Dragon’s Dogma Hands-on (Xbox360)

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Dragon’s Dogma is nothing if not intriguing. A Japanese action RPG inspired by western RPG’s, it holds a lot of promise for me because I enjoy the combat mechanics of Japanese games and love a well implemented Western-style fantasy world. Because of this combination I have been following Dragon’s Dogma more closely than I do most games. I was recently able to get my hands on a review build for a few days, and after sinking perhaps six hours into the game my appetite has merely been whet, 25 May can’t come soon enough!

If you haven’t played the demo yet, go try it out, but realise that it just gives you a taste of the combat but very little of the feel of playing the whole game. Dragon’s Dogma is an RPG of the open-world type which follows a kind of rhythm: reach a new location, chat to people to get quests, set out on said quests, find new nooks and crannies and explore them, collect all kinds of plants and things dropped by enemies, venture out at night if you want to fight things, level up your character, meet traveling salesmen who will sell you better weapons and armour, and slowly move to the overall goal which is to face the dragon who took away your heart. So far you’d probably say that it’s nothing particularly new or original. Let me describe my journey so far and you can decide for yourself whether Dragon’s Dogma is worth your time and money.

Dragon's Dogma Pawns

After recovering from the dragon’s attack on your home village you are referred to as Arisen because your heart has been taken from you. Somehow still alive, you’re not the same as you were, and instead of your peaceful village life you must now work towards facing the dragon again. So you get up, pick up a weapon and walk outside. You stop to chat to the odd villager that is still around (most fled when the dragon attacked), and they will tell you odd tidbits. When you reach the gate to the village someone called a “pawn” appears and joins you, swearing he will obey whatever you say. It turns out the pawns are from another dimension, but as the Arisen you have the power to command them.

As you walk along the road to the fort with your new pawn, you venture off the path and collect bits and pieces on the beach or on the cliffs – flowers of various types, driftwood, empty bottles and the like. Exploration is almost always rewarded in some way, and the pawns with you will collect things they find so you don’t have to see everything. Once you reach the fort you will recruit your main pawn, and this time you can configure them to your heart’s content – do you want a stocky dwarf-like fellow who wields swords and axes? Or a waif-like archer who fights from a distance? Or perhaps a tall, solid mage to heal your party? This main pawn becomes your constant companion on your quest, and the character editor is a nice mix between being usable and detailed.

Dragon's Dogma Screenshot 5

Now comes a bit of training. With your two pawns this is so easy it’s almost completely unnecessary, but once you’ve done it you get to face your first real challenge, a big Cyclops. The combination of Japanese-style combat, Western mythology and a Japanese interpretation of Western art makes Dragon’s Dogma quite unique. How you fight the Cyclops will depend on what kind of character you chose. There are three base types – Warrior, Archer and Mage. I chose a warrior and found simply hacking at the monster’s legs did quite a bit of damage. You can also climb up your enemies, and if you can get up to that one big eye you would be able to do some serious damage. Of course, an archer can shoot the creature in its eye from the ground.

Your pawns chime in with what they think will help, and you can command them in rudimentary ways like “Go” and “Help Me.” The Cyclops didn’t prove to be a huge challenge, so I was soon on my way with my two pawns in tow, scouring the countryside for wolf pelts (for a quest I picked up at the fort) and Moonglow (for a quest I picked up in my home village where a healer needs certain flowers to help victims of the dragon). I found this early exploration of town and country very satisfying; in town I was climbing on rooftops looking for some lost books for someone who borrowed them from the church and dropped them; in the countryside around town I was climbing up sea cliffs looking for those rare flowers. There isn’t any demarcated path to explore on, the terrain is very free-form and it’s often possible to jump up places that look like you could – there are very few invisible walls preventing you from doing what you want. When you finally find a little ledge on a cliff you’re often rewarded with a box containing a purse or something similar, making exploring the world of Gransys a fascinating occupation.

Dragon's Dogma Screenshot 10

After a sleep at the inn back in town I had a chat with my pawn, telling her that I’d prefer her to support my attacks than to do her own thing and giving her some other guidance. This is supposed to subtly affect the way she behaves in battle. I can’t confirm this because I haven’t tried a number of different sets of guidance and seen what difference it makes, but the system seems very deep and the pawns do act differently and mostly very usefully. As you fight various monsters your pawn will learn how to defeat them, and when you’re not playing in the game they will leave your world of Gransys and join another player in the world, helping on their quest and learning new things which will help you when you rejoin your game.

Now I was ready to try and tackle the well in town – there are some strange sounds coming from it, so I hear. We venture forth into the darkness, and explore the rushing water in the well. Soon the river empties out into a deep cavern. I light my lantern again (it went out when I was in the water) and jump down, finding myself face to face with a group of giant lizard-like creatures. My lantern keeps going out when I walk through a sliver of water falling from above, which makes fighting these creatures quite tough. It also turns out that I am not at all ready for such a fight because in one swipe of a tail I am brought down and have to reload. Fortunately the game auto-saves and I haven’t lost much time or money. I try to take on these lizards a few times, thinking that my skill will improve, but finally decide that I will need to level up more and get some better armour before going down that well again.

Dragon's Dogma Screenshot 3

I head back to the inn and meet a traveling saleswoman who needs to be escorted to the fort because the road has recently become dangerous (the dragon’s appearance must have increased the brazenness of the goblins and wolves). We set out and are soon attacked by a band of goblins. As we fight off the goblins a pack of wolves come for us. In the night we lose each other and our escort, but I follow the sound of shouts and join the fray again. Combat is thrilling and dynamic, especially in the dark. As a warrior you can provoke enemies by banging on your shield, or dash at enemies with a thrust of your sword, or simply swing like crazy. I learnt a move at the trainer in the fort which helped with bringing down the bats in the well by swinging up into the air. There are many more moves to learn, and much more equipment to find or buy and strategies to try. After a tiring battle we are safe again, and we arrive at the fort.

In Dragon’s Dogma you feel that you are just one person in a great big world, and that the world is carrying on whether you’re around or not. It’s not the most populated world to start with, but it feels more real than most RPG worlds I have seen. It’s also inhabited by all kinds of impressive beasts, and I’m convinced we haven’t seen the most awesome of them yet. The engine handles open vistas and claustrophobic underground dungeons with aplomb, although there is at times a bit of slowdown and texture pop-in. The music is wonderful and fitting.

Dragon's Dogma Screenshot 7

Dragon’s Dogma is for me a great attempt at a new IP with a new, ambitious direction from Capcom. I hope it succeeds, as while there might be flaws in this game the concept is fantastic in every sense and I look thoroughly forward to exploring Gransys.