To the end: Final Boss and Beyond (spoilers, kinda, title is sort of obvious)

So I’m starting honestly and saying I’m not good with finishing games.  Not that they’re too difficult, but there’s a monotony.  Maybe the story just doesn’t maintain my interest or I get bogged down in the minutia and have to drop it as a bad habit. Deus Ex: Human Revolution wasn’t that interesting once I got all the upgrades I had wanted, same for Bioshock.  Ni no Kuni actually got finished as a reaction to that, I didn’t want to feel like I lost sight of following a story.

First though, our understanding of the problem: games are very expensive to create, they take a long time, and good boss fights like good dungeons often are completed later and moved to the earlier end of the game so that players experience some great stuff in the beginning, front-loading the expertise everyone developed on the property.  Skyrim was an example of putting a great dungeon early on that expressed the style that players would come to expect, yet they still had a couple great dungeons left for later.  Some developers leave that stuff for DLC.  DLC adds another problem, if we can keep playing after the game is over does the ending really matter that much?

One of our first understandings of the ending is in a play or a novel, you have the conclusion and then the falling action.  Maybe the hero punches out the guy whose stolen his girlfriend and the next couple of scenes they go back to a normal life, maybe the hero kills the guy and his girlfriend kills him, takes a few moments and ends herself, but we get a conclusion to the problems and the rest of the information gives some insight, if necessary.  

Games are somewhat problematic in that your game might end almost immediately after the final battle, some game endings are less than a minute of story, and choice has created the issue of multiple endings.  Worse still is the prevalence of this info being on the internet so gamers know what the endings are and purposefully choose one ending, achievements or trophies might also lead to players making decisions earlier to cause the end to be redundant.  It sort of loses more meaning giving a player the ability to change the ending versus a strict ending they can know is waiting for them so there’s no reason to spoil themselves trying to game it.

But what is the last hurdle?  And endurance contest against overwhelming numbers with weapons at their peak?  A boss signifying combat with the ultimate?  Getting out of the haunted house alive?  Is it going to build on what the player has learned or is going to shift their perspective in the final moments?  All of these?  Some of these?

As I began to feel a lot of games began having less than stellar endings, cliche and meaningless I got tired of games telegraphing too much about what was going to happen.  I didn’t think for moment that the princess in Far Cry 3 was going to really help the protagonist.  I’ve read some of the articles and understand the writer thought he was doing something somewhat more hip that what the game really became, thinking it was more a commentary and criticism instead of what actually became the experience gamers had and what they took away.  Similarly the issues that cropped up when Tomb Raider was getting rebooted and the teaser showing her dealing with assault-though the writer went on to say the game depicted Croft well, even super heroically she’s also gone to talk about the difficulty of video game writing.  The writer, Rhianna Pratchett spoke at a TED talk and actually gave a troubling view of writing for games.  So much is going on and being developed and changed the writer doesn’t have the same control they would in most other mediums.  

But gaming isn’t really a writers medium, it’s never really going to be a writers medium-but if developers know how to get the most out of writing they will be better served.  Story has to matter, the conflict has to matter and world has to matter.  15 hours in a world where nothing seems to matter, or make sense, will lead gamers to not care about the next 15.  And yet just because you’ve had a great 15 hours doesn’t mean 15 more hours are needed-Dishonored is a great example here as each stage was distinct and full of possibilities and felt like it pulled you deeper into this world you wanted to know more about, and didn’t try to overstay it’s welcome.  At the same time the things they telegraphed, the points you caught, they didn’t leave for the ending, they designed a game that played the cards when they needed to and left players in new territory instead of trying to get away with throwing in 5 more hours of game in the middle where the situation would become more and more apparent to gamers and lose any chance of that third act having any impact.  

If there is a “final boss” there are tonal issues, once again something set up long in advance.  There are several instances of games having drastically different final levels than the rest of the game, so much so it’s like they didn’t know how to end the game with the systems in place, other times games try to teach you some completely new mechanic.  The worst, in my opinion, is the quick-time event.  You deal with a tough boss, then have to reload because you didn’t click X then O when the game told you. (Funny I never tire of hating on quick-time events, it’s like they’re wholly unnecessary or something)

 

So the problem with a good ending to a game is more than just the last boss, or the final section itself, but in the connection it has to everything else-if a player doesn’t want to keep learning about this world, or feel like the story is progressing as much as they want it to, they won’t care to keep playing.  X-Com suffers that problem, with little by way of story or character development the game lives and dies on mechanics-but they’re the same mechanics with new enemies pretty evenly spaced.  Still, if the game doesn’t push you over the threshold by a certain point there’s not chance you’ll finish.  

This is completely different from the way games open.  Introductions are expected to spend a lot of capital getting gamers invested, all the best material possible has to pull people in to what will possibly be a long process of learning the mechanics of the game and learning to “read” the game world.  Yet many games fail to deliver on this in the back end.  Far Cry 3 has several missions leading to every mechanic involved in the game, and yet as the game continues the characters evaporate and the conflict evaporates as story detours and more trouble turn a great visual experience full of opportunity into something slowly becoming a repetitive mess of an experience and only the power fantasy story levels kept the momentum going against terrible side quests and quick-time everything.  

