Hands-on preview: Dragon’s Dogma (Xbox 360)

Dragon’s Dogma is an epic fantasy RPG that is shaping up to be Capcom’s most Westernised effort yet

THQ, Capcom’s local distributor, recently held a closed media event to showcase the latest build of its upcoming open world RPG, Dragon’s Dogma. PC World was one of the selected publications invited to an exclusive one-on-one sessions with Capcom development strategy and support senior manager and director of creative direction and execution, Hideaki Itsuno, where the unique features and gameplay of Dragon’s Dogma were personally demonstrated ahead of the game's official release.

The First Hour

Dragon’s Dogma is coming out on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but the version that was demonstrated was a preliminary build on PlayStation 3. The unique feature of the PlayStation 3 version is that the game installs itself onto the hard drive while you are playing it, so there is no need to do a lengthy install before getting started with the game, as is normal with titles these days. However, the Xbox 360 version will not have this feature, due to the existence of the Xbox 360 Arcade bundle that has no hard drive, but Itsuno assured us that users are able to install the game manually from within the main menu screen.

According to Itsuno, Dragon’s Dogma is Capcom’s first attempt at a "real action RPG," and thus the developer is putting a significant amount of its own resources behind the game to ensure that it meets both its own and players’ expectations. The gameplay is focused around the player’s party, which consists of the player’s avatar, known as “the arisen” in the game, and three party members, which are referred to as pawns. The story is the game revolves around the player attempting to retrieve their heart from a dragon that has stolen it, and to achieve your goal, you need to acquire more and more powerful pawns, a race of humanoid beings, to be able to face and defeat the dragon.

Out of the three pawns in your party, one is a permanent one and the remaining two are interchangeable during the course of your quest. As for your own avatar, the game features a robust character creation tool that allows the player to tweak all aspects of the design, whether it is the gender, features, build and more. The player can also create their permanent pawn, as they will remain with you throughout the entire quest. Despite being playable off-line, Dragon’s Dogma is designed with an Internet connection in mind, as a critical part of the game comes down to recruiting and swapping the two non-permanent pawns in your party.

A living world

The actual game world is brimming with NPCs that can be interacted with at varying degrees by the player. More importantly, there are always pawns that can be approached and interacted with. When you talk with a pawn, you are able to check out their statistics and whether they are a good fit for your party. If they are, you can then recruit them. Pawns collect knowledge as they fight enemies, and the more knowledge they have about certain enemies, the more powerful and aggressive they are in combating those enemies. Knowledge also extends to how to access quests, locations and regions, so the player can keep an eye on those as well.

The player has the ability to enlist new pawns into their party as many times they want, but there can only be two non-permanent pawns in the party at any given time. Thus, if the player wants to recruit a new pawn, an existing pawn in the party must be let go. The pawn you have let go is able to wander the game world and be recruited by other players who are online, who can then rate their own experiences with the pawn. Rating and evaluation is done through a set of phrases that ensures compatibility amongst various languages.

Although the player can recruit pawns out in the game world, another quick and effective way to acquire them is to use the “rift stone” to warp into a pawn recruitment area called “the rift.” The pawn system is heavily reliant on an Internet connection, as other people’s pawns are stored on servers. The player can search for pawns in various categories, such as by top rated pawns, special pawns, search by online ID, and pawns of players of who have borrowed your pawns in the past. The special pawns deserve a mention, as Itsuno hopes that skilled players, such as video game journalists, will have their pawn available in the special category of the rift, while in Japan the pawn belonging to a celebrity may be featured.

Quest to level up

When searching for regular pawns, it can be done by XP level, as well as by skills, occupation, gender and other options. If the pawn is the same level or below the player, they can be recruited for free, but those of a higher level require an increasing amount of the in-game currency, rift crystals (RC). The way your pawns work is that if you send them out into the game world, they get experience when questing with other characters. But that experience will not be passed onto the player, and instead it gets converted into RC.

When the player has selected several candidate pawns that they are thinking of recruiting, they can be summoned into the rift and then interacted with in the same way as in the game world. If you find a pawn or two that you like, you can enlist them and then return back to the game world with your updated party. When you let your old pawns out into the game world, it is then up to you to find ways to promote them so they can continue to bring you RC and gifts from other players.

