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Dragon’s Crown sure is beautiful. That’s not really saying much when you talk about a videogame these days, where graphics quality is so often praised regardless of artwork. As long as the tank, dragon, or space marine is anti-aliased, some yahoo is going to call it out for “jaw-dropping” graphics. But Dragon’s Crown is artwork at its best and most distinctive. It is beautiful in a unique hyperstylized hyperdetailed hyperexaggerated way all too rare among the usual hypersexualized videogames. Sure, it’s unashamed of its breast physics and its outrageous ass swaying and the way some of its women sprawl as if they were posing for a Hustler photoshoot (you’ve never seen a wounded nun/cleric laid low quite like the one you’ll see in Dragon’s Crown and after the jump). That’s not all there is to this action RPG for the PS3 and the Vita, but it’s definitely a part of its identity. You should probably go complain about it at the same place where people who’ve never read Heavy Metal complain about Catwoman being called a bitch.

But more importantly, this is one of those game where you won’t mistake the screenshots for any other game. Visually, Dragon’s Crown has one hell of a distinctive identity. Which is exactly what it doesn’t have in terms of the gameplay.

After the jump, you’ve been here before. Many times.

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On the official checklist for what it takes for a good action RPG, you should probably tick off at least three of the following four things: gratifying loot, a gratifying character progression system, gratifying combat, and lots of content. Dragon’s Crown manages about one and a half of those things.

The loot system will be questionable to players accustomed to the Monty Haul School of RPG Loot. Sure, there are showers of stray coins and gems and jewelry littering the floors as you play. It’s appropriately messy in these dungeons, and you just hoover it all up and watch your score tick upwards. These baubles end up partly determining your experience points.

But when it comes to gear, which is a fundamental part of any loot chase, Dragon’s Crown is stingy. You only get loot from occasional chests. The average dungeon will give you maybe five or six pieces of loot. You have to sink time and even money into getting good gear. There’s a fair amount of risk management in pushing forward towards better chests, and even in identifying loot to discover if you want to use it. Do you shell out the gold to identify that item and risk paying for a piece of junk you’re just going to dump on a vendor? Because the sorceress who identifies your treasures doesn’t work cheap! But Dragon’s Crown assumes fewer pieces of more meaningful loot are better than the stuff that litters the floor and gets hoovered up into your score.

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This means I enjoy the sense of discovery when I discover a chest. I can’t see exactly what I’m getting, but the rarity is proudly announced onscreen when my thief companion pops open a chest. Oh, it was just a D grade item. Or, ooh, an A grade item! I can’t wait to see what that is. The chests are even drolly interactive. I have to directly tell my theif buddy to open a chest. He’s usually hiding from battle, or he’s snatching up stray copper pieces on my behalf and murmuring about “filthy lucre”. Very thiefly behavior in the manner of thieves from fantasy movies in the 80s rather than the more fashionable MMO theives of today, always ganking and whatnot. Meanwhile, my faerie companion drapes herself on top of the chests, luxuriantly stretching out her tiny faerie legs until I’m ready to tell the thief to pop the top. Every chest potentially matters.

Speaking of stretching out luxuriantly, Dragon’s Crown is one of those games that doesn’t fully reveal itself until you’ve invested five to ten hours. Can you tell this is a Japanese RPG? An action RPG, to be sure, but still Japanese. It’s going to be a while before you get to the multiplayer, the runes, the interesting character builds, the forked dungeon paths, the risk/reward continue system, and the weird chat roulette style of dungeon selection. Leaving the city to go on an adventure reminds me of Payday 2’s crime.net, but in Dragon’s Crown, I can pay the stables to visit my choice of dungeon. In Payday 2, the spread of missions is completely out of my control. Here it’s a minor gimmick to hide the size of its small world.

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My biggest reservation about the grind-based gameplay is the combat system. It starts to crumble under the repetitive stress of grinding these same few places over and over. To be fair, the places have plenty of secrets. There are hidden rune combos with cool effects scrawled into the walls (be sure to play on the Vita for the touchscreen support), along with quests to encourage you to find specific secrets, and even some clever variations on the usual “kill everything” objectives and “punch the bag of hit points” boss fights. Dragon’s Crown wrings a lot out of its tiny real estate footprint.

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But given the way the character progression works, you’re going to be mostly doing the same moves over and over and over again in the same handful of dungeons. The deja vu is oppressive. It helps to roll up multiple characters, even though you have to grind them out separately rather than share the same quest progression. Dragon’s Crown supposedly has six classes, but they’re really variations on the archer, fighter, and spellcaster archetype. So, more accurately, three classes, with variation in the skill trees that only emerges after many hours and forces you to commit to that same familiar handful of moves. There you go, spamming that handful of moves over and over again, waiting to see whether you get a good treasure chest, maybe jumping into a multiplayer bulldozing endurance session, enjoying the increasingly familiar scenery. The overall approach here is shorter dungeons, fewer and more meaningful magic items, and, hey, look at this totally awesome over-the-top hyperstylized artwork. Dragon’s Crown’s unique beauty goes a long way. But it doesn’t go quite long enough.

3 stars
Vita