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Dragon’s Dogma in Review

Had Dragon’s Dogma presented itself as a Japanese-style action game with light RPG trappings, I might be writing today about one of my favorite games of 2012. With a development team including alumni from some of the better Resident Evil and Devil May Cry titles, it’s a game with a great pedigree and huge ambition. Brilliant ideas abound like the Pawn concept, which essentially simulates playing a MMORPG asynchronously with vaguely intelligent party members that learn how to fight more effectively over time and speak incessantly in a faux archaic patois. If your main Pawn gets hired by another player, he or she comes back with items or knowledge about quests or how to deal with certain monsters. There’s an excellent item enhancement system that’s as streamlined and straightforward as any I’ve seen, there are well-designed dungeons rich with atmosphere, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more exciting video game moment than scaling a hydra wound around a watchtower to lop off its head.

But it’s not exactly a Japanese-style action game, although elements are present. Despite offering some singular, possibly innovative hack-and-slash RPG concepts Dragon’s Dogma makes the mistake of thinking that it can compete with Western RPGs like Skyrim. It’s a shame because this is a far better and more compelling title in terms of action and gameplay than Bethesda’s OCD morass of enervating sidequests and unfocused narrative. Yet here is a Japanese-developed game that trucks in the worst qualities of the open world genre. The story, such as it is, is almost completely an afterthought and the world-building offers little more than a bland pastiche of Western fantasy tropes. NPCs are little more than Westworld-like automatons, standing by patiently for you to interact with them in their lifeless world. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you stand on a rock outcropping overlooking a vast valley and you can see bandits literally standing around doing nothing.

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The world of Gransys is empty and soulless to the point where it makes Kingdoms of Amalur’s setting look inspired. Vast areas of nothing, tediously coupled with no fast travel option in the early game, mean lots of walking and wishing that there was something- anything- to fight or do. The quest log tracks laughable you-gotta-be-kidding-me gigs like finding flowers, killing X number of rabbits, and escort missions.  The story missions have no more urgency or dramaturgy than menial, void-filling tasks issued by question mark-haloed quest dispensers, urging you to the next spot marked on the map- if you can find it before you tire of lumbering around the map looking for a route. As for the narrative line, after twenty hours of play I’ve got that a dragon ate my heart and that’s irritating the local royalty and that’s about it.  There’s probably something about a prophecy in there somewhere, and your character is called the Arisen- as if any of that matters when the game is at its worst when it’s pretending that it has a story to tell or game world to express.

Yet in its best moments, most of which have nothing to do with the paltry narrative or sandbox aspirations, the game celebrates its Eastern lineage. The patrimony of the Souls games is evident in its sometimes staggering difficulty and its willingness to punish the unprepared, hasty, or unskilled player. Fighting some of the larger Monster Hunter-like beasts in the game- Chimeras, Hydras, Gryphons, Cyclopses- is grueling, awe-inspiring, and you can climb on them to hit weak points a la Shadow of the Colossus. Fussy details abound like worrying about keeping your lantern dry, food in your inventory from spoiling, and a Giant from seeing the women in your party. The ladies drive him crazy.

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And oh, that fighting. Eschewing the sludgy tank battles of the Bethesda titles, the ersatz Gears of War pop-and-shoot of Mass Effect, and the ever-present MMORPG cooldown ability trope, the combat system is brutal, complex, and completely successful. It’s not tactical or measure like in the Souls or Witcher games. It’s much closer to the Japanese brawler idiom and it’s a better game for it- there’s combos, juggling, charge attacks, and more. Swinging a sword, slinging a spell, or blasting a goblin with ten flaming arrows is completely satisfying and all actions are tied to stamina, weight, speed, strength, and other traits. Classes, abilities, and specializations are strict- the trend toward characters that can do whatever in the name of accessibility is here refuted.

