Dragon’s Dogma was the action-RPG for people who wanted to play alone, but didn’t want to feel alone. By far its most charming feature was the Pawn system, whereby you’d create an AI-controlled sidekick and hire two others, shared online by other players, to accompany you on your journey through a fantasy wilderness of tumbledown castles and goblin campfires. Pawns make dependable companions in many respects – pinning enemies for you to tag-team kill, healing or resurrecting you, opening chests you’ve missed, and enchanting your weapons at the outset of each skirmish. But what makes them fun to be around is that they’re a bunch of massive buffoons.
Pawns talk without cease as you explore: a steady patter of idle observations about well-wrought staircases and the local fish trade, advice about the bestiary and, in the case of Pawns recruited from other players, quest tips based on time in their own worlds – all of it couched in the game’s quirky faux-medieval dialect. Pawn dialogue is highly context-sensitive, and very often, nonsensical. They’ll climb into fountains and complain that they’re wet, and launch into pithy descriptions of monsters even as they’re set on fire. It ought to be maddening, but somehow, it never is – probably because the Pawns never actually attempt to be witty like ally characters in, say, Xenoblade Chronicles. They’re resolutely straight foils in a realm of lions with snakes for tails, chaotic boulder traps, unpleasantly lusty ogres, and players who push the wrong buttons and make random decisions on the fly. Well, pawns are back in Dragon’s Dogma 2, which I recently played an hour of, and they’re chattier than ever.
The big thing I notice is that they now talk to each other more. “Rare materials!” one yells as I amble through a forest. “Well-spotted,” another replies. I go hunting for the resource outcrop in question and promptly wander into a flock of Harpies, who sing my character to sleep and try to fly off with our group’s wizard. Later, two Pawns have a slight tiff about my decision to drop the monster-culling quest at hand and investigate some promising ruins. “It is not for us to gainsay the Arisen’s judgement!” one reproaches the other. A little further down the road, the crew start bickering about our combat performance, with one Pawn remarking that there’s always “room for improvement”. All this, plus some familiar one-off lines and feats of accidentally brilliant comic timing, like Pawns moaning about travelling after dark (the game’s nights are once again impenetrable, obliging you to equip a lantern) or getting bitten in the face while warning you to watch out for the wolves. They hunt in packs, remember?
It speaks to how much I love Pawns that I can almost forgive Dragon’s Dogma 2 for being, so far, absolutely indistinguishable from the 2012 original, with the same opening story beats and the same terrific combat system of colourful yet intuitive, beautifully staged class abilities. Once again, you’re a lowly soldier whose heart is literally stolen by a rampaging dragon, whose voice you hear in your head. Once again, you’ll be running around a bucolic open landscape of towns and dungeons, scooping up herbs and rocks to craft into potions and other tools, while earning class points and unlocking those abilities. Once again, you can hire wandering pawns after witnessing them in action against the wildlife, and climb on larger creatures such as griffins to whack away at specific body parts for specific loot. Once again, you’ll have to worry about being massively overencumbered, with pawns doubling as dumpsters for players who can’t be arsed to offload in-town.
The visuals are more detailed, with more elaborate 3D models, but the technological updates are sort of cancelled by the returning, quasi-naturalistic art direction, which paints the geography and masonry in washed-out, sleepy shades of green, brown and grey. I really like the old Dragon’s Dogma aesthetic, and Dragon’s Dogma 2 offers many sights for sore eyes – crumbly stone bridges over shimmering rivers, hilltop citadels with squat domes that put me in mind of The Name Of The Rose, and some nicely enveloping forests. But I do think a sequel needs to stand apart more than this. I’d like the second of Dragon’s Dogma 2’s main regions – Battahl, the desert home of the zoomorphic beastren – to take some proper risks with the olde worlde look.
I’ve tried out three classes, or “vocations”, so far, each with a signature move on top of three equippable special abilities. The Archer’s class abilities include spreadshots for evasive predators, burst fire for stationary toughies, and the ability to autoaim from the hip or snipe in over-the-shoulder view. The Fighter can perform daisy-cutter haymakers, bullrush ranged opponents, and bash turtling enemies with their shield. The Thief can throw smoke bombs to daze the hordes and perform homing strikes and vertical spin attacks, like Sonic the Hedgehog cosplaying as Legolas. All are a joy in the hands, thanks to springy, theatrical yet believable animations. But again, I’m pretty sure all these tricks and flourishes exist in the original game or its Dark Arisen expansion, in some form. I’m hoping Dragon’s Dogma 2’s more advanced, hybrid vocations will mess with the template quite a bit, drawing on the sillier components of recent Monster Hunters. In particular, I’d like to hear more about the just-revealed Mystic Spearhead, a fancy melee vocation who can block enemy movement with magic.
I’m conscious that complaints about the game being overfamiliar might not mean much to readers who, God, possibly weren’t even alive when the original was released, so let me reiterate: however old hat, fights in Dragon’s Dogma are absolutely glorious and often, mad as a bag of adders. At one point I did a nocturnal quest to rescue somebody’s herb-gathering brother, the luckless Norbet, which led to me and my Pawns fighting a ghost that fed on light, making our lanterns a wonderful liability. It was pandemonium. My wizard Pawn immediately levitated and started belching thunderbolts everywhere, my thief Pawn got a bit carried away with blink attacks and aggroed a passing wolfpack, and here’s me, standing in the middle of it all, firing holy arrows at health bars in the dark.
Regular combos and specials aside, you can pick up objects, friends and enemies and throw them around, whether to dunk goblins in usefully conductive water, or to “encourage” your fighter Pawn to lead the charge. The new game seems to put slightly more emphasis on physics-based interactions than its predecessor – both you and NPCs can trigger cave-ins, for example, or break dams to flood positions – not that the physics are exactly “high fidelity”. At one point, I managed to KO myself into a crevice by hurling a small boulder at my own leg. While boss monsters are a challenge, often breaking into a frenzy with new attacks when you lop away the first health bar, there’s a sandboxy absurdity to Dragon’s Dogma that is closer to Zelda: Breath Of The Wild than Skyrim. Again, a lot of that’s down to the insistence of your Pawn chums on taking it all seriously.
If Pawns are the source of Dragon’s Dogma’s charm, the heart of a game that leaves you without one, they’re also, by virtue of being player-devised and shared, its communal memory. I’m not sure how extensively Capcom have been maintaining the first game’s asymmetrical online features, but in theory, if you fire up Dragon’s Dogma right now you’ll be able to rub shoulders with Pawns spawned and trained up a decade ago, forgotten clay figurines bearing the fingerprints of both developers and players, surfacing from the rifts of data alongside Forza’s ancient Drivatars, to do the Arisen’s bidding once again. The development of a sequel is both a tribute to those hardy bespoke heroes and an attempt to supersede them. Which brings me to the other, final thing I’d like Capcom to do with Dragon’s Dogma 2: find some way to port those beloved original Pawns into the new game. If you’re going to stack the board with old pieces, you might as well include the best.
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