"Our goal was to make it a very Western fantasy lore-based game," director Hideaki Itsuno told me during an interview. "Most of the creatures you see in the game come from Western fantasy lore." This includes not just the boss-type monsters, but, for example, the hordes of goblins attacking you in-between. In addition, it's a lot more possible to play alone, instead of being expected to gather with friends, than Monster Hunter -- in fact, multiplayer hasn't even been announced, so at the moment it's impossible to play Dragon's Dogma in the same way you'd play Monster Hunter.
Itsuno looked confused when asked about this game in comparison to Monhun, as if it had never occurred to him before. "Monster Hunter was its own series, its own franchise, and it just so happened that we wanted to make a realistic fantasy-based action game," he said, "and because we had the staff available to make something like that, we're able to make this game." He added, "The ideas for Dragon's Dogma came from a completely different place," naming D&D and Lord of the Rings as foundations of the Japanese awareness of Western fantasy.
It certainly would have been easier to greenlight as a Monster Hunter game, I'm sure. I asked about Keiji Inafune's recent statements about the difficulties of getting original IP approved within Capcom. "It was a real challenge to get this type of game done," he said, "because we're so used to just continuing our franchises. It's like a roller coaster ride, there's always challenges, always people trying to put obstacles up, and we had to keep trying to overcome them in order to get this game made."
My demo started off in a cave, casting me as a sword-and-shield-bearing, dragon-obsessed fighter guided by an AI character to the dragon (or "wyrm" as he called it). We navigated our way through the cave on our way to a fight with a big, ugly chimera, interrupted a few times by goblins and (worse) harpies. These foes provided a good test of the RPG's combat abilities.
In addition to light and heavy attacks, both of which tend toward the "slow, realistic sword swing" side of the equation rather than "video game sword swing," you can also hold your shield up, or hold a bumper to access special abilities for both sword and shield. These are dash moves, upward swings, and other fancier abilities. The upward swing in particular was useful against the flying harpies.
Soon into our journey, we came across a stone that allowed us to summon "pawns" -- more AI partners who can, in the full game, be chosen from those you've previously met, but here, were chosen for me to be a mage and an archer, doing what mages and archers do best: keep me alive with magic, and stand ten feet away pelting enemies with arrows.
I'd say the basic combat feels most like Demon's Souls, in terms of the heavy nature of the movements and the movement abilities of the characters, but without the crushing difficulty. The normal enemies are dangerous, but not all likely to kill you immediately. A crowd of enemies in that game would be instant death; here, it's just a somewhat exciting battle. Frequently, one of my pawns would grab an enemy and urge me to finish it off.
This is where the game's biggest flaw comes in: those AI partners are clearly meant to interact with the player in a way that encourages activity on your part, but in that interest Capcom failed to make them not stupid. Rather than a cool, context-sensitive, occasional moment, it seemed like they required me to finish off every enemy. You've got a huge axe, guy, try using that instead of putting every goblin in a half-nelson!
Furthermore, every time we happened across a group of these enemies, all three partners felt compelled to inform me that "their kind hate ice and fire both!" Three different characters, with three different voice actors, recited the exact same line to me, every time a fight started. And I didn't even have any ice or fire abilities, so I couldn't do anything about it. I guess that's the only factoid they all knew about the goblins, and just wanted to have something to say, to keep our time hanging out from getting awkward. The axe guy also went out of his way to chop up every crate, half-broken wooden structure, and loose board he saw. I'm guessing he was supposed to be looking for raw materials or treasure, but the way he seemingly fixated on that, it just came off as a guy who really hated wood.
Okay, that was annoying, but I must admit that the actual chimera battle was cool. All of the AI characters were running around independently, actually holding their own against the snake- and goat-headed giant lion monster, yelling commands and advice at me and each other, and in general not being as stupid. The goat head frequently employed a paralysis spell against my party, dropping us to the floor instantly, and causing one of my partners to tell me to take out the snake head and prevent it. Eventually, I discovered that you're supposed to use the "climbing" ability mapped to one of the shoulder buttons to climb up onto the beast and hack away at that head, but by the time I figured that out, all of my controls had been remapped to "lie on the floor, stone dead."
After playing it at the show, all I could focus on was those stupid, stupid AI partners. But now, thinking back holistically about the whole game, there was a lot that I think was pretty cool! Climbing up on top of a big monster to take it down in parts? Cool! Exploring a scary cave by the light of a handheld lantern? Cool! An open world full of big monsters? Also cool! "Their kind hate ice and fire both!" So not-cool that it threatened to cancel out all the cool stuff in my memory.