Dragon’s Dogma signifies something fairly ambitious. For a long time, Japanese developers have traditionally developed RPGs using their own methods. These JRPGs have a focus on story and character development as opposed to the more Western principles of openness and exploration. While Western developers have also delved into their resource, Japanese developers have been somewhat reluctant to dip their toes into the murky waters of the Western RPG. With this in mind, it is encouraging for Capcom to show their hand in this more action orientated RPG. But aside from the ridiculous name, the doctrine of “Japanese developers can’t make Western RPGs” is sincerely being challenged.
One of the best indications of this is sadly the most negative sounding. When an ancient Dragon returns to the world, it attacks a small fishing village that your created character is a resident of. Valiantly defending to the last, the Dragon proclaims that you are the “Chosen One” before ripping out your heart. Miraculously you are revived and hence dubbed “The Arisen”. Your task is simply to slay the Dragon to get your heart back. While simple enough, there is hardly any meat to this story. People you meet come across as bland despite the many accents you will hear. By far the most annoying trait of Dragon’s Dogma is that the translation to an Olde English style mixed with anachronistic modern vocabulary. The result is a puzzling and jarring experience, with characters occasionally spouting utter nonsense.
Speaking of characters, you will create not only your own main character but also a single Pawn that follows you like an obedient trusty hound; using perhaps the most comprehensive character creation system I’ve ever seen. The general results are also creditable as neither of my creations looked as if they were beaten with the ugly stick during gameplay. When adventuring, you can also pick up to two support Pawns from an ever-growing selection of user-generated content, which you can switch on the fly during gameplay. While there is a need to change your party regularly, their usefulness will certainly make up for this minor drawback.
The world of Dragon’s Dogma is pretty huge, with Gran Soren acting as the central hub for your adventurers. There is a significant emphasis on exploration as items cover about as much of the landscape as litter at the end of a large music festival. Monsters also pollute the landscape with varying encounters depending on what time of day you venture into the wilderness, but the problem here is that there is no further variety to each location. It is entirely possible to memorise what will ambush you and where, meaning lots of predictable encounters with goblin hordes. Getting ambushed by gigantic creatures, such as Griffons, is also no laughing matter as one mere swoop could mean the untimely end for your hero. Those who think they can just fast travel to locations on the fly will find that such a thing doesn’t exist, unless you count the elusive warp stones that only teleport you to Gran Soren, making the frequent and predictable monster encounters all the more tedious.
As with most RPGs, Dragon’s Dogma allows you to take on a class based system, with the twist being that you and your main pawn can switch classes on the fly, depending on how many points you have in a class based vocation system. As you progress, you obtain Vocation Levels that grant you access to new skills, perks and augments to give your character, provided you have enough slots. Being able to change on the fly is a nice touch, granting players the opportunity to see what each basic class has to offer, but you’ll quickly settle into your favourite to obtain access to high-powered moves.
Combat itself is honestly a little hit or miss depending on your character class. Melee fighters will have a blast with a wide variety of moves and the ability to scale on top of larger foes to strike at weak points. Ranged attackers will more likely find themselves keeping out of harms reach, while Magic users can cast cooler looking spells as they progress with a hit on defensive capabilities. There are infrequent occasions where cheap deaths can happen; either due to your character not recovering from being hit quick enough to run away or being knocked off a large cliff, but the vast majority of the time you will find that combat isn’t too taxing against equally skilled opponents. Come across something bigger however, and fights quickly turn into a human bloodbath.
As previously mentioned, Pawns act as the general party members created by other users, but they fulfil more roles than simply being glorified meat sacks. As your pawn explores different areas in other players’ games, they gain knowledge which they can then pass onto you during gameplay. In a way, this is an evolution of Dark Souls’ online memo functionality and is just as useful. This usefulness can also be found in hired Pawns, making the RC currency used to hire more powerful Pawns all the more valuable. Despite their usefulness, the game feels the need to only update your Pawn onto the servers every time you sleep at an inn, making the overcharged items in shops all the more painful to spend currency on. There is a crafting system in place, but it rarely feels as if it makes much of an impact. Auto-saving is where Capcom games regularly stumble and Dragon’s Dogma is a prime example. Being able to save anywhere is nice, but the auto-saving needs a lot more work.
It also doesn’t help that despite a robust character creation tool, the game still manages to look severely outdated. Character models for NPCs in particular look out-of-place, while major players in the story have little to distinguish themselves from the townsfolk. The larger monsters certainly look imposing, but you’ll have a hard time trying to see much in terms of variety between Cyclopes and Ogres beyond their behaviour towards your party (Ogres primarily attack women). The true star is the world itself though, with many places to explore requiring Pawns of varying heights and builds to grab everything in sight. Just be sure to carry lots of oil for those lanterns as the lighting is dim at best.
I put my hands up and say that Dragon’s Dogma is better than I was expecting it to be. It makes a terrible first impression with an uninspired plot, outdated visuals and baffling dialogue that I was almost tempted to write it off there and then. But as you spend more time with it, the more things make sense. The highlight is in the usage of the Pawns themselves, with mostly solid combat mechanics making exploration a true joy, despite being all too predictable at times. The positives never truly stamp out those traits that linger like a rotten smell, but they do enough to justify the creation of Capcom’s newest IP. There are great ideas that lie within Dragon’s Dogma that give hours of enjoyment, but the awful first impression just can’t be ignored when it persists through the entire lifespan of the adventure.