OXCGN’s Dragon’s Dogma Review
Fantastically fresh or a dog’s breakfast?
by Alex Baldwin
© 2012 Alex Baldwin
Dragon’s Dogma confuses me for many reasons.
Some are small questions, such as whether to classify Capcom’s latest as a JRPG for the fact that it was developed in Japan, or a western RPG for the setting and gameplay that owes its styling to the likes of Tolkein and The Elder Scrolls.
However, most of the confusion comes from how I could possible assign a rating to a game that innovates the genre more than any other RPG in recent years, yet is so deeply flawed in the basics.
Dragon’s Dogma swings back and forth between providing both an immensely absorbing and intensely frustrating experience on a regular basis, but let’s start from the beginning.
The world itself lacks the same degree of fleshing out as other RPG contemporaries, but it works. After a brief introduction involving seeing the events of a previous ‘Arisen’ (chosen one), you begin by creating your character with a myriad of visual options.
After a dragon attacks your character’s village, you are marked by the dragon as the next ‘Arisen’ as he…tears out and eats your heart.
And so begins an ambiguous but epic quest to win your heart back. Beyond this, the game does little to explain its premise, which unfortunately is a trend in the game.
Very little both in terms of story and gameplay is ever explained or introduced.
It is up to you to work out most controls, what you can and can’t interact with, the menus and inventory systems and many other critical systems. While more comfortable after a few hours, there were some features I was not aware of until my 20th hour of play.
The strider seems to be the most popular choice thanks to the increased mobility and ability to wield both melee and long-range weapons simultaneously. As expected, weapons and armour can be bought, sold and upgraded , both for yourself and your pawns.
And by similar I mean the same way that a portal gun and a pistol are similar.
And rightfully so.
In addition to creating your main character, you must create a main pawn using the same character creator and assigning a class. This pawn will follow you through the game, providing both combat support and an additional inventory.
But that is just the beginning; through speaking to your pawn, you are able to shape their personality in the way you prefer, whether it be a confident talkative pawn or a meek servant, the choice is yours.
This is explained in the game as pawns being of a different world who travel here with ‘rift stones’.
They lack independence, and will attach themselves to people in order to have purpose and someone to command them. As the ‘Arisen’, they swear their loyalty to you.
As you travel throughout the land with your pawn, through how you have guided them to act they can be extremely helpful through collecting fallen loot independently, finding hidden objects, warning of enemies, yelling out any weak points of creatures they find and even offering suggestions on quests.
The more you travel throughout an area, fight an enemy or journey on a quest, the more knowledge they will gain of it and the more helpful they will be both in and out of combat.
For example, with high knowledge of a certain crocodile-like opponent a pawn will note both for themselves and you the creature’s weakness to ice, and may learn than cutting off the tail severely weakens them.
While useful, the pawn will take initiative in assisting you through throwing themselves onto the creature and wrestle it to the ground, calling for you to use the opportunity to quickly remove the tail before it regains control.
This makes combat very exciting and dynamic, but more on that later.
These can be found wandering the cities and countryside or summed from rift stones, and providing they are of similar level can be freely contracted or dismissed. Pawns each have a class and their own equipment, allowing you to balance your party how you see fit between yourself, your major pawn and the two additional.
However, those who are connected online will benefit the most.
Similar to the new concept of ‘passive connectivity’ that Demon’s Soul utilised, whenever resting at an inn your pawn will be uploaded to Capcom’s servers and will actually appear wandering around other players’ worlds.
The pawns found within your world will largely be composed of other unknown players’ main pawns able to be hired as your supporting pawns.
For specific types, pawns can be filtered and searched from rift stones instead of hiring off the street.
The major benefit of this is when the pawns you hire have encountered enemies of completed quests in their player’s worlds, giving them existing knowledge of what you will face and allowing them to offer you suggestions and already know enemy weaknesses.
In turn, my major pawn will offer knowledge to any players who hire him.
Innkeeper, another pawn please!
Any knowledge my pawn has learned in another player’s world is synced back to my pawn and vice versa. Additionally, when dismissing a pawn or replacing with another the option is provided to rate the pawn you have used, comment on them and pass a gift along to their creator.
Whenever this is synced at an inn you will receive feedback on your own pawn and gifts, making for a brilliantly social way of playing a singleplayer game.
Thanks to the expectionally high and unadjustable difficulty level of Dragon’s Dogma, sometimes you will be unable to complete a quests even with a balanced party and the latest equipment.
A separate currency is available in the game and earned from other player’s using your pawn in their world, and is primarily used to hire other players’ pawns that are higher in level than yourself to make things a bit easier.
For example, when I was only level 26 I hired a level 42 warrior and level 36 pawn mage as my support pawns (in addition to the main pawn) to get through a particularly difficult cave.
