Tag Archives: Vanillaware

Dragon’s Crown Review

dragonscrown02Dragon’s Crown (Available on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1-4
Genre: Action/RPG
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Vanillaware, Atlus
Release Date: August 6th, 2013
PS3 Price: $49.99
PS Vita Price: $39.99

PS3 vs. Vita: There aren’t many differences between the two versions. The Vita version has all of the content found in the home console version. It’s easier to gather around friends and play together with the home console version, though the handheld version is $10 cheaper and the pointer controls feel much more natural on the Vita. The Vita version seems to slow down more frequently during gameplay though, especially in the fights with the Kraken and the Goblin Gate. You can transfer save data between the two versions, though unfortunately cross-buy and cross-play features are not available.

Parent Talk: Dragon’s Crown doesn’t have any blood or gore, but it does have highly sexualized character designs. The character designs are meant to reference Dungeons and Dragons and Weird Tales/Conan the Barbarian, which had very scantily clad characters, but it may make some people feel uncomfortable, especially parents with young children.

Plays like: Classic arcade brawlers with a twist like Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom (and the recently re-released Dungeons and Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara), as well as the Golden Axe series. Dragon’s Crown is a beat ‘em up game at its core, throwing you against hordes of enemies in a semi-2D field, but it has adventure and role-playing elements as well. Also, if you enjoyed Code of Princess, you’ll really love this game.

Review Basis: Completed the Elf campaign, played locally and online, currently on Hard mode, started campaigns with the Fighter, Wizard, and Sorceress.

dragonscrown05

Vanillaware deserves a lot of love, whether or not many gamers know it already. They’ve been keeping 2D gaming alive with excellent titles like Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade (my personal favorite of the bunch). Dragon’s Crown fits squarely in with its forebears, because it thoroughly embraces its 2D heritage and manages to be fresh and interesting at the same time. While Odin Sphere was more of a single-player RPG and Muramasa was more of a Metroidvania-style adventure game, Dragon’s Crown is more of a Golden Axe-like arcade brawler. Yet also like its kin, Dragon’s Crown manages to make itself distinct, thanks to an interesting array of characters and a surprising amount of depth.

The Great:

Wonderful, nostalgic, 2D brawling. Dragon’s Crown is a throwback to classic arcade-style games, but given a modern twist. Part of the game’s charm is that it seems like a mindless, fun, hack-and-slash game at first glance, but hides a layer of depth beneath the surface. Destructoid probably put it best, calling the game a “technical brawler.” It doesn’t have the insane move-set of a typical fighting game, but each character has a unique move-set, a character-specific skill tree, and a wide variety of equipment at his or her disposal. Deciding who to go with and how to spec characters can make your adventure that much more successful.

The Good:

+ Absolutely stunning artwork. Though the character designs drew some ire from people, I’ll go out and defend it: George Kamitani’s artwork is absolutely wonderful and he has a true sense of style. The designs are meant to pay homage to the stylized look of Weird Tales/Conan the Barbarian, Dungeons and Dragons, Golden Axe, and perhaps Record of Lodoss War. I do agree that it’s highly exaggerated, but that’s the point of the characters. I personally prefer the aesthetic of Muramasa more, but that’s because I’m more interested in the Japanese mythology background and characters from that game. No matter which you prefer, it’s impossible to deny that the highly detailed characters and the amazing monsters really show that 2D artwork can still impress in the HD era. The dilapidated ruins, sprawling ruins, ornate castles, and dank waterways feel nostalgic rather than cliché. The characters have a sense of personality and life. The game looks especially beautiful on the Vita’s OLED widescreen. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful game on that system.

+ A diverse cast. There are six playable character types: Elf, Fighter, Amazon, Sorceress, Wizard, and Dwarf. While you cannot customize your character like in some fantasy role-playing games, each character has unique gimmicks. The Fighter has a wide array of sword attacks, can block with his shield, charge through enemies, and perform powerful combination attacks. However, the Wizard can create familiars out of wood and rain down fiery destruction. Each character gets access to a common skill tree as well as a character-specific skill tree. The Elf character, for example, can get access to a larger quiver, a better charged-shot skill, and more. You can build your character differently by focusing on different skills and changing your equipment list. I’ve spent most of my time playing as the Elf character, which is nimble and graceful. She can quickly unload a volley of arrows, but also unleash quick kick attack combos, which makes her a fun character to play.

