Now choose Arisen, flee or step forth!
Dragon's Dogma is a little bit of a mixed bag, with a whole lot of good rather than bad. The underlying gameplay systems in this expansive open world action rpg are enough to outweigh some of the technical issues that do appear in the game, fortunately the whole package when taken together is a great direction for this kind of game in the face of endless remakes and sequels that the industry seems to find itself in at the moment. Dragon's Dogma stands out as an ambitious title that's well worth the price of admission.
Dragon's Dogma casts you as the next link in a seemingly endless cycle of events, the Arisen, foe of the dragon that preserves a tenuous yin-yang style balance throughout the world's history. With your heart stolen you must grow in power to face the dragon and reclaim your still beating heart from him. It's pretty interesting as far as the story goes, but the execution can feel a bit lacking.
Dragon's Dogma features an extremely detailed, robust and deep character customisation system that lets you build your Arisen and Main Pawn how you want. The way the body type and weight plays into the gameplay system is extremely important and even the length of your arms and legs can play a role in how the character interacts with the world. For example you can have a tiny Arisen who can fit into small places where the normal folks can't go and in some cases this opens up whole new tactical opportunities for you.
You can freely swap items around between your characters though, handing off any excess weight materials to your less encumbered pawns. There's also a handy system for putting items into storage at inns and certain rest stops throughout Gransys (the world of Dragon's Dogma) and being able to access the combine option through these NPCs is also a godsend if you happened to drop all your materials into storage like we did.
There's far more 'good' in the inventory system than 'bad' and the way you have two separate screens for item management, and equipping various weapons/armour combinations works surprisingly well. It would have been nice to be able to order things by weight and see how heavy a whole stack of items was in total...but these are minor issues which could probably be patched in (hint: CAPCOM).
Materials can be combined to make other things of use and you can enhance weapons at the blacksmith for a sum of gold and the right materials. There are 3 levels of enhancement and some of the requirements will be tricky to get until you have encountered or slain the right monster type.
Save anywhere is a godsend in a game like this; you can indeed do just that. You get one slot though so you need to make sure you're in a good position to save in the first place. You always need to save after a major battle because you never know when things may go completely wrong for you and you end up losing against even the minor foes due to a tactical error. At the moment there's no Load anywhere function, only a checkpoint load, which takes you back to the last auto saved checkpoint.
Dragon's Dogma is built on the core idea of exploring and there are no fast travel systems in play like Skyrim. There is a single fast travel system through the use of expensive portcrystals (placeable platforms) and ferrystones, but the crystals and stones cost a fortune so you will likely be using these very sparsely. Ferrystones can be used to take you back to Gran Soren, the capital city of Gransys...but they are consumed once used. So exploration takes place during real time, with the sun tracking across the heavens as you set out for your quest or just for a wander.
Day is relatively safe, or rather, it's safer than night. You can rest at dedicated stops such as encampments, inns, and rest camps. The gold cost paid lets you sleep till morning or night depending, since some quests are time based this is pretty handy when you need to discuss the quest with an NPC and they're not around till morning or night. You'll also get a chance to earn some loot from your pawn's extra-realm wanderings in terms of gifts and rift crystals from other Arisen players across the world, more on that a bit later on in the unique multiplayer section.
There are random encounters and set encounters, where you will always find the same enemies. There are also no enemies that scale with your level, so if you explore too far at the beginning and encounter something beyond your means, it's time to RUN and level up before you come back for another try. There are also hidden places to explore in the world to find loot, there's a lot of meaningless junk on the surface and some really choice pieces if you're brave enough to delve into the deeper dungeons of the game.
Night brings new challenges and more fearsome foes, it brings the danger of sudden death as you plummet off a cliff or get caught by a giant Cyclops with a flaming tree trunk as a weapon. Night also brings out the undead, and they can be pretty scary. You have a lantern of course, which runs on oil, so it's wise to make sure that you have plenty of that in your party inventory.
