Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Review: Dragon's Dogma

I remember seeing this near a year ago now on the many videos released from E3 2011, and it looked amazing.  Here was an open world RPG with all the usual fantasy tropes, but to spice things up immensely they added giant monsters into the mix.  "Whats so special about giant monsters? JRPG's have them all the time" and this is true, but these giant monsters you can grapple, climb onto and do limb specific damage to.  Think Shadow of the Colossus meets Rockstar, i.e. open world with awesome creatures to take down.
He stole your heart, now he's gonna pay for it

I was admittedly a little worried as the release came ever closer since you always want a game you have waited for to be really good, but then it lets you down (looking at you Mass effect 3) but Dragon's Dogma does everything it said and a little more.

The story goes that a dragon comes around from some unknown location every so many years to search for a new Arisen, a person who has some unique trait about them.  The dragon then takes the arisen's heart and consumes it, yet the arisen still lives.  As this chosen one which can be either male or female in character creation, you must journey through monster infested lands completing quests and gaining fame to face the dragon to regain your heart.

There are other factors such as shady cults, political maneuvering and backstabbing but these elements are secondary to the ultimate goal of dragon slaying.  The character you create is a complete mute throughout so don't expect any mass effect style choose your own adventure dialogue here.  Most NPC's simply react to your silence as if you are talking to them, which is sort retro for game dialogue these days.
Make your own medieval munter

The first thing you do in any good RPG is create your character.  This is pretty in depth allowing you to alter everything from facial structure, build, height, weight, facial features, body contours and visual extra's such as scars and aging the character.  The height and build of your character will play a role in how much stamina and weight limit of items you can carry, which can be important depending on what role you choose to play.  The chosen gender won't have any massive story impact, but influence a few NPC reactions, monster reactions (such as Ogres who target females first) and even some quests are handled differently.

After completing this you will be asked to choose from one of the three classic character classes, these being the fighter,  wielding sword and shield, the strider who mixes shortbow's and dual daggers and finally the mage who handles healing, buffing and offensive spellcasting.  There are six more advanced classes to unlock later on in the game and you can freely switch between these whenever you want in Gran Soren, keeping any unlocked skills and class levels you had previously.  Essentially you could work to have a character who is proficient in every class in the game.

Your party members are made up from otherworldly beings who take human form, referred to as the Pawns.  These pawns serve the arisen throughout the game and do so without question.  Early on in the game you will create your own 'main pawn' who will always be with you regardless.  This pawn is created in the exact same way as you create your own character and select a class for him/her.  Again the main pawn can also switch classes whenever you visit Gran Soren like the player, so you can tailor your creation for any specific party role.  The other two slots of the party are filled by other players main pawns.  You enter a location called the rift using special stones dotted throughout the towns and encampments of the games world.  These pawns however do not gain experience or learn new skills, so it would benefit you to regularly switch out old ones for those of your current level or higher.
Skeletons are fast and brutal beware

When you have finished with hired pawns you can send feedback to the player who created them and even an item as a way of thanks.  Your main pawn can also be hired by other players and learn new ways of fighting the monsters in the game, gain knowledge of quests and of different parts of the games world by journeying with other players.  Your main pawn will also recieve feedback from those who hire him/her and more importantly earn rift crystals, a form of rare currency.  Rift crystals are used to hire pawns of a higher level than yourself, buy items that can alter your characters or main pawns appearance and unlock new hair colours and skin pigments.  These items are expensive though so don't expect to be buying that bright green hair unlock anytime soon.  Rift crystals can sometimes be dropped by monsters or earned through questing, but the main source of them is by hiring your pawn out.  The hiring process is done automatically, so it pays to have a pawn that is well equipped and as high a level as possible to standout more for other players.

There are means to advertise your pawn by uploading screenshots and stats to the Dragon's Dogma community page from the main menu.  Screenshots can be taken in game using a system from the start menu while you play, to capture those epic moments of glory, or when your pawn does something cool.  All of this isn't strictly necessary to get them hired, but putting the name out there does help a little I guess.

Drakes are like mini dragons by comparison but no less dangerous
Combat is obviously a major part of Dragon's Dogma.  Being made by the team that brought you the likes of the Devil May Cry you can expect some pretty flashy combat moves, and it doesn't let you down in this regard.  Every swing and spell blast looks powerful and impressive, enemy and friendly characters go flying through the air from strong attacks and there is plenty of flexibility to how you approach most combat scenarios.  The controls are relatively simple, using the analogue sticks for movement and camera control, the square and triangle buttons being assigned to light and heavy attacks, while X jumps and circle handles character and enviroment interaction.  Utilising special skills and abilities are activated by simply holding either the L or R shoulder triggers and pressing the assigned face button to activate the skill.

