Review by head_creeps
"For aught it's worth, action rpg fans need to play this game"
The destiny of the world in the heart of one fighter
Setting & Story
Dragon's Dogma is set in a medieval fantasy world called Gransys. The player takes on the role of the Arisen, a person whose heart is literally torn out of their chest by a dragon. Interestingly, this does not kill the Arisen. How that is possible, and what it means, is part of the mystery behind the role the player takes on. This also serves to establish the strange bond between the Arisen and the dragon. Once the introduction is complete the world of Gransys is open to the player to explore and interact with. There are many story elements in the world, and most people have something to say -- sometimes many things to say -- but the story is mostly something that adds to the overall atmosphere of the game. It is not there to hold your hand and guide you from A to B to C. In fact, the game actively encourages you to find your own path and to do things in almost any order you like. You could, if you really wanted to, avoid almost all the quests altogether, though many are fun and worthwhile. Their worth is not just because of their tangible rewards, but because they often nudge you in new directions. While some in-game help is available, many quests simply leave it to you to puzzle out where to go and/or what to do. In a day when most rpg's practically complete their quests for you, it's refreshing to play a game that actually gives us the benefit of the doubt and assumes we have brains in our heads.
The character you directly control, the Arisen, is completely customizable at the outset (for appearance and first vocation). Your vocation -- you can choose from three to start: fighter, strider, mage, and then from more later on -- controls the general abilities available to you to map to your controller buttons. As you gain discipline points (the currency of skill progression) you can use them to purchase more skills. Your skills are further subdivided into skills specific to your weapons (and shields if you are using shields), skills considered core to your current vocation, and augment skills that you learn while using that vocation but which can later be used even while taking on the role of a different vocation (thus augmenting that new vocation). It sounds a little complicated, and it certainly isn't shallow, but it becomes very intuitive and rewarding as you play with the skills and pick new ones. Everything your character equips appears on your character, and some items can only be equipped by characters currently set to specific vocations. If you are an rpg player -- old-school or action-oriented -- you will love how many ways you have to tweak your character. What's great is that the tweaks you make have a direct impact on gameplay. There are many stats in the game (from pierce resistance, to various elemental resistances, resistances to blindness, ability to crush, etc.) and they have their place and add depth, but at the end of the day nothing matters more than the decisions you make while you are playing. This really is a character-centric (and thus player-centric) game.
You also have a second character, who serves your main character. This second character is referred to as your main pawn. As with your main character, you have complete control over the initial appearance, skill allocation and gear allocation of your main pawn. Choices you make at the outset influence its behavior, from its frequency of speech to its tendencies in combat. Fortunately there are special chairs around the world, usually in inns, where you and your main pawn can sit and have a chat, and in so doing the answers you give during those chats will either reaffirm your main pawn in its tendencies or guide them in a new direction. Like your main character, your main pawn will gain levels and learn new skills (that you choose) and equip new items (that you choose from among those you find, buy and enhance). It really is like having a second character and it is very cool.
You round out your party with up to two more pawns. These can be chosen from the cast of characters created by Capcom that populate the world. Or, they can be pawns created by other players. Pawns created by other players are available for your use via PSN, primarily through an in-game area called the Rift. Like the developer-created pawns, you can also meet player-created pawns in the countryside and along the city streets. While another player's pawn is in your group you can give it some basic guidance (like Help, Go, and Follow) and they will assist you to the best of their ability. You can use them, like your main pawn, as beasts of burden as well. The other pawns do not level up when they are with you, so once you have gained a level or two beyond them you will most likely wish to return to the Rift so that you can release them from service and seek new pawns to help you; pawns which match your newer, higher level. As you send off pawns you can rate them and even give them a parting gift and message that the other pawn's creator will receive in his game. Likewise, once you enter the Rift, a copy of your main pawn might end up in another player's group. Your main pawn never actually leaves your side, it's like a version of your main pawn serves others. Whenever you sleep at an inn there's a chance upon waking to learn that your pawn has served another and brought back a gift and some rift crystals (the currency of pawns). It's a very cool and creative system.
The game offers detailed, creative graphics of people, monsters, villains and animals. There is realtime lighting, day/night cycles, dramatic spell and ability effects, and a massively realized world to explore. There is slowdown in some busy fights full of effects, but over my 40+ hours of gameplay so far it has only been very slow 2 or 3 times for me. Most of the time, the lion's share of the time, the game runs very smoothly and it always looks outstanding. There's lots of details, from blades of grass moving in the breeze to moss covered rocks. I've seen paths at night become misty. Insects flutter around flowers. Clouds stream across the sky. As with just about any massively scaled game world, some textures on close inspection are relatively rough, but the overall appearance of the game is creative, detailed and inspiring. It's worth noting that the view distance is outstanding. With a clear line of sight it's possible to see for miles.
