Game: Dragon’s Dogma
Available on: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (Reviewed on PlayStation 3)
I will level with you, the Western-style RPG is something that gives me the fear. Indeed, if you were to place an Elder Scrolls under my nose, I would run crying to the nearest Neo Geo. When it comes to role playing shenanigans, I am far more used to the conventions and traditions of the games crafted in Japan, having been raised on your Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest series of games. When my pals were raving about Dungeon Master, rolling oddly shaped dice, or latterly tackling beasties in Oblivion, I was more interested in the latest incarnation of Cid, or checking out what my homies the Moogles were up to. But taking chances and stepping outside of the comfort zone is what I am all about. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a cantankerous fan of fighting games and shooters, which is part of the reason why you are reading this.
The other reason of course is that over the past year, Capcom have themselves thought very much outside of the box, producing some wonderfully odd fare like Asura’s Wrath, or hanging out with Namco to deliver their superb Tekken crossover fighter. When word reached me via carrier pigeon that Capcom were having a crack at a huge open world role player, I was intrigued. In eschewing the chance to simply churn out another Monster Hunter, I admired the cut of their jib.
Capcom didn’t mess about during the creative process for Dragon’s Dogma, either, assembling a veritable Avengers-style team lineup of games-crafting talent with form as long as your arm. Head honcho and director Hideaki Itsuno has previously worked on the Devil May Cry games, and in creating what he describes as the game he has wanted to make since he was a youngster, he has drafted in individuals who have worked on other storied Capcom titles, including Breath Of Fire, Resident Evil and even the uber-cool cel shaded oddity Killer7.
The time had finally arrived for me to cast aside my bullet hell shooters, put away the fighting stick, and don a series of statistic-enhancing mystical garments. The hour was nigh for me to take on a valiant quest for the ages, and venture out into fantasy land to do battle with some goblins and stuff. I am so very glad that I did.
STORY: Every great story needs a hero, in this case that hero is you. After creating your own avatar with which to enter the fray, you are plunged into the world of Gransys, a place which resembles earth, only with more monsters and magic and what have you. Your home is the quaint fishing village of Casadeis, a tranquil harbour that is suddenly plunged into chaos when it is attacked by a bloody huge dragon. This isn’t your run of the mill, relatively sentient creature either, this thing is downright evil. As I went in to attack the beast, with my macho bald headed character created in my own image, I found myself downed in mere minutes. What happens next is key to the premise for the game. The hulking lizard leers over your prone hero, and after whispering some genuinely unsettling incantations in a horrible dragon-speak, it reaches down with a terrible, razor sharp talon and plucks out your still beating heart.
Incredibly, this isn’t the end. Because you are magically saved from certain death and now live as an “Arisen”, the hero of the piece whose destiny it is to go after the dragon that pinched your vital organ. The appearance of the dragon has stirred all manner of creatures to life and now the once peaceful land is awash with a huge bestiary of predatory monstrosities. But the Arisen has also awakened the Pawns; magical, humanoid entities whose job it is to work alongside you to kill the winged menace.
GRAPHICS: Gransys itself is your standard role-playing setting. It looks good, if a little bland in places, but there is a lot of variety. The bay where your quest begins is picture postcard stuff, this gives way to lush, verdant plains and woodland teeming with rabbits, wild flowers and fungi. Where Capcom have really gone to town is in the monsters themselves and the means with which you can employ to defeat them in combat. There are some stunning looking creatures to slay, most of which come straight out of conventional RPG and mythological folklore, but rendered in such beautiful style. Tricksy, sinewy goblins and huge, lumbering Cyclops, not forgetting the terrifying dragons themselves; massive, undulating terrors, with every scale identifiable, their eyes dark garnets of pure evil.
Magical spells and attacks are similarly incredible and there are a vast array of magic tricks to slay your enemies. They all invariably produce some kick-ass pyrotechnics and surprising special effects when you employ them. I particularly liked being able to throw water over a goblin and then freeze the little sod into a solid block, or wield lightning in whip fashion, electrocuting your prey with dancing, sparkling tendrils of power.
SOUND: I had never heard of B’z before, however thanks to Capcom I am looking to invest in some of their Japanese hard rock. You see, these dudes are big hitters in the East, one of the most popular and enduring hard rock combos of all time, a mega-selling duo who are protégés of legendary axesmith Steve Vai. Imagine if the Rolling Stones had written a theme song for Skyrim, it is that big of a deal. Which is why it is so brilliantly funny that the song they have produced – “Intro Free – Dangan” – is right up there on the cheese scale with Street Fighter IV’s “The Next Door (Indestructible)”. The piano coda that kicks it off is beautiful stuff, RPG music 101, but then B’z up the tempo and deliver a pop-rock banger completely at odds with the content of the game. It spoke to me from the moment I fired up the game, and what it told me was “Don’t worry Sean, it really is a Japanese game after all, mate”. It is a thrillingly catchy tune and constitutes my favourite gaming moment of 2012 thus far. It gets a twelve out of ten from me.
Of course there are other sonic flourishes to consider. There are some excellent sound effects during battle, and a plethora of guttural monster noises as you hack and slash your way through the horrible creatures. The game is also packed with speech, some of it hilarious, some of it rather scary and ominous, like the underpant-crappingly sinister dragon. Gransys seems to be quite a cosmopolitan place, as there are accents ranging from swarthy Spanish, to Dick Van Dyke style English, with all kinds of other oddities in between. Your Pawns will chatter away constantly and while they do sometimes repeat themselves, the way they give you hints and tips is incredibly helpful, and a comfort rather than an annoyance.
