Of all the games announced by Capcom in 2011, Dragon's Dogma caught my eye the most. It boasted visuals reminiscent of Demon's Souls, a winding world of huge beasts in the same vein as Monster Hunter, and huge battles against mythical creatures that bear more than a hint of Team ICO's work. Very promising.
Although few paid attention to it at first, the game has drawn more eyes as more content was revealed, and with good reason. Dragon's Dogma is an exhilarating, if sometimes problematic, adventure. There's a lot to love in this beast-slaying romp, although sometimes you have to look very hard to find it.
Also, you bully Griffons. Straight up bully them. Thank the maker there's no cryptozoological version of PETA.
Dragon's Dogma (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Dragon's Dogma puts players in the boots of an Arisen -- one of many heroes who had a fatal encounter with a dragon, only to wake up with their heart removed and the power to attract a legion of loyal followers. Our dragon in question happens to be of the apocalyptic variety, happily threatening to destroy the realm of Gransys and all within it. Naturally, the Arisen's task is to stop him, while hoping to reclaim the old ticker as a nice bonus.
The narrative is not exactly deep and complex, residing securely in familiar tropes and recognizable conflicts. We have the zany religious cult, the corrupt politicians, the giggling goblin henchmen, all the typical fantasy characters that help propel a typical fantasy plot. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course. While it treads no new ground, the story is delivered with gusto and confidence. Not every tale has to be mindblowingly unique, and Dragon's Dogma is at least enjoyable in its comfortable, by-the-book yarn.
That said, story isn't really the point of the game, more of an excuse to get to the killing. In the style of a classic Japanese action-RPG, the main focus is on grabbing contracts, going out into the world to slay beasts, and gaining more power than one knows what to do with. The thrill of the hunt and a lust for loot serve as their own rewards, and Dragon's Dogma isn't shy about providing them in equal measure.
There are three classes to choose from, and like so much about this game, they don't break a great deal in the way of new ground. You have your Fighter, your Mage, and your Ranger, although later on players get an opportunity to further develop these classes or hybridize a pair of them to access new weapons and skills. Leveling up automatically boosts one's characteristics, while development points are earned and used at resting areas to unlock a range of passive and active abilities. At any point, players are free to spend their DP on changing classes, allowing for complete freedom in how a character is built. If you want a melee fighter enhanced with spells, you can create a Mystic Knight. If you get bored of sorcery, you can spend the points and create a Warrior, gaining even more close-combat power. It's up to you, and nobody is punished for making a choice they later regret.
Choice plays a big role in Dogma's most original idea, the Pawn System. As an Arisen, the player has an affinity with a race of creatures belonging to the Pawn Legion -- humanoids devoid of personal ambition that exist simply to serve the whims of real people. Near the beginning of the game, players can create their own Pawn to serve them throughout the adventure, using a relatively deep customization system (which is also used for the main character). This pawn is subject to the exact same strengths and limitations as the player, able to level up, equip weapons, pick classes, and earn skills. Naturally, there's an advantage in choosing a class that compliments your own, so a Ranger player may want a Fighter Pawn to hold targets in place, or a Mage to augment arrows with elemental magicks.
As well as a main sidekick, two further Pawns may also be recruited to the party at any given time, found by entering the many Rift Stones dotted around Gransys. Unlike the player-crafted Pawn, these henchmen are pre-packaged with their own unalterable classes, skills, and levels. They cannot be leveled up, and they won't hand their equipment over, even if you've given them gear from the common stash. Pawns spawn in the Rift at the same level as the player, though an in-depth search system lets one find higher level pawns, as well as those carrying skills that may be of use to the current party setup. Once again, the aim is to create a balanced team that compliments the current play style. For example, my Assassin (Fighter and Ranger hybrid) really started succeeding once he was backed up by a Warrior and two Sorcerers. Experimenting to find the right team is as easy as it is encouraged.
While there are random pawns generated within the game, folk playing online will be able to borrow the Pawns of other players, and can even rate them. Pawns will earn loot and Rift Crystals (used to buy high-level Pawns and special equipment) while traveling online, which they'll do whenever the player rests at an Inn or similar location. In this regard, the game becomes a strange Pokemon experience, albeit with the creepy element of borderline human slavery.
Armed with weapons, skills, and loyal Pawns, the player is ready to storm Gransys and take out vicious beasts for coin and fame. Missions can be obtained from NPCs or job boards, and mostly consist of standard assassination and item collection tasks. Gransys is open and free to explore, though several areas are off limits until unlocked during main story missions, and many areas contain dangerous opponents that may be far above the player's level for some time. Aimless wandering can end in swift death for those unprepared.
Dragon's Dogma's combat is, simply put, a joy to behold. The focus on heavy, brutal action makes for an engrossing experience, full of so much activity that it can be hard to keep track of what's going on. As Sorcerers turn your arrows into bolts of flame, Warriors climb on the backs of trolls, and Pawns call for aid, there's an intensity of information that turns even the most mundane fights into something more involved. Every monster has a sense of presence in the world, a sense augmented when you get to grab ahold of them, crawl up their legs, and stab them in the necks. Once players start encountering cyclopes, chimeras, and griffons, the action goes beyond intense and truly justifies a word overused by the Internet generation (but rightly deserved here) -- epic.
