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The demo's title screen offers the chance to play a "prologue quest", toy with the character editor, play a "countryside quest" or change the game settings. The "prologue quest" puts you in the shoes of a premade Fighter character in an assault to a dragon's stronghold, and has you fighting goblins, harpies and also a respectably-sized chimera. While there is a chance to play it solo if you so desire, a pawn is assigned to help you from the beginning, and soon an option to summon two more additional pawns at a rift stone is presented, giving the player the chance to form a full-fledged four man party.
The character editor gives you the chance to customize your countryside quest's main character and main pawn's appearances, and has a negligible effect on gameplay (altering the character's weight alters their run speed, but in my limited experience the effect was hardly dramatic). Those who enjoy spending hours editing their character will find themselves at home here, as the range of options offered by Capcom is quite robust and allows for an impressive variety of faces and physical builds.
Finally, the "countryside quest" drops you with three pawns in a small section of the game's world to complete a simple quest: slaying a griffon. Unfortunately, there is practically no chance to explore since the area is surrounded by invisible walls and serves the role of a simple battle arena. Additionally, customization leaves something to be desired too: while you can change the character's appearance in the editor, your can't change their vocation, which happens to be the Strider, Dragon's Dogma's thief/rogue-like.
Combat (or how I learned to stop worrying and love throwing my pawns everywhere)
Dragon's Dogma features a very action-y combat system, which doesn't come as a surprise considering recent trends and the team's pedigree (the director's previous experiences include Devil May Cry 3 and 4 among others). Both available characters can use a light and heavy attack with their primary weapon (square and triangle on the PlayStation 3 version, X and Y on the Xbox 360, respectively, by default) and string them together in a small number of combos, but by far the most interesting tactical options available come from the usage of special skills and the grab button.
Each of the controller's bumpers is by default linked to one of your weapon, and pressing it changes your moveset so that face buttons execute special skills. These can range from covering long distances with a thrusting attack to provoking enemies into attacking you to firing three arrows at once, and consume a part of your stamina bar, which, when depleted, slows you down to a crawl and leaves you unable to attack for a bit, vulnerable to enemies' attacks.
The grab button (R2/Right trigger by default), meanwhile, gives you the chance of grabbing people, smaller monsters and objects and throw them away, or climb onto larger monsters to get to a vantage point where you can damage them more at the cost of steady stamina consumption. In practice this means that while your party hacks at goblins you might decide to get away and grab an explosive barrel to throw at them, or you might climb onto a griffon's back before it starts flying again and damage its wings until it falls back to the ground, in a way reminiscent to Team ICO's Shadow of the Colossus. Or you might simply want to grab one of your pawns and throw him or her off a cliff for the amusement factor.
A few more notes: weirdly enough for a game of this type, a dodge roll move was only available for the Strider character, whereas the Fighter character has to rely solely on the stamina-consuming dash (essentially running) and his shield. Since the demo doesn't offer the chance to play with any of the other vocations, I have no idea if the Strider is the only character with that move.
The title also doesn't offer an option for hard lock-on, making fighting a little chaotic when I found myself in between a group of enemies, and keeping track of a single particularly agile one a difficult task. While it turned out to be by no means a huge impediment, it's still something that I think would have benefited the game, and not by a small margin.
Finally, the game features one of the most fear-inducing day-night cycles I've seen since the original Gothic. Simply put, during the night it's incredibly difficult to see anything, and the lantern I had in my inventory was only able to illuminate a very small area around the character. Needless to say, this has quite an impact on gameplay, and made fighting the griffon after twilight an extremely dangerous ordeal.
Pawns and Chaos
Speaking of battles, it's worth noting that their outcome depends in large part on pawns, and delving into their role for a little bit. Pawns are the title's accompanying NPCs, otherwordly beings that respond to the Arisen commands for reasons that I imagine will be elaborated in the full game's plot. In practice, they act as henchmen, and they're extremely efficient ones too, as they constantly heal you, buff you, keep enemies at bay and inform you of the their weak spots.
In fact, pawns might well be too effective. Playing with a full party made pretty much every encounter in the demo trivial, to the point where I've been able to complete the griffon fight with the HUD turned off and without ever consuming an healing item, despite the fact that I'm hardly a pro action game player. It's possible that in the full game this will be offset by the fact that you get less experience points the more pawns you have, or it might just have been a result of the party being overleveled in the demo, but it's still worth mentioning. Also, in a small move to limit the pawn's effectiveness, getting damaged not only reduces health, but also the amount of health that can be regenerated with healing spells. However, at least in the demo, healing items seemed to be plentiful, making this mechanic nothing more than an interesting detail.
Another side effect of playing with a full party is that battles tend to become chaotic, with pawns constantly shouting, casting spells and moving across the battlefield, which can make tactical planning extremely difficult and will probably convince most players to ignore the pawns and concentrate solely on their character. The game features a cinematic camera option that is supposed to help with that, underlining the moments where an enemy is vulnerable or a pawn offers an additional option like throwing you against an enemy, but unfortunately it's very clumsy at best, since it breaks the flow of the battles and ends up often obscured by the various characters and monster present on screen, so I ended up turning it off quickly.
Presentation and Writing
Considering the demo focuses almost exclusively on combat and doesn't offer much to judge when it comes to environments, quests, plotting, etc. I'll keep this section pretty short. Those who have been following Dragon's Dogma so far, should be familiar with the game's early Dungeons & Dragons fantasy aesthetic. While the title could well be used as a textbook example of "generic", I have to admit I find the straightforward non-parodic attitude towards this kind of aesthetic almost refreshing, and its execution actually rather competent.
On the other hand, the few examples of writing available were cringe-worthy at best, and chock-full of faux-Shakespearian English one-liners that have never really managed to convince anyone. It doesn't help that the voice acting often doesn't sound too convincing, with plenty of lines delivered in an uninterested deadpan. Obviously there's very little to judge, but what I've been able to see of the game so far between footage and promotional videos, hasn't been exactly promising on this side either.
Options and Performance
Judging by the demo, Dragon's Dogma offers a robust amount of options, including the possibility to turn off almost every element of the HUD, but also doesn't include a couple of what should be no-brainers, like multiple difficulty options, and most importantly rebindable controls. The game does offer multiple preset control schemes, so I'm puzzled as to why the team didn't just give the players the chance to complete customize their controls.
As far as technical issues go, I didn't encounter any bugs besides a few technical oddities like slightly jerky animations and less than optimal camera tracking during the most hectic moments of my fight with the chimera in the prologue quest. Unfortunately, the game's framerate suffers under the weight of its own ambition, and at least on the PlayStation 3 version, struggled to keep a stable 30 fps. While by no means unplayable, it can certainly be a problem for some people, so my hope is that the code is old and that it will be ironed out by release. Feedback from forums and the footage available so far points to a whole different set of problems with the Xbox 360 version; it seems to offer a superior framerate but struggles with screen tearing.
Truth be told, I had many doubts about Dragon's Dogma's depth as a role-playing game before trying the demo, and I came away from it with the same exact doubts. As it is, it's difficult to gauge how interesting the experience as a whole will be, whether the game will hold up when exploring its promised vast world map, or just playing through its allegedly 30-40 hours long critical path. What I can say is that the demo provided an enjoyable experience and points to a game with undoubted potential. Arguably, it won't please those that found Skyrim too action-focused, or frowned at Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and its God of War-like combat, but for those that don't mind fast-paced action in their RPGs, Dragon's Dogma is a title worth keeping an eye on.