It’s quite possibly ironic that in trying to think of apt metaphors for Dragon’s Dogma as a game instead I happened across a realisation that the game itself works as metaphor for the Japanese development industry. These are difficult times in the east, from shifting business models to a struggling economy the recent shift to developing more westernised games has not always been an easy one and Dragon’s Dogma epitomises both the best and worst of this. While a lot of effort has gone to make a game that, for all intents and purposes, functions as a traditional fantasy RPG, its roots can’t help but show through. Form its odd blend of gameplay mechanics, mixing influences from the Elder Scrolls to Shadow of the Colossus to From Software’s Souls games to its often baffling design decisions and story elements, this is very much a Capcom game, and in many ways is better for it. It is not always successful but has enough interesting ideas and mechanics to at least recommend to those in the market for another heroic quest in a mystical land.
Set in the fictional land of Gransys the game opens (after a brief prologue) with a dragon awakening and threatening to destroy the sleepy seaside town of Cassardis. After creating your character using the game’s robust tools (allowing you to run the full gamut of age / size / gender combinations as you wish) you find yourself thrust into battle with the beast armed with little else that a flimsy sword or staff. Suffice to say you are no match, snatched quickly as you are to have your heart eaten. Surprisingly this doesn’t kill you; instead you are marked as The Arisen and charged with tracking down the dragon and recovering your missing organ. So a novel premise, but after the initial few hours any real notion of story all but vanishes for the game for a good 20-30 hours or so. It is one of the biggest missteps the game makes, effectively loading you with side quests until you are able to earn a place on the Duke’s team in order to hunt the dragon. A fact by the way that is rather obtuse in its explanation, as such you are left for much of the game with only a tangential connection to any ongoing narrative, instead charged with traipsing around the world to recover items, slay beasts and rescue those in danger.
It’s not that the quests are inherently bad, but they suffer in the way that the game world suffers, in that they are wholly forgettable for the most part. The most remarkable thing about Gransys is its unremarkableness, its medieval countryside is often pretty and its scale is impressive, but there is little in the world to truly encourage exploration lest you decide upon it personally and the lure of loot and new equipment is almost entirely absent, you are unlikely to uncover anything that you couldn’t buy already, which seems another missed opportunity.
The game also suffers from a rather sharp learning curve, at least initially, and an often frustrating lack of assistance and information. To stumble down paths clearly labelled for quests unlocked in the very first town to find yourself consistently killed in one hit by otherwise ordinary looking bandits is an annoyance to say the least. Soon you learn to take advantage of the games ability to save anywhere, but navigating the world for the first 20 levels or so becomes an arduous and dangerous proposition, which works well to promote a sense of danger in the shadows, especially in the game’s day / night cycle which unleashes tougher enemies on you should you fall into darkness en route, but it removes the incentive to explore almost completely as a result.
With no real fast travel system (save an expensive way of returning to the capital via one-time use items) you are forced to pick your way down paths and through valleys often retracing your steps within the same quest, after a while the thrill of a new road is replaced by the tedium of another band of rogues or goblins, whose placement and strength rarely change removing any feeling or permanence from the world. By the end of the game as well these lengthy quests feel more like ways to stretch the game out, often they culminate in a somewhat interesting battle but the thrill is quashed by the notion of a return journey, or the energy expelled to arrive there in the first place.
The combat though, for the most part, is a highlight of the game. Utilising a variety of classes and skills you have a wide range of abilities open to you and your companions mapped to the face and shoulder buttons. The lack of a lock on frustrates but the feel of combat is sturdy and rewarding, the option to let you quickly and easily change up your character class (and to unlock hybrid classes later on) helps keep the game fresh. I changed my character a few times through the game and working out the best play styles for each class was always interesting.
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