+ Variety of equipment options. Most beat ‘em up games just set you own your way with a basic weapon and an occasional power-up. That is not the case here. Over the course of the game, you can open chests and get new gear, including weapons, armor, belts, necklaces, greaves, etc. Each piece of gear is ranked between E through S. E ranked gear tends to not offer any perks, while S ranked gear tends to have more passive bonuses. You can even purchase multiple equipment bags so that you can swap out different item sets between levels. You can spec one item list for finding items and increasing your chances of getting great loot. You can have up to 500 pieces of loot in your main equipment list, so you’re never pressured to start selling off your gear. Your equipment actually has a durability gauge as well. If you use your equipment too often, it may break, so you have to go to the shop and repair it. Though you may find that appraising a weapon you found may be the better option.

dragonscrown03

 + Items and power-ups. In addition to the equipment system mentioned above, you can also find limited-use weapons and items, such as crossbows, daggers, and torches. You need torches to ward off ghosts and bombs are needed to blow up secret passages. You can even mount certain monsters and ride them around!

+ Partner system. Even if you’re playing alone, you still have options. You can play locally or online of course, but if you prefer, you can resurrect other characters to help you. If you find bones in a level, you can take them to the local priest and revive them. These partner characters can’t level up or change equipment, so you’re encouraged to manage these partners carefully. Bury the bones if you don’t need to revive them and then part ways with them after you’ve adventured for some time.  If you bury the bones, you may be rewarded with a bonus item as well.

+ Magic system. Of course, the Sorceress and the Wizard have spells at their disposal, but there’s also a rune system as well. You can purchase several runes from the wizard Lucain, who looks suspiciously like Lord of the Ring’s Gandalf.  When you enter a level, you may find inscriptions strewn about the landscape. You can select the runes via a point-and-click style control system and then combine them with your own to cast a variety of spells. By combining specific runes, you can heal your characters, open hidden passages, petrify enemies, and more. After you uncover a rune combination, it will be recorded in Lucain’s rune guide. Sometimes it’s too hectic to select the runes while fighting enemies and renders some of the attack-based rune spells somewhat ineffective, but it’s an interesting mechanic.

+ Multiple pathways, multiple difficulties. When you first play the game, everything is very straightforward. You go through a basic tutorial, undertake a basic quest, and then gradually reach new areas. Once you get far enough, you can get a “second quest” in each area. Once you finally clear each level and get all of the talismans, you can challenge the dragon in the hopes of defeating it and restoring the land. However, that’s just part of your quest. Beating the dragon once clears the game on “Normal” and revives on the goddesses, represented as a statute in the church. You can then play the game again on Hard, and then again on Nightmare, in the hopes of reviving the other goddesses. Your level cap increases on each mode, going from level 35 on Normal, to 65 on Hard, to 99 on Nightmare. I completed the Normal mode in about 15 hours after completing all of the quests, and going through the remaining modes is not a breeze either. The bosses become more challenging and you also gain access to a new labyrinth level, which is basically like a remixed tower consisting of various sections of other levels. Most levels only take about 10 minutes or less to beat, making the game ideal for short bursts of play.

+ Both English and Japanese audio is available.

+ There are multiple color schemes for each character.

+ Continuous play option. Levels don’t take much time to complete, but there’s an interesting hook that comes after beating a stage—you can choose to keep going in the hopes of getting added rewards, but risk becoming worn out. After each stage, you may get a bonus incentive, whether it’s added gold or score bonuses. However, if you use your equipment too long, it might break, making it less effective in combat. You also have to worry about how many life points your characters have, because after a certain amount of revives, you have to start shelling out money to revive your comrades. It’s a careful balancing act. Do you risk braving the next level? Or do you go home and rest, repair your equipment, and prepare for the next adventure? However, you may occasionally get the option to heal between adventures by feasting over the campfire.

