Review: Capcom attempt to woo Western audiences with their new franchise, DRAGON’S DOGMA. Is this open-world action title trying too hard, or is it the way forward for Japanese RPGs?
Imagine a Japanese exchange student’s just turned up late to a party where all the cool kids are hanging out, and he’s desperate to fit in. He’s got the hipster glasses, the 45rpm jeans, the faded baby T with the Yomiuri Giants’ 1965 starting lineup. He’s even a little bit drunk already. And yet, although your first instinct is to facepalm painfully hard, you can’t help liking the guy. He’s a tad out of his depth, but he’s not showing off: he genuinely wants everyone to have a great time. And although he struggles with his English every now and then, he’s still confident enough to manage a few wicked putdowns for the jock who’s trying to impress all the girls with improbable stories of his gap year in Sweden.
Similarly, Dragon’s Dogma is so obviously driven by the need to impress that it’s almost funny. This is one of Japan’s biggest publishers resorting to design by committee, ready to do whatever it takes to catch a Western audience’s eye. It’s got the methodical busywork of a Monster Hunter, the difficulty spikes of a Dark Souls, the real estate of an Elder Scrolls game and combat that’s half-way between the medieval brutality of a Ridley Scott flick and the lurid spectacle of a Ninja Gaiden. But though Capcom struggle to hold it all together at times, they’re just so genuinely keen on you enjoying yourself that – against all odds – this is one of the best action RPGs in years.
As a simple fisherman in a quiet coastal village, you’re not too bothered when you hear the news that a legendary dragon who terrorised the kingdom in decades past has returned. That is, until the scaly horror in question lands on your shore and proceeds to wreck the place – stealing from you in the process, something you really need to get back. So you sign up for the royal volunteers planning to tackle the dragon head-on, only to find your experience has set you apart from the ranks. You’re the Arisen, the latest incarnation of the hero fated to slay the beast, able to summon a party of warriors from other dimensions to do battle to save the realm.
Once you’re past the tutorial flashback it’s into the character creator. Sculpting your avatar is a surprisingly complex little genetics lab, letting you roll up a quick preset or tweak a wide range of individual sliders. It’s no EVE Online, but there’s a huge variety of body types: from strongmen with muscles the size of sandbags to thirteen-year-old girls. No, not like you’re thinking – Gransys, the world of Dragon’s Dogma, is more about realistic proportions than anime excess. Think Monster Hunter’s tribal chic meets Southern Europe, a little grim and tumbledown but still warmed by dappled rays of sunlight, with rolling grasslands out to the mountains on the horizon.
See that mountain…
The map is less open than your first few minutes after the prologue might have you thinking. Some of those mountains can be climbed, but other terrain features are barriers hemming you in. Still, Gransys is huge, far bigger than any Monster Hunter, and when you charge out of home base the sense of heading off on an adventure is a shock to the system and a rush of pure, childlike glee all at once. The landscape is beautifully planned out, just wild enough to tempt you to wander off the road yet with enough of a designer’s hand in it you’ll always end up seeing something around the next corner, be it a phenomenal view, a new place to visit or a new enemy to cross swords with.
This is an action RPG, so you give up direct control over your statistics, but what you get in return is one of the most thrilling, dynamic combat systems in recent memory. Fighting is a process of mixing light and heavy attacks (or dashing out of the way) with firing off skills from your hot slots, all the time making sure your stamina doesn’t run out. Take the Strider class: part rogue, part archer. You can hit with dual blades, or shoot arrows from a distance, but each of those also lets you choose from an additional three special attacks you’ve set up. These could be a juggle with your knives then a grenade toss into the air after the falling body, say, or firing ten arrows at once like a shotgun blast. But overusing them risks leaving you helpless for vital seconds.
Dragon’s Dogma isn’t quite as punishing as Dark Souls, but it’s close. Even when you’ve powerlevelled past the regular enemies they can still blindside or use these same abilities on you. And if you’re knocked off a cliff or paralysed your gear won’t save you. On top of that, the bigger monsters are a whole other ballgame – titanic foes you can actually jump on, a la Shadow of the Colossus, and ride around stabbing them frantically in their weak spot until your stamina gives out or they shake you off. Every victory, whether it follows a ten-second pushover or a thirty-minute battle royale, is both a triumph for your grey matter and the kind of savagely gratifying dopamine rush few videogames can manage.
Insert Pawn pun here…
And it’s even more fun given you’re rarely alone. As the Arisen, you get the ability to command Pawns – those warriors from other dimensions. One of these serves as your buddy throughout, and you can mould them in as much detail as your own character. The other two are recruited wandering the world, either from presets built by Capcom, or buddies linked to other real-life players over Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. You can gift them equipment, but they won’t gain levels playing in your game. Pawns learn as they play, so you can hire a friend’s Pawn who may know the best way to fight a particular monster, or even the answer to a quest that’s got you stuck.
The whole arrangement works startlingly well. Only you can resurrect pawns gratis, but they will haul downed allies out of the fight so you can safely get them on their feet. They’ll pin enemies, buff you and each other, heal each other and sing out whether they’ve found a good tactic against a particular foe or their current tactic isn’t working. Tough battles are almost on a level with a great co-op session, where you alternate charging into the fray with sitting back and cheering on your allies as they do all the work. Your primary Pawn feels every bit as valuable as the best NPC you’ve ever seen in a game, and the prospect of losing them (if they bleed out before you get there) is terrifying.
This is the genius of Dragon’s Dogma, really. Under all the shock and awe of a high-level mage spell going off, this is a JRPG that’s happy to orchestrate some fantastic story-driven set pieces and to let you run wild doing whatever the hell you feel like, in a way you’ve come to expect from Western RPGs. The sheer scope and scale is more than enough to challenge Skyrim, but the crafting system to get new and more powerful sundries, weapons and armour stands to eat up hours on top of that. Add the superb combat, the challenge, and the fact it’s hours before you get any kind of fast travel at all and this feels like more of an adventure than anything Bethesda have done for a long time.
Again, Capcom do struggle to balance all this. The Pawns’ dialogue probably sounded great on a design document, and it does add character, but they talk, and talk, and talk as if Capcom thought Skyrim’s loquacious villagers were a bit on the quiet side. The proprietary Framework graphics engine struggles a little with a world so open too. The framerate only rarely hiccups, and loading times are very short, but the terrain is pretty short on polygons and the level of detail drops off pretty sharply. And Capcom’s lack of experience in the genre shows, sometimes, with a few fairly empty interiors here and there, the odd pointless side quest or some menus nested way too deep.
But Dragon’s Dogma is still a phenomenal piece of work. Very little of the game is particularly original, true, but it does a fantastic job with all the different influences it’s riffing on or building on top of. This is a Japanese-made big budget RPG where you can run for the hills singing “Born Free”, sword in hand, or follow the apocalyptic soap opera that is the story proper and still have more fun with either than just about anything so far this year. It puts both Final Fantasy and The Elder Scrolls to shame (not least given there’s been nothing bar minor glitches in more than thirty hours’ play). Welcome to the party, Capcom! With an entrance like this, I think we could be in for a beautiful friendship.
Deeper than Dark Souls, as seductive as Skyrim: Dragon’s Dogma is one of the most brilliant and satisfying RPGs in years.
Dragon’s Dogma, published and developed by Capcom, is available for PS3 (reviewed) and Xbox 360 from 22nd May 2012 in the US, and 25th May in Europe.