Video Game Review: Dragon’s Crown [PS3/PS Vita]

Dragon's Crown [PS3/PS Vita]

Dragon’s Crown
System: PS Vita/PS3
Genre: Action RPG beat ’em up
Developer: Vanillaware & Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Price: $49.99 (PS3), $39.99 (Vita)
Release Date: August 6, 2013

Dragon’s Crown is a stylish throwback to the old school beat ’em ups that once ruled the gaming world (think Golden Axe). In a genre that has struggled to maintain relevance in recent years, this latest offering from Vanillaware & Atlus feels like a breath of fresh air. By adding RPG elements to the classic brawler gameplay, the end result is one of the most enjoyable (and surprisingly in-depth) gaming experiences of the year.

The core of the game consists of side-scrolling hack ‘n slash action. There are six different characters — Fighter, Amazon, Wizard, Elf, Dwarf and Sorceress — to choose from, all of which are completely unique and offer their own brand of gameplay. The most popular choices seem to be the Amazon and Sorceress, but I opted for the Dwarf for my first playthrough. What can I say — I was feeling nostalgic for Gilius Thunderhead from the Golden Axe series.

The Dwarf’s biggest asset is his massive strength, and he has the ability to pick up enemies and throw them across the screen. These traits are quite useful, and they work especially well when paired with some of the other characters. The game is at its best when four players, all of different classes, are working together to annihilate whatever is on screen.

Dragon's Crown [PS Vita/PS3, 2013]

Each character can be upgraded with new combat techniques, increased health, etc. by gaining XP through the game’s campaign. There are a total of nine stages that can eventually be unlocked to play through at your whim. This may not sound like much, but each level has alternate routes, hidden rooms and diverse enemies, making each trip feel different than the last.

The stages are also wildly distinct from each other in terms of design. Underground caves, abandoned temples and fortresses are just a handful of locations you will come across. These areas always have randomized content in the form of both loot and enemies, and they culminate with some truly epic boss battles. These big fights are a major highlight, and they make each playthrough immensely rewarding.

Another addition meant to encourage multiple romps through each level comes in the form of side quests. These can be anything from killing a certain amount of an enemy type to finding a specific hidden room that is only accessible via rune magic. These are all completely optional missions, but they deliver huge XP bonuses and are usually quite fun to seek out.

Dragon's Crown [PS Vita/PS3, 2013]

As mentioned before, the levels can be played through at your discretion, but only after clearing the initial run through the first half of the game’s storyline. Once this is complete, however, the game really opens up, and it unlocks the ability to play online. This is where Dragon’s Crown positively shines.

While the game can be played — and enjoyed — solo, it’s even better when playing with others. The AI partners are decent, but nothing beats working together with a few friends. When connected online, other players can jump in and out of your campaign, immediately taking over control of an AI character. You also have the ability to join a random room and help others. The transition to online play is seamless, and it’s incredibly easy to sync up with friends.

Now, this wouldn’t be a proper Dragon’s Crown review without discussing its controversial art style. Ever since the game was announced two years ago, there has been a bit of an uproar in some circles about the hyper-sexualized visuals. This is an understandable concern, especially since the Amazon and Sorceress characters in particular both constantly seem on the verge of busting out of their tops. On the flip side, the men are mostly covered from head-to-toe, aside from the beefy, bare-chested Dwarf. Although I agree that some of the women are ridiculously designed, the overall art style is absolutely gorgeous. The hand-drawn visuals are stunning with smooth animations, and they remind me a lot of classic fantasy illustrations. I do not have a problem with this artwork — in fact, this is easily one of the most beautiful beat ’em ups I have ever come across — but of course, your mileage may vary.

