Dragon’s Dogma, Dark Arisen (PS3) – A Bright Spot for Capcom

I’ve written some things about Capcom’s inability to continue the development of its major franchises. At the same time, newer series the company has created constantly appear to be  foundering (is this a screaming endorsement or what?). I’m wondering if it all comes down to development resources, particularly that we’re now in the era of the quarter-billion dollar game. Whatever the reason for Capcom’s woes, Dragon’s Dogma represents another major launch of an original title.

First off, I want to couch any positive review with some warnings that there are some huge problems with Dragon’s Dogma. Surprisingly, they don’t detract from the parts of the game that actually work well, but given the huge amounts of investment that must have been involved in the development, the number and magnitude of flaws is downright perplexing. The long and short of it is that the combat system is very good, but pretty much everything else is bad (or worse). Given that this is a PS-Plus free download for the month of November (complete with “Dark Arisen” DLC pack), I’m assuming Capcom wants to take the risk that more people playing Dragon’s Dogma will allow enough critical mass support to go forward and develop a sequel. Given the raw materials are here for a good game, I’d like to see that.

Look and Feel

Dragon’s Dogma is obviously cast in the mold of Bioware’s 2009 release, Dragon Age: Origins. The comparisons, like similar loading screens, equipment menu layouts, menu selection sound effects, and the entirely-expressionless protagonist, are simply too numerous for it to be anything other than a coincidence. Dragon Age did some things really well, but ultimately I didn’t like the combat system that much and thought it felt flat. The free-roaming world has lush colors and wilderness detail, although it’s not up to the level of Skyrim.

The story and characters are certifiably terrible. Basically at the beginning of the game a big dragon shows up and attacks your village. In the ensuing battle your heart is stolen, but you miraculously survive. Despite the complete lack of emotion expressed by the main character, and the minimal concern that this has happened among your friends and fellow townsfolk, you’re supposed to pick up that your main purpose now is to enact revenge on the dragon. This theme would better be hashed out if your character wasn’t completely mute like a 90’s Squaresoft game though. The main character thus becomes, the “Arisen,” one of many in a cycle of recurring villains and heroes that reappear to threaten, and then respectively save the world. I’m not through the story completely yet, but that’s pretty much it. Story quests do little in answering questions as to why the world is the way it is, or what factions are at play. It’s a far-cry from the narrative conflict between the Stormcloaks and Imperials in Bethesda’s Skyrim, or the million and one ethical dilemmas of Dragon Age. There is no other backstory or pathos. There are no mythology books to pour over, nor a guide giving you any more than the meager bits of story incompetently fed to you by NPCs. Major love interests can be ignored entirely (I wouldn’t even know they existed if it wasn’t for online walkthroughs). To make matters worse, the rest of your party consists of literally soulless beings who offer combat advice, but no narrative content.

With the sheer amount of effort that went into creating a very lush adventure sandbox, and then how that effort was entirely wasted on the complete lack of interesting content. Most side-quests take the form of reading a bulletin board, which generally asks you to kill a certain amount of enemies. Well, you were probably going to do this anyways, as the encounters aren’t randomized and you’re forced to do a lot of walking. There is a fast travel system that is a not explained that well and a little frustrating (although from what I’ve read online, it was improved significantly through patches and upgrades). These aren’t really quests though. NPC quests on the other hand are poorly designed. More often than not, the solution to finding where a certain item is, or where a certain person is hiding comes down to dumb luck. Because there aren’t usually any usable clues on where to proceed next, progressing in a quest usually occurs by finding a random person with a blinking icon over their head. Why would some random guy in the market know what’s going on the castle? The clues don’t even logically follow each other. The “detective” or deductive reasoning aspects are thus reduced to just tedious time-wasters. Another dumb decision is the extreme number of doors you can’t enter. I get it, you didn’t want to have to put stuff in 500 houses. I’m cool with that. But when you go to one of these doors and try to open it, the message often reads “The door is closed.” Yeah, obviously it’s closed, now tell me why I can’t go in. What it should say is that you can’t enter. It’s a pain trying to figure out which ones you CAN actually enter, because that’s seemingly random. Outside combat, music is uninspiring. 

