Monday, June 18, 2012
Review: Dragon's Dogma
This article first appeared on hookedgamers.com
Mentioning the name ‘Capcom’, the mind of many a gamer would probably conjure images of shooting zombies in a mansion or slicing up demons as a brash, white-haired, sword-for-hire. I doubt many would think of a rich fantasy setting complete with dragons, magic, and a vast open world to explore but that’s exactly what Capcom has delivered with their fantasy epic Dragon’s Dogma. So how does this strangely out of place title fare against big name RPGs such as Skyrim or Kingdoms of Amalur?
Dragon’s Dogma is a bit of a deviation from the standard Capcom formula but keen-eyed gamers will notice that despite its unique premise, the game still shows influences of Capcom’s other popular franchises. Small surprise considering that many of the people that worked on Resident Evil 4 and Devil May Cry 4 also worked on crafting Dragon’s Dogma.
The plot isn’t terribly complicated; your character miraculously survives having their heart ripped out and eaten by a dragon. Shortly after, they discover that they are an "Arisen"; part of a long line of heroes destined to find and slay the dragon that ‘marked’ them. They must set out and journey across the world of Gransys, completing quests and growing in strength until their fated confrontation with the dragon. The plot may not hold a candle to Lord of the Rings, but it is a fairly compelling story-hook, especially as far as Capcom games go.
The combat uses a standard hack-and-slash premise which is very fast-paced and cinematic. You will often find yourself pitted against creatures that would be considered rare bosses in most other games. You might just be wandering out in the forest and then suddenly get attacked by a giant gryphon, cyclops or chimera. These events aren’t scripted; they can happen randomly at any given time. You can fight these creatures from the ground, but it’s much more fun to grab and climb onto them - a la Shadow of the Colossus - and target weak spots such as the gryphon’s wings or the cyclops’ eye.
Unlike Skyrim’s and Reckoning’s freeform progression systems, Dragon’s Dogma has a narrower focus in terms of shaping your character. At the start, players can choose one of three “vocations”. The fighter is a pretty standard sword-and-shield wielding melee expert, the mage is a ranged spellcaster who can also use his staff for close-quarters fighting and the strider offers a mix of close-range dagger and long-range bow combat. Each vocation has its own signature skills, weapon and armor proficiencies, and passive bonuses called augments.
Choosing a vocation at the outset doesn’t mean that there is no room for experimentation. Each vocation has two advanced vocations which can be unlocked down the road, bringing the total number of vocations up to nine. Garnering xp from combat and quests and leveling up gives the player ‘discipline points’ which can be spent unlocking new skills, augments, or even entirely new vocations to try. Since each vocation has its own unique set of proficiencies and skills, experimenting to find just the right vocation for you is encouraged.
Dragon’s Dogma’s introduces a unique gameplay mechanic called the Pawn System. Pawns are extra-dimensional beings that can be summoned from the ‘Rift’ using Rift Stones. Pawns are loyal to whoever summoned them and are like the friends you always wished you had in high school; they’ll follow you wherever you go, offer praise and helpful advice, and they will always have your back in a fight.
A party in Dragon’s Dogma consists of your own character, one "main pawn" and two "support pawns". You can create the main pawn yourself, choosing everything from gender, appearance and vocation with as much depth as you are given creating your own character. Support pawns are handled a bit differently. Using the Rift Stones, players can summon pawns to fill their support roles as they see fit. Pawns of any vocation can be summoned so if you want you can either go with a balanced party of casters, tanks, and damage dealers, or you can just rock four mages and blast enemies with a storm of fire and ice. The choice is yours.
If you connect your game to the internet, you can even summon pawns from other people’s games and send yours to help others. Don’t worry though, your main pawn will still remain at your side even when they're supporting someone else. Pawns that return from their extracurricular adventures can bring back valuable information on creatures and quests as well as xp bonuses and items. As you can see, the Pawn System is the key feature that separates Dragon’s Dogma from the pack, offering a unique way for players to connect and socialize without actually interacting with each other.
Dragon’s Dogma isn’t without its flaws. Navigating the various menus and inventory screens can be a confusing ordeal. The game lacks a reliable fast-travel system which means that unless you have a lot of cash to spare, you will be doing a lot of jogging in the overworld between the game’s various outposts and dungeons. In addition, its checkpoint and save system is confusing and is likely to frustrate both gamers who rely on checkpoint saves and those who prefer to save manually.
Unless you pick a character with a large body type - which affects your starting health - and the fighter vocation, you will likely be in for a rough time during the earlier stages of the game. Dragon’s Dogma has a fairly steep difficulty curve and while I’m not talking Dark Souls-esque situations here, some of the starter enemies such as goblins and harpies will two-shot your character if you aren’t careful. Since there is no way to change the difficulty setting, it is wise to save often during the game’s opening hours.
Dragon’s Dogma also lacks the depth and variety that triple-A RPG titles are known for. The crafting system is so bare-bones it could hardly be called one, the story is mostly forgettable and the quests rarely deviate from the formula of “talk to this person”, “go to this place” and “fight this monster”.
Even with the aforementioned shortcomings, Dragon’s Dogma is still a fulfilling experience that you can lose many an hour to. This is mostly due to a large number of optional quests and large variety of places to explore outside of the main storyline. It may lack some of the refinement and polish that RPG fans have come to expect from triple-A titles but the game does deliver on the fun. This is in no small way thanks to its unique and strangely addicting pawn system, its emphasis on stylized and cinematic combat and its vast world that manages to be equal parts dangerous, breathtaking, terrifying, and immersive. It may be a bit of an odd trail for Capcom to blaze, but if Dragon’s Dogma is their idea of what an RPG should be, I wouldn’t be inclined to disagree.
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