Dragon's Dogma is a Capcom openworld RPG where the player takes the role of the Arisen, a resident of a fishing village whose heart gets stolen by a dragon. It's then up to the player to carve their way through the island of Gransys to look for a way to reclaim what they've lost and save the land.
As one would expect, I appreciate RPGs with a good story, or at least one with an interesting world. DD fails on both points. The main plot is a boring, generic and nonsensical mess due to numerous factors.
The Arisen is mute, so there's no dialogue choices to help you define your player character. In fact, the Arisen just looks like an idiot most of the time. With a mute protagonist, your party should pick up the slack and provide some flavour instead, but you're stuck with the inane ramblings of the Pawns you bring with you, so that's a wash.
Even beyond your party, there isn't a single properly realised character. The people of Gransys just exist, that's the best way I can describe them. The Duke and Madeleine have potential, but feel only halfway done. There's just so little screntime dedicated to even the more important characters.
Same thing goes for the plot itself. I feel like there aren't enough plot beats to make for an interesting story. You play the prologue, ”fight” the dragon, kill a hydra, get recognized by the duke as a hero, do a bit more than half a dozen random quests for the duke, maybe fight a death cult, go to kill the dragon and then move into the post-game quest where the game tries its best to explain the way the world works. That's it, plus whatever sidequests you want to do.
Something else that isn't given enough focus, or rather, focus is put in the wrong area, is the ”romance” mechanic. Depending on which NPC you gain favour with by showering them with gifts or doing quests for them, they'll become your beloved after the dragon kidnaps them. It's cool that just about any character can be chosen, but as previously said, none of the choices have enough screentime to make this a worthile exercise.
All, except for the duke's wife, who gets loads of romantically loaded screentime. The game seems very adamant about you stealing her. It's a toxic relationship, but the game is so heavyhanded with trying to get you to interact with her. It pans the camera to the start of her quest chain, something not afforded to any other quest. And as soon as you go to visit her during the night, the Arisen instantly tries to bone her in a cutscene.
Thankfully, you can let her get choked to death with some patience. It's nice that someone at Capcom cares about player choice. Too bad it materialised in such a fashion. What a shame.
The Pawns are the most unique feature of DD. They're a race of non-people who are good for nothing except questing. It's annoying how little place they have in the story, but their mechanics are interesting.
You get to make your own Pawn in the character creator, and they have your abilities, aside from the multi-class vocations. The game then rents out your pawn to other players, letting everyone form a party of four. Once the Pawn is returned, you can send a farewell gift to their master. It's basically slavetrade and no one in the game makes this observation. It really feels like mechanics-above-all-else design decision.
So far, I'm aboard this idea, but they are far from perfect. First of all, they're idiots. You're supposed to be able to teach them stuff, but I recognise no difference between them, besides vocation, no matter what. I'm sure that this will become a common thread for any game I review with AI party members, but I just want the Gambit system from FFXII. It's so good!
No need to make it as indepth, I just want the ability to give them some rules to abide. Things like:”If skeleton: Apply holy buff, not ice, stupid”, ”If Griffin: Use any source of fire”, ”If cyclops is armored: Don't stunlock it with lightning so it can pull off its helmet.””If you are a mage: Don't use up the strength buff items, you filthy traitor!”
Even when they don't get themselves killed every few fights, there's the chatter. Oh lord, the chatter. It can thankfully be muted, but it's so pervuasive that a multitude of phrases have become memes. I'm not oppposed to having them talk, but the few useful useful lines which exist get buried in an avalanche of exclamations centered around what enemies are around, what you just did to them plus some random bits.
It's a textbook example of quantity over quality. I would have much preferred if they had a dozen or so designed personality types for you to choose from instead. That way, it'd be somewhat possible to tell them apart and make them more entertaining to have in your party. Cutting down on the amount of lines by like 60% would help too.
One of the biggest problems with DD is the way damage is handled. It uses flat damage calculation, so the relevant defence stat subtracts from incoming damage. This is very common and works as long as you keep it under control. It works well in games like Ys and Kingdom Hearts because those games have a very restricted structure and keep values low.
That way, you can't really get to stronger enemies before the weaker ones and even if you do (by say, rushing on a higher difficulty), you can still win with chip damage if you're persistant. That's possible in DD as well, but its so tedious that it's equal parts tragic and funny.
The game is very open after the tutorial and I would accept it being suicidal to wander into the higher level areas. But as is, if you follow the flow of the main quests and do a few on the side as well, you'll come to a point where your damage can't break through the defence of minibosses properly anymore. This would be ok if they didn't have such gigantic health bars.
Once you get to such a battle, the flow of combat drags greatly. Hell, even if you break limbs of minibosses, they still have mountains of health left. If every enemy had worked like the Saurians and gotten lower defence once you broke something, this might have worked. Thankfully, you can stack 4 (!) stat bosters to double your strength or magick, making this a non-issue if you come prepared.
