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Sunday, February 6, 2022

Dragon's Dogma

An open world action-RPG by much of the team that worked on Capcom's popular Devil May Cry franchise, bringing a relatively fresh flourish to the dark fantasy genre.  But does Dragon's Dogma prove to be a worthy experience even against enormous competition from games like like Elder Scrolls, or does the wind not push this one?

Dragon's Dogma was certainly an odd turn for both its development team and parent company.  At a time when Capcom was really going all-in with the multiplayer experience in their games - Monster Hunter, Resident Evil 5 and Lost Planet, among others - Dragon's Dogma was announced as an an open-world RPG from the team that created Devil May Cry, a fan favorite series that had been dormant for a long while at that point (with Ninja Theory's remake of sorts, DmC, attracting widespread criticism well before it was even released).  That, plus the fact that Capcom (let alone the team) had never attempted anything of such scope before, definitely drew some eyes to Dragon's Dogma.  They certainly proved they were serious about it too; Capcom's in-house MT Framework game engine (built primarily for stage-based action games) was heavily modified to allow for a seamless open world, environmental audio design and even dynamic lighting, allowing for dark caves lit only by torches and lanterns and a day/night cycle that would determine which monsters and items the player would encounter.  It even had a custom-built physics engine to give combat against large-scale monsters that much extra punch - when you get flung to the ground by a cyclops or land a charging blow on an enemy, it looks and feels that much more painful.  They even broke tradition for the game's score, creating a heavily atmospheric and varied soundtrack that complements the action perfectly and, in a strange twist for a fantasy game, opens with an upbeat rock track by Japanese rock duo B'z.  Dark Arisen adds even more tracks too, totaling up to over four hours of music.

As one would expect from the team behind Devil May Cry, Dragon's Dogma's action is chaotic and intense, but never overwhelming - the smooth controls and intuitive design keep you firmly in control even as hordes of monsters bear down on you.  Controls are simple enough - your four face buttons attack, the left shoulder button blocks, and your left and right shoulder buttons activate skills when used in tandem with the face buttons, all of which run off a slowly-replenishing stamina bar (even spells); careful use is encouraged, though, as if you run out of stamina you'll be left open to attack for a good chunk of time.  There isn't a proper lock-on system in the game to focus your attacks on a single target, but the game is well designed enough that you don't really need it - your attacks will generally hit whatever is right in front of your character, and it even leads shots to a degree so you rarely waste items.  Pawns (your party members) will even point out enemy weaknesses for you and warn you of enemies that you're approaching so there's rarely unpleasant surprises.  A much touted design element also allows you to grapple enemies, either to pin them down for an ally's attack (which Pawns will also frequently do for you) or, for larger enemies, literally climb atop them to strike at their weak points or weigh down their limbs so they can't use their heavier attacks.  At times you're even allowed to improvise, picking up barrels or heavy objects in the area and tossing them at enemies for hefty damage, or leaping off ledges to ambush foes from above.  Pawn AI is pretty decent during battle, though they do have some difficulty doing things like targeting enemies that can only be harmed with a certain attack (phantoms with magic, etc) and they do get knocked down pretty easily in fights with tougher enemies, though you can easily walk up and revive them at the press of a button.

Dragon's Dogma strangely does not feature a proper co-op mode (not even local couch co-op), but instead opts for a party-based system with "Pawns" - AI controlled characters created by players.  Shortly after the game starts you're given one of your own whom you can freely customize and equip, and are able to pick two others - either pre-generated ones or ones created by other players, with data uploaded to a server online.  Pawns at your current level are free to use, though if you're struggling with a particular quest, you can also hire higher-leveled ones by spending "Rift Coins" - a currency earned by completing quests and via random enemy drops.  Pawns do prove surprisingly helpful in ways other than combat, too - they'll frequently gather up items you may not easily spot as you travel, and of course they make very handy pack mules for carrying around crafting items and extra gear you intend to use or sell later.

Though there are a fair number of skills to purchase and utilize, the class system (referred to here as "Vocations") in Dragon's Dogma is a relatively simple one.  As the game starts you get to pick one of three - Fighter, Strider or Mage - and as you fight enemies and complete quests, you will earn Discipline points to purchase new skills with; which you can purchase at any given time are determined by your Vocation Rank, which also goes up as you gain experience.  Fighters put focus on swords and shields, Striders wield bows and daggers, and Mages use spells both offensive and defensive in nature - healing allies or firing elemental attacks to damage foes, both of which take a fair bit of time to charge up.  Later on you gain the ability to become a more advanced version of these three classes (Warrior, Ranger or Sorcerer respectively), and later still you can become one of three Hybrid classes - Mystic Knight, Assassin or Magick Archer, all of which get their own sets of weapons and skills.  Unlocked skills do not transfer between vocations, unfortunately, though you can swap back to ones you've unlocked if your current class choice isn't cutting it.

One thing I liked about Dragon's Crown is that it's not nearly as hand-holdy as many of its contemporaries.  NPCs are still highlighted when they have quests to give or relevant information to one you're currently undertaking and their general location marked on the map, but for the most part, you're left to your own devices to hunt down items or enemies you're currently targeting - it doesn't just devolve into "follow arrow and push a button" gameplay at any point.  You do end up taking the same few paths quite a bit throughout the game, though, so a fast travel system (even just to towns) would have been nice.  The story is also pretty bare-bones overall, so if you're in it for a narrative or some strongly written characters, well, you're not going to find much of that here.

Dragon's Dogma is a game that came out of left field, especially since Capcom had never attempted anything of its like before, but it ended up being a pleasant surprise.  An open-world action RPG that retains the sense of exploration and discovery of games like Elder Scrolls, but also the fluid action and over-the-top fun of games like Devil May Cry without feeling out of place for its universe.  Being able to play it with friends (or even just swap between actively controlling your party members) would have been a fine cherry on top, but even without that, Dragon's Dogma is a fun monster-mash.

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Switch
Released: 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017
Recommended Version: Any of the modern platform ports; not only do they have more content than the original PS3/360 releases (including all of the DLC from the original releases), but they're also vastly improved technically, featuring much smoother framerates and controls.  The only downside is that the later versions don't retain the absolute banger of an opening theme that is "Into Free", but there is a mod for the PC version to restore it.