Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dragon's Dogma

Dragon's Dogma, jack of all trades, master of some.
Review By Sain of Caelin

WARNING: I do in depth game analysis, this won't be quick, but it should be painless.

Dragon's Dogma. The open world adventure with all the monster climbing, party managing, and intense combat you can handle, or so the hype would have you believe. It's always a risky move taking on so many elements on at once, especially so close to media favorites Skyrim and Dark Souls, but Capcom mostly succeeds in it's goal.

STORY: We begin our journey in a small fishing village. Our created character, presumably a fisherman, is minding his/her business when a dragon attacks. Villagers are killed, and the protagonist has his heart ripped out and eaten by the dragon. Don't worry though, he's fine. This act creates a pact with the dragon, leaving our hero alive, while the big bad dragon flees. Our speechless, fearless hero picks up his trusty sword/bow/staff and sets out to the closest mercenary camp to help kill the dragon and regain his heart. Also, you're one of a chosen few, called the Arisen.

Sound familiar? Perhaps a little jRPGish? You're right. But the game opens up soon after and a familiar system of quests, both through other characters and notice boards in towns. Often there is a clear task at hand, a direction the game points you in to push the plot, but exploring is heavily suggested. It is the unique combination of central jRPG plot focus and the open ended wRPG side quest focus that makes Dragon's Dogma so peculiar, both are equally good and important. Overall the plot has a interesting few twists and turns, and the world has a definite feeling of progression, but for the most part the plot is there to give purpose to the world and gameplay.

GRAPHICS: Dragon's Dogma is an acceptable looking game for sure, the points are conveyed and nothing is every straight out ugly. But not much, other than the scale of things, will blow players out of the water either. It is to be expected that open world games will skimp a little on tighter visuals. But what Dragon's Dogma lacks in some texture quality control, it more than makes up for in it's open world landscape. The lay of the land is expertly crafted, from the deep valley on the way to the capital, to the gently rolling hills on it's outskirts. Another less often praised aspect is the spell effects. The lower tier spells are mostly cut and dry, but some of the stronger spells are fantastic. One, High Maelstorm, creates essentially a tornado to suck in and tear up a group of monsters and the way it sprouts up from the ground, twisting and contorting- it's a sight to see. But while some of the effects are exceptional, oftentimes they are coupled with some stuttering. It's not game breaking, but noticeable in big fights with multiple spells. This can also occur in towns during the day when there are a lot of people, it stutters and there can be some bad pop in effects.

An aspect of the visuals that was surprisingly impressive was the character creator. It's the first creator I've come across that by the end of playing with it, my character actually looked like a human, as opposed to some bland looking Mr. Potato Head. You can begin by choosing from a number of preset designs, which is a huge boon, as all their presets look great and can be used as an outline to throw your final creative touches on. Another interesting aspect is the idea that your characters actually has abilities attributed to their size. Small characters can crawl through small passages and regain stamina back faster, while larger characters regain stamina a bit slower, but also can wade through deeper water without putting out their lantern. It's these small touches that really tie the experience together.

As far as the user interface goes- it is adequate. The health bars, map, and abilities don't take up much space, and are not an issue. Your allies will constantly talk to you about the land, how to fight certain enemies and complete your quests. This is a nice touch, but the game defaults to subtitles, which scroll on the left side of the screen, causing severe clutter. It is optional, but one can't help to think the font could be smaller. You also see pop ups galore whenever you finish quests, level up or receive items and money. Considering these things often happen in conjunction, the screen can get overwhelming quickly. Another qualm I had was the menu system, not so much in it's visuals, but it's UI as well. Inventories are found using select, but equipment, quest and map screens are through the start button. It was a weird and jarring design choice, but you get used to it.

SOUND: The sound track itself does well enough it setting the right mood, outside of the jrock filled title screen of course (although it is kind of catchy). But every time you set out into the over world of Gransys this relaxed but inspiring tune starts to play and it really sets the mood for whatever adventure you're beginning. It's not a soundtrack that people are likely going to remember for long, or listen to outside of gameplay, but it's not jarring either.

The voice acting on the other hand is superb. None sound bland or bored, and yet there is no overacting either, it's a miracle! The dialogue itself is noticeably old timey, but in a fantasy setting that is to be expected. Characters constantly repeat some words and phrases, like “aught”, and that definitely does break the immersion at times, but at no point did I find the dialogue to be awful or cheesy. My only complaint is that for your protagonist you can only choose from 6 different voices, and while they are all good, they are small in range. With a wealth of customization options, you would think you could choose voices to match your child sized character, or your grizzled old sage. It is a bit strange to hear a strapping young lad sounding roar come from your 60 year old support mage.

CONTROLS: On first reading about the controls I was very unsure about how effective and natural they would feel, but after only a few minutes of gameplay they feel as natural as any other set up. The face buttons are mapped to jump, to light and heavy attacks, and an all purpose talk/open/investigate button. The part I was worried about was the R1 or L1 buttons must be held down to give an alternative set of skills for your weapons. For example, square is a light attack, but hold down R1 and square becomes the charging Burst Strike, or hold down L1 and square is a Shield Storm. All this is shown neatly on screen in an easy to read but not intrusive graphic and feels very natural, making combos a breeze to pull off control-wise.

