In the wake of such epic fantasy RPGs as Skyrim and Kingdoms of Amalur comes a new IP, Dragon’s Dogma, which promises to be full of dragons, ghoulies, ghosties, and long-leggity beasties. And, of course, all this comes with a healthy dose of killing aforementioned things that go bump in the deep, dark night. And it has sidequests, too, because everyone loves a good sidequest. I sidequested through the this game to see how many dragons I could kill by the end of it.
I’m going to kick this review off by stating one thing: they might as well have called this game “Sidequest: The Game” and have done with it. The game seemed to consist of little else. But I digress. Let me start at the beginning (a courtesy I’m extending to you that the game didn’t bother extending to me, since the game starts at the end). The game opens up with, what we in “the biz” like to call in media res [Ed: “In the middle of the story”, for those of us who aren’t as fully up to date with conversational Latin as our reviewer is]. Except the game starts more in finem [Ed: “At the end”], and the rest of the game takes place as a kind of extended flashback sequence.
Dragon’s Dogma tells the tale of a man (or woman) who lives the simple life in Cassardis, a village on the coast. The village is attacked one particularly fine summery afternoon (or morning) by a dragon, and our hero (or heroine) bravely attacks the dragon. The dragon retaliates by taking the hero’s heart (or heroine’s heart—bugger this for a lark. I’m going to assume that you understand I mean both genders when I say “hero”, ok?), and leaves you with the challenge of “if you want your heart back, come find me and defeat me, mano a draco”. From that point on, the whole “quest for my heart” thing is largely glossed over under the sheer mountain of sidequests available. I’ll get back to the sidequest thing in a bit.
As it stands, Dragon’s Dogma is a fairly fun hack n’ slash RPG with a fairly large map and a decent bestiary of creatures to assault, maim, kill, and loot. Your party will always consist of at least two people: yourself, and an NPC called a “pawn”. Pawns are essentially hirelings who accompany you on your quest. I’m not going to go into the convoluted in-game reason for their existence, but your pawn is yours, and will accompany you all over the game. You can also, in addition, hire up to two more pawns, for a total party size of four. You can find other pawns wandering around the game world and hire them that way, or you can enter a portal to perform a search for a pawn with specific attributes. Highly powerful and trained pawns will cost “rift point” (RC), but most pawns who are roughly at the same level as your character can be hired for no cost at all. Swapping pawns around is as simple as dismissing one and hiring another. The only undismissable pawn is your own. During your travels throughout the lands, the pawns will talk and comment and give warnings (although no conversations on the same epic level as what we experienced in Bioware’s Dragon Age). During battle, you can also issue rudimentary commands to the pawns (“Come”, “Go”, and “Help”—I *did* say that the commands were rudimentary!) to help direct the flow of battle.
The interesting thing about pawns is that they can be recruited by other players online, and will bring back goods that they find while being used in someone else’s game. The other interesting thing is that once you’ve hired pawns to fill the two empty slots, they don’t gain any levels or abilities, so it helps to not get too attached to any of them. In fact, it makes for good practise to trade your pawns up every few levels, or else you might start finding your opponents killing you with entirely too much ease.
Right, let’s talk quests here. Quests fall into two broad categories: quests you get by chatting to people, and quests you obtain from noticeboards dotted around the various towns and cities. These quests will quickly fill up your quest log, and you can arrange and tackle them in any order you want, even to the point of neglecting the main quest if you so wish. Capcom claims to have over 70 hours of sidequest in the game (not including the DLC quests, and not including the 40 to 50 hours of main quest). In case you can’t work it out for yourself, that’s more quests than you can shake a bundle of sticks at and then still have a few quests left over for a few more bundles of sticks. I’m not sure where this metaphor is going, but it equates to “a lot” when you’ve done all the sums.
Combat is at times both satisfactory and frustrating in turns. Although your character can learn any number of allowable abilities or spells, you can only use up to six activated abilities at any given time (two for each of the non-jump buttons on your controller). This means choosing carefully, and sometimes it means failing dramatically and then reloading a saved game to reset the abilities you have (and sometimes it even means hiring different pawns). Until you actually embark on a quest, there’s no way of telling precisely which abilities you’ll find useful, never mind require for battle. Furthermore, the only directly controllable character is your own. Aside from the rudimentary commands I mentioned earlier, there’s no way to tell a pawn to precisely select certain spells or attack modes. In this, you just have to trust to the game’s AI, and hope for a very large helping of luck. In one battle I played through, my pawn is yelling “It hates fire!”, and then she summarily casts a lighting charm on my weapons. That’s some fine detective work there, Lou.
On the other hand, combat can be supremely awesome when you’re up against something far more massive than you. Then the game takes a page out of the Shadow of the Colossus book, and gives you the ability to climb all over the monster and attack it in vulnerable spots all over its body. Taking down a huge monster at the head and neck is extremely satisfying, to say the least. I tried to attack one monster in the gonads, only to discover it didn’t have any, so the system isn’t completely perfect.
On the matter of equipment: like most RPGs, you have an encumbrance limit on how much you can carry, and like The Elder Scrolls games, you’ll find yourself picking up lots of things such as plants, animal skins, bits of metal, teeth, and other such seemingly-worthless rot. Many of these objects can be combined with other objects to make new stuff, and doubtless you’ll spend a good portion of the game just mixing stuff to see what happens. Cash is far less a problem in the early hours of this game than it is in some other RPGs, and with enough sidequests, you’ll soon have a healthy sum. You’ll still do a silly amount of mixing and matching of equipment just to get the balance of protection and encumbrance right. Just because the armour is stronger than what you have on now doesn’t mean it’s better.
One of my main gripes with the game is that it’s difficult (read: expensive) to get from place to place quickly. You spend a lot of time trekking across wilderness that you’ve already trod down into a veritable chasm by your endless backing and forthing in an effort to fulfil sidequests. No quick travel, no horses, no cars, no flying elephants. Furthermore, the game features a day/night cycle, so if the sun happens to set while you’re out sidequesting, you just have to hope you make it to the nearest inn before you’re eaten by the many, many wolves and goblins in the game. Or you can pay up to buy a one-use-only item that lets you travel instantly to a rift stone, but these items are rare in the wild and costly in the shops. Don’t trust on owning a hoard of these things.
The graphics in Dragon’s Dogma are nothing we’ve not seen before, but the world is beautifully rendered and realized. The atmosphere at night is thick enough to cut with a sword, and it can actually get quite terrifying at times. For example, there’s an early mission in the game to escort a caravan to the capital city, and this is accomplished at night when visibility is poor and attacks come from out the darkness. It has the earmarks of a survival horror game, since the caravan is steadily taking damage during the escort journey. Good fun!
Overall Dragon’s Dogma is a fairly competent RPG, though the main story seems a little lost in the quagmire of mini missions and sidequests. It’s fun if you’re not too worried about story, and hunting the monsters around the world can be quite a challenge. On the other hand, if you tend to play RPGs for their storytelling, you’re better off giving Dragon’s Dogma a skip, because the lengthy journeys legging it from city to town can get repetitive and a little annoying. Still, the world is fairly alive and there is a lot to do, so this game will definitely be keeping you occupied for many, many hours.
Final Score: 7 large, terrifying prawns out of 10
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Age Rating: 16