If you had a magic cauldron and tossed in Skyrim, Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus, even the most clever alchemist would end up with something close to Capcom’s fantastic entry in the open world RPG genre, Dragon’s Dogma. If you’re a fan of the games mentioned above, you’ll definitely find a lot to love in Dragon’s Dogma, but chances are you’ll find a few things that will test your patience as well during your time in Gransys.
The centerpiece of an RPG is usually their plot, but sadly this is Dragon’s Dogma’s weakest link. What starts off as an interesting premise fails to pick up steam until the end of the game, and by then you’ll probably forget what was going on 60 to 100 hours ago. Your created hero is an “arisen”, a person who’s heart has been removed by a dragon and is destined to live on and defeat them for the fate of the world, but it never really moves anywhere beyond that for 15 or 20 hours. Keep in mind that you find out this information within the first 20 minutes of the game, so the rest of your time will be spent exploring the massive world, doing side-quests and killing monsters. If you’re looking for an engaging storyline to keep you moving, you may wind up disappointed in Dragon’s Dogma, but I was okay with this spartan approach to storytelling in Dark Souls and I was okay with it this time as well. Why? Because both games offered what other games in the genre didn’t, and that immersed me more than a cliched storyline ever could. Both endings were also pretty amazing, so it’s not as if the plot is absent, just spread out.
It’s worth noting that Dragon’s Dogma is a very challenging game and thankfully your arisen won’t be traveling alone due to the innovative Pawn system. A Pawn is another character that you create, is given a job class (like Fighter, for instance) and fights by your side for the remainder of the game. Pawns are AI controlled but as you kill monsters, explore new areas and complete quests they will become more knowledgeable about loot locations and battle tactics. The best part is that you can fill the remaining two spots in your party with other player’s Pawns online, gaining their knowledge to help you find a weakness in a monster you’ve never fought or find a treasure chest you might have missed. The same goes when another player hires your pawn, although they never physically leave your game. You might wake up one morning to find that your Pawn has been taken around by another player and returned with useful items and additional battle knowledge. It’s really a neat system that turned Dragon’s Dogma in to more than just a game, but a community. For example, I posted on a forum that I frequent about having trouble with a specific quest. One of the forum users hired my Pawn and equipped her with some better gear they had taking up space in their bank. The idea of using Pawns created by other players also gives your AI teammates a more human feel so you never really get the impression that you’re just taking around mindless drones.
The strongest feature of Dragon’s Dogma is another reason why I kept coming back for more – the combat system. Massive beasts lurk the land of Gransys and you’ll need to do more than just swing your sword or fling your spells to avoid becoming a grease stain in the middle of the woods. Every monster requires a tactical approach to take them down, forcing you to exploit their weakness or knowing when to run away. Large monsters play out much like the Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, grappling their bodies and scaling them to find weak points. Mages can cast lightning on a cyclopes to stun them or ignite the wings of a griffin to prevent them from taking flight, while Rangers can pin bandits to the floor or to a wall with well placed arrows. Every vocation (job class) has their niche and Dragon’s Dogma promotes experimentation, allowing you to swap the vocation of both you and your Pawn as often as you’d like back at the inn.
Dragon’s Dogma also boasts one of the most well played out final boss encounters in recent memory. The sheer size of the dragon and amount of destruction they cause really makes you feel that, while you’re now leveled up and have tons of skills at your disposal, you are still fighting something way out of your league. Whether you’re running from breathing fire or scaling its back while it’s flying around the world, Capcom slapped Bethesda in the face and showed them that boss fights don’t have to be trivial hack and slash affairs. Dragon’s Dogma has completely set the new standard on what combat should be like in future games in the genre and I cannot praise this title enough for how well it plays without sounding like Capcom sent me a free copy of the game (which they didn’t).
So after basting Dragon’s Dogma with praise for a majority of this review, it’s time to get in to the downfalls that will hopefully be fixed in the confirmed sequel. My main complaint is that there is absolutely no effective form of fast travel until the very end of the game or in to your second playthrough in NG+. Sure, there are Portcrystals that you can drop and Ferrystones you can buy to teleport to your Portcrystals, but these aren’t available early on and aren’t exactly cheap. By the end of my initial playthrough I was swimming in gold, so buying Ferrystones was no problem when I pressed on to kill the post-game bosses that opened up, but having to spend 20-45 minutes just running from the city capital of Gran Soren clear across the map to an area I had already been to before three or four times was agonizing. In the 60 hours it took to complete Dragon’s Dogma I would estimate that at least 10 hours of it was just spent running from point A to point B, battling monsters in between. It definitely gave the game an epic scale and a sense of adventure that made me want to explore every area thoroughly, but seemed like a cheap way to extend the amount of time I spent with Dragon’s Dogma. I wouldn’t have minded backtracking this much if I could have spent 15 hours doing something a little more fun.
Graphically, Dragon’s Dogma is a mixed bag. The world of Gransys and the unforgiving monsters that patrol it look and move fantastically, but NPCs have a very derpy appearance that makes them look out of place. Spells explode and pop on-screen in such a large scale that you would swear your Sorcerer was launching meteors from space or conjuring fire from the depths of hell itself. Seeing massive tornadoes throw goblins around like lifeless debris looked amazing, but sometimes got in the way of seeing what in the hell I was trying to shoot with my arrows or smash with my hammer. I couldn’t count the amount of times I had to reposition my Ranger after a Mage’s healing spell went off near my location because I couldn’t focus my arrows on anything through the bright green lights. However, on a separate playthrough, I opted to go the Sorcerer route and when I was the one throwing around giant tornadoes it didn’t bother me in the slightest.
The voice acting in Dragon’s Dogma isn’t terrible but left a little bit to be desired. Its Shakesperian dialect made following some of the conversations a bit of a nuisance and I couldn’t imagine someone in North America playing this with English as their second language. I understand it’s a fantasy game and for some reason we all associate the word “fantasy” with ye olde English, but at least make conversations coherent and a little less repetitive. The soundtrack, however, is phenomenal in every aspect. From the cheesy J-rock intro (courtesy of B’z) that is still in my head, to the female vocal ambient tracks and epic scale battle music, Capcom completely nailed it. Like Skyrim and Portal 2, I would gladly listen to the soundtrack outside of the game for years to come.
The Verdict – B-
As much as I want to complain about the lack of fast travel, the slow moving plot or the cheesy voice acting, the combat in Dragon’s Dogma and the innovative Pawn system were more than enough to keep me hooked for over 200 hours worth of play time. The team behind Devil May Cry 4 and Resident Evil 4 did a bang up job on the combat, creating some of the most amazing battles I’ve ever seen in an RPG to date. In doing so, Capcom has proven that you don’t have to be a western developer to jump in the ring and play with the big boys and honestly outshined some of the biggest names in the genre. Dragon’s Dogma has sold really well for them back in Japan and they’ve already confirmed a sequel, I just hope they learn from their mistakes and persevere like we do in the game itself. In a game that mainly drew my attention with beta access to Resident Evil 6 and a pretty good demo, Dragon’s Dogma wound up being my sleeper hit of 2012 and I wouldn’t hesitate to pre-order the sequel.
Well after the posting of this review, Dragon’s Dogma was awarded Cheap Boss Attack’s 2012 Game of the Year. Sure, there were more polished games released and it didn’t get the highest review score, but in the end, I had way more fun and spent a lot more time with Dragon’s Dogma than any other release in 2012. In a year full of big name releases and an overall lack of promotion on behalf of Capcom, I really hope this review and 2012 Game of the Year award draw more attention to a fantastic new series.