Over the last few years, several big RPGs have defined the genre and (rightly or wrongly) gamers’ expectations of what makes a good roleplaying game.
Right from the title menu – with its blend of synthesiser keyboard and electric guitar rock that brings back memories of hours spent in gaming arcades or watching anime cartoons – Dragon’s Dogma from Capcom is different from most Western RPGs.
While these traditional titles tend to try and have a cohesive, overarching story, with Dragon’s Dogma it’s unclear as to whether there are big gaps in the storytelling, or just deliberate omissions of material deemed irrelevant to the gamer.
In a nutshell, you play as the ‘Arisen’, a character who is one day minding his own business in his fishing village when a massive dragon kills half the town, then for some reason recognises him, says something in dragonish, and picks out and eats his heart. Strangely enough you survive this, and after recovering a bit, embark on a quest to track down the dragon and get back your heart. Righto.
The game does offer direction for the first hour or so, but after that the main storyline becomes a lot harder to track, with multiple side quests vying for your attention.
Starting out, you get to create your character and choose from one of three different classes: Fighter, Mage or Strider (a mix of dagger and bow combinations).
Control- and combat-wise, Dragon’s Dogma follows a fairly standard hack and slash format, with skills being purchasable and mapped to either buttons or specific button combinations. One nifty feature is the ‘grab’ button, which can be used to either pick up and throw barrels and enemies, or more awesomely to grab onto a massive monster in order to climb up its back like Legolas in The Lord of the Rings. Combat for the most part is satisfying; however, ranged abilities like archery are rather difficult to aim, leaving you feeling that an NPC companion might do a better job, and perhaps you should stick to smashing things. Boss battles, when they occur, are particularly good fun, and give a real sense of accomplishment.
It should be stated at this point that Dragon’s Dogma is hard. Maybe not Dark Souls hard, but certainly harder than many other RPGs on the market at present. While it’s good to have a game that is a challenge, it’s also nice when a game ramps up the difficulty at an appropriate pace, like walking up a nice hill.
Dragon’s Dogma, in comparison, is closer to parkour. Often you will encounter enemies that are far too difficult for your companion, requiring you to bring out your best ‘Sir Robin’ impersonation (in other words, run away) until you have levelled up enough to take on the challenge.
Unfortunately, Dragon’s Dogma never gives you any indication of how difficult an enemy is until you start fighting them. In some places you will also find a group of enemies that are harder than the rest of the enemies in the area; in one instance these were frustratingly blocking a path and proved impossible to sneak around.
Still, in Dragon’s Dogma you are not alone. When you start the game you get to create not only your character, but also a companion for the entirety of the game, called a Pawn.
Pawns come in all the character types that are available to players, and your Main Pawn levels up alongside your character. Like your main character you can also outfit your Pawn with weapons and equipment, or even re-spec their abilities just as you can your own.
In addition to your Main Pawn, you can also recruit up to two other Pawns via frequent portals to ‘The Rift’ - a ghostly realm where Pawns live while they are not running around the mortal world. These additional Pawns are often the Main Pawns of other players – you can even look up and recruit your friends’ Pawns to join your party (although not your friends themselves, sadly). Likewise, your Main Pawn can be made available for other players to hire – even while you are running around playing – and each time you sleep at an inn you will get a summary of your Pawn’s activity. The advantage to allowing others to use your Pawn is that they come back with knowledge of quests, and tactics against monsters that they have encountered on their travels with other players.
The great thing about this system – aside from your Pawn gaining knowledge (though not experience, as they remain locked to your level) – is that you can quickly customise your party to suit the situation. If you are a sword- and shield-carrying fighter and your Pawn is a Ranger, you can pick up a Mage Pawn to help heal you and another Fighter Pawn to help with the hacking and slashing.
The downside is that these characters do tend to feel shallow, and given that they don’t level up with you, your time together is limited as you will outgrow your companions. While the game does allow you to ‘programme’ your Pawn to a specific style to influence their reactions (for both you and players who hire them) it often comes across as canned and unnatural behaviour.
Pawns will occasionally do things that are helpful, like pointing out information or picking up resources around them automatically, but even these positives are weighed down by the amount of rubbish comments that they make (Yes, I can see it’s a castle, you mentioned it the last two times we passed it also) and the fickle inventory system which doesn’t group items that Pawns pick up into a master inventory, forcing you to check each Pawn’s inventory to find the item you might be looking for or trying to sell.
Given the difficulty in Dragon’s Dogma, it’s great that you can recruit higher level characters to your team – however, it does raise the question of whether you should be having to recruit Pawns that are 20 levels higher than you in order to progress through the game.
In summary, Dragon’s Dogma provides some great challenges, and those gamers who like hack-and-slash-style combat will possibly find a lot to like here. In contrast, those who like their RPGs to be more story-guided (not to mention easier) might struggle with this one. The Pawn concept is innovative, and it’s addictive to see your pawn come back with ratings, comments and items; however, it does lack the character/party immersion where pre-determined companions can bring their own story to the adventure.
Lasting Appeal 7