The game dropped my focus at lest because several problems with the way different mechanics interacted but also how the story was pieced together and on to of that the genre mixing.  While somewhat an open world sandbox and somewhat an RPG and somewhat a power fantasy game these didn’t all work at all times-at some points the game wouldn’t let you pick new skills until you completed more levels so you would do levels just to get the opportunity to place more skill points so running around would become fun again-just bad pacing of the challenge curve.

That might be the best understanding of how games fail at leading players to the ending and whatever the climax is.  Every game has to have some sort of challenge curve so that players are learning new elements and then when they are ready learn more, or when people begin to find the gameplay might get stale something new is introduced.  However, thinking gameplay is all that matters is where many designers fail since story and world-building do a lot to add to that experience.  Playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution was problematic because the game supposedly could be played action oriented or stealth oriented.  Fine, but stealth attempts gave something like 5 times as much experience, so it was obviously the most preferred way to go.  However, this means the same track of space within the level might take 3-5 times as long.  What could be a 15-25 hour game might also be 10 hours of trying to get through areas using stealth so you didn’t lose out on useful experience.  On top of that the inventory system, grid based, sucked.  Sucked.  While I spent a lot of time trying to keep two bullet and 2 stealth weapons and divvy out the sparse upgrades along my journey I eventually had to cut down to 2 guns, one of each variety, so that I had room for the other items I needed.  If I knew this would happen I would have been making very different choices, and by the time I made that decision I couldn’t go back, I had been on that path for like 20 hours and had to live with the consequences where neither weapon lived up to their end game potential.  A bank would have been helpful, but instead the simple mechanic of not having space for resource management left me regretting a decisions made many hours earlier.  

That wasn’t the only problem, while the game did have great challenges at times it just kept going, they had enough story for two games and just as many locations.  Breaking into one more building so I could stow away on a ship to get me to the secret area one last time just became too tiring when I had done all those things 3 times before in one manner or another.  In stead of figuring out how to use the idea one great way, or two great ways, they went with the same ideas over and over.  I know someone reading this is thinking “it’s a stealth game, aren’t you supposed to be enjoying breaking into these places, that’s the fantasy you payed for, right?” Well there’s the rub: as we stated at the beginning games are very expensive propositions and sometimes they don’t want to waste what they’ve built.  

All the story they’ve developed, all the levels they’ve worked out, every possible variation of a boss: it’s all money and time(lots of time) and that’s hard to just cut.  While writers are not king of gaming they have a tool many game developers should appreciate more-the ability to cut and delete at will.  

So these issues seem to have a weird link in that games seem to be served best by encapsulating the best that is developed as compared to simply applying a kitchen sink approach, yet there needs to be an understanding of tone and story so that whatever is allowed to stay in the final product suits the end user.  Something that worries me about gaming, and indie game culture, is play testing.  I was playing an X-Box Live Indie Game called something like “Super Amazing Wagon Adventure”, it was a riff on the old Oregon Trail game somehow mandatorily installed on every computer by an unseen hand controlling our nostalgic reality.  The person who developed “Super…” had some interesting elements, randomness, difficulty, parody, retro style, but the problem is they probably didn’t play test with enough different people.  The game can apparently be completed in 10 minutes but any time you play many different options exist.  I’d suggest getting the game, it’s inexpensive but remember my criticism: the game is very difficult, but it always starts the same way.  You turn on the game and jump in and your in your wagon and start hunting, then bandits show up, then more bandits with better weapons, then a river your ford or jump(jumping possibly leads to space, fording possibly leads to a pirate ship) then you’re on the great plains dealing with buffalo.  I’m not really sure what happens after that, you hit the buffalo and the game becomes almost impossible, though you get some better chances if you survive the buffalo.  You have 3 people on the wagon and at some points people get off the wagon to go solo foraging or hunting, if they die they’re gone(sometimes you get malaria and just die).  So you want everyone to survive the first section without dying, then the solo sections which are tough to master, then the buffalo, so that your hearts are refilled by a camp fire.  Then you’ll probably meet a fur trader and trade for health or weapons but you won’t get more people, I think.  The problem is I played the game a lot to get to that amount of knowledge.  I played the opening bandits a lot of times to get that knowledge, the opening river, and the buffalo a lot of times.  The game has randomness but its not that random.  As far as I can tell the people who tested the game got better at this stuff and learned to get past it, or could skip, but I had not interest after playing the first part over and over.  For a dollar it wasn’t a bad move, more fun than most things a dollar gets.  From what I understand not having a diverse group of people testing your game leads to the testers just getting good at the game-something most people who sit down and play for the first time won’t be.

As great as the ending of any game may be the gamer has to actually get there.  If a game is a cohesive whole, this should be every designers goal.  

The game should create a sense of desiring to see that resolution that over-rides the difficulty spikes but has to maintain that holistic sense of story and world that lead to enthused players being able to complete the game.  I know I’ve written before about my love of difficult games, though I don’t want to seem like that’s close to the majority of the titles I play, a well made difficult game has to be meticulously crafted.  Dark Souls is an excellent game but there are several bosses that are not well designed, Bed of Chaos being the most apparent.  While players do have the tools to defeat any enemy but the game has a bad system for describing an items stats and how that relates to your stats creating an obliqueness that leaves many would be adventurers either deciding to give up or use cheap methods to achieve their wins.  If players beat every enemy in really cheap fashion it ends up cheapening their experience of the game.  If a game relies on players having to spend time trying to get random items or equipment by farming this also cheapens the experience.  An equation pops into gamers minds reading “if I am expected to farm for 20 minutes to get so that I have items to beat the next boss battle why not farm for 3 hours to get through the rest of the game?” 3 hours later the games in the box and under the bed with the rest of the games that are getting sold when the player wants a new game. 

