Ah, the plight of the first-world gamer: I own too many games. I own more games than I will ever beat; indeed, perhaps I own more games than I will ever play. And yet, paradoxically, the drive to acquire yet more games remains.
While this problem is especially prevalent in my Steam collection (as Steam sales are explicitly designed to encourage impulse buys in gamers), I am occasionally beset by the desire to impulsively purchase a console game.
Such was the case this weekend.
I took my boyfriend to our local gamers’ mecca to sample its nerdtastic delights. While there, though I had promised myself to buy no more games until I had finished at least a few that I was already playing, I happened upon a copy of Dragon’s Crown for the PS3, a Vanillaware game published by my favorite game publisher, ATLUS.
Now, I absolutely loved Vanillaware’s previous-generation offering, Odin Sphere. This game was easily one of my favorite pieces of software for the PS2. It had a fun, original battle system, a really interesting plot touching upon Norse mythology, beautiful hand-painted sprites, and a race of bunnies. What’s not to like?
It also had some really unique mechanics that I have not encountered in a game before or since. Game levels were “spheres” rather than linear – you started at an entrance, moved forward through a level that was linear in appearance, then came back to the beginning. Magic is powered through absorbing the souls of your enemies, and this also levels up your spells. And then my favorite wacky mechanic: your hit points level up through eating food that you grow by planting seeds. Some of these seeds grow delicious sheep fruit. Once the sheep are ripe, they hop off of the plant and walk away. You then must chase them, attack them, and then they turn into meat. I did not make any of this up.
So when I heard that Vanillaware was coming out with a fantasy action RPG for the PS3, I was pretty excited about it, but I never got around to picking up a copy, mostly because I never actually saw any copies for sale and forgot about it. Until this weekend, when I found a used copy at my local game store.
Of course, then I got up to the register and realized I had left my wallet at home. Luckily for me, my heroic boyfriend purchased the game in my stead, and then later refused to let me pay him back, because he is as stubborn as he is sweet. To be fair, I suppose he got to play the game, too, but still.
Part of the reason I was so excited about the game is that it is a co-op fantasy action-RPG, and now that I have acquired a boyfriend with whom it is really fun to play games (because he both likes RPGs almost as much as I do and is patient with me when we play games at which I patently suck), I rather enjoy co-op games. We’ve been playing a lot of Divinity: Original Sin (a game that I would highly recommend as an excellent example of turn-based co-op done right), but it’s nice to have something a little more action-oriented for a change.
So. Dragon’s Crown. First of all, this game is beautiful. Vanillaware’s characteristic hand-painted sprites are on full display, and as usual, they are a joy to behold. They’re even nicer in HD than they were in the PS2 generation.
I do have to point out, however, that some of these sprites are…awkward. For instance, feast your eyes upon the mighty, meaty thighs of the Amazon, one of your six character choices.
Hmm. Yeah. I don’t really have words for that. My boyfriend did, though. And I quote: “Her butt looks like it is made of tumors.”
And then there is the Sorceress and her…uh, bouncing, bountiful bosoms? Seriously, check out her running animation.
The Sorceress has got nothing on Morgan the magic shop owner, though. Her bosoms are, quite literally, heaving.
Now, to be fair, these…shall we say, extreme physicalities are not exclusive to the women, which makes me somewhat less uncomfortable about them. For instance, the Dwarf looks like he overdosed on elephant steroids.
So it’s pretty clear that this was a stylistic choice, though occasionally a slightly creepy one. I’m still on the fence as to whether I ought to be offended by the weird objectification precisely because it is so weird. Tumor Butt the Amazon isn’t exactly oozing sex appeal, after all (though Lady Bigboobs certainly is…in a disturbingly enormous, heaving sort of way).
So…whatever. The sprites are weird, but still quite lovely, and the watercolor world which they inhabit is simply stunning.
When you select a stage, the map rotates around in a swirl of layered backgrounds that is beautiful to behold. I kept moving the cursor back and forth between stages because I enjoyed watching the map move so much. The lovely visuals are what really sell this game.
The gameplay, while certainly competent, has so far lacked the unique luster with which its predecessor Odin Sphere glimmered. My boyfriend and I were prompted to make characters, choosing from six different classes. Some of the classes are pretty straightforward – the fighter fights, the wizard…wizards? – but some are less clear. I chose as my class the Elf, which as those of us who play Dungeons & Dragons know, is typically a race, not a class. In this case, the Elf seems to be essentially a Ranger class, shooting bows and casting elemental magic. Character creation is otherwise very basic: you get to choose your color palette and your name, and that’s about it.
Speaking of Dungeons & Dragons, that’s exactly what playing this game reminded me of. The game’s story is not told by voice actors voicing dialogue; it is instead narrated by a single voice telling the story in exactly the sort of manner in which I used to tell the story when I dungeon-mastered 4e D&D. The narrator narrates you through a tutorial (which only Player One gets to play through for some reason, even if you have two controllers active), and then narrates you through quests, dungeons, and even shopping. It’s sort of a charming idea, really, and the narrator in question has quite a soothing voice.
The basics of the game are D&D-like as well: you take quests, you slay enemies, you find treasure, you level up. Your characters are upgraded through skill-trees visualized as cards, which is pretty cool and fairly in-depth.
It’s neat to pick out skills to customize your character, choosing which skills to activate and which to upgrade, while resigning others to obscurity.
This attention to skills is a pity because (at least at a mere three and a half hours into the game), most battles are won by jumping a lot and mashing the basic attack button. Now, mind you, this is fun; boyfriend said it reminded him a lot of Golden Axe (and what’s not to love about Golden Axe?), but it can occasionally become difficult to see what’s going on. Most battles very quickly devolve rapidly into a blurry, hard-to-follow mess.
Because the sprites are so large, they crowd the screen while moving at speed, making it very difficult to track which one is yours. This is made worse by the fact that the Guildmaster back in town “helpfully” sends random extra party members along whenever you head into a dungeon, whether you wanted them or not. If the Guildmaster sent along party members that were the same class as either my boyfriend or myself, we had a ton of trouble telling our sprites apart from the AI-controlled sprites in the heat of battle. We recruited an Amazon and a Sorceress right before we stopped playing for the night, though, so maybe things will be easier to track if we have Tumor Butt and Jiggle Tits along for the ride. They’ll be hard to mistake for our more normal-looking sprites, Tiny Elf and The Goddamn Tank.
“Normal” in this case being very relative – The Goddamn Tank has an elbow three times larger than his head.
As much as I enjoyed slaughtering goblins and riding wyverns with my boyfriend, we started to get a little bored with the repetitive nature of the gameplay. I am hoping that things might get more interesting as more story and more gameplay mechanics are revealed, but time will tell.
In the meantime, I’m thinking that Tiny Elf and The Goddamn Tank would be a great band name.