Dragon's Dogma review

Dragon’s Dogma

When a publisher lifts the curtain on a title it has been stealthily hiding under lock and key, what’s the first thing you do as a gamer? If you’re anything like us, you’ll scrutinise the early fragments while trying to imagine how said game will play if it makes it to release day without falling off the radar. For the likes of FIFA and Call Of Duty, this is a relatively straightforward process – as aside from a few tweaks and revisions, the formula usually remains the same – but when Capcom handed us an image of a flaming griffin just over a year ago, our minds boggled.

Dragon's Dogma review

The most obvious comparison was the titanic Monster Hunter, as by swapping the draconic charms of Rathlos and Lagiacrus for something more cemented in Greek mythology, it seemed like Capcom was rebranding the serpentine safari for a Western audience. This assumption, however, turned out to be way off the mark, as although Dragon’s Dogma lets you sever the tail of a mythical beast before foraging for herbs in the wilderness, its composition is substantially different to your typical Deviljho capture quest. That’s not to say it’s any less exhilarating when the going gets enraged, but this hunt is more Dragonborn than dragon tamer.

It’s a tapestry thick with the discernible threads of inspiration, but if there’s one game that Dragon’s Dogma is more reminiscent of than any other, it’s Skyrim. Both games are set in a sprawling land with a sweeping map, both games feature an apocalyptic dragon as the main antagonist, and both games – despite coming from opposite corners of the globe – blend the action-RPG mantra within an open-world setting for epic effect. It’s a Western genre done justice by a Japanese studio in a way that echoes Platinum’s Vanquish as a response to Gears Of War; by stripping back the multiplayer and focusing on the solo sorties, Capcom has crafted its finest RPG to date.

Of course, that’s not saying much when the studio’s previous attempts include the Breath Of Fire series, a Mega Man X spin-off and not a whole lot else, but to go from mediocrity to an internally developed world which rivals those of its closet contemporaries is a considerable achievement – even more so when you consider the depth and breadth of the landscape. The story centres on an ancient dragon that arises from its slumber and immediately makes a beeline for the nearest fishing village, where our hero (or heroine) is going about their day-to-day in blissful ignorance of the impending fire-starter’s visit.

What follows is a daring counterattack as the player grabs a sword and tries to send the oversized lizard on its less than merry way, but instead of lopping off a scale or two, you only manage to incur the beast’s wrath before having your heart torn from your chest. The dragon then chants a menacing verse in its native tongue, consumes your still-beating heart whole and watches your wounds heal with Wolverine-like speed before flying away. Then when you finally wake with no pulse and a savage scar for your troubles, the only logical solution is to follow in the footsteps of Saint George, Beowulf and Bilbo by going on a dragon quest.

Dragon's Dogma review

If there’s one thing that videogames have taught us over the years it’s that dragons aren’t the easiest of creatures to tackle singlehandedly. So, to give the heartless fisherman some much-needed support, Capcom has populated its fantasy world with an ethereal race of humanoid ‘Pawns’ who are eager to help. This ties in with the hero’s newfound status as a cursed Arisen – which means you can travel to a spiritual plane called the Everfall and enlist the help of up to three randomly-generated warriors from the Pawn Legion. They lack the scripted depth of more traditional RPG companions, but they’re refreshingly flexible in terms of party creation.

Your first Pawn is the most important as, unlike the other two, they share in your experience points and cannot be dismissed from your service. You also get to design them from the ground-up before travelling to the far corners of the map, and while the range of customisation options is less impressive than the equivalent canvases of Bethesda and BioWare, it offers more scope than Monster Hunter. Not that choosing from 40 slightly different scar patterns matters, mind, as once you pick a Vocation and deck your character out in clothes and armour, their visage will be buried under cloth and plate.

Your chosen Vocation, however, will be apparent from the offset. The three starting classes are Fighter, Strider and Mage, and while that may sound like a familiar toss-up between sword, bow and magic, the real-time combat offers a tangible sense of immediacy that makes each profession feel unique. This is thanks to the primary and secondary weapons that work alongside an upgradeable set of skills. The Fighter class, for instance, wields a one-handed sword that can mix light and heavy attacks with stamina-draining lunges, launches and thrusts, while the offhand shield can function as a makeshift springboard to send an ally skyward.