+ Quests. Each level already has a secondary path to discover and alternate boss to fight, but you can also revisit levels to satisfy quest objectives. Some quests ask you to defeat a number of enemies, for example. After completing a quest, you get a piece of art with a short story. It’s simple, but rewarding, and may remind many gamers of Lost Odyssey. I became more interested in finishing the quests just to see the various art pieces and stories, rather than getting the quest bonuses and items.

+ Multiplayer. One of the big draws of Dragon’s Crown is the multiplayer. You can easily drop in and out of online plays, making play seamless and quick. I joined a game in a few seconds and experienced no lag whatsoever.  I also played with a friend locally and everything was seamless. You can drop in and drop out in the middle of levels, making joining games less cumbersome.

+ Music. The music is just excellent. Composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, Dragon’s Crown score perfectly fits the fantasy aesthetic. Some of Sakimoto’s work includes Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy Tactics, which should give you an idea of its epic scope.

+ The fantasy landscape. Playing Dragon’s Crown is like reliving a session of Dungeons and Dragon’s mixed with a game of Golden Axe at the same time. The narrator perfectly complements the adventure with lines that make you feel as though you’re experiencing a tabletop adventure. The game play is reminiscent of classic arcade beat ‘em up, but the sparse story segments still manage to have personality and charm thanks to the dungeon master-like proclamations from the narrator. You can even access other narrator voices as well. The adventure is remarkably simple in scope, but that’s what makes it endearing—you have to defeat the dragon and save the land. It’s not bogged down with brooding characters or meandering plot threads.

+ Cross Save option easily lets you transfer your save data between the PS3 and Vita versions. You can upload your save data on one platform and then download the data on the other, so you can pick up where you left off.

dragonscrown04

The Bad:

-The pointer controls on PS3. Controlling Rannie the Thief and activating runes is interesting, but the pointer controls on the PS3 are a bit awkward. It’s not necessarily that bad, and considering that it would otherwise be impossible to control Rannie at the same time, it’s a somewhat necessary evil. Many times, I wouldn’t activate runes or move Rannie until I cleared out enemies because it was difficult to do both, but the runes had attack-focused abilities, thus completely useless by the time I cleared out the enemies. This is a very minor complaint. The Vita version avoids it completely, because the touch controls are significantly quicker and easier.

-Stiffness. Dragon’s Crown is a 2D brawler, but it has a pseudo-3D plane like other arcade brawlers. And like those games, it also can be a bit awkward at first. This was especially problematic when playing as the Elf, when precision is required. Sometimes I would barely miss my arrow strikes because I misjudged the enemy’s hit box. Using the analog stick makes movement a bit easier, but then running became more awkward, because you have to hold the attack button down to run. The d-pad makes running easier (with a simple double tap), but then lining up to attack enemies is a bit trickier. This issue goes away in time and to be fair, it’s just a matter of getting used to the game’s controls and quirks. After some time, I was able to easily land hits.

-Even with the option to replay levels, do quests, and explore hidden routes, the action can get a bit repetitive. You’ll be fighting the same bosses several times, you’ll see the same levels several times, and you’ll have to run through the same challenges. If you play the game with other characters, you’ll have to redo the same challenges and stages. Playing on multiplayer alleviates the tedium and the game does remain fun to play for quite some time, but if you’re on your own, it does drone on a bit.

-Unfortunately, you cannot customize your character’s appearance and equipment doesn’t seem to change the look of the character. Also, there aren’t variations of the characters—if you select the Elf, there’s only the female Elf character, for example. The six characters are very well developed and designed, and the character art is incredibly intricate, so I can understand why they don’t have the added customization options. Still, it would have been nice to have other options for these characters.

-Sadly no Cross Play feature.

dragonscrown06

The Ugly:

Occasional slowdown. This issue was more prevalent on the Vita version, especially during more hectic boss fights like the Kraken. I rarely had this issue with the PS3 version.

The Lowdown:

If you like classic arcade games and are a fan of 2D action, you’ll find a lot to love in Dragon’s Crown. It’s one of the best games of its kind, as a brawler with depth and heart. For a game in this genre to last more than a few hours is a feat in itself, so one that lasts a dozen is a godsend.

