You'd think there'd be more excitement for Dragon's Dogma. Headed by staff responsible for Devil May Cry and Resident Evil, and with interest in RPGs at an all-time high thanks to Skyrim, the upcoming action RPG has generated very little heat in the past year: the game's official Twitter account has around 700 followers, and if not for the packed-in Resident Evil 6 demo we daresay DD would be on even fewer radars. It's a bit strange really, as we've spent the last two weeks exploring a preview version of the game and are happy to say that it's pretty excellent.
Perhaps part of the reason the game's struggling is its generic appearance. A fantasy RPG set in a rich and verdant land, with crumbling castles and enormous dragons — so far, so unremarkable. What's more interesting is the way Capcom innovates within such a tried and true formula to create something fresh and engaging.
Top of the list is the heavy emphasis on action, with real-time combat that feels fluid and varied. There's a wide range of character classes (or "vocations"), from mages and warriors to assassins and rangers. Each has not only a unique play style but a selection of special talents that can be unlocked and improved as you play. It's less a skill tree, more of a skill garden, as you can switch out equipped skills at rest spots to better suit the journey ahead. Going to take down an undead swarm? Sorcerers need holy magic and fire affinity. Travelling at night? Assassins can equip skills to grant them more health and stamina when the sun's down. It's this balance of skills and specialities that keeps fighting interesting even after hours of play.
While you'll likely encounter the same goblins and bandits on your travels, it's the occasional encounters with larger mythical beasts that lingers in the memory. Chimeras, cyclops, griffins and — of course — a dragon all stalk the land, and if you're travelling at night you'll often encounter them by accident, resulting in unexpected adrenaline spikes. You can climb these giants, holding on as they flail and fly. Clambering upon a cyclops to stab its eye feels every bit as good as when Kratos does it.
You're not alone in the thick of battle, though. While Dragon's Dogma is resolutely a single-player game, you're accompanied by an AI sidekick known as your main pawn. You have just as much control over your pawn's appearance, vocation and skills as your own, but it's completely CPU-controlled, with only three commands — "go", "come" and "help!" — to influence them. While AI accomplices have a poor reputation — that's right Sheva, we mean you — DD's pawns are unique in the way they learn from combat, picking up new techniques and tactics through familiarity.
If you want another boost in battle, you can hire two more pawns to join you, and here's another innovation. While you can pick from computer-generated characters, other players' main pawns are uploaded to PlayStation Network for you to browse, and carry over their skills and knowledge. If you're stuck on a quest or against a particular enemy, you can hire pawns based not just on raw power and ability, but also the information they have on how to proceed. Of course your pawn is on the network too, and will bring back information and items from other players' games when you rest overnight.
For all the Capcom pedigree weighing on Dragon's Dogma, and with Skyrim comparisons filling column inches everywhere, PlayStation owners have already experienced two of this generation's finest RPGs in Demon's Souls and follow-up Dark Souls. While Dragon's Dogma is nowhere near as unforgiving as either — you can save anywhere you like, for a start — it does share its taste for hiding what difficulties lie ahead. It doesn't tell you how tough a quest is, or if the ogre lurking in the mines is massively beyond your capabilities: it expects you to try, then judge for yourself. It's far more action-oriented than either Souls game: while they often punish a wayward stab with instant death, Dragon's Dogma knocks you down, challenging you to try again. It's a softer touch, but the intention is the same: pick yourself up and do it better.
Capcom may not revolutionise the genre as From Software did, but Dragon's Dogma freshens it up to feel new and interesting again. If you've played all the action RPGs PS3 has to offer — or you tired of them long ago — Dragon's Dogma's engaging combat, educated AI sidekicks and intriguing online functions should make sure that, at last, this hits a lot of radars.