When unveiled for the first time, Dragon’s Dogma raised some eyebrows on account of being an RPG with a distinctly western vibe, from a distinctly eastern developer. Those familiar with Capcom’s Monster Hunter franchise and its epedemic status in Japan may have been slightly less surprised by this; and whilst there are certainly shades of one on the other, the worldwide launch of Dragon’s Dogma shows that this time they mean business about getting everyone on board. So just how does it do?
Game: Dragon’s Dogma
Dragon’s Dogma opens with an otherwise sleepy fishing village being set upon by a dragon; and not just any old fire breathing menace, but one of apocalyptic scale and ferocity. Quite rightly, most folk take this as sufficient warning to run for the hills, whereas our hero decides to take up arms against it, and is consequently left floundering about for dear life shortly after getting its attention and managing to lodge a sword in its hand. Instead of killing you outright, the dragon speaks to you in a foreign and ominous tongue, only to slice you open and then remove your still-beating heart, which it proceeds to swallow before you as your vision wanes. What should be the end of the tale is but the beginning though, as rather wearily you awake days later; scarred, heartless, and branded by townsfolk as “the Arisen” as you embark on a quest to find and slay the dragon.
With a mute lead character like this it’s often hard to drive a player to get behind a quest with such a personal motive, and it is something the game struggles with at times. Despite the dramatic origins of your tale, it’s not long before your focus blurs and leads you down the stereotypical path of adventurer for hire; running rather banal fetch quests, escorting timid NPCs through hostile territory and the like, but at least when you do get the focus back on the story, it’s well told enough to keep you engaged. Other characters become familiar along the way, and their plights intertwine nicely with your own; often it’s these that give a far more defined purpose to your character. As to be expected with a role playing game, there are some significant decisions to make along the way that shape certain outcomes, and it’s a relief to share that these are typically in varying shades of grey as opposed to basely polarised “good” and “bad” options. The writing in general is in a “Ye Olde English” vein and rather on the clichéd and repetitive side, but not in any newly offensive way – just a in a predictable and rather underwhelming way.
It’s unlikely that the world of Gransys will offer anything new to well-trained eyes – there’s lots of hills, mountains, caves, castles, dungeons and the like to explore, and plenty of goblins, wolves, harpies, bandits, skeletons, lizard-men and so on to wander about inside them – but there is still an impressive measure of quality in each of these tried and tested designs. Much bigger fanfare is deserved of the larger scale enemies – of which there are plenty – as the attention to detail and movement here is just as strict, and much more immediately evident when your foe is four times taller than you. Griffons beat their wings and swoop with convincing gravitas, Chimeras pounce, roll, run and bite with intimidating conviction, and Cyclopes blindly thrash about when staggered – it’s all wondrous to behold even before exploring the numerous degrees of interacting with it all. As well as having major gameplay implications, the passage of time is often quite breath-taking too – it’s entirely likely you’ll stop dead in your tracks the first time you witness the sun come up, no matter how pressing the task at hand.
Easy on the eye as it may be, the game does bear the standard hallmarks of an ambitious team working with an aging console cycle though, with the odd occurance of screen tear, and quite frequent and often severe slowdown dogging a number of sections of the game. Thankfully the game’s far from ever being unplayable, and this doesn’t seem to have been cause for the action to be cut back in fear of losing face – it’s still commonplace for large numbers of enemies to gather on screen if you manage to sufficiently provoke a large group. Cut scenes are all sufficiently handled through the in-game engine, where despite the heavy range of customisation available, there’s little to break the atmosphere bar any particularly outlandish style choices you make along the way. There’s been a rather curious design choice to letterbox the entire game – one whose intention is not especially clear.
Whilst there’s plenty of excellent scene-setting music throughout, anyone expecting nought but a po-faced instrumental soundtrack will have the shock of their life booting the game up for the first time. Legendary J-rockers B’z are on opening theme duty, and whilst a calm piano intro hides their intentions as you admire the title screen, you’ve only about 20 seconds – not enough time to make it past the menu – before all of that is out of the window in favour of speedy, cheese-heavy riffage. In terms of first impressions, it’s a bold, memorable, and a great way to get you pumped up. Even though in game you’re unlikely to find even a trace of a guitar, there’s still plenty to get you going though, as the music is quite organically scaled in a frenetic sense alongside the action you lead, doing a good job of conveying to you just how alert you should be.
Voice work isn’t quite as natural unfortunately, and whilst they’ve often worthwhile information to share, your team mates’ dialogue is definitely one of the more jarring aspects of the game – constantly repeating simple lines, shouting over one another, and over-dramatising the most trivial of matters being some of the more obvious turn-offs. NPCs too are cursed with generally unhelpful and otherwise unconvincing lines, and have equally shallow voice work to back them up. Despite the lack of any particularly inspirational dialogue, the more significant characters in the game are voiced well however, just unfortunately not called upon with the same frequency as the more repetetive denizens.
