Single player western RPGs of recent years have been as much about companionship as they have the hero’s journey. Every twist in the story adds a new friend or ally, and almost every character you meet adds an extra layer of intrigue or lore for you to investigate and explore at your leisure. The creation and nurturing of relationships is as much part of the quest as the slaying of beasts.
Dragon’s Dogma, Capcom’s attempt at a more traditional fantasy RPG, trades all of that in for a system of interchangeable Pawns, who perform their role for a set time before being thrown back where they came from and swapped for a newer, shinier model. It’s an intriguing, morally grey system, but it’s one that strips the game of any real continuity. You’re not making friends (or enemies), you’re simply abusing the fealty of a creature, then tossing it aside when you get a better offer.
The game is an action-heavy RPG that sees you guiding a chosen one in battle against an ancient, draconic evil. At the start of the story, you’ll have your heart ripped out by the gigantic foe, and spend the rest of your time in the wide expanses of Gransys trying to figure out how you’re still able to wield a sword or throw bolts of arcane magic at your enemies.
You’ll build your chosen one, or Arisen, from one of three fantasy archetypes – a heavy weapon wielding Warrior, a sprightly bow and dagger using Ranger or a magic firing Mage. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll need to complement them with your main Pawn, who’ll serve as a constant ally throughout the journey.
The other two slots in your party can be filled up at Summoning Stones, which allow you to draw forth Pawns from the Rift. Player created Pawns can be rented out too, and when your own visits another player’s world, they’ll learn information about Gransys and its inhabitants that they can pass on to you.
At the core of the game sits a combat mechanic that isn’t afraid to punish the unwary. Your attacks are all about timing, exploiting the weaknesses of your enemies before striking. Blows are swift and brutal, and one wrong step can leave you hideously outnumbered. Larger beasts can be clambered upon, letting you chip away at their health bars with cuts and stabs.
Almost every turn will see you confronted by a band of goblins, or a cut throat gang of thieves. Wolves leap at you from thickets of weed, before calling for allies with a ghostly howl, and giant creatures stalk forests and swamps, ready to swoop down without warning and wipe out poorly prepared adventurers.
Dragon’s Dogma is a huge, unflinchingly tough game. The distances between quests make every expedition life threatening, and the expense of teleportation stones makes safe returns that little bit sweeter. For every adrenaline rush success, the game doles out blistering defeat, and for every advancement in level, it turns the screws that little bit tighter.
The story might be a cobbled together mess of ideas, your Pawns might annoy you with their constant prattle and screen tearing might raise its ugly head all too often, but the little victories that Dragon’s Dogma offers up, those moments that make you clench your fist and exhale a relieved sigh, almost make up for that, especially when coupled with the game’s ambition.
Format: Xbox 360 (tested), PS3