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Sometimes when I play Western-styled role-playing games — in particular, those of the faux-Tolkien variety — at some point a sensation of boredom permeates every cell in my body.
The seemingly needlessly contrarian nature of that statement is only compounded by the fact that I have trouble describing the feeling. The best I can offer: Do you recall those mediocre Nintendo Entertainment System titles that provided no more than a meager 30-second chiptune loop that never ended, never changed, and never interrupted itself? I’d play those games for hours, inexplicably, and that soundtrack would dig into my mind, eradicating any trace of my soul. I’d experience such tedium that my body screamed silently in monotonous agony.
This unfortunate mood becomes overwhelming at times when I play WRPGs that can’t seem to move beyond elves and dwarves and orcs and goblins. I last played the much lauded Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim from Maryland’s own Bethesda Softworks. My first foray into this series was with its previous entry, Oblivion, which started feeling all too similar in its environments and characters after a short while. Skyrim initiated such boredom after even less time in its world.
Dragon’s Dogma, a new game from Capcom on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, plays to the same fantasy tropes, but I’ve never felt such disengagement as I have with Bethesda’s virtual worlds. Here’s why.
Fighting in Dragon’s Dogma is inherently interesting and rewarding. But, you say, Skyrim isn’t about fighting…it’s about options! To which I reply, well no, you’re not quite paying attention. When a majority of quests devolve into killing something, when walking through the world necessitates murder, when the only way to complete the main story quest is to smash through with an iron fist, the game you’re playing is about combat. You can’t just sweet talk your way to victory a la Fallout (and I don’t mean Bethesda’s Fallout 3). You’re going to be taking up arms and getting a little (but mostly a lot) dirty.
Do you play Hexen anymore? No, you say? Well, I’m sorry to inform you of the bad news, but if you play Skyrim, you do. Bethesda’s contests of swords and sorcery are mostly tests of patience as you glide back and forth while holding down the left mouse button and shouting the occasional Dragonborn gibberish. This is just about as interesting as it was almost two decades ago, which is to say that it’s not that interesting at all.
Dragon’s Dogma — despite my misgivings over Capcom’s chosen control schemes — clearly borrows heavily from the Monster Hunter pedigree, where weapon types are more than just about which kinds of stat buffs are available to your character.
The difference between swords or warhammers isn’t a false choice of doing lesser damage faster or greater damage slower (which probably evens out at some point, you know, in the name of "balance"); they’re about completely different attack animations, and each have their own combo chains and movesets in the form of swappable skills. And that means you’ll be learning and mastering a combat style that you can successfully apply to a variety of situations and enemy types.
Beyond that, though, you have to consider your party configuration, which consists of you and three other A.I.-controlled "pawns." Dragon's Dogma supports nine distinct-yet-interrelated classes, which means you'll have many interesting options to mull over. The Fighter class, for instance, can use a shield as a launching board to rocket allies skyward, which is really helpful in grabbing onto high-flying monsters. Mages, Sorcerers, and Mystic Knights can cast weapon and status buffs to aid in battle. Warriors can tank damage, keeping your more fragile members safe. Striders, Rangers, and Assassins provide support roles by attacking from a distance and using stealth tactics.
You decide the progression of your main character and pawn, and you can browse through the hundreds of player-created companions to round out your party in any way you choose. This dynamic is incredibly rewarding as a result.
Dialogue in Dragon’s Dogma is brief, informative, and of consequence. If I hear one more animatron in Skyrim interject himself in my business as we pass one another on a stony walkway, I’m joining the murderers guild. Seriously, man, I’m not the least bit interested in your unsolicited blacksmithing tips as I’m heading out the castle gates. Maybe if we were both actually present at a craftsman’s establishment and I specifically inquired about such matters, we would be in good shape. Unfortunately, this is about as good as it gets in Skyrim.
Everyone I talk to is an open book filled with unnecessary, bland background information. I don’t really care about any of this, but my mind — trained on years of playing RPGs with purposeful dialogue — can't shake the sensation that these non-player characters might actually have something of importance to say. And they do, sometimes, which makes sitting through their bullshit all the more insufferable.
But my Dragon’s Dogma pawns get right to the point…even if they can’t keep quiet about a particular piece of relevant information. Like Celest, my current mage-for-hire, who likes to remind me that goblins are scared of fire at every encounter of the little beasts. Or Valkyrie, the amazing warrior woman who wields a sword as long as she is tall, who’s always on cue to tell me that I should cut off the Saurians’ tails first whenever we face these stalking lizard men. But, hey, I can live with that because everything they tell me is important.
This is especially evident during active quests. Since pawns in Dragon’s Dogma are shared player-creations, they each retain all the knowledge that they have learned in their travels. They remember any location they’ve visited or enemy they’ve encountered with other masters, which means that they’ll pipe up with a helpful — and usually incredibly specific — hint to conquering any task familiar to them.
For instance, the Duke of Gran Soren asked me to check out a suspected cult known as Salvation. The soldier relaying this information said to seek out a man named Mason, but the marked location on my map is deserted. So I turn to Valkyrie, who told me to check out the slums. Lo and behold, there stood Mason against a dank stone wall.
Exploration in Dragon’s Dogma is encouraged, worthwhile, and memorable. I don’t remember many locations in Skyrim. Or more specifically, I can’t recall how exactly the world "fits" together. I have no sense of space in Skyrim because Skyrim gives me the tools to ignore its many virtual miles. Once I reach a place, I can fast-travel back there at any time and from anywhere. I need not remember the path.
Most damningly, Skyrim’s square world is a featureless map of indiscernible terrain. My only mark as I explore is the series of found locations that plot the landscape like a collection of network nodes, a sensation that the aforementioned fast travel only reinforces. Discovery loses its luster when it only feels as though I’m checking off hidden doors instead of carefully detailing previously unseen valleys or forests or fields.
Dragon’s Dogma’s only form of simulated teleportation is the consumable Ferrystone item, which sends my party back to the central city of Gran Soren upon use. If I need to go anywhere in the game, in most cases I must actually go there. Gransys features many natural barriers, such as mountain ranges and impassible oceans, that will make any first foray into uncharted territory a grand adventure.
Like an early escort mission that took my party through the winding canyons of a mountain pass. As we traversed this peak, the sun set over trees rustling from increasingly strong winds. That simultaneously uneasy, anxious, and exciting feeling when the sky turns grey in the dim evening that signifies an approaching violent storm became unavoidable.
We lit our lanterns as darkness blanketed our surroundings, and that’s when we heard the siren call cut though the night. “Harpies!” cried Valkyrie as half-woman, half-avian creatures swept down for their attack. They darted in and out of our small illuminated area, adding to the high tension of the battle. When it was all over, we continued on much more cautiously. Nighttime is actually nighttime in Dragon’s Dogma.
I’ll remember that battle, but more importantly, I’ll remember that mountain pass — its high rock walls and all of its twists and turns. As I explore and parts of the world reveal themselves on my map, Gransys comes alive and feels like a real place.
Dragon’s Dogma is likely to become a cult hit over here in the States. Games critic Tom Chick best summed up how antithetical Dragon’s Dogma is to Western approaches to RPG design in his parody review that postulates how a North American publisher like Electronic Arts would view the "quirks" of Capcom’s latest. These oddities, though, are exactly what make the game more exciting, engaging, and inherently rewarding.