Thursday, 17 October 2013

Dragon's Dogma

System(s): PC, Xbox 360, PS3

Genre: Action RPG

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom

Release Date: May 2012

North ASNote: This review is for the Xbox 360 version only.

If there is one thing that is a staple of all stereotypical RPG's, it's that you are more than likely going to encounter a dragon. Such an awe-inspiring and iconic symbol of fantasy and perilous adventure is bound to eventually get overused. Thankfully, Dragon's Dogma is on hand to show that dragons haven't been reduced to a tired cliché yet. Dragon's Dogma is an RPG set in a fantasy world but with a twist: you can fully customise both your own avatar and a companion (known as your pawn) to take with you. In addition, you can bring two other party members, taken from the ranks of pawns other players have created, which makes for some weird adventuring parties. But more on that later.

The game opens when it's namesake, a gigantic dragon, decides to pay a visit to your quiet seafront hamlet, Cassardis. After the unwelcome guest becomes a bit of a nuisance, destroying and eating half the village, our plucky hero picks up a sword in a moment of extreme insanity (or stupidity) and promptly gets flattened. After ripping out your heart and keeping it as a gruesome trophy, the dragon double-dares you to win it back. With the dragon's "neener-neener" still ringing in your ears, you become the Arisen, a legendary hero with a husk of a body, but with the supernatural powers of.....erm....recruiting help. Seriously. Summoning characters to assist you. That's your nifty new power. Not weapons or magic, but a conveniently placed game mechanic. This really just feels like the pawn system was wedged into the story.

Apart from the AI being dumber than a bag of hammers, having weird names (that's user created content for you) and the fact they never shut up, pawns will at least give you hints on quests if they are at a higher level and generally don't need too much babysitting. There is a way to reduce the amount of chatter although Capcom made some of these kind of options accessible only via objects in the game rather than through a simple options menu. It would also be nice to have a lot more control over what your pawns actually do as well. While you have some limited directions, they aren't all that useful. You sometimes find yourself being healed while at full health while another party member is dying, for example. But they can generally hold their own in a fight.

The one glaring omission from this game above all others is not being able to have a friend along for the adventure. There is unfortunately no multiplayer to speak of whatsoever, instead, your friends list gets to use your pawn for free, even if they are ridiculously overpowered. You can choose to send an item with them when you dismiss pawns but I can't recall ever getting anything useful from other players. I can't help but think that not having co-op was a missed opportunity.

If not being able to control your pawns is frustrating, at least customising your character and main pawn is a blast. There is tons of loot in this game, and even better, you can craft materials and improve your equipment with items you find. There is a huge variety of trinkets, herbs and monster parts to be found and it's almost as satisfying as in Dark Souls or a traditional rogue-like when you come across a new piece of loot. But nothing beats actually trying out that massive new war hammer on enemies.

This is because the main thing that Dragon's Dogma does exceptionally well is combat. You get a choice of three standard classes common to most RPG's, with plenty of skills to unlock. When you level up, you get points for hiring pawns and spending on upgrading skills. Most of these are great fun to use, although the classes are a little unbalanced. Playing as a mage is not nearly as enjoyable as playing as a fighter or archer, and for people who enjoy unleashing powerful magic, this is a bit disappointing. As a fighter or archer, however, you can string combos together nicely and more importantly climb on enemies backs very effectively, particularly if you chose the nimble, ranged classes. This mechanic is basically what makes the game so much fun when fighting. Jumping on a griffon's back while it flies in the air and hacking at it's neck until it falls to the ground, all the while watching it get peppered with flame arrows is one of the biggest thrills the game can offer.

 Image 1Similarly, coming up with tactics and working together to beat large foes is intensely satisfying. Enemies have strengths and weaknesses to plan strategies for, such as ogres, who will always target female characters. The bosses are excellent as well and the locations atmospheric. Well, when there are monsters to populate them. The world of Glansys is bleak and empty. That does give it a certain charm, but I couldn't help wishing there was more incentive to explore. Capcom has created beautiful looking character models, monsters and occasionally nice scenery, but failed to fill the world with enough "stuff" or diversify the monsters. Even though the scenery is not technically impressive or pushing the hardware to the limit, some pop-in, screen tearing and clipping becomes an issue every so often, and the camera is awkward during fights - the game makes other characters transparent to resolve camera hitches, but is less accommodating of objects like trees or rocks, unfortunately.

