Hands on with Dragon’s Dogma – Elder Souls

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Possibly bored with fighters and straight up action titles, Capcom’s branching out a little and trying something a little different from their regular portfolio. Dragon’s Dogma is that something different – a western-like open world RPG that has you questing through a remarkably large, believable fantasy world, battling large monsters using might, magic or a deft combination of both. If you can see it, you can reach it, and probably have some incredible encounters with mythical beasts on the way.

There’s more. A terrible dragon – a creature of legend – has returned to a Kingdom in turmoil, leaving its inhabitants scared. As luck would have it , you (obviously!), the Dovahkiin Arisen are destined from birth to battle the beast. 

I know what you’re thinking; that sounds pretty much exactly like Modern Warfare 3.

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Dragon’s Dogma, Capcom’s first real open-world RPG will undoubtedly draw man parallels to Bethesda’s Oblivion and Skyrim – but it does more than just steal ideas from The Elder Scrolls. It also steals ideas from Monster Hunter, Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls as well. I’ve put about 12 hours in to the game so far, and emphatically say that I’m pretty damned addicted so far.

It controls – with a  system that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to fans of Dragon Age – as you’d expect any game in the genre to. Analogue sticks move you and the camera, with the face buttons allow you to do simple things like heavy and light attacks, jumps, perform actions, while the shoulder buttons allow you to perform stronger attacks and magicks, each specific to the weapon in that position. so, equip a shield in your left hand and a sword in the right, and holding the left bumper switches your face buttons to shield-specifics attacks, while the right bumper extends your range of sword-play options.The d-pad is used to issue very basic commands to your Pawns – one of the things about Dragon’s Dogma that differentiates it from similar games.

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Pawns are Dragon’s Dogma’s interesting and fresh way of handling party members. As the Arisen, you have the ability to enter The Rift – a sort of inter-dimensional limbo –  to hire, and then command Pawns, a mysterious race of human-like creatures from the Netherworld. Also known as Myrmidons, they may look and sound human, but they’re soulless creatures that need to be told what to do, by you. Ok, so that sounds just like regular NPC’s you get in most Western RPGs, but they’re a little different. during the game you’ll be assigned one bound Pawn, a perpetual sidekick. Going through the same character creation process you use for your own in-game Avatar, choosing their look, build, voice and class – initially in the Fighter, Mage or Strider archetypes, though you’ll be able to switch vocations and dabble with hybrid classes.  Later, you’re able to mould their behaviour in combat by sitting down and having an earnest chat.

The pawns though – unlike most NPC’s – are wonderfully pro-active. They’ll collect gold and other loot for you, grab enemies so you can attack them, and tell you what you need to do to complete your current quest, and work  and inform you of the best tactics for dispensing with the game’s impressive bestiary. All fully voiced, they’re perhaps a bit too keen on talking, happily telling you the same information.

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“The Goblin hates fire!” Ok got. it. fire.

“Attack it with fire!” Fire yeah, Ok. I’m attacking it with fire.

“They’re weak to fire!”  YEAH, I GOT IT. FFFFFFFFFF…. FIRE! 

“Fire hurts them!” SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP!

Still, they are undoubtedly useful. During a battle with a large chimera, a hybrid beast; with the head of a Lion, the body of a goat and giant bleeding snake as a tail –  one of the smallest and easiest of the large monsters the Pawns made it much easier by informing me that it would be best to mount the beast and hack away at the serpentine tail as opposed to running headfirst in to the lion’s pointy-toothed face, a tactic that was proving fatal. Drawing perhaps a little inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus, you’ll often find it’s necessary to climb up the game’s giant creatures and attack specific points to fell them quicker.

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Their propensity for constantly telling you things you already know aside, Pawns mostly play smartly – almost (almost!) like real people. You can hire up to two more Pawns, but unlike your main one, your tertiary and quaternary pawns don’t level up and it’s best to not grow attached to them. instead, you’ll be constantly switching them out for stronger and more knowledgeable ones, spending points in the rift to hire new ones – and here’s where it gets clever. Echoing, but not quite like Dark Souls, If you’re online, you’ll be able to hire other people’s Pawns, bringing their requisite knowledge and skills in to your game. you can even hire your own Pawn out in exchange for coin. Interestingly, you can even market your Pawn on Facebook, or ask friends for their helpful pawns based on criteria. A large part of Dragon’s Dogma, then, is about human trafficking and slavery – but before you get absorbed in some moral quandary, it’s an issue that seems like it’ll be tackled in the game. Serious business.

Beyond the impressively clever Pawn system, the rest of the game is equally fresh and intriguing. Combat is fast, varied, fluid and flexible and unlike Skyrim your attacks are weighty and visceral.  As already mentioned, later in the game you’re able to change vocations – so if you’re unhappy with playing as a fighter, and wish to try add a bit of magical spice to your repertoire, you can – at a cost of Discipline points, the experience points you earn – switch to being a Mystic Knight. Or a Ranger. Or a Barbarian. You get the idea. Oddly, while you level up in game, all that does is buff your stats. You’ll not earn new abilities just by playing – you have to learn, and then equip them from within an Inn or Tavern. As somebody who revels in instantly-gratifying level ups (Ding!), it made reaching new levels less satisfying than they ought to be.

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It’s a dark game, and not just in tone. There are full day/night cycles – and it’s best to get things done during the day. At night, it’s essential to equip an oil-lantern – lest you wander too far from the path and find yourself elbow’s deep in some sort of evil mythical beast intent on removing your head from your shoulders. It’s creepy. Once again drawing more comparisons to Demon’s souls and its follow up, Dragon’s Dogma is difficult in that old-school way – though not quite as brutal. For one thing, you can save wherever you like – but it’s certainly a challenge, as the sheer number of deaths I’ve experienced attest. and Like Dark Souls, it’s a Japanese game at its core, wrapped in a Western blanket.

If you’ve exhausted Skyrim’s cold setting, plundered Dragon Age’s singular cave and braved your way through Dark Souls you might want to set your eyes on Dragon’s Dogma. The game gets a demo tomorrow on the Ps3 and Xbox 360, so you can try it yourself. The game itself hits next month, and grants access to the Resident Evil 6 demo. 

Last Updated: April 23, 2012

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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