Dying in games has become a minor setback, rather than something to worry about. That's why Capcom's new open world RPG, Dragon's Dogma, is so refreshing. The enormous world of Gransys is rife with danger, and death lurks around every corner.
On the surface, it's a fairly bland fantasy setting. The developers, led by Devil May Cry and Resident Evil alumni Hiroyuki Kobayashi, have taken their visuals cues from any number of Western fantasy novels and films. But the familiar environments, which we've seen a thousand times before, betray a game of remarkable imagination.
Superficially speaking, the game is reminiscent of the Elder Scrolls series. It presents an open world filled with towns, cities, NPCs, quests, shops, dungeons, caves, forests, and everything else you might expect from an RPG. The third-person combat has a satisfying weight and physicality, which has led some to compare it to Dark Souls - although it's not quite as brutally precise.
But the biggest innovation, and the real core of the combat, is the pawn system. Pawns are magical creatures who are human in appearance, but exist only to serve as hired mercenaries for a hero known as the Arisen.
Using an object called a Rift Stone, which you can find in most towns and cities, you get access an interface that allows you to browse through a vast archive of pawns, many of which (providing your console is connected to the internet) are creations of other players.
As you fight, your pawns are incredibly vocal, yelling out strategies that are genuinely useful. In fact, listening to your pawns is vitally important to surviving the game's many tough boss encounters and dungeons. It's not the usual endlessly-repeated stock dialogue of a typical RPG party; the stuff they say is actually important.
Pawns get an experience rating, both for quests and enemy types. So if you're struggling with a boss, downloading a pawn who has already encountered it (in another player's game) will reveal specific weaknesses. "I've met this creature before! Strike it with fire!" they'll yell, which is an incredibly clever use of internet connectivity, and feels like an evolution of Dark Souls' similarly imaginative message-leaving system.
It has a great sense of humour too. For all its Western stylings, there's still plenty of the quirk and insanity that defines Japanese games. You can pick up any NPC, including your own pawns, and toss them. A specific type of enemy goes into a wild frenzy whenever it sees a female character. In one mission you have to dress your male pawns (and yourself if you're a guy) in ladies' clothes to infiltrate a camp of all-lady bandits.
But it's the challenge that makes Dragon's Dogma special. It's an incredibly ruthless game, and never tells you if an area, enemy, or quest, is too tough for you: you have to find out for yourself, which usually ends in an unceremonious death. There's a great satisfaction in getting utterly trounced by a boss, only to return when you're a few levels stronger and totally destroy it.
So is it the J-RPG equivalent of Skyrim? Well, not exactly. In fact, that's an unfair comparison. This is much more than a lame attempt to ape Bethesda's series: it's a unique game in its own right, and one of the most interesting RPGs we've played in years.