In the wake of Japan's dwindling games market, Capcom's been courting the West for most of this console generation. For a while, the publisher concentrated on ideas that might appeal to us Brits and our American cousins. Then the published handed a torrent of its properties to lesser-known Western developers, with the assumption that these guys would know what they're doing because they're from round here. The patchy results have been inconsistent at best, and there's still a niggling feeling that the publisher doesn't quite know what it wants to be doing.
Ironic, then, that the Japanese giant's biggest success story the past few years has been with its altogether local flavours of Monster Hunter, which is presumably why its latest attempt at 'going West' has been taken back in-house. Dragon's Dogma looks every inch a Western RPG, with all the hallmarks you'd expect: a sprawling open world, the Tolkien setting and people that say the word 'aught'. Oh, and real time combat. Yet beneath all of this, Dragon's Dogma is very much a Japanese videogame, which is probably why, at first at least, it doesn't feel quite right.
Venture into the game's verdant world of Gransys expecting to get your Skyrim on and you're going to leave very disappointed indeed. Strolling about won't unravel a spellbinding series of quests where you take in breathless sights, visit mystic ruins and fill yourself with an unparalleled sense of wonder. Nope, in Dragon's Dogma, wandering about will get you eaten by a Chimera.
In fact, there's nary a chance to wander anywhere for the first few hours, which sticks you to a very rigid path in order to learn the systems at play. You, sir or madam, are The Arisen, a chosen warrior who has his heart nicked by a Dragon during the opening scene and really wants it back. So far, so sort-of-Skyrim, but this is where the similarities end.
In place of Western RPG's traditional wanderlust, Dragon's Dogma does three very interesting things. First is its bestiary, which borrows from every myth you could think of to conjure an army of weird and wonderful monsters with which to do battle Secondly, when night falls in Gransys, it falls hard; type of night that won't let you see more than a few inches past your face. Thirdly, and most importantly, it introduces its unique form of slavery, the pawns.
At all times, you're accompanied on your travels and travails by three doting slaves, who'll do your bidding at any cost. They'll plough headfirst into battle, heal you when you're hurt and hoover up loot upon command. They're a bloody good bunch to have around, basically. You create one main pawn, who'll stick with you through thick and thin, while the other two can be hired and fired through Dragon Dogma's people exchange, the Rift.
It's an odd concept, but strangely brilliant. In the Rift, wandering pawns can be bought in exchange for RC (which I presume stands for Rift Currency). They're not just AI, though, they're actually the uploaded clones of other players' main pawns. And, bizarrely, whenever you rest at an inn your pawn will disappear into the ether, returning when you wake up with some presents. It's the type of idea that could only be conceived in Japan.
As well as smacking up all manner of goblins, wolves, bandits and even dragons with you, the pawns actually act as a dynamic hint system. They learn about areas you're walking through, remind you to look out for treasure, and most crucially, tell you how to defeat the game's tough baddies. Dragon's Dogma is full of enormous monsters, many of which just appear in the woods when you're trying to mind your own business, and all of them have a specific way to be taken down.
Your pawns will instruct you on how to do this, meaning you can concentrate on executing rather than just button bashing. And as there are three major classes in the game - mage, warrior and archer, essentially - most of the fun comes from banding together a party that will suit your own playstyle. My ageing mage, Dentacles (it's meant to sound like Heracles, but saying it like 'tentacles' is fine too) found it best to have one other mage healing him, with two warriors up front to do the dirty work.
The combat system is varied and deep enough to account for numerous styles, though, and positively encourages ridiculous effort against insurmountable odds. You can actually climb larger enemies like the lumbering Giant or the growling Chimera and stab them while on their backs, and if instructed to do so by using the d-pad, your pawns will do the same.
So pawns are awesome, then? Yes and no. They're helpful and innovative sure, but they do not ever shut up. Ever. Imagine driving to Scotland from Cornwall with two kids jacked up on Monster Energy in the back seats; that's what the pawns are like. It's impossible to gain any sense of mystery or magic from Dragon's Dogma because the whole game is soundtracked by relentless, poorly acted insights into every minute detail in the proceedings.
This is where the cracks start to creep in. This unstoppable noise is incredibly annoying, and it's not helped by Dragon's Dogma's rather punishing structure. While it is a grand open world, with questing, side questing, looting and all that other good stuff, it's best to actually think of it like a game about travelling. Albeit travelling in a time where no one had made a map, and if it gets dark you're basically dead.
Quests are always best approached first thing in the morning, and it's up to you to get where you're going before nightfall, or you're just going to end up falling off a cliff or getting eaten by zombies. The problem is, getting to where you're going is often a dreary trial and error. Never before has a game featured so many dead ends, and the in-game map only reveals itself as you travel. The sense of accomplishment in getting to your destination unharmed is palpable, but so often you'll end up losing half the day walking in the wrong direction, then dying when a Giant spawns one inch in front of you - which feels a bit like a bug. This game has its fair share of technical issues, although to be fair there's nothing here as glaring as Skyrim's buggy launch.
Couple this laborious drudgery with the irritating babble of the pawns, and Dragon's Dogma often feels like a chore. There's so much to admire in the game; a finely tuned gear system, spectacular combat, partner AI that learns and interacts, but the world itself feels more like a space that exists for the sake of it rather than a lived-in world with its own stories and secrets. It's best to think of it as a map where enemies roam, and you're given tremendous tools to take them out. Go in wanting a fulfilling adventure that takes you on a journey, both literal and metaphorical, and you'll surely be disappointed.
This is one of those really tough games to score, because I can easily see how some will love the game's innovations and commitment to preparation and gear-management, while to others it'll feel unplayable. In many ways, Dragon's Dogma is comparable to that other recent Japanese take on the Western RPG, Dark Souls. Both are defiantly obstinate, both offer physical, tangible combat, and both try out clever ways of interacting online. And both, of course, are definitely a matter of taste. Where Dark Souls divides people through design choices, though, Dragon's Dogma's will likely divide through design flaws.
An interesting, ambitious and thought-provoking effort, then, and certainly one with much to be proud of, but not the all-conquering RPG Capcom hoped for.
Version Tested: Xbox 360