Dragon’s Dogma manages to tread that fine and often wonderful line between genius and insanity. Beguiling yet frustrating, it’s akin to a difficult relationship. You’ll want to quit but you’re never far from a moment that draws you straight back into its punishing embrace. That might sound clichéd but I’m not sure that I’ve ever played a game that better embodies that analogy. It’s punishing, but that’s not necessarily a flaw. It never feels cheap, for instance. The flaws are more inherent to the game mechanics. Some seem like a good idea at the time but quickly grow frustrating. Yet, despite its imperfections, Dogma is still a game that RPG fans shouldn’t miss.
None of this will be noticed during the first hour or so. Dragon’s Dogma eventually features fantastic set pieces and huge battles, yet the actual plotline feels hugely derivative. You play an Arisen, a person chosen by the very dragon they must kill to save their land. It’s all been done before, so many times that few RPG fans will care to pay much attention at this point. Indeed, nothing around the development of the main storyline is overly gripping until around the halfway point. There’s not even much told of the Arisen’s life or motivations, despite a heavy focus on being able to customize their looks to your heart’s content.
Once past that opening hour of Dragon’s Dogma, it’s easy to make comparisons. The difficulty level is akin to Dark Souls, the world like Skyrim and parts of certain battles reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus. Dragon’s Dogma is its own game, though, ambitious in some ways but too derivative in others.
The sense of scale is huge, both in terms of battles and exploring the world of Gransys. Much of this is down to the lack of quick travel, which isn’t unlocked until the late stages of the game. You have to walk wherever you want to go, with a limited stamina bar available for running. This feels immensely dangerous. Unlike most RPGs, even entry-level monsters, such as a pack of wolves, can wipe your team out if you’re foolish. There’s no “yard trash” to be seen here and mistakes are punished accordingly. Planning a route is vital, along with ensuring that you’re not stuck out in the wilderness after dark. Visibility will be non-existent and danger all the more prevalent. The early days bring with them a real sense of wonder and genuine worry that would be natural for anybody lost in unfamiliar surroundings. Exploring Gransys won’t feel anywhere near as threatening by the end game(and the restrictive travel system begins to frustrate),. You’ll feel a wave of relief when the huge walls of capital city, Gran Soren, come into view.
Fortunately, you won’t be stuck exploring alone. One of the most exciting original features within Dragon’s Dogma is the pawn system. At first, you create a main pawn: a character that will stick by your main character throughout the game. You can’t control him or her directly but you can have a quiet word from time to time, and suggest how you want them to react in certain combat situations. Attachment to this pawn is great as they’re your creation, tailored to exactly how you want them to behave. AI is pretty respectable, also, with only a few minor issues to grind anyone’s gears.
What makes the system all the better is the ability to share pawns with other players through a place known as The Rift. Through this form of asynchronous multiplayer, players can recruit up to two other companions to join them on their journey. These partners are the primary pawns of other real life players. This adds a fantastic social element and a great talking point with friends, while also enabling your pawn to learn new things from the other player’s journey. Much of my time spent outside of playing Dragon’s Dogma was talking to friends via social networks about how my pawn has been performing for them and vice versa. It’s immensely compelling to log in every now and then just to see who’s hired your pawn and what knowledge they’ve learnt along the way. You can hire pawns that aren’t connected to friends, at a cost, but the real fun comes from sharing the faithful servants of friends.
One catch to this extraordinary system is that you can’t adjust the hireable pawns. They come with skills and equipment set by their owner. They also can’t level up, so at times you’ll need to switch them out for higher level pawns as you progress through the game. There’s no level cap on what pawns you can hire. Even at level 10, you could hire a level 85 pawn if that’s what your friend possesses (or if you have enough rift crystals to purchase one). The game does adjust experience gains accordingly to ensure that you’re not too overpowered, though. Knowledge gains, however, will always be there and can be extremely useful when facing a new and unfamiliar foe.
Much like with an MMO, it’s important to have a balanced group, consisting of a variety of different vocations (the game’s equivalent of classes). There’s plenty of space to tweak things and find what works best for you. A flexible vocation system that’s inexpensive to change things around or specialize goes a long way to ensuring the player never feels trapped in their decisions.
That flexibility is valuable because it’s exceptionally easy to drop a hundred hours or more on Dragon’s Dogma. Much of the time spent will be tackling side quests, some of which, such as escort missions or killing specific monsters, aren’t always that inspired. There’s still a sense of satisfaction there, though, and some side quests impact crucial story quests that appear later in the game. Indeed, Dragon’s Dogma is the game that keeps on giving. It doesn’t end where you think it will, growing more exciting as it goes before allowing players to tackle a New Game+ mode that’s actually worth playing.
Dragon’s Dogma is clearly rough round the edges. The lack of a full quick travel function will grate after you’ve seen the same road for the tenth time, and the user interface is quite clumsy to navigate. There’s a little too much filler for comfort, bloating what could easily be a tighter, more focused game. But then, just as you begin to tire, the game will throw a huge boss battle at you that will invoke adrenaline like you’ve rarely experienced before. In those moments you’ll feel a real love for this game and forget its problems. And then the battle ends, and those problems start to reappear.
Jennifer Allen is a freelance writer based in the UK. Her work has appeared in PCWorld, G4TV and GamePro, among other outlets. She spends far too much time tweeting.