Dragon's Dogma Review
- Dragon's Dogma
Made2Game Dragon's Dogma Review Score: 8/10
Formats: Xbox 360, PS3
Format reviewed: Xbox 360
Reviewed by: Mick Fraser
Whatever happened to the friendly dragons? The ones that sound like Sean Connery or live by streams or befriend little orphan boys called Pete. Nowadays they're all flames and vengeance; it's no wonder Skyrim's Alduin is so misunderstood.
Dragon's Dogma's particular fire-breathing lizard does nothing for the reputation of the species, being as he is something of a hodgepodge of various dragon-shaped reimaginings, with the intelligence of Dragon Heart's Draco, the ferocity of Skyrim's scaly god and the size of Reign of Fire's dominant bull. As a result, he's one big, mean bastard – and he's not even the worst thing you can face in Capcom's RPG.
The tutorial fight isn't too tough, but it gives you a nice taste of things to come
Start as you mean to go on
The first thing you'll be doing in Dragon's Dogma is delving into the tutorial stage, where you'll take control of a warrior and his party and fight through a mini horde of goblins within a crumbling, burning fortress. Flame shadows dance across the broken walls and collapsed pillars laying in destitute piles, smouldering corpses scatter the stone floors and from the distance come the echoing screams of the dying and the foundation-trembling roars of the dragon who took your heart.
This is where you get your first taster of the excellent combat, as you mix heavy and light melee attacks with a selection of special skills to put the stinking, Lord of the Rings-y goblins to ground. The tutorial guy is always a sword-and-board fighter, and so holding LB will not only raise the shield but allow you to execute shield-based attacks, whilst RB opens the menu for sword talents. Immediately the AI is in show-off mode, as your companions grab hold of enemies and shout for you to despatch them, or come to your aid with magic and steel. It looks and feels good, despite problems with textures and collision detection becoming apparent from the off. There's so much going on that it's not uncommon to see enemies standing inside companions, moving through one another like passing ghosts or lying with their heads inside objects. In fact, it's fair to say it happens more often than it doesn't when fighting indoors. But it doesn't matter much, because the combat is so involving and satisfying that you're bewitched right away.
The tutorial culminates in an epic fight against a Chimera, one of the handful of gargantuan beasts in Dragon's Dogma's bestiary. Equipped with three heads, one of a lion, one of a goat, and with a serpent's head for a tail, the Chimera is a fearsome monster that makes you happy you brought some friends along. To the naked eye, the boss fighting system doesn't seem too different to anything Capcom have produced In the past – a big monster with a health bar and various attack patterns to learn, anticipate and exploit. That is, until you hit the right trigger.
This is Braham the Ranger and his pawn Nightingale. They're our characters, caught by the game's photo-sharing facility
Hold me close, don't let me go
The grab function is close to actual genius, allowing you to seize hold of scales, manes, wings and horns to pull yourself up and onto the beast to hack at specific weak spots. It's fun with the Chimera, but later when you snatch hold of a Griffin as it takes off and find yourself locked in such a duel 100 feet above the ground, Dragon's Dogma's combat stands out as some of the very best we've ever seen in an RPG. Not as precise as Dark Souls nor as complex as The Witcher 2, it nevertheless shines at times as an example of pure, undiluted, air-punching brilliance.
With the tutorial out if the way, you'll be asked to create your own character. With sliders for everything from height and weight, to muscle-mass and age, and a huge selection of hairstyles, tattoos, scars and colourings, the chances of seeing two characters the same are nigh on non-existent. Interestingly, height, build and gender have a bearing on things like stamina (used for sprinting, casting and special abilities), movement speed, attack strength and carry capacity. It's not just aesthetic.
Character created, the main story of Dragon's Dogma begins in the fishing village of Cassardis, and could so easily have featured a spiky-haired, androgynous protagonist with an inferiority complex and a bad case of wanderlust. The skin may be Western, but there's a lot of Japanese in the opening few minutes and, indeed, throughout. Attacked by the aforementioned dragon, Cassardis burns; people panic and flee and cower and die, and you, as the plucky hero, meet a courageous end when a terminal dose of heroism forces you to grab a sword and go toe-to-toe (or face-to-knee) with the monstrosity. The dragon not only kills you, but also chooses you (for reasons that at this time remain unknown), and cuts out and devours your heart. Inexplicably, you wake up the next morning with a sexy scar, minus a heart and with an added Destiny. You are now the Arisen, and shit's about to get real.
Saurians are tough sods, but get 'em wet and give 'em a taste of thunder magic to watch 'em fry!
They Call Me the Wanderer
Dragon's Dogma is huge, though not necessarily in terms of the world. The map is much smaller than, say, Skyrim's, and there's only one city-sized hub, but the sheer sense of scale and depth of content is almost majestic. It's made larger by the omission of fast travel, forcing you to hoof it to and from every quest area, at least for the first few hours. Later you can find and purchase Ferrystones, one-use devices that will return you instantly to the capital city of Gran Soren; further in and you'll find a few rare Portcrystals, markers that you can leave in a specific location to facilitate Ferrystone travel to a selected destination. It's not free fast travel, but it's incredibly helpful.
