Review: Dragon's Dogma

RRP: $89
Platform(s): Xbox 360 and PS3
Classification: MA15+
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Rating: 8/10

There's an interesting and long-standing gap between Japanese and Western role playing games (RPGs). It's long been known in the gaming industry that the Japanese market varies greatly in its entertainment demands from American and European audiences. While I'm somewhat generalising here, western RPGs tend to be more streamlined, focusing on action and accessible play. While Japanese RPGs (JRPG), especially to those not familiar with their style, can often be a confusing jumbles of menus, statistics and more subtle Japanese design sensibilities.

While initially bewildering, these games require the player to invest the time to understand the systems, often rewarding them for the effort by providing a deeper experience in the long run. Many players hesitate to take the plunge into a JRPG because of how daunting they may seem, but Capcom's Dragon's Dogma is a surprisingly well thought out and carefully designed combination of the two major fantasy RPG styles that might just be able to bridge the gap.

Dragon's Dogma deftly handles the action of a western RPG with surprisingly deep customisation reminiscent of the Japanese equivalent. This goes hand in hand with a beautifully created and populated world to explore that makes Dragon's Dogma one of the most surprising RPGs of 2012 so far.

After the in-depth character creation, your character begins life as a simple fisherman enjoying his life of uncomplicated fantasy banality. Before long though, your idyllic village is set upon by a massive dragon that takes an interest in you specifically. He cuts out your heart and flies off, not even so much as leaving his number. Instead of dying, as one would expect, your character comes back to life as one of the "Arisen", a mysterious hero-type with a penchant for killing beasties. Dragon's Dogma doesn't waste any time after the set-up and soon you find yourself caught up in the imperial army, killing Hydras and saving the world. The storyline, especially during the middle of the game, can seem like an excuse to send you all over the known world but the ending satisfyingly brings all the threads together in a unique way.

The world in Dragon's Dogma may seem like a fairly standard RPG environment at first, but the subtleties are far deeper than they may appear in the first hour. The huge world available is dictated by a persistent day/night cycle that gives the player a much more realistic environment to explore. While you're welcome to investigate the rolling grassy landscape, dank tombs and dilapidated castles surrounding the city of Gran Sorin on a whim, getting stuck in a haunted forest at night can be a genuinely harrowing experience. Trust me, save often.

The experienced adventurer will stay at the local inn for the evening and set out at first light to minimise getting squashed by that ogre you didn't see coming. While exploring at night isn't an automatic death sentence, your feeble lantern only provides a relatively small pool of light in a world sans electricity. The system rarely becomes a bother though because it adds a weight to your exploration rarely seen in RPGs. Planning your expedition becomes far more important and your first unexpected encounter with one of the huge mini-boss monsters (griffins, ogres, trolls and other grotesque creatures abound) at night is an experience I've never seen repeated to such effect by another RPG.

But what to do once you run into a three story tall stone guardian? This is where the game's unique combat system comes into play. There are a variety of different classes to choose from which change the gameplay dramatically. Being a mage or sorcerer means you'll need to hang back from the action and avoid face-to-face confrontations, but the upside is that your ranged magic is as devastating as it is visually satisfying. The lightning whip is a particular highlight but pillars of ice, huge fireballs and many other curses mean a magic character can control the battlefield easily with some smart play. Still, for players who prefer driving a broadsword into the back of a troll's head while shrugging off arrows from a gang of goblins, the melee classes offer an entirely different style of play. The combat depends on many different factors that might not be apparent at first. You'll need to learn an enemy's weaknesses and strengths before you can handle them easily and even subtle details such as the length of your character's legs comes into play. This is all indicative of one aspect of Dragon's Dogma's subtly implemented design. There are far too many facets of combat to go into here, but climbing on the back of a griffon as it takes off and clinging on for dear life while stabbing like a madman never gets boring.

You're also not alone against the monstrous hordes in Dragon's Dogma. At the beginning of the game you're tasked with creating a pawn to follow you through the world. This pawn can be customised to the same extent as your character and their presence is as vital as having a weapon. Proper use of a pawn can be the difference between life and reloading, and finding a configuration that properly complements your character's skills is just another aspect of the game's personalised experience.

Additionally, in lieu of a multiplayer element, players can requisition pawns created by others to help fight the forces of darkness. This doesn't remove the pawn from the game if somebody hires yours but they return with experience and items to help you along. Pawn experience doesn't merely affect damage statistics, as an experienced pawn will shout out hints regarding short cuts, enemy weaknesses and other helpful information. Though the pawn's suggestions can become somewhat incessant, the fact that your AI companions have valuable information to share helps create the illusion that you're never adventuring alone.

Dragon's Dogma works hard to create a lively and persistent world for you to inhabit. It's aimed at players who enjoy the immersion of a beautifully created fantasy world combined with stylised and action-packed combat. It won't please everyone, but the game is unashamedly built for serious role playing fans. Players looking for a unique experience that is unafraid to try unproven gameplay mechanics will discover one of the most underrated games of 2012.

The story Review: Dragon's Dogma first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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