The dragon that stole my heart—literally
I was introduced to Dragon’s Dogma at E3 2011, and my first impression of it was clear: Capcom was trying to develop their own Demon’s Souls. As the days went on and more of the game was shown, it became obvious that a clone of From Software’s hit PS3 title Dragon’s Dogma was not. However, what exactly the game was supposed to be became more and more muddied. Was it an action game or was it an RPG? Was it more Western or Japanese? And why was it a single-player game that seemed to want to be multiplayer?
Having now played Dragon’s Dogma, I’m still not sure I can boil down exactly what the game is—and that’s actually why I ended up liking it. Dragon’s Dogma is different, both in good ways and bad. It’s not Dark Souls, nor is it Skyrim—nor is it any of the other random fantasy-themed game you’ve played lately.
Actually, there is one game that it reminds me of: Dungeons & Dragons. Not any of its videogame interpretations, but the world that I imagined inside my head back whenever I played with friends. Dragon’s Dogma is like a sandbox of RPG elements, ready and waiting to kick into gear the moment your character makes their first entrance.
And what a sandbox it can be at times. Step foot into the game’s open expanses, and you’ll be legitimately impressed by the visual splendor that’s on display before you. (At least, on a technical level; the pseudo-Western art direction does the game no favors.) Little moments crop up, moments I wasn’t expecting to have with Dragon’s Dogma. One example came early in the game for me, when the untamed expanse outside of my character’s hometown had skies that seemed to threaten storms. Normally, the area was bright, sunny, and calm; today, trees and grass whipped in the wind, sunlight was tamed by grey clouds, and the entire mood of the land had changed. It was such a small element to the game, but one that made me stop and really take notice of the design that had gone into creating the land of Gransys. It makes the game’s world feel more alive—something essential to that sandbox Capcom was trying to create here.
Exploring that world is so engaging in part due to that care for those smaller details. Dragon’s Dogma took me back to my time spent with World of Warcraft, where sometimes I’d eschew the list of quests I had built up to instead travel a part of Azeroth my feet had never travelled before and just enjoy what the designers had crafted. While appreciation for the landscape will certainly be part of your exploration of Gransys, there’s something around every corner in Dragon’s Dogma—and the feelings of excitement you’ll feel when you find a new cave tucked away behind a waterfall, or a bridge leading off into a foggy forest, are palpable.
Exploration then gives way to combat, which has a completely satisfying and decidedly Capcom manner to it. I’ll admit that I’ve gotten really spoiled by Dark Souls and its every-move-counts combat, but the Dragon’s Dogma team has crafted something here that feels equality enjoyable (in its own way) without relying on that level of uber-precision. At first, move sets are limited, but even then combat never comes off as dull or repetitive. Soon, however, you’ll be earning enough points to upgrade your roster of attacks, and that’s where you’ll really start to feel like a badass as you chop through foes with special skills that have a satisfying sense of power to them.
Or, pick off foes from afar, or wipe them out with devastating magical moves—you know, depending on your profession. Picking a class at the beginning of the game won’t lock you into only doing that profession, as early into your adventures you’ll be provided the opportunity to switch over to something else. So, don’t be afraid to pick whatever tickles your fancy at first—you can always change your mind later.
Dragon’s Dogma is at its best when you encounter its more dynamic moments, such as coming across an unscripted event or participating in the game’s more dramatic battles. One moment, your party may simply be traveling down a countryside road—and the next, you’re locked in fierce combat with a wandering Griffon. Suddenly, your hero jumps on its back (controllable by you via the game’s grabbing mechanic), weighing it down as your faithful pawns unleash fury on the beast before it can break free of your grasp and regain the advantage. In moments like these—with an epic battle theme blaring and your adrenaline pumping—Dragon’s Dogma feels downright incredible.
Unfortunately, if Dragon’s Dogma were to see a doctor, it would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As exciting as moments like those are, you’ll then find yourself swinging to the other end of the spectrum as your adventures get bogged down in far more uninteresting offerings—such as when the game pushes your attention to accomplishing a seemingly never-ending stream of side tasks. When the focus shifts from those more dynamic, unexpected experiences to killing X amount of Y creature or delivering a recovered item to its awaiting owner, Dragon’s Dogma can feel like a real drag. Here and now, I want an end to the current trend of RPG quest systems—they are the new gameplay clock-padder for the post-random-encounters era.
