Here be Dragons…
While at first glance Dragon’s Dogma may seem like another cynical attempt by a publisher to ape the success of Bethesda’s Skyrim it’s important to note early on that appearances can be deceptive as what Capcom have created is a very different beast altogether. In fact, in what is arguably an already overcrowded génre Dragon’s Dogma comes as a surprising breath of fresh air and is perhaps one of the most challenging, yet deeply rewarding RPG’s in quite some time.
Even though it derives many of it’s strengths from an array of different influences from the world of the digital RPG it’s in the execution that sets Dragon’s Dogma apart from its many peers. Whereas other open world games of the same ilk simply have you moving one from one location to the next through a series of dull and unimaginative go-here-and-fetch quests, in Dragon’s Dogma you actually feel as though your actions play an integral part in a world going through change with each and every action shaping that experience as the story unfolds. The irony here being that – unlike pretty much every single RPG on the market today that bets the farm on the quite frankly overused moral choice wheel – there is no set path of light and dark to choose from; you are the “Arisen” and it’s been left to you to seek out and destroy a god-like dragon in order to return some semblance of balance to the land, however it’s through Capcom’s careful crafting of their RPG world of “Gransys” that make your choices and the world you inhabit feel more real than arguably every other RPG on the market. The consequences of you actions may seem more subtle on the surface, but over time these subtleties give way to a far deeper meaning as the tale draws toward its conclusion.
Gransys is a hazardous place filled with dangers and powerful creatures that can wipe out your entire party in a heartbeat and so should you be advised by a wandering peddler, (or even one of your own party members), not to venture into that rather ominous looking woods away from the beaten track then, (unless you feel particularly confident in your abilities at this point) it’s best to heed such advice and avoid. Death can come swiftly in Dragon’s Dogma and much like From Software’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls games adopting a more cautious and tactical approach will fair you far better than wading in blindly, sword swinging. There’s no question that during your time with Dragon’s Dogma you’ll be doing a lot of running away, not as an act of cowardice but simply because survival is paramount to your success and one more day above ground for you and your party is good day.
Outside of procuring very rare magic stones that enable you to immediately transport back to the capital city there’s no fast travel option in Dragon’s Dogma, and while not having so adds to the overall sense of adventure it can be disheartening to have travelled for miles only to be killed by a Cockatrice or a band of marauding bandits because you instead chose to stand your ground when faced with a more powerful foe rather than do the sensible thing and ‘run like the wind’. On death you will of course be reverted to your last save point, but it’s still frustrating nonetheless knowing that a more cautious approach may have seen you avoid repeating your steps.
The sun setting on Gransys also plays a huge part in separating Dragon’s Dogma from the pack. Again unlike other RPGs, the night sky filling with sparkling pin-pricks of light is so much more than just a pleasant feast on the eye. The night time world of Dragon’s Dogma brings a whole new level to proceedings as the game shifts into a much more foreboding and dangerous place – one that’s more akin to Capcom’s survival horror games than your traditional RPG. With just a lantern to light your way through the darkness of night you’ll constantly be on tenterhooks as you’re aware, but unable to see, all manner of creatures that lie in wait in the shadows. Should you need to traverse halfway across the land to reach your attended goal it’s best advised to stay overnight at an inn before setting out at the crack of dawn so as to reach your destination before the sun sets and night descends upon the land.
However, one can’t help but feel that Capcom are having a private joke at your expense as you soon come to realise that all the best items and loot are found during the games most dangerous hours of day thus forcing your hand in risking venturing out in to the ominous, almost oppressive night sky of Gransys. Throw into the mix some of the best and most challenging boss monsters in the genre – and I do mean challenging – and what you have is a perfect remedy of adventure, role-playing and survival horror that will keep you entertained for hours at a time.
Gameplay in Dragon’s Dogma takes its lead from a handful of games from varying genres and it makes no secret of this and as such is quite happy to wear these influences on its sleeve. While the night brings a touch of Resident Evil, there’s also a smattering of Devil May Cry’s whirlwind sword play fused with the cautious nature of Demon’s Souls trial and error gameplay. Character skill sets and augmented abilities take a knowing nod toward Breath of Fire, and encounters, (particularly those of the larger kind), carry similarities to that of the hugely popular Monster Hunter.
Many of Gransys denizens hunt in packs who try to wear you down with either planned ambushes or a rapid succession of shock tactics; however it’s coming up against larger and more powerful creatures that present a true challenge and allows the games combat physics and the AI of your chosen party to shine. Fighting a cave troll, for example, will see Mage and Ranger classes hold back using ranged attacks with the former healing your party and the latter taking out smaller, annoying creatures should they enter the fray, whereas fighters and warriors will get in close using an array of powerful slashing, bludgeoning and stabbing techniques. Rather wonderfully it’s entirely possible to grab on to a large monster and begin clambering over them and start hacking away à la Shadow of the Colossus.
