You have to hand it to Capcom: it's releasing Dragon's Dogma at just the right time. Six months after The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and ahead of the traditional summer drought, it has the PS3 adventure landscape all to itself. Thankfully it's got quality as well as good timing.
In development for three years with a supposedly enormous budget, Dragon's Dogma comes from some of Capcom's biggest talent — director Hideaki Itsuno worked on the Devil May Cry series and producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi has worked on the Resident Evil series since it started. You'll pick up on tiny touches of Capcom design throughout, with a glow to items you can pick up (including herbs), fast and fluid combat and preset nicknames to give your character from practically every Capcom game of note.
Early comparisons to Capcom's big action-adventure series Monster Hunter are only surface-deep. Yes, you slay giant monsters and use loot to upgrade your weapons and armour, but that is where the similarities end.
Gransys is an expansive world to explore right from the start; you don't unlock new areas, you simply walk into them. The only barrier to your progress across the map is the strength of your opponents — which is never indicated — so exploration becomes an intriguing balance of risk and reward. Do you choose to tackle the group of bandits ahead, not knowing if they'll wipe you out or crumble with ease? Death means reverting to your last save, potentially undoing important progress, and you soon learn never to rush into combat. It's easy to see where the Demon's Souls comparisons started.
Quests, too, carry no indication of their difficulty, but the ability to have multiple active quests means you can flit between them as you please. Some are persistent goals — kill 20 boars, find 45 seeker's tokens — while others fall into familiar territory of extermination, fetch quests, escorts and so on. The outcomes of some quests have repercussions later in the game: deciding which book to give Steffen, for instance, plays an important part in a later battle. We're not talking Bethesda or BioWare levels here, but that makes the occasional ripple all the more surprising.
One area you do have full governance over is character creation. The editing suite isn't quite bordering on sports game territory but you can customise facial features, stance, voice, musculature, stature and more, with Capcom claiming physical features can have a big influence on your character's capabilities. We did notice more muscular characters could carry more items without being weighed down, but that's about it.
Still, the ability to craft a character in such detail is welcome in an adventure game (Capcom claims it's not an RPG), doubly so when you add in the game's flagship Pawn system. Pawns are non-playable characters who support you in battle, and you can recruit up to three during your adventure, swapping them around at Riftstones. At the outset you create a main pawn using the same editor; this pawn will stay by your side for the entire game, and will gain experience, quest knowledge and skills as you do. It's interesting to be able to create a secondary character to complement your own tastes, and while it would have been great to quest with other players online — Dragon's Dogma is a solo adventure — the artificial intelligence is good enough.
That's not to say there aren't online options. Your main pawn can be hired by other players, and it'll bring back items, experience points and quest knowledge, along with an optional rating and message. It's quite a thrill to have your AI helper assisting players in all corners of the world, benefiting you with information on monster weak points and how to proceed in a quest. Best of all, the whole thing is automatic — simply sleep at an inn and you'll discover your pawn's distant progress. Social networking features mean you can brag about your pawn or ask for others via Twitter or Facebook, though only time will tell how useful that proves.
A team of skilled pawns keeps combat fresh and unpredictable. While a solo fighter could simply repeat the same moves to win, your comrades will grant buffs and debuffs, call out advice and hold monsters for you to attack. Nine available character classes keep the variety going, and you and your main pawn can change vocation during your adventure so you don't have to restart to switch from mage to warrior. Vocations are split into three categories — basic, advanced and hybrid — to open up plenty of options: blend support magic with strength and play a mystic knight, or use the assassin's poison, explosives and close-up attack prowess to win. Sticking with one class opens new skills and abilities, but these aren't lost if you change vocation, so you're free to chop and change how you see fit.
Fighting mobs is entertaining for a while, but dotted throughout the game and generally found at night are the real enemies: big mythical beasts. Ogres, cyclopes, griffins, chimeras, hydras and more all appear, each with unique attack patterns and weak spots to exploit, but the ability to climb up them freshens the familiar forms. Clinging onto a cyclops' head to stab its eye as it stumbles around a castle courtyard is later eclipsed by riding around on a griffin's wings, and you can target the chimera's goat and snake heads to reduce its attacking ability.
There aren't too many negatives to level against Dragon's Dogma. It's big, it's surprisingly addictive and it's wide open for you to explore. There is something missing though; whether it's the disappointingly generic visual design or so-so story — your soul has been stolen by a dragon, and there's something about a mysterious duke in there — it never quite finds top gear.
Dragon's Dogma is a real success for Capcom — consistently entertaining and compelling, it's a pleasure to explore its world. The pawn system and variety of skills and vocations keeps combat enjoyable even after dozens of hours, and while multiplayer would have been the icing on the cake, there's more than enough here to entertain a single player for weeks. A solid and worthwhile purchase.