Monday, May 28, 2012

Pawns Pwned: Dragon's Dogma


Confirming your suspicions about the intelligence of pawns: They are dumb in chess, dumb in life, and dumb in Dragon's Dogma



In certain movies and other creative media, diabolical villains call other characters (their henchmen, maybe, or even the protagonist) their pawns, implying that those to whom they're referring are weak-minded troglodytes who are under the constant control of the bad guy. In chess, you get a whole row of pawns that are more or less expendable - unskilled troops only there to protect your more specialized and valuable soldiers. In Dragon's Dogma (reviewed on Xbox 360), an action-RPG developed by the same dudes at Capcom who did Resident Evil 5 and Devil May Cry 4 (which, presumably, are well-received titles), pawns are your NPC companions, and they certainly fit the descriptions above.

What Dragon's Dogma manages to do well, which no other RPG featuring NPC characters in the player's party has ever done before (probably), is explain why these loyal automatons are about as smart as cheap marijuana. In fact, the whole pawn thing is a major part of the game, in action as well as in plot, and as much as you'll want to murder them slowly and painfully, you have to admit their back story that explains their hapless dorkery quite well.


Deep Dives into Empty Heads

The rift world, home of stupidheads pawns

Dragon's Dogma, like nearly every other RPG since the dawn of time, lets you customize a main character, your primary avatar throughout the game. You can select from options like gender (male, female, trans - oh, wait, that's not in there; must have been thinking about porn again), customize your person's various aesthetic attributes, and choose a vocation such as mage, warrior, or strider (a sort of pre-ranger class). Later in the game, you're allowed to upgrade your vocation to a more specialized and powerful monster-killer, including sorcerer, mystic knight, full-fledged ranger, etc.

After an action-oriented introduction that gives you a preview of the grand-finale-dragon-battle, the game eases you into your part as an "Arisen." That's what you're called because, in an early encounter with the dragon of the game's title, the beast tears out your dude's still-beating heart, giggles like a schoolgirl, and challenges your somehow-still-living character to reclaim his poor, disembodied ticker. Then the dragon hauls ass, flying away to parts unknown. You'll have to grind, level up, tackle side quests, walk around a lot, and generally do RPG stuff, before you get to the climactic battle teased earlier and, hopefully, nab your throbbing blood pump back from the monster.

Soon after the dragon has its way with you, you encounter your first rift stone, which connects the primary game world to an ethereal, wispy realm where pawns live. I use the word "live" quite loosely, because pawns exist for the purpose following around and annoying the hell out of the Arisen, doing what they think is the your bidding: helping out in combat, swiping loot before you can grab it, and repeating the same phrases over, and over, and over, and over again. You can create your very own, primary pawn, who is your main sidekick and is with you throughout the game, and also you can admit two other pawns into your party from the rift world.

The game presents its explanation as to why pawns are the way they are thusly: Pawns exist only to serve the Arisen, and they can't think at all for themselves. Without an Arisen around to tell them what to do, pawns stand there idly, like lobotomized tomatoes, not even picking their noses unless the Arisen tells them to dig for gold.

I also have my own theory on why pawns are so vapid: All of the game's budget was spent on graphics. Dragon's Dogma looks fantastic on the Xbox 360, but the pawns seem to have  received the short end of the budgetary stick, with few dialog options per given situation and AI that makes lobsters look like Stephen Hawking. The latter results in inexplicable pathfinding quirks, the inability to keep themselves from dying needlessly, a strange distaste for following your orders (which seems weird, since they exist only to follow your orders), and so on.

The Exact Same Things Over and Over, Déjà Vu, and Redundancy

A random screen from a GIS for Dragon's Dogma

The theme of Dragon's Dogma isn't necessarily pawn-commanding or goblin-slaying, it's repetition. Allow me to repeat that. Repetition. Get it? Repetition. What I'm saying here, is repe - okay. There are great things about Dragon's Dogma, but let's save the best for last and allow me to bitch for a few paragraphs. The repetition thing isn't the game's strong suit, but it's definitely the dominant feature.

Not only do the pawns perform the same actions and say the same crap ridiculously often, but the side quests are more boring than gravel. The main quest missions are interesting and include investigations, boss battles, huge monsters to defeat, and occasional escort missions (well, they can't all be wonderful). A great deal of the side quests, though, might as well be parodies of older RPGs: Kill nine snakes. Kill 12 wolves. Harvest six moon berries. Kill 12 rabbits. Yes, at times, you are given the dubious opportunity to hunt bunnies. Bunnies!

Even when you're on a fun mission, the pawns can screw it up. Early on in the game, when one of my pawns got its butt handed to her in combat, I transferred some curative plants into her inventory, thinking she might use them to heal. With no command to order her to do so (in fact, the commands are limited to four, and though there's an option to display how to invoke onscreen, it doesn't work), she just stayed vulnerable with low health. Since avatar didn't have any "magick" abilities, getting healed up was like getting an angry cat to swallow a pill: Impossible.

Even when you don't get your arse kicked in combat, leveling up is boring. You can't upgrade your skills or change your stats, except by going to particular shops in hub towns. Watch out when you do manage to change from your original class to a more advanced one, though. Sometimes, you can't use the same weaponry you'd been using. That's true even if you go from mage to sorcerer, strider to ranger, or choose some other form of what one would think is natural progression. When my strider became a ranger, he lost the use of his shortbow and needed to buy or find a longbow, because, presumably, the shortbow was suddenly beneath his prestigious, new coolness.
I really don't want to worship this thing, do you?

But it's not all bad! There's gold hidden in this hobgoblin lair! To find it, all you have to do is remind youself that:

*...the game is totally open-world, which is a good thing. When you get stuck on a quest, you can find another one fairly easily. If you try to plow through the main quest without grinding on the side, you won't get far.

*...the pawn sharing system is cool. Once you've created your own, personal-assistant pawn, those extra two filler pawns can come from a pool of other people's personal pawns. That doesn't mean your customized pawn can get snatched away by some other player. You always have access to your primary pawn; other players across Xbox Live do as well (depending on the settings you use (you can set pawn sharing to share with the whole world, friends only, or nobody at all)), and if they like him, they can send gifts of in-game materials/curatives/weapons/etc your way. On the other side, you can search the online pawn pool by Gamertag (or the PS3 equivalent), vocation, skill, and so on, to land right pawn into an open slot you need to fill. Nifty.

*...combat is full of action and, in some ways, it's extremely original. You can use primary and secondary weapons, interchanging quickly, to fell foes, and each comes with special attacks that increase in variety and effectiveness as you progress through Dragon's Dogma. A grabbing mechanic allows you to grab and throw enemies, and allows pawns to hold enemies in place so you can deliver especially effective attacks. You can even climb up larger enemies so you can assault their heads or other areas of their bodies too high for you to otherwise reach.

*...that climbing mechanic extends beyond combat to the world at large; you can jump and grab ledges, pull yourself up, and so on. Don't get too excited though; this is not Assassin's Creed and Ezio, Altair and Connor still have it all over your Arisen. There's a big difference between climbing up to an occasional roof or ledge, and full-on parkour.

Dragon's Dogma is a gorgeous looking, but flawed, action RPG. It's like dating a beautiful person who is inordinately stupid and always talks about him/herself - it's fun for a while, but it's amazing how soon (s)he starts to drive you batshit insane. Once Capcom patches in a way to murder your pawns, Dragon's Dogma will be a lot more fun - or, at least, cathartic.

I award this puppy GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER!

out of

GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER! GOBLINS, MASTER!
!

In other words, six repetitions out of ten!

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