Capcom is not a company which is known for developing RPGs. Over the years, they’ve only occasionally touched the genre, but the situation is changing. Dragon’s Dogma marks their first serious attempt in years to break into this market, with a new IP worked on by some big names. Hideaki Itsuno, who was the director for Devil May Cry 2, 3 and 4, and Makoto Ikehara, the designer of the Breath of Fire RPG series, are two such names. Itsuno’s influence is particularly noticeable in the game’s battle system, as he’s taken his experience with action games and tried to apply it to the hybrid action-RPG genre. The game features a huge open world, and is highly customisable, as you’ll quickly see once you start playing.
After a brief prologue, you’ll be taken straight to the character creator. The game’s creator is surprisingly robust, and you can modify pretty much every aspect of your character that you can think of. Gender, height, weight, proportions, muscle mass, hair style and colour, eye shape and colour, nose, ears, bust size, scars, makeup, mouth, it’s all here. Most interestingly, you can also choose your character’s base body type, something that’s not seen often. There’s lots of different options, ranging from skinny to fat, wrinkled or young, down to the point that you can create a frail looking old lady if you so desire. This kind of detailed control means that there are plenty of unique pawns around.
What are pawns, you ask? Pawns are a mysterious race of humanoid beings who have no real will of their own, but are skilled in combat. They take directions only from your character, whom they are subservient to, due to your character becoming a being known as the Arisen (one who has made a kind of pact with the dragon). Early in the game, a pawn appears before your character suddenly, and you’ll be taken back to character creator in order to design your main pawn. Once you’ve created your main pawn, they will follow your main character wherever they go, as you explore the game’s huge open world. You can have two additional pawns in your party, but where do you get them from? The Rift. Accessing the Rift is as simple as visiting one of the many Rift Stones scattered throughout the world, and once inside, you’ll be able to summon new pawns.
This is where the game’s online features come in. If you’re connected to Xbox Live (or PlayStation Network) when you enter The Rift, you’ll be able to summon other people’s main pawns, straight out of their game. You can search for pawns by their Gamertag, level, vocation, and more. This means that you can even hire pawns from your friends. Summoning pawns requires you to spend Rift Crystals, with stronger pawns being more expensive. You earn Rift Crystals every time your main pawn is hired, and some of the game’s larger enemies will also drop them sometimes. Whenever you rest at an inn while connected to Xbox Live, your main pawn’s information will be uploaded to the server. If they have been hired while you were out travelling, then you’ll receive Rift Crystals after you rest, as well as any items and knowledge that they’ve brought back with them. Knowledge is basically a pawn’s intelligence, as their AI will learn enemy weaknesses as you fight. As they learn, they will gradually start to strike an enemy’s weakness faster, each time you encounter them. It’s a clever feature.
You’d expect a game that mentions a dragon in its title to have a story that revolves around one. That’s exactly what you get, and while I don’t want to spoil anything, the main point of the game is to take down a dragon which is terrorising the land of Gransys. Your main character, after being created by the player, sets out on an epic journey which will carry them across the entire world. As you travel between cities and speak to people, brief, scattered cutscenes tell the bulk of the game’s story. You can’t help but feel that it’s a bit lacking though, as there’s just not enough meat to it. What’s there is really good, but there’s just not much of it. That said, there is a strong payoff towards the end, but it takes a significant number of hours to reach. It feels as though the story is all bunched up at the end, when it should have been more evenly distributed.
Dragon’s Dogma’s expansive open world is free for you to explore to your heart’s content. Don’t feel like helping that villager right now? You can run off and explore a random cave, where you might find some bandits hiding out, and loot to steal. Exploration and travelling are important parts of the game, as there’s no method of fast travel. No mounts, no vehicles. While this may sound tedious, each outing is an experience of its own, as you never know what you’ll find around the next corner. It also helps that the world of Gransys is full of varied terrain, including forests, deserts, mines, barren wastelands, huge cliffs, temples, and more. Speaking of loot, Dragon’s Dogma is full of it, and there’s a huge amount of items and materials to find as you go. Some of them can be combined on-the-go, while others need to be gathered and can be used to upgrade your equipment. The equipment system itself is impressive, with every weapon, piece of armour, and accessory having its own 3D model. As soon as you equip a new piece of equipment, you’ll actually be able to see your character or pawn wearing it in-game, which really adds to the level of character customisation.
