Dragon's Dogma is an interesting take on the genre.
Dragon's Dogma is a hardcore game. And not just in difficulty like Dark Souls. Dragon's Dogma is even more of a throwback. Because the hardcore side of it isn't as immediately apparent. Most people won't notice until they're forced to, and then they'll complain. This is in the game mechanics, deep down. Like having to add oil to your lanterns periodically. To do this you have to have empty flasks, which you then fill up when you find a bucket of oil. Then you have to manually combine the flask with the lantern. That's a three step process to refill your lantern. Hardcore. Your food-based healing items will perish over time. First becoming moldy, but retaining their healing qualities, then they rot, which become hazardous if eaten, and must be sold or discarded. If you want to keep a perishable food item fresh, you have to buy or find airtight jars to store them in. Hardcore. No fast travel either. This is done to force you to interact with the world and it's gorgeous lighting effects. Everything casts a shadow. And even though it's a bright and shiny day, you may find yourself fighting in zero visibility if you're traveling between two cliffs, or in a thickly wooded forest. Also, you'll be forced to account for how long your journey away from town will take. As the sun goes down, it really goes down. Before you know it, it's pitch black and zombies are rising from the ground. This is where the game becomes a struggle for survival. So to all of those who consider the lack of fast travel a flaw, put on your big boy pants. Because Dragon's Dogma is hardcore.
Fast travel has become a common aspect of most open world RPG's. And it's a quality I believe is hurting games like Oblivion and Skyrim. You miss out on the world by fast traveling. You just chase around markers on your map. You travel to the nearest town, run to the marker, do something and fast travel out. Sure you don't have to. You can choose not to fast travel, but when given the option, I think most people can't help but use it. But when Dragon's Dogma forces you to interact with the world, you really get to see the gritty workings of it's world. Every tree, every blade of grass, every shrub blowing in the wind on a particularly windy day. The shaded areas of a wooded patch of forest. The game has a sort of ecosystem. Follow a river and you'll spontaneously find a cyclops bathing in it. Sometimes you'll be running down a road you've traveled a dozen times because it's part of your routine between towns, you'll suddenly come across a burning wagon and a group of bandits will ambush you. A totally organic change up just when you though it was safe to jog back to town to sell your loot. The game world is ever changing and growing. Just when you think you've seen it all a griffin's shadow flies overhead.
Now many of these descriptions will be considered flaws by some gamers. And that ultimately determines how much fun you'll have with Dragon's Dogma. For me personally, those qualities describe a game I've been waiting for since Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. Sure, later Bethesda games like Fallout 3, Oblivion, and Skyrim have the open world, but they lack a grounded physicality which has been replaced by an arcadey video gameness. Bethesda has sought out accessibility that sacrificed the unbridled freedom of Morrowind. If you turn off the HUD, subtitles, and mini maps in Dragon's Dogma, which is how I play, you're literally told nothing about the game world. It's all for you to discover. I didn't even notice the game had rabbits until I had a quest to kill them. That's when I noticed there were rabbits absolutely everywhere hiding in tall grass.
The game is at a glance ugly. Especially in the horrible first impression the game makes. After a garbage menu screen rock song, and a prologue, the beginning of the game takes place in a dusty, drab, brown city, where your character, wearing ugly drab brown clothing, fights a dragon in a faux battle. Most of this takes place in clunky cut scenes. The ugliness of the character models might scare some away in these opening few hours. But like Dark Souls, Dragon's Dogma makes up for ugly characters with varied, impressively detailed, and good looking armor, clothing, and weaponry. So once you suit up in a real suit of armor, what was an ugly game all of the sudden looks great. Speaking of armor, did I mention you have to buy or find and equip a piece of armor for every body part in addition to a piece of clothing for each body part. Yes, you have to buy/find and equip the full set of clothing that goes under your armor. Did I mention this game is hardcore? The armor also has pretty impressive little details. For example some helmets with visors have the visor flipped open in town, but down like a knight in battle.
The game has a surprising level of verticality to it. Not quite like Assassin's Creed, but impressive nevertheless. You can climb most buildings to get to the rooftops. Sometimes while adventuring to castle ruins, you'll climb mostly destroyed towers, making impossible seeming jumps across destroyed bridges and climbing walls that seem like an invisible fence, only to discover important quest items at the top. You'll be surprised to find that you're going the right way while climbing a seemingly unscalable wall. The game becomes a sort of free form platformer at that point.
The world is a bit empty. Even in a giant open city without invisible fences, the limitations are that most buildings are off limits. Try to open a door and you'll get a message saying "This door is closed." or "'Tis shut tight!" And it's sort of a shame such a great environment would be a bit hollow at it's center. It feels like From Software (the Dark/Demon's Souls guys) made an Elder Scrolls game here. The realistic unstylized armor and weapons combined with strange ambient environments, with sparse soft-toned NPCs. When an NPC has anything to say at all, it's usually in a vaguely worded riddle, in a hushed voice. The citizens sometimes talk negatively about the Pawns, hinting at a classism/racism dynamic. But sadly this is never explored.
I haven't even mentioned the game's key feature: the Pawn system. This taps into something beyond most party based RPG's. You don't just equip them with new gear. You completely guide their habits, mannerisms, vocations, abilities, even their speech patterns and behavior. Do you want your Pawn to run slightly ahead of the group to scout? Or how about a Pawn that gathers all of the loot? Want him to protect the weaker team members or attack the strongest enemy? All of this is customizable. Leading to tinkering and perfecting your Pawn like you would a Pokemon team. Plus, by sharing your Pawn online, you feel a sort of obligation to make him as powerful, and cool looking, as possible. So that others will favorite them, give them gifts, and use them often, netting you Rift Crystals used to recruit stronger Pawns for your team. I find myself buying more expensive gear for my Pawn than my character. I want him wearing the best armor as soon as possible so he'll be more popular. It becomes a point of pride.
There is DLC already, but sadly it's that weird Capcom sort of DLC they just announced they'd stop doing. Pay $1.99 for extra hairstyles! Capcom treats DLC as a sort of microtransactions, like you might see in an MMO. Meanwhile some games get true DLC expansions with story driven content. Hopefully Capcom will flesh out it's amazing shell of a world with some extra story based quests, new monsters, and some new characters. This is a fantastic template. And some more content would really make it great. Or at the very least hopefully the sales are good and this could warrant a sequel. Because with some more polish, a deeper story, and some more co op features, this could truly compete with the Elder Scrolls. Despite it's lack of polish and unforgiving learning curve, this is a great game.