In what is perhaps the grandest example of the Japanese gaming industry trying to incorporate western design philosophy, Dragon’s Dogma is a game made up of elements that would usually be kept very well apart. It’s an expansive action-RPG, full of monsters, castles, medieval armour and wielders of magic. Many an hour can be spent exploring forests, wandering along coastlines and plundering remote villages for quests.
Then you’ve got the other side. Menus are accompanied by some of the worst pop-rock guitar riffs you could ever have the displeasure of hearing, voice acting is over-the-top and melodramatic to the point of nausea and some of the missions are, well… plain silly.
For a game that sets itself up as a serious and adult RPG designed to be played over the long term, it’s sometimes hard to take it seriously at all. Despite that, what you should never do is take it for granted. Because you’ll die.
In a way somewhat similar to Dark Souls, Dragon’s Dogma takes pleasure in throwing perils in your path from out of nowhere. That exploration in the woods can quickly turn sour as a hydra bursts out from nowhere. That wander along the coast morphs into a stressful battle for life in the face of an ogre. Villages… they’re not immune from dragon attacks.
This perceived randomness does make for an experience that forces engagement and concentration, and that in itself gives a sense of doom and danger to the world and everything within it. However, in comparison to Dark Souls, the tension is muted thanks to a much broader and more destructive arsenal at your disposal and a group of helpers that are more than capable of lending a hand.
Where Dark Souls is claustrophobic through its sense of isolation, Dragon’s Dogma is more forgiving because of its team spirit. ‘Pawns’ are key to combat situations and you’re accompanied by three at any one time. One of these joins you throughout your journey and you can adapt their appearance, develop their skills and equip them with weapons. The companion setup creates an odd dynamic in that it feels as though there are two primary characters (as far as gameplay is concerned), but you’re only in direct control of one of them.
Your other two pawns are essentially mercenaries that forgot to ask for any money. These cannot level up or be equipped with new tools, forcing you to constantly switch them out for fresher and better ones as you level up, combat tougher enemies and generally leave their skills behind. The hired hands are recruited from towns or from the ‘Rift’, a limbo world in which you can search for specific classes and levels.
It’s vital that you create a team that is well rounded to give you the best chance of success. There are three core classes to choose from – Warrior, Mage and Strider (read: Rogue), and having all three between the four of you is a great help given that enemies vary wildly in terms of what they’re vulnerable to and effective against.
Impressively, pawns require very little micro-management. They’ll attack foes in (usually) an intelligent order, they’re not afraid to throw healing potions your way and – like Fable’s dog – they help to locate hidden items around the area you’re travelling through.
We played with a Strider as our main class and combat is fairly button-bash heavy, our character excelling in fast-in, fast-out attacks and counter-attacks. It’s much faster and more visceral than the genre is used to, although it does have the odd similarity to the system used in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
Unfortunately, the action combat approach suffers the same problem that plagues a huge portion of third-person fighters – namely a camera that requires constant alterations and a very hands-on approach. Given the effectiveness of your team of pawns, the camera rarely leads directly to a premature death, but it’s certainly a frustration. The ability to target a single enemy at a time would have been a very welcome addition, as would the option to zoom the camera out slightly at your own discretion.
There are other, bigger, problems. Quests, and the story in general, lack originality, intrigue or much in the way of creativity. The result is that before long things can start to feel like a bit of a grind, all the while you’re hoping that the next plot point or character is going to be more interesting than the last. Things are not helped by dialogue that feels as though it has been written by a six year old that’s just read their first Dickens, and voiced by the rejects of Big Brother’s voiceover casting sessions.
Given the Japanese origins of this game, it’s odd that it’s the structured elements that are Dragon’s Dogma’s weakest. Rigidity and set paths are what eastern developers tend to do so well because they’re able to add all the fluff and pomp that make the journey worthwhile. Here, it’s when you’re letting loose and killing time that provides the memorable moments, usually in the form of an attack from some seemingly all powerful beast.
While very difficult to recommend at full price, Dragon’s Dogma is certainly a game worth playing if only to get a front row seat to see what happens when east takes on a typically western genre. Undoubtedly, the blueprints are there for a very enjoyable and in-depth RPG, but as it stands there are too many awkward moments to push it into a realm dominated by western grand old adventure kings.