One of the biggest draws to combat though is the giant monsters you will encounter either in the wild or during quests.  Traditionally large monsters are defeated by hammering at its legs or body, but in Dragon's Dogma you can actually grab onto the beast and begin to climb to a weakspot located on the creatures body.  Attacking a Griffins wings for instance can completely incapacitate the limb, preventing it from flying away, while jumping onto the back of a Chimaera and slashing its snake tail will eventually cut it off, preventing it from using that appendage.  These giant monsters are incredibly fun to fight and are always a little different in the way you take them down each time.  Eventually you will become savvy to their spawn locations, but really that just makes it easier to find them.
Combat is fast and dynamic

Your pawns generally give a good account of themselves during combat.  The AI is smart enough to know when to heal, back off, draw aggro, climb larger monsters to attack weak areas and deploy skills and abilities.  Unfortunately they can never give you healing items or use them on you, but they will use their own inventory of curatives as needed during combat, but I wouldn't solely rely on the AI keeping itself healthy in most fights.  Pawns learn more about their enemies with each fight, causing them to shout out enemy weaknesses and advise certain tactics which is a nice touch.  The other advantage is that a pawn will never actually die, only becoming incapacitated when reduced to zero hit points.  Failure to reach them after a certain amount of time will result in them returning to the rift, leaving you a man down until you can find another rift stone.  If you can get over to them you can revive them to roughly half their maximum and get them back in the fight.  You have to stay focused on yourself in all fights, since if you die its back to the last save or checkpoint, which can be a while back if you haven't saved often.  Its also important to point out that everytime you take damage your health bar is permamently reduced by a fraction.  A heal spell will recover upto your new maximum, but you will need to eat herbs or other healing items to restore the lost health, so keep a supply handy at all times.  I would also say that pawns sometimes have trouble running away from a fight, forcing you to spam certain commands over and over to try and get them to respond.

Your party can be quite an eclectic bunch at times
The world of Gransys is littered with items to gather from herbs, branches, fruit, ore and items from  dead monsters such as scales and bones.  All of these items are used to either combine for potions and other curatives, or to create offensive items, such as poison arrows or explosives.  Your equipped gear can be enhanced by traders and other artisans to increase the items base stats, which also requires these gathered items.  Your pawns will spend time during the less chaotic periods of adventuring to gather these items if you miss anything yourself and will often use healing items they have picked to heal themselves when needed.  Excessive gathering will lead to your hero becoming overencumbered and you may need to distribute items between your pawns to keep things even.

Now trust me when I say that Dragon's Dogma is by no means forgiving, this game will spank you hard if you get too cocky when you are adventuring.  The wrong combination of bandit attacks or Saurian ambushes can quickly wipe you out, so you need to save often.  Always be aware of your surroundings and watch for the encroaching darkness of the evening as the game only gets harder in the darker hours.  Those of you who enjoy a challenge this is right up your alley, there isn't much hand holding here once you clear the basics of controls and NPC amenities.

The rift is where all pawns come from
The user interface is largely unobtrusive, with the screen showing your minimap, health and stamina.  Subtitles of your pawns will pop up almost constantly, but these can be turned off in the options.  There are some odd menu choices though.  Pressing select will bring up your character inventory, but you cannot equip new weapons or armour from this menu, you instead need to press start to access your equipment, which is also where the map and save options are located.  Its a little odd to get to grips with at first since it would have been easier to allow you to equip items from the select menu instead of having to switch, but this is minor as an inconvinience.

The actual landscape of Gransys is well realised with plenty of varied enviroments to adventure through.  Lost temples, underground ruins, ancient castles, rolling plains, dark forests, mountain passes and more hold treasure and danger in equal measure.  Some adventuring jaunts can take a while in game since there is no fast travel option available so every quest requires you to trek on foot to the location you want to go.  This can mean wandering for a day or two in game time, meaning you will encounter the more dangerous monsters of the dark and be more susceptible to ambush from larger monsters, fighting a Chimaera in the dark is not fun people.

Graphically Dragon's Dogma can be a bit of a mixed bag.  Some enviroment textures can look pretty rough at times while the characters themselves are generally good to look at.  The world itself is beautifully lit though and the charm of the enviroment really comes through despite the minor imperfections.  Considering the size of the game its fair to give some leeway for the odd rough texture here and there, and to be honest its not something that will distract you all that often anyway.  The monsters, especially the big ones will impress the most, with each one animating realistically (at least as realistically as a Cockatrice can) and really feel like they inhabit the space they live in.  There is a wealth of armour and weapons to acquire and each can be mixed and matched to create your own personal style.

Just another day adventuring in Gransys
The sound work is pretty good in game.  The music is fitting, barring the J-rock intro theme (which is still awesome for some reason) with a mix of orchestral and choir music to accompany each battle.  Character voice overs are decent enough, although its obvious they have asked a group of north american voice actors to pretend to be english as the mispronunciations abound throughout this game, an early example is how they pronounce Bulwark, as "bulwork" rather than the english pronunciation of "bulwalk".  This doesn't ruin the game but will probably remind you of dick van dykes mary poppins performance at times.  Combat sounds are meaty and powerful sounding, with spells crashing and exploding while weapons have that loud squishy sound they make when they hit a soft target.  The ambient sounds really help with the mood of the locations also, especially in places such as the water gods temple and dripstone cavern.

I think my only disappoitment with the title is the lack of any kind of multiplayer aspect.  It would have been nice to take your main character into arenas with other players to fight against giant monsters, PVP or even do mini quest lines.  Its something I guess Capcom could look into doing for a potential sequel I guess.  I would also hope that Capcom would release Dragon's Dogma on the PC further down the line.

Overall Dragon's Dogma is pretty epic in scale and fun.  The combat is fast and enjoyable, the monsters are varied and challenging and the world is believable and more importantly fun to explore.  There is months of gameplay here and with DLC being released with new quests there will be more to keep you going post completion.  If you fancy an open world RPG to fill the gap left by Skyrim, Risen 2 and White Knight Chronicles then Dragon's Dogma has you covered.  Honestly I hope this series continues with many sequels in the future.

SCORE: 9.0/10 - Buy it now, If I had a seal of approval for Critical Rocket it would get it.


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