Is there anything that gamers can do?

I know spoilers are somewhat of a problem with modern internet culture, but I think it’s important that people have documentation of things.  Maybe write some comments in the reviews of the game online after you beat the game, or give up, talking about the experience.  If articles appear about the game after the review post comments there as well so that if someone is thinking about buying a game and read a review or two they see not just people talking about the game with just a few hours gameplay commenting but find a comment talking about the entire game.  Gaming is a consumer culture and finishing a game should be like finishing a book-you really can’t talk about a book without reading the entire thing.  Publishers need to know that people aren’t just going to make a stink about really bad endings or cliche plot twists or whatever but that people are going to talk about the general experience and whether the good is really worth the bad.  If people don’t keep buying a game the conversation stops and the game isn’t worthy of a franchise which is an important thing currently.  Or look at who made the game and their other work, try to get some info out that this person might be very good or very short sighted or whatever at their job.  This is a consumer culture and people who have bad track records only keep making games because the other consumers don’t know they have bad track records (or vice versa).

The other thing is on web-sites with forums, or places like Gamefaqs orReddit, try to start honest discussions of your game experience with other gamers.  No flaming, no hysterics, just real discussion about the merits of a game.  When people are thinking about getting a game they put in certain search terms, you can probably imagine what they are so start a post that will draw those people to it.  Though this is all useful for bringing up what’s bad in games it shouldn’t just be a tool of that means, try and make sure good games get exposure, and that flawed games get exposure, just try to be balanced and honest.  A tough section isn’t worth starting 15 board topics on, but huge balance issue, terrible final stretches, etc deserve to be mentioned and talked about just as well great endings should be talked about albeit with very little spoilery stuff.  

All in all that’s the real problem to me, it’s hard to always find gamer opinion on the net that seems valid or balanced, trust me its hard to try and give it at all but it is more useful in the long run to the gaming community. 

Now for Mass Effect 3’s ending:  I honestly liked it, it fit the tone of the game and was a choice, albeit a somewhat shallow choice.  Or was it?  When the game first caught my ear, ME the first, I heard about this cool sci-fi game where you had relationships that were changeable and made lots of choices and decisions, getting the game only on the second installment I loved the title (though it was a huge mistake to try and start out on insanity difficulty that was stupid).   When the third game was released I picked it up having played the demo and knew the tone was more epic, tougher.  The second title had ended on a fairly strong and epic finish yet a massive pause could be felt knowing pieces of plot were moving but you didn’t know where.  In the third release it was obvious this put “against all hope” out the window, things were tougher, the environments were all on the brink of collapse and the institutions holding together seemed in the same precarious situation.  But there was a change, the previous game had always had red and blue choices, for some reason the third game switched to a new system-your choices still built your character’s, err, character but you weren’t necessarily penalized for nice or mean choices every time but were expected to be more fluid.  The rules of how choices were made seemed to be freed up, something interesting.  The story lead to what was about 10 minutes of great combat from which Shep seemed doomed but he continued.  The story had developed from a guy controlling the situation with his choices to a guy in the middle of a massive melt-down beyond his control as much a spectator as the rest of the audience.   But the Commander was given another choice.  Maybe it was a bit of a remark and re-evaluation of the choice/choice-less dichotomy they created or maybe it was something where players were meant to puzzle over which choice really created the best ending.  However, player choice is what got me to Mass Effect and it was how I left the game, choosing to appreciate my time in that universe and not to download the new ending.  Sorry EA, I know you worked hard, but I accepted my finale.  However there was a debate of sorts, a maelstrom, the internet was chock full of people incensed.  I would be incensed too if I had to beat that huge game in less than 24 hours to get to that ending but I had taken my time since the word was the ending was nothing to write home about.  That was a real change for me, I didn’t feel any push to finish since obviously the ending would just happen when it happened and I really soaked up every bit of atmosphere the game oozed out.  

Though I think it is important people got their ideas out about the games ending they didn’t really do it the right way, that’s an understatement.  They let their feelings about the ending goad them into hurting other peoples experiences basically spoiling the game for a massive amount of players.  That wasn’t called for, though media sites didn’t feel like they had any role in respecting the ending and the experiences they affected spoiling the ending for more people every time they went over the “story” of “fan outrage.”  As well all the anti-EA stuff running around, as always, and that basically became a textbook example of what not to do from everyone’s perspective.  

When Borderlands 2 came out I started going to the Gearbox forums for the first time since BL1, my account still worked since I had been playing the game since only a year before the release of the sequel.  The Borderlands community was unique in many ways, one was that the incredibly random weapon creation system had been worked out by people so they knew by looking at 2 versions of one gun which was better(even if each valued in at $99999999).  These people had created an informed community what’s more the games original ending, not the best it could be on any level, actually was improved with DLC, possibly one of the best examples of DLC.

