Review: Dragon's Dogma
By Joseph Christ on June 12th, 2012 (37 comments)
It's raining outside as I write this review. My usual view is obscured by rolling dark clouds, and the moisture in the air adds a slight film to the inside of my lungs. It smells and tastes like a dangerous sky that crept in, almost unknowingly, to envelop the usual bright greens and sunlit hues that usually adorn this part of the world. Focusing on my task at hand, I hardly noticed it myself. Just all of a sudden...darkness, and all of the creepy crawling travelers that ride along with it. A world suddenly come to life...an active world.
Fitting, because this is one of the prevalent themes in Capcom's new RPG, Dragon's Dogma. An active world consistently moving in time, sometimes working against you, but always a character unto itself. It's a theme that acts as a foundation for what is probably one of the best RPG's I've played in years.
Title: Dragon's Dogma (Xbox 360)
Release date: May 22nd, 2012 (North America)
Dragon's Dogma is a game of multiple identities that have all been sewn together into something that, in lessor hands, probably would have resembled more a Frankenstein monster than what it is. One part Skyrim, one part Monster Hunter, one part Demon's Souls and one part Devil May Cry (is that too many parts?) it succeeds in incorporating all of these seemingly different pieces into a fine stew that transcends the singular beauty of the individual parts. Their perfect amalgamation is what makes Dragon's Dogma work so well, to the point that the recipe would have been made bitter if any of them had been left out.
To speak of the main story is only scratching the surface, but you start your adventures as a lowly villager who is caught in the middle of a dragon raid on your village. During the raid you are defeated by the dragon, who relays that you are the chosen one, and your heart is removed and devoured by him. You are then mystically awoken with a scar on your chest to the exalted praise of the villagers who now call you “The Arisen.” It is then your quest to go out into the world of Gransys to eventually find and conquer the dragon, and to be the Hero-type character the populace always yearned for.
The story continues, of course, but to focus upon it is missing the point of Dragon's Dogma. That would be like judging Skyrim on the basis of its main quest. It is only as much as decoration on a much larger, and sturdier arch. The world and the gameplay are the draw here. Both have been executed with precision, and the symbiotic interaction between them makes it exceptional.
After going through a heavily detailed character creation process you are able to start as one of three vocations, Strider, Mage or Fighter but these can expand into another six depending on how you want to play. Changing vocations is also as easy as 'buying' them at an Inn and paying discipline points, one of the currency system used for all skill-based purchases in the game. Of course, multiple vocations would mean nothing if the combat system wasn't diverse enough to make them all feel different. Luckily playing as different vocations changes the game entirely. Striders are fantastic for ranged and quick combat, Mages are weaker but can do devastating long-range attacks and Fighters are your tank characters equipped with high defense and taunts. The six advanced vocations take these base blueprints and expand upon them by creating fusions. A Magic Archer, for instance, is a type of Strider/Mage while an Assassin is more of a Strider/Fighter. A Magical Knight is a Fighter/Mage...and so on. And all of these permutations have their own skillsets and core abilities, meaning that each one is not just simply a base character with some additional flare, but an entirely new character requiring a different play style and approach to combat.
And combat just feels really good. Coming from some of the people who made Devil May Cry 2-4, it has a fantastic real-time responsiveness and action-base that is elevated by the number of skills and combo's that can be strung together. It isn't an easy affair either. With no melee lock-on to hand-hold, you'll have to aim your slashes and ranged-attacks to keep your character from just flailing wildly passed enemies. Some of the magical attacks will lock-on, but the melee combat is all about precision here.
Fighting normal enemies is one thing, but Dragon's Dogma also takes place in a wild and dangerous world. Gransys, is not for the faint of heart, especially at night, and you'll find that many of your actions are dictated by the day-night cycle that is constantly bearing down on your every move. As night begins to move in, Gransys becomes a much darker and more dangerous place, spawning deadlier enemies and shrouding the world in a darkness that necessitates the need for an oil burning lamp to have any hope of navigating it. This lamp, which must be refilled periodically, and your pawn companions are your only solace when night covers the world. This mechanic succeeds in making even simple escort missions, which are normally thought of as a nuisance, into a dangerous adventure as you're forced to stock up supplies for a few days away from the safety of town.
People have complained about the lack of fast travel in the game, but a fast-travel would simply destroy this mechanic and miss the entire point of Dragon's Dogma. There wouldn't be that sense of fear and isolation, those moments before setting out where you double check that you have everything you need. These moments of preparation, and the moments when you find you're actually not prepared at all, are integral to the spirit of the game and there would be no faster way to destroy that than to add in a simple fast-travel option to the player.
But the world offers more than a fearful night. Gransys is littered with dungeons to explore, people and places to find, and treasure chests tucked away in every nook. Far from being a desolate world, it succeeds to making the landmass seem even bigger by successfully hiding things away using the normal topography which greatly awards the player who explores the slightly obscured path.
