Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: Dragon's Dogma (PS3)

Stepping back and looking at Dragon’s Dogma from a meta-perspective makes you realise it represents everything that is wrong with the games industry. It is an offensively derivative game that makes Gameloft’s knock-offs look creative. Despite the utter cynicism it displays towards consumer buying behaviours, it’s still a moderately entertaining game, but it sits very firmly within the second tier of JRPGs.

To explain how this game got made is to explain how it plays. The various producers at Capcom must have sat down one day looking at what’s hot in the RPG space right now. After playing a bit of Dark Souls, The Witcher, and Skyrim, they set about to discuss how to make a new IP that would stand out against these three heavyweights of the genre.

One of the producers had a light bulb moment and yelled out: “let’s combine all three and throw in some Monster Hunter style boss battles!” Dragon’s Dogma was born. The fundamental problem facing the game, though, aside from the utter lack of creativity, is the assumption that people want to mix ice cream, fried rice and beef stew together. While each of those foods are fine by themselves, mashing them together is nothing short of foul, and the same goes with games.

Because it steals... sorry, is inspired by... so heavily from other games, Dragon’s Dogma lacks a soul. Perhaps appropriate, because the story involves a character that has his or her heart torn out of them, but while the environments, cities and enemies are big and grand, they're also generic in the extreme. It’s like Capcom went out of their way to make the most bland experience possible for fear of upsetting a single genre fan.

So you’ll run around environments that you’ve seen done better in dozens of other games, slaying the usual assortment of giants, chimeras, hydras, goblins and wolves. The combat lifts a lot from Kingdoms of Amalur, being fluid and fast, and heavy on the square button. The combo system is a little basic but functional and the three default character classes (as well as all the later unlockable classes you can take on as the quest progresses) are, as you should expect by now, the archetypical types.

The boss battles are the highlights of the piece, being suitably epic in scale, and there's some variety in the tactics that are required to defeat each boss. Of course because Dragon's Dogma doesn't want to upset anyone, unlike a game that is genuinely challenging like Monster Hunter, those weaknesses are immediately obvious and the experience of fighting them is ruined by the need of your AI allies to call out their weaknesses as nauseam (more on the AI allies in a moment). Occasionally a boss will be simply too high level for your party to defeat, but that's nothing a bit of handy grinding can't fix, and levels come easily enough; Capcom was very careful not to allow the combat to frustrate anyone.

That combat is probably the better part of the game all said, because outside of fighting the game follows the tried-and-true quest structure. There’s folks in each town and city that need jobs done, and after chatting to them, you take on the task of resolving their tale of woe. The quests are in the most part the standard bunch – kill X number of Y enemies, escort Z person to the next town, collect stuff; we all know the drill by now. But it here where the game really, really falls down. Quests take way too long to happen. The character moves around the place quite slowly, and there tends to be a lot of distance to travel to get from place A to place B. With Capcom’s one innovation here being the decision to remove fast travel, Dragon’s Dogma becomes a little like real-life adventuring – a lot of wandering around not actually doing much.

The only moment where a genuine bit at creativity is on display in the game is the pawn system, and even there Capcom managed to screw it up. Pawns are a literal A.I. ally. The game goes to great pains to explain their existence and provide context for why these fleshy robots belong in the world, and in all fairness, it’s a believably fantasy. The game’s main hero controls the pawns, and one of those pawns is the player’s own one. The other two in the party of four are pawns that players from around the world have uploaded to the Internet.

These pawns create a multiplayer-but-not experience similar to Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls. Player interaction is minimal, but the ability to impact on another person’s game is significant. Players log in to the server and hire pawns (with the higher quality pawns costing more, naturally). When they want to recruit a different pawn, they can leave a parting gift by way of saying thanks, and the owner of the pawn gets that gift in their own game. It’s also possible to rate pawns, and so the game develops a kind of metacurrancy that is actually quite compelling.

But there are problems here too. The AI for the pawns is quite poor, and they have a tendency to yell out “helpful” catch phrases far too often - both in combat and out While it’s possible to recruit a pawn from another player who is further advanced in the game and ask that pawn to lead you through some difficult quests, that puts you at the mercy of the AI, which is irritating.

But more critically, the pawns of Dragon’s Dogma are the game’s life blood. The cities in the game without the pawns wandering around are almost completely devoid of life (and it must be noted that the life pawns bring to the environments is purely aesthetic – they don’t actually say anything of interest to players when spoke on, so cities are amongst the most dull environments I've experienced in a game this generation). Now, at the moment it’s no problem; Dragon’s Dogma is new, and so fairly well populated. What happens when the game’s steam slows, though? What happens when Capcom takes the servers offline? Unlike Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls, Dragon’s Dogma needs the online connectivity to function as a proper game, and this is a very unwise decision.

Dragon’s Dogma was heralded as a big creative risk by Capcom – a big-budget new IP to break it away from an overreliance on Monster Hunter and Street Fighter. The end product isn’t even slightly creative, and it's timid, so frightened as it is for upsetting anyone. Given that it’s nowhere near as good as the games it steals ideas from, it’s little more than a waste of time to play.

- Matt S




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