Though as BL2 began to get press it didn’t necessarily look like the crew understood what made the game successful for so long.  When they “fixed” the ending it was because of a boring final boss.  Borderlands 2 can be seen as that solution down the line, enemies were all immune to some type of element, enemies reacted much differently and the action of the game was generally better.  But they screwed up the guns.  You couldn’t get those random Great Guns as often.  When you did get an orange “Legendary” weapon it often wasn’t that useful or just plane sucked for actual use.  As well, because most guns you found weren’t good there was this weird thing where the amount of ammo you would need to use versus the damage enemies did meant you might theoretically not be able to get through areas without getting better gear-which was super unlikely. Some people reported having super difficult playthroughs of later areas or New Game +, but because it’s random others basically acted like pigs since they hadn’t had that problem.  It sort of tore that message board apart.  People were writing huge posts about how the game didn’t feel as fun since they weren’t running around with one of their favorite weapons from the first game, I’m talking 30+ page long topics.  This wasn’t the worst thing for Gearbox who had incentivized DLC with a “season pass” where many people waiting on BL2 purchased the 4 pieces of DLC for a cheaper price.  This was kind of insidious to me because you would have already got a piece of that DLC for free just for pre-ordering, so many had actually not saved any money but signed up to play this game for months on end due to knowing they were getting all these DLC.   These people started watching news, reading Randy Pitchford’s tweets, they were now invested in this game at a new level.  You would read these message board posts like “Randy Pitchford doesn’t get it” with copies of his replies to incensed fans about issues as diverse as the gun stuff to freezing issues and online problems as well as the random corrupted files(which in a game like BL2 where time is measured in rocking guns you’ve found can be a pain).  I quit playing the game, quit reading the board as the environment got more toxic, people who got their guns being downright mean to those who hadn’t, other people compulsively trying to get meaningless heads and skins from rare bosses(all of which are now for sale as DLC, those poor pitiful fools did they get screwed thinking that stuff wouldn’t come out for sale).  Still I don’t hear about this stuff in any press concerning the BL2 DLC, I didn’t hear about any of it.  Pitchford had said once that only 35% of the people who owned BL2 had gotten to level 50, max level(maybe not anymore I couldn’t know).  I never understood that totally, if the real Borderlands experience was to play through the game, get your good guns, then jump to a second playthrough and do it all again trying for better guns how did all these people not understand this was the idea?  This was how the game was meant to be played right?  

The reality is games are created to be sold, not necessarily played, they cost a lot of money to produce, they take a lot of time to make.  If it costs too much to make a great all around game just spend more money on advertising and marketing, Pitchford figured that out on Aliens: Colonial Marines.  Sorry, I just had to drop that one in, I don’t hate Randy Pitchford, I just feel like he’s out of the loop or something and doesn’t care about little things.  But Colonial Marines was a disaster, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, they didn’t deserve that.  But on the Borderlands 2 message boards everyone was waiting on Colonial Marines, it was going to get that Borderlands 2 gunplay and AI only with xenomorphs, awesome right?  I just have this image of all those people who had the BL2 season pass and suffered through that realizing their Colonial Marines season pass was a true waste of money.  

But now it’s not a question of finishing the game, it’s about selling season passes, since it’s expensive to make 3-5 DLC and fans get the word out pretty quick about downloadable material keeping other fans from wasting money on a subpar expansion or horse armor.  

I think the future of bosses, of games that get people through to the end really is going to come from designers and writers working together to create good worlds, like that of Dishonored, which players really want to experience all that it has to offer.  As well, it will be smart mechanics, and all around well made games without stupid problems that ruin the experience 20+ hours in.  But DLC is another matter, I am now of the mind that DLC shouldn’t be mentioned while making the original content, seriously.  Obviously they’re going to keep putting content on disc because it allows for more options on a DEV side, hooks and such, but I see too often games coming out with obligatory DLC, as well as season passes, but the entire thing is so expected now as a revenue source for companies they are obviously going to push resources towards that, since it’s such quick money.  I have enjoyed lots of DLC, I kind of love when it’s done well, but that’s an entirely different subject for an entirely different day I feel like looking at something big.  But if games are going to move more into interesting and unique experiences, the type with emotional resonance, tears and laughter, it’s going to come because of a generation of developers designing games well, not because a game is a great platform for a horde mode or zombie mode or great to sell multiplayer maps or weapon packs.  They’re all fine, those things all matter, gaming is a huge space and the most important thing is always gameplay, but if people want games made that are worthy of playing through people are going to have to go out of their way not to just accept that a good game has come out but to praise it and make sure gaming news/review outlets know that said game is good and that real gamers are posting comments enjoying the game and playing the game through to the end, not just buying it.  

That’s the true rub, games are expensive to make, they take a long time to create, and its hard to get across whether the ending sucks without spoilers.  

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Dragon’s Dogma

So I was wondering about Dragon’s Dogma back when it came out, the reviews were mixed to be sure, but I was instead moved to get into Dark Souls and Fallout: New Vegas.  Great games, games changing how I thought about games, but I saw a video recently that made the game look good(the DLC on the way didn’t hurt) and decided to purchase a used copy.  

DD comes from CAPCOM who are infamous now for creating DLC which is partially on the disc you bought, but for DD they seem to have waited on fan opinions to create the DLC.  For one thing the new DLC, Dark Arisen, will apparently deal with the travel problems.  That’s kind of a big deal because this game is uneven to say the least.  

