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.
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.
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.
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.