Guest Author - James Shea
Dragon's Dogma is a fantasy action-RPG that doesn't "innovate" so much as it "refines".
Set in a somewhat typical fantasy world of magic and monsters, "Dragon's Dogma" is a game with a fairly simple premise (at least at first): you are the Arisen, chosen to slay a mighty dragon before it can bring ruin to the world of man. On the path to confronting the dragon, there are many obstacles; vicious monsters swarm the land in the dragon's wake, yet the politics and intrigues of your fellow man may do more harm still.
There are three base classes in Dragon's Dogma: the direct fighter, the agile strider, and the versatile mage. In addition, there are three upgraded classes (fighters become warriors, striders become rangers, mages become sorcerers) and three hybrid classes (mystic knight, assassin, and magic archer). Each class has a different gameplay role, and it's fairly easy to find one that suits your particular playstyle. To understand how they work, it's necessary to understand the game's combat.
Combat in the game is simply outstanding. The easiest comparison is to a game like Dark Souls or Demon's Souls, in that you're actually swinging your weapon around rather than simply hitting the "attack" button over and over. Combat against most monsters consists of hacking, slashing, blocking, and evading in whatever manner is necessary. However, with larger monsters, it's also possible to climb onto their fur or scales and attack them in that manner, stabbing into weak points unaccessible from the ground. Fighters and warriors are better at ground-based combat, while the agile striders are best-suited for climbing and stabbing. It's difficult to convey how much weight is behind the combat, especially with two-handed weapons. It's absolutely satisfying to swing a sword into a crowd of enemies and have them all sent flying (with pretty good physics, too); skeletons, especially, are fun to fight because upon death their bones are launched based on the force of the blow.
As the Arisen, you're not alone in your quest to defeat the Dragon. Beings called "pawns" - similar to humans in many ways, but lacking their will and drive - exist to assist you in your task. The player has one "main pawn" whose appearance, class, and personality can be chosen by the player; the main pawn must be outfitted by the player, and it also gains experience like the player does. The main pawn can also be hired out to other players via the game's internet service, and in the same way the player can hire two other pawns from the ranks of the game's other players. It's an interesting, albeit highly indirect, form of multiplayer. Offline players simply have a pre-made selection of non-main pawns to choose from.
One of the keystones of the game's design is "preparation". The open world of Dragon's Dogma houses many dungeons, ruins, and labyrinths, but there are several differences between DD and a game like, say, Skyrim. The most important one is that there is only one major city in the game (the capital of Gran Soren), and all expeditions into the wilderness tend to originate from there. There is no fast-travel save for a fairly expensive "return to Gran Soren" option, so wherever you need to go, you'll be hiking there on foot. Your inventory, including your various potions, foodstuffs, and cures, will weigh you down as you travel - the more you're carrying, the more stamina you use while sprinting, jumping, etc. Therefore, unlike most RPGs, you cannot easily carry thousands of potions on your person - or, at least, if you do, it'll make things harder for you in other ways. Your kit and gear must be carefully chosen before setting out, for apart from things that you can find on your travels, that's all you have to rely on.
While combat is more forgiving than a game like Demon's Souls, "Dragon's Dogma" is equally hardcore in its own way. As mentioned, there is almost no fast-travel in the game, so players will be hoofing it across the landscape every time they have to do a quest. The world is full of monsters, and interestingly there's no level-scaling (unlike the Elder Scrolls game), so in many cases you'll simply have to run for it when you encounter something far beyond your level. It's possible to get anywhere in the game world at a low level; it's just a matter of evading enemies rather than simply smashing your way through them.
The game's graphics are somewhat technically limited (there's a lot of pop-in textures and slowdowns) but given the scale that the game is working with, it's generally not too bad. You can basically see the entire world from most high places in the game, and the city of Gran Soren stands as a major landmark from most areas. The game is full of amazing vantage points and scenic vistas, and that's one of the real benefits of exploring the open world. In addition, Dragon's Dogma is one of the few games where night is actually really dark, which absolutely necessitates the use of a lantern, and encourages players to return to the safety of the city walls before night falls (not that this is always possible). It's a game that really feels like a huge open world to explore rather than a collection of dungeons splattered across a landscape.
The few problems the game has are of a "convenience" nature. The inventory system tries somewhat valiantly to deal with the fact that the player will be carrying many types of items and objects, but it's not exactly the best in terms of execution. An easier "favorites" system might have worked better, rather than simply a list organized by type. The long hauls across the game world are a somewhat necessary part of the game's theme and design, yet having some unlockable quick-travel options (wagons or horses, perhaps) would have been a welcome change.
Dragon's Dogma isn't for everyone, but players willing to immerse themselves into an open, living world will find great rewards in it. There are many satisfying moments that exist as the result of limitations and weakness rather than simply defeating everything with ease. The limitations on your supplies creates tension that's simply not found in most games, and the combat is always satisfying no matter how many times you do it. The game has problems, sure, but they're technical, rather than design-based. In short, if you're looking for a fantasy game that goes above and beyond the traditional limits of the genre, Dragon's Dogma might be just what you've been looking for.
We purchased this game with our own funds to do this review.