Unlike other action-RPGs, Dragon’s Dogma features a true combo system during battles. You won’t see a hit counter appear, but attacks are designed to be easily chained together and cancelled into by quickly pressing the controller’s face and shoulder buttons. This is mostly seen when your character is wielding a bladed weapon, with the X button executing a light attack, while the Y button executes a heavier attack. The right shoulder button is used as a modifier, and allows you to initiate special attacks that can be set to the X, Y, and B buttons. So, you can have up to five attacks available at once, all of which can be smoothly chained together. For ranged weapons, things work slightly differently. Using a bow, you hold the left should button to aim, and then press the right trigger to shoot. Arrows can be fired in quick succession, and have excellent range. That’s all there is for the basics, but you also have access to a different set of up to three special attacks. These can’t be chained together like those of the bladed weapons, but tend to be far more versatile, with many other useful features besides simply dealing damage. No matter what weapon you’re using though, the controls are always tight and very responsive. Battles are a very smooth experience on the whole, and this is one of the game’s biggest strong points. Every hit that connects feels satisfying.
Discipline points, which you are rewarded with for defeating enemies, can be spent in order for your main character to learn new skills and attacks. These attacks are specific to your current vocation, which is what you’d call your class in other games. These range from warrior to magic archer, and each one has its own unique skill set, stats, and weapons. You have some control over how your pawns act during battle. Your main pawn’s ‘inclination’ is determined by a series of questions, after you create them. This allows you to fine-tune your pawn’s behaviour, they can act more aggressively, or more passively. You can also adjust them at will by visiting the Pawn Guild.
Graphically, Dragon’s Dogma is pretty average. Playing the game straight out of the case leaves you with low res textures, and moderate amounts of pop-in, but installing the game to your console’s HDD makes a big difference. When the full game (8GB in size) is installed, texture resolution improves noticeably, and pop-in is reduced. Loading times are also improved. This is definitely the best way to play the game, and it’s much better for it. What the game lacks in graphical detail, it partly makes up for with excellent visual effects. There are some nice little touches, such as the spurts of blood that accompany each strike you land on the enemy. This adds a bit of realism, as does the fire system.
Fire in general looks great, and enemies will actually start burning if they are hit with either physical or magical fire attacks a few times. Rather than catching on fire completely though, only the affected section of their body will burn. This is accompanied by their body becoming blackened as well, and it really looks as though their flesh is burning. In fact, with some smaller enemies (who will tend to burn completely after catching alight), you can actually see that their corpse is charred, once you defeat them. It’s a really nice touch. The character animation is also a highlight, with realistic movements from pawns, and particularly the enemies. There’s a big fight with a Hydra enemy early in the game, and each of its heads moves and acts completely independently, striking and sweeping across the ground quickly. It’s an impressive sight to see.
Sound wise, Dragon’s Dogma does not disappoint. The soundtrack is robust, with a good range of well composed tracks serving as background music as you explore the world, and there’s some great sound effects too. The ominous howls of Direwolves as you travel, the angered roars of a Cyclops, and the mad jabbering of the Goblins. Dragons even have their own sinister magical language, which has an interesting sound to it. Accompanied by subtitles, they speak coldly to your character as your party fights them. They all combine to really add to the game’s atmosphere.
Overall, Dragon’s Dogma is a fun, well produced action-RPG. While it is held back by presentation and story pacing issues, along with lacking some polish, the combat, exploration and pawn system shine through. While those not so interested in the genre may take issue with some of the game’s design choices, Capcom have created a huge world that has a surprising amount of life to it, and it’s an experience that I can easily recommend to any RPG fan.