Another big NES-style boner comes from the beautiful, yet constant and frustrating progression between night and day (this could arguably be a criticism of real life if you think about it). This is a classic criticism 1987 game Castlevania II, Simon’s Quest. With 25 years, Capcom definitely had fair warning here. Night and day are a cool concept, and the difference in Dragon’s Dogma between the two is not insignificant. Monsters are usually more powerful at night, and certain NPCs, flora, and fauna will manifest itself at certain times. Also, it’s dark at night, and having a lantern with you is not an adequate substitute for natural daylight. Alright, so this is maybe like those old Ultima games, or like Skyrim or something. Sure. The big difference is that there is no option to wait, or camp until morning, other than going to an inn. There aren’t a lot of inns though, so you’re basically stuck waiting until it’s morning again. Please, Ultima figured out how to avoid this in the 80’s. Obvious fixes other than an option to camp; make the nights shorter, or make then less frequent.

One standout area for Dragon’s Dogma, however, is the character creation system. There is no choosing alternate races, but the choices you’re given are maybe more substantive, as there is some impact on how you perform in combat and what you can carry.

Combat

Dragon’s Dogma’s combat innovations dwarf it’s other flaws. In particular, the combat takes oft-repeated premises and recasts them into a more coherent form. In particular, for a third-person action-style RPG, Dragon’s Dogma has strategic elements that make the standard fighter, rogue, mage dynamic more interesting. Each class doesn’t just have different skills, the upgrade systems impact other aspects of mobility and durability. Getting ambushed in a canyon or having the high ground can be huge disadvantages or advantages respectively. Flanking makes sense and works well, which adds a layer of validity to the genre a lot of other games don’t have. It’s an RPG, but less reliant on using stats and numbers and replacing it with more free-form control.

One aspect that heightens this experience relates to the fact that each enemy you face has a high degree of interaction with your party. This isn’t just stun, but also how groups of enemies function together. For example, one aspect of having a fighter as a pawn is allowing it to grab and pin smaller enemies down in a hold. Airborn enemies are required to be shot out of the sky. In other words, rather than just having stats, a mage, fighter, or rogue all fundamentally offer different playing experiences.

I really like that Dragon’s Dogma took the approach that it wanted fewer enemies, with a very rich interaction possible, rather than having too many enemies. I’d like to see more enemies, but the content that is in here is rich. The contributions of the AI, or “pawn” party members also makes this memorable. The team members don’t just use enemy knowledge in combat to attack, they offer advice and observations to the main character as aid. It feels like real teamwork.

Probably the best thing about combat in Dragon’s Dogma though is the “bigness.” Dragon’s Dogma creates encounters with massive monsters that are exciting, but also unscripted. Action games frequently restrict gargantuan battles to being overly scripted and rote. The best example of this is the gold-standard in mythological brutality, God of War. Awesome acrobatic feats are reduced to cinematic gloss and memorized button combinations. Dragon’s Dogma lets you mount an Ogre or Cyclops and cling onto the arms while slicing it with a dagger. Attacking the weapon arm of a Cyclops can knock the club out of its hand, and, naturally, the snake tale of a Chimera can be severed, thus preventing it from poisoning the party. Hit the weak points, or, more importantly, don’t. You don’t really have to in order to win. There isn’t a single-way to beat theses enemies, just options. This freedom is what separates the large, boss-style encounters from other games. Again, this only can be supported by having great interactivity programmed. Critically, the combat experience is more satisfying when a huge monster isn’t just beaten, but is slowly worn down and weakened over the course of a long battle with a prepared party. 

The most unfortunate aspect about this is that the actual genius of the combat system isn’t revealed until you’re several hours into the endeavor. The combat in Dragon’s Dogma feels quite lame until you make it to Gran Soren, a key story location. After this though, the difficulty is raised significantly. If there were a point where I was ready to give up, it was right here.

Forced Sharing in an Online World

So many games have tried to take the MMORPG format and cast it back into a single-player format. I think the most notable of these is Final Fantasy XII, in which you took the drivers seat in creating an automated party based on a series of simple programming commands. Although FFXII worked well on paper, the system was too complex and ultimately frustrating to tweak. Dragon’s Dogma on the other hand has this aspect figured out pretty well.

