Review by HailToTheGun
"Dragon's Dogma is a wonderful disaster."
Oft compared to open-world games like those of the Elder Scrolls series, or the visceral combat of Dark Souls, a more apt comparison would be to say this is the conceit of Monster Hunter and Shadow of the Colossus. This, still, does not do the game any justice. Dragon's Dogma is something else: it's heartbreak and excitement; betrayal and forgiveness; pain and pleasure. This is a flawed game on so many levels. And yet, truly, there is nothing else quite so fun. Dragon's Dogma is a wonderful disaster.
The story is by no means novel: you are the Arisen, a hero of legend who is said to have come into contact with a dragon, had his heart stolen, and lived to tell the tale. We see this is true in the game's opening cinematic as the monstrous red wyrm quite literally plucks your heart from your chest with a single sharp talon. Lo and behold, you survive, and now you must take up arms to slay this foul beast and reclaim your heart. Through and through, the story has about as much depth and excitement as an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians. It's not until the game's final hours where things get seriously dark and interesting. It's within my limit for potential spoilers, but when you think you've killed the final boss and beaten the game, you haven't. So keep playing.
The story's biggest problem isn't that it's traditional or boring; it's that it's so wildly inconsistent and often completely ignorant of itself. A particular mid-game quest results in your confinement behind bars. Upon your escape, the person responsible for your jailing sheds no recollection of the event. It's as if the game's creators completely forgot where they wanted to go with it but decided to leave it in anyway. And this is only one of several cases of dropped plots. Barring that, the game takes a few twists involving matters of the occult, but this, too, feels like it was building up to be so much more.
Pawns feel like another case of missed opportunity, on more than one front. They are, on one hand, a fascinating approach to seamlessly integrated network features, a similarity that is smartly taken from 2009's Demon's Souls. However, their importance in the overall quest feels like little more than cannon fodder. Truth be told, they are actually presented as such: not quite human, these creatures from the Rift exist solely to do the Arisen's bidding, whatever it may be. But rarely does such a character ever remain so insignificant in fiction. There's always some kind of growth or development. Not here. Instead, they remain as husks throughout your journey, echoing the ramblings of knowledge from another realm that they have explored via other characters. You see, on your travels, you are given a permanent companion in the form of a pawn. This is yours to create and outfit as you see, just as much as you can your own character. You can then recruit up to two additional pawns to form your party as you venture forth slaying any manner of being. These additional pawns are, in fact, the mainstays of other players that traverse the Rift seeking adventure in faraway worlds. That is where a pawn's true magic begins to show.
They retain the knowledge of their travels and bring this information back to their master, the host player you. Knowledge of enemy weaknesses, quest information, directions, all of it is stored in their tiny little minds. The problem, as there most assuredly is, is that they never stop reminding you about this information. The first time a pawn informs you that an enemy is weak to fire, you'll say to yourself, Wow, that's pretty cool. That helped out a lot (as I imagine everyone, myself included, talks to themselves like that). Even the second and third times will feel exciting because it's as though they're helping you keep track of all of this information without the need for stat sheets or bestiary guides. But by the hundredth time, you'll wish the pawn dead. This kind of ambient conversation and banter continues between the pawns all throughout the game, about every facet of the world and all it encompasses, and I imagine exists as a way to create natural chemistry between these unnatural characters. But after so long, it simply feels canned and obviously scripted, unlike the random conversations of party members in a game like Dragon Age: Origins.
But when Dragon's Dogma shines, it's blinding. Combat is a generous mix of traditional real-time action and management of abilities. After a rather extensive character creation process at the start of the game, you'll be forced to pick from one of three traditional classes: strider, mage, and fighter. In short time you're able to expand your potential by upgrading to one of three advanced classes or three special hybrids, the latter of which are not available to pawns. Each class, or vocation, offers a unique set of skills and play style that is most assuredly going to suit anyone's preference. The hybrids truly shine as a mix of these familiar archetypes: the Magic Archer, for instance, combines the speed and agility of the Strider class with the arcane power of a Mage to rain deadly, homing arrows upon his or her foes. You're able to switch to any one of these classes once you reach level 10 and can combine Augments passive class-based buffs between all vocations to min/max your character in the precise way you see fit.
