Dragon's Dogma manages the rare feat of being a Japanaese-developed game that successfully emulates many of the design sensibilities and aesthetics of Western RPGs.
- AI-controlled party members hold their own in combat
- Superb character and creature animations
- Finely crafted open world
- Poor escort mission NPC AI
- Excessive NPC chatter
- Bosses and forests do not mix
Dragon's Dogma Review:
For as much as Dragon’s Dogma is a new IP for developer/publisher Capcom, there’s a lot about it that is strikingly familiar, not that’s a bad thing. It shares a lot of Monster Hunter’s DNA especially when it comes to boss battles. Many of the game’s fast-paced combat elements are partly due to the combined experience of veteran Capcom designers who have worked on several of the company’s action franchises. And of course, there’s the western RPG influence that is quite pervasive in Dragon’s Dogma. So it’s all the more of an achievement that this game manages to carve an identity all its own especially as its release rounds off a six-month ‘role-players’ paradise’ that includes Skyrim, The Witcher II Enhanced Edition, and Diablo III.
He Stole Your Heart
The initial set-up is as traditional as a fantasy plot could be, painting the playable character as the obligatory “chosen one” world savior known as the Arisen. This humble hero naturally comes from a quiet fishing village in the land of Gransys, which ends up being terrorized by a dragon. How the Arisen was chosen is the unusual part, as the dragon literally rips out the hero’s heart to signify this designation. Then the dragon departs, as if to say, “If you want your heart back, come and catch me, but not before you rid this world of its evils.”
Being the Arisen affords many privileges, not the least of which includes having access to ‘pawns’, warriors and spellcasters that will form your party, with a maximum of three companions at any time. One of these pawns will actually be designed by the player, using the same deep character creation tools that formed your Arisen. While devoted, your primary pawn is certainly not one-dimensional. This warrior might lack the backstory and character development that JRPG fans look for with their party members, but at least he’s reliable and his significance to the story actually grows as you get closer to recovering your heart.
Dragon’s Dogma sticks to traditional action RPG combat mechanics, starting you off with simple light/heavy attacks and blocking; and it doesn’t take long to learn new abilities specific to your class. Yet a collection of new talents is only as good as the control scheme that lets the player wield these skills. Dragon’s Dogma has sufficiently created a system where you can assign multiple special moves and access them with ease by holding one of the bumpers. The catch is that you can only learn new skills and assign them to the controller by visiting an innkeeper.
Pawns At Play
The pawns’ unquestioning servitude makes them easy to command and rely on, provided that they’re well-leveled. Capcom manages to keep the command-issuing mechanic very simple, letting you choose between “Help!”, “Go! (toward the enemy)”, and “Follow me!”. Pawns have enough sense to be proactive whenever a monster is nearby. It can be gratifying to occasionally hang back while you let your companions do all the dirty work. How you influence your primary pawn’s behavior is very subtle, but he will perform complementary to your play style and can be honed further by engaging in brief heart to heart chats back in town.
This pawn system is also another sign of the growing interest in asynchronous multiplayer. It's a wide-reaching term that encompasses everything from the typical Facebook social game to the enhanced leaderboard challenges of competitive titles like SSX and Ridge Racer Unbounded. Dragon's Dogma's multiplayer belongs to the ‘indirect assistance’ camp, drawing comparisons to From Software’s immensely challenging Demon's Souls. Yet unlike the hint-dropping mechanic of Demon's Souls, the sense of community in Dragon's Dogma centers around the ability to share your pawn with others and in turn, borrow other players' pawns for use in your party. It should be noted that while the primary pawn you’ve crafted will level up alongside you, the other pawns won’t. So it’s in your best interest to keep updating your party with new secondary pawns that are near or at your current level.
Never Short On Advice
The pawns’ ability to jump to friends’ sessions make them very busy beings. When you’re sleeping at an inn, they’re off helping other heroes like yourself with their quests. These include missions that you may not have signed up for just yet. Even if no one in real life actually rented your pawn, this companion will at least come back from an imaginary session and bring back gift items and quest knowledge. Whatever your pawn’s new experiences, he uses that to make your own adventures run smoother. Their advice is most useful when it involves pointing out enemy weaknesses, and it’s gratifying see the instant results of targeting and hitting those soft spots.
