The will likely be spoilers, but should I talk about something super new I'll warn ya. But consider this a pre-emptive warning! You're WARNED!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dragon's WHAT, now?

As you may or may not know (or CARE, to be sure), I am a ginormous fan of western RPGs. Oh yeah, the soap-opera-ness, the world-roamin', the build-your-own-protagonistin' like Dragon Age and Oblivion please me the mostest. I thought I'd have naught of this ilk to play until the Skyrim expansion Dawnguard hits later this month, but then lo! I started reading reviews of a game called Dragon's Dogma and it soon became apparent that YES. This game and I were meant to be.

You're going about your business in your wee fishing village one fine day when the bright blue sky darkens as the wings of a mighty dragon blot out the sun! As it turns out, this dragon is a total jerk- when you make a meager attempt at defending yourself, he plucks out your heart, swallows it whole, and takes off for parts unknown.

Despite no longer having a heart beating in your chest, you soon awaken for you are...The Arisen! And it's time to leave your wee fishing village to find that dragon and reclaim what's yours.

You know how it goes: assemble a crew, embark on quests as you build up enough power to face the big boss, talk to denizens of cities near and far...sounds like a pretty generic fantasy RPG, right? Well, it is and it isn't. Certainly there are familiar elements at play and sure, Gransys is definitely a Tolkien-lite kinda world. In their first attempt at a western RPG, however, Japanese developer Capcom changes up the formula in some truly refreshing ways.

The biggest of these ways is evident in the merrie bande of fighters you lead- rather than recruiting a gang of companions from all around the game map (à la Dragon Age) or asking/hiring a follower to accompany you for a while (à la Skyrim), the Arisen is, by rights, given control over the Pawn Guild. Pawns are soulless fighters who hail from the Rift, and they'll fight at your side throughout the game.

Early on, you create a Primary Pawn- modifying appearance, behavior, gender, class, etc- who tags along for the entire adventure. You can choose two more pre-crafted Secondary Pawns as well. Your Primary levels up with you, and you can outfit him or her as you acquire new gear; Secondary Pawns stay as-is, so you'll need to visit the Rift to swap 'em out as you outgrow them or you want to change the class makeup of your party.

Cool, right? Even cooler: if you're playing online, your Primary can be chosen as a Secondary to other online Dragon's Dogma players, and likewise you can choose your Secondaries from Pawns other players have created. He or she will return with gifts given by other players as well as quest knowledge.

Capcom has also changed up the rules about class and leveling up: sure, your character levels through experience gained, but you don't need to worry about stats...which I found to be a pleasant change from the norm, actually. Strength and the such can be modified through the use of gear, but when you hit a new level you simply...gain more health, power, stamina, etc. Though you choose a "vocation" at the outset- fighter, mage, or strider (rogue), of course- you can switch at any time if you're feeling bored. As each vocation progresses, you can choose more advanced forms or hybrids. I started as a strider and eventually became an assassin, a fighter/strider mix. Next time I'll go for a strider/mage mix, because wielding a magic bow sounds mighty appealing.

The one downside to the Pawns? They never, ever shut up. Ever. EVARRRR. As you travel, they talk incessantly- whether it's offering quest advice or simply blurting out things like "What a large tree!", there are three people behind you yapping all the time. It would be annoying if it weren't so hilarious...or maybe vice versa.

You'll be hearing them a lot because the world of Gransys is largely tread on foot- fast travel is a privilege, not a right, and it's earned far into the game. Even then, it's only achieved via special crystals that are incredibly rare- you plant them wherever you like and reach them via other special crystals. This really allows you to experience the world, but it can also be a bit tedious- sometimes you simply don't want to walk from one end of the map to the other, you know? But, leaving areas for good (or never exploring much) means you'll miss out on plenty of quests.

I missed out on some quests simply because of my biggest peeve with Dragon's Dogma: the save system. You can save anytime you like, but the game also auto-saves...and you only have one save file. There's no going back! I discovered this when walking through an innocuous door triggered the final quest and an auto-save- sure, I promptly turned myself around, but several other quests were immediately canceled because they could no longer be completed after that point. It makes my gamer OCD/completionist brain hurt.

Fighting is a blast in Dragon's Dogma. Yeah, there are RPG staples like spiders, rats, and goblins, sure...but Gransys is also populated by enormous creatures straight out of mythology: cyclopes, harpies, chimeras, griffins, and more all roam the land freely. For most of them, there's a Shadow of the Colossus-style angle that can be exploited- grab on to a writhing head of a hydra or climb up the back of a golem and hack away. It's fun, it's difficult (oh, I died so many times in this game, and some battles last upwards of 10-15 minutes), and it never gets old.

You'll find, too, that the world changes vastly from day to night, and Gransys under darkness is no joke. The monsters are tougher, and the only light comes courtesy of the small lantern tied at your waist. Is that shape ahead a rock, or a cyclops waiting in ambush? To what manner of beast do those glowing red eyes in the distance belong? And let me tell you, I thought I'd tired of zombies, but Dragon's Dogma features the absolute creepiest undead I've seen since...well, since Capcom's seminal Resident Evil series.

Though I truly loved the game- it's a really good time- it's not without some...quirks that detract from the play. I mean, no one seems to notice (or care) that the mighty Arisen is a total mute. This is not a voiceless protagonist where you get to choose a line of dialogue from time to time that might give your character some sense of...well, character. All you get to do is pick a yes or a no, an accept or a do not accept from time to time. The cutscenes are well-rendered and the Arisen has some emotive facial expressions, but no more than that. It's just kind of...weird. Particularly when people fall in love with you.

That's right, it's a western RPG so there must be some form of romance, right? It's there in Dragon's Dogma, but it's convoluted and broken beyond all reason. Doing quests make people fall in love with while you give a shopkeeper a fancy idol in exchange for better gear, look out! He or she (gender don't matter none in DD) may prove to be your love interest. Yup, it's out of your control for the most part, and who you'll end up with is largely a mystery until it happens. After completing her quest, one broad decided she was in love with me and moved into my house- into my house!- without my permission. I had my eye on someone else, however, so I was left with no choice but to throw this poor lovestruck girl off of a cliff. I'd say don't judge me, but perhaps the game itself judged me: my "beloved", after all, changed from one ending to the next. Yes, Dragon's Dogma has more endings than Return of the King, though I'm not complaining about that. It was odd, though, to walk off into the sunset not with the person I'd already walked off into a sunset with, but with...a total surprise.

Despite its flaws, Dragon's Dogma fell right into place alongside other western RPGs I love. I hope there's meaty DLC in the works, or a sequel...and I certainly hope Capcom doesn't give up on this strange new world.

And ooh, I hope that "What a large tree!" becomes the new "arrow in the knee".

And here's a trailer that shows a bit o' gameplay: