Looking back on the original Dragon’s Dogma, it stands out to me as one of the most underrated games of the last console generation. When I heard that Capcom was bringing the game to an online, free-to-play format, I was excited to see how they would adapt the original’s excellent combat, nuanced classes and incredible boss enemies to an MMO-style world. Sadly, the results are less than impressive, for reasons both predictable and surprising.
If you’re an MMO enthusiast who hasn’t played the original Dragon’s Dogma (DD), there’s definitely something here for you. Combat in Dragon’s Dogma Online (DDON) isn’t quite as varied as it’s predecessor, but it still remains some of the best in the action RPG genre and is leagues above anything competing MMOs offer. Fighters crush their opponents with heavy strikes and launching uppercuts, Hunters snipe enemies with devastating headshots or rain an entire quiver of arrows down on groups, and mages unleash visually striking, high-damage spells that will make short work of most regular foes. Each hit is weighty and responsive, and being hit by a boss monster’s immense limbs will make you cringe. At its core, it’s simply the best RPG combat outside of a From Software game. PvP is non-existent, however, and Capcom has said that there are no plans to include it at this point in time.
The world of DDON isn’t too different from traditional high fantasy fare. You have your lush, goblin-infested plains, your dense forests filled with wolves and ents, beaches swarming with harpies and mines populated by tar giants. Enemy designs are varied and interesting, but their placement in the world remains the same every time you pass through an area. You will always encounter the same three goblins on the path outside of the main town, you’ll always find the same Cyclops hanging out in the ruins near the settlement of Tel. At nighttime, some enemies are replaced by the undead, but this is still too little variety for areas that you’ll traverse dozens upon dozens of times. Fast travel is gated behind the same currency used to hire pawns, so warping around when you don’t absolutely need to is unwise.
Speaking of Pawns, they’re essentially player-designed bot characters that act as support in battles. Players get to design three unique pawns over the course of the story, and can customize them with whatever gear they find and assign them to whatever class their party needs. Players can also hire pawns created by other players using rift crystals, though they can only complete a certain number of quests before they must be rehired. Pawns are far less chatty than in the original game, though you’ll still hear the same lines ad nauseum whenever they choose to speak.
Pawns still suffer from the same AI problems that plagued them in the original game, with some additional setbacks that make their flaws all the more frustrating. Pawn commands, which allow you to give direct commands to your pawns, are completely broken. Pawns told to “Wait” will follow you if you get more than a few feet away from them, pawns told to “Follow” will slowly jog over to you in times when you want them to sprint, and there’s simply no way to command your pawns to use a specific ability or attack. If your pawn falls in battle, you have a short period of time to revive them, or they are “Lost” and you must return to the Pawn Cathedral to rescue them. The revival process in battle locks you into an inescapable five-second animation that leaves you totally vulnerable, and pawns die constantly in boss fights, meaning that the player must constantly endanger themselves to rescue bots that are practically useless in tough battles. Oh, and they get stuck on geometry a lot too. Nothing is more frustrating then working for 10 minutes to put a boss in a downed and weakened state, only for your pawn to get stuck running into their armpit.
The original Dragon’s Dogma was best known for it’s epic boss battles against all manner of fantastical beasts. From Griffons to Chimeras to Ogres and Drakes, most of the first game’s setpiece bosses are present in DDON, with some new tough customers like the humpbacked Trolls and electric Lindwurms adding some fresh challenges to the mix. However, boss fights in DDON are paced very differently compared to Dragon’s Dogma. You’re no longer using the environment to your advantage, hoping to bait bosses into falling into traps or finding convenient locations to whittle down their immense HP bars. DDON is much more your typical MMo-style DPS race, with more active combat and reflexes added in for increased challenge.
As they’re damaged, bosses will enter “Rage Mode,” a new feature that gives them a massive boost to defense (attacks that normally hit for 1000 damage will drop to around 100-200) and access to new, speedier attacks. The only way to break them out of this state is to deplete their stamina gauge, either by mounting them Shadow of the Colossus-style and tugging on them, or getting a priest to reveal their weak points and striking them. The problem is that this mechanic was clearly balanced with four human players in mind, as trying to drain the gauge with either method while playing with pawns is an exercise in frustration. Pawns are too inept to know when to jump on or where to attack, and will often get themselves killed while the player is busy doing the heavy lifting. This leads to boss fights feeling more like 20-30 minute chores than the exhilarating, tactical battles of the original.
Loot is largely relegated to consumables and materials, with most of your equipment being obtained through crafting or at shops (for high prices). This can make dungeon-crawling a bit disheartening, as the deepest chests will often award you with a piddly 400 gold and a healing potion. What’s more, many chests and all ore deposits/downed trees require tools such as lockpicks and pickaxes to loot. These tools often break within one or two uses, so you might not even be able to open post-boss chests by the time you reach them.
As an MMO, the game has it’s fair share of grinding. Main Quests are often locked behind both player level requirements and area level requirements, area levels are locked behind world quests, which are also locked behind lower area levels. This means that you’ll often find yourself killing the same two or three bosses, running the same two dungeons and fetching the same few items a good ten times each before new options become available to you. For higher area ranks, you must spend hours doing the most efficient runs again and again to unlock the deepest dungeons. The game’s Free to Play systems are, surprisingly, totally unobtrusive. Most of the weapons sold in the online shop become useless after about level 15, and there’s little available that will give you an edge in battle or reduce the amount of grinding you’ll need to do.
Dragon’s Dogma Online is a game possessing a brilliant framework marred by repetition, broken companion AI and frustrating boss fights. Playing with friends alleviates some of the game’s core problems to a small extent, but there’s no escaping the area level grinds or poorly-paced bosses. If you’re a fan of the original looking for more Dragon’s Dogma, skip this one and pray for a sequel. If you’re a PC player looking to get into the franchise, wait for the PC remaster of the original game in January. If you’re an MMO enthusiast looking for a game with unique combat, Dragon’s Dogma Online might be worth a shot. read