Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dragon's Dogma is Pretty Damn Good

Dragon's Dogma is an open-world hack-n-slash action-adventure role-playing game by members of Capcom who had previously worked on games in the Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and Breath of Fire series. To me, Dragon's Dogma feels more like a cross between Skyrim (in terms of its open-world exploration and quest structure) and Dark Souls (in terms of its combat and its dungeon-crawling feel), which pretty much makes Dragon's Dogma the best of both worlds. After sinking 128 hours and counting into a single playthrough, I feel confident in saying that Dragon's Dogma is one of the most compelling games I've ever played in this genre.

Dragon's Dogma begins with the resurrection of a dragon prophesied to bring about the end of the world. After emerging from a hole in the sky, it sets its sights on the small fishing village of Cassardis, the hometown of the player's self-created avatar. While attempting to fend off the dragon, the player becomes marked as the "Arisen," the hero destined to slay the dragon when his heart gets ripped from his own chest, creating a bond between the Arisen and the dragon. The dragon flies off in possession of the Arisen's heart, while the resurrected Arisen begins his epic journey to fight the dragon and reclaim his heart atop the Tainted Mountain.

Venturing forth from Cassardis, you visit a small outpost that further serves as a tutorial for the game's pawn system (more on that later), and which begins to foreshadow the presence of a cult later revealed to be serving the dragon. While learning more about pawns and vocations, a mysterious shrouded figure calls a colossal hydra upon the outpost. Once vanquished, you set out with your newfound allies to deliver one of the hyrdra's severed heads to the duke in the capital city Gran Soren. From here the game kicks off its open world design, essentially offering you the freedom to carve your own way to the final battle.

Fighting the hydra

After this compelling intro, when you start to get a taste of the open world, the story and quests unfortunately fall into a slump that simply aren't strong enough to carry the weight of the game. Once you've delivered the hyrdra's head to Gran Soren, you join the ranks of the Wyrm Hunt, essentially just to perform busy work for the duke. At first none of it's related to the dragon and the tasks all seem relatively trivial -- deciphering an ancient text, aiding a research team, recovering the duke's lost ring, eradicating goblins from a stone fortress, and so on. There's not much narrative thrust behind these tasks, and it's far too easy to lose interest in the game's meandering pace midway through.

Many of the side-quests, meanwhile, fall victim to this same meandering pace. Nearly all of the quests you pick up from notice boards consist of the most basic of MMO-style quests -- kill 10 goblins, kill 35 bandits, collect 10 Gransys herbs, and so on. Other sidequests can be picked up from NPCs, marked with a colored exclamation point above their heads, and these aren't much better. Although they provide a bit more contextual storytelling, the objectives generally prove to be equally bland: find a missing book in town, deliver some news to an NPC across town, escort an NPC to an outpost, clear a nest of saurian lizards from the well, and so on. There are a few exceptions to these banal tasks that prove uniquely entertaining, but they're not nearly substantial enough.

As disappointing as the quests can be when you actually examine them, they're not the main draw of the game -- it's the combat, leveling up, exploring the map, and finding new loot. Much like in Borderlands, the quests are merely there to promote more exploration, more leveling, and more looting. Thankfully, these elements that comprise the game's core gameplay are all pretty well done and make for a truly engaging, rewarding experience.

OXM's gameplay preview

The world map is relatively large, though by no means is it anywhere near as large as Skyrim's. That's a good thing, frankly, because the landscape in Dragon's Dogma is big enough to give you a grand sense of scale with plenty to explore, yet small enough to be accessible -- it's totally possible to explore every inch of this game's world, and indeed it's actually worth it to do so. Compared to other, similar games like the early Gothic games, the actual landscape in Dragon's Dogma doesn't feel as detailed or complex, at times feeling just a little bland and stretched out, but the things you encounter within its confines are about as exciting as one could hope.

Throughout this world are a variety of enemies, varying in both physical size and strength. Early on and particularly along the main roads you encounter basic enemies like goblins and wolves; before long you're facing harpies, skeletal mages, and spear-wielding humanoid lizards. Occasionally you encounter boss-like enemies such as chimeras, cyclopes, griffins, and golems. Every enemy has a fixed level with fixed statistics -- nothing scales to your level -- and weak and strong enemies are fairly evenly scattered throughout the environment. While out exploring, you can be fighting a tough-but-manageable group of bandits and then see a fire drake off the distance, an enemy that could likely roast you alive if you draw its aggression at too low of a level.

Since nothing scales to your level and stronger enemies are frequently present around weaker enemies, it makes you very cautious and precise in exploration because you never know what to expect. Being frequently presented with much stronger enemies is great not only for the sake of the challenge, but also because it gives you a strong imperative to level up and improve. Leveling up and getting better equipment feels wholesome and rewarding because you know you're getting stronger relative to your enemies, and every time you get stronger you gain access to new areas of the map which in turn unlocks new challenges.