These pawns remark with trepidation when exploring catacombs and often comment about majestic cliffside ocean views. These observations help give your companions a sense of personality yet they also end up sounding disingenuous when they repeat the same line over and over, or worse, when another pawn uses the exact same words down the line.
Capcom is erring on the idea that there's no such thing as too much information. Unfortunately this is a negative when you're in a very involving boss fight and your three pawns are talking all at once. The worst part is when one of them actually has something helpful to say, but is drowned out amid the frantic context of the battle. You can toggle on pawn subtitles even though that clutters the HUD. If there was a way to tone down or toggle off the voices, I failed to find it in the Options menu. It’s even worse if you happen to be in a group mission with equally talkative Gransys soldiers. Of course that giant griffon is “a fearsome beast”! It just took out a large chunk of the floor in its latest dive bomb! You don’t have tell me three times in the last 20 seconds!
Talkativeness aside, your pawns are helpful where it counts, chipping away at enemy health and healing you as well, provided one of your party members has a curative spell. If you're a traditionalist melee combatant, diversifying your party with at least one skilled mage adds valuable magical offense; this pawn can even add temporary elemental bonuses to your weapons.
Like A Boss, Mount A Boss
Dragon’s Dogma encourages offensive assertiveness a bit more than defense, which is why the sooner you learn how to grab, the better. Fatally tossing dazed enemies off cliffs is as satisfying the first time as much as the hundredth time. The ease in grabbing hold of a creature ten times the size of the Arisen not only draws obvious comparisons to Shadow of the Colossus, but also provides a contrast to the less substantive gargantuan boss battles of the last several years, the ones that have been way too dependent on quick time events. The only action that qualifies as a QTE in Dragon's Dogma is in shaking the left stick in order to free oneself from a monster's grasp.
For a brief moment, that spot on the back or head of a boss becomes a safe zone to simply wail on the beast. The risk comes when a bipedal creature like a cyclops manages to take its arm back and grab you for a painful squeeze. It's impressive enough the first and second time, when you witness this enemy display the presence of mind to proactively grab you. Same goes for the smaller ogres; they can get easily frustrated with your climbing ways that they'll more than likely leap up in the air and land on their backs in the hopes of rushing you. These are opponents that are to be taken seriously, not just because of their thick hides, but also due to their tactics. Each boss has at least one trick up their sleeve whether it's the drake's hypnotic ability to turn a pawn against you or a cockatrice's slow and tortuous petrification spell.
Things get dicey when boss encounters occur in the woods, which opens up a can of wyrms in questionable camera work and minor collision. It especially the case when dueling against a drake, where its wings pass through trees and its penchant for low-level flying within the wood can be a headache with the camera. Speaking of questionable camera work, the game will occasionally zoom to a close-up of a pawn if it’s about to execute a dramatic move during combat. 4 out of 5 times it’s difficult to see what the pawn is actually trying to do and it’s just as hard to tell whether their maneuver was actually successful.
Diehard fans of Monster Hunter will recognize some recycled animations when winged creatures take to the air and when particular bosses collapse. Goblins scream and shake upon seeing you, skeletons ominously rise from their pile of bones, and annoying snow harpies pick you up so they could drop you from a great height. And it’s easy to feel sorry for an immobilized saurian whose tail you just severed but its writhing animation is just so fun to watch. The Arisen and the pawns are equally animated, depending on their active skills. I’m particularly a fan of the move known as the Antler Toss, a full body upper cut so thorough that the Arisen does a 360 to complete the motion. And if you’re the type of gamer who appreciates convincing pony tail hair animation as your heroine runs, Dragon’s Dogma has you covered there too. The only minor blemish is that Capcom didn't implement any character animation when it came to some object interaction like removing coffin lids and pulling switches.
The mandatory missions spare you the truly challenging boss battles for the first half of the game. And unless you're incredibly creative and thoughtful about your skill advancement, weapon enhancing, and pawn optimizing, you should be ready to grind for a solid portion of your playthrough. A variety of optional quests--many found on the notice boards in urban areas--makes for an obvious goal-oriented alternative to merely leveling up by roaming the map. There’s very little problem solving needed when trying to find the next destination or the next person to speak with in order progress in a mission; it’s a mild case of hand-holding since the game will often mark the target’s location on the minimap. The bulk of the optional assignments are either involve killing specific monsters or escorting an NPC.
