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At first glance you wouldn’t be remiss for thinking that developer Vanillaware‘s master plan to reinvigorate the side-scrolling, face-punching genre only included the infusion of head-shaking amounts of titillation and a bounty of gorgeously hand drawn visuals.

Thankfully, the truth soon reveals itself to be largely divorced from such rudimentary presumptions as Dragon’s Crown cleverly builds upon the addicting foundations of the classic genre through some engaging loot grabbing gameplay, whiffs of ARPG convention and a wealth of challenge that is best enjoyed by multiple players.

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Tossing players into a fantasy realm where a somewhat paper thin narrative eventually has you securing the titular Dragon’s Crown, the game provides six different classes to choose between; each of them not only tapping into the usual set of established fantasy archetypes but also the functional RPG ones too.

Naturally, you have your plate clad Knight who acts as your dependable damage sponge, the Wizard who can cast destructive magics from afar and a Sorceress who acts in a support capacity, conjuring up health restoring foodstuffs and raising the dead to fight alongside the party.

These three are complimented by a trio of varied damage dealing classes, such as the Amazon who deals huge amounts of melee damage with an assortment of two-handed stabbery, the nimble Elf who can pepper foes at range with a bow and arrow and finally the Dwarf, a dual-wielding warrior that can pick up and launch enemies into each other.

In short, if you have a preferred style of play, you’ll certainly find some parity with one or more of Dragon’s Crown half-dozen motley crew of heroes.

Once into the game proper, events unfold from Dragon Crown’s city based hub where you can buy new equipment and items, take on new quests or further the story by visiting key locations.  Like any real city, its the local pub that provides the most compelling allure and within the slosh shop’s mead scented atmosphere, players are able to swap party members in or out of their group.

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After you’ve gotten some jobs in the books, you can then get stuck into the side-scrolling, hack and slash gameplay that Dragon’s Crown embraces as its central facet.

Aping the simple yet gratifying delights of Sega‘s crusty coin-op legend Golden Axe, you proceed left from right, dispensing murder and misery upon the varied legions of fantasy foes that the game sticks in front of you.  It is the sort of accessible if shallow fun that is best experienced in the company of friends, yet in an effort to provide more depth to the well-trodden template, Vanillaware have introduced additional elements which serve to captivate player attention for longer than the games in this genre are usually able to achieve.

Should you find yourself lacking in the friends department, Dragon’s Crown allows you to add up to three additional AI-powered party members by collecting piles of bones left around in the game’s various stages.

Once you’ve collected a bag full of bones, you can then pay a visit to the temple in town and either resurrect the fallen, adding them to your roster, or alternatively bury their bones giving you a chance to obtain an item in return.  In truth, the system is ostensibly lopsided; the utility of having an extra face to choose from in your party roster far outweighs the seldom chance of getting an item that you might not ever use.

Since these deceased heroes are made up of the six character classes that the game offers and you come across their remains quite frequently, you are always able to tailor your group to your individual preferences; placing a priority on raw damage dealing, support actions or other play styles as you see fit.

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When running with computer controlled party members however, the system sadly breaks down a bit.  Your AI controlled buddies don’t actually level up as you do and simply aren’t afforded the same freedoms.

In fact, other than performing their designated roles (attacker, support and so on.), they really don’t know how to look after themselves at all, since if left in your party for long enough their weapons and equipment degrade completely and as the game provides no option for repair, the only recourse you have is to part ways and resurrect someone else into the fold.

Certainly, while the game encourages you to switch out your party members for the more capable deceased heroes you find in the later stages, having this sort of artificially capped limit on how long you can have an AI controlled party member in your group just seems to detract from strides the developer has made elsewhere in evolving Dragon’s Crown beyond its classical inspirations.

Supplementing your regular party members, are a couple of peripheral AI controlled characters also accompany you on your journey and serve to perform actual functions rather than being the potentially piss-annoying distractions that they might have otherwise been.

The first of these, Ranni the Thief (who bares more than a passing resemblance to those thieving bastards from Golden Axe), can be directed by the player to pick the locks off of loot-stuffed chests or doors which lead to a different part of the level.  Tiki the Fairy on the other hand, acts as a guide of sorts, helpfully pointing you in the direction of secrets and destructible walls, in turn leading you to the opportunities which lie beyond.

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Falling nicely within the Action RPG remit, a nice chunk of depth to the proceedings is provided through the inclusion of unlockable special abilities, incremental stats and enough loot to make the likes of Diablo 3 blush just a little bit.

Special abilities are split between those which are common to all characters and those which are specific to your class and alongside the ever present loot carrot, they ensure that Dragon’s Crown continues to captivate long beyond what other games in its genre not called Guardian Heroes, are able to achieve.

The loot side of things meanwhile is pretty much what you might expect; an assortment of gear which is collected at the end of every area which encompasses the usual sets of weapons, shields, trinkets and amulets.  These can be appraised in the city (for a cost) to identify their exact benefits and equipped or sold on accordingly depending on how shit/not-shit they turn out to be.

Aside from piles of shiny loot to collect and character stats and abilities to beef up, Dragon’s Crown further distances itself from its erstwhile homage to the genre that gaming forgot with the inclusion of branching paths that appear later on in the game and the introduction of powerful rune magic, acting as a supplement to the offensive and defensive arsenals in the possession of each respective class.

Elsewhere, campfire cooking mini-games abound between quest locations later on in attempt to provide some variety to the proceedings, yet they offer little in the way of expanding upon the core tenets of the genre as other aspects in the game attempt to do; proving to be little more than inconsequential distractions.

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Artistically speaking, Dragon’s Crown is certainly highly accomplished indeed; the sumptuously hand-drawn aesthetics standing as testament to the fact that Vanillaware’s visual craft remains as sharp and deft as ever.

The gorgeously realised scenes act as storybook backdrops to the carnage that unfurls front and center stage; a veritable bedlam of clashing bodies, magical attacks and treasures which shower from almost every direction, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that there is perhaps almost too much going on at any one time.  Regardless, this is a stunning looking game that certainly stands out as one of the most visually striking efforts on Sony’s powerful handheld.

If the developer’s aesthetic choices can be earnestly questioned in one respect however, it would certainly be on the oft-mused topic of its controversial character designs.

Exceeding the usual generous proportions of gender based genre archetypes, the characters in Dragon’s Crown shoot so far over their target of player titillation (if even that was their genuine intention in the first place) that they land in the territory of the grotesquely absurd.

Appearing to be rampaging tumor monsters that just happen to have men and women attached to them, the dimensions of each sex are horrendously distorted.  Between women whose comically overblown anatomies would cause them a black eye should they attempt to move at any speed faster than a mild trot and men who look like they’ve overdosed on a steroid cocktail whilst drinking from the wrong Grail Cup, its fair to say that many of the humanoid cast in Dragon’s Crown are downright hideous.

If you can see beyond the numbing silliness of the character designs and have a set of friends ready to hop online with, Dragon’s Crown provides an undeniably enjoyable slice of hack and slashing for all.  A noble and well executed attempt at reinvigorating the genre, Dragon’s Crown is a gorgeously realised, robust experience that certainly satisfies in spite of the yearning that it engenders for a more ambitious approach to its occasionally lacking ARPG elements.

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A digital download of the game for PlayStation Vita was supplied by NIS America for the purpose of this review.

Dragon’s Crown is available to purchase right now either in physical or digital formats at an RRP of £39.99/$49.99 respectively.

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