Fighting dire wolves in the wild

And where there are stronger enemies, there's usually better loot to be had, meaning there's always incentive to face challenges. You can either grit your teeth and figure out some clever or skillful way to fell your foe, which will provide immediate reward for a hard fought battle, or you can save it for later when it'll be easier -- a sure sign that you've gotten stronger and improved, which is rewarding in and of itself. At night, everything becomes pitch black, visibility drops to a radius of mere feet in front of you, and even stronger enemies come out, making you even more wary of where you venture and offering a radically different gameplay experience that almost borders on survival-horror.

Loot is somewhat randomized, with enemies and chests having certain chances to yield certain items, but there's still a certain level of predictability that goes into it because every chest has set rewards -- some will always give the same item, others might give one of four items based on a percent chance. Since everything is preset with slight randomization, you can use prior knowledge to your advantage in subsequent playthroughs, and the variable drop rate proves just as addicting as farming bosses in MMORPGs and other games like Borderlands. I spent perhaps way too much time in Dragon's Dogma hunting drakes, wyrms, and wyvens trying to dragonforge equipment for myself and my main pawn.

In addition to simply finding better gear, the game features a fairly decent crafting and upgrading system. In your adventures you come across numerous crafting materials (found in chests, looted from corpses, or harvested from the wild), all of which are used with blacksmiths to upgrade your current gear or to create whole new items. So if you're set on upgrading your favorite gear, you might find yourself adamantly hunting down crafting materials. But even though getting the most out of the game requires some dedicated farming, it's absolutely not essential to beat the game, so if the sound of MMO-style loot farming doesn't appeal to you, it doesn't have to affect your enjoyment of the game -- but it's there if you like it.

The Rift where pawns gather to be hired

When you create your character, you also create an NPC known as your main pawn, a sort of party member who accompanies you on your adventures and levels up alongside you. When you defeat enemies you gain experience towards leveling up as well as discipline points that are spent learning skills and changing vocations. Just as you do with your own character, when your main pawn levels up, you get to fully customize their active skills, and you can freely change their vocation. Your main pawn is essentially just like your playable character, except controlled by the AI, and there are numerous different ways you can tweak that AI to your benefit.

Pawns essentially learn from your actions, and their inclinations adapt to your playstyle. Pawns can be shaped to be super aggressive offensive characters, or defensive characters who look after your own safety first, or scouters who seek up ahead for danger, and so on. They also gain knowledge from defeating enemies or reading tactical volumes on specific enemies which makes them more effective in combat against those enemies. At various resting points, you can sit them down in a knowledge chair and shape their personality -- essentially the way the talk and behave vocally.

Besides your main pawn, you can hire up to two other pawns to join you. If you're playing online, you get to hire other players' main pawns; if you're offline you can hire randomly-generated pawns. If your pawn gets hired by another player, any knowledge your pawn has of certain quests or areas can be of use to the other player, and your pawn can likewise gain knowledge or bring back items by being with another player. When they're done using their pawn, they can rate it in various ways and leave it with a parting message. If you have other players' pawns hired, you can talk to them for tips on quests, or they might reveal hidden locations to you.

A pawn hints at the location of loot

With the pawn system, it can compel you to make the most out of your own pawn to make it more desirable to other players. There's a great sense of pride to be had from getting good ratings and finding your own pawn in the top-ranked list. In a way, I almost spent more time on my pawn than I did on my own character, and I spent a lot of time in the rift (the dimension that links players' worlds) comparing and contrasting different pawns to pick the best ones. Simply put, playing around with the pawns was a lot of fun and added tremendously to the experience.

But as great as the idea of the pawns are, they're a little flawed in execution. No AI-controlled pawn will ever be as intelligent as you might be, but they're generally competent at doing their jobs and being of good use, especially if other players were diligent about setting useful inclinations. But at other times, the pawns can be so dumb as to be utterly worthless. With a strider in my party, a rogue class that uses daggers and short bows, I'd sometimes face a bunch of flying enemies only for the pawn to run around uselessly trying to hit enemies with its daggers instead of switching to its bow. I sometimes had mage pawns grappling onto boss enemies and hitting them with their staff instead of hanging back and casting spells.

In certain situations you can become incapacitated by enemies that follow-up with an instant kill if you don't complete a stick-waggling quick-time-event in time, or if a pawn doesn't come to your aid in time, or if a pawn doesn't interrupt the enemy's attack in time. On numerous occasions I had become incapacitated, frantically waggling my control stick and spamming the "help" command, only for my pawns to sit around twiddling their thumbs and not coming to my rescue while I faced a game over screen. In another situation I faced a boss that cast AOE debuffs, but while I was smart enough to hide behind a pillar, my pawns were nearly always caught standing out in the open and becoming hopelessly useless.