GAMEPLAY: On the surface, Dragon’s Dogma follows the same path as any other traditional RPG, Western or otherwise. There are cities and base camps that act as hubs, shops to buy and sell items, NPCs to talk to and all manner of other role-playing clichés. There are, however, a clutch of game-changers that set this aside from any other console based role-player you care to mention. First of all there are the Pawns. At the start of the game you get to create your own pawn, deciding a name, how they look, and what class you would like them to be. You even get to choose how they behave, thanks to some pertinent questions that affect which approach they will take during the action. Do you want a Pawn who will be a gung-ho, kill-oriented badass? Should your Pawn be completely subservient to his Master? Your Pawns are basically your slaves, and it certainly gave me a sense of maniacal power seeing my first Pawn creation, a bearded Mage I called Dave, bow before me, his master. You can hire two Pawns at any given time, but it is comforting to know that the first one you create will stay by your side for the entire journey, like a role-playing Greyfriars Bobby. Come on Dave. Here, boy! You’re a good Pawn, Dave.
Class selection plays a part in creating your own character too, affecting how you play the game. Fighters are more adept at combat, Striders are more nimble, wield a bow and arrow and are able to more effectively mount enemies, Shadow of The Colossus-style. A Mage is able to call upon an array of magical spells, including the ability to heal or eradicate nasty status effects. You can, using a combination of your own character and Pawns, play the game however the hell you like. If required, you can simply sit back from the action as a Mage, assisting an all-action Fighter Pawn as they attack the monsters for you. Alternatively you can decide to use the ranged attacks of a Strider, delivering volleys of arrows from afar.
Interaction with your Pawns can be thrilling. An early exchange sees your servant pin a downed Snow Harpy to the floor, before inviting you over to deliver the death blow. They will also constantly advise during battle, offering useful hints. Sometimes this can represent the bleedin’ obvious (“Goblins hate fire!” – don’t we all) but more often than not they will give you some sage bit of info that will help you crush your opponent.
Hub areas contain mystical Rift Stones, which are your go-to place for all things Pawn-related. You can upload your own Pawn to the internet, and even select Pawns that other players have created. There is even the option – should you wish – to upload Pawns to social networking sites. The cool thing is, if your own Pawn is chosen (and used) by another gamer, it will take on board whatever it has learned from its adventures and tell you all about it. This could mean picking up information on how to defeat certain enemies, or even revealing the location of precious treasures. Pawns actually level up themselves – and they are essentially expendable to you – but as you progress you can chop and change your party to suit whatever situation you find yourself in. There is a vast list of Pawns to select from, each one entirely unique, having played through the non-linear quest in their own particular fashion. The possibilities are literally infinite.
Combat itself is surprisingly deep for a game of this ilk, with cues taken from the likes of Devil May Cry in the way you can perform mind blowing combos, or use gained experience points to learn new skills. During combat you can also use the D-Pad to issue commands, and while there are fairly rudimentary in nature, it is ace to be able to direct your party in real time, such as commanding your equivalent of Dave to cast some sort of freaky fireball spell to singe some goblin rear end. There are tons of weapons to acquire and you can use the many items that you find to customise your equipment and even create new ones. Your character is only able to carry a certain amount of equipment before they become to encumbered by the weight, but you are able to stash equipment away when you visit cities and other hub areas, and return to change it around whenever you like.
Gameplay is not scripted and you can take on quests and side-quests however you wish. The world is utterly vast and there is a massive variety of different quest types and areas to explore. Your Pawns will offer you some form of guidance, but you are certainly not led by the hand and can make your own crucial decisions – some of them moral ones – which will radically affect the outcome of the game. Dragon’s Dogma truly feels like an adventure; you have no idea what is coming next and there are surprises around every corner. There is a constant day/night cycle and like other examples of this mechanic (Ocarina of Time springs to mind), night-time and darkness means increased danger. The variety of quests and environments keeps things incredibly fresh and compulsive, but then so does the difficulty and sense of brooding danger. To begin with you are truly vulnerable and getting lost or straying from the path can plunge you into a monster encounter you are simply unequipped and at too lowly an experience level to deal with. It is immensely satisfying to return to said beasties, once you are tooled up and have enough XP, and slit them from neck to nether.
LONGEVITY: Dragon’s Dogma is a vast undertaking, it is also an incredibly difficult one. The main game contains easily 40-50 hours of gameplay and you can add many more to that figure when you factor in the huge number of sidequests and the amount of customisation and Pawn-peddling there is to do. You can idle away hours simply wandering around, foraging for items, smashing crates, or even evoking memories of South Park’s legendary boar-killing XP grind by killing hundreds of rabbits for XP. You can have alchemic larks mixing together the things you find and creating new weapons, potions and spells. It is superb fun simply trying out the many Pawns you can access from the Rift Stones; one imagines that once the servers are more heavily populated this is going to take up even more of my precious time.
VERDICT: I never thought I would find myself in the position where I enjoyed such a hardcore role playing game, a title which can be categorised alongside the likes of Dark Souls and Skyrim. But Capcom make it easy to fall in love with Dragon’s Dogma, thanks to the incredible amount of things you can see and do, and how you can find yourself fully immersed it Gransys within minutes of embarking upon your first quest.
There are flaws though. The lack of signposting and the fact that you are unable to use quick, teleportation style travel early on, in what is a huge game world, will not appeal to some. At times, the background graphics can seem a bit bland, and some of the voice acting can be mildly irritating. But you simply have to tip your hat to Itsuno-san for taking the plunge and giving the likes of the Elder Scrolls a genuine run for its money. There will not be many better RPGs released in 2012, and rest assured that if there are, none of them will have a theme song better than this one.