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Dragon’s Dogma Review: Grand Adventures in Gransys

Japanese based gaming companies are known for a lot of things, but epic open-world real-time combat based RPGs are usually not one of them. Capcom has developed and published this first entry in their new franchise, and have done a surprisingly good job. If you’re curious about this game, maybe this will help you understand a little bit better: take the difficult yet intensely rewarding gameplay of Demons/Dark Souls, the massive open-world and flashier combat effects of Kingdoms of Amalur, throw in some giant monsters a la Monster Hunter (another Capcom franchise,) and top it off with the grand scale and ability to climb them from Shadow of the Colossus. Granted, this is not a perfect combination of all of these elements, but the development team did quite an admirable job none the less. In short: do not let Dragon’s Dogma fly under the radar; it is a tightly crafted and epic tale.

The story begins with the player navigating a dark dungeon as an “Arisen” from another time and place. The Arisen are those individuals that have essentially came back from the dead after being killed by dragons. After this tutorial section, we fast forward in the timeline. If you played the demo, you can import the character you created there, or start from scratch.

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The opening scene shows the main character in a quaint coastal fishing village. Then, a dragon that has fallen from the sky attacks and steals the protagonist’s heart. One thing leads to another, and you are whisked away on a grand journey to hunt down the dragon that robbed you and avenge yourself. The main plot isn’t very deep at all, but provides enough thrills to keep the ball rolling. The side quests and minor content are where you will probably spend the majority of your time, if not just exploring the beautifully crafted world of Gransys.

Most of the side quests are fairly basic at their core, but thanks to the dynamic AI and environments Capcom created, they have a very unique feeling to them. A quest that begins as a simple escort mission for a caravan can soon turn into one of the most epic battles you’ve ever seen. There is a large variety of quest types, and while I have not seen absolutely everything in this game, I have not been disappointed as of yet.

Once you start the game, you can pick one of three basic archetypes: Fighter, Mage, or Strider. Fighters specialize in swords and shields, Mages use magic, and Striders are your basic rogue class with daggers and bows. Once you get a bit farther in the game you get the chance to switch your class up, or pick a more specialized focus in your general archetype.

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As a melee character, square controlled light attacks and triangle performed heavy attacks. X was jump, and O was the general interaction button. L2 sheathed/drew my weapons, while R2 grabbed objects and people. If you held down L1, then square, triangle and O would change to your left handed skills, with R2 doing the same for right handed skills. L3 was sprint, and R3 centered the camera. This system works very well and is fluid while playing the game.

That being said, there are two main complaints I have with the combat system. First of all, it would have been nice to have a dodge roll in place as a warrior. For my fighter, I would have liked to more easily evade attacks instead of being forced to block or move away. I understand that the rogue class has a dodge roll, so I suppose this decision was made in favor of balancing. Secondly, you should be able to interrupt your own abilities. For example, while charging up an ability to grant my sword with fire, if an enemy approached before the skill is finished, I am stuck and have to hope they don’t attack. This gets very frustrating later on, and is true for all skills requiring a charge-up.

Combat is fierce and fast, requiring the utmost skill at all times. Most large enemies can easily kill you in a few well-placed strikes, so tread carefully. The AI in this game for enemies is some of the best I have ever seen in the genre; they adapt to environments and act realistically.

For example: archers attempt to position themselves at higher ground and rain down on your from above, shielded fighters charge forward to occupy you while the dagger wielders jump and sneak around behind. Wolves travel and fight in packs, encircling you and attacking from all sides, or keeping their distance to only lunge in for a quick strike before backing off. Cyclops will reach and pull you off of them if you start climbing, or even slam on to the ground to get you off their back; combat is a truly exhilarating experience. The exact same can be said for your AI companions as well, for the most part.

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Your companions are part of what’s called a “Pawn” system. As the Arisen, you are able to command the Pawns of Gransys, which are not human, but simply will-less slaves to your cause. This is a great plot-friendly excuse for having followers that do your every bidding. You create your main-pawn near the beginning of the game that is always with you, so make sure you create a good complimentary character. I chose a mage as my main-pawn, since my character wielded 1-handed weapons and giant shields as well as heavy armor. You can still change their class, abilities, and equipment however, just like your own.

In addition to your main-pawn, you may hire two other pawns. These are created by other players, and you hire them by venturing into the Rift. This is where this game really does something unique. When you have another player’s pawn tagging along with you, they are constantly learning. For example: if you fight a dragon with that pawn, next time his/her owner logs on, that pawn is more knowledgeable. So, if he/she were to go fight a dragon for the first time, that pawn would have valuable information. I have another great example of how they learn and adapt very efficiently.

At one point I was fighting zombie-like enemies. It was my first encounter with them, and I noticed my normal sword slashes were not having a lot of effect, the same goes for arrows, daggers, basic spell attacks, etc. Then, my mage pawn imbued our weapons with fire and we started doing much more damage. After this happened, every time we saw that enemy type again he would say, “They’re weak to fire!” or something to that effect to let me know.

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Furthermore, they act like actual humans would. As you travel, they comment on the scenery and architecture of the area, pick flowers, loot bodies, and even explore rooms and environments. I cannot even count the number of times a pawn came across a hidden stash of gold that I missed. While regular coop would be a welcome addition, there is little wrong with this system.

Unfortunately, since the AI is so advanced most of the time, you really don’t have a whole lot of control over them. All you can do is tell them to either “Go” “Come” or “Help.” It would have been nice to have some sort of command menu, if you wanted a mage to cast a specific spell, your fighter attack a specific group, or your archer stay in one spot. They mostly are let loose to act as they wish. While they usually perform well and do exactly what you need, more guidance would be helpful.

After getting used to the pawn system, you will really start to enjoy their distinct personalities. After a while, I began to really care for my companions, and would rush to their aid in battle. Something should really be said for how well the AI in this game behaves for the most part, it is definitely a testament to how far gaming has come.

Graphically, this one is a sight to behold. The lighting and shadows are incredible, and the game looks even better in motion. Spell effects are expertly done, and the enemy and character models are highly detailed. Unfortunately a lot of the environment textures are a little blocky and odd looking up close, but overall this is one beautiful game.

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Unfortunately, not much in the world of gaming is perfect, and this is true with Dragon’s Dogma. For starters, the main menu theme song is painful to listen to. It starts out great, but devolves very quickly. The rest of the music in the game is wonderful, which makes it even more noticeable. Most of the voice acting itself is done very well in the game, but your pawns will get annoying after a while. I am really not interested in hearing them inform me of how much more they know about this quest now, all of the time. Another point to this end is that the lips hardly ever match the mouths when talking to NPCs. Cutscenes look fine, but regular dialogue is terrible. I’d recommend looking away from the screen and just listening to dialogue, or reading quickly and skipping to save yourself the suffering. Thankfully the ambient sounds and general background music are truly immersive and a great part of the game.

Capcom has done the majority of things right with this game. The gameplay is super tight and exhilarating, the world is massively rich and detailed, the enemy and ally AI is a huge step forward, and the amount of content is staggering. At the end of the day, you can easily be immersed in this brand new world ripe for the exploring. Hopefully they take this franchise (or the gameplay engine and features, at least) and build upon it. It’s unfortunate how little attention this game has been getting leading up to launch, but you owe it to yourself to give Dragon’s Dogma a try. If you do, grand adventures await!

Dragon’s Dogma releases on May 22nd for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Let us know what you think in the comments below!

This review was based on a physical retail copy of the game for the PlayStation 3 provided by Capcom.

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