Your own “pawn” serves as a customization member of your party. You can upgrade his skills and equipment accordingly. But you’re aided with two other random pawns as well. This is a novel approach, and I think it adds something unique and refreshing to the gameplay. Because two of the four “pawns” in your party aren’t your own, they is necessarily some forced interaction with the other Dragon’s Dogma community. You can either fill the remaining two slots with pawns you encounter in game, or enter an area known as the rift and use a more refined search technique. These pawns won’t level with you; they’ve been leveled and sculpted by other players.

The process is managed by restricting the level to which you can recruit certain pawns, making a rotation of supporting cast members necessary as you level and progress. It also creates party flexibility without having to start from scratch. A system is in place to force players to leave comments and rank pawns accordingly after they leave your party. I find this to be a perfect element of online gameplay.

Final Thoughts

A tutorial, particularly showing you some of the nuanced aspects of the game, like the NPC “affinity” system, or better battle guidance for beginners would be obvious improvements. But Dragon’s Dogma has the guts to be a winner. Now if only Capcom could hire some writers.

MegaMan Unlimited – Attack of the Clones

Megaman UnlimitedThis post is related to another one I’m writing on what this fan project means for Capcom. I HOPE to finish both around the same time, but bear with me in the event I don’t. Notwithstanding all the issues that come along with a fan made game, namely that they typically will be subject to take down notices for copyright infringement, MegaMan Unlimited is very good.

From what I’ve been picking up from the website of the creator, and random Google searches over the last few years, this was a 5 year project that came from the mind of one guy, who with the help of a group of programmers working for free made a classic Mega Man sequel. It does not appear to be sanctioned by Capcom, and I’m utterly confounded as to how it wasn’t blocked from release through the use of legal action. This game is free to download and has been reviewed by Screw Attack, Geek Insider, Destructoid, and others. It’s as legit a fan project as could be made. If you want like these old NES games and want a fun, challenging experience, download this before it’s taken off the net.

Design

The level design, menu layout, cut scenes, and character design are surprisingly on point with the classic NES feel the game is trying to ape. Backgrounds and menus are generally colorful and animated. Primary colors that pop with bright animations are standard. In sum, it’s fun to look at, as it should be. There is even a hidden bonus stage that definitely ups the challenge even more.

Boss Selection with Bright Colors

Boss Selection with Bright Colors

Some flaws are present though. A careful eye will pick up that certain designs are not as expertly polished. One is the use of a “blurring” effect for certain boss animations that I certainly can’t remember from any Mega Man games on NES. The idea is that the original animation frames didn’t look good for slower, so a blurred frame which merges the animations together between the two was introduced. A sneaky and creative workaround, but also not standard. Capcom would have probably just figured out a way to do it with two frames correctly.

Some of the cut scenes and post-level weapon screens also have  some expressions on character faces that don’t seem to be consistent with other games either. Capcom wrote itself into a wall with the original franchise. The games had deliberately campy stories, and enemies were menacing and goofy in a style that only anime can be used to convey. So it was difficult to have things like character development, or to treat the games as anything other than episodic. This manifestation tries to add a hard core edge to the series that was never there, and in fact seemed to be intentionally designated for the X-series of games.

Music is also another story.  Most of the tracks fail to stand out, and a few are just annoying.  It’s not easy composing with such a limited number of tools, and the music has the feel of a classic NES game, it just doesn’t give a high level of energy into the endeavor.

Opening Cut Scene

Opening Cut Scene

But overall, it’s an A- clone that could easily pass as a real Mega Man sequel.

Gameplay

The gameplay is supposed to be intentionally derivative here.  It’s in the mold of a the classic Mega Man 3 format, the inability to charge up, but the preservation of the slide. Without an explicit NES emulator, the program works exactly in terms of timing and character abilities as a traditional Mega Man game.  Controls are crisp, although I’d recommend the use of a controller for ergonomics over a keyboard. Keeping the original specs as far as movement is an important element, but another is the supporting cast of characters, which are carefully designed to not be do overs of other Mega Man characters, but are totally new to fit the new stage themes.

