I like open-world action RPGs. I like traveling through their massive game worlds and slaying enemies with the unrelenting swing of the greatsword or an arrow fired with the utmost precision from a bow. I enjoy the freedom of movement and the freedom of customizing my character. I definitely like it when my character looks really cool in high-level armor. Heading out and slaying a dragon is alright too. A recent game does all of these things that I like and does it incredibly well which is obviously Skyrim. Now, there is a new game from Capcom that does these same things. It is called Dragon’s Dogma. So how would I describe it? It can be viewed as the Japanese take on the open-world action RPG, but the game implements some gameplay concepts new to the field in an attempt to become more than just another standard offering. Read more for the full review.
The story begins with a giant red dragon appearing out of a portal over the sea and flying hastily towards the mainland. Your character is enjoying a lovely day at the coastal town when the dragon shows up and brings havoc to the shoreline. Your character grabs an abandoned sword and attempts to fight the dragon. Clearly, this does not work, and he/she gets knocked down. The dragon proceeds to tear your character’s heart out, eat it, and flies off to bring more havoc to the country of Gransys. Your character survives this encounter despite losing his/her heart. It is time to head out to slay the dragon, save Gransys, and get your heart back. During this journey, you will be joined by companions known as “pawns”. These people look human, but come from an unknown world know as the Rift. They lack willpower, but have absolute loyalty to those who are the Arisen.
After the first couple hours, the story settles into a plainness that is comparable to eating a straight piece of white bread. Most of the story does not have much of a drive to it and just feels mediocre. You help people, stop a cult, slay the dragon, and save Gransys. There isn’t much that is bad, but there isn’t much that is good either. It isn’t until you reach the last quarter of story events does the plot suddenly start calling for attention. Suddenly, there are some serious plot points, explanations that hit hard, and the true ending connects with considerable emotion in bittersweet fashion. The closing scenes compete to be one of the more memorable endings I’ve seen in gaming.
Most of the gameplay is what one would expect. You can choose from nine vocations: fighter, strider, mage, their respective advance forms, and three hybrid classes. Dragon’s Dogma gives you freedom to change your vocation whenever you want, as long as you are at the Gran Soren inn. All it takes is a one-time use of discipline points to unlock the class. These same points are used to unlock and upgrade primary and secondary weapon skills, core skills, and augments. There won’t be much to unlock at first, but spending time with the class will broaden the skill set. The whole system is relatively simple and easy to understand. Experimentation is somewhat encouraged but it is quite expensive due to equipment costs.
On the action side, the controls are quite well calibrated. The primary weapon has light and heavy attack, and the primary and secondary weapons have three user-set special skills. When dealing with a group of wolves, bandits, and other smaller fights, it’s pretty much the usual “get in there and slay them.” It is made a little more interesting that some tactics are needed to defeat them more easily. When it comes to something the size of an ogre, staying grounded won’t bring it down anytime soon. Dragon’s Dogma introduces the very nifty and satisfying concept of actually having to climb the monster to reach its weak points instead of spending the next twenty minutes on the ground whacking at its legs. Cool concept, decent implementation, needs some more work. When climbing, I can’t tell it is in relation to the camera or my character. Sometimes I just tilt the analog stick in a random direction and hope it’s the right one.
Another nifty concept is the companion system. You travel mostly with three companions. As mentioned earlier, these humanoid-looking people are known as pawns. One of these belongs to you, who will always remain by your character’s side throughout the adventure. Your pawn is just as customizable as your character, with the exception of not being able to use hybrid vocations. The other two companions are other players’ pawns. Players who are connected online share their main companions with each other. You decide who of many will travel with you to create a balanced group that is capable of taking on more difficult fights.
Now, bad news first. The AI pathfinding is simply empty-headed. In addition to getting stumped by a simple ledge, they can fall far behind when you are trying to move quickly. Also, if a pawn gets knocked out for whatever reason and you cannot reach them in time to perform a revive, they disappear for good. It’s very frustrating. The positives in the rest of the AI make these problems tolerable. Pawns are capable of self-teaching themselves in some ways. They better understand monsters as they fight them. When they travel and finish a quest, they will gain knowledge to serve as guides to other players and yourself. The advice pawns give during battles and quests from this knowledge are actually quite useful and add to the whole teamwork perspective, even if they are just AI. You don’t have to share your pawn with others. However, sharing with others will net varying amounts of rewards. Players can also rate other players’ pawns on appearance, battle usefulness, and helpfulness. The pawn system works mostly well and is one of the better ideas I’ve seen come to the genre in a while.