The idea is that you’ll hire, fire, and rehire Pawns by either entering “The Rift” at Rift stones or by running across them wandering the game world to suit your current needs and to augment your character’s abilities. You might run an all-Fighter/Warrior party to handle conventional foes, or recruit a team of Striders and Rangers for some long-distance bow-work backed with up-close dagger-work. Of course, without a supply of curative herbs and potions you’ll want to bring mages to provide healing and combat support. The AI isn’t terrible and the abstract simulation of learning works, I just wish that they wouldn’t constantly remind you to cut off a Saurian’s tail first once they figure it out.

Too often, these chatterbox Pawns ruin the game’s moments of sensory grace with their unasked for advice or commentary. And there are wonderful moments where the game is immersive. Before you go hacking the tails off of those Saurians, you might stop for a minute to admire the vista, with the alligator-men sunning themselves on the rocks in a creek. Or a swarm of bats might explode up a shaft circumferenced by a massive spiral stairway, leading to a horrible Thing in the Pit-style creature. Castles are imposing, the flicker of a lantern feels warm, and the sound of the clash of arms is impactful. This is a very well made, good-looking game with an art style that is more Elmore and Hildebrandt than Blizzard and Games Workshop. Framerates aren’t always the best and the camera, of course, goes haywire when you clamber onto a gryphon, but technically this a very polished, mostly well-appointed game that a lot of care and attention went into.

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But the problem with this sometimes brilliant, utterly hardcore, and relentlessly clumsy trainwreck of a game is much the same as we’ve seen with any number of Japanese-developed games where the creators stray from the unique qualities of their national design idioms. Attempting to emulate the successes of Western designers is a tragic mistake. When this game looks, feels, plays, and even sounds like a classic, AAA-class Japanese title I’m loving it. When it’s trying to be an Elder Scrolls game, befuddling me with labyrinthine menus, or constantly reminding me with pop-up messages that I can buy more quests or special weapons through DLC I’m hating it. I don’t recall another game in recent years where my opinion has swung so wildly, often within a single hour of playing it. I do like this game, and quite a lot sometimes. But not always. It’s the dilemma of Dragon’s Dogma, a game that too often turns away from its own strengths and character in pursuit of elusive and unlikely foreign success.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

19 thoughts to “Dragon’s Dogma in Review”

  1. You can make you pawn say almost nothing for most of the game, but what I do is set them to be constantly speaking all the time to annoy those who are hiring her. I’m a jerk 🙁

    Also a few things, escort quests do have a major impact to the story, that’s often missing. If an NPC that’s a major part of the story is killed they will not be there to help you during certain events, like if you don’t retrieve the grimoire for the mage, or create a forgery of it and have that to the mage, their help will be negligible.

    As with any first game I really hope another gets made down the line, fixing many of the issues that it’s predecessor has. The game has solid ideas and awesome stories to talk about with people, but it’s so unrefined in so many areas.

    1. I haven’t even noticed where any failed quests have had any repercussions. I figured they might since the game does allow you to actually completely fail quests. I’ve failed a couple because I ran out of time, I guess. It doesn’t really say.

      Yeah, I think most people probably set their Pawns to jibber-jabber mode and that’s why this happens…or they don’t know to sit ’em down in the Knowledge Chair and tell them to STFU.

      Heh…you beat up like 50 bandits in a ruined castle and one of your pawns says “I think this might be a bandit stronghold!” Another good one-one-shotting a fox with a bow as it flees- “The foes have the upper hand!” Aught, naught, aught, naught…ARGH!

      I’m with you though, I’d really like to see some of this stuff brought forward either into another game or a full-on sequel. There’s lots of great, great stuff in it but it just fumbles in some really crucial areas. If they jettisoned all the open world crap, sidequests, and whatnot and made this a solid 20-25 hour action RPG with more limited exploration and a stronger narrative focus, this couild be a _killer_ brand.

