One great thing about making a fantasy game, according to Dragon's Dogma producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi, is that you don't have to explain your terms. Thanks to the universal language of classic fantasy lore, everyone knows what to expect of a mage (wears robes, casts spells) or a dragon (is big, breathes fire). It's a good jumping-off point for a role-playing game. "It's really easy to get into a world like this when it's such a universal concept," says Kobayashi of the setting of Dragon's Dogma: a big, open, Tolkienesque world of sword and sorcery.
Into that world of fantasy genre tropes, Dragon's Dogma brings an original gambit: customisable companion characters called pawns, of which three form the party that follow you around and into battle. Your primary companion character, your main pawn, accompanies you through the whole game. You create him or her in the same way you customise your player character, in a deep, multi-slider character generator, teeming with all the hairstyle options, face and build variables, limb types, tattoos, and skin colours an obsessive amateur character designer could crave. You also select a class for your main pawn and establish their personality by completing a short questionnaire on their behalf. Personality governs your pawn's general AI-driven behaviour in combat.
So far, so what, but here's the hook: the other two pawns aren't created by you but are downloaded from your friends' games. They are the main pawns of other players around the world and can be swapped in and out as you go, letting you pick the right mix of classes for the task at hand. It's a curious online feature--a taste of intersecting gameworlds in an essentially single-player, offline game. We look forward to recruiting the custom abominations of friends who can't take a character creator seriously. If you're playing entirely offline, there is a set of premade pawns to select from.
More than just an online gimmick, pawns are "integral to the story," says Kobayashi-san. Pawns aren't actually human. Though they look and speak like normal people, they have no will of their own--hence all the following you around and doing your bidding. We're told to expect the mysterious origins of the "pawn legion," as well as the reason the pawns will do only your bidding, to become clear over time. Dollars to donuts it has to do with the way your character's story begins: a dragon attacks their sleepy coastal village, plucks out and eats their heart, leaving them improbably alive and with a magic glowing chest scar. The first pawn we encountered, when he popped out of a sudden vortex in the sky, presented a similarly glowing scar on his hand.
So begins Dragon's Dogma, with your newly heartless player character jogging the narrow streets of the village, hitting up locals for quests (fetch this book, deliver this message). In our hands-off presentation of the game, we were skipped ahead, full party of pawns in tow, to a rumble with a stone golem in a rocky valley. Here, Dragon's Dogma showed its colours as an action RPG, with the player character, a magic archer, painting targeting reticles on the big stone beastie and firing away, and the main pawn, a warrior, in support. The two pawns, a mage and a second magic archer, brought up the rear, with the mage chanting healing spells from a safe distance. When the golem was stunned, the whole party piled on, scaling the stone giant to hack at its glowing purple weak spots.
Pawns are on the chatty side in combat, letting you know what they're doing at all times ("I'll scale it and strike from above"), though you can also issue them general orders (attack, fall back) with the directional pad. In our demo, the pawns' AI-powered instincts for self-preservation weren't enough to keep them alive through the long golem fight (that or their player-defined personalities were given to recklessness), but fallen pawns can be revived in battle by the player character.
The game stretches across "a good-sized peninsula, about 40 square kilometres," with fast travel to previously visited locations enabled by a ferrystone item, and it's fully explorable; beyond the golem's valley, a castle loomed invitingly on the horizon. Though the scenery is pleasant and the gameworld extensive, it'll take more than good looks and long walks to set apart a fantasy RPG such as Dragon's Dogma. The benefit of a fantasy setting might be universality, but it comes with competition aplenty. Dragon's Dogma's player-created and shareable pawn characters might just do the trick. We look forward to finding out.