Recent times have seen some gamers forget about why they started playing games in the first place. Cutting-edge graphics and over-the-top set pieces, as well as a tendency toward the quicktime event, have meant gameplay itself has suffered.
Some might argue that in order for a game to be fun, it needs to look great. We think differently. Titles like Super Smash Bros Melee spring to mind: easily one of the most fun games to play with friends this console generation, but about a generation behind in terms of looks. Then there is Dragon's Dogma, Capcom's first attempt at a Western-style role-playing game. Glitchy as anything with a drab colour scheme, it is also one of the most enjoyable RPGs we have played since Skyrim.
Dragon's Dogma has clearly taken a big chunk of its gameplay style from other Capcom games. This is most definitely not a bad thing. Forget the clunky hack and slash approach of Skyrim or the clicking obsessed Diablo III, this is a game all about top-quality animations and fluid combat.
Choosing from one of three different character classes - "mage", "strider" or "fighter" - you are given entirely different combat styles to play with. Take the strider, for example: he can hang back and do all sorts of damage with a multitude of bow attacks. Over time he will, of course, get better at using his bow, but rather than just a simple damage multiplier you can unlock tons of different attack styles, ranging from dropping a hail of arrows from above to firing three in a shotgun-style spread from one bow.
The mage is particularly enjoyable towards the latter end of his game as his attacks become increasingly over-the-top and outlandish. Firing screen-filling blobs of ice or causing full-blown earthquakes is definitely impressive to watch and helps add to the sense of accomplishment once you have played enough to gain your character the necessary skills.
The crux of the Dragon's Dogma combat comes from the "pawn" system. As in most RPGs, they form your in-game party. You start with one pawn who will stay with you throughout the game and can be customised to the same degree as your own player. On top of that there is a sort of pawn Facebook, accessible from in-game rune stones. Once inside other players' pawns - or randomly generated ones, depending on whether you are connected to the internet or not - will appear for you to recruit. You can even share pawn creations through Facebook and Twitter.
The pawn system would fall flat on its face, if Dragon's Dogma wasn't so damn hard. Having a balanced party is absolutely vital, otherwise you will find yourself being culled by even the puniest of enemies. Pawns aren't stupid either - they will fill their role as either a fighting frontman or ranged strider.
We haven't mentioned Dragon's Dogma's story yet for a good reason. With such a great gameplay setup we didn't want to distract from the game. Sadly though Dragon's Dogma doesn't fare anywhere near as well when it comes to story.
A sort of amalgamation of Western RPG cliches, the story in Dragon's Dogma is fairly forgettable from the outset. After a battle with a dragon, the game's lead character Arisen has his heart yanked out. The dragon then challenges you, essentially, to get it back. What follows is a romp across countryside and castle peppered with characters boasting slightly cringeworthy accents and spurting hammy dialogue.
Apart from sounding fairly stupid and repeating themselves frequently, the game's pawns are the story highlight. They constantly natter about things in the world around them - things like, "I have been here before" or "tackle this enemy with fire". Useful stuff that adds life and flavour to setting.
Some facial animations do a particularly good job of making the story sound slightly stupid. Characters have the usual video game eye issues and lip synching could be better but it's mostly forgivable.
We've already mentioned that Dragon's Dogma has a few issues with the way it looks. First, you are going to want this game on PS3 because the Xbox version is laggy with fairly nasty frame-rate drops at random moments. Second, we found ourselves turning the brightness up high because at "night" you can see virtually nothing.
This is an intended gameplay effect, clearly, and does add to a lot to the atmosphere of the game. This is also when the game is at its best in terms of looks, with a clever lighting engine that casts all sorts of shadows and colours.
Animations are truly stellar and some of the best we have seen in a RPG, as are a lot of the enemy models. It's possible to scale some of the larger enemies in Dragon's Dogma, resulting in a Shadow of the Colossus style battle. These baddies look great with detailed and inventive designs. Armour choices later in the game and the more powerful attacks are also incredible when you first pull them off.
Dragon's Dogma is so much fun that we can forgive the majority of its shortcomings. We sighed when we fired the game up and some bad Japanese rock began playing. Our fears that it might be yet another game full of silly character names and androgynous looking leads were soon put to rest. Lag can cause issues with a near-flawless combat system, but not enough to be a genuine irritation.
This is a title with a refreshing sense of adventure. Setting off into the night not knowing whether your band of pawns will make it back to the safety of the castle is just as rewarding as taking on the likes of Dark Souls. In fact, we would consider putting Dragon's Dogma on the same level if it were just that bit more polished. A step in the right direction, and a game with so much potential, it makes us excited about a sequel.