Dragon's Dogma review

By Matt Cabral, May 24, 2012 8:00am PDT

Combine the open-world exploration of Skyrim, the lightning-quick combat of Kingdoms of Amalur, and the player-punishing difficulty of Dark Souls, and you've got Dragon's Dogma...sort of. While it does borrow from recent favorites in the genre, Capcom's answer to the action-RPG also takes a stab at some original ideas. A steep learning curve and lack of polish occasionally sully the experience, but fans of the style who've already exhausted the aforementioned titles will find more than enough here to lure them in for a play-through or two.

While its world will feel familiar to anyone who's looted a treasure chest or burned a troll, Dragon's Dogma doesn't begin with the expected rodent-killing quests or talky cut scenes. Instead, it throws you into the action head first. As an unassuming villager, you're almost immediately faced with an unfair fight against a fire-breathing beastie; it's as lopsided as it sounds and the monster's talon unceremoniously plucks your heart from your chest. Upon miraculously surviving the attack, you're dubbed the "Arisen" and set out to seek revenge and retrieve your stolen ticker.

The story begins with a bang, but things soon settle into familiar Tolkien-wannabe territory. You'll personalize your avatar, accept quests from chatty NPCs, collect loot aplenty, and face baddies of the horned, fanged, and clawed variety. The been-there-slayed-that formula remains engaging thanks to responsive, weighty combat. Favoring intuitive light and heavy attack combos over the cumbersome controls often associated with the genre, the thumb-blistering battles feel more action than RPG.

The arcadey exchanges are further complemented by the ability to scale sky-eclipsing enemies, Shadow of the Colossus-style. The mechanic, which slowly drains stamina, lends an organic feel to the epic fights while injecting them with a welcome layer of risk-versus-reward strategy. It's tempting, for example, to climb atop a downed griffon and drive a dagger into its jugular for the quick kill; if the beast manages to take flight before drawing its last breath, however, you'll be in for a fatal fall when your strength betrays you.

Going toe-to-talon with mythical monsters poses ample reward for patient players, but undoubtedly spells sudden death for more eager attackers. Dragon's Dogma may feel like a button-mashing dungeon crawl, but its encounters require thoughtful planning and careful execution. Thankfully, its defining party-customization system ensures you'll never face an ugly foe by yourself. On top of tweaking your main character throughout the 30-plus hour journey, you'll personalize an A.I.-controlled pawn that brings both physical strength and sage advice to the battlefield.

In addition to looting and leveling alongside this brother (or sister) in arms, two other pawns--with set stats and skills--can be hired from any of the world's many towns. This second pair of mercenaries is expendable and will be swapped often depending on your needs. Shopping for the proper pawns is an addictive affair. Searching for a spell-spewing mage, steel-swinging fighter, or a support character to heal your wounds? No problem, just head to the closest village where a variety of swords-for-hire will happily accept your gold coins.

More than just meat-shields, these CPU-controlled combatants hold their own on the battlefield and even handle the heavy lifting when allowed to. Their very vocal strategies are also helpful, often providing the key to downing a difficult threat. It's especially satisfying to return to the site of a previously failed encounter with the right pawns in tow, prepared to turn the tables. The mechanic isn't a tacked-on feature or optional part of the experience either. In fact, if you hope to reacquaint your heart and chest cavity, you'd better learn to play nice with the pawns.

While more than enough of these helpers are randomly generated in-game, they can also be borrowed from other players. Like an extension of Dark Souls' anonymous hint system, this feature doesn't require any interaction, just an online connection. If you're having trouble silencing a specific baddie, another players' pawn--who's already skinned said beast--can join your game with the necessary intel to finish the job. Conversely, if your pawn gets recruited into another game, they'll return to your virtual world with any knowledge they've gained while battling abroad.

Coupled with the fast-paced combat, this inspired party-building system refreshingly separates Dragon's Dogma from the hack-and-slash pack. That said, some will find frustration long before discovering the game's groove. (It took me about six hours to feel comfortable with the mechanics and around 10 before I entered battles with any degree of confidence.) A generic high-fantasy presentation, some mundane quests, and an open-world that's too easy to get lost in won't help the uncommitted conquer the learning curve. Still, seasoned dragon-slayers with an appetite for hardcore adventuring will overlook the game's dull edges while they relish the spoils of the last battle and fret over deciding which pawn to take into combat next.


[This Dragon's Dogma review is based on an Xbox 360 gold master version of the game provided by the publisher.]

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