Again, this would be fine if only say, the drakes were armored enough to demand such a tactic. But as is, all the minibosses take a silly amount of hits until you get overleveled. Not fun.
One of the selling points of DD is the minibosses and how you can deal with them. I'm not happy with the variety of monsters, especially since so many of them are rare. You're gonna fight an absurd amount of cyclopses, end of story. The game would be well off having twice as many monsters.
You can fight them normally, but the game wants you to climb them. The system is taken from Shadow of the Colossus, and is mostly intact. I mean, it's not complex, so there's little to lose. But thanks to the small sizes of most monsters and some Pawns desire to climb as well, it gets really messy if you try to climb instead just doing some selective jumps.
Being an action RPG, there's a lot of stabbing to do in DD. The first thing of note is that there isn't a lock-on system (outside of spellcasting). And surprisingly enough, it doesn't feel like the game needs it. You have a light attack and a heavy attack, which I never use. Then, depending on equipment and vocation, you get three skills, on the left and right shoulder buttons respectively.
These take stamina and are your biggest asset in combat. The usual flow of combat is that you burn through your stamina with your fancy moves and then use light attacks until the bar is filled. I'm quite annoyed that the recovery time of stamina is static, so you have to wait longer as you level up. But it gets easier to buy stamina recovery items by that point, so it sorta balances out.
Vocations are just a fancy names for classes. You get the standard Fighter, Mage and Strider, hybrids of them, plus advanced versions, making for a nice mix on paper. You're encouraged to switch between them in order to get new support and weapon skills. It's a good idea for the most part, but it bothers me immensly that your stat gain is dependant on your vocation. That means that switching from a Mage to a Warrior will leave you with loads of useless magick and little to no strength.
Let's start with the Mage, the one I have the least experience with. Spells get rather powerful, but take an eternity to cast, making you easy pickings for any foe, unless you make tactical use of cliffs.I read them as a support class that provides buffs, healing and critical damage on bosses if you give them room. Perfect for the Pawns, and a bit too inactive for the player I think.
The Fighter is the one I have the biggest issue with. It starts promising, being equipped with a Stinger-esque skill that does wonders for traversal. But that promise soon crumbles, and I blame the stagger system. In contrast with the amazing poise system in Dark Souls where poise damage is static, the stagger system in DD scales stagger defence and stagger damage.
So if you're playing as the Fighter and run into run into an enemy you can't pulverise, not only can you not deal good damage, but they can also continue their attacks unopposed. If you move up to the Warrior, this problem becomes even worse.
It's the heavy class and it's supposed to deal heavy damage in few hits. But it's much too weak I find. So when you go up against something you can barely dent, you're stuck with slow attacks and not even the launcher moves will help you stagger that much. It's awful.
After suffering like so, I restarted as a shorter Strider (length and weight dictates movement and carry capacity) and something magical happened. It was as if the shackles of the gods became undone, weighted clothing fell to the ground and the game transformed. I'll do my best to explain just how much better I felt playing as a Strider, it's ridiculous.
First of all, they use light armour, meaning that you can stay in the lighter weight classes easier. That means that you run faster and longer, which is a godsend during large stretches of land. And many of the skills for the Strider enhance your movement greatly too.
You get a dodge roll, faster climbing and a double jump! You can just dart around to your liking and dodge boss attacks properly. And let's not forget the daggers. They mend the damage system since they're built around stacking hits. So even if you do next to nothing per hit, you can still get in a good combo and do damage that way. The dash attack is pretty spiffy too.
But the best part is the bow. Holy moly, this bow. It's a contender for the best bow I've ever seen in a game. Ammo is infinite, the damage is decent and the multiple arrows skills are so good that they make the other skills obsolete. Not to mention the lovely Blast Arrows. They break the game for sure, but are at least halfway balanced due to their weight and price.
It all comes together to form a class that favours mobility, can deal with foes at any range and can get away with climbing to get in some good hits. I think they should've just forsaken the other classes for the player and balanced this one better. It would've been awesome.
DD has a big problem with clutter. Not visually, but mechanically. There's just so much useless crap lying about that it's hard to discern what's worth to pick up. I hate when there's just a huge assortment of items that either do nothing or are nowhere near as useful as they sound.
This extends to the crafting system as well, or at least half of it. You can craft items, but I see no point in doing so. The basic items you can purchase in the shop are all you need. If there's no point in crafting, then there's no point in having so many items strewn about.
The equipment upgrades on the other hand, are pretty cool. Every level needs a decent amount of one specific drop, incentivizing you to hunt down that monster and maybe cut off some limbs. The drop rates are acceptable and you can even skip levels if you have the higher grade material. That's awesome.
The way gold is earned is less awesome. I think you're supposed to sell drops in order to earn the big bucks, but it can also be found randomly. I'd have preferred it if minibosses dropped gold so that you wouldn't have to risk selling potential upgrade material. Thankfully, popping a gold buff and going on a killing spree makes money less of an issue.
