Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
I'm going to put it out there right now. I'm not a Dark Souls fan at all. Whilst I can marvel at its stunning vistas, recognise From Software's talent in crafting a fantasy epic that feels truly epic, and acknowledge that perhaps I don't have the patience it requires of me, I also believe that its control system is a steaming pile of poorly worked, time-delayed bollocks. But then again, I'm a gamer who prefers Vanquish to Gears of War, a gamer who believes in intuitive, responsive controls over results I perceive to be as weighty and sluggish.
I say this because I feel that it's important to have that knowledge and context in place when I tell you that in Dragon's Dogma, Capcom have crafted a massive open-world RPG that manages to fulfil the ultimate goal of both challenging you (and punishing you rather punitively when you fall short) and making you feel like the hero that all games like this suggest that you actually are, through a combat system that is fluid, responsive, littered with variety, and fundamentally accessible.
In short, it's a little bit special.
That's not to say that the flaws aren't immediately apparent. Fire the game up and your face will fall as you're greeted by dull, indistinct textures; a washed out colour palette that seems overly dreary; swathes of pop-up, aged character models; vastly repetitive NPC dialogue; and sidekicks that never seem to shut up! Then, in amongst the first few quests that lead you outside the walls of your seaside home town, you'll no doubt stumble across a scenario or two where you begin to wish that the game really had either one, or both, of the following: fast-travel, and more than one save slot.
Dragon's Dogma kicks off with you bravely defending said town from a evil dragon's attack. In between the red, scaly beast raining down some brimstone-ridden fire and munching on villagers, you manage to drive a sword into its clawed hand. In return, it rips out and eats your heart. When you wake up goodness know how long later, with a chestful of scars and a strange urge to kick some lizard butt, it's time to take on the mantle of "The Arisen", and hunt the beast down.
It's not exactly the most grpping tale ever, and Dragon's Dogma is phenomenally poor when its narrative is stacked up against the likes of Dragon Age: Origins and The Witcher II, but like the aforementioned Dark Souls and Bethesda's wintery smash hit Skyrim, Capcom's effort makes up for this with exceptionally deep character-crafting, persistent skill progression, vast amounts of loot, and the comprehensive bestiary of mythical monsters guarding it. The level of character customisation almost mirrors the likes of FIFA and WWE, and from there it's up to you to choose one out of three classes to begin with: fighter, ranger, or mage. After a couple of hours, though, when you reach the capital of Gransys - Gran Soren - you'll be able to swap classes at will when you rest up at an inn, and the range of options will extend from three to nine as you unlock advanced and hybrid classes.
With folk here who've worked on Devil May Cry, it comes as no surprise that the combat system is slick, responsive, and deeply satisfying. Whether thrust-and-parry with a warrior, alternating swiftly between double daggers and bow and arrows with a ranger, or lashing enemies with whips of lightning as a mage, all of the classes prove incredibly satisfying when it comes to dishing out the hurt, and the advanced and hybrid classes step that up brilliantly too. The fact that respecs are so easy to execute means that it's a cinch to find a role that you can really sink your teeth into, and that's important because combat forms a huge part of the appeal of Dragon's Dogma, often simply because of what you're fighting.
This isn't a game that holds your hand and, although perhaps not quite a brutally punishing as Dark Souls and its predecessor, Dragon's Dogma expects you to learn, and learn quickly, that exploration is not without its perils. Taking on an early quest, I leapt into a well at level 5, only to be met promptly by a horde of lizardmen who gutted me with brutal precision. Stumbling into a cliffside fort twenty levels onwards, I found myself in a pitched battle with a small army of goblins helped out by two cyclopes and a pair of ballistae firing exploding bolts. And that came after having crept through a forest I knew was home to a dragon that had felled my entire band of adventurers in three moves. Gransys is a land that struggles to come alive with lacklustre visuals, and bland NPCs, but it instils a sense of alertness in you, tempting you further away from the beaten path with promises of treasure and the desire to see which beast lurks around the next corner, and then swiftly punishs you if you try to take those beasts on prematurely. If you die in Dragon's Dogma, you do it in the firm knowledge that you really only have yourself to blame.
But being the Arisen doesn't mean you have to fight alone, though. No, it actually gives you command over three Pawns - human-like Myrmidons from another dimension - the Rift - that live to serve and have no will of their own, much like the Unsullied from A Song of Ice and Fire...although far more talkative. Although you can create and kit-out a main Pawn at the start, you'll be able to hire two more Pawns via Riftstones, with those at your own level or lower costing nothing. However, those of greater ability will need to be bought using Rift Crystals that may be obtained by exploring Gransys itself, by purchasing them via XBL or PSN, or by pimping out your Pawn to other Arisen. Aside from ramping up your combat power, and providing some variety in your ranks, Pawns will also dispense tips and hints regarding quests. Hire a Pawn that's already done the quest you're currently wading through, and they'll deliver much more detailed information. Similarly, if your Pawn is hired by others, they might come back bearing useful information and the odd gift as well as Rift Crystals. It's a neat little feature, even if their incessant gossip starts grating rather quickly.
They also blast out tips on how to fell the huge monsters you'll face, highlighting limbs, appendages, vulnerable areas, things to look out for, and vantage points. Most of the time, this will involve attempting to scale the beast in question, and hacking in particular areas, clambering aboard like in Shadow of the Colossus. But where most games inthe last decade would have taken the easy way out and simply put in a bunch of quick time events, Capcom have totally empowered the player. Not that the AI will give you much of a window, with bosses generally having a few tricks up their sleeves. Leap upon an ogre's back, for example, and it'll sqat at you a few times before bodyslamming you into the ground if you don't jump clear. Dragons themselves have a nasty habit of turning one of your Pawns against you.
Aside from monster hunting, the towns, cities, and forts of Gransys will hold noticeboards that will provide side quests. For the most part these fall into two categories: killing a certain number of fiends, and escorting people from one place to another. Sadly, the latter is an exercise in extreme frustration as the excellent Pawn AI completely fails to translate across to these cretins. Wielding no weapons, no sprint, and no brains, you'll swear and curse the idiots in your charge as they stubbornly refuse to make a little shortcut hop, or fall so far behind that they teleport back to where you originally found them. Bye bye television screen.
But for every niggling frustration, there's so much to love. Whether it's the well-worked day/night cycle - and believe us, the night is dark and full of terrors - or the crafting system that allows you to mix and match items to create new ones, or the ability to upgrade your armour and weaponry three times apiece (four if you manage to defeat a dragon), or a surprising royal romance. But above all, Dragon's Dogma is a game that plonks you down in a verdant fantasy world and instructs you to go hunt down the dragon that ripped your heart out. It doesn't pamper or coddle, you won't know what mythical monstrosity waits around the next corner, but if the idea of taking down a hydra Hercules-style attracts, you're going to have a lot of fun finding out.
- Pawn system works brilliantly
- Combat, classes, and crafting are all excellent
- The feeling that comes after taking down a hydra/griffin/dragon etc.
- Graphically unassuming
- Escort missions are horrible
- Lack of fast travel and decent save system might put off some
The Short Version: Its graphics are dull, Gransys itself is a little uninspiring, and there are some systems missing that we really would have appreciated, but frankly if you're looking for an open world RPG that doesn't compromise on deep character-based systems and customisation, and also offers up a breathtakingly satisfying combat experience, then this may well be your new favourite game.