I remember first hearing about Dragon's Dogma at Captivate 2011. The game's Director - Hideaki Itsuno - explained that it had been something he had dreamed of making since he was a kid - a large, open world fantasy with Greek and Roman mythological inspiration. You would fight the Hydra, Chimera and Griffin, wear metal skirts and saving the world on a grand adventure. Capcom would take what they learned from action games like Devil May Cry and add them to the burgeoning world of open world RPGs. A Monster Hunter meets Skyrim.
When first fighting the Chimera in the game's opening sequence, it's obvious that a lot has been done to make Dragon's Dogma its own game. Climbing onto the back of the Chimera, hacking off the snake which forms its tail and then getting thrown off as it roars in pain is an amazing experience. When you venture into the world at large, it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by everything - and when you first wander out of your sleepy fishing village at night and are quickly murdered by ghosts, you realise that's exactly how you're supposed to feel.
You see, Dragon's Dogma adds some of From Software's 'Souls' brutality to the mix. Monsters have fixed difficulty - if you aren't strong enough you will either run away or die. Diving in with your sword and shield hammering X or Y will get you killed against any but the weakest enemies. Not paying attention to your party set up - not only their professions, but their skills as well - will make everything a challenge.
Yes, you have a party - as the Arisen, you have the mysterious human-like Pawns at your command. One pawn accompanies you through everything after you design them and up to two more can be enlisted from Rift Stones located throughout the world. You choose the class and skills of your main pawn, building them up through the levels the same way you build up your own skills and abilities.
Pawns also gain knowledge of quests, monsters and areas and they offer you that information during the game. They'll learn that wolves don't like fire and imbue the party's weapons with fire enchantments. After an ambush on the road, they'll later remind you to watch out for ambushes when you go back that way. If you take a pawn on a quest it has already done, it will tell you where to go and what to watch out for.
Which leads to the most interesting thing about pawns - while there are quite a few added to the game by Capcom, you can also recruit the main pawns of other players. If that other player is further along in the game than you are, you'll get a pawn with more knowledge than you have, capable of offering advice and tactics. Pawns you recruit don’t level up - but if they belong to another player who has updated their stats while you’re playing, you can go back to a Rift Stone and they’ll be updated.
One of the biggest things I was worried about when I first had a chance to play Dragon's Dogma was companion A.I. - the pawn system is an integral part of the game, and having played certain other Capcom titles (cough, Resident Evil 5) I was a little uneasy. Fortunately however, companion AI is generally great - your companions will help keep you alive, keep each other alive and learn from their mistakes. Except, of course, when they don't.
There is a mission towards the beginning where you travel down a long spiraling path deep underground. Once you do what you have to do down there, you have to run all the way back up. Monsters keep spawning - monsters which can kill you in two hits. Dragon's Dogma doesn't tell you you are supposed to run away, but after losing in frustration for over an hour, I decided to run back to town and restock my supplies - and come back down when I was a little stronger. My companion pawn did exactly what she was told - I hammered down on the d-pad and she followed behind me.
The hires however, were insufferable - constantly ignoring my commands to do next to nothing to the monsters. One of them - the mage - refused to take any of the healing products I'd filled her inventory with and instead would stand next to our enemies and begin attempting to cast her healing spell - naturally meeting her demise shortly after. After 10 minutes of screaming expletives at the television until my house mate came to see if everything was ok, I waited until she died and carried her dead body. The comment system doesn't have an option for 'THIS PAWN IS THE WORST AND BY EXTENSION SO ARE YOU' so I had to content myself with 'Useless.'
Once I finally escaped that spiraling hell, an info box explained that a previous side quest was now failed. It had failed for no other reason than I had progressed too far in the story. This flew in the face of the loading screen help text and in game messages explaining 'if you have reached an impasse with a quest, try doing another and coming back to it.'
Which brings us to Dragon’s Dogma’s biggest problem - it is incredibly poorly designed in parts. Each member of your party has their own inventory, and you’ll spend a good tenth of the game doing nothing but inventory management. Your pawns will all pick up items you might have missed (or ignored) and while you can combine items across inventories, when you go to enhance your weapons and armour you need to be carrying all of the items yourself.
Anything in a pawns inventory when you release them from your party is gone. It doesn’t move to the stored items and it’s not on them if you get them back. It’s gone forever, meaning you’ll need to strip them of anything worthwhile every time you are finished with them.
