We're not just referring to the title when we say that Dragon's Dogma is an interesting beast. This upcoming Capcom game is an original IP from a publisher that's well known for squeezing the most it can out of its established franchises, which is certainly novel in and of itself. But perhaps more interesting is the combination of setting and genre. Despite the fact that this is an open-world fantasy game in the vein of the Elder Scrolls series, it's not a role-playing game; rather, it's a frenetic sword-and-sorcery action game. Thus, leveling up and rolling invisible dice take a back seat to using quick reflexes and clobbering the ever-loving snot out of anything unfortunate enough to get caught in your way.
Allow us to clarify. We're talking about a game where you can set a goblin on fire, pick him up, and throw him into a group of his goblin buddies like a living Molotov cocktail. It's also a game where you can jump onto a griffin soaring majestically in the air and then stab it in the head so many times that it falls back down to earth in a sad heap of feathers and twisted limbs. It's almost if the minds behind Devil May Cry made a game heavily inspired by Lord of the Rings. And when we say "almost" we mean "exactly" because Dragon's Dogma director Hideaki Itsuno and producer Hiroyuki Koboyashi also held those same respective titles on Devil May Cry 4. You don't have to dig deep to find that high-action influence here.
Other Capcom influences are on display as well. The boss battle we played had echoes of both Monster Hunter and Lost Planet 2 with its setup of four ragtag adventurers going at it against a single massive boss. In this case, it was the aforementioned soaring griffin that came after a little warm-up against some goblins. The game has three player classes: mage, fighter, and strider. We played as the latter, which is a nimble fellow skilled in archery and dual-wielded short swords. Lacking any glowing orange weak spots, the griffin boss fight was an open-ended affair where we could use any number of strategies. Ours was quite straightforward: Pester it with arrows (which can be charged for extra power) until it gets angry enough to come down and swipe at us. That's when we exploited one of the game's cooler features, which was the ability to grab onto any part of the boss's body and climb atop it. Even though it soon took off from the ground and began flying through the air, we cautiously climbed across its back until we were perched on its head. Then, we unsheathed our short sword and went to town on its face.
It was actually one of our teammates who shouted that friendly bit of advice on where to plant our blade once we began to climb onto the griffin. These AI-controlled teammates are called pawns, and you're able to run around the gameworld recruiting the ones who you believe will have the best combat skills and knowledge of monster weaknesses. Capcom wasn't quite ready to spill the beans on whether you can swap out these pawns for human players using online co-op, but it would frankly seem like a missed opportunity, given that this game is already laying the groundwork with some very interesting teamwork mechanics. You've got the usual options, like reviving a fallen ally or using the mage class to buff a teammate's abilities. But you've also got stuff like being able to hold back a goblin's arms and let your teammate wail on him like a schoolyard bully, as well as the ability to give your teammate a boost into the air so that he or she can grab onto the griffin hovering just out of reach. Certainly the strategy of knowing which pawns to bring into your party could be compelling in its own right, but there's something about the game's four-player structure and potential for combat teamwork that just screams co-op.
Of course, combat isn't the entirety of this game because it does offer an open-world setting where you'll be spending plenty of time simply getting to know the landscape. But, first, we should mention that it is a very pretty landscape. Dragon's Dogma is running on the same engine as Lost Planet 2, which was certainly one of the more visually impressive games of the past year. While the camera was a bit problematic during the frenetic boss fight we played, the game itself is already rather pleasing to the eyes. So what sort of sights will you be seeing as you explore? Well, besides the verdant pasture where that poor griffin was slain, Capcom also showed us what some of the day-to-day city life looks like. There are several cities in the game, and the one we saw was one of the largest, complete with separate neighborhoods for the upper, middle, and lower classes. It's in these types of places that you can interact with non-player characters, recruit pawns, and try to avoid the seedier elements that show themselves during the wee hours of the game's day-night cycle.
The big question we have about the open-world aspect of Dragon's Dogma has to do with just how much incentive there will be to go exploring off the beaten path. After all, open-world games that lack hidden surprises and the proverbial buried treasure outside of the main story missions tend to only have one real difference from linear games: extending the amount of traveling you do between story events. We know Dragon's Dogma is more action game than RPG, but does that mean it won't have a robust loot system where you're rewarded for venturing off into the woods in search of some great hidden weapon or coin to trade in for something you really want? That's probably wishful thinking. Perhaps more realistic is the option to learn additional details about the main story by going off in search of small villages outside of the larger cities. We suppose time will tell.
These are the sort of questions we're left with about Dragon's Dogma. What we've seen of the game has us cautiously optimistic, but there are a great many questions left to be answered to see if the game is going to live up to the potential it's showing in these early stages. We'll see if Capcom's new open-world fantasy action game can deliver when it's released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 next year.