The game features an in-game camera that the player can use to take a photo of the pawn and then easily share it on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. The JPG photo also contains detailed data and statistics about the character that will show up for other players who look at the image. The other main outlet for promotion of your character is the game’s pawn community, where other players can check out whether your pawn is right for them.

The limitations with the Xbox 360’s dashboard means that photos can not be saved on the console and need to be immediately uploaded to Facebook, but the PlayStation version is able to save the images to the hard drive. Twitter is not supported on Xbox 360 version of the game while the PlayStation 3 is able to connect to both social networks.

Full of custimisation

The game is flexible in letting the player change the occupation of the avatar, so if someone wants to change from a swordsman to a bow-wielding ranger, they can. Armour customisation is quite intricate and makes use of layers, so the player can put as much or as little armour as they want on their avatar. However, the more armour a player wears, the slower the avatar runs and reacts in battle. Fortunately, the weight of each armor piece and in-game item is listed, so the player is able to keep track of what they want to have and what to leave behind to ensure their player is both agile and protected.

The player’s avatar is able to stop by an inn and go to sleep, and during that time the player’s pawns go off and do some adventuring with other players. When the avatar wakes up, the pawns will return with RC and items that they picked up in their questing. While Itsuno admitted that abuse of your pawns by players, such as stripping them of all their armour and items before returning the pawn back to you, is inevitable, the pawn lending system has been designed that all prior items will be automatically returned to your when your pawn returns to you. Any additional armour, items or inappropriate clothing worn by the pawn, such as a bikini, when it is returned to you can be kept.

Once the player and the party are ready for battle, the next step consists of finding enemies in the game world and engaging them. Running is done by clicking down the left analogue stick, but there is a stamina bar that will decrease as you run. Fortunately, if your pawns are in the vicinity, they will help you recover your stamina, though if your avatar has a lot of armour and weight, it will take longer to recover stamina. Thus, your decision to have a light or heavily armoured character will determine your agility and stamina in battle.

Hero in action

Itsuno demonstrated a battle with a stone golem in an open area of the game world. The golem’s body was covered in hot spots of purple energy, which were actually weak points that needed to be attacked. Utilising the bow and arrow, the individual weak spots were targeted and shot to decrease the enemy’s life from a distance. The player is also able to grab onto large enemies such as the golem and climb over to their weak spots, which can then be attacked from a close range. Attacking the weak spots is useful in causing the enemy to stagger so the player can dish out further damage. However, when the golem recovers from the stagger, it will go berserk and will cause more damage to your party.

Pawns can be controlled by the player in battle with preset commands. If a pawn falls in combat, the player needs to revive them soon or risk them dying and returning to the rift. Once all of the weak spots on the enemy are destroyed, it will fall down and leave behind rare and useful items for the player to pick up and use for future battles.

The verdict

Capcom is no newcomer to the action RPG genre, having already achieved success with its Monster Hunter series. Dragon’s Dogma has many similarities to Kingdoms of Alamur: Reckoning, more so than Skyrim, though considering those games only came out recently, it seems to be more of a case of coincidence than homage. The overall design and presentation of Dragon’s Dogma is also very uncharacteristic of a Japanese developer such as Capcom, as its design sensibility and menu layout makes it feel more like a game that has been designed by a studio in the U.S. or Europe. Capcom has been actively pursuing a global push for its games in recent years, but Dragon’s Dogma feels like the most Westernised game to have ever come from the company.

The core of the game is the pawn system, which feels like a social network for in-game characters, and the success of the game will largely depend on how players resonate with this feature. On the surface the pawn system seems like a compelling feature that adds a new dimension to the RPG experience, and while it seems that Capcom has implemented it successfully into the game experience, it will be up to the game’s marketing team to effectively communicate the feature and benefits to players.

If it was not for the pawn system, Dragon’s Dogma ran the risk of being bunched in together with Kingdoms of Alamur: Reckoning, but the inclusion of the pawns makes the game compelling. The preview build showed a lot of potential, so it will be interesting to see how the final version of the game will deliver.

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World
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