You can read this review in full in our print edition.
Our June issue, which is on sale now, features a Post Script article on Dragon's Dogma's clever pawn system and the how it shakes up the usual JRPG formula.
Dragon’s Dogma is a game stitched together from well-worn ideas and studded with clichés. There’s a story, for a start, which has the misfortune to grant a giant, flying, fire-breathing lizard a starring role after what must be one of the more dragon-heavy winters in gaming memory. And then there’s the setup. Despite a flash of originality in the premise, which sees the beast tear the heart from ?your customisable character right at the game’s outset – leading to his or her mysterious resurrection as the Arisen, a champion destined to battle the wyrm – the journey on which your character sets out follows much-trodden paths, taking them through fog-shrouded forests, mysterious caves and wide-open plains.
Those plains, forests and caves all belong to the kingdom of Gransys. Since it lacks Skyrim’s wintry atmosphere, and is far too po-faced to offer Albion’s humour, Dragon’s Dogma tries to make up for the shortfall in scale, always offering tantalising glimpses of castles and keeps perched over distant shorelines. Sometimes, it works – there’s a rugged charm to its landscapes for those who can’t resist the appeal of white space on a map screen, but it’s hard to deny that Dogma’s weakest lure is the lore.
With Narnia’s forests, A Song Of Ice And Fire’s peculiar title ‘Ser’, and Tolkien’s, well, Tolkien’s everything, about the only thing Dragon’s Dogma can truly call its own is its bestiary. Some of its monsters betray a classical influence that seems enough at home in the European forests, but even that is rounded off ?by more than its fair share of bandits and goblins. All fantasy kingdoms are indebted to one another, of course, but Capcom simply hasn’t fashioned the wealth of backstory or the distinctive looks to lend Gransys a world of its own. The killing blow comes with its inhabitants – the story dangles threads of intrigue, but it’s hard to get too involved when the weakly acted characters doth speak in phrasings bejewelled with faux-Shakespearean turns.
Thankfully, Dragon’s Dogma has more than just an over-familiar hero’s journey to keep you engaged. It has a collection of battle and progression systems that, once fully understood and allowed to feed into one another, offer a rare cocktail of satisfying, realtime combat wedded to menu-driven character progression. Dragon’s Dogma is built on a bedrock of stats and numbers – but above that foundation you’ll find a combat system that betrays the dev team’s history with Devil May Cry.
And if you’re looking for Dante, the melee classes are where you find him. There are no combos to memorise here – special moves are mapped to single button presses – but the language of combat is one that Capcom’s rakish hero would understand. Launchers send enemies into the air where they can be juggled, while grapples lead into throws that set beasts up for finishing moves. Trailers have focused on the Shadow ?Of The Colossus-like ability to clamber up the sides of larger foes, from where you’ll hack at weakpoints, and its hard to deny the very un-JRPG like physicality this brings to those encounters but it’s when trying out your character’s abilities on packs of standard enemies that the nuances emerge.
There’s the trace of an MMORPG’s accent here, too – melee classes have shield-bashing battle cries designed to suck up enemy attention, turning them into tanks in all but name. The DMC-influence is less obvious in the ranger and mage classes, meanwhile, but the commitment to fast, flowing battle is the same. There’s no mana pool for spellcasters to be concerned with, just warm-up times for their spells – and the bow-wielding striders can easily flit between close dagger slashes and firing arrows at long range.
With three basic character types, three advanced versions of those, and three hybrid roles (not to mention the ability to take moves learned in one role and equip them in another), you’ll need a fulsome party to offset your increasingly specialised skills. Thankfully, journeying alongside the Arisen are up to three other adventurers. One of these is your main ‘pawn’ – a completely AI-controlled stalwart companion whose character development is yours to govern. You’ll want to balance your own abilities, naturally, turning them into a doughty warrior capable of defending your frail but powerful mage, or a magical medic who’ll keep you healed as you plunge swordpoint-first into a snarling pack of wolves. The sense throughout is not of crafting two distinct characters, but a partnership. But the other two pawns in your party? Those are strictly on loan – quite possibly from other players.
Like Dark Souls, Dragon’s Dogma understands the potential for online interactions to enrich a fantasy universe, offering players glimpses of a world wider than the one they inhabit. But also like Dark Souls, Dragon’s Dogma is very aware of how easily other players can bring your tentatively suspended disbelief crashing down. Its solution is even more drastic than From Software’s disabling of voice chat: your actions will affect other players in Dragon’s Dogma, and theirs will affect you, but all by proxy.
While you might not be able to enter the gameworld and fight alongside fellow adventurers, your main pawn has no trouble flitting from one reality to the next. Whenever you rest at an inn, or visit specific corners of the map, your pawn is uploaded to Capcom’s servers, stored in a library alongside hundreds (and potentially thousands) more lovingly trained sidekicks. Players can fill out their party by hiring the pawns of other players, who will then bring their skills and experience to bear in your world. Pawns you’ve hired don’t level up, requiring frequent turnover, and in an elegant piece of economics, popular, higher-level pawns cost more, ?so you’ll be trying to make your ally as attractive a proposition as possible to other players in order to have the funds to fill out the rest of your own party.
They might not offer the same purgatorial atmosphere as Dark Souls’ ghostly glimpses of other players’ death scenes, but the pawn system ensures ?that other players are always a presence within your game – be it in the form of a particularly well-thought-out warrior build protecting you through one of Gransys’ nastier dungeons, or an amusingly deformed product of the character editor relaxing in the pawn guild. And unlike other players, pawns are always on-call: they don’t need to leave their master’s side ?in order to be summoned.
They also differ from more typical RPG party members in one key respect: despite the presence of some rudimentary orders mapped to the D-pad, they like taking charge. If a pawn you’ve hired has already embarked on a particular quest in some other player’s game, they’ll lead the way through the dungeon, pointing out secret passageways and providing tips for slaying the local creatures. Even in battle, you must learn to react to your pawns as much as take charge of them – helping them finish off pinned monsters and paying heed to their hastily shouted advice. They may never quite ring true as believable characters – a fact the fiction acknowledges – but that doesn’t make them unconvincing as echoes of other players’ adventures.
Unfortunately, whether your AI friends aid you or not, many of the quests you embark on are pedestrian, asking you to crisscross a rather large map in the name of fetching, slaying and delivering. And as richly packed as the world is with enemies and collectibles, it’s not long before quests start to blur together. In truth, ?this failing isn’t as damning as it could be, since Dragon’s Dogma’s quests are really just excuses to lure you out into the open. A day-night system sees all manner of creatures emerge once the sun sets, which, when coupled with the enemies’ ability to chip away at your party members’ maximum health over the course of an expedition, can see what starts as a seemingly easy quest morph into a tensely fought running battle upon the return journey.
Dragon’s Dogma is an ambitious project for Capcom. Attempting to inject a jolt of adrenaline into a traditional RPG’s frame would have been challenge enough, but to do so while attempting to craft a world as large as anything you’ve made before seems almost foolhardy. And there are hints, at times, that it might have been too much of a technical challenge. There’s the letterboxed presentation, for instance, saving the game the trouble of rendering an entire screen, as well as ?a framerate that judders at moments of monster-surrounded inconvenience. But when Dragon’s Dogma succeeds, it offers a potent piece of alchemy – a studio that helped define the Japanese action genre redefining the Japanese roleplaying game. Capcom might not have crafted the kind of world in which players will invest, but it understands the powerful draw of party building and gear tweaking, the immediate thrills of slashing and spellcasting, and the spirit of adventure in sallying forth on a dragon hunt.