And the new stage themes all feature some unique feature that mixes up the game play.  The Rainbow Man stage features the instant-kill beams from Mega Man 2’s Quick Man stage, but couples this with little geometry puzzles.  The Jet Man stage introduces movable treadmill platforms.  Glue Man’s stage features sticky surfaces that restrict mobility. These concepts are also combined with some recycling though, such as the use of the outer-space gravity jump originally seen in Mega Man 5 (which is really the same as the underwater jump if you think about it), and the reverse-gravity flip (again seen in Mega Man 5 initially).

What you’ll read in the other reviews is that Unlimited is quite difficult. It is, and at times it seems unfair. It’s fair to say it is harder than any of the actual original games on NES. That being said, the level design is deliberately challenging, but not impossible. Most of this doesn’t have to do with individual traps, but rather the number of traps. The stages tend to be about 30-50% longer than in the original games. Although that doesn’t seem like that much, it’s just enough to set it apart from the originals.

Another notable change is the timing needed. Tolerances are a little tighter here, and when you need to slide, the game makes sure you know it. Generally you’ll need to be a little quicker than some of the original games. With that being said, the slide was never that well integrated into the actual Mega Man games it was initially featured in. It just seemed like something that was thrown in. Here it is expressly needed in certain circumstances though, namely in boss fights.

One point I’d like to make though is that the difficulty is well-managed and very deliberate. Although there are traps that seem a little sadistic at first, there is always a correct way to get around an obstacle, and possibly a few with the use of special weapons. This isn’t the case where it wasn’t tested or was just thrown together. It was engineered. The special weapons range from rather limited in use, to very powerful, including one that gives both mobility and invincibility (which is definitely not standard). Part of the brutal difficulty is also mitigated by allowing carryover of lives and E-Tanks by allowing access to a shop.

Conclusion

Ultimately, as I explain in the companion post, Capcom should not have allowed this game to be made and distributed. It will be taken down at some point. Still, it’s interesting to see what a group of motivated fans with programming skills can do these days. It’s 95% as good as the real thing. In the meantime, if you have a cheap Logitech gamepad for PC and an interest in dusting off your rusty thumbs and testing your Mega-ing skills, download Mega Man Unlimited before it’s too late.

Mega Man 4 (PS3, sort of)

For some reason, one of these old Mega Man games seem to be rereleased about every 6 months on the Playstation Store.  These are Japanese releases of versions originally from the late 90’s on PSOne, and contain Japanese text and sub menus.  This is a rerelease of a rerelease, the original Mega Man 4 debuted in 1991.  Seriously, you can’t read the menus, they are in Japanese.  If only there was a Google Translate for Playstation!   If you press start enough times you’ll eventually make it to the game (alternatively you could buy Rosetta Stone or something but that seems like a costly alternative).

Yet another 8 obscure bosses.

Yet another 8 obscure bosses.

Anyways, this installment of the Mega Man series was notable because of the introduction of the Mega Buster, which allows for the famous charged-shot which eventually would be a signature of the series.  Despite being memorable special effect in the game, the addition of the Mega Buster finally gives a base Mega Man some options.  The upgrade is also infamously cited as being “game-breaking” in that the premise of the game, stealing the powers of defeated robot masters, is essentially mooted by the introduction of a more-powerful and unlimited use super-weapon.

Having played and celebrated Mega Man for something over 20 years, and having the appreciation for the base mechanics brought back by Capcom’s 2009 and later 8-bit remakes, I can definitely say that the criticism of the Mega Buster is actually spot on.  The charge shot makes this game entirely too easy.  Mega Man 4 is not as challenging as the earlier games in the series.  I found myself rarely using special weapons in the game when I had a more reliable, higher damage causing weapon always at my disposal.  Charging the shot to full power does not take that much time, receiving damage while charging doesn’t disrupt the charge, the projectile has a larger collision pattern, and finally it cleaves through multiple enemies in a straight line.  It also generally does about as much damage to bosses as their special weapon weakness would, making a difficult weapon to use, like Skull Shield (Dive Man’s weakness) completely irrelevant.  The charge shot is also, technically speaking, not original here either (you can charge Atomic Fire in Mega Man 2).

