From the moment the 80s hair metal-inspired rock song greets you on the title screen, you can tell that Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma is going to be an interesting experience. A third-person action role-playing game that mixes typical genre tropes with hack n’ slash combat is a combination we have seen before, and some have even compared this game to other RPGs like Dark Souls and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While it doesn’t necessarily reach the heights of its contemporaries (and has more than its share of problems), some interesting story arcs, excellent combat system and a creative spin on cooperative gameplay ultimately save Dragon’s Dogma from just being another retread of familiar ground.

Like zombies, dragons have become a popular plot device in video games lately. Dragon’s Dogma, as the title would suggest, uses this with gusto. You begin the game as a noble villager and adventurer who resides in the coastal town of Cassardis, located in the vast kingdom of Gransys. When a giant monolithic dragon attacks, you take up arms. Despite your best efforts, the dragon proves too powerful and you are killed in a most gruesome fashion, with the beast extracting your still-beating heart with one claw and eating it. As you lay dying, the dragon speaks to you and reveals that you are the “chosen one”, a single person out of your entire generation that has been chosen by the dragon. What this dubious honour entails soon becomes clear.

As is often the case in a game like this, death is just the beginning. After your fateful encounter with the dragon, you miraculously awaken to find that you are alive and, against all natural laws, surviving without a heart. You become known as “The Arisen” and begin your quest in earnest, setting out to find the dragon that felled you, find out what your purpose as the Arisen is and reclaim your heart. The story makes the usual twists and turns, some predictable and a few surprising, and this leads to a satisfying but ultimately insubstantial narrative. As the game progresses, you will likely be more engaged in exploration and combat than in the tale, and the game seems aware of this.

Like many open-world RPGs, the main story acts as a glue that binds key moments together and gives you an overall sense of purpose, but deviation from the beaten path is where the real pleasure of Dragon’s Dogma lies. Roaming the land and watching your characters become better equipped and more powerful with each battle will easily keep you engaged and enthralled for hours on end. The land of Gransys is enormous and ripe for exploration, with many areas to visit and plentiful distractions to keep you off the linear path. Unlike other RPGs, there is no option for fast traveling, and items that can warp your around are rare and cost-prohibitive. You can expect to do plenty of wandering.

Gameplay in Dragon’s Dogma boils down to the staples of the RPG genre; exploring, interacting and fighting, and you will do all of these in equal measure. After you awaken as the Arisen and define your class, you are plunged into a fantasy world where you make your own way, find quests and objectives to complete and slay many enemies of various types and sizes. The quests are meted out throughout the game, some of which are exciting and rewarding, while others fall into the dubious “fetch quest” category. As with most titles in this league, expect to encounter plenty of both.

The ability to create and customize your character is a well-worn element in games these days, however choosing the right class is more important than ever here. In a game like Skyrim, your choice grants you certain attributes and advantages but doesn’t limit you in how you develop your character, while each class in Dragon’s Dogma has a unique fighting style and skills that will dramatically affect the gameplay. From the outset, you are asked to choose among the Warrior, Strider and Mage. The Warrior specializes in front-line combat, the Strider is partial to quick melee and ranged attacks and the Mage will cast powerful magic spells. Which class you choose really depends on what fighting style you prefer, as the differences become most apparent during combat.

In the early hours of Dragon’s Dogma, your choice of class might seem restrictive in terms of what abilities and skills you can use, however this feature opens up significantly later on and allows you to further modify your character by assigning specific vocations. If you like the the ranged combat of the archer and want to incorporate the skills of Mage, the “Magic Archer” vocation is for you. If you like the brutal hack n’ slash combat of a Warrior but also want to use magic, the “Mystic Knight” is a good, well-balanced choice. The ability to create these hybrid classes opens up after you have leveled a bit, and you can also experiment by switching vocations without penalty to find one that is suited to you.

Given that Gransys is a vast open world full of dangerous monsters, you are going to need company to aid in your quests. This is where Dragon’s Dogma’s most interesting gameplay element, the pawn system, comes into play. The term “pawn” refers to your party members, of which you can have up to three with you at any time, including a permanent pawn that you create and develop as you do your own character. You choose the class of your own pawn and level them up and choose their skills, making them a second main character that you can customize, but not directly control. Your three pawns will fight alongside you, give hints and general observations and take some basic direction.

Your pawns can be recruited through “The Rift”, a hub where the characters created by other players and computer-generated NPCs congregate. You can choose which ones will accompany you, based on their level, skill and abilities that you might need. The user-generated pawns provide some co-operative gameplay elements similar to Dark Souls, albeit indirectly since the pawns are not controlled by another player.  However, playing with a pawn that has been created, levelled and outfitted by a real person is always more interesting than a stock NPC. The hired pawns will not level up, however they will gain knowledge and accept gifts that will in turn help out their creator, so there is an advantage to allowing your pawn to be recruited by others.

The pawn system is an interesting twist that will help you tackle the challenges in Dragon’s Dogma, but it is far from a perfect system. Since your pawns are computer-controlled, they don’t always act in ways that are helpful or follow instructions well. They will frequently wander off and lag behind, and there were some cases where they got stuck in the environment and couldn’t follow the others. In battle, your pawns will be proficient enough to use their better attacks, however they don’t seem as concerned with avoiding damage. There were many instances in battle where my pawns died quickly due to attacks that could easily have been dodged. In short, it’s an interesting and often essential system that doesn’t always work elegantly.

The combat in Dragon’s Dogma is an unquestionable highlight, combining the tactical elements of a good RPG with the satisfyingly visceral combat of a solid hack n’ slash game. The combat takes place in real time and can be quite challenging from the beginning. Wise use of your abilities and tactical planning are your keys to success. Your enemies will range from goblins and rats that are easily killed to large monsters that are both daunting and powerful, so varying your approach is advisable. As a Warrior, you need to know when to fight defensively as opposed to running in sword swinging, and as a Strider, knowing when it’s best to stick to archery or go in for a stab with your dagger can determine if you live or die.

The combat employs a fair amount of strategy, as enemies think and behave in unpredictable ways. Finding patterns and tactical opportunities for a good hit can be difficult. Using your skills, you will need to assess each battle and decide how to proceed. Some enemies are vulnerable to a sword in the gut, while others will take more damage from magic attacks. In many cases, you can also jump on a monster’s back and land a few well-placed stabs. An experienced pawn, especially one that has already been through your current quest, can also be very useful, as they can give hints on effective strategies.  You can approach battles in a number of ways, but the enemies won’t wait around for you to strike, so it’s a matter of getting them before they get you.