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

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