Sound effects are very good and satisfying, from UI/menu navigation sounds to background winds and murmurs, to the foreground sounds of movement, activity and combat. Music is atmospheric and well done, if understated. Personally I prefer it that way. It tends to well up in combat and then come to a sort of mini-conclusion upon victory (or a different tune if you die, and you will die). I love the title track, it starts out sort of reminding me of FFX's title track, then transforms into guitar-leaden J-pop. The voice acting in the game is very good, I don't think there's aught I can say against it.
The heart of any game is how it plays. This game plays very well. It has the best exploration I've seen in years (the world is massive and its nooks and crannies are worth exploring). The combat is outstanding. Very responsive and deep yet intuitive. Enemy AI tends to be quite good. Humanoids (like goblins and bandits, for example) will seek to surround you, attack from higher points in the varied terrain, come at you from cover (either of darkness or shooting through bushes). They can organize, so taking down leaders is helpful. And they can be brutally tough if you wander into areas that are well beyond your party's current level. There's no shame in running and you will learn this during your first half dozen or so deaths.
That's also part of the beauty of this game. In an age where games are being spoon fed to us via npc's with questionmarks over their heads and bright yellow arrows pointing the pigs (that's us) down the shoots (that would be most linear games), Dragon's Dogma reminds us what it's like to actually make our own choices. Should I try exploring in that direction? Is my group strong enough to take on that massive camp of bandits on that hillside? If I scamper down that embankment will I be able to find a safe route back up again? What happens if I risk a jump off that cliff? Is it too high? Try it. Find out. Even simple things like darkness. It changes the world, and not just by getting truly dark. Zombies rise from the ground. Lanterns can hold the darkness at bay, but did you bring oil? If you find oil do you have an empty flask to contain it with and thus fuel your lantern? You can pick food to eat and restore health and/or stamina, but how long ago did you pick it? It may be rotten now...
When in combat you will find almost all your skills have genuine uses, so choosing which ones to map to your controller will often be situational and will provoke interesting internal debates. Spamming certain abilities can be fun, and effective, but that often leads to stamina-deprivation, which leaves your character temporarily unable to do much of anything -- a very risky state to be in. You will learn to mix your bread-and-butter attacks with your specials, and have fun mixing up your assigned specials, to really unlock the potential of the combat engine. You'll also learn to combo with the pawns in your group. For example, you could trigger an ability that sends a foe skyward (via an upward jab) and then your tank pawn might further skewer the airborn foe with a special ability chosen for that reason. The depth is approachable yet almost endless. Every vocation is viable if well utilized. I simply cannot say enough good things about the gameplay. The controls themselves are extremely responsive and well honed. It takes very little time to adjust to their use, but a long time to master how to use them to best effect. It's also great how much the environment figures into your gameplay. Harpies will often attack from the air while you are at the base of deep canyons. Goblins might be lurking behind a crag. Enemies might send boulders tumbling down onto you. Barrels with flammable contents can be ignited for useful effect. Rocks can be picked up and hurled. Fording deep streams might extinguish your lantern. In many ways the world is much more than just a backdrop.
If I have to pick out things to criticize, areas that could have stood just a bit more polish, it would be with regards to your inventory and item-comparison. While storage works well and equipping items is quite straight forward, it would be nice if while you were in a shop you could better compare what was on offer with with what you own. You'll understand when you play. It's not a deal-breaker, but it adds time to a process that could have been improved a bit. But this is far from game-breaking, and its only in the spirit of review integrity that I bring it up.
If by now I haven't made it clear that this is one of the best video games I've played in many years then I have failed as a reviewer. Dragon's Dogma is outstanding. It vibes something like this: original pencil-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons (for sheer choice and openness), Vagrant Story (for some of the mood and awesome medieval vibe), and Demon's Souls (fluid, spot-on control in combat). That's not to say it is perfect. Graphic [insert word you know here]'s will probably take issue with the occasional slowdown. Music is so subjective that songs and sounds I like could definitely be songs and sounds you don't like. That's life. And there are times (though remarkably few, unlike with Skyrim's followers) where your Pawns will make bad choices -- though overall they are remarkably successful at following you and your commands. However, overall, Dragon's Dogma deserves to be lauded for what it is: one of the boldest and best open-world action rpg's ever made.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/31/12
Game Release: Dragon's Dogma (US, 05/22/12)
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