A worthwhile adventure that stumbles just short of amazement
It was a routine quest - fetching tablets from a temple for a brother of the cathedral - that had gone wrong very quickly the moment an ogre came onto the scene. With only lantern light to guide my arrows in the dark ruins, the effort seemed fruitless as the gigantic monster batted its hand towards me, sending me flying across the room and my lantern blinking out into darkness. It felt like all was lost - until my pawn shouted out 'Arisen, no!', and off in the distance, lit only by her own lantern-light, charged towards the ogre, hacking and slashing at its legs until it let out a roar, crashing to the ground dead. The party was battered, bloodied, exhausted... but triumphant. And it was one of the best feelings I have ever felt playing an RPG.
It's moments like these that make Dragon's Dogma well worth playing despite its jarring oddities at times. Capcom's latest title attempts to ape the success of the 'east meets west' design philosophy that has made games like the Souls series a massive success, and almost pulls it off - outside of a few key falterings that end up making it 'merely' a great game rather than an amazing one.
It's a very good job then, that Dragon's Dogma's gameplay more than makes up for its lacklustre worldbuilding. Much closer to the likes of Devil May Cry than typical RPG combat, the game's main action is flashy, tightly animated and a joy to experience. Every character class - called Vocations - from the sword-and-shield warrior to the most powerful sorcerers, has an expanding skillset of moves that is full of great looking effects and animations that make them all very fun to play - and all classes are easily accessible to try out as you fancy, as after level 10, you can switch your vocation at the cost of a few skill points. However, despite its familiarities with the character action genre, the game isn't entirely about hacking and slashing your way through fights. There's an element of strategy to almost every encounter - especially so with the hulking mini-bosses littered throughout the land like Ogres, Cyclopses and Chimeras - that relies on perhaps your strongest asset: your party of Pawns.
The pawn system is another mechanic that seems bewilderingly odd at first: it replaces the concept of co-operative play (wherein you would expect to recruit a friend's arisen and their pawn to roam about the world with you) with a system of global pawn-sharing. Every player has a 'main' pawn that they can customise as their constant companion - however, on top of that, you can also recruit the pawns of other players as 2 other party members to join you, using a currency called Rift Crystals (obtained either from main storyline quests or from your own Pawn journeying with other Arisen). Just as importantly as bringing an extra sword, staff or bow to the fight, these recruited characters also bring with them the knowledge they have accrued with their time in their own player's game: knowledge of enemy strategies, locations, and quest details that they are more than happy to tell you about (at times almost constantly: however there is an option to reduce the chattiness of your party to less hectic levels). These recruits do not level up with you as your main Pawn, so it usually pays to recruit characters a few levels higher than you, but your are ultimately replacing these characters every few hours. It keeps the gameplay fresh - new faces, new weapons and armours, and most importantly, a new chance to change the tactics and build up of your party - and there is a strange sense of pride in having your Pawn return from adventuring with a positive review and a small trinket from another player. Although I would hope a future entry in the Dragon's Dogma series (and given the amount of time and money Capcom have spent on this game, it would not be surprising to see one) would include a 'proper' co-operative mode, but the Pawn system itself is fulfilling and interesting enough to warrant further exploration.
Dragon's Dogma may push Capcom's excellent MT Framework engine to its limits, but aesthetically there is little unique about the world. The look is very generic euro-fantasy, where knights wear shining armour and coloured liveries, and mages have dresses and pointed hats. Overall, despite the odd muddy texture, the game looks fairly decent and on the whole (that is, if your screen isn't full of sorcerers blasting massive particle-effect-spewing spells everywhere) runs at a solid framerate. Dragon's Dogma's graphical beauty lies more in its broad strokes than the finer details - the world itself is an interesting and gorgeous landscape to trek along, but the highlight comes from the epic scale given to some of the grander boss fights, and some excellent lighting (especially at night, where you can find yourself facing strong enemies with only the light of a lantern or a spell to guide your way). If anything, the only real visual complaint is Capcom's bizarre choice of severely letterboxing your screen - on my meagre 19" set almost half of the screen is given over to big black bars at the top and bottom - to the point that on smaller televisions the UI can be a little cluttered. However for most people these days in a world of affordable widescreen Televisions, this is less of a problem - but it bears to take note if you're still playing games on smaller Televisions.
Overall, Dragon's Dogma's ultimate success is in delivering the promise of future games like this from Capcom. Despite its faults, there's an inherently Japanese quirkiness to the game that makes its successes in gameplay a lot more compelling than they have any right being, and there is definitely a lot to admire. The foundation laid here, whilst not quite amazing, is solid, interesting, and ultimately fun.