Fighting a group of hobgoblins; a pawn reveals their weakness

The combat, meanwhile, is some of the best I've seen in a third-person action-RPG. It has the methodical precision of feeling like Demon's Souls or Dark Souls while also having the intense hack-and-slash action of Devil May Cry and God of War. It even has hints of Shadow of the Colossus in it, in terms of its various boss enemies that have you physically scaling them to strike at weak points. This is all tied together with weighty physics that have you feeling the impact of blows both delivered and received. Even though the quests themselves aren't all that fun to pursue, the combat you're usually sure to encounter within them is enough to make them fun.

When you create your character you choose your starting class: fighter (sword and shield), strider (daggers and shortbow), and mage (offensive and healing spells). Once you reach level 10 you can freely change your class (so long as you have enough discipline points) to advanced, more-offensive versions of those three starting classes (warriors that use two-handed swords, rangers who use daggers and longbows, and sorcerers who use more elaborate offensive spells) or to hybrid classes (assassins being a cross between fighter and strider, magick archers being a cross between strider and mage, and mystic knights being a cross between fighter and mage).

You have two basic attack buttons: square for a regular attack, and triangle for a heavy attack. Initially you're limited to basic attack combos, but as you level-up and learn new core skills you get longer combos and more moves that can be executed with these two attacks. With each class, you can use vocation-specific skills by toggling the two shoulder buttons, which turns each of the face buttons into a skill. If you're playing a strider, for instance, holding the right shoulder button will let you use dagger attacks, and holding the left shoulder button will let you instantly pull out your bow. If you're playing a magick archer, you can use the right shoulder button for staff spells and the left shoulder button for bow attacks.

Skip to 2:23 for warrior combat demo against a chimera

Each vocation can be leveled independently of one another up to a maximum vocation rank of nine. In a single playthrough, you can easily max out multiple vocations, switching between classes just for the sake of variety. It's even advantageous to do so, because each class can learn different augments -- passive skills that can be used with any other class once it's been learned. An effective warrior build might have augments from the fighter and strider in addition to his own augments, which requires leveling those other vocations at least long enough to learn the augments.

With each class you can learn about a dozen or more different skills per weapon, but the catch is that you can only ever assign three active skills at one time, per each weapon. A large part of the fun in the combat system is learning new skills and trying them out, seeing how they work in conjunction with other skills and finding your own desired combination of skills. If you max out one vocation and start to get bored, you can easily switch vocations to try something different -- and each of the six classes provides a radically different gameplay experience, thanks to the diversity in active skills.

What really makes the combat fun, though, is the bosses. In most cases you're facing a giant enemy that comes with nearly the same scale of epicness as fighting a colossus in Shadow of the Colossus. Whereas most common enemies can be dealt with via pure hack-and-slash action, bosses require much more strategy -- targeting certain parts of the body, avoiding devastating lethal attacks, and simply managing your health and stamina in a prolonged battle while navigating a much larger battlefield. There are a few unique boss battles throughout the game, but there are also numerous sub-bosses that you encounter in ordinary exploration, all providing a similar sort of challenge.

A large stone fortress, host to a great griffin battle

Even though many of the quests fail to impress and the main story takes a lull midway through the game, the final sequences offer some genuinely epic gameplay. The final battle with the dragon happens across multiple stages (fighting, fleeing, fighting, pursuing, etc, with bits of dialogue and platforming thrown into the mix) that feels much more epic than any other dragon fight I've ever experienced, and even offers the player a couple of interesting choices along the way. But the game doesn't end there; there's an entire post-game series of quests available with the world radically changed after the dragon's defeat.

This final stretch, including the dragon fight, is where the story's actual substance comes into play, when you learn about the dragon's role in the universe, your own destiny, the function of pawns, and how worlds are linked. As with the dragon fight, you're offered a few different choices along the way that can lead to different endings, and without spoiling anything, there are some really good artistic moments in these final quests. They're so good that they almost make up for the boring midsection of the game, at least in terms of the spectacle.

With the Dark Arisen expansion, you get access to a new multi-level dungeon that features much more challenging enemies, the ability to enhance gear beyond dragonforged, further-improved rank-three skills, as well as dozens of new equipment pieces that you can obtain by purifying cursed items. For anyone seeking the full experience, Dark Arisen is absolutely essential because it's the only way for you and your pawn to reach their maximum potential, and the atmosphere created from the new dungeon, with its oppressive survival dungeon-crawling vibe, is probably the best single area in the entire game.

And that, in a nutshell, is Dragon's Dogma. It has its fair share of faults (notably the shallow, uninspiring quests and some iffy behavior from the AI-controlled pawns), but it more than makes up for these shortcomings with its engaging combat and compelling leveling system. I ended up sinking 128 hours into a single playthrough and am tempted to spend much more replaying in New Game Plus on Hard Mode, or perhaps to restart and play completely solo. My playtime alone can vouch that there's a lot of content to experience in this game, and the feeling of improving my character and facing new challenges kept it worthwhile all the way through.

1 comment:

  1. OMG thank you! Every reviewer thought the grigori fight was the end. Or thought he was a generic apocalyptic dragon when he isn't if you bother to look at the subtleties present in the story.