Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dragon's Dogma

This game was hyped in some circles quite a bit last year. A Japanese take on Skyrim was one description I remember, another compared it to Dark Souls in some aspects. So, truly, what is there not to get interested in? Well, tbh, the Skyrim part; open world RPGs are not my thing. In a sense the game is a digitalization of old schoold Dungeons & Dragons adventures. A party of four against ever an increasing threat of monsters. Monsters that have escaped from the pages of a D&D manual. With all the awesome games that came out last Autumn, this one did have to wait its turn until Christmas holidays. Nevertheless I truly expected to got into this. Turns out I didn't finish Dragon's Dogma during the holidays, largely because Dota 2 happened, but also because the game has its share of faults.

1. Pawns all around

The biggest distinguishing factor in Dragon's Dogma is its pawn system. It is an interesting concept indeed. At the start of the game, the player creates their own character and also their own pawn. In a sense, the pawn is even more important. Pawns can be summoned by other players to complete their party of 4 characters. This means it is not your main hero but your pawn that represents you in the community. This system sounds intriguing on paper and also raises questions like "can they balance it?". There is no hard limit for pawns that can be summoned, so theoretically you could summon a pawn way ahead of your main hero in levels. However, there is a cost that increases the further ahead a pawn is, so practically you are limited to pawns that are a few levels ahead. Equipment is not a factor in this cost though, which creates a major imbalance: a low level pawn with god-like equipment destroys everything.

A bigger fault with the pawn system is that pawns are by design void of personality. They have their collection of skills, their equipment and appearance (largely dictated by equipment) but that is more or less that. You may instruct your pawn to behave in certain ways, but there is no way to grant them any sort of personality. There is a large bunch of lines in the game that pawns can say, but they all say the same things albeit with a different voice. It is not much of banter unfortunately and gets rather repetitive. Granted it is clear that lack of personality is the intention and the game does not put much focus on character driven drama anyway. The emphasis is on survival in dungeons and the primary purpose of the pawn system is to create a game mechanic around forming a party that can tackle different obstacles. In reality the only reason I ever changed pawns was to keep them up in levels with my hero and primary pawn.

I think the problem is rather deeply rooted in the game's mechanics. Choosing a real-time battle system with AI-controlled allies severely limits what can be expected of said allies. The AI fights smartly, that much is true, and also according to the knowledge that has been gained by the pawn about their enemies. The achilles heel in this system is that skills in the game are rather bland and the difference in performance between pawns is remarkably unnoticeable. Only with casters there is any real difference in what spells they can cast. That aside, the only factor that truly matters in pawn selection is their attack and defense. Even if the game had more complex skill systems, I would not really trust an AI controlled ally to use them effectively. So numbers all the way. The problem is, this basically reduces every single pawn to just a few numbers (and bigger is better).

Another thing about AI controlled allies in Dragon's Dogma is that their equipment and skills are identical to what the player can have. The only difference is that the main hero can be trained in three hybrid classes that are unavailable to pawns. I realize that the purpose is to be able to have any roles your hero doesn't fulfill. The basic problem with this kind of arrangement is that if the pawns played really well, they would likely outshine the player. This I think is pretty bad. Indeed, one spellcaster I recruited at the end of the game downed several powerful bosses at a ridiculous speed. In the time it would have taken for my main hero to take down one health bar from a boss, that pawn took out five. The point here being is that if pawns are on the exact same power scale with the hero they will become more important in fights. The only special power the player really has over pawns is that he can resurrect them back to the fight.

If the pawns were actually on a different power scale and performing more supportive roles things just might work out better. Another approach could be to give the player better control of the overall battle strategy. The three commands in the game were just "go", "help" and "come". The AI handled the rest. While I think that yes, it is kind of cool that the pawns actually act based on what knowledge they have acquired, having the player be just one among four actors in a play might not be the best design. We can see how the increased player control works in Final Fantasy XIII(-2) paradigm system by giving the player more control over the actions their AI allies are limited to doing. Another game where AI allies actually worked as a mechanic is Star Ocean 3, curiously exactly because they were not very bright. However you could disable the AI or switch control during a battle. You also had the additional challenge of developing builds that worked well for the AI.