Dragon's Crown [PS Vita/PS3, 2013]

Dragon’s Crown is available for both PS3 and PS Vita, and the two versions are nearly identical. The Vita version suffers from occasional slowdown during some of the more intense battles, but this is outweighed by the nifty touch screen features. The PS3 requires using the right analog stick to point a cursor on screen, whereas the Vita only requires a simple touch. The bite-sized levels are also perfect for the handheld, and I found myself playing on the Vita more often. However, the PS3 does have an advantage in that offers local co-op. Unfortunately, this isn’t a Cross Buy (or Cross Play) title, but characters can still be shared between the two systems using the cloud save function. You can’t go wrong with either version, so it comes down to a matter of preference (and convenience).

Dragon’s Crown isn’t exactly re-inventing the wheel here, but it is offering a refreshing and incredibly well-executed spin on one of the classic gaming genres. With so many quests and ways to play each stage, there is plenty of replay value. Completing a campaign with one character unlocks a brand new one at an increased difficulty — all things considered, there are upwards of 120 hours of potential gaming here if you were to play through every difficulty level with every character. And with such infectious, easy to pick up and play gameplay, that is certainly possible for any dedicated gamer. Don’t be surprised if this shows up in my Top 5 list at the end of the year.


(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Video Game Review: Bloodrayne: Betrayal [XBLA, 2011]

Bloodrayne: Betrayal [XBLA, 2011]

Bloodrayne: Betrayal
System: Xbox 360 (also available on PS3)
Publisher: Majesco
Developer: WayForward
Release Date: September 7, 2011

It’s been a while since I have both equally loved and hated a video game like I do with Bloodrayne: Betrayal. I haven’t played either of the series’ first two games (both on PS2/Xbox) or seen Uwe Boll’s critically-despised movie adaptations, but this is not important since Betrayal represents a ‘reboot’ of sorts for the titular character.

First and foremost, Bloodrayne: Betrayal is a 2D side-scrolling beat ’em up with platforming elements, and its gameplay harkens back to gaming classics such as the early Castlevania titles. I also noticed similarities to the Contra series, both of which are personal favorites of mine. I am a sucker for old school throwbacks, and Betrayal almost feels like a modernized remake of a long lost title from that era, right down to its extreme difficulty.

Seriously, this is one of the most punishing games I have played in a while. There are some downright brutal spots in the game that made me want to smash my controller, a feeling that I have not had in ages. The beat ’em up gameplay is not so bad once you get the hang of it, but there are some insanely tricky platforming sections that cause a significant amount grief. Two chapters in particular are especially difficult due to having to time Rayne’s jumps perfectly while dodging enemies and buzzsaws at the same time. Chapter 13 alone is the stuff of nightmares. Needless to say, this game isn’t for the faint of heart.

I felt pretty damn proud of myself to complete some of the more challenging levels, but when I was finished the game gave me an “F” rating every time, calling me “worm food” in the process. Talk about demoralizing. Yet like a good little gamer, I kept coming back for more, and continued to get better as I went along. Finding hidden skulls in each level can provide increases in health and weapon supplies, and this helps out a little bit. I also noticed a significant improvement in my performance while revisiting earlier levels, which was certainly a good feeling.

The game has fifteen chapters in all, and it rewards playing through them multiple times in order to find the aforementioned skulls and to obtain a higher score, just like the good ol’ days. There are a decent variety of enemies, some simple and others disgusting, and Rayne has access to a good amount of combat moves/tricks.

Even if you can tolerate the game’s harder-than-usual difficulty like myself, Betrayal is not without flaws. For one, the in-game tutorials are not helpful at all. In one of the early chapters, I got stuck at a part where I had to jump on the heads of enemy flies in order to reach a higher point. Well, the tutorial never popped up for me so I had no clue how to actually land on them without falling back down. After some trial and error, I found a helpful moves list in the menu, but it would have been nice to see this pop up like it was supposed to.

Another issue I had was with the sometimes spotty controls. This was most noticeable while going through some of the platforming areas since they require extreme precision to complete. I cannot count how many times I died just because Rayne’s animation pushed her over a little farther than anticipated. Thankfully checkpoints are common, as every little bit helps here. Also, there were moments where it seemed the game was more difficult than it needed to be simply because Rayne’s animations would take too long and allow enemies to get in some cheap hits while she was down. If you are quick enough, you can find a way around this, but it takes some time to get the hang of it.

