sense, at least, it plays similarly to the classic games that inspired it -- but of course, there are further complexities which put more meat on the bone and transform the experience into something more substantial.

From the outset, the six distinct character classes already offer a wide variety of play styles to choose from, and come with recommended difficulty curves. For example, the basic Fighter can both take and dish out a lot of damage and is described as an "easy" class to play, while the tricky sorceress is considered a support role for more experienced gamers. This is no mere matter of "walk right and punch badguys," either. There are elements of crowd control and tanking, item and equipment management, skill specializations to suit your preferred style, experience levels to gain, and tons of hidden secret passages and treasures. The result is a great game that finally succeeds in retaining the familiar feel of a side-scrolling brawler, while gradually piling on layers of depth that might be appropriate for a true action RPG.

When I first sat down to try out the game with some friends, I couldn't help but opt for the lithe and dextrous Elf. Some of her signature abilities include powerful, ranged archery attacks, poisonous venoms to apply to arrows and daggers for damage over time, and a short-range burst of elemental magic. Although she was labelled one of the most difficult character types, I wasn't about to let that stop me.

Accompanied by a beguiling sorceress, a towering amazon, and a hardy dwarf, I left the village tavern ready for a grand adventure. Let's go, little Elf! May your arrows fly swift and true!

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