It's rare for RPGs to have extra modes and the ones in DD are interesting. Hard mode is more than the name suggests. It's NG+ that you are free to activate at any time. If you activate it when you have a normal playthrough going, you get to keep your character and reset the game.
You're treated to beefier foes, but the drop rate of gold gets boosted alongside exp. The instakills are lame, but with all this help, it's much easier to get to a point where you can always penetrate enemy defences. I approve of this mode, it'd be fun to see optional early NG+ modes in other games.
I haven't dabbled in Speedrun Mode since I'm not one to speedrun. But I'm glad they tried to get something out of the short story. Always fun to see official support for speedrunners.
The quests in DD are mixed. Some do a good job of pushing you into optional areas while still leaving room for the player to find a few more on their own. Some even intersect in decent ways. Overall, I think they could do with a bit of reworking, mostly in the writing and presentation department. Having them be a bit less obtuse in a few instances would be nice too.
Screw you Jasper!
Let's go through some smaller things.
It really weirds me out that DD is an open RPG with only two towns. I think Gransys might be a colony, so this could be explained away. But there only being a fishing village and a castle town just feels wrong. The random bandit camps don't really help with this matter.
The map itself feels a bit insincere. Going by it's size, it looks ok. But as you explore, you realise that much of it is impassable mountains. And the world is rather samey too. Or rather, you have little reason to go to the more unique parts of Gransys more than once.
Hopefully, my PC setup is to blame for the small issues I've had with the graphics. Firts of all, the skybox at night looks awful. I'm a man who loves good skyboxes, and the weird filter thing in DD sucks. Second of all, I hate that you get blindsided if you use buffs at night. It makes sense that that would happen, since your weapons glow. But something tells me this wasn't intentional. And third of all, I played this game locked at 60 FPS and I think it causes some enemies to do quick starts and stops during their animations. It looks terrible.
The Arisen is very much set up as a morally good character. In spite of this, you can act like a jackass and get thrown in jail. And if you do, you have to break out. After this, nothing about the way people in Gran Soren think of you changes. You can get caught as much as you want and no one cares. It's such an immersion-breaker.
This isn't a criticism, just some pondering. The game just has a few Berserk things in it, not unlike Dark Souls. They're fewer in number, but somehow even more explicit. You can easily make Guts in the character creator, there is an encounter with a golem and a witch that's super stolen from Berserk, there's an expy of Casca with elements of Farnese and the console versions even had Guts' and Griffith's armour as DLC.
I question the point of it, since DD is so far removed from Berserk outside of these direct references. Might just be there to look cool.
The expansion to DD is an interesting beast, and showcases what direction a sequel might go, should it ever come to pass. It rebalances the main game in ways I care little for, except for the infinite-use Ferrystone. But as soon as you get out of the tutorial, you can take a ride to the titular isle.
It tries to tell a complete sidestory, but I don't think it succeeds. The idea of the Dark Arisen and his lost love is decent, but there's just so much faceless ghost babbling, resulting in the main story of it getting drowned out. The music is nice at least.
The expansion changes the setup drastically. The isle is divided into three sections, each guarded by a boss. It's up to you to survive the way to every boss and take them down. Which is quite hard, as the asshole level has been set to 11. There are countless enemies that you're supposed to run from, which is fine. But many regular ones are also everalasting murderbeasts with defence up the wazoo.
If you can get past that (and the randomized mimics, blegh), it's somewhat engaging dungeon crawling. There are new enemies, randomized miniboss encounters and even a place where the lantern is useful. I'm inclined to believe that the game would have been better of if it consisted of these dungeon floors only. And once you beat the last boss, the expansion resets, the asshole meter gets turned to 12 and the loot improves. It's basically a built-in NG+ mode with another form for the final boss.
There's also a new equipment system in place. Once you dragonforge something, you can then upgrade it again using BBI drops and rift crystals, making them actually useful now. But in order to get the best stuff, you need to aquire BBI weapons first. And it's pretty painful. You need a cursed weapon, preferredly of rank 3. Which is best achieved by beating the last boss, rushing through to the dark sewer and savescumming a chest by stabbing yourself in front of it and hoping it's not a mimic. Your Pawn can save you from them, but I trust those nimrods as far as I can throw them.
You then take it to the entrance in order to get it purfied. And this is where the madness begins. Getting a cursed weapon is hard enough, and they cost a pretty penny to purify. But you aren't assured the weapon you want at first. It's dependant on the colour of your and your Pawn's Vocations. And even then, it's just the colour, not the Vocation. You do not want to know how many useless ultimate shortbows I got as a Ranger. It's not random, as the game creates a seed from your account that it cycles through. That means that you will get the weapon you want, the question is how many runs you'll have to make.
Overall, it's a cool expansion, but it needs a lot more work put in to it to develop the good ideas and scrap the bad ones. Kinda representative of the game as a whole.