June 20, 2012
Unlike most fantasy Action RPGs Dragon's Dogma is less focused on storytelling, and more on random monster killing. It's something that may not seem too apparent at first but becomes incredibly clear as you engage in the first hour.
Before getting into the meat and potatoes of the game you're given a quick tutorial as an unnamed knight with a full loadout of abilities to test. Movement and character aiming are standard fare, while jumping, running, basic attack combos and item/NPC interaction are all handled via the primary action buttons. Selecting R1 or L1 will open up secondary menus that provide players with their primary/offhand special attacks, while the R2 button will enable characters to grab onto larger foes and climb. All of these actions consume stamina, which recovers as the player performs basic attacks or stands still, which means that monster fighting requires a good balance of learning when to attack and when to take a break or use a recovery item for maximum damage.
That's when it becomes apparent Dragon's Dogma is a game that's more focused on trophy hunting that unravelling a grand mystery or exploring the rich lore of an unknown world. Once you get past the character creation screen there's almost no real direction as to what you should do. Exploring the town is the first obvious choice, and there are the starter quests that familiarize the player with the locals, but there's no real energy being delivered by any of the supporting characters. The real fun to be had isn't about questing, but simply exploring and picking fights with the hostile natives.
If you're the type of gamer that absolutely hates wandering off the beaten path, getting ambushed by goblins or bandits, encountering a giant that may end your life in a single swing, then this is not the game for you. Its major hurdle is the fact that you will spend a lot of time running from one location to another just to complete the occasional quest, and given that between each point there are enemy ambushes, random monster battles, and the occasional large angry creature, it's easy to get sidetracked. One saving grace to getting lost is the map, which happens to have a handy quest marker that singles out individual objectives. In addition, it also lets players place a handy marker anywhere of interest. Scouring the world isn't a complete waste of time either, as the world is filled with resources to grab, crafting materials, and the occasional treasure chest with goodies inside.
When not spending a tremendous amount of time running about from location to location players will likely be in combat which takes place in two real forms, dungeon and open world. Open world combat is generally pretty frantic, as it happens when players are likely heading from one location to another and frequently is in the form of an ambush. Wild animals, wolves, harpies and goblins make up a majority of the early game foes, but things really start to shine when exploring for cliff-side treasure turns into an counter with a hill giant. Combat against larger foes generally involves coordinating strikes against vulnerable limbs, cutting off additional heads, or tearing into any other weak points on a foe.
Though sometimes predictable, the boss battles in Dragons Dogma are easily the most enjoyable part of the game, as they generally require a fair amount of planning and finesse. When caught off guard, these encounters are extremely engaging, and even with a bit of preparation there's nothing quite as satisfying as finding a wild roaming creature to leap on top of a stab to death.
In dungeons players will find themselves in a situation very similar to Demon's Souls; an area pre-generated with a specified grouping of enemies that emerge at specified moments. Learning when the enemies are going to attack and at what point in time is really half the battle, made far more critical by the fact that players generally can't take many hits. Blending in avoidance attacks, blocking and various special attacks, all which consume stamina. As players level up they gain the ability to purchase individual attacks from a list of moves (which naturally grows as players progress). The customization lets players build a list of skills that compliments a decent variety of play styles, enhanced further by the unique pawns that players will create and encounter as they play.
Pawns are NPCs that you will encounter throughout the world, available to fill in the weaknesses that the main character may have. Out of a party of four, one pawn is created using the customer character creator, who is able to be exclusively customized, equipped, and leveled alongside the main character. Unfortunately no co-op feature exists for someone else to take control of the pawn, however it is possible for your pawn to be used by other people connected to the game. Similarly for the last two party slots, players can select pawns to travel with them that other players have made, and though they do not have the ability to level they do retain all of their skill sets and equipment given to them by other players. In a way it's incredibly fun, as many of the wandering NPCs you encounter throughout the world happen to be friendly pawns and you will constantly use your own pawn and return it with notes and goodies, but it still doesn't quite replace the feeling that a form of integrated multiplayer would be better.
The reason all lies in Dragon's Dogma's core mechanics: an extreme focus on using precise attacks against the enemy in order to maximize damage. AI simply can't compete with the level of control provided by a human hand, and for as awesome as it may be to push the support button and instantly have your weapons enchanted, a hailstorm of arrows thrown down and a fireball cast all in conjunction with your sword swing, it's equally frustrating to demand your allies retreat only to hear them say 'I'm too busy for that!', let alone watching them get stepped on by a giant as they try to navigate around the terrain and enemy forces. When it works it works just fine and immersion is seamless, but more often than not players will find themselves wondering what their allies are trying to do.
Taking a step back from the AI, Dragon's Dogma really does deliver a solid experience. It's an experience meant for the more patient gamer, but those willing take in the scenery (and save often) should find the game to be quite rewarding. A little less story and a little more of a focus on hunting monsters would be an improvement, and why there are no multiplayer features in a game that seems almost built for it is beyond confusing, but as the first step in a new IP, Dragon's Dogma certainly hits the ground running.
Dragon's Dogma was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.