I think part of the blame is because when looking for some open-world inspiration for Dragon’s Dogma, Capcom looked toward MMORPGs like World of Warcraft—when they should have instead looked in the direction of games such as Grand Theft Auto IV. Create a world that’s living, changing, adapting, and unpredictable—not one where I know I’ll always find certain monsters, events, or enemies always waiting for me at pre-determined locations. To be clear, plenty of games do what Dragon’s Dogma does, and its mix of predicability-meets-spontaneity is less a major flaw as it is unfulfilled promise of what could have existed here.
Then, however, we get to what is a major flaw of Dragon’s Dogma, as all of my excitement for what Capcom’s team has put together gets punched in the face by the game’s main gimmick—the pawn system.
I actually like AI-controlled party members. Many have very mixed feelings on them, feelings which often hinge on how much control the game gives you in guiding them along a support path that best compliments your personal play style. Thankfully, your CPU teammates in Dragon’s Dogma tend to be useful far more often than not—even though you will, at times, find yourself wishing the game gave you more control over giving them commands in times of need. Where my disconnect comes in is that you only have direct creative control over one of your three teammates—the other two must be pulled from a strange alternate universe that provides living beings who can’t wait to serve you. Yeah, it’s a little weird.
The problem is, these two additional party members never level, nor can their skill sets be altered. So—just like a sword, or a pair of boots—once your level sufficiently outranks theirs, you simply throw them away and get new friends. And then once those new friends have outlasted their worth a few levels later, chuck them and repeat the process all over again!
I know what the team at Capcom was thinking: They wanted us to be forced to try a variety of support characters, to borrow pawns from other players, and through that, to experience new “ways of thinking” or “dynamics” or whatever other BS the person who thought of this concept wrote down as points to sell his or her boss on the idea. I’ve seen it plenty of times before, as Japanese developers—for whatever reason—both love their wacky gameplay gimmicks, and love forcing players into specific play styles (no matter what the wishes of those players may be).
I don’t care if I understand the reasons for Dragon’s Dogma pawn system existing—it completely kills any ability to make a connection with or care about your team. I don’t want to experience Dragon’s Dogma with a revolving door of random faces; I want a team that will fight together, struggle together, and grow together. You’ll have that emotional attachment to two of your party members—and then you’ll have the two bozos who are there because you need them, not because you want them.
There’s also the fact that you’re constantly having to assemble a party when you’ve got no control over half of that party’s skills. Want to make sure you’ve got a healer in your group? Get ready to spend time searching through all of the potential candidates at your experience level to find one who has the healing spells you want. Oh, but wait—you also want that character to be able to set your sword ablaze to aide in battling goblins, and the person you just picked doesn’t have that as one of their other spells. Back to searching.
There’s on positive that comes out of this whole system of constantly getting new teammates: Pawns can learn. Take a pawn to an area they’ve never been to, and they’ll gradually get to know where things are. Fight a certain type of monster over and over, and they’ll get better at fighting them. Complete a quest, and that pawn will know more about the quest the next time a different player employs them. It does lead to some hilariously ridiculous situations—pawns who have been on a quest you’ve never personally been on have no problem running off to the next checkpoint, leaving you alone and vulnerable—but I did love the idea of my computer-controlled partners actually learning about the game as I do.
Still, that one positive thing I can say about Dragon’s Dogma’s pawn system is crushed under the weight of the negatives. I don’t just dislike the pawn system as its implemented here—I hate it. It’s not enough to ruin the potential enjoyment from everything that the game has to offer, but it’s a stupid inclusion that mars what’s otherwise a fascinating new franchise for Capcom.
SUMMARY: Dragon’s Dogma is a fascinating and very enjoyable new take on the fantasy genre by Capcom, one that has a lot of promise held within it—but one which also sees some of that promise squashed due to the inclusion of an unneeded and annoying gimmick.
- THE GOOD: A game that has an incredible ability for creating awe-inspiring experiences.
- THE BAD: Going through more random partners than your average NBA star.
- THE UGLY: The Western RPG-style visual design. You’re a Japanese company, Capcom. Don’t be ashamed of it!
Dragon’s Dogma is available on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Primary version reviewed was on PS3.