" If Capcom can... deliver on the promise of their open world, RPG fans should have another game to look forward to when it launches this May."
Last week, Capcom released a demo of their new open-world action RPG, Dragon's Dogma, on PSN and Xbox Live. Being an avid fan of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, the dark fantasy atmosphere definitely caught my attention when the game was first announced, so I was quite excited to have a chance to put the game through its paces. What I found was promising, but there are definitely some issues that need to be cleaned up before release. In addition, the demo doesn't incorporate any of the supposed survival horror elements, nor does it give much of a look at the game's open-world exploration.
What the demo does offer are two sequences: a linear prologue quest that serves as a tutorial to the game mechanics, and a second that drops you into an open field and tasks you with taking down a large flying griffin. There's also a character editing suite that allows you to set up your character in any way you see fit. The editor includes the standard options you'd expect, and includes quite a few different knobs and dials to fiddle with. You can play as a male or female, adult or child, fat or skinny, and all manner of in-betweens, and there are plenty of options for things like scars, wrinkles, and such. Also notable is the fact that any customizations you make to your character in the demo can then be imported into the full game when it launches on May 20.
The first thing I noticed about the game is its visual style. The prologue sequence's gritty stone walls and dusty caverns are bathed in darkness, and your character's lantern casts an eerie shadow behind you. The green fields of the second sequence seem expansive, but the immediacy of the griffin battle doesn't lend you much time to explore or take much in. On a technical level, the game works, but there are some framerate issues throughout both sequences. The animations for combat actions are meaty and punishing, but the lightness of your character takes away from the sense of weight that the Souls games are notable for.
Also unlike the Souls titles, your character can freely jump and climb over the environment. In the demo, there were a few occasions when traveling off the beaten path led to secret items, but the game's open world wasn't truly showcased by either sequence. However, with the platforming basics in place, it seems like there could be some enjoyable verticality and secret-hunting in store for the final release.
The interface is clean and utilitarian. The left side of the screen showcases your health, stamina, and minimap, with the right being loaded with all your various button commands. Every button on the controller is used, with each weapon and shield offering several different combinations of heavy, low, and special attacks (which use stamina). It's a bit much at first, but after a few minutes it becomes relatively easy to work with. Combat as it is in the demo is very easy, and can usually be won simply by hammering on the attack button. In a nod to Shadow of the Colossus, though, bigger enemies can be scaled, which leads to some reasonably enjoyable sequences during which you're repeatedly stabbing foes as you hang on for dear life.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the enemies in the demo have any way to throw you off, so the two bosses in the demo (the three-headed manticore and the flying griffin) go down without much resistance – once you grab on to them, your stamina lasts long enough that you can knock off huge chunks of their health before you're forced to get down. Combined with the ground combat, which is easily won by mashing either attack button, fighting in Dragon's Dogma left me a bit concerned – with some tweaks to make it more challenging and demand more strategy, it could be a lot of fun, but as it is, it's a bit of a snore. Additionally, I ran into a number of goofy combat bugs during my play time, including one where I was stuck under the environment, latched on to an enemy that had fallen on its side, leaving me invulnerable and absurd-looking.
Your allies, known as "pawns," are cultivated from other players online, and you can have up to three at any given time. One of these is unique to your character, created via the same editor as yours. There's a nice element of cooperation here, with allies being able to revive one another, immobilize smaller enemies for an attack of opportunity, and assist with various heals and buffing spells. Again, due to the rather brainlessly easy combat, however, this is largely unnecessary. Despite this being a seemingly intentional setup for multiplayer, it doesn't seem as though the final game will offer traditional online play, and will instead only incorporate other players in the form of their pawns.
The demo doesn't, unfortunately, give much of a look at the role-playing elements of the game either. The final version will reportedly include a large open world with a day/night cycle and over 200 NPCs going about their daily lives, as well as some survival horror elements. Combat-wise, there's a framework in place with many strategic options to choose from, especially given that the full game will include a robust selection of classes to play around with as well. If Capcom can get the difficulty tightened up to make that strategy actually necessary, as well as deliver on the promise of their open world, RPG fans should have another game to look forward to when it launches this May.