Score: 9/10

GrimGrimoire Review

GrimGrimoire (Available on PSN)
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Genre: RTS
Publisher: NIS
Developer: Vanillaware
Release Date: October 4, 2011

Parent Talk: GrimGrimoire is an RTS originally released for the PS2. The PSN download contains that, with no extra content. The game’s colorful aesthetic makes it look like an anime version of Harry Potter, and its content is just as appropriate for children. There’s no bad language or blood. The only hindrance for younger gamers may be the challenge.

Plays Like: StarCraftSwords and Soldiers, and other RTS games.

Review Basis: Finished the PS2 original and the PSN download.

Details: You can read Jarrod’s review of the original here.

What’s This About?

  • GrimGrimoire is a fantasy game set in a wizard academy, which draws immediate parallels with Harry Potter. Protagonist Lillet Blan is an apprentice mage studying different magics under several eccentric professors, including a bearded gentleman named Gammel Dore, Advocat the devil, a woman that summons ghosts and spirits, and an alchemist that turned himself into a mutant lion.
  • The story spans five days, but Lillet must relive them many times until you solve the academy’s mysteries. First, she needs the philosopher’s stone. Then, she must save her new friends from a bound demon and worry about what schemes other characters are cooking up. It’s an interesting cycle.

What’s This Remembered For?

  • Its superb graphics and unique, but compelling gameplay. Vanillaware earned its reputation for delivering the best artwork and character sprites of any developer. Games like Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Odin Sphere have beautifully-animated and extremely vivid art; GrimGrimoire is no exception. Character portraits are large, detailed, and wonderfully colorful. Creature sprites are well-animated and ooze personality. The game’s presentation is spot-on, and looks even better now thanks to the PS3’s smoothing abilities. Despite being a 2007 PS2 release, GrimGrimoire looks more vibrant and fun than many other new titles available on PSN.
  • GrimGrimoire has stayed outside the box in being a fantasy RTS game. It alternates dialoq sequences and battle, so things are simple and straightforward. In battle, you begin with a humble selection of “Grimoires” (magic books) which allow you to summon and command creatures. To defeat the enemy and advance the story, you must harvest crystals for magic energy that amass units to destroy the enemy’s runes. Runes are basically home bases, from which you cast spells. Progressing nets you a wider variety of Grimoires that can be leveled for better units and spells.
  • Balanced and fun. Though it’s an RTS, the formula is optimized for consoles. The large character sprites are easy to manipulate, and it’s quick to select individuals or groups with the D-pad if any are stacked. Vanillaware thought of everything. Units are balanced so every map is a challenge. For example, ghosts (Astral beings) are immune to physical attacks, so you can’t bull rush and expect victory.However, units can be assisted to render them vulerable, such as with the Homunculi’s abilities.

Anything Else You Need to Know?

  • This version is identical to the PS2 game. There’s no extra content, enhancements, or Trophy support.
  • No other visual upgrades were made. No new maps were added either, so you must be happy with what’s there.
  • Battles span about 20 minutes, and the game lasts around 40 hours, thanks to 25 story missions and 25 bonus missions.

Who Should Download This?

For $10, this is a steal. GrimGrimoire was one of the most original and entertaining 2007 games for PS2 and remains to be so. For any strategy game fan, this was worth $50 then, so it’s well-worth $10 now.

 

Muramasa: The Demon Blade Review

Muramasa: The Demon Blade [Wii]
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Developer: Vanillaware
Release Date: September 8th, 2009

As game console technology evolves and improves, game developers can strive to create deeper, more complex worlds.  Some opt for hyper-realism, pushing the envelope of raw power in order to make your TV seem like a window into another dimension.  However what often proves far more breath-taking is a game with beautiful artwork and design.  Muramasa: The Demon Blade is an example, offering unparalleled beauty in its visual presentation.  It’s a shame that the hardcore market ignores Wii software due to the platform’s lack of horsepower compared to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but Muramasa would undoubtedly make you stop and say, “Wow….”

Like Clover’s legendary Okami (incidentally also available on Wii), Muramasa is set against the backdrop of ancient Japan.  The feudal aesthetic makes TDB even more appealing.  Also, similar to Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere, Muramasa emphasizes style over technical prowess.  Yet thankfully, substance is not sacrificed.

