Sony PlayStation 3Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360
Dragon's Dogma probably won't draw you in right away, even with the inclusion of a prologue mission presumably designed to do just that. Instead, this slow-burning Japanese take on a Western RPG rewards those who persevere with a much deeper experience than it initially seems prepared to offer.
In fact, it might have been wiser for Capcom to have left out the prologue mission altogether, since it serves as a neat little parcel of all the disappointing first impressions which will impede your judgement for the first couple of hours, and prevent you from seeing just how good this game can be. The dungeon in which it takes place is bland and low in detail, like much of the game, but without the colour, night/day dynamic, and architecture which at least offset this outside in the open world of Gransys. The combat – which, with numerous skills and combinations to explore, is one of the best features this game has to offer – isn't shown off particularly well either; you're introduced to the Shadow of the Colossus style clambering technique, but there's little to hint at the glorious wealth of other combat styles that might tempt further play. There's not even much to go on with regards to the story, and it's not until much later in the game that it's made obvious that the prologue has you playing as the previous bearer of the title which will become your character's, i.e. that of Arisen.
This led to a brief moment of confusion for me when immediately after having played a mission as a male hero I was presented with the character creation screen and the option of playing as female, but the multitude of customisation options on offer soon provided ample distraction. I tweaked eyebrows, nose, lips, height, weight, posture, and the rest for what must have been a good twenty minutes, which is why it was a little painful when in the opening cut scene she was revealed, hair swishing pleasingly with each turn of her head, just as I'd imagined her except for the permanently confused expression on her face. This could have been fixed later on with one of the myriad of items to be found throughout the game, but it turned out to be quite apt, since she was destined to spend the next few days of her life doing things with little apparent motivation. So far, so reluctant hero.
After the dramatic opening cinematic, the setting in which you awaken makes the Japanese influence apparent, though in this quiet fishing village you're warned to stay away from any body of water for fear of monsters. Grabbing a weapon will set you up in your starting vocation: sword and shield for fighter, bow and dagger for strider, and staff for mage. An overheard conversation gives you a little context, but in general the story in this game unfolds slowly as you wander about doing things that may or may not be related to your hero's personal troubles.
You can get a little feel for this as you explore the village, though it'll soon become clear that very few of its inhabitants have anything more than ye olde English one-liners to offer; perhaps they feel disinclined to speak to one who never speaks back. This sets the tone for the rest of the game, and can make the bustling city that will later become your centre for operations feel quite hollow. Some characters met along the way will give you side quests, and you can find more on noticeboards scattered throughout the various locations you'll visit, but most of these will involve no more than collecting five hundred of something or killing fifty of another. There's little motivation other than money and experience, though a few of these optional quests do add a little to the narrative.
Things will get a lot more exciting once you decide to leave your village, at which point you'll meet your first pawn. These non-humans in human form come from somewhere beyond the Rift to which you – as the Arisen – are able to travel in order to enlist their aid. They're supposedly emotionless, though mine tended to kick up quite a fuss each time I died, which was often. Sworn to fight alongside you, they'll obey simple commands, but mostly act as they see fit for the situation. Pawns also chatter non-stop, sometimes providing useful, quest-specific information, but mostly spouting the same information on repeat. This effect is amplified when you have the maximum of three followers, but it's at least possible to turn off the subtitles that pop up every time one of them speaks.
Irritating or not, the first pawn was a definite boon to my character as she stumbled from her hometown with her staff, her lantern, and very little idea of what was going on, setting her on the right path and coming to her aid in combat. Dragon's Dogma doesn't bother with a gentle difficulty slope, preferring instead to throw a load of goblins at you the minute you step out into the wide world. With the frequency with which you will meet the various sorts of mid-range monsters, you'll soon figure out some decent methods of dispatching them, or running away if you just can't be bothered to fight your fifteenth group of bandits of that day. Still, you'll die a lot at first, and even practice won't prevent you from continuing to do so much later on if – for example – ten wolves close in on you at once, while harpies attack from the air.