Bloodrayne: Betrayal [XBLA, 2011]

Still, even though Rayne’s animations can sometimes take a little long to complete, it must be said that the game is absolutely gorgeous. The visuals are done in a style similar to anime, and they are a definite highlight of the game. Animations are fluid, and combat can get obscenely violent at times; this makes for some joyous eye candy on screen. Blood flies out of enemies (and Rayne herself, if you are not careful), and occasionally spurts out Kill Bill-style. It’s a blast to look at, and it helps that the game is backed by an incredible soundtrack that sounds a hell of a lot like what was used in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It’s a good fit for this title, and aesthetically the game is hard to top.

How much you will like Bloodrayne: Betrayal comes down to how difficult you like your games. If you grew up on the Castlevania and Contra games of yore, you will feel right at home here. If you are instantly turned off to a game if you struggle to get through a level, then this likely isn’t for you. With some tweaks here and there, Bloodrayne: Betrayal could have been a more consistently great adventure, but it still worth looking into if you’re up for a good challenge.


Video Game Review: Unbound Saga [Xbox 360, 2010]

Unbound Saga [Xbox 360, 2010]

Unbound Saga
System: Xbox 360 [Xbox Live Arcade]
Publisher: Vogster Entertainment, LLC
Developer: Vogster
Release Date: December 1, 2010

Originally a downloadable PSP title, Unbound Saga was ported over to Xbox Live a year later with a few differences (most notably the addition of a co-op mode). The game is a simple, mindless side-scrolling beat ’em up that draws heavily from the classic 1995 Sega Genesis title, Comix Zone. You play as either Rick Ajax, a juiced-up musclehead, or Lori Machete, a mysterious woman, both of whom are aware that they are in a comic book (kind of like the great Duck Amuck cartoon). Your job is to brawl your way through ten stages in order to meet “The Maker” – the guy who is drawing the enemies on screen.

Unbound Saga bares more than a passing resemblance to the aforementioned Comix Zone. In fact, this almost feels like a full-on tribute. There are obstacles that need to be kicked and punched in order to move to the next panel (thankfully this doesn’t hurt your character this time), and there’s even a rat running around during loading screens. The game also has a lackadaisical sense of humor throughout, which is refreshing. This humor is most prevalent in the handful of enemies thrown at you, whether they are homeless people who think you stole someone’s liver or bears wearing aprons. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the game is genuinely funny, but its lighter tone is appreciated.

Unbound Saga [Xbox 360, 2010]

Although the basic gameplay is the same as most beat ’em up titles, Unbound Saga has a certain amount of depth that helps it stand out. Strong in-game performances will earn you skill points which in turn can be used to learn new combos and improve the overall attributes for both characters. This sort of leveling up system is a nice addition, and it adds to the replay value since it encourages multiple playthroughs.

Unfortunately, while the overall gameplay style is tried and true, there are some problems. For one, the controls are often sluggish. Rick, in particular, is difficult to move around, and he sometimes struggles to make contact with what is seemingly right in front of him. There were also times when I would have the analog stick pointed in one direction while spamming the attack buttons, yet Rick would remain facing the opposite way. This type of issue allows the enemies (and there are lots of ’em later on) to get in some cheap shots, and this gets very frustrating. The controls could have really been fine-tuned some more.

Repetition is also an issue, although that is somewhat expected with the genre. The game is pretty much the same from beginning to end, with little in the way of surprises. A bit disappointing, but not out of the ordinary.

Unbound Saga [Xbox 360, 2010]

In essence, Unbound Saga is what it is. This is a mindless brawler with a fun comic book setting that borrows heavily from an even better game, Comix Zone. Some control and repetition issues keep the game from realizing its potential, but it is still worth playing through on a lazy afternoon. If you are a fan of the genre and see the game on sale, it is worth a look. It is difficult to recommend it at its current price (800 MSP), however.