GAMEPLAY: But of course gameplay is the most important aspect of a video game, and like most of the best games it is the area in which Dragon's Dogma excels in beyond all other aspects. The focus is around exploring the land and fighting monsters. But don't stay out too late, as once the sun sets, things get serious. The land gets dark very quickly, and not only dark but pitch black. You need to use your lantern, and even then only a few feet around you is illuminated. And where during the day if you stick to the roads you are mostly safe from enemies, at night there are enemies everywhere, and the game becomes far more difficult. In some ways the night becomes an annoying time restraint where you have to finish quests quickly, but it also adds a lot of flavor to the gameplay experience. One of the greatest times I had with Dragon's Dogma was on the way back from an escort mission in unfamiliar territory. I had to run by groups of goblins, extinguish my lantern to hide and try to slink through a forest and hope to find a small cave or some lit area. My only still living party member kept chattering “Ser, that's a chimera!” as we wearily hoofed it back to the closest fort, hunted by the chimera all the way.

The main draw of the game is the battles with these beasts. It's not as big monster centric as Monster Hunter though (where Dragon's Dogma obviously draws many ideas from), so there are a decent amount of smaller creatures, bipedal, spear wielding lizards-crocodiles, harpies, bandits, goblins. For the most part the game sticks to Western Tolkeinesque archetypes. And that's not to say the monsters aren't still very cool, we often see things like dragons and ogres in video games, but not as often is the intense and layered combat with them. And we also see some of the lesser explored creatures like hydras and chimeras to slice and dice. Of course there are the magic classes as well, which are serviceable, although maybe a little bland, depending on the type of gamer you are. If you're a bit more passive, buffs and healing might be up your alley. Or flinging fire and creating tornadoes might be preferable. Just be away there are cast time to wait for. It's fun, just a different kind of monster slaying.

And all these monsters require different strategies for defeating. At no point is Dragon's Dogma a button mashing combo fest. It's an interesting combination of combo action games like Dynasty Warriors, but the reserved approach of the Souls series. You can string attacks together, but you better be careful when you do it. And that's not to mention the Shadow of the Colossusesque climbing.

Just as an example of these cool mechanics in practice: Let's say you come across a cyclops. At the beginning of the fight you fire arrows haphazardly, not doing much damage. It doesn't take long before you zero in on the cyclops eye, an obvious weak area. You focus on his eye, and he keels over. You close in for some limited close combat comboing to cut off his tusks, before having to jump out of the way of his mace. While he rages around blindly you jump on his back, crawl up his body and finish him with repeated daggers to the head. Don't forget to jump off him so he doesn't crush you when he falls.

But before you go off into battle with these big baddies, you need to level up. This is where we first see an area of uniqueness in Dragon's Dogma: the blending of Japanese and Western game styles. In many open Western games, you are somewhat contained by your level, but with rampant level scaling, it is usually not a huge issue. In Dragon's Dogma, there is no level scaling. Sometimes you'll be thrown against a drake or griffin that you just cannot hope to beat and you need to retreat, which is nice in a way. No matter how hard you try, you need that progression to succeed. But leveling is only one aspect of Dragon's Dogmas aspect of progression.

We also see a form of the job system return, albeit not as in depth as usual, in the form of vocations. You begin the game with only a choice of 3 classes, your generic tank, rogue and mage. Later on your can change your characters to upgraded versions of those 3, and your main character can swap to a hybrid class, like a magic archer or assassin. Each class has 9 vocation levels, each one granting new abilities you can buy, from attacks and spells to passives that raise your stats. You buy these abilities with discipline points, that you get from killing enemies, like XP.

I've been intentionally vague about the concept of party members outside your main controlled protagonist, because without a proper background, this concept could be confusing. At the outset of your adventure you create what is called a pawn, a quasi-human character that follows every command of you, the Arisen. You create one, choose his/her initial class, name him/her and love him/her, for s/he will be your constant companion. And the best part is that the party AI is actually competent (escort mission AI is awful, as per the gaming tradition). They'll use their skills, but rarely enough to exhaust all their stamina at once. But on the chance they do die, you can easy revive them by running close to them and hitting the O button within a few seconds.

Beyond the one pawn that you create, you can also hire 2 more pawns (a total party of 4) through a Rift Stone, a portal to the world of pawns. You can use precreated pawns in offline mode, but the real fun is using other player's pawns. Don't feel bad, you don't steal their pawn, two players can use the same pawn at once. These hired 3rd and 4th pawns don't level up with you, only your protagonist and your pawn do, so you'll have to swap new pawns in every few levels. But the coolest part of this system is that pawns learn as they travel with other players. Let's say a player borrows your pawn to finish a quest to kill an ogre. Next time you sleep at an inn your pawn will “come back”. If you ever come across that same quest, or fight an ogre, your pawn might tell you that ogres are notorious for getting aggressive around females, or to be careful climbing them because ogres will try to crush you.

REPLAYABLE: A first playthrough will take anywhere from 25 to 60 hours depending on how many side quests and extras you wanna tackle. And there is an end game scenario and a new game plus, though both are difficult to go into without some spoilers. But the new game plus is offset slightly by the fact that enemies do not scale, so the game is far easier the second time through. But even outside of new game plus, there are so many classes that Dragon's Dogma offers which leads to a whole lot in terms of differing experiences. But it's not something to be completed quickly. If you don't have the time or patience to relax and enjoy the scenery once and awhile, it might not be for you.

The short of it:
+ Deep combat system
+ Deep leveling/job system
+ Unique and noticeable melding of Japanese and Western traditions
+ Big bosses, long battles
+ The little things, lanterns extinguished by waterfalls etc.
+ Excellent VA
+ Best character creator
+ Tight controls
+ Varied gameplay with all the class types
+ A surprisingly unique game created from so many inspirations
- Occasional intrusive UI
- Slightly off menu system
- Workable plot, but not to the standard set by other aspects of the game
- Some slow down and pop in

SYSTEM: PlayStation 3, XBOX 360



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