Being a big fan of adventure RPG's, I was curious about Dragon's Dogma, so I made a mental bookmark and moved on. But then I began to hear more about some interesting game mechanics that piqued my interest. Your characters go into the games of other people? How does that work? Is it like Tron? Well, these so called "pawns" are the reason to check out Dragon's Dogma, but some baffling design decisions and other issues mar what could have been a groundbreaking experience.
Pawns are a very clever idea... as in this could be a new trend in gaming sort of clever. You create two characters when playing Dragon's Dogma. The first is obviously yourself: a silent avatar in the role of the Arisen (more on this in a moment). The second is your pawn: a personal follower, not-quite human hailing from a dimension beyond the realm of our own Gransys known as the Rift. You choose everything about your pawn: from appearance to class to armaments. You round out your party of four with two more pawns of your choosing. But here's the kicker: your pawn is actually available for other players to use (that being the downside, you can only play Dragon's Dogma if you're online) and those you chose to aid you are actually the creations of those others out there. It's almost surreal... random people are playing with my pawn (who happens to be my wife... oops).
The clever bit is that say you and I are both playing Dragon's Dogma and we start at the same time and agree to use each others pawns. Suppose I have more time to play and get further ahead in the story than you. When you next play, your pawn will have 'learned' specifics of the quest from it's time in my game, and will therefore be better able to aid you when you undertake the same mission. It's an ingenious idea and an audacious undertaking.
It's a weird dichotomy that in many ways Dragon's Dogma is like every other RPG out there, but at the same time some of the ideas on display are foreign enough to raise a skeptical eyebrow. Building your party is an interesting experience. You can balance your party as you normally would, mixing melee, ranged, and magic specialties. But knowing that your party is padded out by the creations of others (therefore meaning no two games could ever be the same) makes things somehow more intimate. Its clever and addictive - there's always someone new to meet. Let me put it this way - I began to run a critical eye over each new piece of equipment my pawn wore, not solely from a statistical advantage standpoint, but also from a fashion-ista perspective. Hey, you get rated on 'Appearance'... how weird is that?
But it goes even further... say you level up to the point that your followers are now superfluous and like any good gamer, you're ready for an upgrade. Well, you can send followers on their merry way with a parting gift, a grade, and any advice you feel like offering. You can then spend accumulated 'Rift Crystals' (gained by completing quests, found or dropped by beasts, or brought back by your pawn partner) to enlist new troops. Fortunately, you have a reasonably easy to use interface to search for different types of pawns to narrow it down. There is even the option of tagging useful pawns as favorites, in case you want to recall their services at a later date... say when the main player has had more time to level them up!
Anyway, about the story! Your creatable character starts the game having his heart ripped out by a dragon... overcoming this notable handicap, he proceeds to set out to take his revenge (at the dragon's request, no less). You are called Arisen, a legendary chosen one who would defend against the evil incarnate that is the dragon menace. But before you can face the wyrm and take back your heart, you'll need to gather allies and strengthen both your body and your resolve.
The story has a decent start, but then almost immediately falls off the rails. It suddenly becomes bland, confusing, and disjointed. In fact, "disjointed" is a fair term to describe the entire experience of playing Dragon's Dogma. It's one thing to have an open world for players to experience at their leisure, but another all together to have a narrative that only advances when one stumbles across them at random. I ran around doing all sorts of different side quests, escort missions, and generally just faffing about before literally running into someone who happened to be the person I needed to talk to... I must have run past him fifty times. People are clearly marked, but picking a mission and then not having a marker clearly set on the map can lead to some annoying moments. Overall it suffers from poor pacing.
The problem with the gameplay is that they spent so much time on the clever bits that the core mechanics don't work particularly well. Combat, while reasonably well balanced with a bunch of fun super moves to map out, can actually be rather boring. The fact that the combat is so generic is only made worse by some wonky hit detection. I found this affected each class I tried, so fair warning. However, I do like the fact that you can change your class at any time for a price, which gives much more freedom of choice.
