Dragon's Dogma is yet another herald of Capcom's shift to all things action. The trend began with the Resident Evil series. Now the Japanese developer is chasing role-player bounty like The Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy. In response they built Gransys, a fantasy world colossal in every aspect. But the blank characters filling the mythical setting with wooden voice acting and movements leave the cities terribly poorly out. The epic creatures ruling the wilds and the methods used to slay them, however, personify the stuff of blockbuster legends.
The prologue begins like any other fabled rags to riches tale. A billowing rift rends the sky, loosing forth a dragon with scales as crimson as the blood it spills. Thousands of harpies accompany the beast's plummet towards the ocean below when the being opens its eyes to reveal irises cold and malevolent. Spreading its jaws, the glutton devours several feathered fiends before rampaging about a quaint fishing town. As the dragon lands, you, a lone villager, take up arms. Your character fares as expected, crumpling on the sandy shores after a grimacing blow. But this antagonist would not finish you so easily. Instead, the creature casts an incantation and leaves you heartless – not in the disturbing, romantic sort of way, but physically heartless. Ignoring the anatomical impossibility, you now exist as an Arisen. As a newly formed tool of magical prowess, the dragon challenges you to become stronger for the unavoidable rematch.
If my expository buildup captures your attention, I caution you otherwise. These details serve as the first and last significant story reminders for the next 20 hours, as the importance of your quest is always underplayed by the problems of Gransys' inept townsfolk. The narrative moves at a snail's pace, subtly mentioning the dragon or your want for vengeance but never tarrying long enough to give you insight to the situation. There's no urgency at all for that matter. Neutralizing rabbits, searching for lost idols, and escorting ignorant merchants along hazardous beaches demand immediate service. Eliminating an ancient predator with your very soul in its grasp? Oh look, herbs to gather.
Every Dragon's Dogma screenshot looks exponentially better than actual video footage.
With that in mind, the beginning is best described as rough. The popular saying that the first step is always the hardest rings like a bell loud enough to burst your eardrums, though I stand conflicted on Dogma's lack of direction. While I admire the absence of intrusive, unapologetic tutorials cuing me to scavenge for herbs or swing my daggers with the X button, a little guidance in the values of enhancing gear, buying armaments, or combining crafting materials would have been most welcome. Gameplay difficulties range from laughable picnics to stamina-draining struggles, but the trials graciously plateau once characters reach their high-20s. Before then, Dragon's Dogma makes no concessions warning players from accepting quests far outside their current skill levels. Five hours into the game, I hit my first “snag." The mission to blame read like a typical escort quest, and by escort quest, I mean a voyage encompassing half the virtual world of Gransys.
Foolishly I thought video games evolved into reasonable, scaled encounters that required little beyond the right accessories and considerable tact. How misguided. Dogma's RPG grind hits harder than any Final Fantasy, Diablo, Elder Scrolls, or Fallout. I eventually set off with my entourage and client in tow. 30 seconds passed before a rouge band of thieves decided to rob me of my valuables and my life. The scantily-clad hooligans trounced me and my followers. A dozen sweat-inducing attempts later, I abandoned the merchant to his fate. In fact, I needed to strengthen my character eight more levels before she met the minimum to undertake such a feat.
Ignoring that unsettling news, rewards remain abysmally unbalanced. The aforementioned mission awarded 5,000 gold and 3,000 experience upon completion, but another notice board side quest tasked me with slaughtering 20 boars a short gallivant from the main city's gates. I received 20,000 experience for little effort!
Many climactic showdowns occur randomly as you gambol about the world.
Maybe the escalating rage would soothe if Capcom included some form of respectable fast travel system. In this baffling case, the thought doesn't count. Ferrystones purchased from specific merchants teleport you back to Gran Soren (the capital city), but this feature only becomes accessible after 15 hours. Moreover, a combination of portcrystals and ferrystones lets heroes teleport between destinations outside the fortress, if you set the portcrystal before activating the ferrystone to portal you there, except you must wander through many wolf, bandit, and goblin-infested woods first. Yet this method alleviates potential escort concerns only when you know where the end objective lies, so keep a wiki tab open.
As Arisen, however, players gain some pretty useful abilities unavailable to Gransys' ordinary inhabitants, the main being pawns. These nomads exist in a rift-like universe to be called upon by the Arisen in times of need. (Think of them like cheap slave labor.) Unfortunately, Capcom missed an opportunity to implement a truly innovative co-op experience. Rather than occupy your time exploring the vast countrysides, forts, and mines with three friends, your band of memory-deficient AI companions will provide endlessly dry commentary for every menial action you initiate.