I’ve been watching a lot of videos lately about game design, AI, and more and I’ve gotten into a new space when thinking about games-I don’t want to just think about gaming as a narrative and gameplay but about choices the developers created for you.  The way devs shape these choices would be the closest thing to an auteur theory in gaming.  While story is definitely an important aspect of a game, it’s nowhere near as important as mechanics and gameplay and player choice or agency-all of which are design decisions as compared to story.  Story seems to be something less important to games in many ways.  For one the game is in flux for much of the development so creating a great character doesn’t matter if his entire area has to be cut due to memory or performance issues.  And plot has a similar problem in that many elements are coming together at any one time so set pieces or events or areas might have to be changed which screws up any plans from before development began. 

So when one begins playing Dragon’s Dogma there is an opening salvo where you are a fully formed arisen, the player character, with a full party-more on that later-going after a dragon.  And before you realize it your fighting monsters, and eventually getting to a big part of the combat-fighting a big monster you can climb on.  Grappling onto your monsters is a big part of combat.  This game can allow players to attack from far away, but also to jump right on the monster and go for the critical areas-or throw your party members onto the monsters while maintaining distance yourself.  This sort of gives a Shadow of the Colossus feel-though never really that epic.  But most games won’t be that epic ever.  

But before going to fight a dragon the story moves on to the actual player character creation.  Once you’ve designed you’re character it’s time to watch a cutscene, where flying monsters and a giant dragon explode from a void opened up in the sky.  The player character lives in a fishing village, the duke’s men are looking for soldiers to help in the wyrm hunt, but the dragon shows up.  The action is now interactive and for a few seconds you get to use those grappling skills to fight the big boss-but the cutscene soon pops back up and the dragon flings the protagonists onto the shore.  To add insult to injury, or just injury to injury he spends the tiniest amount of effort to pierce the heart of our here-a super bloody act.  There’s now a goal to get your heart back.  Yeah, you survive.  It’s not a second opening scene that’s unconnected, you play the arisen, a prophesied figure who can slay the dragon-and get their heart back.  

Once you wake up in your village of Cassardis you pick your class and start picking up simple quests and getting urged towards the capitol of Gran Soren.  So the next hour of the game spins you through the motions of getting to Gran Soren and learning combat and weapon skills.  Though the innovation for this game is the pawn system.  Just like you created your character you can create a character AI will control that will forever be in your party and you can pick up 2 other pawns from other gamers(or created by CAPCOM).  

People technically rent pawns using a specific currency, any pawn under your level is free and a level or two above is still cheap, but the best way to get currency for better pawns is having a pawn people want to rent.  When you let  a pawn go you not only give the creator a gift item but a rating(if you want) so that good pawns get to a higher level of notice via rankings.  You want your pawn wearing the best gear possible, using the best spells or skills, just like you want your character optimized.  When the game came out people posted videos about how to get hundreds of thousands of Rift Crystals(currency for pawns) by creating pawns people would choose.  However, now that the game has been out for a year it’s been pretty hard to get those sorts of rewards for my pawn, interest is down, people have given up the game, and if nobody is renting your pawn those rewards won’t come.  This doesn’t mean I haven’t had the best pawn possible, or that I didn’t get lucky once and get over 150,000 crystals once, but I imagine there would have been better numbers if more people were playing.  Why aren’t people playing then?

The game is really uneven.  There’s no great travel method in the game, though once you beat the game you get more options.  Fast travel, which Skyrim will let you do for free and opens up in Dark Souls about 1/3 the way through, costs a lot of gold, especially in the early game. You can only fast travel to a Port Crystal-and you only get one on New Game. New Game + the number goes to 10, so you can travel to Gran Soren and 10 other spots at ease.  At ease so long as you get a ferrystone, 20K gold(or less but that’s involved).  So you’re first game you spend a lot of time just walking around, running until you’re out of breath, fighting camps of goblims, the occasional big monster, and then getting to your destination. Then, you walk back the exact same way, through the big monster, the goblins, and finally back home to hand in that quest.  Unless you want to wast the gold you need for upgrading your weapons you are going to walk everywhere-heck you walk everywhere from the capitol until you get your first Port Crystal about 2/3 through the main story.  If the terrain was more varied, if the capitol was actually centrally located, if there was just some other way to travel that was unlockable at some point this process of fighting the same monsters you are obviously more powerful than after the first few levels wouldn’t be such a big part of the game.  But it is, dealing with traveling and fighting these basic monsters will take up so much space between the main quests.

The other thing between the main quest chain are the side quests.  Fetch quests, escort quests, just fairly boring stuff for the most part.  Having gotten through my second run of the main quest I’ve found that if one of these quests isn’t easily doable, forget about it.  You’ll end up getting people killed who sell things-like cheap ferrystones, and just reload from a save.  Otherwise they’re the types of quests that just get completed-kill 10 of this, 3 of those, 1 of ????…good for XPs but not really interesting or fuelling the narrative’s complexity or depth.  

That said it can’t really be expanded, the dragon is come, and a group called Salvation is ruffling up the people of Gransys with spys and espionage and cultism.  Gransys and it’s neighbors are a world where monsters exist, and the several countries that do work will come to each others aid if a big monster-dragon-shows up.  Though normally they spend their armies on fending off the monsters at the edges of their realms.  With the dragon(or wyrm as the game calls it) having come back these monsters are moving into the area people live in and the only way to bring the world back is to banish the dragon.  Moving through the main quest sees the hero grow to a big monster hunter with him and his pawn having great knowledge of every kind of monster-but also learning more about the intrigue of the local government and what being the arisen means.  And yes, it is Chrislike though the game attempts to hide it.  You are a fisherman, you come back from the dead.  It’s not terribly hard to see.  The problem with the quests is aside from the main quests and a few key side-quests there isn’t much in the way of learning about the world. 

