Quick! What's the best RPG about killing dragons?
Time's up! You're wrong! It's Dragon's Dogma! Here's why!
While I'm usually the last person to complain about "casualization," (Dark Souls 2 will be fine, guys, quit freaking out) I admit it's a bit hard to feel like a badass adventurer in recent RPGs when all the fights are scaled to your level, your health regenerates and you just fast travel everywhere. Sure, there's plenty of fun to be had, but every now and again a man wants a REAL challenge! Enter Dragon's Dogma.
Combining the demanding (but not merciless) exploration of older RPGs and legitimately fun combat of modern action games, Dragon's Dogma is compelling, challenging, and probably what all the talented people at Capcom were working on in 2012.
It begins, like so many RPGs before it with a monster attacking your idyllic hometown. During which, the legendary dragon easily thwarts you and rips your heart out. Surprisingly, the dragon is very much a gentleman, and honors your bravery by marking you as "The Arisen" and inviting you to a duel when you're a more capable fighter. On the way, you must gain allies, hone your skills, and fight back the dragon's army of monsters once and for all.
Combat is more Devil May Cry than Diablo. No turns, DPS, or menu-wading here. It's all real-time action against monsters big and small. Along with weak and heavy attacks, you can map up to six abilities to your characters, which range from plunging a sword into a foe and painfully ripping it out to mightily swinging a hammer through a crowd to calling lightning down. Fighting standard enemies is no bore, but boss fights really steal the show. You can climb on larger enemies Colossus-style, and they often require some interesting brainwork to fight efficiently, like tricking a cyclops into removing its helmet or lighting a griffon's wings on fire.
There are three major classes, or "vocations," which you choose for yourself and your AI partner: fighter, strider and mage. Fighters use heavy armor and up-close combat, striders cut enemies up with daggers and shoot arrows at long-range enemies, and mages do crowd control with elemental magic while providing healing and support for allies. In addition, there are three specialized classes and three hybrid classes accessible later in the game. They all have different armor and weapon restrictions with certain weapons being restricted to one class. The good thing is you can switch classes pretty easily upon reaching the game's capital city and without losing equipment or experience. Abilities are learned not through increasing your character's level, but through gaining separate vocation ranks. If you ever switch classes, and you can always switch back later and get the same abilities. This lets you try out a lot of different playstyles to see what suits you.
In lieu of a traditional party, Dragon's Dogma has an interesting "pawn system." The world is inhabited by pawns, beings from another world that take the form of people but have no soul or independent will, except that they are bound to serve the Arisen. Early on, you get to make your main pawn, choosing their vocation and customizing their appearance. You can recruit two other pawns at any time, either from the game's built-in stock or from the network of other players' pawns. Your main pawn levels up with you but you need to switch out the two others frequently. While the playerbase isn't as active as it was at release, you are rewarded with "rift crystals" if your pawn sees use by others, which can be used to buy bonus items in-game. Other players can also send gifts back and rate your pawn on abilities and appearance. Though you can't really see their appearance through most high-level gear, so that doesn't quite work as well. Most players will just give you four stars and a halfway decent item.
One quick word on pawns: The FIRST THING YOU DO is go to options and turn off their subtitles. They can take up nearly a quarter of the screen if you let them.
The game doesn't make it easy for players to get around, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. You have to put a lot of preparation into even average quests. The capital, Gran Soren, serves as your main hub for the game. Stock up on items, check your equipment, ready the right abilities. The actual party management is fairly intuitive and streamlined, so there isn't too much of a boundary between you and the action. Searching dungeons can be quite fun as you search each nook and cranny for loot. Moving about in the field? Not so much. Monsters aren't leveled, which I like for the most part. You realize when you wander into dangerous areas, and the ones you have cleared already don't magically get harder. But really it makes it so that certain routes become a walk through the park that eats ten minutes of your life. The worst is this one evil wizard that decides to be a jerk and take over a dungeon you already cleared that's a solid 20 minute walk from the capital. I'm fine going through the same dungeon once or twice (I tolerated Dragon Age II after all) just don't make me walk all the way back! SOME form of fast travel would have been nice just to save precious time. Maybe just being able to go between cities and camps. There IS one type of item, a "ferrystone," that can warp you to the capital (and one other location of your choice late in the game) but it's rare to find and expensive as hell to buy.
That said, I do like the game's approach to health, which encourages preparation but isn't overly punishing. As you take damage, not only does your health decrease, so does the amount of health you can recover. So while the stamina you need for healing spells regenerates, it can't save you if you keep getting your ass kicked every encounter. You eventually need to turn to healing items or find a place to rest to recover lost health.
The plot is perhaps overly simple at first glance, but believe me when I say it gets better near the end. Without getting to spoilery, there's a LOT more to the legend of the Arisen than just being chosen to fight a dragon. And you know how in every fantasy, there's a cult that actually wants the world to end? That happens here too, but it has a very unexpected and strangely refreshing payoff. Finally, the true ending reaches Dark Tower levels of weirdness with one of the most interesting and creative dungeons you'll ever crawl through.
And if you don't like rail-roading, then don't worry! This game is just too lazy to do that. I missed an entire subplot with the duke's wife on my first playthrough because I didn't talk to her during a one-minute window. It's actually kind of cool that you CAN miss that kind of thing instead of getting a pop-up saying "YOU MUST TALK TO THIS CHARACTER AND SUFFER THROUGH OUR TACKED-ON ROMANCE." And then when I did see it, I was playing a girl character to see if there was anything different. Nothing was. Maybe they're being progressive and Gransys is a wonderful fantasy land where everyone is openly bi. But, as far as I can tell, your characters apparent age doesn't impact the plot either. So lets HOPE Capcom is just lazy and didn't intentionally have adult NPCs programmed to flirt with children.
On top of the fairly lengthy main campaign, there's a huge number of side quests. There's enough content here to satisfy anyone without even touching the DLC. (apparently all the ethical people from Capcom were in charge of this too) Most of them are just MMO-style "kill/find X whatever" quests, but there's a decent amount that follow an actual story.
If there's any area where the game IS lacking, it's art direction. It uses all the fantasy mainstays of monsters and locations and doesn't really have anything to add to them. Voice-acting and music aren't stunning either. However, it is impressive today to have a game that can create excitement without using theatrics. When you see a griffon overhead, you don't get worried because of fancy lights and sounds telling you too. You just realize there's a tough fight ahead.
The only other place where the game shoots itself in the foot is its new game +. It's alright in itself, but it doesn't allow you to keep multiple files. You're "stuck" with your endgame equipment and stupid-high level. As someone who liked the challenge, I didn't really enjoy being able to breeze through most of the quests. I was forced to make another profile on the system itself to get the challenge back.
Dragon's Dogma isn't for everyone. People who don't like to really work for their gaming entertainment may become frustrated, and those who like interesting lore in RPGs will find the story bare-bones for the most part. However, fun battle and addicting dungeon-crawling make it both my favorite RPG and my favorite action game of 2012. Despite some flaws that are more strange than frustrating, it's definitely worth a go for anyone still interested.
I will note that the expansion "Dark Arisen" is coming out in April. It's my understanding that it includes the original game, but there are bonuses for people who already played it (including infinite ferrystones!) so consider that when checking the game out.