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.

Dragon Age: Origins

Mass Effect has been on my to play list for about as long as it came out.  It just seemed like my thing, I had heard good things about Bioware.  I keep kidding myself that someday I’ll get to it, just like I’ll get to Skies of Arcadia (serious forces have transpired on multiple occasions to keep this from happening).

I had heard good things about Dragon Age in the early spring of 2010 from a coworker, and it was Bioware, so naturally when I had a free $20 or less game coupon at K-Mart (great deal, K-Mart, who knew?), I picked up Dragon Age: Origins as my choice.  This game got stellar reviews, so I was surprised at how unpolished a product it was.  One of the big benefits of the game is to see how decisions made in the story have an impact on the game’s ultimate outcome.  Unfortunately, after finishing with about 30 hours of play time, I’m reluctant to go through it again.  This game has a decent amount of fun moments, but ultimately is unpolished and, at times, frustrating.  The world created is simply not interesting enough for me to want to invest the time to explore it further.

Environment/Story

By a twist of fate, the main character, a Grey Warden, is given the task of reuniting a band of less-than-friendly races to build an army to fight off a menacing hoard of undead known as “the Darkspawn.”  If this sounds like the story of Lord of the Rings; it’s because it is.  The player’s main goal is to unite the Elves, Dwarves, and splintered humans into contributing to fight off a blight that promises to swallow the world.  Along the way, you are constantly reminded that actions have consequences, as well as overarching themes about the responsibilities of powerful people.

The game heavily relies on Dungeons and Dragons, like the Baldur’s Gate franchise, in utilizing a system of battle statistics and special skills.  Characters are not complex, they are cookie-cutter.  Mage, warrior and rogue.  It’s all D&D or Lord of the Rings derivative.  Armor and equipment are equally bland.  The characters have simple stories and simple personalities, but a good deal of effort was put into making them operate as a team (with little asides to each other depending on your party’s composition), and the introduction of of a likeability statistic that can be boosted by taking actions consistent with that character’s belief-system, or by giving them special gifts.

Enemies are less-inspired, and are basically just evil.  There are undead enemies and also demons and Darkspawn, which, aside from humans and the occasional giant bug, make up a majority of the action in the game.  What’s the difference between a Darkspawn and an undead?  Nothing really, they basically look the same.  You’ll see the same thing over and over again during the game.  It used to be that game designers would level-up the enemies and denote the changes by changing the sprite colors.  This simple short-cut was lazy, but it worked.  I wish that the same thing had been done in this game though, as it is difficult to assess what kind of threat is coming out around the corner when the enemies always look the same, but have vastly different abilities.  The same thing over and over again.  I would have been happy with simply changing the colors…

There is no world-map system, moving from place to place is done on a map where sometimes semi-random events are triggered.  These events are just fixed battles though, and often they are surprisingly difficult.  The environments are not interactive in the slightest.  There is generally just a few persons to talk to, and then enemies around filling most of the dungeons.  No puzzles or secrets. Voice over and musical composition are unexceptional.  No complex plot-resolutions that require thought.  Side-quests are flat and uninspiring.  Animations for characters aren’t really that good.  A lot of the non-combat aspects of the game have your character either just running around or standing in place during oddly structured dialogues.  Standing in front of a hostile giant dragon; what a great place for a 15 minute conversation on what you need to do next?

Ultimately, character and environment design seem stifled.  Clearly the developers did not want to spend a good deal of time coming up with gold here.  What you’re left with is a generic medieval fantasy world with graphics that would have been decent on PS2.

Open-Ended

I’ll give this game high-marks on the amount of control the player has over the character.  Tough decisions are frequently forced upon the main character, and those decisions not only can proximately impact the companions in your current party, but also impact the broader resolution of the game.  When I mean tough decisions, they are not the same type of decisions that someone would encounter in say, Fallout.  The decisions are rarely good or evil (evil + a cool item).  Usually the choices that need to be made are true rock-and-hard-place type dilemmas; ratting out a dear friend or and risk catastrophe, or maintaining order at the expense of personal loyalty.  Doubt about whether the ends justify the means will cloud over every one of the tough decisions in this game that must be made.  The game forces a conscience on the player as well, by requiring the player to commit to an ethically complex solution several times.  The dialogue frequently ends up like this?: Do you want to kill X or let him go?  Are you sure you want to kill X?  Kill X/Let him go?  In between these questions, the characters in your current party will chime in and give their own opinions as to what the course of action should be.  And they will disagree.  The consequences of the disagreement are immediate as well; if one of your party members dislikes enough of your actions they may leave or they may agree with you thus increasing a combat statistic as a perk.  Saving individual characters is not the only tough choice you’ll have to make.  You’ll also have to decide which race survives, and how much freedom you’re willing to sacrifice in order to stop the Darkspawn.

The repetition of whether here initially I thought was very annoying, until I realized the game developers were really trying to stress the importance of this aspect of the game on the player.  Unless you’re absolutely obstinate, you will waiver in your course of action when these situations present themselves as all sides of the argument are presented.  I almost always changed an out of the gate hard line on an issue, to compromise position.  Frequently though, the game cuts the possibility of a compromise out of the equation though, making the ultimate decision even harder.  You are berated by the fact that these choices aren’t easy.  Practically speaking though, this back and forth with your party is time-consuming and breaks up any tension in the plot.  Facing a key boss or potential ally/adversary has no climax with a 10 minute break for an ethical discourse.  This is the most unique and best designed portion of the game; generating an emotional rollercoaster that results from having power and the being forced to decide how to use it.