Battles against larger creatures are lengthy, dangerous, and utterly thrilling. Each monster has an arsenal of devastating attacks and often boasts a surprising amount of speed to back up its power. While at first, these battles can seem insurmountable, there are some beautifully logical tactics that can be employed to take each creature down. For example, a Chimera is terribly intimidating, comprised of a vicious lion head, a magic-spewing goat head, and a poisonous snake head. However, each head can be systematically taken out, and players can grab onto the monster's side and drag it to the ground, rendering it temporarily vulnerable. Meanwhile, the Griffon loves to fly out of range before swooping in with nasty attacks, but a Ranger armed with oil arrows can work with a fire-aligned Mage and turn the monster's wings into barbecue, sending it crashing to the earth. Each opponent has a range of weaknesses to go with its defenses, waiting to be discovered.
Coupled with this tactical combat is some glorious visual feedback in the form of procedural damage. The more players wail on an opponent, the more bloody and battered it becomes. The once powerful Chimera can end a fight with its serpentine head lopped off and a dead goat hanging limp off its back. The regal Griffon doesn't look so proud once its feathers are soaked in its blood and its wings are wreathed in flame. So effective is the battle damage, it almost inspires guilt. It's difficult not to feel sorry for some of these monsters when they've been battered so badly that their physically unrecognizable, but the pity is soon replaced by utter jubilation when, after a lengthy battle that could have gone either way, a deadly enemy now lies slain, spewing gold and crafting materials that can be used to build even more powerful weapons and armor. The sense of accomplishment and relief is matched only by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and in many ways, Dragon's Dogma eclipses Bethesda's efforts.
All this revelry, however, comes at a price. Dragon's Dogma is at its best when it's providing dramatic encounters against slavering behemoths, but the moments between those encounters can be cripplingly miserable. The biggest problem is the lack of a competent fast travel system. As stated earlier, Gransys is huge, and players are expected to travel everywhere on foot, at all times. Not only that, but characters move slowly and sprinting is governed by a stamina bar that drains pathetically quickly. It can take a very long time to get from one city to another, meaning a lot of time on the road with no horses or similar methods of getting around swiftly.
Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad if one were constantly exploring new areas, but the vast majority of the game is rooted in backtracking, as missions strike out from the city of Gran Soren and place their objectives at the end of a handful of paths in which enemies respawn at their exact same locations, meaning that multiple journeys through the same area will play out identically. Ferrystones can be obtained that will warp the party back to Gran Soren, and later on there are portals that can be discovered to create customized fast travel points, but the expense and rarity of these items means that players will be forced to retread old ground dozens and dozens of times, with no sense of dynamism to keep things interesting.
This isn't helped by the Pawns themselves, who never shut up. They'll even talk over plot-relevant dialog if they're feeling particularly chatty, and they never have anything interesting to say. In fact, their dialog is generated by location, so they'll say the same things every time you walk past the same spot. This is particularly silly when your sidekick remarks on Gran Soren's size with surprise, despite having seen it twenty times already. Not only that, but the game doesn't care about which direction you're heading when the dialog is triggered, so your Pawns will commonly warn you of a Goblin ambush that you defeated three minutes ago, or wonder who a mysterious character is hours after the character has been identified. The blissful ignorance of Pawns would almost be charming if their statements aren't churned out with such sickening regularity that one feels compelled to scream at them every time they open their slack, drooling mouths. They also say "aught" instead of "something," which sounds like a small nitpick, but just you wait. Just you wait until you've heard them say "aught" a hundred times over the course of an hour. You'll learn to hate that word, no matter how cleverly medieval it sounds.
The Pawns' dialog is indicative of a larger issue with the game, an overwhelming sense that Gransys isn't a believable world. For as much energy put into making the larger monsters feel real, no effort seemed to have been expended for anything else. With enemies respawning in the same areas, cities feeling empty, and NPCs wandering aimlessly with nothing to do, Gransys is a static and artificial place. There's no atmosphere to speak of, which is dreadful when compared to just how engrossing the combat is. Once an abomination has been put to the sword, the sense of accomplishment is soon replaced with a sense of abandonment as players are once against thrust into a plastic world, all too willing to remind them that they're not immersed in a breathing universe, but simply playing a videogame. The glorified pop-up adverts for DLC don't exactly help in that regard.
Graphically, the game isn't spectacular, particularly with its washed out color scheme, but the artfully detailed animations make up for it. Little touches, such as characters reeling from the air pressure of a dragon's flapping wings, or the scrambling of a hero as an ogre tries to shake it off its back, give this incredible sense of interaction between opposing forces. When weapons hit their targets, they feel like they actually hit something, and even if players are stuck babysitting their Pawns now and then, one cannot deny that the party looks just like a cohesive unit at allies help each other, carry the fallen to safety, and drag beasts down for others to unleash their fury.
Were it not for the sluggish pace and stark alienation between battles, Dragon's Dogma would be immortalized as a classic. When it hits its stride, it is remarkable, more than capable of providing some of the most electrifying carnage a videogame could hope to provide. The ambition and scale of these fights, not to mention the wealth of options and equal dangers, is astounding, and worthy of the highest praise. Sadly, the amount of player time wasted, complete with irritating dialog and repetitive busywork, borders on abusive. It really undermines the genuine beauty, as what could have been a consistently breathtaking experience is regularly reduced to a soulless product. Never have I seen a game so capable of drawing players in while so eager to spit them back out.
Should you play Dragon's Dogma? Yes. The high points are so very worth getting to, and while the main game will be cleared in a number of hours, there are lots of monsters to battle and a dose of end-game content to clear, providing more than enough to rival the Skyrims and Diablos of the world. Just be aware that, for all the absorbing and exciting things to be found in Gransys, there are almost as many disappointing and infuriating things to let you down. Just grit your teeth, fight through the pain, and the rewards are there.
THE VERDICT - Dragon's Dogma
Reviewed by Jim Sterling