In the first half of the game, most of the enemies are chimaeras or goblins with the occasional Cyclops protected by bandits. There is no randomisation to the encounters, which due to the concentration of these enemies makes the middle part of the game a weary slog. Fighting goblins for the umpteenth time becomes repetitive and eventually it becomes tempting to ignore them unless you want crafting items. Even worse, side quests are mostly bland and forgettable, relying on the old fetch quest or escort mission tropes. The main plotline doesn't get going for some time and you can easily fail side quests without having a guide handy to make it clear when they expire.

As for the dialogue and characters, it says something when the mute player character has more personality than the NPC's. It doesn't help their case when they all talk in a really cheesy "ye old" dialect. To add to this tedium, fast travel doesn't become too effective until halfway through the game and you spend much of your time trudging through the half-empty landscape either escorting fragile NPC's with terrible path finding, or running for a few seconds before doubling over from exhaustion. I understand that stamina bars make games seem more realistic, but when your hero topples a mighty golem with minimal effort but cant run across an entire field without stopping every few seconds it doesn't exactly suck you into the game world.

Speaking of destroying I need to mention the 'Brine?' Monsters that live in the water and kill you really quickly if you stand in deep water too long? Really? In theory they could have hidden some neat secrets out on little islands somewhere but the water death mechanic makes exploration of the craggy cliff faces more unwelcome than it needs to be. Perhaps swimming with a full plate of armour is also unrealistic, but then why not make the character just drown?

If it sounds as though I hate this game, I don't. I genuinely enjoyed playing it. Most of the time. The upbeat, fast-paced title music is great for psyching someone up for a spot of dragon slaying and the characters and accessories are nicely designed and detailed. Not to mention the beautifully designed monsters, which look imposing enough to make the most battle-hardened adventurer flee in terror....well, in between resting to recover their stamina at least. The main plot is fantastically nutty when it finally kicks in too. But the combat seems to carry the game far too much. It's as if Capcom was so concerned with doing something different and perfecting those differences, they forgot to shore up on the basic mechanics that make an RPG work. There will be plenty of people that will absolutely adore this game, and I can understand why, as it's problems don't diminish the fun factor entirely. But for most people, Dragon's Dogma will be known as the idiot savant RPG of this generation.

+ Engaging combat
+ Creative bosses and well designed monsters
+ Extensive character customisation
+ Entertaining main plot
+ Refreshing ideas in an increasingly well-trodden genre

- Boring side quests break up the main story too often
- Repetitive
- Graphical glitches
- Unbalanced classes
- No multiplayer

Overall Score

Friday, 14 June 2013

Recettear: An Item Shops' Tale

System(s): PC

Genre: RPG/Simulation

Developer: Easy Game Station
Publisher: Carpe Fulgur, Valve Software

Release Dates:
Japan - December 2007
North America - September 2010
Europe - September 2010

Every once in a while, a game comes along with a really interesting concept. A concept that you would love to see work, but which sounds like it doesn't have a hope in hell of making a good game. On occasion, though, as bizarre and "out there" as the idea is, the developer manages to weave it together to make it fit and make for a compelling and addictive experience. So much so that it sucks up your time well into the wee small hours.

Recettear: An Item Shops' Tale is just such a game. An odd mixture of anime characters, rogue-like dungeon crawling and business strategy, Recettear is surprisingly addictive, if a little short. Recettear starts out with the protagonist, Recette Lemongrass, in her home wondering where her father went and agonising about bills - a bit of an odd start to a video game, admittedly, but it sets up the premise nicely. She hears someone at the door, and the debt collecting fairy (it's as bonkers as it sounds) Tear answers, looking to collect on the loans made by Recette's father. Penniless and alone, Recette has no way to pay off her fathers' debt, but Tear makes a deal: if she runs an item shop, she can use the profits to service the debt. It's no coincidence that the title, as well as being a portmanteau of the protagonist's names, is also a pun on the word "Racketeer."  Unfazed by the troubling news and with an enthusiastic cry of "Capitalism, Ho!", Recette sets about learning how to run an item shop for adventurers.

The main part of the game consists of sourcing stock and trying to haggle prices with customers. There are four main ways you can obtain stock - buying armour and weapons from the Merchant's Guild, items from the Town Market and sponsoring an adventurer to enter a dungeon and collect loot are available early on. Eventually, customers will also sell you unwanted items. This becomes useful, because while you can't haggle stock prices in the guild or shop, you can negotiate with customers for both buying and selling. Your shop is laid out into display cases, where you put individual items. A cabinet by the window is provided as a place to market your items, and management of this display will determine how many customers enter the shop.