The escort missions underscores one of Dragon's Dogma's few shortcomings, taking the player back to 2002 where it felt like every adventure game had escort missions and poorly implemented ones at that. These NPCs certainly need guards for multiple reasons: they can't sprint like you, they can't wield weapons, and they behave like they don't get out much. They will run right through tripwires and they won't follow you down cliffs that can be used as shortcuts no matter how short the drop. If they drop too far back, they'll simply be teleported back to town and your assignment will be classified as a failure. It’s of some small comfort that these NPCs can be healed during the journey.
An Aged Open World
The map of Gransys is reminiscent of most RPG maps where the playable land is just a modest region within a much larger continent, in a world of many continents. Capcom created more than enough ruins and other aged structures to imply a strong sense of history. The little remnants of ancient castles stand in the shadows of existing ones and there are faded gravestones near the edges of seaside cliffs that imply that many, many other adventurers have traversed this land long before you. In fact, Dragon's Dogma's prologue has you controlling a pre-made hero from a time long before the events of the game's main story.
Some will complain that there isn’t enough environmental variety especially considering the expansiveness of Gransys. Sure, the overall landscape does lack cliched areas themed on elements like fire and ice, but such omissions work to the game's benefit in providing a very convincing unified look to the entire landscape. While the majority of the land feels idyllic with its abundance of lush, overgrown grass, Gransys certainly has its share of hostile-looking environments consisting of rough terrain, dead trees, and lethal bodies of water. The studio’s artists and level designers should get a lot of credit for crafting the landscape in a way that transitioning to these many environments feels seamless and natural.
This open world will give you a lot to do beyond the countless straightforward enemy encounters. Explore in the evening and you might find yourself rescuing a captive human caged by goblins or you might come to the aid of ambushed travelers. It's an added positive that it's very easy to veer off the beaten path where enemies who are out of your league are only a couple hundred yards away.
And Gransys doesn't mess around when it comes to nighttime exploration. Unlike many other RPGs with day/night cycles, the world of Dragon's Dogma is one devoid of celestial aids like moons that are bright enough to cast shadows. It's nearly pitch black if you forget your lantern or run out of oil (if you're a masochist, you'd might as well turn off your HUD map). Those committed to grinding--especially in the interest of making the later battles more manageable--should try facing the challenges of nighttime combat. It helps break any potential monotony as new enemies come out at night, the most common being a Capcom speciality: zombies.
Another positive indicator of the breadth of an expansive RPG map is by including entire castles that can be missed depending on the choices you make. Choosing or ignoring particular missions on the notice board will have long term effects, not to mention the trivial and meaningful favors you can do for specific townsfolk. What is particularly notable is how some side missions affect how some story missions play out. One of the game’s most spectacular battles is actually missable if you happened to ignore a specific fetching quest earlier in the game. And don't be surprised to come across a number of story-based crossroads where you might have to decide the fates of key NPCs. Yes, there will also be an opportunity to romance at least one of the supporting characters.
East Makes West
The pawns’ actions and assistance in battle ultimately have more value than any exploration advice that they can give. It's just as well; even if a pawn can tell you the right way to the top of a tower, many of us who play open world RPGs look to this genre for its sense of discovery (not to mention to satisfy our compulsion to color in unexplored parts of maps). Since Dragon’s Dogma presents us with enough challenges and incentives to make us want to level up and grind, why should we take the shortest route to a boss?
Dragon’s Dogma manages the rare feat of being a Japanaese-developed game that successfully emulates many of the design sensibilities and aesthetics of Western RPGs. Both the pawn system and the tactile nature of the boss fights are the exemplary features that ensures this game defies the categorization of being derivative. This is one of those promising rough-around-the-edges experiences where you can’t help but want a sequel even before your first playthrough is complete.
Editor's Note: One word of warning for owners of plasma TVs, though - Dragon's Dogma is letterboxed, meaning there are black bars at the top and bottom of the screen during gameplay. This was likely done to save screen real estate and improve performance, but if your TV is prone to burn-in or image retention, make sure you take the proper precautions.
Also, Dragon's Dogma was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.