“This demo is dumb Shawn lol” read the message in KakaoTalk from my wife. A real understanding of what Dragon’s Dogma is has been hard for me to come by and this foreboding message was as close to a cut and dry explanation as I’d come. A “Japanese Skyrim” or “another Monster Hunter knockoff” seem to be the most frequent comments but now I’ve played it myself and I can definitively tell you that it’s... well, it’s like... uhm...
Dark Souls meets Monster Hunter. Having barely played either of those titles I still feel totally comfortable in telling you that’s how Dragon’s Dogma boils down... probably. Obtuse systems and peculiar terminology mixed with epic fights against giant beasts in an open world. There, now you’ve got it.
The demo throws you straight into things with its “Prologue Quest” and offers only a couple screens that break down what the buttons do. And wow, there’s a lot of button combos. Blocking with your shield enables 2 attacks and an Aggro call while you have a default Regular and Strong attack as well as 3 more combos that use your stamina. An inventory of found ingredients and a screen full of numbers and status symbols await you if you press the Back button. There’s nowhere you can go in this game that doesn’t initially look overwhelming.
Your companions -- flippantly referred to as “pawns” who can be warped to you at special stones -- try to help but they’ve clearly played this game before. Mimicking the live chat of an MMO, their comments and hints are constantly scrolling up the left hand side of the screen as they run directly into combat with or without you. You’ve got a few commands on the D-pad but no matter how frequently I called them to my side they would always run off chasing the story while I was trying to get my bearings. You can’t live without them, though, as they are the A.I. embodiments of your MMO hotbar. A mage will cast healing spells or buff your weapons while another brute will yell out that he’s going to draw the beast’s attention. Still other characters will be shouting out hints and offering to launch you onto whatever monster is around.
At one point I referred to them as my three moms, constantly telling me to do this or watch out for that. “Let him do it himself, it’s the only way he’s going to learn,” I hear an imaginary dad say, one I wish was in the game to assuage the fears of my pawns. Maybe there’s a way to tailor the behavior of at least one pawn -- your dedicated follower -- but I sure didn’t see it in my five runs through the demo.
I also wasn’t aware that there are character classes in this game! The Prologue Quest forces you to use the default fighter dude but the second demo mission lets you use anyone you’ve made in the world’s worst character creator. Without explanation you choose a class based on a single visual of what look to be monks, mages, rangers, warriors and the like. Seriously, they don’t even give them a name, I just picked a lady who looked like Legolas. Sure enough she wields dual blades, ditches the shield for a bow and has amazingly different moves than the default dude. Then it’s off to fiddle with their physical appearance which can be tweaked to create some truly horrific (but also recognizable) figures. Sliders define how “ladylike” or “confident” a character is while wrinkles can be added but only to the head. It is perfectly bizarre and totally Japanese and you can expect it to be a short-lived meme or a Joystiq header image.
I never did get to really sink into Dark Souls so I’m hopeful that Dragon’s Dogma will be my perplexingly difficult fantasy adventure game to comprehend and conquer. It seems like there’s a ton to learn and even more to customize about your character and those nannying pawns. I don’t think the demo does a good job of explaining exactly what the game is but at least I know how it plays and can say for certain that I really want to dig into it. Check out the demo yourself (it’s out on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) because if you’ve read this far you’re clearly as intrigued by the game as I am.