It won't be long before you experience your first of the big guys, either. While most of the cyclopes, chimera, griffins and the like you meet will be obstacles to the progression of the main quest, they're also out there just wandering the forests and terrorising the skies. My character learned this the hard way when a freight cart one of the pawns suggested they travel with was set upon by goblins, and then utterly annihilated when a griffin swooped in to munch on the ox-type creature pulling it along. All of the guards were killed, and my character developed the habit of giving any giant monsters she came across on her travels a wide berth.
When avoidance is not an option with these beasts, you'll need strategy, a stock of restorative items, and a lot of patience, since they don't come down easily. With the first, you're encouraged to make use of the 'grab' mechanic, handy for clambering on these giants to better reach their weak spots, but not so good when they throw themselves to the ground on top of you, a fate which befell my character at the hands of a 'massive' ogre which got 'excited by the sight of women'. Grabbing is also useful for throwing things at foes, and for me was helpful in allowing my character to throw her forgiving male pawn companion from a cliff when trying to pass through an area in which being a man is ill-advised.
Luckily for her, doing evil deeds is mostly inconsequential. At most, you'll be thrown in prison and forced to bribe the guard for a release, and certain characters might change their single piece of dialogue for one which better fits with their level of dislike for you. In a few instances, however, how you choose to act directly affects the narrative, and closes off certain quests to you for the entirety of the game. Since there's no capacity for multiple save files, you'll need to start over to try out the alternatives. Presumably this was implemented to encourage players to try out New Game Plus and spend much more time with the game in order to explore the different paths the story might have taken.
Another reason to play the game through again is to experiment with the different vocations, since the addition of hybrid classes means there are more than just the original three, and while you can switch at an inn, maxing out any one takes time, and it's unlikely you'll get through them all. My character did switch once, promoting herself from mage to magick archer for a small fee. It wasn't until mid-combat that I realised acquiring the ability to use a bow had lost her the healing skill I had come to heavily rely on, and so we marched to the nearest Rift Stone to recruit a mage pawn. The importance of maintaining a balanced team soon becomes obvious; some monsters are a lot more difficult to tackle without a bow, or the ability to shoot fire.
One pawn, as customisable as your main character, is a permanent companion, and levels up alongside the Arisen, but since the others don't, you'll need to refresh your team often. Luckily, very specific parameters allow you to search the Rift for the right combinations of level and skills in pawns either pre-made or created by other players. Pawns from another person's games will learn while in yours, and if you're lucky enough to borrow a pawn that has already lived through a particular mission in another game, they'll be better able to help you through it. Your pawns will constantly alert you when they've learned new techniques against particular foes, or where to go in a certain area, and they'll carry this knowledge with them if another player takes them on board. They might even bring you back an item or two, or some Rift Crystals, with which you can enlist pawns of higher levels.
Rift Crystals can also be used to buy rare items, but most things are purchasable with gold. Some vendors will also be able to upgrade your weapons, and you can use items either carried with you or stored at the inn – a wise option, since your inventory is fairly limited, and carrying too much slows you down – to do so. Make sure you replace any items you might need again, however; it wasn't until my character had ventured far from the city that I realised I'd used her only lantern to upgrade her staff, and with no method of quick travel in this punishing game other than a rare, single-use item I hadn't yet found, trekking back through the dark forest to buy another one was out of the question.
When darkness falls in Gransys, you know it. Eerie sounds fill the air, and without a lantern you can see no more than a few feet in front of you. At night, it doesn't matter that Gransys is lacking in originality and detail and is pretty buggy to boot (at one point, an ogre I was fighting just disappeared, never to be seen again), because the atmosphere more than makes up for it. It was at night that for my character, sans lantern, the sky was instead lit by a griffin tumbling to the ground in flames, set alight by my mage's staff so that the pawns could clamber atop its body and hack at its vulnerable head.
It's moments like that which make it worthwhile to stick with Dragon's Dogma for a good few hours at least. When you've gotten into the story properly, built up a balanced team of pawns, upgraded your weapons and equipment, and started to figure out how to survive in the harsh world of Gransys, you might come to find that despite the lack of that initial attraction, somewhere along the way you've slowly started to fall in love with this game. If you like RPGs, and you like a challenge, you'd be a fool to let this one pass you by.