It’s apparent that Hideaki Itsuno – the director of every Devil May Cry bar the first – has drawn upon his vast experience to craft a combat system that’s instantly accessible and surprisingly deep. As you unlock the advanced Warrior, Ranger and Sorcerer classes, the urge to try a wide range of team combinations with different skills and equipment becomes a hard allure to resist. The game also features three hybrid classes in the Mystic Knight, Assassin and Magick Archer. These mix the fundamentals of the focused classes with unique tricks, including the Mystic Knight’s ability to enchant their shield with elemental spells that trigger when struck.

Dragon's Dogma review

But despite some inventive techniques, the spell occasionally falls apart when you have to rely on your Pawns. For the most part, they can take care of themselves and only need the odd command or resuscitation to keep things on track. But on one occasion when we equipped our hero with a flaming sword to tackle a horde of flammable undead, our supporting mage kept augmenting his blade with a less than helpful ice spell – completely ruining our strategy. Then when it turned out there was no way to change his mind, we had to show him the door before finding a less clumsy replacement.

It’s a small blemish on an otherwise accomplished AI system that casts an illusion of working within a close-knit team – even if at times you’ll secretly wish for online co-op. But despite the subtle shortcomings, the Legion offers more than just helping hands. Each Pawn has a knowledge rating that relates to each enemy, quest and area, so by selecting your minions on the merit of their regional smarts as well as raw ability, you can learn tips on which NPCs to consult and how to tackle certain beasts. They also vocalise musings like, “It’s not the last time we’ll call upon this inn, I’ll warrant,” at every available opportunity.

As quizzically bemusing as the Pawns are, though, the real star is the land of Gransys itself. It’s not nearly as expansive as Skyrim, or as densely packed with distractions, but its vibrant mix of open plains, windswept canyons, frozen peaks and coastal coliseums do a good job of constructing the fantasy aesthetic. The open wilderness also plays host to its fair share of dungeons, caves and outposts, while the main city of Gran Soren provides a central base to enhance your armour and weaponry with various materials. You’ll also need to offload your plunder frequently to remain unencumbered, but without the ability to fast-travel, this can become a chore.

Thankfully, the engaging quests make up for all the backtracking, with everything from wyvern hunts and ambush-laden escort missions to searching for lost treasure in subterranean temples and a four-day investigation that has you collecting evidence on an accused merchant. And while the main story focuses on the relationship between the Arisen and the dragon, as well as a shadowy cult of dragon worshippers and a star-crossed love affair with the Duke’s wife, the game is further festooned with notice boards and NPCs that keep dishing out the side-quests. You’ll never be short of something to do.

Or indeed, something to slay, as with the absence of pitfall traps and tranquilliser bombs, Dragon’s Dogma is all about the coup-de-grâce. The cannon fodder includes everything from easily dispatched direwolves and marauding bandits to snow harpies that swoop from the sky and semitransparent lizards that become more vulnerable once you chop off their tails. They all offer a steady challenge when encountered in packs, and by identifying the most dangerous threats early and diligently protecting your mages, you’ll be visited by death considerably less often than in Dark Souls’ merciless land of Lordran.

Dragon's Dogma review

And yet, all the aforementioned components are stepping stones that pave the way for the epic showdowns with the mythical beasts. There’s an air of Monster Hunter in how you circle behind the Cyclops to avoid its cumbersome club, back off when it goes berserk and then swarm in like an army ant when it trips up and tumbles to the ground. It’ll even drop some unique materials after closing its singular eye for good. But unlike the huntsmen of the Hunters Guild, the Arisen goes for a more hands-on approach that has you fumbling for footholds while searching for the sweet spot.

It’s a system that’s clearly inspired by Shadow Of The Colossus. It offers a chance to quickly whittle down each behemoth’s massive health bar – at the risk of them grabbing, flattening or flinging you skyward for severe damage – and adds a welcome dynamic to each prolonged hunt. The beasts also look fantastic, with the MT Framework engine pumping out some impressive animations that bring the damsel-kidnapping Ogre, the laser-firing Golem and the skittish Griffin to life before you move like Jason and fashion their still-warm bones into a fancy new fleece that protects against chimera venom. Just don’t tell the WWF.

And it’s these moments, when having spent hours questing for the best gear, searching for the most agreeable Pawns and then pitting your team against a creature that ranks higher than humanity on the food chain – only to emerge victorious – is where Dragon’s Dogma burns the brightest. Its world isn’t as evocatively rich as Skyrim, its action-orientated combat doesn’t have the killer appeal of Dark Souls, and its single-player focus is completely at odds with the co-op-centric Monster Hunter. However, as Capcom’s first foray into the open-world RPG this is a worthy achievement, and further proof that the East-West divide should be breached more often. And not just by dragons.