As fantastic as Skyrim and many other RPGs are, if boiled down to an action game their combat is usually awkward and unwieldy, relying on stats to dictate the winner of a battle.
While higher-specced equipment helps, Dragon’s Dogma contains fantastic combat mechanics that can make each fight both challenging and skill-based.
In addition to typical quick and heavy attacks, holding the left or right shoulder buttons switches the commands of the X, Y and B (square, triangle and circle on PS3) to assigned skills or special moves, allowing for six slots to place more advanced attacks learned from spending experience.
However, depending for any characters using two weapons each should button is assigned to each weapon’s skills, allowing the ability to switch instantly from firing a bow to tearing through an enemy with dagger and back again.
In addition, players are able to actually climb larger enemies through a dedicated grab button.
While for smaller enemies this allows the ability to pick up and throw them (off cliffs, usually), for larger ones you can attach to the closest part and scale them to try to attack weak points.
For example, a giant cyclops is best scaled from the back, climbing up onto their head and madly stabbing at the eye.
For example, a warrior may put their giant sword to the ground for you to step on and hoist you into the sky to grab a flying griffon, or attack a troll’s knee to stagger him so you have time to scale his leg without being thrown off.
This makes for action-oriented and very fast-paced combat that puts most other RPGs and even action games to shame, demonstrating that RPGs have no excuse for watered-down or button-mashing combat anymore.
Combat is made even more dangerous for several reasons.
Firstly, there is no standard quick-travel system beyond some very expensive tokens that transport you to only a certain locations. If you are struggling, you will need to work your own way back across the landscape to a safe haven that can be twenty minutes away.
They mostly come at night…mostly
At night, creatures are far more likely to attack and can come in waves.
The lighting makes it too dark to clearly see at night, relying on your use of a lantern that only lights a few metres. While frustrating after completing a long quest and beginning the long hike back, it can make for some supremely tense minutes and creatures suddenly appear leaping into your tiny circle of light and the silence is broken by howls and cries.
If you’re low on healing items, this can transform into a mad sprint through the dark back to the city as all the creatures of the night pursue.
Only one save slot is permitted (including auto-saves), no general quick travel and health that will only regenerate to a certain point which is decreased the more damage that is taken.
Inventory space is limited and affects movement speed, and most often creatures will attack in mobs and even call more to the battle.
Unfortunately some basic usability issues can quickly transform this from challenging to break-the-disc-in-half frustrating.
The quest log is very unhelpful and provides no indication of the difficulty of a mission. This is more prominent as enemies do not level, and it can be a frequent occurence that a twenty minute journey across the land to a quest point will result in encountering creatures far too difficult for your current level or pawns, resulting in death and still requiring another long trek back with little health.
Need a map? Pft
It is far too easy to stumble directly into a bandit den in the dead of night without a clue and be killed almost instantly.
Similarly, you need to be very careful with saving (which takes approximately 10 seconds from the pause menu) as there is only one slot per profile and manually saving will overwrite any autosaves or checkpoints.
This can result in saving at a bad time, and no way to get out of the situation.
However, the biggest flaw of the game has to be the graphics and performance.
Visually the game would be considered on the low-end for a Wii game, so for an Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 title it is severely underwhelming to see so many muddy textures, pop-in and horrible facial modelling (don’t even ask about lip-synching).
The point is driven home by the framerate, which struggles to even stay in the 20s as it can dip down to single digits in the most bizarre circumstances such as looking around in a building or viewing a wall from the wrong angle.
It makes no sense and can make some fights frustrating when the game transforms into a slide show.
Yes, even on your shiny HDTV, the game has permanent black bars at the top and bottom (plasma TV owners beware due to burn-in).
It seems the developers had to shave every bit they could off the rendering to get a barely playable framerate, and as a result not all of your TV will be put to good use.
This gives the impression of a game sorely in need of an extra 6 months of optimisation and testing. It is far, far too easy to dismiss the game from the terrible performance, visuals and usability early on.
I would implore anyone who played the demo and was severely underwhelmed as I was (combat seemed messy, ugly graphics, etc) to not judge the game by it.
This is why I hope a sequel is on the cards, as Dragon’s Dogma has too many fantastic ideas such as the pawn system and combat that are overshadowed by the technical inadequacies and sheer unfriendliness of the first few hours.
Supermodel, fallen in mud
While difficult to see, once you dig through the dirt of the early hours Capcom’s new IP is an incredibly immersive and innovative experience that is sure to find a cult following.
Just don’t judge on first appearances, and believe your friends when they assure you she has a great personality.
© 2012 Alex Baldwin
Filed under: Console gaming, Game Impressions, New Xbox 360 Games, PS3 Reviews, Xbox 360, Xbox 360 Game Reviews Tagged: | Capcom, Dogma, Dragon, Dragon's Dogma Review, dragons-dogma, Elder Scrolls, JRPG, Role Playing Game, RPG, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim