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.

Skyrim: Peeves and Praises (PS3)

Praises

I mentioned in an earlier post that the stat screen has either been obscured or eliminated.  Unless I”m missing something, I’m pretty sure it’s been eliminated at this point.  Initially I was worried there was some aspect of the game that’s been dumbed down or simplified. Final Fantasy 13 does this, and I think it’s a major weakness of the game.  Cutting out the obscure D&D stats is a good thing, but only if it’s done in such a way that gives you some ability to customize what you’re doing.  In FF13, I felt as if I was always constrained as to what was happening with my characters.  There was some sort of crystal grid or some ridiculous mumb0-jumbo, but basically powering up your characters was done in a straight line.  Any shot at taking on the toughest challenges in the game demanded you max out all areas of the grid anyway, so the destination as to what your party looks like at the end is always about the same.

On the contrary though, Skyrim has removed the D&D stats and replaced it completely with the skills system from prior iterations, coupled with the “perks” trees.  The result is to remove all that commitment to what your character is up front by rolling a die to choose attributes, and making the character the sum of his or her own actions.  You want to use great magic, well, practice and your level will become higher.  You want to be better with a shield, use a shield.  There is a certain logic in this that is appealing.  It does away with all this odd terminology and replaces it with something more simple.  Unlike FF13, Bethesda can get away with this by replacing these skills not only with a good leveling system, but also by injecting a higher level of interaction from the player.  Skyrim very clearly wants to break the RPG mold and just be an action game with a ton of customization.  That might be the best way to think of it actually, it’s an action game where you have a lot of options.

Where Skyrim, and newer sandbox games made by other American publishers, completely excel is their ability to replace the RPG menu-drive combat system with something fluid.  Combat isn’t hitting  R1, or “Attack” over and over again, it’s moving around, dodging arrows and parrying battle-axes.  These games are going to continue to smash the JRPG format in the coming years, and it’s easy to understand why.  There are downsides to letting the player takeover as the missing element to statistics tables; it might be harder or entirely too easy for someone.   It’s a risk worth taking though.  Sure smihing or alchemy are basically a menu driven event system, but at least they’re based on the underlying world where you need to either explore, barter, or steal to find supplies.

I suspect the trend of reducing attributes with actual action and player involvement will continue with this franchise, and I suspect Bethesda’s games will get better.  The JRPG franchises of old need to stop experimenting with crazy menu format gimmicks, dispense the sphere grids, junction systems, and crystal grids of old.  The menu system in FF6 was fine, it kept being changed after as the SquareSoft tried to hang onto the quant aspect of gaming, but introduce something to jazz it up.  It didn’t need to be jazzed up though, menus are ok.  The combat’s representative, I get why the guy doesn’t need to run all the way over there to do damage.  It’s just like a game of chess; you don’t need to give the king a knife or something to show how he’s killing the rook.  As you may have guessed, FF13 was disappointing, and the game mechanics were fundamentally frustrating and flawed.  It was another unsuccessful hybrid of action and menus.  If you’re going for full on action, you’ve gotta go all the way.  Skryrim does this successfully, and Oblivion did as well.  Not that the JRPG menu format needs to die completely.  I’m not a firm believer that representative combat is bad.  But the more goofy systems that are introduced to replace good-old fashioned character classes, the worse that genre will do.

Ok, now onto something that’s been noticeably lacking.  A friend of mine suggested that I add some peeves to my review of this game.  He’s right, I’ve given a lot of praise here without any complaints.  At the time, I didn’t have any, but after logging in some serious hours over the past few weeks, I’ve got a few gripes that are worth noting.

