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For more than a decade, fans have been waiting for a sequel to Dragon’s Dogma, and that’s precisely what we’re getting.
Developers can take different approaches to sequels of a beloved franchise: iterate on what the original was successful at, or go in a bold new direction, which can either reinvigorate the series for an even larger audience (e.g. Breath of the Wild) or divide its fanbase (e.g. Final Fantasy 16).
But what about Dragon’s Dogma, which has only had one entry, unless you include its expanded 2013 re-release Dark Arisen? Having had the opportunity to play around with a preview build for an hour, our main impression is that it keeps very close to the original.
Not that we would call it a conservative sequel. After all these years, there just hasn’t been anything quite like Capcom’s strange but compelling take on the Western fantasy action RPG, which again sees you in the role of the Arisen, a character whose fate is tied to a dragon who has taken their heart.
There have been countless attempts to emulate Dark Souls, but no one has tried to do what Dragon’s Dogma did with its pawn system, unique characters who swear their loyalty to the Arisen, AI-controlled companions but with the feel that you’re really connecting with them as if you were playing with others.
As we begin our demo, we’re in the human kingdom of Vermund on a vague culling quest, but it’s really an excuse to just let ourselves loose on its verdant paths and see what trouble comes our way. Travelling on the road with three pawns in our party, they chatter to us, always devotedly addressing us ‘Arisen’, and it’s not long before a group of goblins emerge and they’re ready to take up their arms to fight as we try to keep up and get some action for ourselves.
It all looks lush on the PS5 build we’re playing, again another fantastic demonstration of Capcom’s RE Engine. But apart from the visual update, it’s almost uncanny in how much it plays like its predecessor. There’s still no way to visibly lock onto enemies but you can still climb and cling onto them by holding the right trigger, which remains a viable tactic for felling larger enemies such as a minotaur, while your allies proactively and unquestioningly throw themselves into battle.
Part of the charm of pawns is that in the first game you could hire unique pawns that belonged to other players through an online Rift. While we do not see this in our build, there are three different save files we can choose from, allowing us to play as different vocations: fighter, archer, and thief.
We start with the fighter, who’s very much the all-rounder, using sword-based attacks, with more skills available via a shortcut brought up by holding L1, while R1 brings up their shield to defend. Depending on your vocation, R1 can also be used to access skills, such as how the archer’s skills via L1 automatically target a nearby enemy whereas holding R1 allows us to freely aim with the right stick.
One thing we notice from these different saves is that our pawns share similar names but take on different appearances, so for example, in one build we have a human mage called Max with their head covered with a coif, while in the other they’re still the same vocation but take the form the game’s new race, the beastren.
“It all looks lush on the PS5 build we’re playing, again another fantastic demonstration of Capcom’s RE Engine. But apart from the visual update, it’s almost uncanny in how much it plays like its predecessor.”
They’re also an incredibly talkative bunch, you might even say annoyingly so, always with something to say about the current quest, pointing out objects of interest, or offering a rolling commentary of a skirmish. Yet their brand of fantasy banter also lends this a certain charm, as if you’re frolicking in the woods with a bunch of larpers taking every second to ham it up.
If a pawn knows where to go next or has a quest that’s important to them, they’ll not hesitate to lead in the front, assuming you don’t abandon them by getting distracted by something else. Yet while Vermund has the appearance of an open world, its map is still primarily made up of visibly outlined paths.
It’s sometimes possible to diverge from these paths, but the area we’re in is also thick with trees and has a fair amount of verticality. We might be able to drop down (but not too far down as to suffer damage or outright kill ourselves) but being able to cling onto monsters doesn’t extend to climbing the environment, save for clambering up ledges your same height.
That said, there are still ways to interact with some environments. Later on, we’re ambushed by a minotaur near a stream but the water is actually currently blocked by rocks. When playing with the archer’s vocation, we use their bow skills to fire at this spot a couple times as an opening breaks out and water floods through, the current carrying our foes away.
And while fall damage is something we have to watch out for, if there’s a pawn waiting below, you could take a leap and they can even catch your fall. On the flipside, we didn’t manage to repay the favour to one pawn who leapt down after us to their death, though we could at least revive them.
Although you’ll be able to change between vocations in the final game, we had to quit and start a new game with one of the other vocations, though even in our limited time this still allowed us to approach things differently. The thief is more nimble in their movements and attacks, though just as with the fighter, we have trouble against a group of harpies who keep to the air while blasting their deadly song as an AoE that makes us collapse into slumber.
Naturally, the archer felt the most adept at taking them on, although they come with a great kick that’s good at booting goblins off a cliff. In each playthrough, we take a different route around Vermund, getting a feel for the different NPCs we might come across, some just minding their own business, others with a request that might prompt them to temporarily join your party.
It’s the archer’s that also proved the most distinct as we realise we’re playing as them from an earlier part of the game at a lower level, which also brings up a flashback to how they became the Arisen (another spot of deja vu is you’re also tended to by a sweet-looking lady named Ulrika when you wake. If it’s anything like the first game, she may be a romantic interest, but if it’s also like the first game, the potential romantic connections you find could be much more unusual.
So far, Dragon’s Dogma 2 certainly feels a lot like the game that has come before it, though we have to bear in mind it’s still the first playable build at a relatively early part of the game. As long as it remains weird for all the reasons its most hardcore fans have championed it all these years, that’s no bad thing at all.