Dragon’s Dogma (PS3)

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CS Lewis once said that the best stories are those in which incredible things happen to ordinary people. This is true of my favourite fantasy stories from authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay. It is imagining what it would be like to take part in living the life of one of these characters in a ‘faerie’ story that draws me to role-playing games, but they usually disappoint in this regard.

Firstly, you’re always a ‘chosen one,’ somehow set apart, and secondly the world never quite feels real and it sometimes feels that the gameplay amounts to tinkering with numbers to maximise damage-per-second (ahem, Diablo). Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t quite resolve all of my RPG misgivings but it certainly goes a long way to putting the ‘role-play’ back in the ‘game’ for me.

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In Dragon’s Dogma, you are ‘Arisen,’ so-named because in the opening scene of the story a Dragon takes your heart out of your body and you continue to live by some strange curse. The Dragon challenges you to face him one day and you feel compelled to do as he bids. Gone are the days of fishing in the quiet sea around Cassardis. The world has changed – the coming of the Dragon has made wolves, ogres, goblins and their ilk become more brazen, more agressive, and the world is not safe any more.

To face a dragon you must become stronger. To become stronger you must fight all manner of monster and evil men, protecting the innocent and destroying hydras, saurians and even drakes in your quest to face the Dragon once more.

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Combat is exciting in Dragon’s Dogma. It’s dynamic and tactical, a whirlwind of action in which everything you do is of utmost importance. Of course, if you’re fighting puny wolves with your thrice upgraded armour then a few mashes on ‘Square’ will sever their pelt from their bones. If you take on anything tough, however, you could be dead in a heartbeat or conquer your foe, depending on how you tackle the fight and how well prepared you are.

The basic attacks are light and heavy – ‘square’ and ‘triangle’. As you grow in your vocation (or class, or job) you are able to learn new skills which can be used by holding down ‘L1’ or ‘R1’ and pressing ‘square,’ ‘triangle’ or ‘circle. ‘X’ jumps and ‘R2’ grabs on to enemies (important for really big ones because you can clamber up them). ‘L2’ will do different things depending on your vocation.

Vocation, vocation, vocation

There are three basic vocations in Dragon’s Dogma: Fighter, Strider and Mage. The fighter uses sword and shield and focuses on melee action. The Strider uses daggers and bow and focuses on ranged attack with some deadly thrusts to finish off foes. The Mage uses a staff and can cast both offensive, defensive and healing magic. Each of these has an advanced version which you can switch to.

When you change from a Fighter to a Warrior, you change to two-handed weapons. The Strider can learn to be a Ranger and take up a longbow. The Mage can become a Sorcerer and learn to use Archistaves. Completing the different vocations are the hybrid ones – the Mystic Knight, the Magick Archer and the Assassin, which are combinations of the basic ones. Although the system is fairly simple with only nine vocations, the variation in play styles between them is enormous, and it affects your approach to everything you do.

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The vocation system in Dragon’s Dogma is also very clear and clean, so it’s a system I like a lot. You can change vocations after a certain time in the story, and when you do, all of your base enhancements (like improved stamina) stay while your abilities (different attacks and spells) will be lost. Depending on how many of the side-quests you tackle you will be able take a number of vocations to their highest level.

The Pawn system of Dragon’s Dogma is unique and interesting too. As Arisen you have the power to command humanoid creatures called Pawns which come from another dimension. You can design your main Pawn, and he (or she) will stay with you for all your journeys through Gransys, but as you go you will recruit up to two other Pawns for your party. Choosing the right Pawns is important because you will need, for example, ranged attacks, if you are going to travel through Griffin territory.

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The Pawns you recruit are those created, levelled and equipped by other players around the world, giving them a ‘real’ feel, instead of being randomly generated. Your Pawn (I called mine Dolph) will also journey to ‘other realms’ to fight alongside other Arisens, and when they come back s/he will bring extra Rift Crystals as well as quest, area and beast knowledge.

This knowledge comes in very handy when a Pawn has done a quest in another realm and knows where to go, or has fought that hydra before and knows just how to attack it. They will shout out things about what they know during battle or casually mention them as you walk. It’s a wonderful system and adds a large amount of authenticity to the Dragon’s Dogma world.