I took a middle of the road approach to most of these actions, but a friend of mine who inadvertently started playing this game at the same time I was, deliberately took an entirely evil path.  He gave me plot resolution outcomes that seemed improbable, but also exposed to me how my oversimplified I made the world out to be.  In a bit of a spoiler, I’ll explain.  I saved the elves.  My friend saved the werewolves.  What you discover relatively early in resolving this particular quest, is that the werewolves at war with the elves are sentient beings.  Necessarily, they must die if you’re to resolve the problem the elves are having.  Did I inadvertently commit a genocide and not even realize it?  Possibly.  The implications are profound.  Should you save the ruthless tyrant?  Probably not, but it’s still a choice at least.  Bioware is onto something here.

The other open-ended aspect of the game relates to side-quests and the order at which the main plot of uniting the races of Fereldon can be completed.  What is unclear to me thus far is what impact going to recruit one race has on the outcomes of the other; but I generally like choice.  Side-quests are a key weak point here though.  Basically you are given a list of objectives, but because the game doesn’t really have a complex item or interaction system with the environment, all quests are essentially go to X, kill/talk, go to Y.  A game like Oblivion had a way of disguising the fact that all you’re basically doing the same thing over and over again, here there are less layers of complexity.  None of these side-quests seem to matter or impact the story.  They are filler in an attempt to give the player a chance at slightly better loot or experience.

Action/Combat & Difficulty

My girlfriend’s comment upon stumbling home at midnight was “this looks like World of Warcraft.”  Indeed, the new vogue in RPGs seems to be creating a team experience where the player’s main goal is to manage a party in combat, rather than direct its every move.  You’re given a programming system that reminded me a lot of Final Fantasy 12, although in practice it didn’t seem to work as well.  Party members rarely did what I wanted when there were more than one or two enemies.  I suspect a significant portion of this result was operator error.  But without a more complex tutorial system I was lost.  You can also switch to other party members and control them directly, but critically you can never control all 4 at once.

I mentioned Baldur’s Gate earlier, and I extend that comparison to the combat here.  The skills the mage character class has, for example, are virtually identical.  When the going gets tough, the chaos that emerges from a big battle is both overwhelming and exhilarating.  It really does feel like an MMORPG.  The difference between one spell cast or special ability cooling down means life or death.  The post-combat auto regeneration of life and mana also are a kind improvement over Balur’s Gate.  An enemy getting close to you means death if you’re the wrong class.  Often I held back on enemies I thought were weaker only to find myself surprisingly dead.  This is dangerous ground.  A close call makes the game a lot of fun, but a lot of repetitive losses in situations where you can’t exit and start over made it frustrating for me.  Towards the end I found myself begrudgingly turning down the difficulty.

Enemies tactics and toughness seem quite evenly matched to your own party during the game; so this is not the possibility of level grinding for super-equipment or amazing abilities is not there.  This isn’t necessarily a problem, but sometimes I prefer to trade incredible playing skill for brute grinding force in an RPG.  Maybe this is a lesson long-unlearned from Dragon Warrior.  I often found it difficulty to acquire enough money for equipment that was any more than marginally better than what I already had, and this was a bit frustrating.  The side-quests the game provides offer some detours for more experience and power, but I stopped doing these after I realized a town on the world map was swallowed by the impending hoard in the game.  Obviously doing side-quests was going to limit other possiblities (another important choice), so I, perhaps prematurely, stopped trying to tie up some of these loose ends.  I would have liked the opportunity to have more control over the odds of winning in this game.  The branch structure of leveling, and the fact that 10 or 15 levels is kind of a lot make the stakes of choosing the right abilities higher as well.  I wish I had picked up different abilities for virtually all of my party members.  You can find yourself investing 4 levels into getting the master skill that turns out to be a dud.  No going back after this one.  Very harsh.  This combined with the difficulty of even some routine battles can be discouraging.

Map and menu options are detailed, but are poorly organized if you have this game on a console.  This is a sharp contrast to the level of control in real-time you have over special character abilities, which is both economical and intuitive.  The 6 special button slots (three buttons, with the back buttons swapping out triangle, square and 0 work well).  Curiously though, a lot of menu options or special abilities freeze the action in the game though, so it’s unclear whether the real-time aspect of the game was fleshed out here.

Final Thoughts

I’ll admit I played this game compulsively for a few weeks over the summer, but this review is less than glowing.  If I had to give this game a score, it would be around 7.5.  The strangely addicting aspect comes from the WoW feeling the game gives.  If you like those types of RPGs, then this should be something you experiment with.  Perhaps a second-play through would have given me more confidence in completing the battle aspects of the game.  New decisions might be fun to make.  But my interest in going back into this world would be to discover new things, resolve new problems.  Changing the NPCs that pop up along side you at the end is not worth 30 hours of game time.