There Be Dragons Here (But Not in This Demo)
Today, Capcom at long last treated international audiences to a taste of their coming-soon action RPG, Dragon’s Dogma. Xbox Live and PlayStation Network users were able to download the free demo as of today, which granted a sneak peek at two of the game’s missions, played with two different character classes, as well as get a jump on creating an avatar and a pawn – your main NPC party member – that will transfer into the game proper upon purchase next month. For those interested in the game, and who have yet to give the demo a whirl of their own, we’re here to put your fears to rest and soothe your souls: Dragon’s Dogma has potential to be a bona fide summer blockbuster.
What’s in a Name?
The character creator itself was nothing we haven’t seen before; pre-set body types and faces, with the option to manually adjust a multitude of individual facets of your character’s appearance, including hair style, skin color, facial hair, makeup, and scarring. Of note was the fact that, rather than a slider to extend/lengthen/move certain features, a look has to be selected from a kind of drop-down list, which cosmetically depicts all the options and lets you choose your favorite. It also seemed that the list of available body types was pretty comprehensive, including some comically disproportionate figures well suited to specific roles, like tanks or rogues; different races were also implied with specific body types strongly resembling halflings or sporting elven characteristics, for instance. Apart from the normal appearance settings, more unexpected facets like age (which was represented through certain facial settings), voice, and body stance were also customizable. One drawback was the naming system; I would have preferred a list of suggested names to choose from rather than being forced to come up with my own. All in all, the character creator was nothing to write home about, though I found it refreshing that the developers did scale back the ludicrous amount of appearance settings found in other games, focusing on a few key aspects of the look (who needs four different tones for the cheekbone blush and five sliders controlling earlobe stretch and droop?).
No Dungeons, No Dragons
Now on to the meat of the demo: the gameplay missions. Both scenarios – seeking out the Chimera within a dragon’s cave and taking down a fearsome Griffon on an open plain – have you cut through a few small mobs of goblins and similar creatures, and then engage the fearsome beast in a fight to the death. Players are placed in a group of four – yourself and three NPC pawns. Since you’re taking on the role of the Fighter and the Strider, respectively, all magic usage is exclusively handled by your pawns. Though both classes are melee-based fighters, the differences in attack speed were easily apparent, with the Strider performing quick and agile slashes, while the Fighter visibly put all the brunt of his force into each heavy blow. The classes played well, and are instantly familiar if you’ve played any hack ‘n’ slash or action RPG titles of late at all. However, I was a bit dismayed that no magic user was available to try out at present, when the spells have clearly been implemented in the game (as was apparent from my pawns’ ample use of both healing and offensive spells).
The pawns played the role of a AI-controlled party there to back you up well. While you can issue basic squad-style commands such as “Stay” or “Help” via the directional buttons, very little micro-management was actually required during my playtime. Spells were cast efficiently, and my pawns automatically performed such helpful actions as trying to boost me into the air to catch hold of an enemy, or grabbing goblins and pinning harpies to the floor, then calling to me to “rain steel upon them” while they held the beasts in place. When such an event occurs, the game helps by slowing the action and zooming in on the ally calling for your help, showing you where your blade is needed. It’s just a shame that the pawns weren’t able to go beyond being helpful party members in the demo, and entrench themselves in what their main purpose in the game will be: to go into other players’ games to level up and expand their skills. But, of course, such are the ways of a limited demo. One thing’s for sure, though: the pawns talk. Nonstop. Sometimes, I’d have three NPC chattering repeating lines at me simultaneously. The ultimate goal of the developers was to have the NPCs provide useful info from their worldly travels that’ll help traverse the dangerous dungeons you encounter, but in the demo, it came across more as a pack of excited hyenas, having a kaffeeklatsch.
Finally, let me discuss the actual combat itself. As I’ve mentioned, the demo was one-sidedly focused on melee combat, though pawns contributed on the magical front. Both Chimera and Griffon are large fearsome beasts, and come at your group no holds barred. My first glimpse of the Griffon was across a vast field, sort of hovering in mid-air. As I attempted to approach it, it suddenly sped away, only to blindside me from the right, plowing into my group after spear-diving from up high and scattering my collective troops into all directions. Pretty effective opening tactic, I had to admit begrudgingly. For the rest, trying out the game’s “Grab” mechanic – whereas your character grabs a hold of a monster’s limb, or perhaps a tuft of fur, and holds on for dear life, letting you swing and stab your weapon when it isn’t trying to buck you off – was an absolute hoot! Clinging onto the Griffon’s ankle as it took off into the sky, and even climbing up its leg onto its back to inflict some airborne damage, was really reminiscent of some of the epic moments of Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus, only with Dragon’s Dogma, such maneuvers are implemented into the character’s routine moveset. At one point, my entire party of four was clinging on to the Chimera’s sides, holding on for dear life as it charged across its cavern, trying in vain to shake us off. I also got a first-hand look at how the battle can be customized by using this mechanic, as I was able to finally dispatch the Chimera by first clinging to its venom-spewing snake tail and meting out some much-needed punishment to it. The end result was that, for the rest of the battle, my Chimera was short its tail, which lay uselessly in a heap on the floor, severed.
There is one thing that still gives me a bit of pause about the battle system at this point. It’s hard to know how much luck and random choices by your NPCs play into each victory. Let me explain. The first time I faced each of the two bosses, my entire party was wiped out after an intense, lengthy battle. However, coming at each battle a second time, for all intents and purposes as inexperienced in the game’s battle system as I had been previously, I was able to best both the beasts within 5 minutes or less, using the same strategies I had used before. While I’d like to believe that my skill as gamer is just that extreme, I’m somehow convinced that other factors, from random NPC choices to blind dumb luck, played a larger role in my victory. That is something I’d like to see diminished a bit before the game’s ultimate release, so as not to cheapen player skill by placing too heavy an emphasis on uncontrollable variables during battle.
While the demo was over way too soon, and won’t do near enough to bridge the gap remaining before the game’s release, it did highlight some things well worth looking forward to, as well as an area or two I hope Capcom is taking another look at and smoothing out before May 22 rolls around.