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, the team built Gransys, a fantasy world colossal in every aspect. But the characters filling the mythical setting with wooden voice acting and movements leave the cities terribly fleshed 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 fable. A billowing rift rends the sky, spewing forth a dragon with scales as crimson as the blood it soon 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 nearby fishing town. You, a lone villager, take up arms, though your character fares as expected, crumpling on the sandy shores after a grimacing blow. The dragon does not finish you so easily, however. The creature casts an incantation and leaves you heartless – not in the 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. Neutralizing rabbits, seeking lost idols, and escorting ignorant merchants along beaches demand immediate service. Hunting 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 adage that says 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 tutorials teaching me to scavenge for plants or swing my daggers with the X button, a little guidance in the values of enhancing gear, purchasing equipment, or combining crafting materials would have been most welcome. Gameplay difficulties range from laughable picnics to stamina-draining struggles, but your trials will graciously plateau once characters reach their high-20s. Before then, Dragon's Dogma does not shy players away from accepting quests outside their skill levels. Five hours into the game, I hit my first “snag." The mission to blame read like a run-of-the-mill 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 rogue contingent of thieves robbed 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. 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 seem abysmally unbalanced. An escort mission awarded 5,000 gold and 3,000 experience upon completion, but another side quest tasked me with slaughtering 20 boars just a short walk from the main city's gates. I gained 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. That means you must wander through many wolf-, bandit-, and goblin-infested woods first. Fast traveling only alleviates potential escort trouble 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 perk being pawns. While these nomads exist in a rift-like universe to be called upon by the Arisen in times of need, Capcom missed an opportunity to implement an innovative co-op experience. Instead of exploring the vast countrysides, forts, and mines with friends, your three memory-deficient AI companions will provide endlessly dry commentary for every menial action you initiate.
Not counting the two unique pawns you recruit from riftstones, you create a specialized pawn at the outset, selecting his or her features, vocation (class), and upgrades to remain separate from your own. In the meantime, when you power down the console and leave the Gransys peninsula behind, your loyal puppet can venture into other players' games and aid them in their efforts to conquer the beasts of the land. As a bonus, 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 walk off steep inclines and/or waterfalls for no other reason than to give me an aneurysm.
Despite their lapses in focus, these AI sidekicks diversify the gameplay, depending on your preferred class. Pawns do not rank up when enlisted from other worlds, so recruit new ones regularly. They also gain access to the same nine vocations: soldier, archer, or mage, with three alterations per archetype. Braving the wilds without magical support comes at a high price – usually your head. My recommendation: 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 memorize, lacks a strong swordplay component. Besides the intuitive dragon shouts or spell combinations, the action never evolves beyond repetitive mashing on two attack buttons. Dogma's sword-swinging, fireball-throwing engagements retain their robustness after 40 scrutinizing hours, due to the six active abilities and six passive abilities dictating 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. With devastating longbows, my ranger kept the most daunting creatures at bay while 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, and the odd skeleton that did breach our defenses was met with a relentless dagger and roundhouse kick juggle. For more stressing skirmishes, players can specify how 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 (a spear-wielding Gila monster) to weaken its armor plating; decapitate a chimera's snake appendage to prevent 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 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 their flanks to locate weak spots, but even then they still present sizable dangers. A hydra will grip you in its fanged maws before whipping you about bone-strewn floors, while cyclops clutch you in hands that crush boulders, your delicate bones posing no resistance.
I rarely see boss-like behemoths so menacing, since hydras, ogres, and griffins look rightfully daunting when you barely scratch their kneecaps. Although these beasts of old embody their primeval nature, I cannot say the city occupants received equally detailed attention. Lip syncing is so horrendous that I don't know why Capcom 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.
So, can Dragon's Dogma compete with more westernized RPGs? No, I'm not sure it contends with Final Fantasy XIII or its sequel, either, 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 from people labeled as obsessive compulsive. That said, the ending provides such a head-turning blindside that I thought my neck snapped. Beyond Dark Souls, I have never played an RPG with combat this striking, too. Dodging gale force winds generated by a griffin's wings, seeking shelter behind a warrior's shield as a drake breathes its scalding fire, and rolling between a cyclops' legs while the titan riots create playable situations once confined to our imaginations. With some extra love, Dragon’s Dogma would feel less empty than the protagonist's chest.
Release Date: May 22, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3