Selfies: not just for modern eras.
Not counting the two unique pawns you recruit from riftstones, you create one specialized pawn at the story's outset, selecting his or her features, vocation, and upgrades that remain separate from your own. In the meantime, when you're off exploring the expansive peninsula known as Gransys, your loyal puppet can venture into other players' games and aid them in their efforts to conquer the beasts of the land – all without leaving your side, of course. And any loot they salvage while away is brought back to your world and stored in your stash.
As pawns grow in strength, the same cannot be said for their intelligence. Warriors would sporadically taunt retreating foes with a shield bash, luring the preoccupied cowards towards my advantageous position. More frequently, my companions would merely walk off steep inclines or waterfalls for no other reason than to give me an aneurysm.
Despite their lapses in focus, these AI characters vary the gameplay depending on your preferred class. Enlisted pawns do not rank up while occupying your world, so swap them out regularly. Each serf gains access to the nine vocations you do: soldier, archer, or mage, with three alterations per archetype. Braving the wilds without some magical support comes at a high price – your head usually. Stack pawns complementary to your play style. Two soldiers and sorcerers, for example, produce a deadly elemental shield wall unbreakable by the trademarked wolves, rats, and goblins.
Free your pawns from this drake's claws before it finalizes the mind control spell.
Above all doubts, the combat alone keeps this action RPG shipwreck afloat. Skyrim, while rich with townspeople to bother and lore to uncover, lacks a strong swordplay component. Besides the intuitive dragon shouts or spell combinations, the action never evolves beyond the repetitive mashing of two attack buttons. Dogma's sword-swinging, fireball-throwing engagements retain their robustness after 40 scrutinizing hours based on the six active abilities and six passive abilities governing a character's role.
Although not as fine-tuned as God of War with its lock-on system, Dragon's Dogma delivers dozens of powers to customize each vocation endlessly. With devastating longbows, my ranger kept all but the most daunting of creatures at bay while my warrior pawns took the barbarous front line beatings. My central ability loaded ten arrows to fire in rapid succession, transforming my ordinary Legolas clone into a formidable medieval skeet shooter. What's remarkable is that my character actually draws ten arrows instead of one magically materializing into ten as it flies from the string, and the occasional skeleton that did breach our defenses was met with a relentless daggers and roundhouse kicks used to juggle man and beast alike. For more stressing skirmishes, players may delineate how their pawns behave in battle, but not once did mages refuse to heal me.
This hydra is just the second boss you fight.
There's a certain Dark Souls methodology to approaching Gransys' more fearsome creatures. Sever a saurian's tale (an eight-foot-tall, spear-wielding, bipedal Gila monster) to weaken its armor plating; decapitate a chimera's snake appendage to prevent its casting of poisonous smokescreens; or set a griffin's wings ablaze mid-flight to bring the buzzard back to earth in a featherless fireball. Larger carnivores like wyverns and ogres, however, involve more strategic planning. With damage-inflicting numbers off the charts, the surefire way to bring these monstrosities down is grabbing hold of their mangled scales, fur, or feathers and climbing about their flanks to locate exposed weak spots, but even then they still present sizable dangers. A hydra will grip you in its fanged maws before wiping you about bone-strewn floors, while cyclops lazily clutch you in hands large enough to crush boulders, your fragile bones posing no resistance.
I rarely see boss-like behemoths so menacing, as hydras, ogres, and griffins look rightfully daunting when you barely scratch their kneecaps. Although these beasts of lore embody their primeval nature, I cannot say the city occupants received equal attention to detail. Lip syncing is so horrendous that I don't know why Capcom even bothered. The developers were better off sewing each individual's lips shut just to avoid the symptoms of a stroke occurring before the player's eyes.
Can Dragon's Dogma compete with the style of more westernized RPGs? No. Truth be told, I'm not sure it contends with the likes of Final Fantasy XIII or its sequel, especially not during the series' heyday. Dogma's 40-hour story is a mess of hooded villains and untrustworthy allies, and to even reach the level plateau will take a commitment only seen in those labeled as obsessive compulsive. The ending is such a head-turning blindside, however, I thought my neck snapped, and beyond Dark Souls, I have never played an RPG with combat this striking. Dodging gale force winds generated by the beating of a griffin's wings, seeking shelter behind a warrior's shield as a wild drake breathes its scalding fire, and rolling between a cyclops' legs as the dumb titan mindlessly riots about creates playable circumstances previously confined to our imaginations. A shame, really, because the rest of the world feels more empty than the protagonist's chest.
Release Date: May 22, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3