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REVIEW: Here be dragons.
We like our video games to have heart. Even if a game is bad we can at least console ourselves if it's heart was in the right place. So it's fitting that Dragon's Dogma is a story all about a heart. Not the heart of some fair maiden your lonely adventurer is seeking to woo, not even the heart of some mythical creature that he must kill - though there's plenty of slaying involved. No, its about your own heart, ripped from your body by the titular dragon in the opening sequence. Your character survives the traditionally fatal ordeal because he (or she) happens to be an Arisen, a chosen one with the ability to summon and command humanlike warrior-servants called Pawns. Naturally, you want your heart back. And the only way to do it is to track down that pesky dragon.
Dragon's have been a staple of action games and RPGs for many years, of course, but Dragon's Dogma has a considerable variety of monstrous creatures waiting for you, good news for those weary of dragon-slaying in Skyrim. Naturally, these monsters are hostile, and are hell-bent on killing any puny creature that crosses their path. What's worse is that they're more than capable of doing it; even though Dragon's Dogma eases you in to it's pantheon of mythical beasts gradually, every single encounter is laced with an ever-present sense of 'oh god, I'm going to die' syndrome that never goes away. Combat in Dragon's Dogma is violent, punishing, even occasionally unfair, but it never gets boring.
A large part of that is down to the difficulty. This isn't an easy game. Even the goblins and lizardmen that populate the earliest regions of the predominantly open world of Gransys can prove a capable challenge for an unwary adventurer, and by the time you reach the capitol city of Gran Soren you're likely to have been felled many times. Dragon's Dogma is a game in which preparation and caution are well advised, in which a wrong move can see you backhanded by an ogre and hurled off a cliff to your death, in which your party's composition of skills and attributes is as important as your own.
Thankfully, the game is as rewarding as it is punishing. Exploration is not only encouraged, it is all-but required, and the beautiful, vast landscapes are enough of a draw in and of themselves. You can travel between safe havens by roads, in which case you're less likely to be waylaid by marauding bandits but equally less likely to find useful items. Stray from the beaten track, however, and you'll discover a world of herbs, vials, mushrooms and ores just waiting to be found- as well as apparently random monster appearances, which lend a very tense edge to exploration. Unlike Monster Hunter - a game with which Dragon's Dogma shares much of it's base DNA - you don't need copious quantities of items to craft new armour or weapons. But you do need to use the items you find to improve your existing ones, as well as to provide quick healing and status boosts during battles.
Exploration is crucial to many of the game's quests, too, which do provide you with helpful waypoint markers but also require you to use your own initiative. One of the first quests sends you off to pick some flowers - the quest marker points you helpfully to the town gates. Once in the wilderness, however, it's up to you to work out where to go next.
Thankfully your companions - or pawns - are on hand to offer advice, and it's this pawn system that is one of Dragon's Dogma's most unique and enchanting features. When you create your character, you're given a choice of professions - to begin with, you get to be a sword-and-shield wielding warrior, a bow-and-dagger brandishing strider, or a spellcasting mage. But you also get to create a pawn to accompany you. You can not only chose his or her class (and appearance), but also set their behaviour through conversations with them at inns, advising them to guard you at all times or to prioritise gathering items over staying close by, for example. You have full control over their equipment and skill points as they gain experience, allowing you to craft them into a perfect compliment for your main character. As they explore the world with you, they gain knowledge, like tips on how to kill enemies or where to find items, even where to go for quests.
You then get to pick two more pawns to join your party through the Rift, a kind of lobby between worlds. You can pick from hundreds of thousands of pawns, each with different skills and abilities- and each one the companion of another player. Any time you rest at an inn, your main pawn - and all his or her knowledge and experience - is uploaded to Capcom's servers, where he or she becomes available for other players to use in their own adventures. If one of your pawns has already completed a quest - be it whilst they are in your party or out with another player - they will offer hints on it's completion to you, like offering suggestions of where to look next or what to do. If they've fought an enemy before and know it's weak to fire, they'll tell the rest of your pawns, improving their knowledge as well. And when you're done adventuring with them, they'll take all the new knowledge back with them to their own master, along with any items you've gifted them or that they've collected, just as your own pawn does.
It's a magnificent system, encouraging a strange kind of social gaming without any direct co-op. You're always adventuring with at least two other players by proxy, if not literally, and it's a strange feeling knowing that these characters belong to someone else. It also gives you reason to make sure your own pawn is good, and their humble comments - "I endeavored to do my very best" offers my own pawn apologetically on her return - make them feel oddly human. You actually want these pawns to succeed so that they can help out someone else, the way that someone else has helped you. Neat additions like a favourites feature let you keep tabs on pawns you've enjoyed adventuring with, so you can always find them again later if you need to. The only drawback is that the pawns don't ever level up while their with you - so if you go on an adventure and gather a lot of experience, you'll need to reorganise your party when you go back to town.