Exploration in Dragon's Dogma is fun, worth every minute and addictive even if you've walked the same roads time and time again. Each journey brings more experience and more loot, more gold and more chances to interact with the world in terms of the combat system as well as possibly bump into some of the game's travelling peddlers.
There are three basic vocations, three advanced and three hybrid vocations in the game, each one brings a new set of skills to the table that you can learn. The Inn in Grand Soren is the place where you can change vocation and do this freely throughout the game to experiment with character types and powers.
Fighter: your basic sword and board type of character.
Strider: A thief and rogue style character, quick, nimble and uses ranged/daggers.
Mage: A powerful spell-caster.
Warrior: A skilled two-handed specialist that can draw the ire of many enemies to her, she really does kick ass, ask my Main Pawn: Hellion, hire her if you want.
Ranger: A ranged specialist that really packs a punch with a bow.
Sorcerer: A magic user that is capable of some devastating magical attacks.
Magick Archer: A magical endowed archer with some truly devastating class, hitting that one next as the Arisen with my character.
Mystic Knight: A powerful warrior that is part fighter and part spell-caster.
Assassin: A stealthy ninja-like killer that can counter enemies fiercely and dispatch most foes after countering with a single strike. (can use the most weapons out of all the vocations)
As you battle through Dragon's Dogma you earn Discipline points as well as experience, and whilst XP covers your character level, which in turn automatically changes your stats, Discipline lets you buy new skills and change vocations.
You can have 3 primary skills equipped and 3 secondary at any time, plus a bunch of augments that give your character an edge in certain situations: extra health at night for example if you're the Assassin.
Many of these skills are also keyed to a weapon, so for instance, don't expect to double jump and roll if you have a sword equipped, since that only works for daggers. Your skills will change as you change your weapon/shield and so forth, this allows you to carry a tailored suite of equipment for specific situations. Of course you need to watch that old encumbrance.
Here we come to the combat section of the review since Dragon's Dogma is an action game this is really where it shines, this is the meat and potatoes of the game and it's done in a surprisingly elegant way. You can have a primary and secondary weapon, such as a dagger for quick attacks and a bow for ranged engagements if you're a Strider/Ranger...for example my Assassin is using a pair of daggers and a bow, with some pretty powerful abilities.
Your main combat resource is stamina, since if that depletes totally you're left out of breath for a while and open for various enemy attacks. In this state you can be easy prey even for a small goblin. You can use curative items to restore health, remove certain debilitative effects and recover stamina as you battle, pausing the game so you can recover. You will also want to keep an eye on your pawns, since they will use curatives that you give to them and so on.
You can trigger your light attacks, heavy attacks with a button press and another button opens up a menu of the 3 other attacks that are keyed to the weapon you're using, such as the Easy Kill (dagger counter move) for the Assassin or the Burst Strike when you're using a sword. The combo system is easy to use, with a few taps, pauses and so on it's possible to work out some great looking devastating combos that cause a ton of damage to the enemy.
Combat is also acrobatic if you choose so, since you can climb onto anything in the game pretty much, you can also scale monsters that are large, like the Cyclops and aim for weak points such as its eye. Be warned though, these monsters are not likely to want you hanging around on them and will do their level best to knock you off, smash you into the ground or remove you as the pest you are.
There's a huge amount of physicality in the combat system and each blow feels weighty, especially against the larger foes as you can topple them to the ground if you strike at their legs/knees. There are weak points for every monster in Dragon's Dogma and exploiting them is the key to long term victory.
There are certain skills that let you or your pawns get to low flying airborne enemies as well, so it's wise to have at least one equipped on your main pawn or yourself. Not only do they look cool, they allow you to bring a Griffin crashing down with its wings on fire. It doesn't get much better than that.
Finally there are various statuses that can be inflicted on you or the enemy, from drenching to being soaked in oil. One stray flame and you'll be set on fire, or they will.
There are quite a few side quests along with the main story, these are varied at times and pretty fun. Some of them take you to forgotten corners of the world and test your mettle against truly formidable foes. All of them offer rewards in terms of experience, gold and so forth.