In many respects combat isn’t unlike that found in your typical MMO in that you have your healer classes who deal out health boosts and repel negative effects; rangers for picking out specific targets; wizards that unleash deadly area effect spells that engulf enemies; and tanks that wade into battle dishing out massive amounts of damage with powerful close quarter combat. Ultimately this approach to combat does beg the question as to why Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t, at the very least, have an online four player co-op mode? Nevertheless, the combination of clever AI and the ability to guide your party members with simple commands points to a system that not only works extremely well but one that succeeds where many single player RPG’s have failed. The resulting factor is that players are free to approach each battle differently thus allowing them to string together a winning formula in any given situation, whether it’s a succession of shock tactics to bring down a foe quickly or rallying the troops to better ascertain any given situation and adapt accordingly.
And then there’s the Immortal Pawn Legion.
Members of the Immortal Pawn Legion are wandering entities who dwell in a place known as “The Rift” and these act as your party members, or NPCs, and whom are completely devoted to aiding The Arisen, i.e. you. Once you have created your own character within the games reasonably impressive creation tool and your quest set in motion you can then create a “Main Pawn” to your liking from one of the many character classes. You can choose their sex, how they look, how they talk, how they act, as well as their personal skills and attributes. As you progress you can, like your main character, purchase new weapons and armour for them, upgrade skills and abilities, or even change your Pawn’s vocation – although while the latter doesn’t change their current level it will remove any ranks achieved prior to any change. Your Pawn is utterly loyal to you and will never leave your side, and as time passes they will learn new ways to tackle monsters, become aware of new skills and gain a firmer grasp on their surroundings thus proving to be invaluable asset in your quest.
Throughout the various towns and villages you will come across “Rift Stones”. Activating a Rift Stone whisks you off to a spectral realm where you’ll find Pawns belonging to other players from around the globe and like your own Pawn they’ll each be home to a different class with each sporting individual levels, skills and attributes. You can hire up to two of these Pawns at a time to act as temporary allies in your quest and, depending on situations as they arise, swap them out for different Pawns as often or as little as you like. If a particular Pawn proved to be useful you can attach a rating based on how they performed in any given situation, whether or not they used key skills in battle, or simply rate them on how they look. There are also options for selecting favourite Pawns for later use or for hiring Pawns beyond your own ranking, although this can prove to be very costly.
Each time you use a Pawn any special knowledge they garnered while in your realm will be carried over to their owner’s realm and vice-versa should someone choose to hire your own Pawn. This system works as a sort of passive co-op mode, one that can be incredibly useful when trading items and/or knowledge; such as how to defeat certain monsters or learn of important features or clues in areas you’ve yet to explore.
Throughout Gransys there is what is known as “Straight Pawns” you can hire should you choose to opt out of the online side of things, but in truth they’re not nearly as helpful or quite as much fun as those created by other players found in The Rift.
It’s thoroughly innovative system and one that boasts some very convincing AI, although it’s not perfect and there will be times when you’ll want your hired Mage to stop blasting fireballs about the place like some crazed person and start dealing out a few more healing spells. For the most part though it’s a pretty tight experience, one one that serves the games direction well. My only hope is that should Capcom develop a sequel they consider a multi-player mode; at least then I’ll have a real person I can shout at for casting a lightening bolt when they should be healing my sorry ass.
Without doubt the most glaring criticism that can be levelled at Capcom’s epic fantasy is the incredibly small window in which vital clues are passed through which sometimes leaves you guessing as to where to go next and in which direction. There are even times when clues for quests you have accepted early on are simply not available due to you not having reached a particular junction in the main quest line! It’s incredibly frustrating and, bizarrely enough, took me right back to another of Capcom’s RPGs that presented me with the same problem, one that had me scratching my head for hours to the point that I just walked away – Breath of Fire IV. Capcom may think this approach adds a sense of mystery to the proceedings and in all fairness it sometimes can, but more often than not it’s just damn infuriating.
A handful of miss-steps aside though, Dragon’s Dogma is an accomplished, well-rounded RPG, more so for the fact that its developer isn’t trying to do anything other than serve up its own take on the genre. Its steep learning curve may dissuade some gamers and it’s seemingly complex character system may be a little much to swallow in one bite for newcomers, but there is absolutely no question that Capcom’s attempt to westernise their approach in creating an engaging and rewarding RPG has been a successful one. For every curve ball that Dragon’s Dogma throws at you there are twice as many truly impressive moments hurled your way that beg you to play it to the end.