The story splits between two distinct characters, Momohime and Kisuke.  Momohime is a girl possessed by a renegade spirit, while Kisuke is an exiled ninja with no memory of his past.  To avoid spoiling anything however, I won’t elaborate any more.  Despite the game’s heavy action focus, there’s a surprising amount of plot and dialogue.  Conversations are carried out in Japanese as well, which lends to the game’s flavor.  Some may sour at the absence of an English dub, and one certainly wouldn’t have hurt, but the native track is beautifully done, so it feels pointless to complain.  Story advancement also partners with the in-game visual engine, so the cut-scenes don’t interrupt the gameplay as drastically as an RPG with elaborate animated or CG cinematics.  Most exchanges are quick too.  You can even enjoy the game without understanding its plot, but it’s refreshing to see the historical fiction angle rather than space science fiction or Western medieval times.  The script is hardly straightforward though; there’s a healthy amount of curve balls.

Now the gameplay, which is simple and fun.  Rather than offering deep combat and RPG character-building, Muramasa instead provides a streamlined experience that blends the classic brawler formula from older classics with new touches.  Combat is easy to handle, and control support extends to the Classic controller and standard Wii-mote/nunchuk combo.  Muramasa is a bit of a masher, but don’t let that turn you off.  Characters can execute basic slashes, slide attacks, uppercuts, dash attacks, combos, and so on.  Each weapon is equipped with a “Secret Art” attack bearing unique effects, though some blades you acquire serve as mere improvements over previous weapons.  Players can even perform quick draw attacks with well-timed weapon switching.  There are dozens of blades to gather, either through story sequences of weapon forging, but only three can be active at one time.  Strengths and weaknesses apply, not to mention passive effects to boot; such as health restoration.  Remember when I mentioned weapon-switching though?  Yeah, that’s crucial…not only to heal sheathed blades with the quick draw, but your arsenal is actually susceptible to breaking.  If that wasn’t enough, swords double as your “keys” to unlock new areas of the map.  There isn’t much else to worry about aside from basic accessory management.  It’s nice to have this simplicity though; it keeps the gameplay well-paced.  The characters gain experience and level up, but you’re not concerned with distributing points or do excessive grinding.

Weapon forging is perhaps of the highest importance.  By acquiring enough spirits and becoming fit to wield a particular blade, players can gain new ones.  Characters can also cook to restore health, provided they have the necessary ingredients and cooking manuals to understand how to make a dish.  Or you can choose the “fast food” route by visiting a food stand, though vendors are happy to sell meal stock.  You do all this while exploring a vast, 2D side-scrolling world.  In that sense, Muramasa feels like classic Super Metroid, which is always a plus.  But while Metroid focuses more on exploration and finding secrets, Muramasa is more concerned with throwing hordes of enemies at you and progressing the story.  That factor helps to set the game apart from the rest of the pack, so it comes off as homage to the classics, rather than a clone.

The difficulty is manageable on the default “Muso” mode, but those looking to up the challenge can tackle “Shura.”  Even on “Muso”, battles can prove somewhat frustrating, particularly when facing high numbers in demons’ nests. However, enough leveling up and some fast fingers can overcome anything.  Some criticize Muramasa for lacking strategy, but the game is too fun to consider it an issue.  The map is large in size, so the game world is extensive, and the characters’ stories are noticeably different, even though they share the landscape.  This gives the game some more length.  However, tedium does rear its head with regards to the backtracking, which extends the campaign without offering anything new.  It’s annoying to travel back through areas.  Players can use mirror items to teleport back to save points, but some are placed immediately before boss rooms.  This in no way kills your enjoyment, and it’s the only issue I really had.

What needs to be said is that Muramasa is one of Wii’s biggest visual showcases.  The gorgeous design makes for a jaw-dropping experience with intricately-detailed and colorful backgrounds.  The my only criticisms are the reuse of a few backdrops, and some enemies are repeated, but there’s also plenty of diversity.  From city streets lined with cherry blossom trees to snowy hills and sunny fields, there’s a lot to take in.  It’s a marvelous tribute to how fantastic 2D artwork can be, and challenges the misconception that games have to achieve virtual reality to be worthwhile.  The music is also wonderfully done, with a scintillating arrangement of tunes that bring to mind the feudal Japanese era, although some songs are influenced by modern music (for example, one fight theme features rock guitar).  The voice work is also incredible, with a great Japanese track to bring the characters and game world to life, while instilling it with a sense of authenticity.  Again, the best comparison in this capacity is Okami, and Muramasa is no slouch.  It’s difficult to fault the game at all here.