There is a place known as the Rift, where the inhuman pawns come from, these loyal servitors serve the Arisen and will die for you in droves. You can have a main pawn, a character like you, levels up and can be customised just the same, then two support pawns that basically come from the thousands on the game disc, or recruits from other players across the world. You can order them with a simple d-pad press to Go, Help and Come here...the rest of the time they'll follow their AI orders and try and do the best they can.
Once you summon a pawn in the Rift, you can choose to hire them for a sum of Rift Crystals...these are earned from quests and so on or choose someone else. If you do hire a pawn, you can also release them in the Rift at a later time, sending them away with a rating, a present and a comment to let their owner know how things worked out.
Outside of the Rift pawns learn from doing, they learn from how you play and they can be instructed by Knowledge Chairs with a quick Q&A session to change fundamental values they wish to talk about.
Each time you rest, you could well get a bounty of Rift Crystals!
Social Networking is a big thing and Dragon's Dogma lets you post screenshots on facebook or twitter as long as you sign up and link your accounts. We've used this feature quite a lot to showcase some of our craziest moments elsewhere and its pretty ace.
Dragon's Dogma doesn't look like much visually, until you start really peering at things and checking out the various details in the graphics and how it all ties together. It's got a bit of a pop-in problem but frankly after a while you just don't care about that and you're having fun, even if there are pop-in issues and some screen tearing. Installing the game onto the 360 hard drive mitigates some of this and whilst you do get the odd framerate issue now and then, the game doesn't slow to a mind-bending crawl as in some of the dungeons found in Skyrim for example.
The graphics are nice enough though and the various day/night/vague weather systems work nicely, with wind actually playing a part in a combat especially if you've got a nice and light Arisen/pawn following you around.
Dragon's Dogma uses animations that tie into the physics of the game and it works really well. It lends every movement weight and meaning. From the cut and thrust of combat to climbing/running/jumping around the world, or onto massive monsters, it's truly breathtaking to watch in action.
As previously mentioned physics plays a huge role in the game, for example a giant Cyclops will come crashing down, crushing anything that happens to be underneath it at the time. Monsters like Griffins and Drakes can flap their wings and use the wind to drive you off your feet and roll you around like a rag doll. Hanging on to a massive creature as it flies around shakes your Arisen and depletes your stamina, once you fall off you feel the weight of that landing if it doesn't kill you first.
Pawn AI can do some pretty great things, supporting you in battle, helping hurl you aloft to face flying enemies and drawing the ire of bigger monsters. The party mage can really be a massive support if the AI works well during an engagement, buffing the group with fire or ice based magic for example, so that they can do extra damage to the enemy. Pawn AI varies from great to a little stupid at times, the monster AI on the other hand is pretty amazing and the various beasts/creatures all have a wide range of behaviours that make each fight unique and fun.
Dragon's Dogma has a solid audio suite that really brings the game to life with atmospheric sound effects, the world feels more alive thanks to these spot effects and exploring the darker recesses of the game world is truly spooky at times when the lights are dim and all you can hear is the whispering of ghostly voices, or the drip of water in the cavern somewhere. Sound effects in combat are also excellent with a variety of bone crunching noises and cues.
An odd mix of music from the opening theme in the menu to some really lovely medieval fantasy tracks. It works though and CAPCOM should definitely take a page out of the Witcher/Witcher 2 book and release the game's soundtrack.
Good solid voice work with some great performances from the dragon.
The writing is solid enough though there are lots of old-worlde English style scripts that tend to make us giggle because we remember Two Worlds. Thankfully, it's not that bad!
None...but there is an online component where you can share your main pawn online, cooperatively kill a massive Ur Dragon via an a-synchronous event and a few other surprises in store down the road. You can also hire pawns from friends and random players through a very robust system in the Rift.
A step in the right direction
Dragon's Dogma might appear generic and pretty bland at the start, but the spot on combat system, mix of rpg elements and core features more than make up for the short comings in terms of generic story and graphical issues at times. It's one to watch, one to get for yourself and definitely one that deserves a sequel. It stands with the likes of Skyrim and Dark Souls and gets a resounding 'yes' from us!