1. Unbalanced Enemies

Skyrim uses the randomization elements as Fallout for enemy populating, so if you’ve played those games, you’ll have an idea what I’m talking about.  As you advance in levels, the enemies will advance as well.  Some only have one subset, so a Snow Bear (Polar Bear) basically always has the same stats from what I gather.  Enemies that are based on humans usually have a lot of different level varieties.  From low levels to high, you’ll run into a Bandit, then a Bandit Outlaw, then a Bandit Plunderer/Marauder, etc.  Of course as your character gets strong, the enemies should get stronger too, but Skyrim takes an unbalanced approach to this concept.  A group of bandits at level 40 for example, might be comprised of a low level Bandit, a Bandit Outlaw, and a Marauder.  All these enemies look pretty much the same, but the level of difficulty is completely different.  Consequently, you’ll knock the two first guys down with one sword swing, but the third guy will take 50, or will kill you with one big smack from a warhammer.  I’m a one many army that’s killed 20 dragons, and one guy with a loin cloth and a rock tied to a stick killed me?  What gives?

This problem is about 100 times worse with mages, who all wear the same clothes and look the same.  Unless you’re targeting them, you’ll have no idea whether a novice or a master is throwing some lightning at you, making every encounter a huge gamble as to preparedness.  A weak mage won’t make a dent in your health, but his buddy will kill you with same attack that for some reason does 20 times the damage.  Part of the problem is that the enemies look the same, and have the same animations.  The strongest lightning spell looks very similar to the weakest.  I appreciate that the developers wanted to do a good job with one graphic, rather than making a lot of lousy ones.  However, when you can’t evaluate what type of enemy you’re fighting, you don’t know how to prepare.  It’s not that Skryim is difficult, it’s just that you don’t have any idea when the difficulty is about to kick in.  By increasing the levels of enemies, but not clearly giving a lot of guidance as to when this is happening , or who it’s happened too, creates some frustrating encounters.   Again, it’s not a question of difficulty, but of expectations.  If you’ve played Fallout and ever come up against a Super Mutant that takes about 1500 bullets to kill you know what I’m talking about.

2. Persuasion’s Gone

Ah, I miss the persuasion wheel.  Sadly, one of the goofiest mini games in RPG history is gone.  If you remember from Oblivion, the persuasion wheel would unlock speech options if you successfully made someone like you enough by using the same four speech techniques over and over again.  I mean, come on, who doesn’t like to be flattered?  It was a bad system, and could be avoided if you knew how to use magic to get around it.  Still, it had an important role in expanding the game’s concept of freedom.  It gave you the freedom to influence and get better results or avoid combat altogether.

It’s been replaced with the Fallout 3 system where you have a Persuasion or Intimidation option in certain interactions, and presumably at least, have a chance to get the better outcome depending on how good your speech skill was.  I think these little mini-games are a good break from the rest of the game, and to have only the occasional chance to use persuasion makes the whole speech skill tree kind of useless.  Again, on the riff I just did on stats, this would be classic character “charisma.”

In Oblivion, you’d often encounter persons who had information they didn’t want to give you, if they didn’t like your race or affiliation.  You knew they knew something, and the persuasion wheel was how you were going to wring it out of them.  It’s gone here.  Perhaps this is a good example of how getting rid of certain stats can be a bad thing; there is no replacement here for in-game persuasion that’s nearly as satisfying.

3. Puzzles

I was hoping for more puzzles and more thinking.  Early on, if you’re proceeding with the main story quests, you’ll encounter all sorts of Indiana Jones style temples with traps, and eventually a giant puzzle door.  The solution – spoiler alert – is by identifying what the key tells you are the correct symbols to display on the door.  The way to do this is to manually inspect the key-like item in the inventory screen and rotate it.  Classic!  It’s just like in the first Resident Evil (I bet you had to look up whether to open the book in the game to get the medal, am I right?), a feature that was sadly abandoned in Resident Evil 2.  I was stoked.  This was great. I really liked the oil slicks too, which you can ignite and create some great fire traps with.