Combat difficulty in Dragon’s Dogma leans quite a lot on challenging. With a decent group, I did not find the normal fights too difficult. Now, it is almost a completely different story when it comes to boss fights. They can be, and usually will be, brutal. Despite a moderate BS factor, the game’s challenging fights do provide a decent amount of reward. Armor/weapon/equipment management is…well…it isn’t that different from the other established games in the genre. There is the slight annoyance of not having a shared party inventory, and the slight benefit of the “shopping cart to checkout” system when trading with merchants. There isn’t much else beyond that.
Now, Dragon’s Dogma is an open-world game. Gransys is indeed open. However, it is a mixed thing. There is no fast travel, so having to walk for long periods of time to destinations does invoke the feeling of Gransys cover a lot of area. At the same time, you find yourself walking on the same roads past the same locations quite frequently. It feels more like open-valley, not open-world. A look at the Gransys map will also show that it isn’t as expansive as other open-ended games. Questing and sub-questing is, well, pretty much standard questing. As for the amount of time it takes to finish the story, it varies wildly. There is only one save file, so once you finish, it’s on to new game plus. On my playthrough, which involved missing quite a lot of side quests and not running through many “boss trials”, it took just over 35 hours. If you plan on doing most of what this game has to offer, you will spend much, much longer.
It is a little difficult to describe the visuals. The art direction does not have a particular definitive theme to it. It is medieval fantasy well enough but it does not feel distinct. Everything’s rendered alright, and the regions do feel varied but again, it does not feel very distinct. It is smacked-on average on the art and tech level. There are a few notable things. The game displays at a rather odd 16:10 aspect ratio. It’s fine with cinematic cutscenes, but having a letterbox effect on top of widescreen during gameplay is slightly annoying. You get kind of used to it, though. Enemy design on the more threatening stuff is rather interesting. You have griffins, but you also get stranger stuff like chimeras and harpies. The soundtrack feels almost as dead-on average as the visuals. Likewise, there is nothing really bad I would say about it, but it mostly does not stand out. There are a few epic tracks, but during normal gameplay, the music and use of music does not inspire any passion most of the time. It’s just there to do background music adequately.
So, most of the gameplay is middle of the road, as is most of the story and major presentation checkboxes. The companion system is so far the only major cool thing. Now is where I start talking about the smaller details that save Dragon’s Dogma from the curse of blandness. First, there are the tastefully-styled menus, which brings flair to something as simple as reading quest descriptions. The combat features ample amounts of visual and audio finesse to the attacks, special abilities, and spell casting. When night falls, it is literally dark, making it difficult to see anything without light. Every single person in Dragon’s Dogma is voiced. Every person also speaks in the Old English-esque style, but is easily understandable and adds much needed specialty to Gransys. When a cutscene happens, the subtle camera motions made it feel as if I was witnessing the event myself. And then we return to the soundtrack. As I have said, the music normally does not stand out in any way. However, the few tracks that do catch full attention captivate the moment.
It is kind of difficult how I would to rate Dragon’s Dogma. Aside from AI pathfinding and climbing issues, there is nothing glaringly wrong I could find. Should there be a sequel, this game has established the solid foundation. However, there isn’t much that stands out as amazing, either. Dragon’s Dogma is what I would describe as “good, but you can do better.” The game has long stretches where it just feels unremarkable but with a few new ideas and very nice details. Those few ideas and details, however, go a very long way. The few pieces from the soundtrack, the Old English-esque voice acting, the styled attacks and spells, the pawn companion system, and the ending give this game some help in standing out. You still need to be a fan of the open-world action RPG genre to appreciate it, but the experience I got from Dragon’s Dogma’s few stand-out moments and concepts makes one of the more special titles I’ve recently played. The journey through Gransys was worth it.
Final Score: 8.0/10