Environment

This is a pretty consistent style and quality with prior Mega Man games.  There is a bit of a Russian style to the Dr. Cossack stages (obviously), which fits nicely, but generally the player is confronted with light-hearted anime enemies, catchy one minute and thirty second midi tunes.  The best and brightest spot is actually the introduction video, which is the only Mega Man game to develop Mega Man’s origins and reinforce some themes seen in earlier games.  From the beginning video we get that Mega Man is not a combat robot and, perhaps somewhat reluctantly it seems, volunteered to don his famous blue armor.  Maybe this explains why he’s screaming in every little jump.?  The game also begins as it ends, with Mega Man riding on a train.  The attempt here is to show that the character is pure of heart, and although he’s maybe not that confident, he’s willing to dig in.  Each journey out into the world against a new batch of jacked up robots ends with him preferring to go home to his quiet place in the country.  Although the changing seasons at the end of Mega Man 2 might be a little more sentimental, the use of the train as a metaphor for the journey of Mega Man, and the player is ingenious.  It’s been used before, but is best executed in this game.  The music and lighting effects in this brief little cutscene develop the game’s conflict, explain prior installments concisely (not that there was much of a story to rehash), and effectively build up tension needed to make the player get ready for the next adventure.

Levels have a formulaic feel.  Unlike prior installments, the game never seems to suffer from a framerate reduction as a result of too many sprites.  I suspect this is due to the fact that certain areas where there are lot of moving items (running currents in Toad Man’s stage for example), also have no backgrounds.  Although the quality of levels and pixel art and animation are roughly consistent with earlier games, it also shows the lack of progression in the development team.  There’s just nothing ambitious here, although there are neat gimmicks in most of the levels (lights out in Bright Man’s stage, heavy rain in Toad Man’s stage, quick sand in Pharoah Man’s stage).  There are pretty much all new enemies, although all have similar roles to ones we’ve seen before.  There is your typical big stomper-guy, and other propeller enemies.  I did not feel like there was a greater than normal number of new encounters, but then again it’s following a formula.  The second appearance of a giant Metaur also seems derivative following a very similar boss in Mega Man 3.

Gameplay

This is maybe the 20th time I’ve played through this game, but perhaps the first time that I noticed it is considerably easier than Mega Man 1,2, or 3.  Although there are the occasional cheap kills waiting over bottomless pits (definitely guilty in Dust Man’s stage where you have no prior warning), most of the enemies don’t seem to do a lot of damage and can’t stand up against the Mega Buster.  There are, of course, 8 special weapons retrieved from each robot master stage.  The problem here is that most of the weapons aren’t that useful compared to the a charged Mega Buster shot.  I found myself using the special weapons very rarely.  Of course, a bunch of the stronger enemies don’t seem to have enough life as they did in prior installments either, so perhaps the difficulty problem isn’t just related to charging up.

It’s not that the charged-shot isn’t a good base premise for a game mechanic.  That’s not really an accurate statement.  It COULD be really good, provided the game was developed around it.  Perhaps special enemies would require combo shots, where a charged shot would open up a vulnerability that would require you to use a different weapon or salvo of normal shots to finish.  Mega Man gets a big bump up in this installment, but the world of Dr. Wily and friends does not.

I think all the criticism of this game mechanic could be effectively elimination with some reasonable balancing adjustments.  For example, make the charge reservoir take longer to fill, make it so you lose the charge when you suffer damage, and make the bosses generally more resistant to the charge shots damage.  A few simple tweaks could eliminate a lot of concern here.  The glowing graphic, sound effect, and animation of the buster shot are good.  Perhaps too good.

Final Thoughts

I find the notion that these old games are being released without translation, from a prior rerelease, one at a time for $9.99.  Perhaps Capcom realized it could have made a lot more money if it hadn’t released the Mega Man Anniversary Collection (all 8 of the first games on PS2 disk) about five years earlier.  Although I still consider it fun to go and waste an hour playing through these old adventures every once in awhile, I can start to see where things went wrong with this series.  Hopefully Capcom will get back on track before it’s too late.