Dragon's Dogma has been an idea in Hideaki Itsuno's head since the 1980s.
Capcom also hasn't been shy about dabbling in fantasy combat, with arcade hits such as Magic Sword and two adaptations of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons series. Breath of Fire would bring the RPG experience even closer to home, and now, both Itsuno and Capcom have come out with something that we don't see too often from Japan: an open-world fantasy.
Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series has made it clear that stirring together a sandbox filled with magic and melee has been their bailiwick, so it's a little strange to be playing Dragon's Dogma and feeling that sense of familiarity. But Dragon's Dogma isn't trying to be a carbon copy of Elder Scrolls, as the open world is packed with its own identity-defining moments.
The first order of business was creating my character from a large, preset library of faces and body types. Tweaking body mass and height also impacts certain factors, such as how quickly your stamina can regenerate or how much you can carry. If you're wondering why there's a huge population of short spellcasters and archers in the online world of Gransys, this is one reason. These effects are only a few of the "hardcore" aspects that Dragon's Dogma subtly brings to the table.
Dragon's Dogma is nowhere near as brutal a teacher as Dark Souls; it's something of a leisurely stroll in comparison. It feels more along the lines of Piranha Bytes' CRPG, Gothic, but without as much of a learning curve or control issues. Dragon's Dogma punishes the reckless, but if you take your time to poke at its edges and improve your character's skills, you'll receive juicy rewards of experience and inventory-filling loot. The thieves who owned you in the early hours of the game will be falling like chaff by the time you finish the main campaign and go back again with the New Game+ mode.
After piecing together your look, it's time for introductions. The dragon has returned and attacks your fishing village. You impress it by taking up a blade to defend your friends and family, but it knocks you down and literally takes your heart with its arcane powers. If you want it back, you'll have to find a way to challenge the dragon and survive the experience. Dragon's Dogma allows you be reckless this once, but after that, it's time to grind up, gather equipment, take on side-quests, and campaign through the story to reach the epic conclusion.
Recovering from having your heart ripped out, it's time to pick your first vocation of many. Vocations are classes — such as archer, fighter and mage — and each is distinguished by limits on what armor and weapons they can use as well as their moves and augmentations.
Vocations also have levels of their own to measure how experienced you've gotten, with each one opening up new skills and augmentations. Skills, such as being able to fire 10 arrows at once as an archer or summon a maelstrom as a mage, will also need to be purchased from NPCs. You can pool the points and not buy anything or splurge on the skills you want; it's completely up to you. You can also unlock additional classes by spending the necessary discipline points.
Adding an even deeper level of customization are augmentations. Switching from a mage to an archer gives up most of the skills and core abilities that make that class unique. However, augmentations can be carried to any class, allowing you to blend them together to create a diverse set of boosts. If you want to be a mage with a warrior's augmentation so you're toughened up and can take damage, go right ahead. It's a fantastic way to encourage trying out the other classes. The only thing that's needed is the patience to unlock the truly unique augmentations, which are locked away in the veteran levels of a vocation.
Itsuno and his team leveraged their experience with games such as Devil May Cry when it comes to a grindfest to nail the combat system that crosses the same stylishness and with the simplicity of a hack 'n' slash. The controls take a little getting used to since the L1 and R1 buttons switch options between special and regular attacks, but after an hour or so, it becomes second nature, especially since you can map the skills you want to trigger. There are no complicated combos to remember. The system also has plenty of upgradeable specials, and if you just want to button-mash your way to victory, default attacks will help you.
It's the frenetic pace of the action-heavy combat that helps Dragon's Dogma stand out. The quick pace felt as if I were playing an old-school hack 'n' slash such as Treasure's Guardian Heroes on the Saturn, only now in 3-D. It's blistering, energetic, and an explosion of kinetic thunder on-screen, as every move that makes contact feels as if it leaves as much a mark as your decisions. Titanic monsters like griffins and Cyclops can also be clambered on, Shadow of the Colossus style, to hit weak spots. They'll also do their best to try and shake you off.
The pawn system fills in for Dragon's Dogma's lack of true multiplayer in the same way that Demon's/Dark Souls allows players to pass messages between games and view each other's deaths. Instead, the title uses pawns as active participants, and each one is the product of someone else's imagination. In addition to your main character, you create a special pawn that is always with you, levels with you, and who you can tailor with its own armor, skills and vocation.
If you decide to go online and share your pawn, other players can recruit it. Up to two other pawns can be recruited, allowing players to roll around Gransys as a four-member party, and the AI does a very good job. As the "Arisen," you can also resuscitate them if they fall in battle, though if you go down, that's it.
You can issue basic orders to your pawns, such as to come to where you are or charge blindly ahead, but forget about asking them to do anything specific. When a pawn enchants your weapon with a certain effect that is useless against the monster you're fighting and you have no recourse but to wait for it to go away (or sleep it off at an inn), your battle buddies can inadvertently become your worst nightmare.
