Who would want to be an RPG developer right now? Last November the world watched as Skyrim marked its territory, changing forever our expectations of an entire genre. In the wake of Bethesda Softworks' behemoth success, there's a clear dilemma for other purveyors of dragon-n-swashbuckling. Follow Skyrim too closely, and you invite unfavourable comparisons; do something different, and... well, you're simply not Skyrim, are you?
But Capcom's Hideaki Itsuno faces a double challenge: not only is he tasked with squaring up to the Dragonborn, he's also at the helm of one of the biggest games Capcom has ever made. And to top it all off, Dragon's Dogma is an open-world action RPG - something the publisher has never attempted before. Itsuno-san has directed the Devil May Cry series since the second instalment in the franchise, but even for a developer of his calibre, this is no minor undertaking.
Still, the man himself remains undaunted by the scale of his task.
"Skyrim has had a big influence on the RPG genre, but we're trying to do the same thing," he says. "Skyrim has become what it is now through the whole Elder Scrolls series. At Capcom, we've made Dragon's Dogma and come up to this point through our experience of action games. We're trying to make a new genre: We're using our action heritage and putting that into an action RPG."
And while Itsuno is fully aware that Skyrim will take some beating, there's no questioning his conviction in Capcom's efforts. "Of course, if you ask me who's in the lead in the RPG world, Skyrim has a huge influence on the rest of us! But we think our game will turn heads as well. We're very confident. It's a unique experience, and there are a lot of elements that are very different to other RPGs."
Itsuno's faith is understandable given his personal attachment to the project. Officially he's been working on Dragon's Dogma for over three years, but the original idea for the game arose during his childhood. Itsuno grew up with Dragon Quest and says that the series made a huge impact upon him, but he also cites experience with numerous Western RPGs: Dragon Age, Fallout, Fable and Oblivion all get a mention, with the latter two singled out as being particular influences on his current work.
"Every single open RPG that's been released in Japan, I've played them all," he says, before adding with a smile, "Or I own them, and I plan to play them!" There's a hefty pile of unplayed games sitting on his desk, he admits.
This mix of Eastern and Western inspiration has been poured into Dragon's Dogma, and the results are immediately evident. There's a Monster Hunter-like vibe to the frequent confrontations with hulking beasts, but the creatures themselves include a Cyclops, Hydra and Chimera - all big-hitters of Greek and Roman mythology - along with the eponymous dragon, who kicks the plot into gear by ripping the hero's heart out in the first chapter. There's a vast spread of job classes to pick from too, tempered by your anatomical choices when generating your character.
Play as diminutive hobbit-alike, for example, and you'll find yourself vulnerable but extremely nimble. While you're welcome to pelt foes with arrows and spells from afar, the monsters of Dragon's Dogma can be used as hostile climbing frames, inviting immediate comparison with Shadow of the Colossus - and this is where it helps to be swift on your feet. Scurry behind your opponent and up their leg (or other convenient appendage), and you might be able to get at their weakspot: shimmy your way onto the Cyclops' face, and you can plunge your dagger into his eye. Refreshingly, Capcom departs from the convention of relying on QTE sequences for these Jason and the Argonauts-style shenanigans. The player retains full control, and the end results are infinitely more satisfying.
As enjoyable and flexible as the combat system may be, it's your comrades in battle that let Dragon's Dogma stake a claim on innovation. At any given time you'll be accompanied by a number of Pawns, NPC henchman that follow you into battle, commenting on proceedings with a stream of chatter. They'll tell you what they're doing, offer assistance, and tell you how to defeat the current threat - provided that they've learned how to deal with it. Initially there's something very odd about the way Pawns speak in bite-sized, contextual snippets. The repetitive delivery underlines their artifice, and yet because everything they say is immediately relevant to how the battle unfolds, moment to moment, it's easy to accept the idea that they have a mind of their own - albeit in mechanical, automaton fashion.
But there's more to the Pawns than an extra set of weapons by your side. Each player in Dragon's Dogma has one Main Pawn that they design themselves, born out of a customisation system that surpasses the one used for the main character. Other Pawns in your party will belong to other players, loaned out over an online sharing system known as the Rift. Allow other players to use your Pawn, and they'll return bearing gifts, currency for hiring other sidekicks, and perhaps most importantly, experience of monsters and quests that you have yet to face.
Itsuno says that the whole Pawn system was inspired by a couple of games that remain largely unknown outside of Japan, including one called Post Pet - a popular series that allows players to lend animals to their chums. "You can have your character go to your friend's house to play together, and the other player can tease them," he explains. "Then when your character comes home they'll say, 'He was teasing me!'
"That was where the whole sharing thing came from. In Dragon's Dogma, one thing that reflects this is if you borrow a Pawn from somebody, you can take off all their clothes and then send them back. You don't get to keep their clothes - they get sent back to the player too - but you've made them take their clothes off!"
It's easy to understand why Post Pet never made it to the West - the Tamagochi craze of the mid '90s was as close as we ever got. Itsuno's mischievous stripping suggestion may or may not catch on over here, but either way the Pawn system itself seems like something that could attract interest: the success of From Software's Demon's and Dark Souls hints at an appetite for unusual approaches to online co-operation. Dragon's Dogma isn't a multiplayer game, but nor is it a strict solo outing either.
Given that the Pawn System was inspired by titles that never escaped Japan, it's ironic that it's one of the mainstays in Capcom's efforts to attract a global audience. Make no mistake, the Skyrim comparisons at the top of this article weren't just hot air: there are grand ambitions afoot for this game. Itsuno argues that while US and European publishers are increasingly pushing their efforts across all the world's territories, there's a split between Japanese firms that are embracing similar tactics, and those that are still focusing on the domestic market. There's certainly no doubt about which side Capcom favours.
"I don't know if other Japanese developers are trying to become more global, but I know we definitely are," says Itsuno. "It's difficult, because we really want this game to sell 10 million units worldwide. We want to sell a lot, and that's just something that we think we can do. We're not positive. Of course it's a risk, but that's what we want - a challenge.
"But in Japan, we can absolutely sell a million units. We know that's attainable, it's absolutely do-able. We have a kind of assurance that that will happen, but for worldwide that's not so much the case, and I think that's why a lot of Japanese developers are hesitant about going global. It's because they don't have that assurance that it'll be successful."
A game of this size and scale will always be a gamble, even at the best of times. With the world economy being what it is, few publishers would dare to launch a new IP in a genre they've never attempted. Capcom has, and on an epic scale. And come the end of May, we'll learn whether the publisher's bravery has paid off.
In the meantime, Hideaki Itsuno is happy to have the RPG he's always wanted.
"When I was a child I always had this dream of making a realistic fantasy open world game, and now I'm able to make that dream a reality," he says. "It's a first for Capcom, so we really hope that it's received well. We're doing our best to make it a great game."
Dragon's Dogma will be released on May 25 on PS3 and Xbox 360