Quick Take: Don't call it a Skyrim knockoff. Dragon's Dogma can stand on its own two feet.
It’s easy to dismiss Capcom’s new action RPG game Dragon’s Dogma as a poor man’s Skyrim. Both games share elements of dragons, open world exploration, endless (and sometimes senseless) questing, deep, deep character customization (including crafting weapons and items) and hours upon hours of gameplay.
But to say that Dragon’s Dogma is a rip off would be a great big misnomer, as in some ways the game exceeds even the mighty Skyrim in terms of presentation and play. And the biggest thing separating the two games happens to be a Pawn. Or an army of Pawns that gather to do your bidding.
Dragon’s Dogma is, as you might have guessed, a medieval, swords-and-sorcery action RPG. Published by Capcom and created by such gaming luminaries as director Hideaki Itsuno, who previously worked on the popular Devil May Cry series, and Hiroyuki Kobayashi who produced Resident Evil 4 and the highly underrated Killer7. With a gaming pedigree as strong as this, certain expectations are drawn and I’m happy to say that Dragon’s Dogma as least meets most of them.
The game begins as a hero known as “The Arisen” is sent to destroy a great menacing dragon. This acts as a tutorial for the player to understand the game’s mechanics, and the tutorial ends with an epic battle against a Chimaera.
After the battle, the game shifts to present as a dragon is born from the sky and attacks a fishing village. Your created character (male or female, your choice) dies defending said village, and then the dragon eats your heart. Yeah, Fun! But days later, when you wake up, miraculously still alive sans heart, but with a horrible scar on your chest, word suddenly gets around that The Arisen is back and the player begins a quest to find the dragon to retrieve his or her heart and then slay the beast to bring peace back to the land. That’s about the gist of the entire story.
What happens next is up to the player as the entire living, breathing world of Gransys opens up for exploration and questing. There are the typical cave clear outs, and pelt hunting, and goblin killing, and the player gets to pick and choose which quests to do in what order. There is always something to do in Dragon’s Dogma.
Character creation is actually well done with tons of features to tweak to make the character look as you want it to. The player chooses from three classes: Fighter, Strider (ranger) and Mage, but later on, you can dabble into other classes to create hybrid classes (spellcasting archers and fleet footed tanks, as examples) so the customization doesn’t end in the beginning. In fact, there are “barbershops” and other options that allow the player to alter the look and skills of the characters as the game progresses.
Where Dragon’s Dogma really shines is with the advent of the aforementioned Pawn system. On the surface, it feels like nothing special. The player creates one NPC, or Pawn, that acts as a constant companion, and then throughout the course of the adventure, two other Pawns can be recruited to assist in the journey. The four-man party dates back to the original Final Fantasy games, which is nice reminder of a time when JRPGs ruled the world. The player has constant customizable control over the main Pawn. You can choose the look, class, armor and weapons, spells, etc.
The Pawn system then opens up another new wrinkle of innovation in Dragon’s Dogma call The Rift, an otherworldly place that is accessed by Rift stones. Only the Arisen can go into the Rift, but there the player will find all of the Pawns created by other players from around the world. You can then recruit these player-created Pawns to assist you in your four-man party. The benefit here is that some Pawns may be higher in level, and may have already completed some of the quests that you are still lacking. That experience benefits the party and the recruited (or borrowed, as I like to say) Pawn can remain in your party until they are killed in battle or are dismissed.
There are Rift stones scattered all throughout the land of Gransys allowing for easy access to the recruiting process.
Now, if I can recruit other Pawns for my adventure, that means that the Pawn I created is also sitting in the Rift waiting to be recruited by other players. And when I visit an inn to rest, my Pawn then “returns” (even though they have never left my side) with experience and loot found during their adventures with other masters. I LOVE this feature. I get the benefit of the Pawn that I created and customized in my adventure, even as they are out in the ether fighting with strangers and collecting loot and experience for me.
I also have the ability to rate a Pawn that I am using on looks, skills, and abilities, and that rating goes back to its master. It makes me happy to know that my Pawn is well received in the greater gaming universe.
The whole Pawn/Rift feature gives a multiplayer, MMO-like feel to what is essentially a single player RPG adventure.
As for the gameplay, Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. The game is combat heavy and because of this, battles comes a nice clip and you have to remain on your toes by keeping a constant eye on the life bar. For the Xbox 360 version, the RB and LB buttons (L1 and R1 for the PS3) can be pressed to use some learned skills and special attacks, so there is much more than just the inaugural light attack/heavy attack that the player starts the game with.