With the team behind it being assembled of Capcom staffers with a pedigree of Devil May Cry and the like, it’s of no surprise that the highlight of the game lies in the combat. With no lock-on system to mention, and a fairly straightforward light/heavy attack setup it’s easy to let first impressions convince you the combat system is shallow, but a little digging reveals there’s plenty of depth to be had. As is the nature of an open-world adventure, battles can take place anywhere out in the open, with wandering mobs ranging from simple sword fodder to gigantic monsters, all of whom can be encountered or ran from at your leisure/displeasure. The number of foes on each side lends itself to quite a generally cinematic approach to battle, often aided by a sweeping dramatic camera that will slow the action to pan in on certain key actions. One of the more subtle attacks in your arsenal – the grab – often leads to such moments, as it will often allow you to restrain a smaller foe for a friend to stab, or for larger foes it gives you the opportunity to clamber onto them and then climb about, searching for an effective place to strike. There’s more than a shade of Shadow of the Colossus here, but given how well it builds on this it’s easily promoted beyond the ranks of pale immitation, and deserves to be lauded as a wonderful piece of homage in its stead.
There’s three basic starter classes (fighter, striker, mage) and a further 6 variants on these, that each allow you a specific set of weapons, armour, skills, passive abilities and the like to equip. The rather blunt truth behind all of this is that not every class can handle every situation, and without a mix of classes and well thought out skills, it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself going far. With this in mind you might expect party composition to be a straightforward exercise, but instead it’s handled in a deliciously unique manner; inclusive of the Arisen you command a team of four, with a ‘main pawn’ and two recruited ‘support pawns’ making up the full quota. Your main pawn is yours to create and shape, remaining with you at all times, and requiring continued maintenance in terms of gear and skills – just as with your own character. By playing the game online though they also then become available for other players to recruit into their game as a support pawn, and you to theirs vice-versa.
Pawns have plenty to learn – methods for tackling certain enemies, locations of safe places to rest, who might be a good point of reference for a quest – and this is all remembered (and documented for quick searching) regardless of in whose world it happened, meaning it’s not uncommon for a pawn to bellow out an enemy’s weakness for you on the very first time you’ve ever encountered it, provided they’ve seen another Arisen deal with the foe efficiently before. Enemy design in particular highlights that this has long been a design consideration, with most foes having exploitable weaknesses or methods that an experienced pawn can pick on with ease – a Cyclops, for instance, is easily toppled by clinging to its leg, but dispatched even quicker if you can reach onto his shoulder and make him knock his own helmet off to then let loose a volley of arrows into his eye. An ogre on the other hand, will quickly throw you off if you try and climb it, but can be sheperded off ledges once you realise that they are excited and drawn to the sight of women.
To avoid spoiling your own progression by cherry-picking top tier pawns, a scheme for hiring and associated fees aim to balance things out; similar-leveled pawns are free to hire, whereas those drastically outside your own level are available at a cost – one that’s paid via a seperate in-game currency to the rest of your goods. These ‘rift crystals’ are easiest gained by getting others to hire your pawn – an amount which is then paid regardless of whether or not your pawn’s services cost the related player anything. As well the knowledge and currency that comes back, you’ve the option of sending items and leaving ratings too, again backed up by comprehensive logging and search options to narrow down appropriate matches for your current dilemmas. It’s a remarkably forward-thinking system; one that employs the ideals of social networking and co-operative play in a detached, but commendably flexible manner that also avoids many of the pitfalls of online gaming.
The game world itself is vast but quite disappointingly barren; only a small handful of towns and villages exist, and it’s not long into the game that backtracking becomes a major ingredient in your questing. In spite of this there’s still an incredible sense of adventure; old paths often yield new surprises, and new paths are typically treacherous on the first run, especially with the game’s penchant for trap-setting and surprise attacks to keep you sufficiently on edge. Just as the sunlight wanes, enemy cycles change by night too, typically making way for more ferocious types to pounce. Combined with a serious drop in visibility there’s often nothing more absorbing than the fear of being lost in new, shrouded terrain that bears any number of unknown threats. Even with a lantern at your side it’s a daunting experience, not helped by knowing that running short on oil is likely to leave you in pitch black. To make it clear – you are likely to die in this game, and whilst it’s not overly or unfairly difficult, there’s enough threat in there to bring the fantasy of your gradual empowerment to life.
Whilst it’s certainly not as expansive and open as some RPGs, Dragon’s Dogma is still a long game – one which will likely see you into 40 hours of gameplay before reaching the end. As to be expected though, there’s plenty of hours to be whiled away if you’ve even the faintest strand of a completionist streak, with new gear to buy, skills to learn, and additional quests available to keep you going. Whilst much of this treads into risky areas – those where plot development goes out of the window, and basic & repetetive tasks amplify in volume, there’s still a huge positive factor in them giving way to the game’s best asset – combat. Without wanting to give too much away, there’s also been some commendable thought put into the game’s post-ending opportunities, with there being new modes to inspire you on to power up beyond what’s required for a first time completion.
Dragon’s Dogma is a conundrum; in some aspects a masterpiece, and yet undeniably weak in others. The pacing of the plot is offputtingly slow even at the best of times, and despite a great big open world there’s very little to actually see or do, leading to a great deal of repetition – something that will ultimately break the game for some. Yet when it comes to delivering action and adventure, there’s very little that even comes close to it – battles are responsive and exciting, and exploring new areas is a tense and rewarding process. As well as individual progression, tinkering with the makeup of your party is equally engaging too, and the ‘pawn’ system is one of the smartest ways yet of a game collaborating with other players without the inappropriate shoe-horning in of a multiplayer mode. Who could forget that opening theme, either?