But combat is more than just hitting something with a sword or firing an arrow into the one good eye of a Cyclops. No, Dragon's Dogma takes a daring step in a new direction for the genre by introducing a grappling mechanic. Much like the 2005 classic Shadow of the Colossus, many of Dragon's Dogma's foes are several times your size. All classes are able to grab onto a creature and scale it to attack specific weak spots, but obviously some are better at it than others. Although you'll occasionally see that one fearsome Mage pawn climbing a Griffin as the legendary beast flails about and prepares to take to the skies. The camera system in the game is more often than not reliable, though climbing some of the game's extraordinarily large monsters prove to be those cases of not. The infamous Ur-Dragon, the game's most difficult encounter, is thrilling, to be sure, but scaling its mammoth frame causes the camera to lock in position, as if stuck on a wall, unable to get around it.
When not slaying beasts or fighting with the camera, the bulk of your time in Dragon's Dogma is unfortunately spent running around the massive world. I say unfortunately, not because the world isn't fun to explore, but much like the tedium and repetition of the pawn's speech, the world of Gransys too becomes monotonous after having run through the same canyon or across the same open field dozens of times. A primitive fast travel system opens up almost as soon as you're able to reach Gran Soren, the capital city, but the item needed to transport back to it is costly and rare. Via a quest later in the game you gain access to a Portcrystal, an item you can place anywhere in the world as a second destination for transport. You can pick it up and move it as many times as you like, but in the game proper, you only find one of these. It's not until New Game+ that you're able to purchase more (and then, at a hefty price as well).
The quest system is traditional, though many of the game's escort quests are brutal if for no other reason than helpless AI. There's also a serious flaw in the way of progression. Some quests can potentially fail because you've moved too far forward with the story, but there's no indication of which ones are subject to failure ahead of time. The game assumes you'll complete everything, but many times these quests require travel to seriously dangerous places with respect to when you receive the quest in the game. Like much of Dragon's Dogma, it's something that does not feel like it was fully planned out.
Among these quests, however, are the random ones you'll happen upon while you're undoubtedly running to or from somewhere. These largely come in the form of slaying a wandering beast such as a Chimera or a Cyclops, though occasionally there will be someone to rescue from a rabid group of Goblins. The spontaneous events to kill the game's fabled monsters, however, add excitement and breathe life into an otherwise standard world. Amidst the monochrome colors of dark dungeons or brown cliff sides, a small swath of color can be found. Not until some of the more far-reaching corners of the world will you start to see some truly remarkable locations. Or, you could just rest at an inn until nightfall and experience a wholly different game.
Darkness in Dragon's Dogma certainly means danger. More than just a superficial mechanic to pass the time, resting at inns can allow you to sleep through the night, or embrace it as the intrepid adventurer you are. Terrifying beasts stalk the plains at night, and visibility is not on your side. Keep your lantern close, and a healthy supply of oil closer. There's nothing quite like the feeling of exploring a dungeon at daybreak, and by the time you leave, the sun has just set over the horizon. You know the journey back to town is going to be a treacherous one. It's this kind of design where Dragon's Dogma shows its potential. Subtle touches further emphasize the game's attention to detail, like your lantern going out when you wade too deep in a pool of water. But by the same token, like a double-edged sword, it soon becomes tedious to have to open your inventory to put away the lantern, close the menus, then reopen and use the lantern again simply to relight the flame. Thus is the Dragon's Dogma mantra: for every good, a bad.
For Capcom's first truly westernized game, Dragon's Dogma is a success but just barely. For the reasons it nearly fails, these are huge oversights in both structure and design. A generic fantasy story does not excuse the disregard and lack of coherence in the plot, nor does it seem to explain the game's quite brilliant final hours, either. It's a peculiar juxtaposition. Dragon's Dogma is an oxymoron; the quintessential game that defies all logic and the way we perceive and differentiate good games from bad. I remember fondly another title that so passionately divided consumers and critics alike. That was Deadly Premonition. But where that failed as a result of archaic gameplay, Dragon's Dogma succeeds. Combat is so fluid and so precise that what the game ultimately ends up being is something that you just have to experience for yourself. Because I guarantee there is nothing quite like it that you have yet to play.
Muddy colors and early uninspired landscapes betray the game's later beauty, but certainly don't mask the terrific animations of its varied monsters.
A fast and fluid system that works on nearly all levels, Dragon's Dogma is a gameplay experience to which you'll find few equals.
The music is mostly subdued with a few standout tracks, and the posh voice acting gets the job done with few missteps.
If for nothing else, Dragon's Dogma is a game you'll play and replay simply to fight some of those fearsome foes, no matter how many times you kill them. But with an extensive post-game epilogue and infinite new game plus, there's no reason to stop any time soon.
Like a lump of coal, ugly and dark, Dragon's Dogma will one day become a diamond.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 06/04/12
Game Release: Dragon's Dogma (US, 05/22/12)
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