I know a lot of people had games that they were really anticipating this month, but not I. Max Payne 3 I’m a bit curious about, but it wasn’t a day one kind of curious for me. Not to mention that it seems like everyone and their mother is talking about Diablo III, a game whose ship has sailed for me years ago. So when I had the chance to try the demo for Dragon’s Dogma and it ended up containing game mechanics that I find fascinating from other games, I was naturally intrigued.
I mean, here was a game that seemingly came out of nowhere and started hitting all of the right notes for me. Without anything else competing for my time, I felt it was a good time to take a chance on a new IP. So how did the final product turn out? Time to put on my adventuring gear and find out.
Dragon’s Dogma opens to a tutorial stage that introduces you (albeit very little) to the game’s world, as well as the mechanics, while you are in pursuit of a dragon. The scene concludes upon defeat of a chimera, as it did in the demo, and the sequence holds very little meaning until the end of the game. Following that, you will be tasked with creating your character as well as your main pawn (which can be imported from the demo). From there, all hell breaks loose.
A large red dragon makes a fire storm out of your shoreline village, and your character musters up the courage to take it on in battle. Things go south rather quickly, and the dragon pierces a hole in your chest, rips out your heart, and eats it. However, you still go on living as a being known as the Arisen. From here on out, you must assemble a team of pawns, go on some quests, and ultimately confront the big, bad, red dragon.
And really, that’s about all there is to the plot. The main storyline takes a back seat to all of the quests that you embark on and the few scenes that are dispersed throughout the game to lend a little backstory does little to inspire interest. On many occasions throughout the game, I was tempted to just skip all the scenes, though didn’t in case something exciting did happen. It doesn’t.
Bottom line: If you are going to play Dragon’s Dogma with the intent on getting swept up in an exciting single player story, don’t.
Story/Modes Rating: Mediocre
There’s an impressive level of detail that went into crafting the world of Dragon’s Dogma, as it actually feels like a world that’s alive. Despite there being few towns amongst a single country (rather than an entire world), the area you have access to is sprawling with a ton to explore. Fog permeates certain areas when you venture near them, wind will either pick up or die down, and there are all kinds of plant and wildlife dotted around the plains that tend to their own business as you pass by them. There are even random caves and ruins that you can happen upon during your journey that also seem quite well crafted and never give the impression that it’s just a copy and paste job from another part of the game.
Likewise, the monsters that you encounter are well designed and do a good job of looking threatening. They even have a set of animations set aside from when they’re not being assaulted by you, the player, such as cyclops that plop down on their back when they are bored. Many of the characters and townspeople you meet look rather generic, looking instead like they were built with the customer character builder. I suppose this makes sense considering other players’ pawns wander the countryside and are supposed to blend in with the scenery. It’s a good thing then, that the character customization is so robust.
One thing I noticed while playing in areas that were dark, is that if you have the brightness up too high, the textures take a noticeable plummet in quality. I think this is because it is designed so that you aren’t supposed to see anything at night without a lantern, but it was incredibly noticeable. Perhaps it was the game’s way of punishing me “cheating”Â my way through dark areas when my lantern was out of fuel. Tree branches and leaves tended to get in my way too during combat, though is only an issue while fighting in the forest. Swinging the camera around mitigates this a bit, I found.
Graphics Rating: Above Average
Aside from the pretty rocking theme song that plays during the title screen, there isn’t much for songs that will really stick with you. This isn’t to say that the soundtrack is horrible by any means. The music that plays during boss battles or when your party is under siege out in the wild is pretty good. Otherwise, it stays mostly quiet so as to allow you to hear things that might pose a threat to you, particularly at night. Dragon’s Dogma does a good job of making the atmosphere feel unsettling when you hear a roar out in the distance and you have no idea how far away it is or if you are moving towards it.
The voice acting is actually pretty decent in this game, it’s just that no one really has anything of interest to say. Sometimes your pawns will give you advice as you make your way to your destination or even comment on the task at hand. There’s just one problem. They. Don’t. Shut. Up.
With your main pawn, you have the ability to sit down with them and adjust what they say, how they say it, or how often they say it. Unfortunately, you have no control over other peoples’ pawns. Do you ever have that one person in your group of friends that nobody likes, but is still useful to have around for one reason or another? I had one of those in my party for a time, and on top of never shutting up, he had the lowest pitched voice the game allowed for. Just one more thing to prepare yourself for when embarking on long trips.
Sound Rating: Very Good
The combat in Dragon’s Dogma is far less generic compared to other action RPG’s. It makes sense, since some of the developers who worked on the game also had a hand in the Devil May Cry series. When you are first starting out, you only have access to three basic vocations, which are your standard tank, ranged, and magic classes. Later on, certain innkeepers will allow you to spend points to switch vocations, allowing you alternative versions of the first three as well as three hybrid vocations. Each vocation has skills and abilities that can be learned and assigned to different buttons as well as skills that carry over between multiple classes. Much of the planning involves not only making sure your own skills are up to the task, but that you bring along pawns that complement you.
