Here's a piece of advice for you: if you're a fisherman and you see a dragon, run. Don't pick up a sword and try and fight it, you idiot! We all know what's going to happen: it'll pluck your heart from the snug little cavity in your chest, eat the damn thing, raise you from the dead and plonk the fate of the world on your shoulders... So yeah, don't mess about with dragons, okay?
So welcome to Gransys, not just your average pre-industrial fantasy world. Why not enjoy the dark and foreboding forests filled with hobgoblins? Maybe take a brisk hike through the lofty mountain passes. What about exploring the haunted ruins of civilisations long dead for clues about the past that may in some way enlighten you about a quest you have been charged with by the current shady monarch, whose intentions may not be 100% altruistic? So Gransys isn’t the most fantastically original fantasy setting, but it is certainly a complete and well-crafted world to roam around. It manages to tick all the fantasy boxes, but with only mild contrivances.
Dragon's Dogma hasn't really got a plot to speak of, that would require some kind of cohesive narrative that has been planned and paced in order to evoke some kind of character growth. Even after finishing the game, I'm still a little hazy on what the hell really happened. As far as I can tell, Gransys is locked into a vicious cycle wherein every couple of decades or so 'the Dragon' decides it’s time to re-enter the world and start wrecking up the place. Each time this happens, one luckless soul (that'd be you) gets chosen at the Dragon's whim to become the Arisen by eating their heart and granting them immortality (not invincibility). The big scaly bastard then charges you with searching him out in order to stop the destruction of the world. In essence, the idea of being caught in the supernatural death and rebirth of the world is a really interesting idea to play around with. Do you follow the Dragon's dogma, or do you choose your own fate and seek to break the chains kismet has laid on you and find your own way to end this cycle, or do you simply let fate play out as it has so many times before?
Truth be told, none of those issues really get explored though. The characters are forgettable, and after a while I started skipping their dialogue just so I could get away from the boring sods. Much like the setting, the cast are your typical fantasy cavalcade. And frankly, the game would have been just as good without them. They're essentially talking quest dispensers, that could have easily been replaced with clockwork vending machines that dispense ye olde sound bites and receipts for quests. Most of them are fairly inoffensive, and some even go through a little character development. Though I don't think the game would have suffered much from leaving out that damn court jester, I consistently wanted to take him to the highest tower in the Duke's castle and defenestrate the annoying, little shit-bag.
You can also pick up work from notice boards located in different towns or inhabited areas; any quests you may grab from these will more often than not be "Kill X amount of nasty things", "collect X amount of stuff" or the good old "escort this semi-suicidal pleb to X on the map" - again, fairly standard stuff. The most interesting quests will be those you pick up from characters, but these can be easy to miss because they do not show up on the map, so you have to explore every inch of the geography to find them, and also some quests will become unavailable if you complete certain other quests and you'll only find this out when it happens - kinda frustrating, to say the least. Despite the awkward and tiresome method by which you acquire stuff to do, there are some great quests with awesome set pieces. One in particular has you tasked with hunting down a griffon that has been harrying the poor, simple peasants as they go about their poor, simple lives. You end up tracking the feathery fiend across the land and back to its roost atop the ruins of the ancient moon tower. You must then make your way up the crumbling edifice, fending off mobs of the undead and flocks of harpies. And of course, the griffon isn't too happy you're there, so it tries its hardest to put an end to you by encouraging the architecture to crush you, and once you finally surmount all of that you get to try your luck at bringing it down, which brings me neatly onto the combat...
Hideaki Itsuno, who is famed for his work of Devil May Cry 2,3 and 4, took the role of director for Dragon's Dogma, and if you know anything about Devil May Cry, you'll know it is all about inventive, intuitive and empowering combat. Where other elements of this game may fall a little flat and seem too "by numbers", the combat is an utter blast. You can choose from three 'Vocations' when you create your character: if you fancy yourself a toe to toe brawler you should choose the fighter class, sporting heavy armour, sword and shield you'll specialise in dealing heavy damage and being able to absorb and deflect enemy attacks; if ranged combat and dexterity are more your bag, you should choose the strider class, which gives you access to a bow and daggers for quick strikes and acrobatic combat manoeuvres; of course, if you would rather play with magic you can always be a mage (what fantasy world would be complete without them?), and harness the elements to smite you enemies, imbue your weapons with elemental effects, and provide support with healing spells. As you level up these vocations, you can purchase new skills and augmentations to boost your stats. There are also a further six vocations: three advanced and three hybrid. The advanced are versions of the original three that forego defence for greater offensive ability, and the hybrid vocations allow you to carry over basic skills while giving access to new, unique skills.
