Somehow it feels a little pedestrian to have a dragon be the ultimate antagonist.
Dragon’s Dogma took me 80 hours to get through 1 playthrough. It is sort of the ultimate “games are too short nowadays” rebuttal not made by Bethesda. There’s a little Skyrim in this game to be sure, along with many other Western RPGs, especially Dragon Age. It’s not a rip-off, however, but a remix of concepts and game design from both sides of the East and West divide. Its DNA includes games like Monster Hunter and the magnificent Shadow of the Colossus on top of what it borrows from WRPGs and George R.R. Martin. The result is a sometimes frustrating but always fascinating game, tremendously ambitious and, for me at least, so much fun I had to force myself to stop playing it 5 hours into a New Game+ file.
My review is going to be fundamentally positive but this is a game with a lot of quirks and issues, some of which are truly retrograde and just bad, which are the sources of a lot of frustration and why the game has received mixed reviews.
The character creation system is extremely robust but is really only half the customization the game offers.
Dragon’s Dogmaputs you in the shoes, boots, and sabatons of a young man or woman from a sleepy fishing village called Cassardis. Before long, a huge fucking red dragon comes tumbling out of a hole in the sky and incinerates half the town as part of a cycle of destruction that can only be ended by a special individual called the Arisen. You become the Arisen when the dragon eats your heart and leaves you for dead. The role of Arisen seems like just another take on the classic “destined hero” trope but there are some really interesting twists later that I’ll get to. For now, it’s all about leaving home and finding out more about what it means to be Arisen. Part of the package are humanlike people called Pawns which are drawn from other dimensions via a subuniverse called The Rift. Pawns are like humans but they don’t have much emotion or will of their own. They exist to serve the Arisen in the endless cycle of fate which plays itself out in many times and worlds all closely related but never quite identical. You don’t really find out too much about the multiverse beneath the surface ofDragon’s Dogma until after you think you’ve beaten the game but this revelation among the others I’ll address a little later work to make the game’s story a lot more interesting on a conceptual level.
The storytelling in the game is one of its weaknesses, however. There’s certainly a core plot and quests and cutscenes which are mandatory to advance it. The game doesn’t really tell you which are that and which are side quests or sort-of-sidequests half the time so it can be tricky. For example, you might accidentally fail a sidequest by unknowingly activating a main story quest that acts as a cut-off point. There is something nostalgic about this, clunky and outdated as it is, because it is a feature of a great many classic JRPGs. They are the definition of games not holding your hand and were the one type of game you didn’t feel bad about reading a strategy guide alongside your playing. Dragon’s Dogma has so many hidden features and obscure systems that it is practically designed to be played with a guide.
A major highlight is the combat.
Even though Dragon’s Dogma is an RPG, traditionally a game genre where story is paramount, it turns out that the story is sort of unimportant to the enjoyment of the game. It’s kind of like Skyrim in that way. You don’t really get invested in the NPCs or their affairs as easily as you might in a more traditional JRPG or a Bioware game. There is an attempt to get you to care about the main cast of characters, but it’s also full of Capcom weirdness which sort of undermines taking anything too seriously. All that being said, there are elements of the world-building and resultant story that are truly interesting. Ultimately, though, what works about this game is the gameplay itself, supported by three major pillars: combat, customization, and exploration.
First the combat. Dragon’s Dogma uses a class-based system with a lot of customization resulting in three major playstyles with a huge amount of nuance. The overall design is that of a 3rd-person action game or beat-em-up with an emphasis of freedom of movement and a camera system at a conducive remove. There are occasional close-quarters fights where it feels like Dragon Age 2 but more often, Dragon’s Dogma has a lot in common with Shadow of the Colossus or even a Zelda game. The three aforementioned play-styles are melee, range, and magic.
The game often incidentally yields dramatic, highly cinematic moments.