The decision to preclude instant travel is deliberate, and part of a greater plan by Capcom to give Dragon's Dogma a personality, a sense of place. The world is dangerous in the day, but once the sun goes down the peril dials up to 111. Darkness presses in, visibility plummets, and everything with tooth, nail and horn crawls out from the shadows to feast on the misfortune of the unprepared. Equipping a lantern will provide light and comfort, but if you don't take enough oil you'll find yourself in trouble fast. As a result, a smart adventurer plans a journey, rests in an inn until morning and sets out with the dawn after stocking up on lantern oil and healing aids. It works to create a real sense of endangerment, and makes the world the primary antagonist in a way that only Dark Souls has done in the past. Even Bethesda could take notes here on weaving a palpable sense of dread into the atmosphere. No cushy difficulty slider, consequence-free fast travel or multiple save files here – yup, you read that right: Capcom allow you one save file per Gamertag. Ouch, maybe, but it means every decision you make has a real clout – something arguably missing from modern games.
Of course, no matter how rough it gets out there in the world as you track down the dragon that ate your aortic pump, you won't be alone...
You actually fight too many Cyclops; they get very easy by about 20 hours in
So the legend goes that the Pawns are a race of nomadic, spiritual beings, whose vagabond souls can be summoned to the world of Dragon's Dogma through the Rift, to serve the Arisen. When they fall in battle or are otherwise dismissed, they return to whence they came, taking with them all that they have learned.
You create your main pawn an hour or so into the story, building him or her in exactly the same way as you build your protagonist. They have the same initial choice of Vocation (class) as you do, beginning as either fighter, strider (rogue) or mage. It's a good idea to pick a vocation for your companion that balances against your own (a mage might want a burly fighter to soak up threat, a tanking warrior may want a mage specced to heal, etc...), but this can be changed later on regardless of your initial choice.
The main pawn is your constant companion, and will level up as you do and learn the skills and use the tactics that YOU determine. However, pawns 2 and 3 are "borrowed" from other players through the Rift. Rest at an inn, and you'll often be told "Your follower has returned from aiding another Arisen", and you'll find they've brought back Rift Crystals (used to hire pawns) or other useful items, as well as new knowledge of enemies or quests. It's a brilliant system that adds a unique spin while ensuring that your stupidly brave Arisen always has someone to watch his back.
There's no proper multiplayer mode, but you can team-up online to fight the Ur-Dragon. And, frankly, you need to
A Touch of Class
The vocations are exceptionally well balanced, whether you want to wade into fights head on, hang back and heal everyone else, or sit somewhere relatively safe and stick arrows in people. The three initial vocations can be specced several ways or progressed into slightly modified versions, such as advancing fighter to warrior, strider to ranger. The Arisen can specialise further still with hybrid vocations like Magick Archer and Assassin. Skills learned are weapon-based, so dagger skills will work across all vocations that use daggers, but the passive augmentations you can learn are available across all weapons and classes.
You level up your base stats by gaining XP levels, but use Discipline to unlock new skills or change vocation at an inn, softening the blow of the single save by allowing you to sample all the vocations in a single playthrough. Keeping spare gear is easy as, although carry limitations are strict (and greatly affect movement speed and stamina regen), there is a magical storage system available at every inn. Also, it should be noted that combining items to create potions or ingredients can be done even while all the ingredients are in storage. If it was any other way, Dragon's Dogma would be almost unplayable.
Questing is much easier once you get the hang of the various menus and submenus, some of which are hardly user-friendly. The standard coloured question mark convention is in practice here, showing you which NPCs need a hand, and the map is easy to read. Quests range from escort missions and kill quests to solving crimes and finding rare items, and helping people out will raise their affinity towards you, meaning lower prices, more quests and better help when you need it.
The Cockatrice. Basically a big chicken, right?
A hero’s work is never done
Besides an ill-advised J-Rock soundtrack, fairly wooden voice-acting and constant screen tearing, there is an issue whereby NPCs and enemies take a second or two to materialise, but it's not a huge problem. Capcom have also done a commendable job with the companion AI given the scale of Dragon's Dogma. There are occasional Leeroy Jenkins moments, and if a borrowed pawn is set up to loot containers instead of saving your arse / destroying the enemy, it can be a bloody nuisance.
There aren't many real complaints, but niggles persist. Gran Soren, for example, the supposedly bustling capital, is kind of lifeless despite all the NPCs wandering around; compared to the wilderness it's positively boring. Also, there's no way of knowing what lies around the corner or what level you need to be before taking on a particular challenge. We took a quest in the opening village and got owned repeatedly because we simply weren't powerful enough, but you soon learn to save often and always be prepared to leg it.
Some will hate the lack of fast travel, and still more will lament the single save and sometimes harsh difficulty spikes, but those looking for a genuine challenge will find it in Dragon's Dogma. A great crafting system, a ton of loot and side quests and loads of diverse skills add heaps of time to a playthrough, and then [spoilers] a set of postgame quests and a New Game+ extend things even further. Also, DLC has already been released and is likely to continue for some time.
Hint: It's made of rock and metal, like Meatloaf. Shooting it with arrows won't work too well
Take it all in
This is certainly more Dark Souls than Skyrim, something made obvious after the first time you spend twenty whole minutes in a battle to the death with a Drake or cockatrice, only to face a long trek back home with no curatives and one pawn down. In Dragon's Dogma's defence, though, it's not quite as unforgiving as From Software's monstrous RPG, and many cues have been taken from Capcom's own Monster Hunter series.
The story may not be hugely compelling, but this isn't a game you play for the story. You play it to kill ogres, chimeras, griffins and dragons; you play it for the challenge, for the exhilaration of its combat and the immersion offered by its world. Little touches like food that rots in your inventory, or the combination of a soaking wet enemy and a frost spell show an imagination and attention to detail for which Capcom should be praised. It's not without its problems, and many won't agree with all of Capcom's design choices but, ultimately, Dragon's Dogma is one of the most immersive fantasy RPGs available today. And that statement alone places it among some illustrious company.
Words by Mick Fraser (Twitter: @Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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