It must be a daunting task for any developer to pitch a new open world RPG these days. With giants like Skyrim dominating the genre, and new bloods like Dark Souls breaking new ground, an RPG has to be very special indeed if it’s going to make it big.
Some manage to do well enough, while others inevitably fail to succeed, such as the recent Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, even taking whole development studios with them. So, when Dragon’s Dogma was announced, and was coming from industry heavyweight, Capcom, we had to take note, not least thanks to the inclusion of the Resident Evil 6 demo, a shadow the game itself has had to fight to escape from underneath. So, the question is, is Dragon’s Dogma a bonafide, epic RPG in its own right, or will it be anther title that’s worth picking up for the big name demo code slapped in the box?
Dragon’s Dogma comes from some of the creative minds behind Resident Evil, Devil May Cry and Breath of Fire, and takes place in a large, if slightly generic, fantasy world. This world is full of vast, open spaces, has full day and night cycles, and is a very dangerous place to live.
When your fishing village is attacked by a large, red dragon, you attempt to fight back the beast, only to have your heart ripped out and some form of magical bond returned in its place. As an ‘arisen’, your goal is to seek out the dragon, and save the world from the fiery threat.
Okay, so the story isn’t particularly stunning, but it sets up an sprawling quest in a large, open world, one that’s certainly got a lot going for it.
Dragon’s Dogma is, at heart, a classic hack and slash RPG. There’s no point-and-click, queuing up actions, or macros here, this is full, hands-on adventuring, with a combat system that’s clearly benefited from its roots in many of Capcom’s staple combat titles. Combat bears many similarities to games such as Devil May Cry, to the point that some of the special abilities are pulled right out of Dante’s repertoire.
It smoothly mixes in light and heavy attack combos with blocking, special attacks and even jumping attacks, and thanks to the climbing and grabbing system, you can not only scale the environment mid-battle, but can also grab on to, and climb around larger monsters, à la Shadow of the Colossus.
This is an essential skill to master, and one that certain character classes, such as the nimble Strider, are best at, as it lets you find and target a monster’s weak spot. These spots exist on smaller, bite-sized enemies, but larger monster have them too. And by managing to, say, cut of a monster’s tail, you can greatly improve your chances in battle.
This in-depth and well implemented combat system really does elevate the action RPG experience of Dragon’s Dogma, and makes each battle a real event. This is also helped by seemingly random encounters, and enemies that can call in reinforcements mid-battle, which can quickly turn a winning fight into a nigh-on hopeless struggle. And, when you’re ambushed by a massive beast as well, the result is an often exhilarating fight for survival, and in many situations, just escaping with your life, and that of your allies in tact, is a real achievement.
Speaking of allies, it’s here where Dragon’s Dogma is perhaps at its best. The much talked about pawn system, which sees you employ the aid of AI controlled allies which can be loaned to other players online for use in their own games, works excellently.
The pawns themselves have some truly impressive AI that sees them take on enemies, use special attacks, support spells, bark out helpful combat tips and much more. They’ll scour the environment for loot on their own volition, and they’re generally supremely useful in a fight. In fact, if it wasn’t for their endlessly repeating dialog, they’d be almost perfect.
The real magic, though, comes from the online options. With no input from you, your pawns can be downloaded into other Dragon’s Dogma player’s games. Other users on the lookout for pawns with a specific skill set to get past a section of the game can enlist your pawns help at any time. Whilst away on this quest, as well as helping the other player advance, your pawns also gain experience and items than then get carried into your game. This experience could be better combat skills or, even more useful, knowledge of how to defeat specific monsters.
Of course, this flexibility also applies to you, and if you run into a situation that your current pawn line up cannot handle, you can enlist someone else’s pawns to help you through.
You’ll find out how your pawns have done when you rest at an inn, where you’ll get a breakdown of their performance, items they’ve found and the rating given by the other player, including any comments they may have. It’s a system that works very well, and it reminds me of the pseudo-online modes of Demon’s and Dark Souls. In fact, much of the game, from enemies and visuals to combat mechanics bear a resemblance to the hardcore RPG, and when you’re wandering around the world at night, with only the light from a lantern enabling any form of sight, it also feels very mush like the From Software hit. And, as some have also noted, more than a little survival horror-like. A nod to Resident Evil, of course.
Dull and duller
With a solid combat setup and the excellent pawn system, Dragon’s Dogma is certainly and RPG that’s got a lot going for it, and the open world, which is suitably large and varied, is enjoyable enough to explore and mooch around for secrets and dungeons. Sadly, though, the actual quests you go on aren’t all that interesting. Side quests are a mixture of ‘go here, kill that’ or ‘escort me there’, and the main story can be very disjointed, especially early on, when it just stops and lets you wander around, with little guidance as to what to do next.
There are also quests that relay on visiting certain locations without providing much in the way of direction. Basically, a lot of the time you simply wonder where the hell you’re supposed to go, and it can lead to too much aimless wandering.
For example, very early on, when you reach the main city, you can get a quest to kill skeletons. These are, apparently, found in some catacombs. Quite where these catacombs are is a mystery, as there’s no guidance in the quest info, and no mark on the map. It’s crazy, especially as quest destinations are often nowhere near the place you receive them from. This is compounded by the lack of an easy to access fast travel system, something that’s all but essential in a game this large.
What’s more, the game isn’t afraid to assault you with seemingly super-powered foes sprinkled in with enemies that are easy enough to defeat. You can be fighting a group of bandits, most of which you can handle easily, when all of a sudden a high level bandit one-hits you, and it’s game over.
Now, this is all well and good, and certainly make for a realistic and challenging adventure, but auto saves are few and far between (usually when transitioning from dungeons, cities etc). So, if you forget to save regularly, you could lose a lot of progress thanks to a random, super enemy encounter.
It’s a bland, bland world
As I said at the top of the review, another issue Dragon’s Dogma has, is that the world itself, whilst certainly not terrible, isn’t really all that interesting. Unlike Dark Souls’ atmospheric, original, yet stoic feel, DD doesn’t really possess much character. Enemies can be well designed and impressive enough, sure, but other characters look so dull and generic, including your own hero.
This isn’t helped by some truly awful character textures, and shonky animation in places. The large creatures you come up against do look superb though, and it’s in these battles that the game really shows its true colours. Dragons Dogma is all about the big moments, and although the in between questing is solid, it’s the beast-climbing skirmishes you’ll remember the most. Be ware though, thanks to the aforementioned super foes that can appear, and these huge beasts to contend with, DD does require some grinding, and levelling up your hero and pawns, as well as buying better gear is essential to your progression.
Although I’ve no doubt that many will buy Dragon’s Dogma for the Resi 6 demo code included in the box, it would be a real mistake to write off Dragon’s Dogma as a potentially great game in its own right.
The core combat, open world and pawn system really work well, and if it wasn’t held back by iffy visuals and presentation, along with some mundane questing and a fairly uninteresting world, it would be a real epic RPG. Other tweaks would also be welcome, such as a lock-on system for combat, and a much improved battle camera during close encounter indoors (especially against larger foes), but when it comes to central game mechanics, it’s a solid enough effort.
The sad thing is that, in the current climate, where original IPs are often sent to licence hell, a second Dragon’s Dogma, one that could remedy the various issues and create a truly great game, may never arrive.
Still, RPG fans wanting more open-world questing and a solid combat system will certainly find plenty of mileage in Dragon’s Dogma, and its well worth checking out. And yeah, the Resident Evil 6 demo is a nice dish to get on the side as well.