Retro Game Review: Golden Axe [Genesis, 1989]

Golden Axe [Genesis, 1989]

Golden Axe
System: Sega Genesis
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega
Release Date: December 22, 1989

Golden Axe is a side scrolling beat ’em up game, one of many released during the 16-bit heyday. What sets Golden Axe apart from the rest is its medievil setting with memorable characters including the legendary Gilius F’N Thunderhead, a badass dwarf with an axe to grind. There are two other characters, a barbarian musclehead with a sword, and a beefy Amazonian babe who wears a tiny bikini. Played either solo or with a friend, these warriors have eight stages to hack & slash their way through, all in the name of saving the princess and slaying the EVIL Death Adder.

The game is simple enough, with the best method being to hack away and use attainable magic sparingly. Enemies are a dime a dozen as you fight through skeletons, knights and other annoyances. Every stage results in an epic boss battle, and they get increasingly more difficult as the game goes on. Occasionally enemies pop up riding on dragons and other beasts — these can be knocked off and used for your own gain. While pretty formulaic throughout, Golden Axe is very well-polished and still holds up today. There are some unique levels included, such as one that takes place on the back of a flying bird (falling off = instant death).

On top of the regular game mode, there is a beginner option for those looking for a quick and easy fix, as well as a Duel mode that pits you against rounds of increasingly more difficult enemies. But really, the coup de grace is battling through the adventure with a friend. Although Golden Axe tends to show its age today, especially with its laughable sound effects, its general gameplay holds up well. This is a classic beat ’em up with a well-deserved legacy.


Golden Axe

The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai [Xbox 360, 2009]

The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai

The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai
System: Xbox 360
Developer: Ska Studios
Release Date: April 1, 2009

The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai is a side-scrolling beat ’em up with a distinct art style that heavily emphasizes blood and violence. You play as a dishwasher (go figure) who was captured by cyborgs; now it is your duty to murder countless enemies in order to take out the head of the Cyborg army. A handful of comic-style scenes help flesh out the story, but it is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The Dishwasher is all about destroying your enemies in the most brutal ways possible (typically with a convenient fatality button after you wear them down).

At the beginning of the game, the dishwasher character is fairly weak and has nothing but meat cleavers to use as weapons. By continuing to kill enemies and progress through the game, you can unlock the abilities to obtain new weapons (swords, guns and even chainsaws) and you can use experience points to increase your health and skill levels. Most game stages provide multiple ways to get to the end as well, and the freedom to do so is certainly welcome. An odd little addition to the campaign is the presence of guitar rhythm mini-games, even giving you the option to play them with Rock Band peripherals. This guitar feature also provides one of the most hilarious Xbox achievements I have ever seen (the “Peter Moore” award). I love that this game doesn’t take itself seriously, it makes it even more rewarding.

On top of the fairly lengthy story campaign, there is a large arcade mode in which you go through a number of brief stages just slaughtering enemies in order to get the high score. It’s a nice way to add replay value.

There are a couple of potential problems that need to be brought up. One, The Dishwasher is very, very difficult. I am ashamed to say it, but I even struggled a little bit at times on Easy mode. Considering that is the lowest of four difficulties, that’s saying something. I embraced this level of challenge, but other gamers may not. Two, as is the case with many beat ’em ups, the game does occasionally get repetitive. However, every time I felt myself getting tired of the gameplay, I came across something else (i.e. the aforementioned guitar mini-game or a badass boss battle) to reinvigorate my interest.

The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai has the distinction of winning the Xbox Dream-Build-Play contest and for becoming the first community “indie” game to be promoted to a full-fledged XBLA title. This promotion is undoubtedly deserved, as I greatly enjoyed playing through the game. The Dishwasher provides a surprisingly large amount of replay value, and it is one that I can see myself revisiting many times in the future. Although some may let the difficulty and occasional monotony dampen their experience, I found the game to be more than satisfying. For $10, The Dishwasher is a bargain. At half price, it is an outright steal.