Now, I'm going to be perfectly honest here: Dragon's Dogma is tough. You'll be tested right from the start. It's not as hard as Demon's Souls or its big brother Dark Souls, but it's still pretty darn challenging. The problem is that the camera is a catalyst that turns challenging into frustrating quickly. There is a lot of customization to combat as well, with multiple, mappable attacks. Be forewarned, there is a definite learning curve to this one!
Occasionally you'll run across giant monsters that really require strategy and teamwork to take down. Be they giant bumbling cyclops or the multi-talented chimera, each one of these encounters are true tests of your skills as a gamer. There are some cool bits like when you can grapple on larger enemies and ride them as long as your stamina holds, stabbing away like Jack the Ripper. Every enemy out there has a weak spot. It's important to listen to the advice your pawns give during battle. Sometimes their advice can turn the tide!
There is some fun dungeon crawling to be had here, as well as lots of loot to sort through. Sadly, poor execution again rears its ugly head, making things more chore than fun some of the time. Poor level design makes the main dungeon sequences a confusing mess, especially if you're trying to back track and find previous areas no longer accessible. The fun of finding new goodies is tempered by the poorly structured inventory menus that make things more difficult than they need to be. In fact, the menus in general are terrible. This sort of thing isn't normally something I'd bother making mention of... but they are just that bad: confusing, unwieldy, and often unnecessary without many useful functions making the game easier. Spending a good quarter of an hour unloading supplies from everyone (you'll use your pawns as pack mules, trust me) is common.
But then there are some just plain stupid decisions by the developers that would have made Dragon's Dogma a much more fun game to play. First of all: there is no true fast travel system. Gransys is a large world and there is a lot to explore. Not being able to fast travel apart from rare 'Ferrystones' (a one time use item that warps you back to the capital) is a major crutch. What's worse, it's boring. Having to jog from one end of the map to the other after the first time is never fun... ever.
Only having one save slot is an issue of gargantuan proportions. Early on I accidentally found myself in a position where I was severely outclassed and couldn't get past a certain part. I was underpowered and unprepared, but worse still I was annoyingly cornered so I couldn't run around! Of course, I couldn't go back to an early save to grind my party up some more. In the end I started a new character. It was insanely frustrating, and what's more, entirely avoidable if there had been multiple save slots. At least it was early in the game so I didn't lose too much time, but it's something I simply can't understand from the developers. You can't even have multiple games going at the same time! Still, it's important to save often, especially when out in the field exploring... one bad step or one too tough encounter and you're done.
Graphically, Dragon's Dogma is not particularly well balanced. Some of it looks great, vivid and detailed. Large monsters in particular look fantastic. At the same time, some of the environments are quite picturesque. Sadly, other parts look practically last gen. The characters themselves aren't very convincing. I think a lot of the blame falls on poor facial animation, which left a lot to be desired. Draw distances are often embarrassingly short, with plenty of stuff (and monsters) popping in uncomfortably close.
The same complaint comes to mind when talking about the sound work: unbalanced. Characters have a bad habit of talking over one another, especially pawns when out questing. You never know what you might have missed! The soundtrack is decent, as is the voice acting. However, the writing isn't particularly good, making it more difficult for the actors to make it passable.
In the end, Dragon's Dogma is an average hack-n'-slash RPG with a great gimmick that falls short in execution. It's a real shame too, because the idea behind the "pawns" is brilliant. I can see this sort of mechanic working in all sorts of game scenarios, and not just RPG's. When it gets it right, Dragon's Dogma can be a blast. Climbing up the back of a giant monster as it tries to buck you off all the while lightning and fire rain down around you... well, that can be pretty sweet! But there are too many other issues here to ignore. The structure of the story is too vague early on to grab your attention. Even if you can stick through the rough opening sequence, the sheer amount of backtracking, loot comparing through terrible menus, and camera issues in combat make the actual game play experience more of a chore than anything. RPG enthusiasts are already playing this one to death I'm sure, but average fans should probably revisit Skyrim for their dragon fix.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Dragon's Dogma provided by Capcom.