The backbone of the combat is the special abilities you can learn as you go. These are categorized based on the weapon style of the class: daggers, bows, sword, shield, magick shield, two-hander, and staff/archistaff. Staff skills are magic spells and always require some charging time. There are other abilities with this and the game both invites and rewards strategy in terms of what types of abilities you use within the limitations (3 per weapon type, some classes have more than one weapon type). You’re also not locked in by weapon in every class. For example, Striders get bows and archery but you can play them as pure dagger-wielders if you want. In a similar way, fighters don’t have to use shields so it’s really up to the player and how they want to use their favorite class.
The game comes packed with 9 classes. There are 3 basic ones, 3 advanced versions, and 3 specialized hybrid classes that take longer to develop but have the most interesting combinations of ability and gear configurations. Fighter, Strider, and Mage are self-explanatory, as are the Warrior, Ranger, and Sorcerer advanced classes. It’s the Magick Archer, Magick Knight, and Assassin classes that have the most quirks and room to tinker. Of them all, I’ve tried everything but Sorcerer, Magick Archer, and Assassin. The game allows you to freely swap classes by visiting the main Inn in the Capital City Gran Soren. Using a points system called Discipline you can buy abilities, including cross-compatible passive “Augments”, and pay once to buy a new class option. Your Arisen can access all 9 classes from Level 10 but pawns are restricted to the first 6 basic and advanced. There’s also that you can’t swap the classes of the pawns you hire from other players (more on this later) but you can always use your main pawn and the more static hirelings to balance out whatever experimenting you’re doing.
Riftstones let you have more direct control over your pawns.
Aside from the chaotic and fun smaller fights with swarming groups of goblins, bandits, or whatever there are the BIG fights with large, impeccably animated creatures. This is where the Shadow of the Colossus and Monster Hunter influences are most keenly felt. To fight these big fuckers, you often have to climb them and find weakpoints to exploit. Some creatures, such as the griffin, will fly away or pick up and drop your pawns if you don’t take down their wings first. The smaller enemies have a pretty basic mob AI but the larger ones can sometimes be very clever and dangerous and the majority of the game has you living in fear of running into a chimera or drake at the wrong time. Once you learn where the enemies spawn and how to fight them, things get easier and the sense of gratification and accomplishment for defeating giant beasts fades some. Chimeras, for example, became easy to take down before long and as their loot is so valuable they became a favorite target. On the other hand, I’ll never forget fighting my first drake for 2 in-game day/night cycles before it finally burned me and my pawns alive with all our curatives and items long spent. Coming back after gaining a few levels and changing to a more beefy class meant finally conquering that fucker and it felt great.
There isn’t a huge degree of enemy variety in Dragon’s Dogma and I will be the first to admit that it gets tiresome fighting the same things all the time if you’re doing a lot of running around. That said, it’s easy to break things up by seeking specific enemies out and the game invites that with its loot and crafting system. It’s not for everybody and it can sometimes be an uncomfortably grind-y experience, but it’s certainly not on par with MMO grinds. Again, it’s very much like Monster Hunter. There is definitely a sense of satisfaction in going on golem hunts so you can get enough dappled ore to turn your favorite sword up to 11.
Most of the monsters have unique features including physics, highly interactive attacks or states, etc.
My favorite aspect of Dragon’s Dogma is the rampant customization. Not only do you have a high degree of control over what your character looks like, picking from and tweaking facial features, hair styles, body type (more options here than in almost all other character creation engines), but there are more options to unlock as you play the game. These options include additional colors for hair, skin, and makeup as well as the ability to customize your character fully even after the main details have been locked in. There is a barber available for some changes anytime you have the money, but being able to completely recreate your character in the post-game or New Game+ is awesome as I’m the type of person who changes his mind constantly.
