If you played the original Dragon’s Crown when it came out way back in the long-forgotten year of 2013, you probably remember two things: It was a fantastically fun brawler, and it had some serious issues with how it depicted women’s bodies. For better and for worse, both are still true today.
Dragon’s Crown Pro is a straight-forward remaster. You won’t find much new content-wise, so if you have an opinion about the original, you can basically just apply it to the HD update as well. And if you happen to still be playing the original on either the PS3 or the Vita, you’ll soon find the online mode much more populated, as the remaster offers cross-play with the original title. For the uninitiated, Dragon’s Crown Pro is a side-scrolling brawler set in a lavishly (and sometimes problematically) illustrated fantasy world. Created by Vanillaware, it has plenty of features that elevate it above other simplistic beat ‘em ups, much like its predecessor, Odin Sphere.
You can choose from six classes, which, unlike in many side-scrolling brawlers, actually play quite differently from one another. These include a Dwarf who specializes in dealing melee damage and tossing enemies, a Sorceress who offers support magic and can animate skeletons, and an Amazon with wild air attacks and a berserker rage mechanic. Even the more straightforward-seeming classes -- the Fighter, the Elf, and the Wizard -- reveal hidden depth once you start digging into their skill trees and learn how to best use their unique abilities. I played through the entire campaign as the Elf, the archer class, certain that her combination of long-range damage and minor spells was the perfect playstyle for me. Then I tried the Wizard, getting deep into his versatile spell options and active mana regeneration mechanics. On a whim, I made a Dwarf, the character I had the least interest in, and fell in love with the brazenness of his flurry attacks and the huge interrupt potential in chucking enemies around the screen. It would be overstating it to say that switching classes feels like playing an entirely different game, but not by much.
You can customize each character to some extent through skill upgrades and loot. As you trek through the game’s dungeons, you’ll come across treasure chests that your ever-present rogue companion can unlock. At the end of each level, you choose which of these to keep and which to sell. Each weapon and piece of armor has a random selection from a huge pool of bonuses. They can add elemental damage, increase item drop rates, grant resistances, or give you any number of other effects. You’ll also gain experience, which you can spend on skills from a general pool or a class-specific list. These upgrades can add extra effects to your attacks or grant you entirely new abilities, offering a fairly flexible way to tune your character to your liking. After you make it to the story’s midpoint, you can start any new character at level 15 and skip the first half of the game. It’s a great way to test out other classes’ abilities without committing to a full playthrough with each one. At this same point, you also unlock a fun, goofy little cooking minigame that boosts your stats when you play multiple levels in a row. It’s buried so deep in the game and goes so unremarked upon that it feels like a secret mode when you first stumble upon it.
It’s fortunate that there’s so much versatility to the gameplay, because Dragon’s Crown’s structure has a lot of repetition built in. The main campaign sends you through nine stages in a linear order, then tasks you with playing alternate paths through the same levels in a different order. You can also take on quests that give you specific objectives to complete within the levels, which often take more than one run through to complete. Once you finish the game, you have the option to play through the levels two more times on higher difficulty settings to really complete the game. You do unlock some entirely new options at that point as well: a procedurally generated dungeon where you fight progressively tougher enemies for progressively better loot, and a PvP arena mode.
Of course, a lot of this is optional, and the alternate paths through levels are significantly different, so while the game does feel repetitive, it’s rarely boring. The quests you do are usually not as simple as just “Kill X amount of enemy Y,” so they, too, change the way you approach the levels. While you’re repeating levels, you’re fighting one of two different bosses, seeing a different selection of rooms, and performing more esoteric objectives like looking for hidden passages or, at least on one occasion, dancing with ghosts. Still, you could easily play through each level a dozen times if you continue into the post-game, which inevitably gets old.
Fortunately, Dragon’s Crown Pro’s levels are interesting and varied. Each level features a slightly different selection of enemies, and enough environmental twists to make each level feel unique. Some feature traps, interludes where you ride boats or magic carpets, and environmental hazards. What really makes the levels feel different from one another is the gorgeously rendered backgrounds and their general character. Infiltrating a goblin fortress feels much different from ascending a mage’s tower, traversing an enchanted forest, or exploring a submerged cave, despite the fact that you’re essentially just walking to the right and dispatching enemies on the way.
Your forays into these levels are interspersed with bits of a fantasy story that lies in the exact center between traditional and clichéd. In short, you help to foil a plot against the crown, then defeat an ancient dragon that threatens the realm. It’s more charming in action than on paper, thanks to the fantastic art and sound design. In one of its few additions to the original, Dragon’s Crown Pro adds a live orchestral version of the score. The original score by no means sounds outdated, but the new version adds a slightly fuller feel, making the choice of which to use entirely a matter of preference. The remaster also includes new voices for the chatty narrator, who pops up regularly to comment on the action. There are six new voices, one for each character class, which were originally released as DLC for Dragon’s Crown. They feel a little less consistent than the original narrator overall, but I enjoyed switching between them to match the character I was playing.
Atlus, the game’s publisher, has been touting its graphical upgrade in comparison videos, but it was the least noticeable upgrade for me. Dragon’s Crown looked great for its time because of its art direction, not because of its graphical fidelity. In some ways, its storybook art style helps it age better than any PS3-era attempt at realism. That’s not to say that Dragon’s Crown Pro doesn’t look great. It certainly does, and I was able to appreciate even more of the intricate detail that went into the characters and environments than I was in the original release. It just doesn’t feel like a generational leap.
While I was happy to see the game’s beautiful art make the leap, there are some elements that I wish had been left in 2013. If you remember the controversy around the game’s release or look at basically any image that comes up when you search for “Dragon’s Crown art,” you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you’re unclear, the game goes out of its way to sexualize every woman in it to a completely absurd degree. When the game came out, a lot was made of the muscle fetish look of the Amazon and the considerable gravity-defying magic the Sorceress must be deploying to keep herself upright. Honestly, you’ll hardly notice these details once you’re in the thick of the game’s crowded combat, but good lord, they’re jarring at first. It would be easy enough to overlook if that were the whole problem, but the character models aren’t the biggest issue by a long shot. Within each level, as rewards for completing quests, and even in shops in town, you’re constantly presented with lush illustrations that seem straight out of Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo’s sketchbooks, and I mean that both in terms of their eye-popping quality and their jaw-dropping sexism. Nearly every woman depicted in the game is scantily clad, impossibly proportioned, and usually posed for maximum titillation. You can’t even repair your weapons in town without seeing a tableau that would lead to an extremely embarrassing conversation if someone were to walk into the room while you’re playing. It’s gross, it’s misogynistic, and it’s even less excusable in 2018 than it was in 2013.
You may feel differently about it. Maybe the game’s depiction of women doesn’t hamper your enjoyment, maybe it makes it impossible to play. For me, it sullies an otherwise joyful experience and makes me feel guilty about liking the game. But I do still like it. I’m embarrassed to call myself a fan, but I do still play. That certainly speaks to my position of privilege as a man, but it also speaks to just how great every other aspect of the game is. If you’re able to overlook some pretty vile sexualization to play one of the most well-crafted and inventive brawlers around (and I can’t judge you for doing so -- I’m doing it, too), then Dragon’s Crown Pro is almost certainly what you’re looking for. But maybe wait to play it until your roommate’s not around.