Also, there does seem to be an inordinate amount of information on screen at any given time, from moves that are mapped to the controller face buttons, to a mini-map, to the constant dialogue boxes from your Pawns as they tend to ramble on all game long. The on-screen info can be adjusted in the options menu, but some of it is handy, but when a heated battle is joined, the screen goes crazy with information. Regardless, the combat is action-packed and intense, without getting too repetitive, well, more than an action RPG player would be accustomed to.
What really make combat unique are the different monsters to fight. Sure, there are the requisite packs of wolves and spiders and goblins, but then you come across a massive cycloptic troll, or Chimaera, or a Griffin and the combat then shifts to a style more towards Capcom’s Monster Hunter series and the player is even able to climb up onto larger beasts to destroy them limb by limb, ala Shadow of the Colossus. The massive beast battles offset the “same old, same old” battles that make up the majority of the game.
Where the cracks of Dragon’s Dogma begin to form is in the graphics and art direction. At some points, the action is fast and the creatures look incredible, but then a simple stroll down a forest path looks glitchy and the frame rate skips. Some of the character and architecture designs are generic, less, say, Dragon Age: Origins, but on par with Skyrim.
Also, the camera begins to act as an enemy, as it will position itself in the worst places during the worst times (it’s probably better to just count on that happening plenty throughout your adventure). And unfortunately, there isn’t a lock feature during combat, so swinging a broadsword wildly while being attacked by an agile pack of wolves will result in loss of life. A lot. And this is where Dragon’s Dogma begins to resemble a game like Dark Souls.
To put it simply, Dragon’s Dogma can be difficult. In some areas, enemies will just keep coming relentlessly (wolves, goblins, wolves, rogue thieves, wolves and THEN comes the ten foot troll! All during a simple escort quest, or a rabbit pelt hunt.) The relentless combat has yet to get to the point of frustration, but saving often and stocking up on restoratives is a must.
Musically, the game’s soundtrack is good. The music is apropos to the action, up to and including rock guitar songs mixed in with sweeping orchestration.
The sound effects of steel on steel clanging and the whoosh of flame spells are pretty generic for an action RPG game, and the voice acting, while plentiful, is uninspired and does tend to get annoying after only a few hours. In fact, the Pawns will speak to the master throughout the journey, and hearing the same things, over and over, and with each Pawn speaking at the same time over each other (three voices, speaking at the same time) is enough to make even the most noble Arisen lose their mind.
Dragon’s Dogma also pushes the boundaries by integrating social media into its design. The player can snap photos (screenshots) and post them to their Facebook with an internet connection. There is also a Dragon’s Dogma app for iOS called Pawn’s Unleashed that allows the player to use their Pawn outside of the game to participate in scavenger hunts and races to earn experience and badges. You can even earn rewards like DLC for the main game.
There are other problems with the game such as the long nights that can only be skipped at an inn. Time passes within the game from day to night, but the nighttime seems so much longer than the daytime. This is probably by design, so the player will have to visit an inn and will also allow your Pawn to “check-in” with their recent spoils and experience collection. Also, as expected, night features a greater influx of enemies, and early on in the adventure, being stuck outside, far from a town with an inn can be a deadly experience. There is no way to speed up the time, and there isn’t a fast travel option, so if the sun sets during a raid or even a leisurely stroll, the player could be in big trouble. As I’ve alluded to, the learning curve in this game can be brutal.
Dragon’s Dogma is not a perfect game. It has flaws that are to be expected with a new IP, and when talking about a sword and sorcery RPG, there is only so much that can be considered “new.” The Pawn system is an awesome addition to the genre, as is the integration with social media and iOS apps.
The game takes about 40-50 hours to complete and there really isn’t much in the way of replayability other than the Pawn stuff. As this is a Capcom game, expect DLC support (hopefully new epic quests, etc. and less special weapons and armor). Time will tell if Capcom supports Dragon’s Dogma further than the requisite 12 to 18 months, but this new IP is one that would make for exciting sequels.
Dragon’s Dogma borrows heavily from the games that came before it, but the advent of the Pawn system gives the game its signature feature. When it’s all said and done, there is a fun and enjoyable game here and kudos to Capcom for gambling on a new intellectual property.
Shop for Dragon’s Dogma on Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 for a discounted price at Amazon.com (May 22, 2012 release date).