Dragon's Dogma Review
Written : Thursday, May 31, 2012
By: Lee Bradley
If the insane J-Rock theme that erupts from the title screen isn’t enouachigh evidence, having your heart plucked out by a dragon’s fingernail within the first five minutes seals the deal: Dragon’s Dogma is a bit... different.
It has all the trappings of a by-the-numbers fantasy also-ran, stuffed with knights and elves and swords and sorcery, but thanks to that odd cultural disconnect that comes from a Japanese game attempting to ape Western RPG tropes, as well as some brilliant, imaginative twists of its own, Dragon’s Dogma feels quite unlike anything else.
All of which is good, because it sure doesn’t look great. Visually, it’s a desperately average looking game, with only the merest hints of flair buried beneath a dull, boggy colour-scheme. With some largely uninspiring environments, poorly animated characters and hackneyed presentation, largely speaking Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t have the character, technical oomph or style to stand out visually.
But none of that really matters. What matters is the game, how it works and how it lets you beat the crap out of monsters. In this respect, Dragon’s Dogma offers up moments of pure brilliance.
"When feeding time at the zoo goes wrong."
So what’s it all about then? Following your heart-plucked demise, your customised character is reborn as The Arisen, the latest hero destined to battle with the fire-breathing wyrm that killed you in the first place. Defeat it and the land of Gransys will be free and you will fulfil your destiny. You are the chosen one, basically, that oldest and most familiar of setups. It’s your job to save the world.
The truth is, however, the main narrative fails to pack much of a punch, only offering up any real revelations towards the end. The real joy comes in tackling its inhabitants. This is slightly reflected in the trophies, which lean towards exploration and monster murder, rather than charging through the central quest. You’ll need a couple of playthroughs to soak up all the trophies towards that elusive Platinum, a process made far more attractive thanks to the presence of a New Game+ mode.
To aid you in your adventures you can choose between Warrior, Mage and Strider classes, specialising in melee, magic, or archery-based combat respectively. You’re encouraged to mix up light and heavy attacks with a number of modifiers offering up special, alternative offensive and defensive capabilities. It’s not particularly complex, there are no combos, but the execution is fantastic.
Mostly, this is to do with feedback. There’s a heft to it, with a satisfying crunch coming from each contact, including bowmanship and magic. On its own it’s enough to keep you swatting and blasting away happily, juggling quick, snappy hits with the more time-hungry, beefy swoops and blasts, but Dragon’s Dogma has a few other tricks up its sleeve too.
Foremost amongst these is the pawn system. Your status as The Arisen allows you to call upon warriors that travel and fight (and talk incessantly) alongside you. More than just companions, these pawns are the difference between life and death. You simply will not survive unless you have the right combination of pawns at your side.
Here’s how it works. You have one permanent pawn that accompanies you at all times. He or she is a fully-fledged character who levels up alongside you and acts according to a set of broad instructions. So they might act as a tank and go charging into combat ahead of you, or hold back and support you with ranged combat and healing from the rear. There are a range of interwoven behaviours to chose from.
"Insert obligatory 'hammer time' caption here."
In addition to the permanent pawn, you can also enlist two further pawns to round out your team. These pawns join with set, pre-established character classes and levels that can be recruited either from towns or from Rift-stones, engraved rocks that whisk The Arisen off to an otherworldly netherrealm. Don’t get too attached though, because you are going to have to swap out your support often.
Such is the importance of these pawns that not only do they provide AI-controlled combat and loot gathering, but also tactical and regional knowledge too. The right ones know what to do and where to go. You can learn from them. If you keep on dying, it’s most likely that you need to readjust the balance of your team, upgrading to stronger members, a better balance of skills or both.
This creative use of party members even extends to the game’s online functionality. When you reach specific areas of the map your main pawn is uploaded to Capcom’s servers and made available for other players to hire. As you progress through the game your temporary pawns become increasingly expensive, so you’ll want to raise as much cash as possible through the system. It’s neat and incredibly well thought out.
As are the enemies. Dragon’s Dogma puts you up against a great variety of enemies, from bandits and skeletons to winged harpies and beyond. Far beyond. Even the smaller enemies require teamwork, but it’s the big, mythological beasties that are the most fun to take down. In a similar fashion to Shadow of the Colossus you can clamber up them, hacking, slashing and blasting at their bodies. Reach their head and you’ll do the most damage, but that’s only if you don’t get thrown off or crushed first.
"Feathers will fly."
The drama and spectacle of these battles is accentuated both by the visual design of the beasts and the AI that inhabits them. While the fearsome majesty of Skyrim’s dragons was tempered somewhat by their repetitive attack patterns, Dragon’s Dogma’s beasts feel more alive. They swat and grab and inhabit the environment in a way that is far more believable. The game gains greatly as a result, offering up some wonderfully dramatic battles.
Dragon’s Dogma is a hard game. Tread the roads at night and you’ll die. Venture out with the wrong pawns and you’ll die. Wander too far from the roads before you have the power to do so and you’ll die. It teaches you how to play the game by beating you into the ground and making you do it right. It’s not quite Dark Souls, but it has the same kind of malevolent intent. This is no happy slashy click fest. It’s a proper challenging game.
All of which sets Dragon’s Dogma up to be a cult classic of sorts. It’s likely that many potential buyers will be put off by the poor presentation, the uninspiring visuals, the toughness and the rote setting. But for those that are willing to look past this and get stuck in, you’ll find a hugely rewarding game that introduces and executes its ideas spectacularly well. And that’s the point. It has ideas, brilliant ideas. You owe it to yourself to experience them, despite the game’s shortcomings.
Oh, and you can pick up pawns or enemies and throw them off cliffs to their death too. That’s probably worth the price of the disc alone.
The voice acting is a touch wooden and the constant blabbering of pawns is a bit annoying, but the soundtrack is decent and the J-Rock theme tune is all kinds of amazing.
In every area other than the occasional massive beast, Dragon’s Dogma is not a good looking game. Animation that barely attempts to sync with the voice acting doesn’t help.
The combat is brilliant, with satisfying feedback from blows and a range of combat options. The missions may not be thrilling, but the battles and the pawn system that feeds into them are.
Huge. Dragon’s Dogma is huge. Try to wrap up all the side missions and the main quest and you’ll be playing for quite some time, with an increasingly badass squad of killers at your side. The use of the online pawn system is also neatly executed.
Not an easy Platinum by any means, but not as tough as it could have been by Capcom’s standards. Not much creativity, but at least you’ll be encouraged to see most of what the game has to offer. Solid.
The second truly characterful RPG to hit in recent weeks, Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t quite match up to the grim, Eastern European splendour of The Witcher 2. It does, however, provide an adventure quite unlike anything you’ve played before, with an approach to team-based action combat that is as entertaining as it is rewarding. Recommended.