Unfortunately, you see very few puzzles later on in the game.  The richness of the world that’s been created certainly would support spells that would let you use fire to melt ice, or shock water with electricity.  Maybe some use of an electricity spell to start an old Dwarven (or Dwemer) machine.  Where the strength of this game should be open-endedness and freedom, there needs to be some additional tools in your arsenal to create new paths or use your brain.  What bothers me isn’t that Skryrim is shorting-changing us here, it’s just that it could offer a lot more options for the thinking player than it does, without a lot more programming effort.  Fingers crossed that there will be some mods or expansions tapping into this need more.

4. Freezing/Loading Issues

Ok, this is really a huge problem with all of Bethesda’s games.  Granted, I would rather they keep making great games, but the issues with loading and freezing, and in some cases frame-rate clipping are pretty extreme.  I didn’t even think these problems were possible on a PS3 until I played Fallout.  Some of the old Fallout 3 style glitches are back.  Every few hours the game can freeze on you when loading a new environment, or freeze during combat leaving no options but to reset and hope you didn’t lose anything important.  It’s very frustrating, and I was caught off-guard as to how frequent it happens, especially considering I’m not even using a PC version.  My 80 gig PS3 burned out while playing Skryim a few weeks back, forcing me to buy a new one.  Hey, it was probably on it’s way out, but now I’m beginning to suspect there are some problems here.  I’m hoping the PS3 patch v. 1.3 will be out soon and will deal with some of these issues.  We’ll see what happens when the next round of patches come out.  It’s  a very complex game that uses a lot of processor resources.  I’ll be patient with a few blips here or there.  Freezing once every 90 minutes though is not acceptable though.

Skyrim; Thoughts on Leveling, Layout

Still playing this game.  Suspect I will be for some time.  Hopefully I will keep blogging in the process so I don’t drop off the radar.  My initial impressions have been confirmed, this is a great game and probably the best I’ve played to date.  I can’t think of another experience that comes close.

The convoluted system from Oblivion for levels has been revamped into something that is a little bit less wonkish.  A lot less wonkish actually.  Stats like stamina, strength, agility, vigor (whatever that is) are gone.  Or, at least they’re gone from front menu explanations.  The major and minor level selection systems have also been removed.  These systems for level advancement in Oblivion weren’t bad, but they required the player to make tough decisions about what skills you wanted right off the bat.  The problem with the old system was that increasing “major” skills, which naturally are increased through in game use, were drivers in increasing a player’s level, but also in increasing the level of all the enemies.  If you leveled too quickly, without boosting supporting “minor” skills, you could become quickly outclassed.  Someone gaming the Oblivion system was motivated to choose “major” skills that actually the player would never need, thereby making increasing these skills subject to manipulation while your minor skills are pulled up through the roof.  Skyrim removes this gaming incentive and presents you with a straight-forward, but intricate system.

Now, leveling gives two benefits; 1. you can choose to increase maximum life, maximum stamina (which are used for combat and sprinting), or maximum magic points; and 2. you can choose a “perk.”  Perks are divided amongst the skill classes which are similar to the same classes from Oblivion (and probably older Elder Scrolls games as well).  The perks are setup like constellations of stars, but this is really just a tech-tree format.  Most of the perks seem pretty intriguing.  Making a decision is tough, mostly because there are usually so many good choices to go for.  Also go is the arbitrary distinction of giving perks at ever 25 skill levels.  These perks are how your character is defined, rather than through a series of statistics numbers.  A mage for example, might not have dramatically more magika than a warrior, but because all the skills that the mage has are geared towards reducing casting costs and boosting spell damage, the same skill has a much larger effectiveness.  The warrior skills are the same; the swing of the sword  or blocking with a shield does much more because of the perks.

With respect to layout, Skyrim represents a big improvement over Oblivion in terms of equipment.  The smithing ability has been reworked totally into something more dynamic, complicated, and satisfying.  Armor and weapons no longer wear down in Skyrim, eliminating the repair function that was previously present.  Weapons, armor and accessories can be forged and created from raw materials found in the environment, improved upon, and then enchanted for additional effect.  Although enchanting isn’t new to Elder Scrolls, sharpening blades and improving armor gives a lot of options as far as equipment goes.