Dragon's Dogma Preview (Xbox360)

What if the Japanese were to make an RPG heavily inspired by Western RPG culture? That’s the question Capcom appears to be answering with Dragon’s Dogma, a game that’s more heavily inspired by the likes of Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age than it is Dragon Quest.

What you get is monsters that look like they’re out of Middle Earth mingling with monsters equally as influenced by ancient mythology and a European Middle Ages slant to building design and aesthetics – though it’s all filtered through Japan.

What’s going on in he-OH GOD

Just like anything filtered, it’s still definitely made up of those very Western sum parts, but the flavour given by that filter is the thing that interested me most in my extended time with a non-final build of Dragon’s Dogma.

Japanese RPGs usually throw you into the role of a well-defined protagonist, but Dragon’s Dogma bucks the trend by offering up a character customization engine that puts most others to shame. The amount of depth on offer is borderline obscene, moving from the obvious like height and weight through to the more nuanced like a large selection of voice samples and a really stunning amount of actually significantly different hair.

Just about every aspect of your character can be cosmetically tweaked, and armour equipped in game isn’t just about statistics – it shows up on your character, defining their look. Touches like this serve to make loot all the more valuable.

The normal range of RPG classes are present – Warriors, Sorcerer and Ranger. Progression is open-ended and particularly friendly to folks who might later on want to respec – a nice touch in a game so customization-focused.

Customization isn’t just reserved for the player character, though, and systems including the impressive physical appearance editor are rolled into one of the game’s most important systems – the Pawn system.

Pawns are essentially warriors who you draw from an ethereal land to fight alongside you. Rather than summon gigantic dragons or mythical gods the game has you summoning in regular looking warriors who have abilities similar to yours. Your ‘Main Pawn’ can be customized as much as your lead character, and serves as a key AI-controlled ally throughout the game, ever-present.

The customization here is in many ways even deeper than on the protagonist, as Pawns have personalities of their own. You can determine if you want a brash, bloodthirsty pawn or a more defensive, even-headed one.

You rock around with a party of four, so in addition to yourself and your main pawn you can bring in two other less flexible pawns. Players offline will draw these from an on-disc database of sorts, but if you’re connected to Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network you’ll be able to pull these from the web, essentially getting copies of the Main Pawns of friends and complete strangers, giving you a taste of how others have built out their characters.

There are, of course, dragons. With dogma

The game twists in interesting ways with the way in which pawns are shared. If a pawn you’re with has already been on a quest you’re undertaking with another player, they’ll impart tips and warnings about what’s going on and what lies ahead to you.

If your main pawn finds its way into the game of a friend or random stranger online, they too will return with information of the areas and places they’ve explored on their journeys away from you. Pawns with no knowledge will of course be of less help.

The pawns are talky folk, and the game gives off constant information on how you’re doing through them. Rather than talk about monster weak-points in menus, Pawns will shout out where you need to attack, and get excited when an enemy is getting particularly battered. There’s a danger here of the pawns getting annoyingly talky and an even bigger danger of irritatingly repetitive dialogue in the final build, but in my time with the game this wasn’t too big of an issue.

The combat is real-time, with special moves performed by hitting face buttons. Extra moves can be accessed through holding a trigger, which changes what each face button does, turning four inputs into significantly more. It works well, and is as fast and responsive as its Western counterparts – a surprise in a Japanese title.

How hands-on the pawns are in battle is really pleasant to see, and in an age when incredibly stupid AI who do nothing is still an issue, in this game they’re so active that they’ll even steal kills from you if you’re not pulling your weight. They’ll heal, buff, debuff and do everything you can, all whilst calling out often useful warnings or advice.

It’s a strategy of taking the right pawns into battle and organizing your team well that’ll allow you to take on some of the game’s massive enemies and bosses. Facing down a gigantic rock monster who is entirely optional I died several times, but careful consideration of how to approach the beast quickly rewarded my thinking with better success.

It ends up not only being about character classes and ability spec but about personality – a big, manly, warrior-like pawn kept running in on the gigantic rock man and getting crushed – the key was taking in more defensive, ranged fighters into the battle who had a more patient mindset.

The combat is interesting on its own, but the strategy introduced by the pawn system is what really makes it stand-out and special. With a massive load-free world, and there’s a very Elder Scrolls feel to how you can just walk forever through the map, spotting things in the distance and climbing towards them whilst splattering enemies on the way.

If you want to play as a ranged character, let your pawns get in close

There’s a patient, plodding pacing to the story that feels very Japanese indeed, but the end result is an opportunity to coast through the beautiful, expansive world at a slower rate – and that ends up feeling welcome.

Some of the best meals come when you take two very disparate things and mash them together to create something that, at first thought, might not sound all that good. Dragon’s Dogma may well just turn out to be that – something where that strange choice of flavouring is what makes it special.

Most Anticipated Feature: Seeing Pawns from ‘real’ players pop into my game.

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