A trend I (and most probably you as well) have been noticing in open world RPGs, especially fantasy titles based around melee weapons rather than firearms, is that the combat tends to be underwhelming. The Elder Scrolls series and Witcher series being some of the most notorious examples of this. Of course, these games have a lot of systems and content outside of just the combat, so it makes sense that they wouldn't nail it quite as well as more focused action RPGs like Nioh or Bloodborne. But I still craved an open world fantasy RPG where combat wasn't the weakest link, where I could still enjoy satisfying moment-to-moment gameplay even if it meant I had to put up with relatively small maps or less than stellar writing.
In my search for such a game, two names kept popping up again and again: Kingdoms of Amalur and Dragon's Dogma. As of writing this, I have not finished either game, but I believe I have played far enough into each one, and experimented enough with different builds, to at least get the gist of what the general gameplay loop is like.
Alright, so let's start with the one I tried first and, spoiler alert, the one I lost interest in – Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. First impressions with this game were solid: there was a lock on system and a roll, hits were satisfying and animations were good, the skill trees and variety of builds put a big stupid grin on my face. Clearly I had a lot to look forward to in this game. The first few hours were genuinely fun, as I unlocked and toyed around with ridiculous new abilities and even started a new save with a different build to play alongside my main for a while. The problem with KoA though, is that while it has all of the fundamentals of good RPG combat like I mentioned in my first impressions, it never goes beyond that. It never goes beyond feeling like dollar store Darksiders. I realized that 90% of my fun was coming from the anticipation of unlocking a cool new ability and daydreaming about how crazy combat would eventually get, not how engaging it was in the moment.
When I did unlock all my skills, which I tried on two different builds mind you, I started to notice how monotonous and repetitive and blah the combat actually was when I had no build progression to look forward to. Doing the same two visually stunning super moves can only blow me away so many times. Enemy types started to blend together, trolls, wolves, bandits, I'd keep using mostly the same attacks and strategies, just sometimes it'd take a bit longer. Activate hyperarmor and slash away, switch to chakrams/bows for sprite enemies, timed block and counter the same attacks again and again, it felt like I was following a formula, and only ever using different moves to look cooler. I'd stopped having fun a while ago, so I just put the game down.
Enough negativity, now onto the game that has managed to keep me hooked thus far – Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen. Funnily enough, I had a much worse first impression of this game than I did of Kingdoms: no lock on, no dodge roll (except with daggers), limited basic attacks, and follower 'pawns' that I wanted nothing to do with, but grudgingly kept around in case I'd be too weak alone. It did however still have plenty of builds to try and skills to choose from, so there was that at least. And the skills were pretty rad. So I shook off my cynicism and carried on with the game… and it only got better. Even though I mentioned that "hits were satisfying and animations were good" in KoA, there is a certain sharpness and precision present in Japanese action games that is rare in western games' melee combat. Dragon's Dogma, brought to us by Hideaki Itsuno the mastermind behind Devil May Cry 3-5, was no exception. It's obviously far from the same level as the likes of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but you can still make out that the team understood decent melee combat mechanics. The pawns also started to grow on me, they kept even the most mundane encounters interesting, and pretty soon I was wondering why more real-time action RPGs didn't have 4-6 man parties like turn based CRPGs usually do.
But the key element this game nails, that also happens to be what makes Souls combat so great, is its understanding that it's not just about how many fancy moves you can do, but how you interact with enemies as well. In Dark Souls that means having to learn and work around the distinct movesets of each unique enemy and boss, but in Dragon's Dogma that comes from how situationally useful a lot of your skills are rather than just being eye-candy, and especially from the climbing mechanic and ability to damage parts of a monster. This makes fighting a chimera, where you're battling three monster in one and have to kill each of them, a completely different experience from fighting a griffin, where you can latch on but risk falling to your death once your stamina runs out. Everytime I encounter a big monster it makes me genuinely excited, anticipating the epic struggle that's about to take place. Even combat with mob enemies, where climbing isn't a factor, is quite engaging. Taking on three sword & shield warriors is a completely different dynamic to two rogues and a spellcaster, the game is challenging enough that I'm not just able to move from one to the other while tanking all the damage. There's an ability that can rain arrows from above which decimates tight groups, a timed parry which will knock back close enemies but leave me open for a while, a beyblade spin that is more powerful the higher I do it from. I have to think about my approach, and my party composition might help or hinder me in different scenarios. Even though this game strays in many ways from "traditional" action game combat, it has a tight and unique system that stays addicting several hours in.
Obviously there's more to these games than just combat, outside of which Dragon's Dogma is hilariously flawed whereas Kingdoms of Amalur still manages to be a fairly well-rounded experience. If you ask me which game has better art style, which world I'd rather explore, which quests I'd rather do, Kingdoms wins by a considerable margin. But I just set out to find an open world RPG with satisfying combat. In my humble opinion, Dragon's Dogma exceeds and innovates in this field, whereas Kingdoms of Amalur earns straight A's in combat elementary school, but never bothers to actually graduate to the 5th grade.
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