I honestly have no idea what is happening in Dragon's Dogma's story. The only semblance of a plot I've come across is a dragon stealing my heart and people showing me that their palms glow. Both of these things seem important, magical, and a tad bit strange. I should point out that I'm 25 hours into the game. Both of these revelations came within the first hour of my quest.

In the time that has followed, I've listened to villagers talk about problems in their lives – such as a man who wanted to drink alcohol at the bottom of a well, but monsters got in the way – and have dealt with them. From what I've seen so far, the game really should have been called The Epic Chronicles of the Heartless Quest Doer. I've been tasked to escort old people through the woods, find lost books, and for whatever reason, kill 45 hapless rabbits.

Most of my memorable moments come from aimlessly exploring this game's massive world. I stumbled upon a dragon hidden in a forest; scaled the outside of a tower and was rewarded with a treasure chest; entered a catacomb sheltered by a waterfall; tricked an ogre into running off of a cliff; and used a mountable ballista to fell two cyclops – and none of these experiences were tied to quests.

And then there's nightfall. Next to Minecraft, I can't recall a game that made me fear the night so much. There's a reason why the first action introduced in this game is teaching the player how to equip a lantern. Bad things go bump in Dragon Dogma's night. Different creatures are only found in the dark hours, including a ghost-like entity that I tangled with once, yet retreated from after I noticed it was growing in size and wasn't harmed by my mage's flame attacks.

Warping to safety really isn't an option. Fast-travel is a part of Dragon's Dogma, but only by using a ferrystone, a one-time use item that is hard to come by. Hours are spent walking from place to place, which can be tiresome at times, but given just how great and frequent the battles are, I haven't minded the lengthy jaunts too much. A bigger concern for me at this point is monster variety in the overworld. Goblins and wolves infest this land. I enjoy beating the snot out of these beasts, but a greater variety would be nice. Since enemy levels don't scale with the player level, I fear these fights will become a bother rather than an XP goldmine when my character reaches higher ranks. On the flip side, not scaling levels does deliver those rare, pants-soiling moments where you find yourself hopelessly outmatched against a high-level monster. This is a design decision that makes exploration in the world of Gransys so enthralling. You never know when your luck is going to run out. The only tip I can give: Save often.

I usually knew I was walking into the teeth of danger seconds before it would happen. My "pawn" companions, which are basically AI-controlled party members, love to talk. Whenever wolves appear, they point out that they "like to hunt in packs." If I come to a fork in the road, they recommend I check my map before I move on. When I go somewhere I shouldn't be, they do their best to try to get me to turn around. The pawns loot on their own (that's right, you aren't the only one smashing boxes). Mage and sorcerer pawns are quick to offer healing assistance. If a foe is weak to fire, don't be surprised if your ally casts a flame enchantment on your weapon of choice. Warrior pawns pin down foes, often giving you a window to combo an attack.

They do a lot of heavy lifting in combat, and as much as I hate to say it, these AI controlled teammates are more on the ball than most people I've played MMOs with. I enjoy questing with pawns and always look forward to seeing how new skills and powers will alter their attack patterns. Knowing they have my back opens up the door for ridiculous combat strategies, such as trying to climb on every creature I see. That's right, you can grab onto most large beasts, climb along their torso, and hack away. When I see a cyclops, I leap onto its back and try to position myself on its shoulder so I can shoot lightning into its eye from close range. This mechanic is beautifully implemented, and is as fun as it sounds. Some beasts can defend this action by grabbing the character off of their body, and depending on what type of creature they are, either try to eat you or throw you to the moon. If they have no means of removing you, they have your stamina as salvation. The stamina meter drains with every action and is in constantly depleting whenever you cling to a critter.

As a mage, I usually spend most of my time on the periphery of a battle, raining down death from a safe distance. The tanks in the party are equipped with the AI to draw enemies away from me. The spell-casting mechanics are nicely designed. Manual spell placement and auto-target lock are both easy to use and read. For standard spells, like a lightning blast, I just have to point in the direction of my foe and shoot. A charged lightning shot will lock onto the target I have highlighted. Area-based spells, such as the wall of fire, are handled with a cursor that can be moved freely. The standard healing spells use the same cursor-based system as the wall of fire. Rather than heal a character directly, you are actually placing a spell in his or her area. If any other teammates enter into the spell's perimeter, they too will be healed.

The entire combat system is pretty slick. I messed around with the different classes for a few minutes, and will probably switch my vocation to a fighter-type after I reach 30. The vocation system offers plenty of depth in abilities and spells, allowing players to make their character the way they see fit. My mage is all about destruction. He's equipped with elemental blasts and little more. Outside of a standard spell attack, which is locked to a button, players can assign three primary and three secondary spells to the controller. Six core skills can also be assigned. Core skills for my character range from levitate (a handy power that lets me float or save myself from fall damage) to Magick Agent (a swarm of floating spheres that attack encroaching foes). To balance out my offensive might, I enlisted the help of a pawn sorcerer (created by another player) who focuses primarily on healing and enchantments. My party's line-up currently consists of two fighters – one equipped with a large hammer and power strikes, and another with sword and shield and a defensive focus. Should you choose to change up your play style, vocations, spells, and abilities can be switched at most inns.

Weapon and armor upgrades offer a fair bit of depth, as well. The upgrade path for each item is set in stone, and is tied to specific items that can be found in the world. Players can gather almost anything they see, including buckets and plants. The gathering component is not just a tacked-on element. If you see an apple hanging on a tree, an archer can shoot it down, watch it roll down a hill, and then pick it up. If the apple isn't in a sealed container, it will rot over time. The description for a rotten apple: "An apple, in better days. A meal this foul is sure to ravage the bowels." Gathering items is an enjoyable part of this game. I love scouring the world for things to find, and also enjoy combining them to see if I can create a more useful product.

This game is loaded with little touches. If a character jumps onto the wrong side of the ladder, he'll spin around to the other side. If you see a ledge, you can probably reach it using a mixture of wall climbing and platform jumping feats. If a lantern is dipped into water, it will go out and won't work again until it is dried. When your character gets hit with a blindness spell, you can barely see anything through the beautiful oil-like filter that clouds the screen. When mining, if a deposit is depleted, its visual makeover changes. If your character is walking into a strong wind, their speed changes depending on their size. Foliage also looks fantastic as it blows violently in gusts of wind.

Dragon's Dogma joins Journey, Max Payne 3, and Mass Effect 3 on my Games of the Year candidates list. I'm having a blast exploring this dangerous world, and can't wait to see what the end game holds for me (perhaps some plot?). Capcom has pledged strong post-release support in the form of new quests, pawns, and weapons added for free. Seeing new content get added is followed up with a hard-swallow, as I already feel overwhelmed by the number of side quests I have to complete. But like Skyrim before it, Gransys is one of those world's I don't mind losing myself in. Hours pass as I journey deep into the wilds. If I keep playing at my current pace, I have a feeling I'll be playing this game right up until The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Dawnguard's release. 2012 may not be loaded with hits yet, but role-playing fanatics have to be loving life right now. I have The Witcher 2 (Xbox 360), Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and Game of Thrones sitting on my shelf.

Have you ventured into Gransys yet? What's your take on this adventure?