  2. I would agree that the great fun of this game comes from ignoring everything but the slaying, loot-whoring and team-building. Climbing large bosses, setting up team tactics, and item combinations fill a void that the Souls games didn’t – probably *because* the Souls games wanted complete control and polish for the experience, and a team Souls game would be ridiculously hard to balance.

    I agree that you have to want the wandering and the combat, or you should move the hell on. I’m having a great time.

  3. As usual Tom and you disagree I think, Tom’s review is weird.

    I’m going to need Bill to weigh in. By Bill I mean anyone not on painkillers for nerve damage.

    1. I don’t know, I think Tom and I may be closer on this one than usual. Sometimes we match up…when we do, it’s kind of weird because we say some pretty similar stuff.

      I don’t think Bill would have the patience for this, doped up or not.

  4. Did anyone play the demo and then the game? Just curious how much improvement there is between. I tried out the demo a week or two ago and was fairly underwhelmed, but knowing that demos are often made from old game builds and having heard a lot of good about it since release I’m willing to forget about this experience. This review is talking a lot about nuances of combat I just didn’t get from the from the demo which felt mostly like a mindless hack and slash with overly loquacious npcs.

    1. I felt exactly the same.
      The demo was very rough… camera and combat didn’t inspire me. Instinctively I felt it would be the same as the main game and quite happy to let it slide.

    2. I did. I thought the demo was a little ramshackle but showed a ton of promise. Exactly what the final product is.

      Combat is the best thing about he game…it is a little hacky and splashy, but there’s so much freaking complication , so many rules and restrictions everywhere. It’s definitely not mindless at all. It’s far more compelling than the fighting in Amalur.

      Thing is, I kind of love how complicated it is.

      1. I’ve always just described the combat as being like playing TW2, only you can’t barrel roll out of the way of things and pulling a trigger will let you do fancy moves instead of throw bombs.

        1. Ah, but there is an evasion roll skill. It’s keyed to daggers, so it’s in the Strider/Ranger skill tree.

          It’s funny you mentioned that though, coming off of Witcher 2 I spent about the first five hours of the game trying to break my reliance on that roll.

          1. Magic Archer multimissiles. Mage Knight super-counters. Wade-through-damage Warrior strikes.

    1. It really is. I’ve read a lot of reviews of Dragon’s Dogma in an attempt to gauge whether it’s worthy of my time, and Barnes’ explanation of where this game excels, how it stumbles, and what players should expect in the balance is the best one out there.

      This is great work.

      1. Shucks, guys…thanks for the praise.

        I read several reviews that are out there myself and there’s a couple of high profile ones where I’m pretty convinced that the reviewer only played four or five hours of the game before giving up on it. I don’t think reviewers need to play through 50 hours of it or finish it to develop a critical position, but it does take time to open up and show its best aspects. I didn’t really have a firm enough opinion until 20+ hours in, and even then I’m terribly torn between extremes.

        That said, I’m still playing it and still very much want to play it, which says a lot.

  5. I agree with the above about the quality of the review.

    I have to say that this review and Mr Barnes’ review of Journey from a few weeks back are two of the best I have read in a long time. And this is coming from a guy that didn’t particularly care for either game.

  6. I’m really glad this was reviewed on NHS. I didn’t feel like any of the other sites that I saw really dug into what it executed well and what it did poorly. But that really is important when discussing this game. It’s not mediocre; it swings wildly to both ends of the spectrum.

    I find myself playing this game and loving it, even as I realize it’s faults. For one, I don’t share your problems with the world (though everything you call out is present). The ability to travel and feel endangered is great to me, and the physical variety of the world lets me gloss over some of the stale bits you mention.

    Though the story isn’t great, it is moving me along, and I like the way they tie in the Pawns system into the game world. One of the major critiques of Japanese-style RPGs is that they divorce the game mechanics from the game world, and these guys have made an effort to avoid that.

    That said, the writing and voice work is atrocious. It could benefit from a Witcher 1 style revamp in that department, and a patch that filters the pawn dialogue in a more intelligent way.

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