This is the problem I had in Dragon's Dogma. There just wasn't much of gameplay around the interesting pawn mechanic. Selecting pawns was dumbed down and in battle they were really independent. The important point is that they did not contribute to giving the player more gameplay. There is a thematic appeal to the pawns, and the fact that they do function very independently does create immersion. I am guessing this is what the designers went for. However most of the points I have raised here are not in contradiction to the immersion goal. Oh and the fact that the pawns repeat the same things all over again kind of breaks the immersion, especially because they are all saying the same things. I guess the problem ultimately is that the pawns have no real advantage over regular AI-controlled NPC allies. The disadvantage is that they lack personality and backstory, so it feels like you are traveling with glorified battle bots rather than with companions.

2. Into the unknown

I have been giving the game's primary system quite a trashing so perhaps I should talk about its better points now. The most appealing part of this game was traveling into unknown territory. I am guessing this is the Skyrim appeal. The world looks amazing and you can definitely run into some real trouble by taking a wrong turn. Seeing to the far end of the game world from atop of a mountain somehow always feels nice. Akin to the feeling you when climbing the very highest tower in Assassin's Creed, just because of the view. In Dragon's Dogma viewing the scenery has these "I have traveled all the way from there" and "Oh shit, that place is so far and night is falling" feelings. One of the best moments in the game was when I decided to explore whether the place I was in actually connected to another place I had been in before but through a different route. To my delight it did, and once again contained some amazing scenery.

What I found curious was that I actually really really liked the escort quests in this game. Escort quests are usually horrible but somehow traveling into unknown lands with a frail companion was an even stronger experience than simply exploring places because they are very likely to die if powerful foes are engaged. Running away from a Griffin on open plains and hiding inside a collapsed archway were strong moments in the game. To this end I actually wished the world would have been even larger to afford escort quests that could take hours to complete. And then I started to think about if it was actually possible to build a game that is simply one very long escort quest through this kind of plausible fantasy scenery. There are escort games that I know of (Ico comes to mind) but I don't think there is one in quite this sense.

Dungeons were somewhat less interesting. Fortunately they were also quite small and limited in number. By the way you better like traveling on foot when playing this game because there is not much of instant travel. There are consumables that allow you to teleport back to the world capital and you can later obtain a special waypoint marker that can be placed on the ground in a safe area. The reason I am happy the world was not that large is...

3. Repetition

This. Traveling to a new location is really cool in this game but being force to tread the same paths several times over is not. It is acceptable in some cases but not really cool in the rest. One big part of the problem is that - quest specific encounters aside - nothing changes. Every enemy is placed on the map so you will run into the same goblin ambush every time, usually on your way "there" and also "back again". There is nothing to be afraid of because you always know exactly what enemies you will face and where they are going to be, to a point that you can start figuring out routes where you won't encounter any. In some parts of the game world the whole "it's safer on the roads" is bullshit because they have planted a bunch of encounters specifically on the road. The only variation you get is the different set of enemies on the map at night time. That is all and I find it lazy and inexcusable. How hard it would have been to add randomization?

It gets worse than that though: some dungeons are also repeated. In two sequential plot quests for instance you have to travel to, pretty much the furthest end of the world into a tower and there is no way to make a single run because you have to get back to report the first quest to get the second one. I realize that constructing a world and dungeons is expensive, but really? It is borderline okay to have side quests require repeat visits to locations but plot quests, ouch. I think the main narrative at least should consist of unique trips to new locations and possibly some plausible revisits (if they spice up the journey). Although I think instant travel would have made the game worse in a way, they should have given more thought to the fact that there really is no cheap instant travel here.

Sadly repetition even carries on to the combat which is quite fascinating at the early-mid game but then just never changes. Getting all the skills for a single class doesn't take even a third of the game and after the only changes you will ever get are higher numbers in the form of better equipment (unless you want to change your class). Dunno if my class of choice was particularly dull to play (I chose the ranger type - I haven't played an archer for a long time) because all fights were more or less the same for me: hang back and release thousands of arrows until the enemies are dead. Especially true for boss fights. Occasionally I had to go in to hack a bit with knives or to revive a pawn but that was it. So I was just shooting with a bow for, whatever large amount of hours I spent fighting in the course of the game. I did like the fact that you could actually do that but yeah.