I already said that combat was punishing, and that wasn't an understatement. Finding the right balance of skills with your pawns is - as the game continually reminds you - vital. You won't get far without a healer, for example, and you'll probably want a warrior who can attract the attention of enemies away from the more lightly armoured members of your party. As you progress, you unlock advanced and hybrid professions, so a mage can go on to be a master of offensive magic or specialise in healing, whilst a strider can opt for swift dagger attacks as an assassin or rain arrows on a foe as a ranger.
You can equip up to six special skills at a time - three per weapon, or six for two-handed weapons, which can range from damaging abilities to buffs, snares, and so on. You can then supplement you skills with items, throwing objects to distract (or injure) foes, for example. The options are vast, and only increase as you proceed, and with plenty of different equipment and items available there's a lot of tools to play with.
And you'll need to play with them too, as enemies can pummel their way through your party with depressing ease. A simple pack of wolves can ravage a party if caught unawares, whilst a troll can topple a lightly armoured pawn with a single lucky hit. Despite it's challenging nature, though, combat in Dragon's Dogma is extremely satisfying. Unlike Monster Hunter, the action is swift and slick, with fluid animations and lots of maneuverability. It really comes into it's own, though, when you're fighting the bigger monsters in the game. Not only are the cyclops, chimaera, gryphon and their ilk impressively gigantic, they react superbly to your attacks. Striking a gryphon's wings with a fireball, for example, will cause it to tumble out of the sky. Land enough hits on a chimaera's goat head and you'll sever it, preventing it's spell casting abilities. Shoot a cyclops in the eye and he'll reach up to pluck out the arrow, stunned for a few seconds as he does so.
A particularly neat feature is the 'grab' move. You can use it to pick up pretty much any object in the game - picking up a rock to hurl, for example - or you can grab downed party members and carry them to safety. You can also use it to grab enemies; holding a smaller foe restrains it for a few moments, enough time for an ally to deliver some punishing blows. Use it on one of the larger creatures and you can clamber up it's body, Shadow of the Colossus style, to attack weak points- though some creatures have some very painful ways of removing you. What's more, your companions can do the same, so if you find a pawn with the right temperament they'll restrain enemies for you, carry allies to safety where you can revive them, and make use of scattered objects to improve their odds in battle.
Dragon's Dogma is a huge game, in both length and size. The main story, such as it is, is beefy enough, even if it's saddled with uninspired characters and leaden faux-Shakespearean dialogue. But the enormous variety of sidequests, extermination missions and the sheer scale of the world available to explore ensures that there's enough content here to keep you going for dozens of hours. Unfortunately, it's not always plain sailing; quite apart from the occasionally frustrating difficulty - which is offset when you learn to manually save - you'll also have to content with a hideously clunky menu system that holds separate sections for each type of item and equipment and lacks item hotkeys; if you want to use an item, you have to clunk your way through your inventory to find it, open that item's menu, then click use. There's no shared inventory space between characters, so if an ally picks up a herb you need you'll have to switch to their inventory to get it and 'give' it to another character,and the more weight you're carrying the slower you move and faster your stamina drains. There's no quick travel - not necessarily a bad thing - but you'll spend quite a lot of time traipsing back and forth between town and an adventure site just ferrying items about, just in case you miss an item you later need.
You'll also have to contend with the game's wildly unstable framerate. The PS3 version has the worst of the framerate issues, which can see the game slowing to a crawl at times, but the xbox version doesn't escape them and brings it's own rampant screen tearing issues. Both of which are a shame, because at times Dragon's Dogma is a beautiful game. The vast landscapes are enchanting vistas that beg for exploration, and the MT Framework has never looked better, with some of the best lighting effects and pyrotechnics it's ever seen complementing the already stellar animations and detail effects, and the implementation of FXAA gives the visuals a smooth look. In cutscenes, the low-res textures don't look too great, but in gameplay Dragon's Dogma looks magnificent - if unstable. A PC version would likely allay these problems, but Capcom isn't planning to release one.
Dragon's Dogma is ambitious, grand in scale and consistently challenging. It's combat is the unequivocal highlight, but the pawn system is superbly conceived. Most of all though, Dragon's Dogma is unique. It might feel a touch like a westernised Monster Hunter, but it's slicker, more engaging, and offers some genuinely original ideas. There are some frustrating moments, but those are far outweighed by the rest of the game's achievements.