Dragon’s Dogma is a game worth liking, but it does not always make a strong case for doing so. The core gameplay is fantastic, however it gets bogged down by smaller mechanics such as poor quest design, player movement, and narrative confusion. Nevertheless, if you can convince yourself to see past these failures, there is a lot to like about Dragon’s Dogma.
Dragon’s Dogma opens with-what else?- a dragon attack on the seaside village of Cassardis, home of the player’s character, the “Arisen.” Shortly thereafter, the dragon slices out your heart, and leaves with a challenge- something along the lines of ‘face me when you are ready in order to reclaim your heart!‘ This is all well trod RPG narrative material and it is the first of many tired concepts to come, which is one of the game’s primary weaknesses. Capcom clearly wanted to create a western RPG experience, and for the most part has succeeded in doing so, given the success of the title thus far. Nevertheless, in terms of story alone, Dragon’s Dogma breaks very little new ground.
Dragon’s Dogma is principally a single player experience, however it integrates some innovative multiplayer elements in unique ways. The title can be played online or offline, however when playing online gamers are able to take advantage of the “Pawn” system. Pawns are recruitable user created NPC’s which assist you in completing your various tasks throughout the game. Every player in Dragon’s Dogma, early on in the main quest, creates their own unique Pawn, and they are capable of fashioning everything from their appearance to their behavior in order to complement individual play styles. Pawns gain experience, quest knowledge, and character-class knowledge alongside their respective Arisen (other gamers), but can also be recruited to assist players in other games. In other words, if you get stuck in an area or on a quest, you can recruit a Pawn that has already done it, and they will be able to guide you through key sections or point you towards who you must speak with in order to advance. Aside from game mechanics, Pawns also serve to flesh out specific elements of the game’s larger philosophical system, however this is difficult to talk about without giving away much. Likewise, other players may recruit your Pawn, where s/he will gain quest knowledge and items while in their realm.
Character customization is quite deep. The standard options are all here. Gender, hair styles, eye color, skin color, make-up color, posture, height, weight and so forth……. these are all customizable features and some of them have direct implications for gameplay. Heavier characters recover stamina slower, but have more of it to spend, are capable of carrying more items, and are less likely to be pushed around by high-force winds. Lighter characters recover stamina much quicker, allowing for faster recharge-rates when using abilities- making it easier for them to not get surrounded by swarms of enemies. Furthermore, you can tweak these settings on your Arisen as well as on your Pawn. These are things that can have huge effects in the context of fighting some of the more impressive denizens of the game, such as the Chimera, Gryphon, and Cyclops. Having a slowly diminishing large pool of stamina,when clinging to an airborne Gryphon for dear life is much more advantageous than a smaller reservoir, which may recharge quickly but does not last as long when spending it. Even more so, some enemy types will target specific genders more frequently than others. Thus it pays to diversify when building your party. Once you have confirmed your Arisen or Pawn, they cannot be changed until restarting in New Game Plus, so choose wisely.
On an important side note to Capcom: character customization does not need a “bust size” slider. These types of things are creepy and weird in video games and only serve to further polarize the medium towards a heteronormative male audience, which ultimately leads to the bereft of the medium and its audience as a whole. This is also a fantastic example of the “male gaze” that Laura Mulvey writes about. Mulvey is pulling this from some very cerebral intellectual work (Foucault, Krips, Lacan, and Zizek to name a few) which I don’t have time to go into here, but it is definitely worth a look if you are interested. Dear Capcom: if you absolutely must include the option for players to customize the bust size on female characters, balance this out with a slider for “groin bulge” on male characters, accompanied by dick-jiggle-physics. Otherwise, do us all a favor, and leave it out.
Combat in Dragon’s Dogma is weighty and frenetic. No matter which vocation (character class) you currently have equipped, enemy encounters feel right for this type of game. This is more akin to the Dark/Demon’s Souls types of gameplay, as opposed to something like Skyrim, despite being much more forgiving. In fact, it feels a little too much like the “Souls” games in some ways. Dragon’s Dogma uses a visual style that is clearly “inspired” by these games (to put it nicely), all the way down to using the same font for its old-timey cinematic narrative sequences. Those that liked the “Souls” games but would prefer something a little less idiotically frustrating will find Dragon’s Dogma very much to their liking- albeit with a few glaring caveats……
Time to get down to the elephant in the room when trying to praise Dragon’s Dogma…..
Quest design and world traversal are abysmally stupid at times. Before playing Dragon’s Dogma, the one question you must come to terms with is this: how open are you to the idea of just running around in a virtual continent for hours, not really doing anything to progress the game in any way? Dragon’s Dogma sports a massive open world in which you are free to explore at your leisure, which is great. What’s not so great is that there is virtually no fast-travel system to be had for a minimum of at least twenty hours. Let that sink in. Twenty hours……… From the beginning of the game it is possible to teleport to the capital city, however the problem is that you cannot teleport anywhere else until much, much, much, MUCH later. This is also heavily exacerbated by the progression of the main and side quests alike. Escort quests can be particularly brutal, as they almost always require you to take an NPC to the point furthest from wherever the starting area for the quest is located. One particular quest sees you leaving a city on a 8 minute run out to the middle of nowhere, literally, to turn right back around and send you home. This is after a meaningless ten-second conversation with an NPC that you will only see this one time in the entire game, and who otherwise plays no significant role whatsoever. This is the biggest criticism that can be leveled at Dragon’s Dogma: it is not shy at all about wasting your time, and it does so to the point where it can be more than a little aggravating. If you are able to suffer through this for a bit, things get accelerated greatly in New Game Plus. However getting there can be a real trial.
There are a great deal of redeeming qualities about Dragon’s Dogma. The good generally outweighs the bad, however only if you have the patience to actually make it far enough to taste the fresh air. There were times when I seriously considered putting the game down for good, however I’m glad that I kept with it. The latter half opens up into some of the more impressive artistic designs in the landscapes and enemy varieties; the creatures themselves that you go toe-to-toe with are some of the best to ever see life in a videogame. The larger scalable enemy types are particularly cool, and the late game bosses are nothing short of spectacular. Seeing the bulge of one of your pawns slowly pulsating down the gullet of a hydra’s neck while you frantically try to slash off one of its many heads in order to save them, creates a connection between gameplay action and consequence in ways that are exhilarating to behold. They become even more so when your places are reversed!
The at-times impenetrable philosophy of Dragon’s Dogma also becomes clearer as well near the late-game sections, and it integrates brilliantly with the way that multiplayer is handled. Despite some astonishingly stupid design choices that mainly have to do with questing and world traversal, Dragon’s Dogma is surprisingly cerebral in the ways it fosters and thinks about player connections in videogames, and how it then integrates these things with its story and game-universe. It’s hard to talk about this without giving away huge elements of the story, but think of it as something akin to Thatgamecompany’s Journey-but different. In these ways Dragon’s Dogma is highly innovative. Regardless there is stil a lot of fluff that must be surmounted by the player in order to reach it. If you are okay with this, you will find an adventure that’s worth keeping in your gaming library for quite a long time.