2D lost the war.
Back in the 1990's longtime gamers were taking it badly. Surely these ugly, boxy polygons couldn’t succeed over beautifully detailed sprites? Who in their right mind would prefer Battle Arena Toshinden over King of Fighters 94'? Crash Bandicoot over Rayman? Einhander over DonPachi? Of course, we all know how that went... just look what happened to the Saturn.
But 2D is not completely dead, and every once in a while we get a new fighting game or sidescroller that shows just how beautiful sprites can look with a bit of processing power behind it. Japanese studio Vanillaware has been doing their part to keep the genre alive over the last decade, putting out some truly great games like Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Odin Sphere that pay homage to those old classics while updating the experience for new consoles.
Their latest is Dragon’s Crown for the PS3 and Vita, which may boast the most beautiful hand-drawn art in a game yet. It features stunningly detailed characters that loom large on screen, just absolutely gorgeously animated enemies and backgrounds. It really is just as much fun to look at is it is to play. The story is simple stuff about a kingdom in turmoil - they’re looking for that titular crown to control some dragons or whatever - and it’s told via short narrated cutscenes that really only point you to the location of the next level.
Head out into the world and you’ll find a nice variety of levels to fight through, from a vampire lair to a pirate castle, all of which are capped off with a tough end boss that's usually appropriately enourmous. Beat the first nine stages and you’ll unlock brand new paths for each of the levels, as well as online multiplayer. It’s perfectly timed - at this point you may be getting tired of playing with dumb AI companions (although the game does support 4-player co-op on one screen!) and this is its savior.
Online is where the game really begins to show off its massive amount of replay value. It may seem annoying to have to play through the same levels over and over (and you'll have to pay to choose the one you want, jumping into one randomly if not) but you'll find new things with every visit - secret rooms, divergent paths, new challenges to face. Nearly every screen has treasure to be looted, which will give you new weapons and armor and single-use items to equip to help you along your quest. Magical runes offer the chance to try casting different spells along the way.
Each of the six main characters (Fighter, Amazon, Elf, Sorceress, Wizard, and Dwarf) plays differently. Some are made for newcomers and feature lots of hacking and slashing and button-mashing, while others require more finesse- the Elf, or the Wizard, for instance. Each one is unique and fun to play with and considering that it’ll take dozens of hours to level up each one, you could play this game for literally hundreds of hours.
This all sounds great, right?
Wellllll.... hold on one second. There’s a big hurdle you’ll have to get over first. And here they are.
Every single female character in the game is grotesquely proportioned like this. Every one, even still images of women you come across in the world. Some might point out that the art style of the men are just are out of whack but they aren’t sexualized- their deformities suggest strength or cunning.
It’s only worse when you see the animations in play. The Amazon, the first character I ran through the game with, nearly exposes herself with every move. Jump in the air and everything nearly falls out. Run and she goes nearly parallel to the ground, except her ass, which points straight up. Ride a steed and she leans back in an incredibly sexualized position. Also, while the the male characters can equip armor and shields to protect themselves the female characters have earrings and bangles. Even your cute little fairy companion ends up drunk and spread-legged in a goblet of beer every time you visit the tavern.
Can you get past this frankly egregious bit of sexism? It’s more than a bit upsetting, and bound to turn off a good amount of people, rightfully, but if you play the game for a while you’ll cease to notice it as it fades into the background of the the ridiculous art style. Whether that’s good or bad I’ll leave up to you. I do know that I was embarrassed enough to be playing this by myself, let alone when my wife came by to sit on the couch with me. And I’ll be damned if I let my daughters see it.
It’s a bad mark on an otherwise exceptional game, the kind of thing old school gamers crave and are getting far less frequently these days. Think about it, too - only a small percentage of gamers look forward to 2D titles nowadays. Something that looks and plays as well as Dragon's Crown could have broken out into mainstream success, but this isn't the kind of game that's going to convince anyone of the genre or the art style, or that video games have grown up in the last twenty years.
Dragon’s Crown was reviewed from a PS3 code provided by the publisher. Saves carry across from the PS3 and Vita versions but be warned that it doesn’t feature cross-buy - you will have to buy the game twice to take advance of a mobile version.