This game has so many NPCs and I don’t want to talk to any of them.  They’re awful and all speak in an awful faux Olde English using “aught” and “naught” way too much.  And to be honest the pawns in your party will talk way too much.  I don’t need to hear about how aught grows in the forest, I’m level 100 I know forests are full of curative agents.  One of my least favorite NPCs is the guy in Gran Soren you use for lodging.  Nighttime is important in Dragon’s Dogma as where wolves might have populated an area by the road after dark skeletons and zombies will show up, where once bandits stood now phantasms and sorcerers appear.  This would be pretty fun if night time wasn’t super dark.  You carry around a lantern, but this doesn’t help much beyond about 2 yards circling you.  While you can give a lantern to everyone in your party that would require a lot of fuel which is a lot of weight.  Its just a bad lighting system inherent in the game, and something designed possibly to create difficulty and tension just becomes a muddy and confusing mess the more you actually deal with it.  While the trip to Gran Soren the first time should have you dealing with the darkness just as you get to the castle gates, and thus the zombies surrounding the place, extended time in the dark isn’t as spooky later but it’s so tiring.  The mechanic could have been so much more interesting.

So when you find someone who allows you to rest for the night on the road you use them, but I really felt like I should have been able to make camp. You can actually collect kindling during the game, I feel making camp could have worked, but then you might not get the second benefit of these hostel keepers-changing your vocation.  As a JRPG there are vocations, classes.  Unlike a game like Skyrim where you choose what you want to advance each class has specific growth stats, striders get way more stamina but warriors more health.  Though one of the great things about the game is the class system which lets you switch back and forth, using great gear you find that’s only applicable to specific classes or advancing classes to get their rewards, something the game doesn’t make clear is that these choices won’t change your stats later.  If your character has been a mage for 40 levels, but you decide magic isn’t for you at all you will never get those points back for health and stamina.  Though this does create that sort of improvisational feel if they would have provided more information on this upfront I think people would be much more focused to how long they play as certain classes.  However, this does allow for interesting builds to form.  Though there are only so many high end weapons and I learned the hard way that even with 22 levels of magic before level 100(where all vocations growth drastically drops off) my character would never really get the most out of magical weapons.  Which wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t already have the best pure damage weapon.  D’oh.  

And these vocations aren’t even, though the warrior gets the best growth for health they have a severely limited move set of 3 fighting skills, which means you are super limited.  I wish there was a more visceral type of warrior with better moves, but it just doesn’t exist for DD-warriors are purely tanks designed to soak up damage and aggro.  But each class allows for purchase of specific skills and augments-skills are always active once purchased, and augments are somewhat more limited with only a handful turned on at any time and yet usable with any class.  So even if the warrior was a fairly boring character it gives players some great augments useful to whatever style they want to use later on. But at what cost?

These augments and weapon skills can be changed anywhere you can sleep at basically, with vocations only changeable in Gran Soren.  The problem is every time you speak to that NPC he wants to say something, every single time.  Having to skip through his conversation is incredibly tiring the thousandth time, and all the NPCs are that way.  You can talk to them but you don’t have any choice in what to say, just whether you want to take on the sidequests they might provide-and giving them gifts as well to increase their affinity for you.  There is a romance aspect of the game, but whoever has the highest affinity is chosen, so even if I’ve done everything to raise my relationship with the girl with a rapier that a princess from another country if I talk to the guy who sells ferrystones after her that guy shows up as my romance.  Yeah, kind of weird and un-romantic.  It’s like Japan heard Bioware has these intricate romance relationships within their games creating a romantic metagame and somehow the signals got crossed.  So while the game has way more characters then something like Dark Souls, which also doesn’t give you any option in what you say to NPCs, the actual relationships and connections are much more superficial.  What sets these characters apart in Dark Souls is over time you piece together the story of their NPCs, each a dark and tragic saga of a world going mad, whereas DD just makes you mad that you’re expected to listen to the same things over and over.  Once again it’s like they just didn’t test elements of this game enough with different people.

Though the equipment enhancing is another story, as weapons get better the amount of gold required to upgrade them rises but also the materials required become more rare.  So if you really want to upgrade an item you will begin scouring the DD wiki looking for where the items are found.  When you fight a dragon there’s a chance your equipped gear might get upgraded to the highest level-Dragonforged.  While any gear upgraded once has a chance, unless you’ve upgraded the gear 2-3 times already there’s really a small chance the gear will get upgraded, however when you defeat the dragon who stole your heart you get every piece of gear dragonforged, as well as high level dragon versions of whatever you’re wearing just asking to be dragonforged.  And while upgrading gear wouldn’t be a problem normally, considering ever item uses different materials to enhance you never sell materials since they might be used in upgrading something down the line.  This means the random system keeps you kind of poor.  However eventually the need for XPs and the need to dragonforge your equipment has you running around hunting the biggest monsters you can find.