Combat is really where Dragon's Dogma shines: the controls are simple, as you learn new skills you map them to one of three buttons, allowing for you to mix and match your style depending on how you choose to fight. As a fighter, you can be the vanguard of your party, charging in and laying steely death on your opponents before they know what's hit them; or you can be a tank, drawing your opponents to you with taunts and soak up their attacks, keeping the attention off your other party members and giving them openings. Some skills definitely work better in combinations than others, and often equipping yourself with poorly matched abilities will reduce your effectiveness in battle and lead to defeat if you’re going up against some of the bigger beasties, and there some huge things for you to rumble with: cyclopes, ogres, griffons, cockatrices, hydras and more.
Because these monsters are so big, you are encouraged to climb all over them to look for a good place to stab them up real good. Each monster has its own behaviour and tactics: cyclopes are cumbersome behemoths that are more concerned with what's going on at their feet, so you can scale them with enough ease to get to their head and start dealing some real damage; griffons are less likely to let you spend any meaningful time clung to it, it'll buck and kick and often take flight in an effort to make you plummet to your death. All of the monsters in Gransys are very much their own type of creature, and will act accordingly when encountered, they all have their preferred tactics as well as weaknesses which you'll have to learn if you want to become efficient at slaying them. They may seem daunting at first, but pretty soon you'll be squealing with joy as you sight a cyclops, and dash for higher ground so you can launch yourself full pelt at its head and start sticking pointy things in it.
You will not have to do all this alone though. As the Arisen, you have to ability to command a race called Pawns - for all intents and purposes they appear human but they lack the will and independent thought that drives humans, and thus they crave direction. The Pawns live in a rift between realities, and can be summoned into the world through rift stones, which will often be found in towns or outside dungeons. When you create your character, you will also create a main Pawn, who'll always stick with you. You will create them in the exact same manner as your character, but unlike you they will be restricted to the basic and advanced vocations. They will level-up as you do, and you will choose how to assign their skills and dictate their behaviour. You can have up to three Pawns with you at a time, your main and two you have pulled from the rift. The Pawns you find in the rift aren't randomly generated however. Everyone in the world who plays Dragon's Dogma will have their main Pawn made available for other players to hire into their party. Or if you happen to have online friends who have the game, you can use their Pawns for free. Whenever you sleep at an inn, if your Pawn has been hired by another player they will return when you wake with gifts, experience points, knowledge of yet explored areas, and tactics for taking down monsters, so there is certainly an imperative to make your main Pawn as awesome as possible so others will use them and you can reap the benefits.
Often in a lot of games, lugging around a group of A.I. controlled characters with you can be a chore, relying on them to do the right thing at the right time can be a precarious business, but Dragon's Dogma does it very well. Your pawns will learn how to deal with each type of monster accordingly and at least 99% of the time they will be a real help. You can issue basic orders to your party using the directional pad, but I rarely found that it was necessary as my little crew seemed to know what to do and when to do it.
There are certainly issues with Dragon's Dogma, not so much with its mechanics, but more with its pacing and design choices. Gransys is certainly a large world to explore, but the fact that there is no traditional fast-travel system forces you to trek almost everywhere, and if you don't know exactly where you are going to complete a quest it can really foul up the sense of excitement gained from such undertakings. And again, for such a large world, there seem to be too few places for you to discover and explore. I would have been happier with fewer grand locations and more smaller and varied areas. For instance, the tower the griffon hunting quest takes place in is huge and impressive, but you only go there one other time for a story quest - of course you can always wander over there for the fun of it, but without fast-travel it just seems too much of a chore to undertake. One oddly fun yet vestigial feature the game has is the ability to upload screen shots to your Facebook account, some of the pictures accompanying this review are actually from my game.
Dragon's Dogma is a mechanically sound and satisfying game to play, but it is never going to be considered one of the great fantasy narratives when it comes to video games, and if you enjoy fun and kinetic combat, but don't really give too much of a toss for the justifications, then it's certainly worth a play. But if you are after a more immersive and mentally engaging experience you'll need to get your dragon slaying done elsewhere.
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