The real key to success in Recettear though is the familiar market principles of 'buy low' and 'sell high.' Initially you get fairly cheap items you can sell in your store, but as the weeks progress and the debt payment you are required to meet each week gets bigger, the value and price of the new stock you can buy also goes up. This has the effect of pushing you to become more and more upmarket in order to make bigger profits, although you are encouraged to keep a diverse range of stock. Relying completely on expensive goods will limit profits because not every customer type will have a lot of money to spend, and every bit helps.

Haggling is the most important skill to master - you will be given a percentage of the item value, which defaults at full price. It's advisable to go a bit over the original price, but not get too greedy, since customers will usually only haggle twice before getting frustrated. You can double your money, which only happens during price fluctuations such as when an item gets extremely popular, which will flash across the top of the screen. It's a nice mechanic but you rarely get an advanced warning, so it's just a case of waiting for it to happen then rushing out to buy stock. There are other things you can do outside the shop, but the day is split into times of the day, and these are taken up if you leave, so you have think carefully whether it's really worth leaving the shop closed and missing out on profits. Anyone familiar with Rune Factory or Harvest Moon will recognise this need to manage time effectively.

Dungeon crawling is an enjoyable distraction of the hustle and bustle of retail. Its a useful way of getting items to sell, as you usually only need to pay for potions to outfit the adventurer you're sponsoring. You run into new fighters later in the game, and any new character you meet in this way will also begin frequenting your shop. Unfortunately, a distraction is all that the dungeon combat really feels like. The fighting consists of hack n' slash tactics, and in spite of adventurers and equipment having stats, you will usually be able to destroy most enemies with one or two hits by the time you get half way through the game, so long as you provide good equipment. It's nice to have a choice of adventurers too, but ultimately it's more of an aesthetic choice than a practical one.

As for rewards, you can only take a certain number of items, so it can be frustrating having to constantly drop things for new items. Experience points are a bit odd: they burst out into little gems you have to pick up on the dungeon floor. Ultimately, if you invest the time, you can get some very valuable items that will sell for a large price. You can also combine those items and make new ones, although the system for doing so is intimidating for all but the most hardcore RPG fanatics.

Recettear is replete with the sort of charming, upbeat music you would expect from a Japanese game, with liberal usage of wind instruments and the tinkling of piano. The dungeon music is mostly rock and techno, which is hardly surprisingly, but it suits the action. The dialogue is another aspect of the game in which the anime influence is strongly felt. Although the dialogue isn't fully voiced, anime-inspired Japanese exclamations accompany the dialogue every so often. As adorable as this is to begin with, this becomes grating after a while. Graphically, the game resembles titles such as Fire Emblem, and the sprites during dialogue occasionally express emotions depending on the situation. The dungeon, again, is the only real disappointment. Character models look a bit fuzzy, while backgrounds fail to inspire.

A good sense of humour is scattered around Recettear. Much of the humour comes from the interaction between Recette and Tear. The over-enthusiastic and incredibly naïve Recette obviously hasn't the slightest idea how to take care of herself and comes across as an endearing protagonist. Tear is less sympathetic but equally interesting in her mentor role, and there is a hint of a shady side to her dealings in the past within the story. Most other characters aren't given that much depth, which is a pity as they could have been interesting. In fact, the role of shopkeeper makes the game feel a bit out of touch with the goings on in the world outside the shop, especially since little background history is revealed.

Far more interesting though are the interactions between Recette and her customers. Shoppers will sigh in disappointment if you fail to meet their needs and adds to the tension of any potential impending failure when you need to sell an expensive item to meet your looming debt repayment. If that wasn't enough, Recette will utter a heart-melting groan. Fail in your monumental task to repay all your debt and you will be greeted by a 'Game Over' screen featuring a picture of poor Recette living in a cardboard box eating cat food. Which is in equal parts cruel, funny and a frightening social commentary on homelessness and repossession. Only a game made with as much attention to detail as Recettear could say so much in just one picture.

Recettear is an amusing dojin-soft game that will no doubt strongly resonate with gamers with a love of all things Japanese. The quirky, offbeat humour is as compelling as the protagonist is maddeningly optimistic. With such a creative mixture of gameplay styles and a challenging goal to complete, it's a pity that Recettear doesn't last a bit longer, although it's difficult to complain when it's on sale for so little - and wrapped in a neat bundle of crisp 2D anime visuals.

+ Sharp, well-presented anime visuals
+ Charming protagonist blurting out frequent amusing non-sequiturs
+ Unique take on the RPG formula
+ Engrossing and addictive

- Only lasts a few hours
- Dungeon-crawling falls flat
- Blurry sprites and boring backgrounds.
- Little reason to re-play the game

Overall Score