Version tested: Xbox 360
Dragon's Dogma is a game soundtracked by screaming guitars and a hyperactive orchestra; a game whose story is told with showboating faux-Shakespearean flourish; a game set within acres of countryside scrawled with boastful castles; a game fronted by a hero whose heart has been plucked from his chest by a dragon's fingernails. Despite all of this, it is also a game that understands the value of understatement.
For years, video games have aped cinema's love of the action set-piece, with critical fights telegraphed to viewers with grim ceremony. Warriors exchange worried glances as the string section falls silent; a tumbleweed tumbles as the party stands frozen in fight/flight uncertainty; an inhale of calm before the storm.
But Dragon's Dogma's set-piece battles have none of this. They occur brutally unannounced - truer to life perhaps, if life consisted of wandering through a dense forest patrolled by a two-ton Chimera. Midway through a routine battle with a band of goblins, a red wyrm might crash awkwardly through the tree canopy, breaking trunks like twigs as it tries to stow its wings while breathing fire. This sense that any monster could arrive on the scene at any moment lends the game a fraught tension.
Peel back the spectacle to look at the underlying rules and you'll see that, while these monsters have their allotted areas (and will often respawn there some time after defeat), encounters are otherwise dynamic and unscripted. There's a feeling that not even the designers know quite what's going to happen, and this sense of randomness gives the adventuring in Dragon' Dogma its exciting intensity.
Not that the game isn't familiar. It's constructed from a hotchpotch of borrowed ideas, both thematic and systemic. Tolkien's fingerprints are pressed firmly into Gransys' hills, castles and lore, while monsters and tics of terminology are taken from a range of contemporary Western fantasy and ancient Greek myth.
You climb onto the backs of your larger foes as in Shadow of the Colossus, nicking at their necks and tails as you seek to bring them down. Missions are received from Fable-style NPCs (minus the humour and character), while quests are handled in a similar way to the Elder Scrolls series, where selecting a new primary goal will shift your mission marker around the map.
The opportunity to carry out guild sub-quests and hunt down rare and dangerous beasts is reminiscent of Final Fantasy 12. Meanwhile, the game aims for Dark Souls' difficulty, punishing the ill-prepared adventurer or aimless wanderer in the strictest possible terms. There are shades of Miyazaki's classic too in the curious multiplayer, which prevents players from questing together but provides a remote opportunity to help one another out by sending characters across the network.
These are more than mere inspirations; Dragon's Dogma is a curious hybrid, made of stitched-together designs. It gains diversity from this approach, but at the expense of purity of vision and, often, its own identity. Even so, at its best, Dragon's Dogma comes close to the greats it apes.
Amongst the game's successes, combat is key. There are three basic classes to pick for your hero - Warrior, Mage or Ranger - each one drastically altering the experience in battle. These can be developed into advanced versions, with three hybrid classes to assume when you reach a high enough level.
The development team's Devil May Cry heritage can be felt in the simple combos you are free to create, with launchers, ground strikes and button-mash attacks that can be strung together. Combat doesn't have the weight or grace of Dark Souls' approach, and the lack of a lock-on button ensures you'll be wrestling with the camera just as often as you try to hang on the back of a writhing giant. But Capcom's action game expertise elevates the fighting above many of its straight RPG peers.
Dragon's Dogma also makes up for its deeper shortcomings in its team dynamic. Your character is supported by three 'pawns', computer-controlled characters that fight alongside you. One of these is your primary pawn, a character that is yours to nurture, develop, equip and care for as if he or she were the protagonist. The other two are hired hands, either on loan from other players in Dragon' Dogma's networked multiverse or employed at one of the game's towns or guilds. These two don't earn experience and won't level up, forcing frequent hiring and firing rounds as you seek to complement your core duo with support of a similar level.
You are able to switch character classes for all of your fighters and select their specific special moves and magical abilities. The responsibility for your team's harmony is wholly yours, and creating a well-balanced team is paramount to success. Taking the time to set up your team pays dividends, especially as you have only the most basic commands to issue to the pawns in the heat of battle.
Characters respond well to tailoring too, with the pawns taking sensible chances, healing at regular intervals and, in the main, working as a help rather than a hindrance. Supporting characters are bolshie, too, running off to grab items for themselves, barking advice and becoming active participants in the drama. This can be frustrating when you want to retreat from an outmatched battle but one of your team insists on playing hero, but it's preferable to characters that require constant hand-holding.
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However, team maintenance is hindered by a fussy menu system, especially when equipping or upgrading equipment. The lack of a shared inventory means that a plethora of clicks is needed to perform the most basic upgrades.
Capcom's inexperience with this kind of sprawling action RPG also begins to show in the lore and questing. Characters have a tenth of the dialogue of Skyrim's cast and quests vary hugely in quality of design. This is a large world and, with only the option to warp back to the main city (at the expense of a pricey item every time you do so), travel can be long and arduous. At times, despite the landscapes' inviting contours and expressive design, it can feel as if there is a distinct lack of content waiting at the end of each mission, a disincentive for taking on the more demanding trips.
This feeling is offset by the set-piece monsters, which each have their own personalities and traits. The Cyclops are lumbering oafs with stomping feet and slow hands. Climb up to the nape of their necks and they'll knock their own protective helmets off, exposing their soft, weak eye. Ogres, by contrast, are sinewy and mean, throwing themselves onto their backs if you attempt to climb them in order to crush you beneath their weight.
The dragons, meanwhile, in their vicious speed and unpredictability, are far more frightening than those found atop Skyrim's peaks. The excitement of encountering a new beast never fades and this, more than any potential quest reward, provides the true reason to press on.
Ambitious, grand, at once derivative and pioneering, Dragon's Dogma may not be a classic but it's an important title nonetheless - the first example of a blockbuster Japanese RPG attempting to marry its own heritage with contemporary Western expressions. Expectedly, coming as it does from an action game developer, its jewels are to be found in the dynamic combat, stat-tweaking party-building and defining boss battles. In this way, the game echoes the adventurous, dragon-hunting spirit of its (second- and third-hand) literary influences: that sense of unpredictable peril that could be lurking in every cave and thicket.
7 / 10