Character appearance is based not only on the core options at creation, but also on clothing and armor choices. By improving equipment, you can use old gear for longer based purely on aesthetics and can mix and match a couple of layers to make for whatever medieval chic effect you want. I love this shit. My girlfriend calls it “playing dress-up” and it is easily the most addictive and intensive gameplay feature I get into with the games that offer it. I’m just a glutton for it and it might color my review for this game some so I’m owning it. Inside me is a fashion dilettante waiting to get out.
I’ve already mentioned that customizing your classes with cross-compatible skills is a major feature, meaning that it isn’t only aesthetics that are in the hands of the player but also play-style. It’s like a one-two-punch of “Evan, this game for you”.
Gran Soren is a big, beautiful place.
Exploration is the last of the three big gameplay foci. The game takes place in a duchy called Gransys, itself part of a larger world of which we learn almost nothing. Gransys is enough to keep us occupied for one game, though, as it is also the nexus for whatever crazy cosmic shit is going on with the Arisen and the dragon. The heart of Gransys is the city Gran Soren where the Duke lives and prepares to go after the dragon. Once, he was an Arisen himself and went through the whole dragon thing. I guess it happens every generation! Anyway, there are a few other towns and castles as well as huge expanses of open terrain. The game does not take place in a big place, but it actually feels pretty big as it takes real time to go from one end of Gransys to the other and there is no fast travel. Because civilization is spaced out in Gransys, it adds to the expansive feel rather than giving the player a sense of an overstuffed world (the Elder Scrolls games have this admittedly minor issue). There are a lot of NPCs though and they all have their own names and simple activity cycles. There seems to be no good reason to talk to most of them except for that the game has a hidden affinity stat that can be raised for entire towns, with beneficial effects like lower shop prices, by talking to the folk.
As interesting and pretty as Gransys is, you do have to retrace your steps a lot and visit the same locations. Thankfully, the challenge of the game makes these jaunts at least a little tense throughout most of the game. The low visibility and high inherent danger of night time, which comes all too soon, is also a key feature in making the repetition palatable and maintaining the tension even as the game becomes familiar. This part reminds me of Minecraft actually. You know you shouldn’t be worried about it, but that Chimera jumping out of the woods within your small radius of light gets you just about every time.
Because gathering materials by picking herbs, mining veins of ore, and killing powerful monsters is such an integral part of the game (if you want to have the best gear and be able to make cool bombs, potions, etc), exploration is functional and has just enough variation to remain interesting. If you pace your advancement through the game like I did, there’s always some new chunk of Gransys to explore as soon as you’re ready to advance the plot. Or, if you like, you can strike out into the most dangerous places where the game won’t deliberately take you for many hours yet. You might even wind up doing this by accident, following some poorly placed escort quest (so fucking frustrating).
Cyclops are always fun to fight.
Speaking of hidden stats. There are actually hilarious results of the affinity stat. See, it’s also used to determine who the Arisen’s love interest is. It’s odd because there’s a semi-hidden quest chain involving the Duke’s nubile wife and it ends in a highly suggestive way. However, she doesn’t have to be the love interest. In fact, the love interest can be just about any NPC except for pawns and the affinity stat can be raised just by purchasing lots from merchants, completing quests, etc. You also don’t know this going into the game so you might end up with surprises, like say short bearded weaponsmith Caxton as the pivotal love interest for your 7-foot tall Magick Knight Arisen. This happened to me, people! It’s kind of a funny thing not only because it can seem totally random and it is something the player has to sort of stumble onto understanding. It’s kind of funny because it is the opposite of the systems Bioware uses which can lead to “relationship grinding” where you know exactly what you have to do to engage outcomes with NPCs and can replay the game over and over with a high degree of upfront knowledge and control. The randomization offered by hidden secondary game mechanics, a hallmark of Japanese RPGs, has its charm but offers something novel these days.
On the other hand, this approach also leads to seemingly lazy issues like quests that you can’t figure out how to continue or complete due to hidden conditions. It’s nice that New Game+ lets you go back and complete all those quests you fucked up first time through, but it seems like a game should actually offer choices and therefore a reason to go back if it wants you to replay quests. You shouldn’t do them over because the game’s very design prevented you from completing them.
