Despite some flaws, Dragon's Dogma still offers plenty of interesting and fun content for fans of the genre, including relatively newcomers like me.
An opening cutscene shows a ferocious, fire-breathing dragon swooping into your small town and wrecking havoc, claiming lives and property damage with its fiery breath and sharp claws. You manage to not only survive, but the dragon takes a peculiar interest in you. Opening up your ribcage in the process, the dragon takes your heart, yet your survive. Clearly, you are a special being.
Players can choose between three primary classes, including Fighter, Strider, and Mage. The different classes have different starting weapons and stats for a variety of abilities, as is typical with an RPG. There are dozens of appearance attributes you can change, from as generic as gender to as specific as choosing between a bunch of different scars. When your customization is ready, you awaken in a room in the house of the chief of the village. You are known as Arisen, and you are free to explore the town, picking up numerous side quests and dozens of different pickups along the way.
As someone still new to the genre, I found the organization of Dogma's menus and information a little cluttered at first. Pressing Back brings up your inventory while Start gives access to the map and quests. The inventory screen has a lot going on; and, at times, there are three to five things popping up in your HUD at once, and they all disappear by themselves, so you had better read quickly. Naturally, you can find this information again with a minute amount of digging in the Inventory or Quests screen, but, still, I thought that the organization and presentation of this info could have been more consolidated and intuitive.
That said, there's plenty to do just as soon as you get started. You need to collect gold and all kinds of plants and flasks and talk to a lot of NPCs. Those with quests or information about your quests will have an icon appear above their head, but almost any NPC is willing to talk to you. There are vendors to purchase and sell goods to as well, but be careful not to accidentally harm them. If you do harm them, they will run from you every time they see you. You can chase them, but they will literally disappear into thin air.
Seeing this, I decided to see how the game reacts with other "experiments." Results were mixed. Besides doing light and heavy attacks (X, Y), the ability to Grab (RT) yielded some hilarious results. Ideally, you're supposed to use it to pick up certain objects or to jump onto bigger foes to attack. But, you can also use it to pick up lots of NPCs (but not all). When you do, Arisen throws them over his right shoulder, and off you go. You can set them down gently, or, throw them. Throwing unsuspecting NPCs was pretty funny, but sort of game-breaking. Thankfully, you can save your game at anytime from the Start menu, which makes screwing around like this a real option, if not encouraging.
Now, when you pickup an NPC, your stamina might take a hit unless you're in a town where your stamina does not fade. NPC reactions to being picked up is not as believable or poised as I had hoped, but it is pretty funny nonetheless. I even took some NPCs in the first town up to the top of a cliff, right where the game begins by the chief's house, and tossed them over into the sea, where the piranha-like Brine awaited. For important NPCs, like the chief's daughter, and my first Pawn, it showed them dying and they indeed did disappear, until I left the town and came back. I was surprised and disappointed that the few soldier or guard-like NPCs wouldn't fight back, too. Generally speaking, I'm always fascinated to see how developers handle game-breaking actions like these. Dragon's Dogma is fairly tame compared to some, like the old school PC game Strife, which would turn the entire town on to you. While not as engaging and "ready" for my actions as I hoped, Dragon's Dogma still showed some poise and at least made these experiments fun.
All that aside and getting back to traditional play, Dragon's Dogma does some very cool things with combat. Having been created by some of the guys behind Devil May Cry and Resident Evil, it's no surprise that the action in Dogma is a huge part of the experience. In addition to attack modifiers (LB, RB), you can also recruit up to three pawns to travel with you. I thought this was an excellent addition to the otherwise solo RPG that many titles in the genre are based upon. Pawns are explained as being from another realm, and while human-like in appearance, they basically have no soul, or will. They need a real human to guide them, instruct them. They can take care of themselves in battle, and they will also seek out and use their own inventory items, like consumables for healing. But, it's up to you to lead them to places and into battle. This is done with four basic commands that are mapped to the d-pad, including Help and Attack.
Pawns are more than just customizable, you can exchange them with other Pawns online with other players. You can literally search for criteria that you need a pawn to have -- maybe a strong fighter class with an iron will who won't back down from any battle, for example -- and recruit them to help out on a quest. In the process, you will also gain new inventory items. It's a neat concept and in limited testing it seems to be implemented nicely. I tend to grow attached to NPCs that I take into battle with me, so I probably won't be exchanging my Pawns out too often, but I think the option to see what others have created and use them is really cool.
Another area where Pawns are somewhat helpful is in giving advice or reminding you of your active quest (which you can view anytime in the Start menu). However, whether they are saying something about the quest or just making an observation, the Pawns do repeat themselves a lot. It's not quite irritating, but it walks the line. Plus, given that Pawns are loyal to you unconditionally, you really have to think of them as something even less human than what they are to begin with -- they're almost like robots. I think had they been more tangible and "alive" would have made them more interesting and thus the game as a whole better.
Despite that, traveling the lands with your Pawns, encountering packs of Goblins and skeleton warriors and all sorts of other evil, is still fun and I believe more enjoyable than it would have been alone. By having these extra helpers with you, players are able to travel into lands that they simply would not be ready for otherwise, in terms of difficulty. Coupled with the ability to save your progress whenever, I think this is empowering gameplay design that gives you a sense of danger and uncertainty.
Some aspects of the gameplay and presentation do feel a little clunky and unpolished, though, but I haven't experienced anything to this point that would keep me from continuing play. Visually, there is some clipping and even tearing as you move about the camera, and I was surprised at how short the draw distance is as well. While you can see static structures off in the distance, many objects do not even appear until you get within what feels like twenty or thirty feet of them. On the positive side, I thought the gameplay changes and presentation changes that occurred from night to day were quite nice. Certainly not a first for the genre, but it's something that does immerse you a little bit more.
With that, let's head to the summary...