Beyond Compare: Skyrim & Dragon's Dogma - shootist2600 Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Beyond Compare: Skyrim & Dragon's Dogma

It's difficult to play a video game without being reminded of another title one has played before. Whether they share a genre, theme, gameplay, presentation or other element, they might draw inspiration from the same sources or inspire us in similar ways. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Dragon's Dogma are two games I'm currently playing that share similarities, not the least of which is how they thrill me, though they differ in ways that make each compelling in their own right.

I've written before about the impressive fantasy realm of Skyrim that Bethesda has created for its sprawling role-playing game. Chasing a moon over a mountaintop, only to be treated to a dazzling panorama once the peak has been scaled is a sublime moment that few video games can equal. 

I was surprised to find this iconic statue during my recent session. Such discoveries reward exploration in and of themselves, even without benefit sometimes of various loot that can usually be found. The detail, mythology and consistent design are especially impressive in the context of such a massive world.

The scale of Skyrim's world is highlighted by the awe inspiring draw distance on display. For a game of such geographic scope to present you with visual roadmaps along your journey is quite an achievement. The title's considerable line of sight means most areas that you can see are destinations that can be reached.

Some areas that can only be discovered through careful exploration are caves, mines or mountain passes. One such pass nearby was home to two bears. However, because there was a rabbit that my daughters insisted I let live (I'd horrified them during an earlier session by killing bunnies), I couldn't engage the bears. Well, one bear took a swipe at the rabbit and sent it flying off-screen! We were in awe, and I a little happy to have that impediment removed!

The day/night cycle is another area of game design that demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail whether features such as clouds, fog, auroras, stars, etc. or the way landscapes change depending on the light source, including color and shadows.

Regarding line of sight, the distance, detail, topography, terrain, etc. are all so well conceived that surveying one's surroundings is an important element of gameplay in and of itself. Scouting paths ahead reveals opportunities for exploration, evasion or combat that a less well designed world could not afford. The approach to the ruins at the base of the waterfall, for instance, provided a tactical advantage as well as my means of entry.

Dragons are a relatively common foe in Skyrim and, thankfully, combat is a somewhat streamlined affair whether utilizing one of two dual-wielded weapons/magic or an arsenal that also includes one-time-use spells. But the same strategy won't always prevail against different foes. This particular dragon stayed airborne while attacking whether due to its nature or the riverside terrain. And, unfortunately, my various arrows, staffs and spells were no match against its aerial assaults.

On one occasion it did turn its attention to other enemies, I think newly discovered foresworn(?) warriors. Amusingly, I overheard one say something to the effect, "I don't need this," before he ran away. Thankfully, a band of khajit proved more worthy and drew the dragon into ground combat. I was able to engage the battle and then slay the dragon.

The game's Radiant AI allows for such persistent, random encounters and helps make Skyrim all the more believable and rewarding. Like the bears in the mountain pass before, the dragon behaved on instinct and its prey based on self-preservation. That the player can take advantage of such happenstance is a fortunate byproduct of such clever programming.

Dragon's Dogma is another RPG that shares many fantasy adventure elements but differs in significant ways. This game distinguishes itself in particular through its pawn system of followers and its emphasis on a kind of survival horror atmosphere at night. The latter is not unfamiliar territory for developer Capcom and is the reason I've been known to run full-tilt past bandits, lizard warriors and ogres, especially at lower character levels.

One aspect of game design that I find very compelling is how nature is depicted. There is a variety of topography including rocky shores, rolling hills, dense forests, caverns, etc., and each appears unique and well crafted. For instance, forests can be lush, vibrant landscapes or spare, dying timberland; hills can be rocky, treacherous climbs or gentle, wide open pastures.

But most impressive is how the world is transformed by the day/night cycle and the elements. Natural lighting alters terrain believably, from bright, colorful environs to pitch black shadows illuminated only -- and convincingly -- by your indispensable lantern. The wind, however, could be a character in and of itself given how all foliage seems to act independently of each other when buffeted by constant gusts.

Side quests can feel pretty random without a strong central narrative to tie missions together. But at least your pawns all can gain knowledge that might help them in similar future situations whether facing familiar scenarios or the same kinds of foes.