Your homunculus allies will talk a lot.
Now we get to the pawn system, a truly bizarre and unique feature ofDragon’s Dogma. While from the outset it’s kind of a creepy idea: magically waved away slavery, it eventually gets to have a significance to the mythos of the game that is interesting if no less bizarre and uncomfortable. Leaving aside the philosophical implications of “hiring” soulless humanoid protectors as a core element of gameplay, let’s talk about how the system itself works.
Basically pawns introduce a degree of multiplayer to Dragon’s Dogma. You get your one main BFF pawn with as much freedom to customize them as your player (except for the class limits) and then you can hire another 2 (or not, which is kinda neat and challenging to try). These pawns are actually the creations of other players and likewise, they can hire your main pawn either as they randomly encounter them in their own game or by seeking them out in the Rift. Since pawns don’t level up and you usually save all your gear for yourself and your pawn prime, you have to rehire frequently and can send gifts, ratings, and comments to the players who created the ones you’re replacing. It’s fucking neat is what it is and a major draw for me is seeing all the crazy shit other people come up with from the creepy underdressed “little girl” warriors to the hulking dudes with foxhunters, fros, and bright green skin. Most people try for subtle aesthetic accentuation, but since the game is friendly toward using even crappy gear if you like how it looks, you usually see some hugely divergent pawns, especially in New Game+ where wearing high-end gear is mostly meaningless.
Being able to take your own in-game screenshots is cool but they come out too dark.
Now to talk about what happens when you face down that fucking dragon. The game begins to unfold a bit in terms of choices and consequences. See, a core theme of Dragon’s Dogma is the power of the will. Is the Arisen strong-willed enough to triumph? The dragon has a weird attitude, not what you’d call adversarial, to the Arisen. He offers a deal that the Arisen can take, or he offers combat which will peel back another layer of the greater mystery of the cycle. You get to make those choices and see what the Arisen before you did and didn’t do. Then, once the dragon is done for, Gran Soren suffers a cataclysm that leads to the discovery of the Everfall, an endless infinite loop of universes where the Arisen killed the dragon and must face the challenge of the Seneschal. On every floor of the Everfall are the abandoned pawns of Arisens who came before and made the wrong choice or died.
The Seneschal awaits once you’ve gathered enough Wakestones to form the portal. Interestingly, the Seneschal is basically God and their will is what matters meaning that humans, the dragon, the monsters, everything is subject to that will which makes humans little more than pawns at one more remove. The Arisen’s job is to use their will to get them as far as the Seneschal where one final choice remains: peaceful oblivion or replacing God. It seems then that the dragon’s role is one of kickstarting an apotheosis in an endless cycle of subjugation. However this cycle came to be, you get to decide whether to perpetuate it. To fully complete the game, you have to choose to kill yourself with the Godsbane, depriving the world of a God and thereby ending the cycle. Your body plummets back to Cassardis, kind of like the dragon actually, but it is your pawn’s “soul” that inhabits it. Crazy shit, huh? Sort of a bold direction for the game, and one that is very Japanese and I mean that in the best way possible.
About to dropsword a fucking golem.
So all in all, Dragon’s Dogma is a deep and rewarding game. It’s also a highly ambitious experiment and deserves to be rewarded so that it’s many flaws can be refined in further installments. I definitely want to see a sequel to this game, one with a better save system especially. Knowing Capcom, a sequel is inevitable. I just hope it gets localized. Meanwhile, there’s been a steady influx of small-scale DLC including new hairstyles, gear, and collection quests (kinda lame).
But yeah, I almost didn’t buy it but am super glad I did. If you like(d) any of the games I’ve listed as being inspirations to this one, please give Dragon’s Dogma a try.
Even if that shit just sounds interesting.
I want a sequel.