Pawns are computer controlled allies of which you can have up to three accompany you at any given time. Your main pawn is one created by you as the player, and will be your constant companion throughout the game. You also have the option of recruiting pawns either generated by the game or created by other players. While all pawns under your command will call you master regardless, you cannot pilfer the equipment of pawns that are not your own. They also do not level up with you, so you will end up changing them frequently unless you use a currency called RC to recruit higher level pawns. When you are done with them, you can rate them and send them away with a gift for the original owner to receive.
Naturally, this benefit extends to you as well. Other players can use your pawn if you have the option enabled to do so, and you may wind up with new items sent by those players. Pawns also gain knowledge of quests they embark on and monsters they fight, and that knowledge can be obtained the next time you stay at an inn. The advantage of this is that your pawn can lead the way to things, so you no longer have to rely on a marked map that hasn’t been completely explored yet. They’ll also know what to do when facing certain enemies by focusing on their weaknesses.
The control stick is used to move your character, of course, but you can click down on it in order to run faster (a feature that I’m quite glad was included). You can jump with the X button, and your weak and strong attacks are mapped to square and triangle respectively. The circle button is reserved for interacting with characters, including your comrades who may fall in battle and can be revived as much as necessary. The L1 and R1 buttons open up slots that can be filled with unlocked skills for your vocations and some can be mixed and matched with your regular attacks to come up with some interesting combos. R2 will let you grab onto things, such as scaling large monsters Shadow of the Colossus style, or just simple picking up random objects or people to throw around. You can also use it to restrain enemies for your pawns to strike unhindered, a courtesy that they will extend to you on occasion. The directional pad will give orders to your pawns such as telling them to attack or return to your side, and L2 lets you sheathe and unsheathe your weapon (which isn’t all that useful since the game does it on its own much of the time).
The core gameplay reminds me of a hybrid of Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus, and it turned out fantastic. The controls are responsive and allows for much variety, making combat one of the best aspects of the game. There’s something oddly satisfying about climbing onto a cyclops’ face and stabbing him in the eye until he falls over, allowing your pawns to dogpile onto him. And there’s usually more than one way to dispatch a particular foe. That same cyclops can have someone latch onto his leg while the other party members topple him over. There are also numerous items that can be thrown at him, such as oil, that can be lit on fire. The possibilities are endless.
In addition to your health meter, you’ll also have one for stamina. Stamina will drain depending if you’re running or using particular skills. You also need it if you climb onto an enemy and will drain even faster if they try to buck you off. If you run out, you’ll have to stop for a moment to catch your breath, which will leave you defenseless momentarily. If that’s not enough to worry about, your maximum HP will slowly plummet as you take damage. For example, if your character has 1000 HP, after awhile, the most you can raise it back to with healing spells is 800. In order to raise the cap back up, you either have to rest at an inn or use items that restore health.
While new weapons and armor for both yourself and your main pawn can either be found out in the wild or purchased from vendors, they can then be upgraded using components picked up from fallen foes. What’s nice about this system is since you can only carry so much on you at one time, you can put things away into storage, but still have access to them should you be at a vendor and away from an inn where your storage is. This means, no running back to withdraw all of the items you need for the upgrade before actually improving your gear. You can even sell things that are in storage without actually removing them first. The inn also provides a method in which to combine two items in order to make a new one, which is a cheap alternative to buying healing items outright so long as you know what needs to be combined to make it. It’s a bit time consuming doing the experimentation with this, so my experience with it was limited. Still, it’s a fine addition and gives you something to do with all of that loot you constantly pick up.
Control/Gameplay Rating: Amazing
If you’re just gunning for the main story quests, the game can be completed in a little less than 30 hours. There are a ton of side things for you to partake in though, such as quests that you get from townsfolk that require you to venture to places you wouldn’t normally go on your own, as well as job board quests can can be anything from escort missions to your standard “kill x amount of this”Â. After you finish the game, there is also some post game content that adds some additional story as well as ramps up the difficulty. If you manage to get through that, you also have the option of starting a New Game +.
While there is a ton for one individual to do, I can’t help but note the missed opportunity of having some form of multiplayer available. Especially considering the influence that Dark Souls has had on the game. You have access to a rift world where you can pick out whatever pawns you want to join you, so why not do the same with other players? This is a game that would have been an absolute blast while playing with friends. Capcom, I hope this makes it in the sequel!
Replayability Rating: Great
While the game is not nearly as difficult as Dark Souls was, it can be unforgiving if you’re not prepared. Fortunately though, you can save anywhere so long as you are not in combat. So if you know that there’s a difficult battle or boss fight coming up, you can create a checkpoint in which to fall back on. You can also carry as many healing items as you want, weight permitting. Everything that you hold onto, equipment included, adds to your weight and having too much will affect your mobility. You do have the option to unload excess items onto your pawns, but they have free reign to use them too if you do so.
