Platform: PS3, Xbox 360
We were lost. Utterly, hopelessly and endlessly lost. That alone
would have been enough, but now - thanks to unexpectedly sliding
off the edge of a cliff and into a crowded bandit camp - we were
also half destroyed, limping from multiple axe and arrow wounds. It
had seemed so simple to begin with, finding the source of a
mysterious cult that had sprung up in the area. Now we were miles
from home and staring into the face of an angry griffon, awaiting
Dragon's Dogma is, like so many of its inhabitants, a curious beast. Certainly an RPG, set in a sprawling open world inspired by the medieval fantasies of Tolkien and his followers. Definitely class-based, allowing players to choose between magic, swords and bows on their familiar quest to rid the world of a pesky dragon. But, beyond superficial similarities to titles from the past, this is not a game you've seen before.
You are the Arisen, named as such because you foolishly decided to try and rush the aforementioned dragon with a tiny sword. The dragon has been terrorising the land and you've decided to do something about it. But it's a dragon, so you are struck down and the dragon plucks out and eats your heart just to be a jerk. Undeterred, you wake up the next day with no heart and a strong desire for revenge. Thus begins an exceedingly long quest that starts with a lot of confusing wandering about and ends with a series of extremely epic moments and a lot of gobsmacking. Really. The story might not seem like much at first, especially since the game sends you on dozens of hours worth of busy work, but it ramps up considerably closer to the end.
The first thing you're confronted with in Dragon's Dogma (beyond the tantalising prologue) is the character creation system. You can tweak every tiny detail of your avatar, the robust system allowing you the freedom to create everything from a creepy clone of yourself, to an inappropriately fat redhead, to a withered crone of amazonian proportions. My personal choice was a small girl named Agatha. Post-dragon you'll then get to choose a class from the standard set of three - fighter, strider and mage. This might seem restrictive, but it isn't long before you're able to switch to more advanced versions of these as well as hybrids. Your dream of wielding a magic longbow against the forces of evil are still alive.
Down the road (figuratively speaking) you will meet your first pawn. Pawns are not human, they only look human. And they do not act without orders from someone else; in this case that someone is you. Their origins in the world of Gransys are mysterious, particularly because they randomly pop out of dark, swirling portals, but you do know they're here to help you on your quest.
The Arisen can have up to three pawns accompanying him or her at any time. The first of these is yours to design and nurture, from the size of their lips to the skills they carry into battle. This pawn is yours for the duration of the journey, and the closest you'll be getting to a companion. The other two spots are filled by pre-made pawns that you can choose to recruit from around the map or by going into the Rift and picking from a potentially infinite list. Pawns aren't merely generated by the developers, they are plucked from the minds of every player who ever played the game. Most of the pawns you recruit will be the companions of other Arisen, sent to aid you in their stead. These pawns will not level up while in your care, meaning you will need to constantly switch your party to stay on top of situations. Your pawn can also be used by other people, sometimes returning with gifts to thank them for their service. Or, in my case, a rock. Picking the right pawns to complement your party is essential in Dragon's Dogma, as a poorly balanced group can mean a quick death.
But really, everything can mean a quick death in this game. The difficulty ranges from scary to mortifying, and rarely on an even curve. More often than I'd like to admit I found myself getting absolutely slaughtered only a quick dash from the city walls. Careful preparation and a knowledge of the ins and outs of the different areas is key to victory, and to survival. This knowledge can be gleaned from worldly pawns, but is more often ripped forcefully from the jaws of defeat, as each failure steels you to get better and smarter.
Combat is real time, utilising combo attacks and special moves to dispense with foes. Fighters will want to wade directly into the action and try and take the heat off less sturdy members, while striders and their ilk will dash in for quick attacks or pick away from a distance with carefully placed arrows. And mages will create all manner of fireball, electrical storm and energy bolt. Every attack feels suitably meaty when it connects, both aurally and visually, and you really feel like you're in the thick of the action. The field of battle can sometimes get incredibly busy, however, and both your eyes and the camera will struggle to keep up.
Given that every fight may well be your last, it becomes very important to know your opponent. Wolves might fall to a flurry of sword strikes, but armoured bandits and shield-toting goblins may react differently. Then there are the real stars of the show: the true monsters of Dragon's Dogma. An impressive, if limited, number of mythical creatures are lurking in the shadows of Gransys. Griffons will swoop from the skies and try to grab unsuspecting adventurers, chimera patrol the forests with their angry lion jaws and magical snake tails and a giant hydra has multiple snake heads thirsty for your blood. One of the flying monsters may require a fire spell to bring it crashing to earth, while something large like a cyclops is best removed by leaping on top of it and hacking away at its eyeball.
Yes, you can jump onto the larger monsters in the game. And yes, it is incredibly awesome. In moments that are reminiscent of the sublime Shadow of the Colossus, Arisen can clamber over the top of things to better destroy them, clinging for dear life as the foe tries to shake them off. It makes for some amazing, unscripted action which can occur at the drop of a hat, especially when you know that many of the enemies can appear at any time and with little warning.
The world in which all of this madness occurs is, unfortunately, rather unimpressive. The hills and canyons of Gransys are uninspired and rather dull to look at most of the time, even moreso when you consider how often you may have to travel the same road thanks to a belligerently expensive travelling system. Settlements are also nothing special, with most populated by generally uninteresting people speaking with an amusing Shakespearean affect. Even the capital city, Gran Soren, is nothing but the usual medieval castle town dotted with weapon shops and NPCs with nothing to say. That said, there are many bright spots in the main cast, even if they are digging into the bag of fantasy cliches. Insane cult leaders, ruthless government types and plucky merchants will all cross your path on your way to the end.
They will be giving you the same old quests you're used to, though. And if you aren't used to them already, you will be after playing Dragon's Dogma for 20 hours or more. Go and investigate this, pick up that and take it there, escort this person to here and kill all the things. Quest design seems one area where the developers weren't exactly sure what to do with themselves.
Thankfully, the surrounding parts of the game more than make up for this. Sometimes the obscure design even aided the atmosphere, such as having to wander aimlessly to find clues as to where your next objective lay, or trekking halfway across the map before realising that your chosen route led directly into a dragon's resting place. I can say that I've never felt more like an adventurer than when I played Dragon's Dogma. The strategic planning required for even the simplest mission, combined with the potential for emergent gameplay in knowing that each unexplored region could hold your doom, meant that I was pushing forward not to complete my mission, but simply to see what would happen next.
In one incident, I spent three in-game days pushing across the regions to escort an associate to his destination. Bandits, goblins and harpies blocked our way at every turn, and more than a few times I had to order a retreat, but we made it. With the objective over the hill, I leaked a tiny yelp of excitement and relief. Then a golem stepped on my charge, crushing him instantly. That's the life of an adventurer sometimes. You just never know. And Capcom deserve a lot of credit for creating a game that can keep bringing genuine surprise and excitement even after hours and hours of play. Dragon's Dogma is something new and wonderful that is worth your time, even if it is a little rough.