Video games constantly force the same character stereotypes down your throat: the gruff war veteran, the plucky Anime teen, the half-naked heroine. The list goes on, and after years of playing the same characters in different settings, it's a bit yawn-inducing.
If I had my way, I would be able to design my own characters for every game I played, picking how they look and act. Unfortunately, games that let you craft your heroes are few and far between, and in those that do, such as Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect, your choices are fairly limited.
Both of those series let you alter your character's facial features, race and sex, but at the end of the day you're creating a character, not your character.
Enter Dragon's Dogma for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the first open-world role-playing game in recent memory to let you alter your character's age, sex, height, weight, musculature, posture and whatever else you can think of.
In just 15 minutes, the clever character-creation tool let me build the spitting image of myself. Dragon's Dogma has some problems, but it gets points for being the most realistic depiction there's ever likely to be of my life as a slayer of goblins, dragons and cyclopes.
Before discussing the game's problems, I want to address some of the never-before-seen, frankly brilliant things developer Capcom crafted in Dragon's Dogma, namely, the "pawn" system.
As you travel the world, three computer-controlled warriors, known as pawns, usually tag along. Your "main pawn" is your own personal, faithful servant, whom you may customize using the same character-creation tools as your main character. You can recruit two more pawns you find walking around in the world to round out your party.
If you're connected to the Internet through Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, the pawns you see walking around are the main pawns of other, real-life players. Those players, in turn, can see your main pawn walking around and can recruit him or her.
Your pawn gains cash and experience when serving other masters, which gets funneled back to you when they return. It's an interesting and satisfying new take on player interaction.
The pawns "learn" while adventuring and pass along strategies for taking down monsters, where traps are hidden and where ambushes are likely to occur. They also make more passive observations, such as "what a large tree" when you come upon a large tree. (They're vocal to the point of being obnoxious most of the time, but you'll be thankful for their advice when you're having trouble taking down a difficult new enemy.)
You will face tough enemies. Stray too far from the roads, and you're likely to run into dragons, cyclopes and fearsome chimeras (a hybrid of a poisonous snake, magic-wielding goat and physically powerful lion). These enemies require a fair bit of strategy and a little luck to dispatch.
Fighting big enemies in most games usually means stabbing at its feet while it dances around shooting fire at you. Dragon's Dogma makes a much better spectacle of it by allowing you to target different parts of the body and climb the enemies to reach weak spots.
For example, you might climb onto the weapon arm of a cyclops and force it to drop its large, spiked cudgel. Or you might ignore the weapon and go for the head, which yields higher damage to the monster but puts your pawns at risk of getting clubbed to death when you invariably anger the beast.
For all the game's brilliance, there are minor annoyances that add up and drag down the game, such as a confusing and pointless story, repetitive quests and an overall sense of lifelessness to the world around you.
The residents of Gransys, the fictional continent on which Dragon's Dogma takes place, are static, serving as little more than scenery with nothing useful to say. Occasionally they'll send you on a side quest.
Speaking of side quests, you'll be doing a lot of them. The story is as follows: You are The Arisen, a legendary warrior whose task is to slay a dragon that plagues the land.
That's pretty much it. Everything between the opening scene and your final battle with the dragon seems like filler.
The game will be most satisfying to players who care less about story and more about evolving their character from weakling to all-powerful warrior. (You grow stronger and learn skills based on experience.) And pawns, who level up alongside your main character, add a subtle layer of competitiveness to the game; you want to have the smartest, strongest pawn of all to encourage people to enlist its help so you can reap the spoils.
At the end of the day, the game's faults are overshadowed by the fact that I am the main character, thanks to the character creator. Playing Dragon's Dogma is like watching The Lord of the Rings movies if you starred in them, and who wouldn't want to do that?