Dragon’s Dogma encourages you to abide by its day and night cycle, as things become much more difficult once the sun sets. For one, you have to rely on your lantern in order to see anything and even that is limited by the amount of oil you have in it. Additionally, choosing to stray off of whatever path you are on and try to take short cuts through the forest will often lead to ambushes by difficult monsters. There’s a certain amount of risk involved when deciding if you want to save some time, which I found interesting.
Balance Rating: Great
While not an original concept in of itself, Dragon’s Dogma instead manages to be a very interesting hybrid between some very different games and pays off immensely. As stated before, there are elements pulled from Dark Souls, Shadow of the Colossus, and even some combat influence from Devil May Cry all mixed together. The ability to share pawns also brings with it an interesting community aspect that encourages you to get involved with other players, despite playing a game designed for only one person. It’s a good start to a new franchise, and I hope it returns with a few tweaks and actual multiplayer support.
Originality Rating: Above Average
At first, I was a bit put off by some of the game mechanics. From a gameplay standpoint, Dragon’s Dogma didn’t feel as slow as the games it was mimicking, so the fast-paced nature of the game led me to believe I could charge in and wipe the floor with everything Dynasty Warriors style. How soon I realized that not only was this not a good idea, but mindlessly mashing buttons and setting myself up to take damage lowered my maximum HP and made me burn through my reserve of healing items. Once I found a vocation I was comfortable with, I grew more accustomed to the game and subsequently, the game grew on me.
The only major thorn in my side during the whole experience that I could have done without, is the lack of reasonable fast travel. I swear that my gameplay time could have been cut in half had I not had to do as much walking as I did. There are stones you can obtain that will instantly warp you back to the main city in the game, but they are unreasonably expensive until much later in the game. There is also a item that you get where you can set a way point to warp back to other than the city, but this all just seems needlessly complicated, not to mention disrespectful to the player’s time. Especially since running is tied to your stamina, so you can’t even run all that far outside the city without having to stop and slow walk every few seconds. Wasting hours traversing areas I’ve already been through dozens of times being assaulted by enemies that get increasingly weaker as my strength grows just seems incredibly asinine and I’m not sure why this was never addressed.
Addictiveness Rating: Good
The market for action RPG’s just this year alone is growing increasingly saturated at this point. Still, I think Dragon’s Dogma has enough going for it that it can stand out amongst giants like The Witcher 2 and Kingdoms of Amalur. It seamlessly blends a deeper combat system from regular actions games along with the type of character building and prep work involved with most standard RPG’s. Add in a dash of survival horror in there and you have this game in a nutshell.
I should also mention that for fans of the Berserk anime and manga, rather than be sold as separate DLC, the armor sets for Guts and Griffith are included in the game. There is a merchant much later on that will give you a quest and upon completion will allow you to purchase both of these armor sets. While not the strongest equipment in the game (unfortunate given the in-game price), they look slick. My inner fanboy was quite pleased.
Appeal Rating: Good
I had an opportunity to play both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, and I can say that they are practically indistinguishable from each other. In other words, get the game for whatever system is your preference. The only fundamental difference I could see was that at the title screen, the 360 version has an option to take you to the Xbox Live Marketplace to where you can purchase additional content. The PS3 version on the other hand, links you to their website where you can share your pawns with the rest of the world.
An interesting observation I had when starting the game was that the first thing I saw was an update log making me aware that there was DLC (which has since changed to report other things). Not only that, but the only available DLC at the time of this writing was already on the disk. I know a lot of people (including myself) are annoyed by having to pay for additional content that is already on the disk, so if you refuse to support products that do this, this is something to keep in mind. I usually ignore these things if the game can live without them, which this one can. Unfortunately, Dragon’s Dogma likes to constantly remind you that there is DLC available. I’m not sure what triggers it exactly, but there was an instance where I got three prompts to purchase content right in a row. A player should not have to be given the hard sell in a game they paid good money for, so this was a very unfortunate design choice for an otherwise splendid game.
Miscellaneous Rating: Poor
Graphics: Above Average
Sounds: Very Good
Originality: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Good
Final Score: Good Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
Despite spinning an uninteresting storyline and containing some aggravating design choices, Dragon’s Dogma manages to be greater than the sum of its parts by combining elements of some of the best games on the market. The combat for a game like this is far more in-depth and responsive than those of its ilk, not to mention how fun it is to explore the countryside while being exposed to the dangers of the forest and being outside after dark. The game could have benefited from a more reasonable fast travel system as well as some form of multiplayer component beyond just sharing pawns with other people. Still, this is an impressive effort for a new franchise and I can’t wait to see what Capcom brings to the table should a sequel materialize.