(Xbox 360 Review) Dragon’s Dogma

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Dragon’s Dogma is one of those rare games that manages to be exactly what you expect and want. The screenshots and blurbs were enough to whet my appetite, but in the house of Resident Evil and Street Fighter, a new open-world action-RPG was never at the fore and could have easily been relegated to the back burner. And while the technical hiccups and often strange dialog indicate a touch of B-Team status, the well-developed combat, sense of discovery, and pawn ally system elevate the whole of Dragon’s Dogma to something far greater than its parts, making it a true gem.

For an extensive role-playing game spread out over countless hours of adventuring and populated by hundreds of talkative non-playable characters, the narrative somehow manages to be an afterthought for much of Dragon’s Dogma. The first few minutes say it all: you were struck by a dragon, brought back to life, and now as the Arisen, it’s your job to set out and fell the beast. That’s pretty much it. The characters you meet along the way don’t expand on the storyline or make it any more interesting; they simply echo the same sentiments of surprise at your status, well wishes on your journey, and the need of your help. As I made my way throughout the land, rescuing peasants imprisoned by harpies and double crossing thieves, I kept wondering when the story would shift or pick up or just go anywhere, but it never did. It’s never more complicated than the end goal: “Go kill the dragon.” Fair enough.

But Dragon’s Dogma is one of those games where you don’t beguile friends with stories about who said what in which side stories and subplots, but what you did yourself—how you barely survived that goblin ambush on the way to the catacombs, scaled and bashed a golem, or took down a cyclops on a narrow land bridge inside a massive cavern. It’s not that the developers didn’t understand the appeal of a rich open world and a sprawling narrative, a la Skyrim; it’s just that that doesn’t seem to have been their goal. There are plenty of side quests and people to interact with, but it’s never terribly engaging and it’s frequently strange, given the stilted and repetitious dialog. Instead, they veered onto the other side of the scale, with an action-oriented approach that relies on tumbling, explosive barrels, shield bashes, massive bolts of lightning, and all manner of gallantry and trickery instead of intimidation and tongue-twisting responses. It definitely works, but only if you’re the type of person who can forego an in-depth storyline for a barebones—but highly emergent—narrative.

The closest examples of the combat and approach to exploration that come to mind are Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Now, Dragon’s Dogma isn’t nearly as gleefully unforgiving as either of FromSoftware’s hair-pulling pair, but there is a definite tone to Dragon’s Dogma, and there are times when the developers do not provide concessions simply because they don’t want to. These are frustrating at first, such as the absence of a fast-travel option, save for a rare one-time-use transportation medallion, but after a while, it all starts to make sense. In the end, Dragon’s Dogma is all about the journey—surviving death-defying leaps between chasms, trekking through a murky cavern guided only by the dim light of lanterns, and ensuring that you’re well stocked before setting out.

How the game is like FromSoftware’s offerings is that it isn’t terribly interested in holding your hand. Stuck outside at night without lantern fuel? Tough; feel your way around the near pitch black, constantly swarmed by bandits and ferocious wildlife, or find a campfire to post up at and stay put until daylight—and there’s no way to fast forward time. Die right outside the starting town trying to find a shortcut? Too bad; the game warned you about going off the paths. Then again, you’re likely to be jumped on the path by some bandits, but at least then some wandering NPCs might lend their sword…or staff or mace or bow. The game is equally uninterested in veering too far and making things unnecessarily unpleasant; for example, your character will auto-grab ledges, ingredients can be stored away at inns but still be used for enchanting and crafting when at a shop, and loot can be passed around to the computer-controlled pawns, who double as excellent pack mules. Damage is also permanent in that the amount of health that can regenerate decreases over time, and places to sleep for a full recovery are few and far between; however, fruit and concoctions can act as on-the-go substitutes and see the well-prepared traveler safely and healthy to the next bed.  It is a delicate balancing act to provide a challenge without going overboard, and Dragon’s Dogma does an excellent job in doing just that.

The pawns also manage to come into their own. For those without a steady connection, or who choose to play offline, the game ships with many mages, fighters, warriors, and all things in-between, who can be found traveling the paths and going about their business in the towns. Two of these agents can be recruited for your four-party crew. The fourth pawn is the most important because it is the only character, aside from yours, that can be tweaked in the character customization system. The selection of color and hair, face, and body type are broad and offer a wide variety of choices, though I could never manage to create someone far above ‘meh’. Although this does matter, as size correlates to speed, power, attack range, and weight limit—the bigger characters can carry more and strike harder, but run out of breath quicker.

This customization aspect especially comes into play for those who choose to utilize the online component. By allowing the game to connect to its servers, your main pawn can be recruited by another player, just as you can recruit someone else’s main pawn for your party. Pawns are found wandering about towns and the wilds, as well as in the ethereal Rift, the place between game worlds where the emotionless legions await the Arisen’s call. Many of these pawns are free, as are all from Friends, but those of higher levels will cost Rift Crystals, which you earn through loot and by having your pawn called into service by another. You do not lose the pawn while they are off helping someone, but you do gain any gifts the other player passes along, as well as knowledge the pawn gained in terms of monsters encountered, locations reached, and quests experienced. Pawns are also rated on a five-star scale whenever they are swapped out for another, with Helpfulness, Battle, and yes, Appearance; comments can also be chosen from a pre-selected list to help other players out, indicating the best role for that pawn, similar to the online notes in the Souls titles.