As far as single-player action games go, Muramasa offers a hefty value that’s borderline irresistible.  With an impressive adventure to start with, two distinct characters to play, and 108 blades to collect, you’re looking at 20+ hours, which is great for the genre.  Then of course there’s the amazing visual presentation, beautiful music, and great level of polish.  Wii owners looking for a sweet hardcore experience simply need to buy this, or have their status as a gamer revoked.

Scoreboard:

Story: 8/10

Gameplay: 8.5/10

Control: 9/10

Graphics: 9.5/10

Sound: 10/10

Value: 8.5/10

Overall (Not an average): 9/10

Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii) First Impressions

First of all, WOW. The visuals just pop out and everything is really gorgeous. Obviously the Wii isn’t HD, but I have my console hooked up to a 47″ LCD HDTV via component cable (480p) and it still looks friggin’ fantastic. Some of the backgrounds seem to be repeated, but it doesn’t appear to be a big problem. In the first couple hours of play, I’ve gone from plains, to forests, to city streets lined with cherry blossoms, and more. All of the backgrounds are incredibly intricate and colorful. A clear step up from Odin Sphere, and that’s impressive. I wonder what Vanillaware could have done if they had a bigger budget and put the game in HD on a more powerful console…but I digress, Muramasa for the Wii is a really beautiful game, and it wasn’t too expensive to produce either.

Combat is pretty easy. The tutorial made me think it would be a little more complex to handle, but so far I’ve just been able to “mash” the attack button and get through most any fight unscathed. Not sure how I feel about that–on one hand, I kind of expect some fights to be difficult enough to require some tactics, but on the other hand, the controls and combat might just be fluid enough where I simply don’t notice it, lol. You can do slide attacks, uppercuts, dash attacks, combos, and “Secret Arts.” You can also swap between three blades on the fly. During combat, regular wear (as well as blocking and reflecting attacks) will eventually cause your weapon to break. You can quickly swap it for another blade, while your sheathed blade will ‘heal.’ Another cool feature is that if you unsheathe your sword at the right moment, you can do a Quick Draw attack–which is basically a screen-filling attack. You can equip one accessory in addition to your weapons. Also, you can forge new blades in addition to acquiring weapons from the bosses. Each blade seems to act like a kind of key. They allow you to break barriers, giving you access to new areas. In that sense, it’s a little like Super Metroid, which is always cool with me. Actually…it almost feels a little like Metroid and Ninja Gaiden put together. I other reviews I’ve read of it, the complaints I’ve heard mostly pertain to the layout—more specifically, to the fact that you aren’t really transported back after boss battles, which requires more backtracking. Now, I’ve only played for a little bit, so I can’t quite see how far the map extends, but it does seem like a sizable adventure.

The music is pretty beautiful. It’s a wonderful arrangement of tunes that fit with the feudal Japanese era (some songs are a little more modern), but in general, the music really brings to mind something out of Japanese myth—or otherwise refer to Okami for the next best comparison. I find it interesting that Nintendo has both this and Okami, which are rather intriguing portrayals of Japanese mythology. So far, I’ve experienced the story of Kisuke. He’s a renegade ninja with amnesia (OMG!), who carries six skulls along with him. Apparently he is considered a traitor and the six skulls he carries were ninjas from Iga that had accompanied him on a prior mission. I have not yet played as Momohime. I do dig the fact that the game has Japanese voice work with English subtitles. I do think it certainly wouldn’t have hurt to have an English dub option available, just because I know personally some people don’t really care to read in an action game—which I feel sorry about, because it’s a rather minimal issue.

I’m very excited for the rest of the game and so far, I don’t have much of anything negative to say about the experience. The visuals are some of the best on the Wii, especially considering the fantastic art direction, the music is well done, and the gameplay brings to mind lots of gaming classics.  Expect a review from COE soon!