Everyone thinks they have a great idea for a game. Fans pitch million-dollar ideas to their favorite studios and wonder why they're not accepted. The problem lies in the game's execution and whether it will click with the general public. Launching new properties from the ground up can be difficult, and if players can't grasp the concept immediately, it will struggle.
And that's the issue with "Dragon's Dogma," Capcom's newest release. I know there's a good game underneath the surface. I get hints at it, but digging to that mother lode of fun is a fight in and of itself. For all its promise, the game is frustratingly enigmatic.
It's hard to figure out what "Dragon's Dogma" is. It's ambitiously original, featuring combat reminiscent of "Monster Hunter" while letting players explore an enormous open world and experience a cohesive storyline.
Players take on the role of the Arisen, a legendary hero who comes once in a generation. He or she -- players can customize the character -- stands up to a dragon attacking a village. The Arisen manages to wound the beast, and in retaliation, it takes the hero's heart.
But that doesn't kill the Arisen. Instead, it gives him the ability to lead beings called Pawns. They look just like normal people, but they're from another realm. They also happen to be unruly but powerful warriors. But once they fall under the Arisen's command, they become a formidable fighting force.
The Pawn system is what makes "Dragon's Dogma" radically different from previous Capcom games. They are player-generated characters who are uploaded to a server and downloaded so they can populate the world. Players will meet several computer-controlled allies and ask them to join the four-person squad over the course of the campaign.
It creates a controlled randomness, as all Pawns have their own personalities and characteristics guided by players. They customize them with gear and control their development. They appear in other fans' games as fully realized characters. They have their own knowledge of the world, depending on how far their creators have gone in the campaign. Pawns can offer tips on a quest. It makes a single-player experience indirectly multiplayer.
It's a brilliant idea, but understanding and exploiting the Pawn and leveling system is difficult. Like other Japanese role-playing games, there are a lot of menus to wade through, and figuring out what certain powers do and how to maximize the potential of the Arisen will take hours of trial and error.
Basically, "Dragon's Dogma" is too complex for its own good. The intricacies with leveling up the armor, changing vocations, donning new armor and selling treasure takes away from time better spent crawling through dungeons and findings new items.
Players will spend more time prepping for missions than actually venturing forth. And that's a shame, because the battle system is brilliant. There's room for macro strategy as players find the right balance between melee fighters, mages and ranged attackers in their squads.
When they fight bigger bosses like ogres or griffins, they can grab on to these enormous beasts and attack their weak points. It's a concept borrowed from "Shadows of the Colossus." It was exhilarating the first time I realized that I could climb an ogre's back, reach the head and slash at its eye. That makes the fights more cerebral and satisfying, as these battles take a while to finish.
I learned this all through experimentation, but unfortunately, "Dragon's Dogma's" save system isn't conducive to this. It's the game's Achilles' heel. If players make a mistake building their character or give away an important item, it's permanent. Players can't go back two hours and make a change. There are no multiple save slots to let players escape tricky situations.
It's frustrating. Capcom is basically asking players to learn calculus and take a test with a permanent marker. A game with that kind of difficulty has its rewards, and those who take the time to dig down deep enough to learn it will find a good game. But for the rest of us, the frustration may not be worth it.
* * ½
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360