Missions can be incredibly vague and time consuming - sometimes you’ll have to wait until nightfall or morning to continue a quest and there is no ‘wait’ function - either sleep at an inn or nothing. Sleeping at the inn brings its own set of troubles, as when you sleep your main pawn ‘goes off to help other adventurers.’ You’ll wake up to a status bar getting your pawn’s information from the server, taking as long as twenty seconds at a time.
You may have gotten the impression that I wasn't a fan of Dragon's Dogma, but that's not true. I really enjoy Dragon’s Dogma. It has excellent, dark characterisation throughout and while fighting fodder enemies like wolves and goblins can be boring, they aren’t bad - they are just ‘standard RPG fare’. Dragon’s Dogma more than makes up for it with its bigger enemies, who will flap their wings to knock you around, slam their backs into the ground when you are trying to climb up them and provide ample entertainment.
Gameplay is king in Dragon's Dogma, so we can forgive its god awful UI. You can draw similarities to Capcom’s other big name Action-RPG Monster Hunter; both pit you against massive creatures and both have a strong focus on combat. Dragon’s Dogma inspires exploration in a way Monster Hunter does not however - instead of exploring for loot, you explore for exploration’s sake - and for the chance to take on the giant creatures you will find on your way.
It’s a game for thrill-seekers, people looking for a challenge. The enemies are easier to handle as you get stronger, but until you reach the later stages of the game you will spend every night cycle on the edge of your seat - and most of every day. The feeling of tension when you first encounter a griffin is only matched by the feeling of triumph when you take its final dying breath.
For some balance, below is another story which best represents most of my experiences with the game. The Cyclops is a monster you encounter early - but with help. The battles in this game are suitably epic that even an enemy you'll take down in pairs later in the game makes for a thrilling tavern tale when you fight one alone for the first time.
I had ventured out to a crypt, where a meeting of cultists would take place at nightfall. With several hours to go, I wandered about fighting goblins and picking mushrooms and flowers. Then I saw it. A cyclops, surrounded by goblins. Night was beginning to fall by now, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take him on.
Saving, I ran over and started picking off goblins with my bow - a headshot took them down instantly, but as a Magick Archer I still hadn’t fully gotten used to the targeting system. Two went down and my third hit a goblin in the chest. That being the international sign for ‘Everybody charge and go crazy’ my Fighter pawn ran to battle. It was on.
I worked to take down the goblins and my pawns kept the cyclops distracted. After taking out the goblin chief his minions were easy. I sprinted over to the cyclops and jumped - right into a swing of his massive club. How I survived I had no idea, but after slamming down some healing herbs I was back at three-quarters health. Getting back up I ran back to the fray and climbed up the monster’s leg.
My fighter was already on top of his head and I watched as the monster grabbed her and chewed on her head, throwing her dead body to the ground. Climbing up, I heard one of my pawns shout that its armour protected its face. I climbed over its head, slashing its helmet uselessly as I tried to get rid of the helmet, succeeding as my mage launched a volley of flames at its head. Reeling in agony it stumbled backwards and fell over.
Reviving my fighter, we rained hell upon the cyclops’ face until it knelt and began pounding the ground with its fists. I took the opportunity to climb onto its back once more, stabbing it in the back as it got back to its feet. Enraged, it began charging my party members, with me clinging to its back for dear life. It grabbed one of my mages like it had grabbed my fighter earlier, so I quickly climbed to its head. Jamming my daggers repeatedly in its weakest spot, it dropped the mage to the ground and followed shortly after. Looking through my inventory, I probably wasn’t going to have enough healing items for the crypt now - but there was only one way to find out.
Dragon’s Dogma is not a flawless game, but if Capcom make a sequel the only thing I’d really want them to change is the user interface. Aside from the occasional bug, the pawn AI works brilliantly and the scope of the game means there is plenty to keep you entertained. Combat lacks the precision of a game like Dark Souls, but your pawns provide a safety net and a mix of variety and tactics not seen in other games of the genre.
Roaming around a vast countryside in Dragon's Dogma is the sort of adventuring experience I imagined playing Dungeons & Dragons growing up. It's about hunting down great monsters, about charting areas on your own and about remembering what it's like to be afraid of the dark - and then conquering that fear.
I agree about the score... it seems that even though the game is insanely fun (I'm half way through my second play-through, 140hrs+), because the game does have relatively few, but visually obvious flaws reviewers seem to feel obliged to score it 7.5 or below. I can't believe Kotaku gave this game a "You shouldn't play it" rating on their ridiculous binary scale.