Pawns even carry over experiences that they have had in other games, such as quest information, to share with others who might take on a particular side-quest. After the pawn's service is done, players can review them and gift them with something. Even weapons and armor can be passed to other players like this. If you opt to play in the "offline" mode, the game generates pawns for you to recruit on the street or from rift stones, though ones from other players tend to be the best.
Hiring pawns draws on something called rift crystals which are a kind of specific currency. If a pawn is a higher level than you, you'll need to pay a little extra to get them. If they're at or below your current level, they'll happily sign on with you at no charge. Rift crystals also let you access a few things for your character, but the majority of the choices have to do with your pawn, such as being able to modify how they look or behave in battle. These are pretty rare; they sometimes drop from enemies or are given when someone has finished adventuring with your pawn.
Side-quests posted on bulletin boards at inns or taverns pack on the extra activities, and you can stack as many as you want into your journal. Most quests are usually of the "kill this" or "find this" variety, but a few can be creative, such as taking someone's spoiled daughter to go sightseeing. These indicate where you're supposed to go on your map, but a few can be obscure in what you're supposed to do next. The main quests are always easily accessible, and don't be surprised if you get through the main game without seeing everything. Some side-quests are also time sensitive, so if you take too long to pick up that escort job, it and its reward might not be there again unless you restart the game or try for it in the New Game+ mode.
That's something that not every player is going to like about the game. It does do a few "hardcore" things to make things challenging or frustrating, depending on your point of view. Damage can be healed, but not all of it can be healed without going to an inn or using a healing potion. There's also no quick travel upon starting the game, which means you'll do a lot of running, walking and then running some more. Special items can be found to allow you to get around, though they're usable only once and are horrendously expensive.
Stamina also determines how often you can cast spells, run or use special abilities. The good news is that you start with a decent chunk of stamina, so you can run a while before getting tired. The bad news is that not everyone will like this kind of restriction as you wait for it to regenerate, but it offers a decent alternative to cool-downs or energy points for special attacks. It also adds a certain degree of challenge as you balance specials against normal attacks to stay in the fight. There are always potions and farmable herbs, like mushrooms, to help out.
You can save anywhere in Dragon's Dogma, but you're also restricted to only one save slot. That means that whenever it automatically saves for you after a certain milestone or when you opt to save the game before heading off, it's overwritten. There are also certain quests that can be resolved one way or another, so this adds an additional layer of intriguing pressure on making a choice since you'll often only have one chance. Players can circumvent this in a small way by copying the save to a piece of media, like an SD card or USB drive, and they can overwrite what's on the PS3 if they really want to go back.
The New Game+ mode restarts the quests and brings you, your pawn, and all of your gear and experience back to the beginning for another go. You'll have a chance to do a few things differently, such as siding with the greedy merchant or striking a deal with someone who you didn't before. The only downside is that the monsters don't level up in the same way that Dark Souls' do, so some might be bored unless they like farming another of Dogma's unique social items, the Ur-Dragon.
The Ur-Dragon is a global boss that the community can whomp on. It's an optional encounter at the end of the game but is also immediately accessible at the start of an NG+. You won't see people from around the world fighting it in a huge mob melee, but the damage they do in their particular instance is carried over to everyone else's. It's that physically tough.
Eventually, the Ur-Dragon will be ready for a killing blow, which more than one instance can deliver for huge rewards. You'll even see your character's name on a leaderboard of those who killed it that day, though you can't scroll through it or search it to see who the top dogs might be. If you want to fight the Ur-Dragon offline, the rewards aren't as impressive, and the kill will only be recorded on your "personal" list, but the experience it drops is worth the effort.
Dragon's Dogma isn't a perfect encounter. Clipping issues occasionally swallow a few enemies, and in fighting the Ur-Dragon, it hid weak points along its tail as it buried itself in solid rock. Slowdown was also an issue from time to time, especially in effects-heavy situations involving some of the large beasts, like griffons or the Ur-Dragon. The camera can also go crazy and obscure things while you're climbing on large monsters.
It's also amazingly easy to miss out on certain side-quests given how subtle some of the cues can be. Not every NPC who might have a roaming quest is indicated on the map. Saves can often take a while, in some cases longer than it does to load the next area, but it was mostly seamless in getting from place to place.
The menu system was also sort of a pain. The Start button brings up the usual menus, along with equipment lists so you can scroll through your gear. If you want to take a look at your healing items, the ingredients you might have on hand, or key quest items, it breaks it off into a separate option instead of logically providing it on the same Start menu. It would also have been nice to have an "equip all" or "optimize" command whenever you switch a class and need to dress your character all over again.
This adventurer relished Dragon's Dogma's old-school sensibilities, which make it familiar territory that is expected on a PC instead of something from Capcom on the PS3. As players romp across a wide-open world filled with danger, titanic ruins and wonders, they'll realize that it's a rough, rewarding world, though its hardened edges may not be to everyone's cup of tea.
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