Main pawns are not only nameable but, and most importantly, their skill set and upgrade path is up to you. The leveling mechanic is the same as it is with your character, with quests and kills netting experience that goes into an overall level and a mark towards the character’s vocation. There are three base vocations to choose from at the start: fighter, mage, and strider. Each has a range of unlockable abilities that are mapped to the face keys, with their move sets chosen by the trigger buttons. Fighters, for example, will have access to their primary (sword) abilities if the right trigger is depressed and secondary (shield) if the left is. This makes switching between the two during combat very fast, allowing for tailored combos; the fighter can stun and break an enemy’s guard with a shield attack, and then follow up with a piercing move to send them flying back. The moves have stronger variations that are gradually unlocked as characters make their way through their vocation’s nine ranks, which can turn the starter classes into real powerhouses.

There are also advanced vocations, which are open to all but have built-in limitations that favor certain starter vocations. Fighters will become effective warriors or mystic knights, the strider to assassins, mages to sorcerers, or mix the two for the even more exotic magick archer. The change not only costs Discipline, the points used to unlock skills, but it will also result in many moves—even some of your favorites—being tossed out in favor of new skills yet to be unlocked. This is why the starting vocations are important because a fighter switching to mystic knight will have a few core abilities to fall back on, while the switch to assassin will make for much tougher going. Then there is purchasing and enhancing new equipment, which not only costs a fair bit of gold but whose use can take a while to adjust to.

As progress is made in the new vocation, ranks are added and new moves unlocked, but the character’s actual level never decreases. Creating hybrid classes is great, and made even better by the fact that it’s not entirely necessary for those who prefer the build of their starter class. I wasn’t sure about my magick knight, but then I learned a move that kicked an enemy into the air, breaking their guard, which was followed by a lunge move that sent us both darting forward—nothing like kicking a goblin in the face to set one’s mind at ease. There are also attribute slots that unlock over time, which allow the purchase of core abilities, such as greater footing when blocking or additional stamina (important for melee characters, who gradually slow to a huffing and puffing standstill), that allow the core character to attain vocation-wide enhancements.

Things don’t always go smoothly, though. The engine powering Dragon’s Dogma often struggles to keep up with the action. Actually, it often struggles just to keep up with the characters walking around. Trees, carts, and wreckage pop out of nowhere, screen tearing is frequent, and many objects turn into walls of blurry textures when up close. Character models can also be a bit off-putting, with many sporting waxy skin and a vacant look, though the gear helps to make them look less like mannequins. There are some lovely vistas, though, and the game pulls off the feeling of traveling through varied terrain quite well, with shaded forest paths turning into seaside walkways, the trees rustling from the offshore breeze. I also have to admire how audacious the team was with spell effects and scale; it wasn’t uncommon to see a chunk of ice twice my character’s size fly up out of the ground to slam into a chimera four times my character’s size.

Even though there are a few unnecessary scripted sequences that trigger too many times, it’s the sense of wonder and thrill that Dragon’s Dogma gets so right. One of my favorite encounters was fighting a horde of ambushing goblins in a narrow pass near a small hill. A mage had charged my blade with fire, causing the goblin I struck to ignite. I picked it up and threw it onto two others who were quickly approaching, setting them alight. Now I had three goblins screaming as they ran around on fire, ripe for my ranger to pin against the wall and for me to finish off. Teamwork is also crucial because, as nonsensical as the pawns might be with their frequent and somewhat random lines (no, this path isn’t new, we’ve been here a thousand times before), they do a great job in making up for any of your character’s deficits. There are treasure chests of all sizes to rifle through, nondescript sacks that offer loot of all kinds, cave entrances to uncover, ogres eating by campfire, and cyclopes duking it out in makeshift arenas. The game is pure adventure.

Imagine walking down a winding path, leaving behind the last stronghold—or what passes for a stronghold in such a war-torn land, being little more than a few crumbling walls with a half-decent walkway and turret—and running across a massive ogre stumbling about, swarmed by harpies. All turn their attention towards your party. The scouts and mages get to work, bringing the harpies down for the brawlers to kill. Healers are casting in the back, lightning is being called down from the heavens, firewalls are scorching the earth, and you begin to scale the back of the ogre, your character’s stamina draining as you struggle to hold on as the monster flings about wildly trying to send you to your death. As the mages call down the elements and the scouts snipe its hand, it drops its weapon and falls to its knees, and you round its shoulder and deliver the deathblow with a sword thrust to its eye. That’s Dragon’s Dogma.

The story may be generic, the dialog inconsistent to the point of being schizophrenic, and the engine ever teetering on the point of collapse, but the action is phenomenal and the adventure grand. Dragon’s Dogma is for those who want their lanterns to go out when they run under a waterfall, move and fight slower the more gear they carry, and see every long-haul quest as a means to discover what lies ahead. The lack of amenities, the shallow characterizations, and the clunky tech might be tough to overlook, but if you are even remotely interested, I highly suggest checking out Dragon’s Dogma. It’s a quest well worth taking.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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