It's true there's no honor among thieves. When coming across loot, which you will often, it's best to rush in and get your share lest your pawns beat you to the punch. (Though you can always exchange items through the intuitive and deep inventory system.) Sometimes as in the situation above, pawns like mine will appear to beat down comrades for dibs when in fact they're just breaking open objects.

The lantern is likely the most important tool as it supposedly helps ward off some foes but also highlights your surroundings, so it's refreshing that water has the impact you would expect whether wading into a body of water or through a waterfall. It takes time for your lantern to dry out so avoiding water is best.

When your lantern does shine, you'll be treated to some creative design like this cavern filled with stalagmites and stalactites.

The world is strewn with the carcasses of various creatures, adding to the trepidation one can feel when exploring in particular at night or in dark subterranean settings as they usually are indicative of a nearby predator.

These amphibian type creatures present a decent challenge and are best attempted as a team considering they typically attack in groups. In fact, your pawns can be pretty adept in combat, especially if you employ higher ranked pawns by your side. Similar to the one follower you can recruit in Skyrim, their contribution as a warrior or pack mule comes in handy.

Nevertheless I'm no more immune to Game Over screens than without my pawns. Indeed I find the best tactic is to first attack at range until close quarters combat becomes necessary. The problem is that I forget to save my progress, and as checkpoints usually only occur at inns or rifts (a rarity), a death can set gamers back a good distance in time and ground covered.

Giant iron maidens in the middle of nowhere can seem out of place but it's perhaps that unusual placement that contributes to the already uneasy feeling one has attempting to traverse the inhospitable wilderness at night.

Wolves are ubiquitous but great fodder for entertaining hits that can send them flying. It's not unusual to see them launched across screen when your team engages packs.

As in Skyrim, the creative design of Gransys provides an impressive and beautiful context for your journeys through the world.

From being called "ser" often to having women fawn over my female character, I'm often overcome by the sense that Capcom assumed gamers would create a male protagonist. Either that, or the people of Gransys are very open minded.

Though supposedly there are traveling merchants, I've only found any inside static communities. Having made it to the capital Gran Soren, I was grateful to finally upgrade the wardrobes and arsenals of my character and pawn. Likewise, various attributes can be adjusted and moves/powers mapped to face buttons. Not quite as deep as Skyrim's management system, it's still impressive in its own right.

Areas such as the one depicted demonstrate the imagination of the creative team from the ruin's overall design to the boss fight. However, I felt the final battle was cheap in so far as I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to defeat the boss only to realize the futility of such an approach late in the process when my pawns belatedly suggested our next move: Run!

Giving my pawn the power to imbue her teammates' weapons with elemental attacks such as fire was a welcome revelation. Using it to barbecue the undead is priceless.

The combat differs from Skyrim in notable ways, such as coordinating attacks with pawns (when they announce such opportunities). Likewise, climbing foes a la Shadow of the Colossus is tremendous fun and a valuable tactic in particular against larger enemies such as these ogres.

Equally impressive is how the ogre I mounted ultimately performed a back flop when its other attempts at dislodging me failed. It was totally unexpected and was appreciated as an example of creative AI.

To add insult to injury, after I'd limped away to regain stamina, the other ogre charged me and sent me flying over the side of the cliff! All in all, this battle reminded me of Skyrim's Radiant AI, which was reinforced by subsequent attempts including an effort to divide and conquer that didn't succeed because the other ogre still attacked even when we otherwise ignored it.

I'd seen one other example during this session that also impressed me, when a pack of wolves attacked a random mage passerby. Ironically, his AI meant he reacted more annoyed than alarmed and in fact made no attempt to protect himself, perhaps because the wolves actually didn't harm him. In that instant, the AI recalled Skyrim's convincing programming, but also highlights where it falls short.

Well, I wasn't about to let a couple ogres stop me and did in fact defeat them eventually. But of course I forgot to save! Lesson learned?

Skyrim and Dragon's Dogma are top-flight RPGs in my opinion and each have strong elements to recommend them to genre fans. I look forward to more playtime with each title.

In the meantime, I plan on this being the inaugural blog in another new series (besides my fledgling Evolution series), where I'll explore games that share some common feature(s) whether genre, narrative, theme, gameplay, etc.

I hope you enjoyed it and thanks for your visit!

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