Which isn’t a problem because this starts the post-game, not New Game + but post-game, an area called the Everfall is now open and the world drastically changed, higher level monsters are everywhere, many more dragons just roaming around for dragonforging that new gear, or attempting to.  But the Everfall is the big attraction, a multi level dungeon full of end game gear and weird combinations of enemies.  This is the most fun part of the game.  Though each dungeon looks almost the same the sheer ease of getting to the enemies makes it so much fun.  Now you don’t have to run around if you don’t want to, place that ONE PORT CRYSTAL in the right spot and you might now be able to hit up 2-3 big monsters in one run, and after that jump through the Everfall when you stock back up on healing items and fight 4-5 more.  The game finally feels like it’s opening up, and it’s over.  

Though the Everfall has one more treasure in the Ur Dragon.  A giant dragon(ok just as big as the final dragon) that when beat gives you really good gear. However if you’re playing online there’s a tougher version that gives even better gear just for hurting it and surviving. The Online Ur Dragon has so much health that everyone on the server fights him at once, not together, but the monster has to constantly check the server to see what everyone is doing to it.  On top of that every time the Online Ur Dragon is defeated a new generation arrives with more health.  When I first fought the Online Ur Dragon it was the 200th generation.  Landing the killing blow gives you the best gear in the game, dragonforges every item you’re wearing and gives you pretty great bragging rights since each generation is tougher whoever finished off the last dragon is the king of the hill.  

But all this is post-game, yeah the post-game sets up the true understanding off an arisen, it explores how the actions of the main quest culminated, and sheds some light on Gransys, but not that much.  I wish I could say the explanations for the world, for the arisen were interesting but not so.  I really felt it was too little too late in an attempt to make sense of this world and why you would want to be here.  

A big part of RPGs is abnegation, playing a game where you get rewarded by raising your level and stats, by having things like side quests that create easily definable goals to tick off.  Over the years the RPG in Japan grew very different from the RPG in the west.  Though both came from table top roots in role playing success of narratives in Japanese games meant their industry trended towards games with clear and defined protagonists.  While in the west it was much more like a game of D&D: you created a character and role played with them.  These developers focused on creating compelling experiences by giving variety of play based on expecting gamers to perform as such.  In Japan after Final Fantasy VII, the Playstation game that rewarded players with cut-scenes for completing challenges(something new at the time), their entire industry trended towards that sort of story telling.  However, this became very expensive in later cycles and western developers could expand to include also good combat, interesting worlds and characters, even good stories.  Final Fantasy games are now just a collection of cut scenes with battles along the way that play very similar to the original games that are around 30 years old-only with better graphics.  

In recent years both branches of the RPG genre have been created by various different regions-western style RPGs now coming out of Japan.  Dark Souls is an example of this, and CAPCOM seems to have wanted to follow this trend but without putting the money or time into the process.  I can’t really say, but with the new DLC supposedly responding to fan feedback I hope this has been a learning experience.  Though the tech demo shown at the Sony PS4 conference appears that they’re moving more towards copying Dark Souls, if the demo is to be believed.  Dragon’s Dogma though is worth a play, maybe wait for the version to drop containing the expansion on the disc, no need in wasting money on a used game that’s probably priced the same.  

When I finally finished the Everfall I decided I wanted my character to build up some magic skills, that meant a New Game +.  New Game +, NG+, is an interesting phenomenon.  Basically you keep your first character and their equipment and start the game over.  On Dark Souls this means the enemies get tougher, and progressively tougher on each subsequent NG, though some games try different things out.  For Borderlands and Borderlands 2 NG+ is for building your character up to MAX level, once the game is completed a second time all the chests in the world switch to MAX level allowing for versions of guns way better than anything previously as well as all enemies moving to this status allowing you to use those guns for fun to kill enemies to get better guns at that level(yeah, BL is confusing that way since you just beat enemies you’ve already beat building up a weapons cache for no real reason).  

Dragon’s Dogma uses NG+ basically as a chance to start a class you haven’t prepared for at all.  If I had just switched to a mage in my first game every enemy would have killed me-but NG+ let me run around fighting enemies I had a chance on(though my health was way too much for these guys now to stand a true chance).  Also that whole problematic traveling changes since you can buy those extra Port Crystals and set up easy travel.  You’re second playthrough is a fraction of the time of the first-all the gold from those endless dungeons post-game means ferrystones and upgrades are a binary choice.  Also the Port Crystals cary over to any more NG+s so you no longer have the same travel problems ever.  

This is whats weird about the game’s final design.  The dungeons are so fun in post-game but the main game world is basically dungeon-free.  They’re obviously good at creating this sort of stuff they could have figured how to make it work.  All the walking and the day/night cycle would work if monsters randomly spawned-if there was a chance the 30 minute treks wouldn’t be the same but they basically always are.  Yet post-game ups the challenge why not have more random events to make the walking interesting?  In Skyrim people just show up as you walk, maybe a guy hands you a sword to hold then a guard talks to you and says he’s looking for that criminal.  Or monsters fighting each other and bandits in Borderlands-Dragons Dogma basically fills the world with pawns walking around waiting to be rented.  Yeah, it feels like there’s people populating the world, but they’re just going to tell you about aught in the forest if you enlist them.  They won’t help you out if a monster shows up, and monsters jump right past them to chase after you.  The world is littered with outposts full of guards and military, but most won’t have quests for you, or even much story info-wheras most games have gotten to a point where they know how to use environmental storytelling.  There was basically none of that with pawns piping in to tell you things every so often.  That’s really quite lazy.  There is a religion in this world, there are old gods, there are other nations with political intrigue, but none of it gets explored.  And for a game where the entire country is surrounded by water you never unlock any sort of boat or shipman to help you get around.  Even if it just cut 15 minutes off a walk that would have helped so much.

