The story begins by telling you that dragons are evil incarnate and must be stopped at all costs. The only people capable of taking down a dragon are those known as Arisen'. What exactly are Arisen? They are those that have been touched by a dragon and lived to tell the tale (you'll get a graphic look at what this means in the opening cut-scene). After years of peace, a dragon has once again returned to the world and a new Arisen must rise to the challenge and destroy it for the good of the world. As expected the task falls to you. Happy hunting.
The game opens with a prologue that teaches you the basics of the game by putting you in control of an advanced character nearing the end of their own quest to kill a dragon. You're taught how to block, attack, use special skills and other necessary functions. If you've played an action RPG before you'll know what to expect. You're also introduced to two of the main selling points of the game; pawns and large-scale monsters. Pawns are human-like beings that come down to earth via a rift to support the Arisen. The large-scale monsters include the likes of chimera, ogres, hydra and golems, and are not only artfully-drawn, but also a great deal of fun to fight.
With that done you're free to roam your humble fishing village, acquiring quests along the way. Some quests are simply given to you, while others can be acquired by talking to people (those with quests have an icon above their head), or looking at one of the many notice boards spread throughout the world. Initially the quests are quite simple, like killing a set number of a particular enemy, or finding a lost villager. As you explore more of the world the quests grow into tasks like clearing out dungeons, collecting evidence to vindicate or condemn a suspected criminal, and of course, killing a dragon.
Despite being a single-player game you're never on your own in Dragon's Dogma, and before long you'll get the opportunity to create a pawn of your very own. As with your own character you get to select the appearance and vocation of your pawn, tinkering with everything until you're happy. This pawn is your constant companion and they will level up and learn skills at the same pace as you.
Pawns aren't human, but don't hold that against them as it comes with two handy side effects. Firstly pawns can be revived simply by the Arisen touching them, and secondly you can tell them how to behave and they'll do just that. Do you want a pawn who rushes head long into battle, or one who focuses on healing? Would you like them to be arrogant or more subdued? Whatever you prefer you can set their behavior via a Q&A session, or more directly with items purchased from a store.
There are many benefits to having your pawn hired you earn a heap of rift credits (which are used to hire other pawns), as well as quest and enemy. Quest knowledge is useful because it means that during the quest they've learned about you can ask your pawn for a hint and they'll tell you what to do. Enemy knowledge is useful because it means your pawn knows more about the strength and weaknesses of a particular enemy and can thus attack it more effectively. Generally you'll also receive a gift from the person who hired your pawn, though these gifts are rarely anything special.
It can be hard to get your pawn hired by others, so the game simulates the process if your pawn hasn't been hired, giving you a small amount of rift credits and a gift or two, but no new quest or enemy knowledge. Female fighters and mages seem popular enough, but males and striders are less popular. Giving your pawn a sexy name probably won't hurt your chances of getting them hired either. If you have a friend playing Dragon's Dogma you can hire their pawns for free, giving you a huge helping hand if those pawns are of a higher level than your main character.
With all that set you're ready to go adventuring. One of the first things you'll notice is that your pawns talk to you early and often, telling you where a road leads, how to handle certain enemies, or sounding hesitant if they don't know what to do. Although the banter gets repetitive it does ensure that you never feel alone in your quest, which is welcome in itself.
You'll come across enemies and monsters often in your travels, but more so if you deviate from roads and paths. The wilderness is home to a wide variety of creatures such as wolves, goblins and harpies, not to mention bandits. Each of these enemies presents its own dangers, but none of them compare to the large-scale monsters you'll stumble across.
Early on you'll get to battle a Cyclops and a hydra, and if you happen to take a shot from either one you'll see just how powerful they really are. There are a variety of large-scale monsters throughout the game, including wyrms, chimera, golems and a dragon or two among others, and battling them is among the most fun you'll have while playing Dragon's Dogma.
Although each of these monsters inspires a level of fear, they all have weaknesses that you can learn and target. Depending on your vocation many of these weaknesses cannot be targeted from the ground, so your only choice is to grab hold of them and start climbing. Many of the monsters won't care much for that plan ogres try to fall onto you, the Cyclops will try to wrench you off and throw you into the ground, while hydras will shake wildly in an attempt to throw you off. Persevere though and you may just cut off that hydras head or trick the Cyclops into wrenching off its armour in your stead. Climbing requires stamina though, so make sure you do what you have to before the stamina bar runs out.
Dragon's Dogma is one of those games that, while you'll notice its issues, you'll be too busy having fun to let them bother you over much. It took me over forty hours to finish the game and there's an excellent chance I'll go back for more despite the problems it has. One of the bigger issues I have with the game is that the story is unfocused and it doesn't engage the player until quite a long way in. Also there is no fast travel in the game (though you can teleport to the capital if you buy/find an expensive item), which means you'll have to do everything on foot. If you're the patient type you won't mind spending half an hour getting to your destination every time, but others will find this a bit tedious.
This leads to another issue and that is that there are no random encounters with enemies, rather the same enemies inhabit the same area all the way through the game. This meant that early on in my travels I was endlessly fighting goblins and wolves, and the few times I ran into large-scale monsters I had to run away lest I get obliterated. Certainly the game would benefit from random encounters, more varied enemies and more large-scale monsters to fight. Smaller issues include the pawn AI being questionable, even after redefining their behavior through questions and items. Strangely the game only allows you one save file, which is constantly overwritten. If you make a mistake in a quest, too bad, you won't get a chance to fix it until your next playthrough. It also means you can't start a new game ever unless you delete the one you've already started. I don't think that's a smart move, especially in an RPG.
The sound is one area where Dragon's Dogma excels, with excellent ambient noises, sound effects and apt fantasy-style music. When you walk through a forest you'll hear plenty of birds chirping away, and any time an enemy gets near you're likely to hear them before you see them. Hearing snarls and barks before you know where they're coming from adds a lot of tension and atmosphere to your game. The sound effects are all top-notch, be it a magic spell, the sound of impact or the heat of battle. The music is familiar fantasy fare but suits the game well. There's also the odd bit of electric guitar, and even that somehow fits in well. Voice-acting isn't perfect and all too often pawns and NPCs (especially shopkeepers) repeat themselves, but this is a minor misstep.
As stated in the introduction I consider Dragon's Dogma to be the first genuine surprise of 2012. The combat is action-packed, the game is lengthy and, most importantly, it's a lot of fun. The pawn system is interesting and adds excitement to proceedings, and you'll be positively rapt whenever they get hired. There's no shortage of issues, but for whatever reason these were, for the most part, easily ignored. Most importantly there are easy fixes to most of the issues, which will make Dragon's Dogma 2 highly anticipated by anyone who plays this game. If you enjoy action-adventure games or RPGs then Dragon's Dogma definitely has something to offer, and if you're patient you, like me, may be pleasantly surprised by it.
Review By: Mike Allison