When Capcom announced Dragon's Dogma last year, they said openly that they had tried to create an RPG similar to those we know from Western developers - that is a game that would be far more Dragon Age or Elder Scrolls than Final Fantasy.
And they succeeded, quite well even. The game is virtually free from the idiosyncrasies we sadly otherwise criticise games from the Land of the Rising Sun for being full of. And although the game has a character of its own, it's usually to its benefit. Dragon's Dogma is created according to Western models and based classical European mythology, but still manages to find its own expression.
The story is rather simple at its core. A dragon (otherwise a rare sight in the universe of the game) attacks the small fishing village where you live. With no heroes around, you pick up a sword and try to take on the monstrous being.
Naturally you fall short, the dragon knocks you down, rips your heart from your chest and eats it up - but somehow you survive. It takes to the skies and you're hailed as a saviour. You're given a monicker The Arisen - and while everything seems relatively peaceful, you set out on a journey to hunt down and kill the dragon. After all, it would be nice to get your heart back. However, this is just the start of a long and hard journey where the relationship between the dragon and The Arisen is further explored.
Dragon's Dogma doesn't focus on dialogue and cutscenes, although the latter occurs at regular intervals. Instead it is all about exploring the massive game world at your feet, taking on various tasks and killing lots of monsters.
And you're not alone. One of the more original concepts found here are the so-called Pawns - adventurers from another world, members of a mysterious legion. They have come here to fight the dragon, but despite their skills and experience in battle, they lack initiative and direction. This is something you can help them with, and right from the beginning of the game you can design your own personal Pawn who will accompany you through the entire story, much like you shape your own character. Fresh Pawns can be found throughout the world, or you can visit the Rift where your world and that of the Pawns collide, to hire new ones.
You assign them a class, you can share equipment with them, and they will follow you to hell and back. In combat they fight by your side, and help out with both healing and attacks, but other than simple commands like "help" and "come here", you cannot direct them directly. Fortunately they do well on their own.
Battling monsters is at the core of the Dragon's Dogma experience, and enemies come in many sizes. From the small goblins and ravenous wolves, to ugly lizard men, and highway men, and all the way up to massive Cyclops and Chimaeras, and even bigger beasts like Hydras and the dragon you're hunting.
You can try and pick up smaller enemies and throw them, while you can to climb up larger enemies much like in Shadow of the Colossus to reach their weak spots (for massive damage!). You start the game with the most basic skills, but as you progress you can unlock special attacks.
Combat in Dragon's Dogma is unfortunately something of a mixed bag. While it's amazing to either crawl around on the back of a big troll, or lay waste to zombies or hard hitting skeletons in gloomy dungeons, at other times it proves a frustrating experience when attacked by large forces of highway men, or when you face sorcerers seemingly immune to injury without any apparent weak spots to target.
This problem is further amplified by the fact that really only one of three available classes, the warrior (the others are the mage and the ranger), that can use his shield to block or parry enemy attacks. There are no counters or even a dodge mechanics, which seems a strange omission. The only way to avoid taking damage is to get out of the way of the attack and run away a short distance.
It's hard to put a finger on what makes the atmosphere special in Dragon's Dogma. Whether you're exploring dark crypts and caves, or you're wandering through the capital, or just travelling through gorges and meadows, you're fully immersed in the experience. The world is as open as say in Skyrim, and most locations are locked in by steep cliffs or shorelines, but there is still a great sense of exploration and freedom with few loading screens. At the same time, the size of the world really makes us miss an option to fast travel between locations.
There are lots of side quests, and plenty of items to buy and sell, and then there is crafting and upgrades, and pretty much everything we've come to expect out of the genre. At times it may be a bit difficult to locate the quest that carries the main story forward, but there is never a lack of things to do and monsters that need killing.
Aside from all the previously mentioned flaws and omissions there is one more glaring issue that fans of Capcom will recognise from other titles the publisher has put out. Namely the save system. You've only got one game save to play around with, unlike games like Skyrim and The Witcher 2 where you can use the save system to explore alternate routes for your character. The autosave features kicks in very rarely, so you're going to have to use the save button frequently to avoid having to replay long stretches of the game, because you will die a lot in this game, unless you're extremely careful along the way.
The game is decent from a technical standpoint, but offers nothing special. The voice acting is fine for the most part, but the same cannot be said of the music and the sound is generally a bit flat. The graphics aren't very impressive either, and apparently the developers skipped over trying to synchronise the lip movements with the dialogue. But even if the game fails to impress visually, the design and style is consistent throughout and helps the overall impression. And a lot is helped by the level of immersion the overall mood and atmosphere of the game manages to instil.
I enjoyed Dragon's Dogma, but there is something missing here, something to really get me excited. With a stronger narrative, and a more multifaceted combat system, this could have been a great role playing experience. Instead, it falls just short and ends up being a game you can certainly get a bit of fun out of, but where you will be constantly reminded of its shortcomings. And there is undoubtedly an audience for this kind of title, but in spite of a lot of good ideas this one goes down as a game that held a lot of promise and potential, that could have been so much more.