"The potential for greatness is certainly here..."
At first glance, Dragon's Dogma appears to be a game we've seen before, as it's easy to draw comparisons to Cavia's Drakengard or a slew of Western RPGs. Capcom is touting features such as the game's vast open world, deep (yet micromanagement-free) combat system, and day/night system that alters your interactions and encounters with the world. Behind the scenes, Dragon's Dogma is led by key staff members behind Resident Evil 4 and Devil May Cry 4, and the game employs Capcom's own MT Framework engine (previously used for Resident Evil 5 and Lost Planet 2). So if the detailed graphics and lighting effects seem familiar, that would be why.
Sadly, in the two available demo scenarios at E3, I only got a glimpse of what Dragon's Dogma is meant to offer. The first demo dropped me in a dark dungeon in the shoes of Arisen (yes, that's really his name) and a companion. I immediately pulled out a lantern to light the way, which was not only helpful, but proved to show off the aforementioned lighting technology. Apparently I was seeking a dragon - or a "wyrm" as your companion calls it. It doesn't take long to find, though instead of battling it, I had to block or run from its fire attacks and dive further into the dungeon. As I progressed, I fought off some simple dungeon denizens and came across two more companions (that Capcom officially refers to as "pawns") that brought my party to four people. These pawns do two things: assist Arisen with a variety of physical attacks and magical spells, and talk incessantly. The three of them would constantly be talking and shouting advice, which is annoying enough itself, but they would also talk over each other, so you end up just hearing random words here and there. Hopefully the amount of pawn chatter will be adjusted by release, as even the combat advice's usefulness was dulled as I attempted to ignore the cacophony.
The end of the dungeon pits the party against a huge chimera, and it's here that we first saw some variety in combat. Up until this point, battles were mindless hack-and-slash fare, but bosses have multiple damage areas. As your peanut gallery will remind you, defeating the goat head of the chimera will prevent it from casting magic, though it's easier to get near the boss by first chopping off the snake tail. Apparently it was possible to get on top of the chimera and attack the goat, though I didn't see anyone accomplish this feat, as the 'grab' command caused Arisen to grab the beast's leg, not climb atop it. As it walked around, you'd hang on similar to Shadow of the Colossus and hack away. I believe attacking the legs would cause the chimera to fall over, but it may have been one of the pawns' attacks or spells helping. In any case, once the chimera was on its side, the goat head was vulnerable. Once defeated, all that was left was the lion portion, which fell easy enough to our pawn's fire magic.
Demo 2 was set in a huge open field during a griffin attack. Here I had to rely on both Arisen's bow & arrow, then, when the griffin touched down, switch to sword & shield. With the bow relegated to the shoulder buttons and the face buttons controlling your melee weapons, there's no complicated weapon switching procedure, and both long- and short-range weapons are instantly accessible. I greatly appreciated this, as it made combat flow smoothly. Like the chimera, it was possible to grab the griffin by the leg and continue to slash at it, even if it took flight.
Neither demo scenario managed to show off a wide variety of the game's proposed content. Besides the aforementioned open world, Dragon's Dogma is said to include hundreds of fully-voiced characters to interact with, and a deep gameplay system in which each facet of your character's equipment will affect how you move and fight. Instead, we got a focused lesson on the essence of combat. Combat is enjoyable enough (if not very unique), and hopefully the strategic elements of the boss fights will be properly exploited in the final game, as it will go a long way in providing something different than yet another basic hack-and-slash action RPG. The potential for greatness is certainly here based on these two encounters, and Capcom seems to have high hopes for the title, going so far as referring to Dragon's Dogma as an "exciting new franchise" and not simply a new title. I'll be keeping an eye on it leading up to its early 2012 release.