All in all boss fights in the game were bit of a grind. They had some weak points and some of their attacks or defenses could be disabled. You can scale them too like in Shadow of the Colossus (only far less interesting). Still, what it really comes down is that they just have a ton of hit points. I put part of the blame on the mechanic that uses AI allies because the optimal boss design as we have seen in say, Dark Souls, is that they deal a bucketload of damage and the player needs to know how to avoid that instead of tanking it, and they do not actually have that much health. It is just that their insanely powerful attacks make it hard for the player to get hits in. It is much harder to do this with AI controlled characters because the options are: they never avoid those attacks; they always avoid those attacks; they avoid them randomly or based on some rule. The latter is actually fine if the player has control over the factors that affect the outcome.

So boss fights eventually are just prolonged tank fests. Your pawns can even tank damage infinitely because they can be revived. Even your hero can tank damage quite well because healing items are used from a pause menu. You can even heal while stunned or while in the middle of taking a series of blows. There is just no punishment whatsoever for using items during the fight. If you look at Dark Souls again, it was freaking risky to sip that healing bottle because it took time and you could be interrupted and possibly killed while doing that. Not so in Dragon's Dogma; just stock those healing items and you are practically immortal. The only limiting factor is encumbrance which dictates how much stuff your character can carry. That, and availability of items (which is not very limited).

4. And here comes the difficulty card

During the first few hours this game will seem overwhelming. It has all kinds of systems: the pawn system, harvesting and combining materials, enhancing equipment and stuff like that. It also seems very threatening; the loading screen tips constantly remind you of how important it is to have oil in your lantern and how it is a bad idea to go poorly prepared or with the wrong party configuration. It gives the impression that you really need to take advantage of all the systems in the game to survive. Once you have gotten a bit more into the game it turns out that all this talk is just talk, at least on normal difficulty (and you are not given the option to start on hard diffculty for the first game, balls). Because there's really only 6 classes available for pawns and their class means a lot more than their set of skills, putting together a functional party is a no-brainer. Combining materials is hardly needed. The lantern uses oil ridiculously slowly.

I played almost the entire game with the same basic party configuration (me as ranged DPS, my pawn as a tank, one melee DPS pawn and a supportive mage). Most of the items I accumulated went straight into my storage and never saw the daylight again. The only combinations I did was to improve some healing items to more powerful versions (plus some experimentation to find out useful recipes). Enhancing weapons is just a matter of increasing some numbers because they have no real special statistics. This has always been a bummer for me, especially in Disgaea titles. Such a complex equipment system yet all they ever do is get better numbers. Contrast this to for instance Final Fantasy X where you put actual abilities on equipment; indeed, they don't have numbers at all!

I am quite certain that there is a lot you can do with these systems in the game. I have no doubts that a single GameFAQs guide wouldn't be a revelation. The problem is that the game simply does not require you to care about any of these things because it is just too easy. I do not know how hard the hard difficulty is. I would have liked to find out, but it was not available to me from the get-go and I am not going to go through this repetitive game again. You can select an even easier difficulty though, which I find kind of curious. How bad do you need to be to actually need that option? Here is a tip for developers: let people choose whatever difficulty they want right from the get-go. What do you have to lose? A lot of games allow players to change difficulty on the fly, so it's not like players can't tune it down if they get absolutely devastated. Still, I kind of love the policy used by From Software in their Souls games: there will be no easy difficulty - shut up and learn to play.


I have to say I was in many ways disappointed by Dragon's Dogma. I enjoyed the game in the early-mid game after I had gotten over the initial overwhelmingness but the longer the game went on the more bored I got with it. I did see it through, so it was not all bad. It really had a lot of shining moments too, and although there's a lot of rant here, it was far from being bad. You will also have to considered my viewpoint: I always focus heavily on mechanics when it comes to RPGs, especially if they do not have character driven drama (I am a sucker for good dialogue). If you are more exploration inclined, Dragon's Dogma is very likely to give much more to you. If exploration is not your thing, there is not much of a reason to play this game honestly. Although the plot does take some interesting turns towards the end and I kind of liked it, I would not play this game for its plot.

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