So in the end Dragons Dogma lacked a focus.  While some systems were quite polished others were just lazy.  I remember fighting the Ur Dragon and clinging onto him, but the camera couldn’t see me because it was caught on his wing.  Yeah, that broke the immersion of what was supposed to be a big deal of the combat in all the advertisements, but also that meant I had no control of my character moving around his body since up and down would just feed back and forth as the camera got caught on the wing no matter how far I pushed in either direction. I mean that’s the games big go-to technique on its main boss and they didn’t have any way to deal with the camera on that?  To be honest you really can’t control the camera, not in an options menu anyways. As well there are moments in the story where they take the camera control out of 3rd person and find a fixed point in front of you so that you run towards the camera with a monster behind you.  The problem is the game knows that the monster would get in the cameras way, yet this ruins the tension that the chase is supposed to create.  When designing things like that developers need to stay away from these “lose lose” propositions.  Same thing with quick-time events in general: even if it allows for doing things not within the games systems or controls drawing attention to what the game lacks is not the right way to deal with these issues.  It’s a person designing based on what they want to do instead of what they can do, like I was saying about story you can’t create the story but you can create a game then allow a story to work with it.  

Dragon’s Dogma really suffers from the things it gets wrong, the NPCs, the weak world-creation, the lame world design, and not planning ahead enough. Also the game doesn’t quite nail down what it wants to be.  Is it a super-hard Dark Souls game, is it a true open-world RPG, is it a party based MMO-like?  Though the influences are obviously there, and the blends are unique and rewarding at times, they also allowed some of the worst parts of these games to come over.  Dark Souls can have boring interactions with NPCs because the NPCs have great stories, Skyrim also can have the same because some NPCs are more dynamic and every story at least has decent writing and crafting behind it whereas no NPC in Dragon’s Dogma is worth the time of day.  If they would have thrown in a few more dungeons, re-thought the world map, and maybe even put more energy into weapons and vocations and combat-all of which they more or less did excellent at-this would be an incredible game.  

Instead CAPCOM is trying to sell gamers DLC that probably should have come as a patch, and more dungeons that should have been in the original or on DLC months ago.  However, if they did listen to reviews and criticism, fan feedback from people who really enjoyed the game and found a rewarding experience amongst all the disparate shards of experiences, I hope they continue to support games in this manner.  Specifically this game.  I know it’s far-fetched but I bet they could make challenge dungeons as DLC and people would buy it if the new content really does fix the games deficits.  And with everyone eying the future, optimistic at new consoles and new IPs, I hope this game gets another chance.  Yes, there are lots of problems that will drive you nuts at times in the game, and the story isn’t rewarding at all, and NPCs(just NPCs), but the combat is excellent.  The feeling when your pawn has come back with all 5 star ratings and you know you influenced another persons game positively, it’s really cool.  

Oh yeah, one last thing.  The game has 1 save file.  Released in 2013, if you select New Game and selected a save device with a loaded save file it gets overwritten.  Yeah, you could create a save on another drive(probably should every couple of days if I think about it) but that’s not very likely.  I know this is supposed to be a design choice focused on experience in some way but its just awful.  Like the loads of walking it’s just all bad.  The game doesn’t save super-often and I don’t think you can change that.  It has what are called checkpoint saves, leaving the city or entering it count, entering or exiting a cave or dungeon-but beyond that you have to save if you want to protect your progress.  However, if you realize you messed up you have to quit without saving and re-load.  If that load didn’t fix whatever mistake you made you need to go into the save menu and load up the checkpoint save-if that doesn’t work you are screwed.  However, when you move on to post-game you are given a sword which is used entirely for killing yourself.  Seriously.  If you’ve ever played a game where you have to get loot from chests you might recall saving in front of a chest and opening the chest-then quitting and reloading to open the chest again.  In Dragon’s Dogma you can save yourself so much time buy using that sword to kill yourself, selecting retry on the death menu and re-opening the chest.  This technique doesn’t screw with your stats either.  It’s interesting that the game did something like this which really does think about the end-user experience.  One of the worst parts of Borderlands 2, probably a big reason why I quit playing that game, is that so many times the developers didn’t think about that sort of stuff.  Yeah, that suicide technique doesn’t force good gear to appear in chests, but it does save you a minute or so ever time re-loading would have happened meaning you can be saved an hour worth of time if you’re looking for any 1 item-that’s hours and hours of time if trying to get multiple pieces of end-game gear.  And it’s a good thing because if you are playing a game for abnegation and just opening chests b/c you don’t feel like fighting a dragon right now you might as well spend that full time getting gear and not loading and re-loading.  

That’s something that really says to me that they’re thinking deeper about this game, yeah the overall experience suffered from a few decisions not really thought out-players didn’t need filler quite so much or at least better quality-but there are a few gems of ideas in the game.  Play it if you get a chance and want to see those ideas and build a party to take down monsters.  There’s definitely some strategy in this game.  However, don’t go in expecting too much from the elements that aren’t fleshed out-you’re not wrong in the first hour of the game about those things they won’t get fixed any time soon.  But hopefully in a year or two the company throws fans of this game a bone, because there really needs to be a version of this world that’s more evenly developed and the people who sat through 20 hours of walking when this game came out deserve to play that game.