I tend to avoid Japanese fantasy games and RPGs for very personal reasons. In general, I’m not a fan of their artwork or design, which is usually so ridiculous it can give Blizzard a run for their money, and don’t even get me started on the gameplay of most JRPGs. But every once in while, a Japanese developer creates something really unusual and surprising.

Dragon’s Dogma is a case in point. At first, I didn’t pay too much attention, thinking it was probably another Final Fantasy-ish JRPG, until right near the game’s release when I checked out a few videos and went, “Whaaaa…?”  I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but one thing was clear – a typical Japanese fantasy game or RPG it was not. It appeared, from the videos, to be an open-world, Western-styled RPG like The Elder Scrolls with some multiplayer elements. But as I would discover, it was not that either.

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What it is, is an action-packed fantasy adventure with a fast and furious combat system and some RPG elements – by which I mean your character earns experience, levels up and learns new skills of your choice. I do think we use the term “RPG elements” too loosely these days though. The game is a single-player, open-ended experience with a heavy focus on party-based adventuring, which I’ll clarify a bit later, and, best of all, a reigned-in design sense. In a similar fashion to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Dragon’s Dogma sports armour and equipment designs that seem a lot more feasible than in most games – you can see the buckles and straps holding each piece of armour on, and they aren’t oversized or adorned with needless spikes and flourishes, meaning the characters can  believably lift their shoulders without crushing their own heads.

The main premise for the game goes as follows: every few decades or so, the peaceful kingdom of Gransys is ravaged by an evil dragon, and a specially empowered champion known as The Arisen is chosen to fight it off. This time round, that champion happens to be you. It’s not all bad, though, because as the Arisen, you have the unique ability to recruit and command these otherwordly beings called Pawns – mysterious, human-looking spectres who wander the land as mercenaries.

So, after creating your character, watching the intro and playing through a few tutorial sections explaining the various game systems, you’re pretty much left to it. You can pursue the main quest straight away, but if you do, you’re likely to run up against really tough enemies that will give you a solid ass-kicking. Luckily, there are plenty of people in each town who need side quests done, and at least one job board  in every settlement offering freelance work. The jobs are pretty standard RGP fare – go here, kill this monster, go there, fetch me ten of this herb, escort this merchant to the next town, and so on. On rare occasions, they do get more interesting, requiring you to, for example, spy on people, or go undercover in cults to get information.

For the most part, however, you’ll be fighting enemies – by the thousands. The world is massive and each region has plenty of enemy types to offer, all requiring different tactics to beat. The combat, while fast and furious, is actually pretty involved. If you make stupid choices or charge in without thinking, you stand a pretty good chance of dying, especially later in the game. If you come across of group of bandits, for instance, it’s a good idea to immediately target any spellcasters or archers they have. If you come across a massive cyclops, shooting it in the eye would probably be your first inclination – and it’s a good idea – but you can also grab hold of its legs to try and trip it, or climb onto its arm and stab it until it drops its huge, tree-sized club. Yes, you can actually do that! It’s very cool. Sometimes, the cyclops might be wearing armour on his most vulnerable spots, meaning you’ll have to find a way to break the armour off to kill him quickly – or settle for whittling down his life bar slowly. If you come across a chimera, it’s usually a good idea to have one of your pawns hold down the snake tail and hack it off before moving onto the main creature. And there are plenty of creatures that require that kind of thinking – griffins, hydras, harpies, goblins, wolves and so on. And the fact that Capcom has managed to do this without resorting to pre-packed, cinematic button-press mini-games really does elevate Dragon’s Dogma above just about every other fantasy game in that respect.

But what really makes Dragon’s Dogma unique is the idea of Pawns. Early in the game, you get to create your very own, personal Pawn, who will follow you around and aid you in combat for the entire game. You can customise his/her looks, skills, weapons, armour and so on. In addition to this, you can hire and fire an additional two Pawns at will, bringing your max party size to four. If you can get online, you can even hire the personal Pawns created by other players. You can view the history and information of each Pawn to get an idea of how they’ll be able to help you in combat, which enemies they’re accustomed to fighting, and even which quests they’ve done. Hiring a Pawn who has already completed a quest you’re struggling with can be immensely helpful, since they’ll tell you where to go and what to do. When you’re done with a pawn, you can send them away with a gift for their owner and rate them in several categories, like their looks and helpfulness. Similarly, other players can hire your Pawn, too, and each time you rest at an inn, you get a breakdown of who hired your Pawn, how they rated him/her, and the gifts they gave you.

If you can’t get online, don’t worry. The game has thousands of what I assume are randomly generated Pawns players can hire to simulate the online experience. The only benefits you don’t get are the periodic gifts of items and the chance to hire Pawns who have already completed quests you’re struggling with. In combat, Pawns will usually be pretty capable, but they almost always go after the nearest enemies rather than the most critical ones, but they do keep the enemies busy while you eliminate the important targets. In general, it’s a good idea to keep a balanced team, at least a fighter, archer and mage with healing powers – with an additional damage dealer of whichever type you prefer. The all-round team should see you through 90% of the encounters, but on rare occasions, you might need to turn tail and run from enemies, only to return with a more focused team of ranged fighters, heavy hitters, fire mages or whatever you need.

Aside from that, it’s a typical fantasy RPG. You accept and complete quests; find, buy and sell new items, weapons and armour; gain experience from combat and as quest rewards, level up, learn new abilities; and progress in the story. Capcom has clearly injected a little bit of Monster Hunter into the game, particularly in the way you scrounge around for items to upgrade your weapons and armour – don’t worry though, the combat is far more fun than in Monster Hunter. The graphics are fantastic and the feeling of solidity and impact in the combat is very satisfying.

Among the game’s few down points are, first and foremost, that your Pawns never shut the hell up. I’ve looked for an option to make them zip it, but I can’t find one, and they’ll constantly tell you how to beat each enemy type or where this path leads – even if they’ve told you 500 times before. The other puzzling thing is that, while you have the option of accepting or declining quests, the quest givers will never – I repeat, never – tell you what they want you to do until you agree to do it. What kind of sense does that make? They operate on a “need-to-know basis”, I guess. The last niggling factor is the fiddly map and quest system. Once you figure it out, it’s not too bad – not as streamlined as, say, The Elder Scrolls, but it works – but the real problem is that some quests leave you hanging with absolutely no clue as to what to do next. For instance, I had to find and eliminate a bandit gang deserter, and he could have been anywhere in the entire world, but nobody knew where. I couldn’t even find Pawns online who had completed the quest – I guess nobody else knows either. But these minor issues are not game-breakers by any means.

Just like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls before it, Dragon’s Dogma came along and flew right in the face of my stereotypical opinions on Japanese fantasy games. It’s completely unique and highly addictive. It might be a bit heavy on the busy-work elements for casual RPG players, since you have to regularly grind for XP and collect upgrade resources to make it in the later stages, but the combat is so involved and entertaining, I don’t see many people finding it too repetitive.

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