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In the grassy fields of Gransys, my party of four treads the sunlit pastures looking out for claymore-wielding bandits and red-skinned goblins. I’m prowling for a fight, you see, because that’s what up-and-coming adventurer-heroes do. And after the spear-armed lizard men who reside deep in the sewer gave us a skewering, I’m itching to hone our battle skills in order to better hold our own next time.
A desperate man atop a small hill overlooking the road calls out, "Go for the weakest one!" Saber and I unsheathe swords. Stina draws an arrow while Rook casts a spell that ignites our weapons with a flame aura. I initiate our counterattack with a lunging strike of the tempered steel in my hands. And this is where things start to go to shit.
Capcom, we need to have a little talk because this problem’s been brewing for a long time now. The developer/publisher has so clearly modeled Dragon’s Dogma's fighting after its own Monster Hunter, and I say that with affection as I love Monster Hunter as much as the next obsessive-compulsive with an affinity toward measured combat. Hell, deep down we’re all well aware that these games are the three-dimensional equivalents of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, with Great Swords and Switch Axes in place of boxing gloves and terrifying, towering beasts in place of ethnic stereotypes and gender caricatures.
Dragon’s Dogma is likewise a game of anticipation, observation, and timing. Of reading your opponents’ visual cues and looking for an opening. Of smartly managing your positioning and physical resources (health and stamina). But also like Monster Hunter, Dragon’s Dogma proves that Capcom struggles with intelligently mapping inputs.
The video game controller is an odd device in the hands of the uninitiated, but that is a red herring. Only Microsoft, in its quest to remove the gadget completely, and Nintendo, in its effort to push more "immersive" input mechanisms, would have you believe this is a "limitation." Any input device will take a period of familiarization. Truly genius developers, though, are able to make you forget about whatever plastic rests in your hands with minimal effort on your part to the point where you react instinctively and decisively.
I have one rule regarding control in action role-playing games or role-playing games whose primary language is action: I need to be able to move my character, survey my surroundings, and unleash devastation onto my foes all without lifting a finger. Developer From Software’s Demon’s Souls first (and again later to a larger audience with Dark Souls) introduced this to me within these genres, but this is nothing groundbreaking. The need to simultaneously move, aim (look), and shoot (attack) is something that console first-person shooters have understood for years. Even From’s own long-running Armored Core series understands this.
But Capcom has again purposefully chosen to hand me a less desirable controller scheme (or "schemes" if you consider the six preset layouts; however, all of them suffer from this same issue). Remember, Capcom, that I don’t really enjoy contorting my fingers for "the claw" position to play Monster Hunter, for instance, which is the only way to achieve the level of controller harmony I seek.
Monster Hunter Tri is shamefully suboptimal and even mockingly ineffective, as Capcom has relegated two prominent shoulder buttons on the Classic Controller Pro to swim up and swim down (as any player with a sense of decency would not dare use the fucking Wiimote and Nunchuck combination).
While chaining downward, horizontal, and upward slashes from my Great Sword using the right-stick feels damn satisfying (because using the face buttons, as I’ll outline below with Dragon’s Dogma, is self-defeating), that means I’m stuck grasping for the D-pad with my left index finger to look around. Hence, "the claw." But at least that’s an…option. In Dragon’s Dogma, it’s just not possible to move, look, and strike all at once.
This is because Capcom has placed the two attacks on the face buttons, and I have no option to move them to the shoulders. The developer has also complicated the input system with weapons skills; you can attach up to three to each of your primary and secondary arms for a total of six. To initiate these specialized assaults, you must hold a shoulder button while also pressing a face button.
From Software smartly places all attacks on the shoulders in the Souls games, thus leaving both thumbs free to move my character and scan the landscape simultaneously. In Dragon’s Dogma, I must lift my thumb off the right-stick to attack, which forces me into tunnel vision; I can no longer monitor and assess local threats seamlessly. This momentary pause is clunky, and as a result, Dragon’s Dogma lacks all the elegance of the Souls games’ finely tuned ballet of steel and spells, where I can charge an enemy while striking it down as I center on my next target without skipping a beat.
This is terribly tragic, too, because Dragon’s Dogma boasts a well-realized combat model that other games — specifically from Western developers — should strive to emulate. Bethesda’s Skyrim, and the whole of the Elder Scrolls series, hasn’t yet stepped beyond Hexen-styled first-person melee fighting. Ubisoft's Assassin’s Creed’s system is a joke, where enemies line up single-file as if this were a Steven Segal flick. Big Huge Games' Kingdoms of Amalur doesn’t put any limit on agility and actions (as a stamina system would), thus allowing you to spam dodges and attacks and interruptions to the point of invincibility. These are all major failings of games that put action at the forefront (regardless of whatever else they masquerade as, their emphasis on combat is unavoidable, and therefore, becomes the games’ primary language).
Dragon’s Dogma has a demonstrably Japanese flavor (like Demon's Souls and Monster Hunter), where weight, staggering, interruptions, status ailments, stamina, and the physicality of your weapons are vitally important factors in making ambiguous decisions that govern the fate of your character. Should you block this attack and sacrifice a significant chunk of stamina or risk trying to dodge and potentially dying if unsuccessful? Should you wield a stronger but slower weapon that more consistently staggers an enemy even though the longer attack animation leaves you more vulnerable to counters (thus requiring you to better time your assaults)? Or should you pick the safer-to-use, smaller, quicker, more versatile sword that simply does less damage?
Dragon's Dogma even adds to this formula: most notably, the ability to scale impressively large enemies a la Shadow of the Colossus. What's less talked about, for example, is how body type and gender play a role in combat. Character creation is not just cosmetic in Dragon's Dogma: Larger bodies increase the amount of weight you can carry while decreasing the rate at which stamina replenishes. Additionally, these bigger physiques increase your attack range while also increasing your susceptibility to attack. The opposites are true for smaller anatomies.
This is an interesting and intellectually rewarding style of combat that's borne out of the Demon’s Souls, Monster Hunter, and Dragon’s Dogma type of game. It’s just too bad that Capcom hasn’t learned anything from their compatriots at From Software about how to seamlessly map inputs to the controller.