Fantasy is notorious for being a genre for adolescent wish fulfilment. Not only do many novels feature scantily clad women on the cover (Conan, Gor, etc) but the formula for storytelling is so locked in stone (simple peasant finds artefact – is chosen – gains powers – quickly learns powers – defeats evil – comes back for another trilogy) that when you get something new, it can take off. Gaming has followed these tenets for decades, with varying levels of success, and many franchises have come and gone over the years. Recently, console based fantasy RPGs have embraced other modes of gameplay to expand their repertoire and keep a dangerously stale genre fresh.
Dragon’s Dogma comes from Capcom, with an agenda to make a JRPG with a western design aesthetic. This means no giant swords, no effeminate male characters or schoolgirl theatrics and a plot that makes some sort of sense. The only elements that really let you know that this game originated in Japan is the customary jingly piano piece on the menu screen and the J-Rock opening theme. Hopefully, passionate JRPG fans don’t see this as a sell out to western audiences, but as a successful crossover. Most gamers probably won’t even care.
The game takes place in Gransys, a generic world beset by hordes of monsters and a powerful dragon that takes your heart and gives you powers. This vile reptile then challenges you to kill him (when you are ready) but first there is adventuring to be done and evil to defeat. With really only a couple of major cities to discover and no meaningful conversation trees, Dragon’s Dogma pushes you into the action again and again with deep and rewarding combat mechanics… for an RPG.
Character creation and customisation is a quick process and emphasises unlocking new abilities over stat building. The setting itself is actually a dull place to explore so the thrill comes from the world being so dangerous to travel through. Initial forays outside of the town of Cassardis will quickly leave you dead unless you take your time and use your group’s skills wisely. A healer is vital, as is somebody with the ability to deliver long-ranged magical or bow attacks. You can issue simple commands to your followers (here known as ‘pawns’) in their character screens which sees them either taking a defensive/supportive role or joining you in the attack.
Travelling at night is a dangerous affair (just wait until you’re set on fire for the first time!) as extra minions appear during this period, including undead and larger creatures. To compound this, there is no quick travel feature beyond an expensive spell achieved later in the campaign. This forces you to consistently travel through perilous areas, and you either learn the right combinations to kill enemies or run like hell. When you reach about level 30, though, it all becomes much easier, which is a little annoying.
Dragon’s Dogma knows the value of a good boss fight and frequently finds ways to make you tackle something much larger than yourself. Taking on enemies like ogres, golems, chimeras and even dragons gives you the opportunity to climb them (if your class allows it) and concentrate on vulnerable areas. As you climb, your stamina decreases à la I Am Alive, so you must make the most of your limited time. Most enemies will do their best to dislodge you, limiting your chances to cause mega damage. Again, these foes are most challenging before you level up too much and your pawns immediately go in for the kill.
Alas, the game does fail to impress in some of the areas that a title like Skyrim does so well. The world is bland and small and very few locations have something to do beyond killing the monsters that linger there. There is little variation in terms of graphics or storytelling regardless of how far you travel. While characters look fine and allow for multiple variations of armour and weapons, larger enemies are poorly animated and prone to occasional clipping issues. You’ll run out of things to do surprisingly quickly and be forced to pursue the one quest still open, which sends you towards the final events of the game almost without stopping. Imagine how you’ll feel when you then find additional quests being offered as paid DLC. This is a blatant case of DLC not really being an extra, but content that the main game is sorely lacking. Cheap!
Dragon’s Dogma includes a simple, yet powerful, type of multiplayer where pawns that you create are accessible online for other players to use. As you travel and overcome challenges, your pawns gains knowledge. When other players borrow your pawns, they gain access to that information, which assists them in finding quest locations and defeating adversaries. It can be quite a thrill to receive ratings and gifts from players who have used your follower. It’s a great way to share the experience.
Capcom has learned that in order to stand out from the pack, you really need to give gamers something new. Taking inspiration from successful recent releases like Dark Souls, this offering proves that the audience for role-playing games has changed. It wants action, dragons and who cares about that number crunching anyway? Now, back to the fight!