Dragon's Dogma also does not use the enemy scaling system utilized in Bethesda games. Instead it contains easier starting areas that become more and more difficult as you push outward from your hometown. Only by leveling up and finding, or buying, better and better gear will you slowly be able to explore the far outreaches of the world. Personally, it's my favorite system. There is almost nothing better than traveling outward and seeing just how far you can go. Pushing a little more each time, and knowing that you're facing death square in the face ever time you do. Then, when you've traveled out as far as you think you can go, night begins to fall. You've forgotten and now you have to survive.
Survival is key, and it's not just the huge amount of loot Dragon's Dogma offers that will help you on your way. Instead of a multiplayer component, the game utilizes a Pawn system that is probably the most ingenious method of integrating multiplayer into a title since Demon's Souls brought us warning messages littering the ground. Every player gets to make a Pawn companion and this companion is then also made available through the Rift system for other players to download into their party. Any information your pawned learned by traveling with you is transmitted, through player-pawn interactions, to the other player. And anything your Pawn learned while traveling with the other player is transmitted to you. Think of it as Demon's Souls warning messages brought to life. And it works so incredibly well that it almost feels as if you're playing with other people. Of course, it helps that the Pawn's AI is so good. They will heal you when necessary, give you the correct buffs for the current situation and level up with you. Not once, while using a party of myself and three pawns, did I ever miss playing with real people.
I did mention loot, and there is an unquestionably large amount of it, much of which having an amount of status effects that would make any Diablo fan proud, but Dragon's Dogma has an involved crafting system as well. All gear can be upgraded to four tiers, three of which are done with supplies found in the field and the last which is done randomly when defeating dragons. These items have the ability to become “Dragon Forged” by a percentage basis dependent on the level of the dragon. You can also create potions, armor, weapons and just about anything you may need by combining items throughout the world. Unfortunately, the system is not entirely explained well to the player, and often times you'll end up with an entire cart-load of crafting components that you have no idea what to do with. My advice? Never sell back anything unless you know what it is.
The good side is that Dragon's Dogma uses a very fluid and easy-to-understand menu system that does a fantastic job of allowing you to keep track of all your gear. And you'll have a lot to keep track of. Not only will you have various potions, gear, clothing, weapons for yourself and your pawns, everything also has a weight. Meaning that you'll be transferring a good amount of loot to your pawns -or in this case mules- to ensure that you don't become overencumbered and find yourself traveling back to town during nightfall at a walks pace.
Having said all that, criticisms are few and far between. Pawns have a tendency to talk a little too much and to say the same things over and over again. You'll hear “The road splits here, let's be doubly sure which leads to our destination” and “Tis' far stronger than a common Goblin” so much that you'll begin to hear it in your sleep. Pawn speech frequency can be changed by using Knowledge Chairs found at Inns, but I never found them to make a huge difference. Also the main quest, as unimportant it is to the entire story of what make Dragon's Dogma great, does move along at a lurching pace, and often times you won't be sure if you've just been given a side-quest or a main quest by some fairly integral characters. A better flowing narrative might have served the game much better but I honestly didn't feel that this got in the way of the overarching mechanics that Dragon's Dogma offers.
Like I said, these are such small gripes when looking at the big picture. And not only does the game feature the main playthrough, but you can also go at it again in Game +, or simply continue to explore the world. Dragon's Dogma is easily a 100+ hour game for those who really dive in headfirst. But even if the length wasn't nearly as foreboding, Dragon's Dogma offers something to fans of classic RPG's that's almost been lost in the era of modern gaming. Even Skyrim, the crowning beacon for RPG enthusiasts, has eschewed deeper RPG-stat elements in favor of a much more streamlined approach. Dragon's Dogma, on the other hand, swings the pendulum back in the other direction, offering console players a 3D RPG with the depth of old classics like Baldur's Gate and The Temple of Elemental Evil, while still wrapping it in a polished glaze of fantastic combat mechanics, a fully realized open world, and a chance for adventure that only needs for the player to step outside of town.
Dragon Dogma's reverence for the old, combined with the mechanics of the new make for a game unbridled in its ability to pull the player in and keep them there. And the Pawn system, nothing less than a fully realized vision that started with Demon's Souls, is easily one of the most ingenious additions of a multiplayer mechanic than I've seen in years. For the RPG fan, for the Syrim fan, for the gamer; Dragon's Dogma is certainly one not to be missed.
(96-100%: Astonishing; not perfect but extremely close and rarely achieved)
Joseph Christ is the Reviews Editor and a Podcast Personality at 4Player. Specializing in reviews, editorials, drinking, and saying inappropriate things about gaming franchises that are beloved by millions, his satirical and sometimes edgy style offsets a more serious and penetrating substance lurking below the surface. He is also the host of the Cocktail Time Podcast. You'll follow his Twitter if you know what's good for you.
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