Capcom's new action RPG franchise, Dragon's Dogma, is a heady concoction of open world exploration combined with challenging combat depth. You can't go wrong.
I'd like to preface this article with a warning: I am a big fan of titles with strong underlying game mechanics. To me, what sets a video game apart from any other medium is its level of interactivity; if I can't engage with your creation in a way that is both satisfying and challenging, then your primary form of communication - player agency - is squandered. The downside of this premise, however, is that my criteria for what makes a mechanically engaging game can be rather high. To use action RPGs as an example, I simply could not connect with Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, while FromSoftware's Dark Souls is probably my favorite title of 2011. Skyrim is a gorgeous wide-open world, but after my twentieth round of cave exploration with uninspired combat and clunky enemy AI (which consisted mostly of being chased around tables), I had to set it down. Dark Souls, on the other hand, is almost entirely about tight combat with challenging encounters and, while the plot can be described as "minimalistic" at best, I still made more of a connection with my undead character than any dragonborn could inspire.
To be fair, the above examples may also highlight the core differences between Japanese and North American game design, as Japanese action RPGs (Dark Souls, Monster Hunter) are more famed for their challenging combat mechanics, while many popular North American action RPGs (Skyrim, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Fable) are more known for their open-world exploration and character development. I won't jump into any of the debates here as to which is a "better" industry (and the debate is very much ongoing), but all of the afore-mentioned information is there to give some background to two statements I will be leading with: one, that Capcom's Dragon's Dogma captivated me in spite of its vacuous NPC conversations (my subject headings are all direct quotes from the game), and two, that Dragon's Dogma may very well be one of the most important new RPG franchises to come out of Japan in some time.
"Strength in numbers, Arisen."
Dragon's Dogma starts off with a dragon stealing your character's heart before whisking off into the sunset, taunting you to get it back. The upside of getting your heart stolen is that this marks you as dragonborn "The Arisen," a fabled hero of the land who is destined to kill the dragon. Awkward premise aside, being an Arisen also conveniently allows you to summon "Pawns" - one main Pawn and two secondary Pawns - who are NPC party members that share in your adventures while filling the silence with tedious one-liners about Goblins being weak to fire. Your main pawn possesses a level of customization that rivals your own character and, despite the inane chatter, you'll find yourself becoming quite attached to your human pets. Not only can you change your main pawn's class on a whim, but their personality can also be modified to better mesh with your fighting style.
Building further on the pawn system, players can also recruit two additional secondary pawns to round out their party, but these pawns do not level up with your character and they come with their own equipment. In an offline game, these secondary pawns are computer-created NPCs that wander the roads of Gransys, but in an online game, these secondary pawns are other players' companion pawns. Every time you stay at an inn, the game takes a "snapshot" of your main pawn, uploading its vital combat and equipment information to the network. That "snapshot" of your pawn can then be recruited by other players as a secondary pawn, and if your pawn proves to be a powerful ally, they might bring back item rewards from other players and Rift Crystals, a unique currency for purchasing certain vanity items. Most players will experience a surge of pride when their companion pawn returns with high battle ratings and rewards from other players.
While many have derided the "missed opportunity" of Dragon's Dogma in implementing a true multiplayer mode, I believe the decision to promote pawn recruitment was a solid choice. Some of my favorite pawns are designed by other players, and even if their pawn is a few levels under my main character, I continue to use them because their combat personalities and abilities are well thought out. My own pawn has become the favorite of a few players, and I have a lot of fun keeping my pawn up to date so that she'll continue to contribute in other games.