Be part of an adventure – create your own story

The world in Dragon’s Dogma itself is exciting to discover. There are dangers around every corner, some much more intense than others, which means you must always be prepared for the worst. The day is safer than the night – if you get caught out on the road when night falls it can be a very scary experience! Your lantern will help but it only lights up a tiny area around you, and battles with even puny goblins are manic without the light of day.

Fortunately there are spots in Gransys considered safe enough to sleep until morning, but I wished there were more. I find myself sometimes simply waiting patiently for morning before moving on from a waypoint. Travel is all on foot, although there is an item you can use to transport yourself to Gran Soren, the big capital city, instantly. You have to go most places by actually walking there so there is a real sense of danger being out in the wildlands.

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Let me recount a quest I took: We set out from Gran Soren at the request of Mercedes, a knight with a French accent. She wanted to get to the Shadow Fort to the West. This meant travelling south to the Encampment through a mountain pass, then West through bandit country and across a river infested with Saurians. The bandits attacked us in numbers and were very difficult to survive (I had to reload a few times).

Then as we travelled North again, night fell and we could hear the howls of wolves (or were they dire-wolves?). Goblins attacked us, with a few hobgoblins making things more difficult. Once we dispatched that lot, to our dismay the path veered back to the East, away from our destination (marked with an ‘X’ on the blank area of the map). We tried to cut accross the country instead. This nearly proved fatal as we suddenly heard the snorts of a drake, followed by the flapping of wings. In the night we couldn’t see it yet, but it was somewhere to our left. So we ran to the right for as long as our legs could carry us.

Fortunately the drake did not persue, but we were still at risk on the path in the night. Finally we arrived at a guard camp, a place where we could rest our weary bones until morning and heal up. The next day proved easier – a few Saurians (which are old hat by now), some goblins and hobgoblins which seem to have a human captive in a big cage, and a brisk walk North-West and we arrived at the giant Shadow Fort.

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Dragon’s Dogma is designed to be ‘not difficult,’ and for the most part it isn’t – if you level up by fighting, buy good armour and hire the right Pawns you should get through the main plot quests quite easily. Some of the escort missions I undertook were extremely tough because I think I was underlevelled for them, but if you spend Rift Crystals you can hire a Pawn that is a much higher level to fight for you. I prefered to simply hire my equals at all times and take the challenge on.

Some small things

With so much that is truly special, what is wrong with Dragon’s Dogma then? Not much, but it’s not perfect and falls short of the coveted five stars. The world is open, but not as open as I’d like. For example, unless you’ve done certain story quests you can’t get into or past certain locations. Even so, other people walking around can get past these gates – they simply disappear when they reach them! This can break the immersion completely and reduce the real-world feeling that is so well built up by the day-night cycle and the different characters walking around doing their business.

There are also some very poor enemy animations (wolves are especially bad), clipping issues are very common, and item pop-in is very noticeable (sometimes even enemies appear very close to you). Even if you clear out a group of bandits from a spot the next day they will be there again – I would prefer your actions to have more impact on the world, or at least for there to be more variability in just where and what enemies will be lurking.

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The Pawns talk a lot and say helpful things but often repeat themselves and all talk in the same small set of voices. Most characters you meet as you walk along all say the same things too (“Times are tough”, for example) – I would love to know a bit more about the area I’m in or find out what is happening in the world from them. In fact, I would love it if the story element was played down even more than it already is, and told mostly through your dealings with other folk as you make your way around – a kind of emergent story where your are making your own story as you learn about Gransys’ history and lore.

Finally, the game start up time is painful with the amount of different steps to go through to begin, and every so often a load breaks the flow (especially the cut from cinematic to cinematic or from in-game to cinematic and back).

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Despite these few criticisms, Dragon’s Dogma is a grand achievement that I’ve found to be fresh and exciting because it places you in a world that really feels wild, dangerous and lived in. I hope it is the beginning of an illustrious franchise from Capcom and that it can become what it could be; it currently doesn’t have as much polish or varied content as Capcom’s other big action RPG’s latest game – Monster Hunter 3 – which means there is huge room for improvement.

What has been created, however, is remarkable for its melding of Western mythology and style with Japanese action. I’m many, many hours in and still enjoying every minute – in fact there’s a cave I want to go and explore right now.