Reading about Dragon's Dogma, Capcom's latest title that ventures into open-world fantasy territory, is like viewing the game through rose-tinted glasses. Capcom is clearly trying new things that seem inventive. I want to love Dragon's Dogma. I want to be able to support a game that tries its hand at something new, and hope that other developers take notice of the potential for success that comes with being creative.
Dragon's Dogma, though full of potential, unfortunately doesn't end up being one to use as a shining example of said potential success. Capcom's uncharacteristic foray into the world of a Westernized, large-scale role-playing game has a ton of great ideas. But the game falls flat. Had it not been my obligation, I would have stopped playing within the first few hours when I realized that Dragon's Dogma was going to be a... well, a side-quest game.
Dragon's Dogma opens intensely enough. A gigantic, fearsome-looking dragon plunges down into your lowly fishermen's town and rips your heart out for trying to be heroic. But, somehow, you don't die. You are "Arisen." And that's what everyone will call you for the rest of the game.
Dragon's Dogma is a huge game. No, let me emphasize. It's enormous. If you're an exploration junkie, you'll feel right at home navigating the twists and turns and dungeons. However, there's a caveat when it comes to huge open-world RPGs. I prefer them to have a clear Main Quest versus Side Quest menu system, with ample direction for each, and a navigation tool that doesn't totally suck. Why? So I can play how I want. If you want to spend hours leveling up before advancing in the main quest line, so be it. But maybe someone else wants to plow through the plot, and then venture around to see what else is worth doing. For a genre that is typically open to everything from aimless wandering to quest hunting, it's not an abnormal request to want the option to choose.
That may be one of the few RPG tropes Dragon's Dogma does not abide by. I found myself caught in hours of random, boring side quests. You're forced to abide by the game's decision to favor lengthy gaps between main plot points. There I was, my heart probably burning in the acid of some asshole dragon's stomach, and I'm picking flowers for some lady and feeling like a jerk for kicking a poor family out of a nobleman's land. I have no context for much of what I'm doing, and I found it difficult to even care about my voiceless character. She was just an empty vessel that eventually gets some pretty cool abilities to kill people with.
Getting to the heart of the Dragon's Dogma tale feels like pulling teeth. But that's not only to do with the annoying amount of side quests and the hours that pass between main plot points. The game is also plagued with a messy map, UI, and menu system. Everything in this game, even outside of the zombies and dragons, feels like it's built to fight you.
A day in the life of a Dragon's Dogma player essentially plays out like this: You enter the main capital of Gran Soren and speak with the citizens to gain insight into your quests. They might offer some pieces of advice. You look at your map. No, you go back to the menu, go to "Quests," and then "view on map." Now you look at your map. You wonder why you can't view all quests on the map and simply hover over them to get more details. You shake your head, and move for the door. The same pattern and pile of bandits and goblins attack you on the path you've now memorized. Or maybe it's night, and undead, ghosts and wolves will haunt your paths. That sounds like fun for the first few trips, until you realize you've been rinse and repeating this formula for hours without feeling like you're actually getting anywhere.
Combat is slow to start, with battles that are unrelentingly difficult. Think the crippling strength of enemies in Dark Souls in a world akin to Skyrim or Dragon Age, but not exactly as well done. You'll fight off packs of dozens of bandits that are significantly more skilled than you or your companions (more to come on them later).
But the slow start is slower than most games make you suffer through. For a game with such a huge map and no real substantial fast travel, save for expensive Ferrystones and port crystals, running into trouble so frequently along such long paths can feel like a chore. It wasn't until I was in my level 20s that I began to feel confident enough to roam around somewhat more carelessly. At that point my Mystic Knight was able to create flaming walls and whip groups of enemies with a lasso made of lightning bolts. But it took about 12 hours before that happened.
That really steep learning curve coupled with fickle targeting that often doesn't recognize your instructions makes combat for the first large chunk of the game incredibly cumbersome. Targeting is important in a game that requires you to shoot off certain limbs to render enemies weak, so you can imagine how quickly that gets annoying when shots are constantly missed. Exploding barrels strewn about the world can be picked up and thrown at enemies, but targeting on this is even more useless. You can only throw in a general direction. Throwing inventory items—like poisons and oils—at enemies is similarly useless because of a lack of aim.
Maybe if the world was as gorgeous as games it competes with—namely, Skyrim—I wouldn't mind being fated to walk the same path back and forth dozens of times over. I wouldn't mind peering over mountains canopying the ocean or exploring mystical-looking forests if they actually looked like they do in rival games of the same genre. Dragon's Dogma might have looked impressive say, five years ago on a previous generation console. I was genuinely surprised, for instance, talking to NPCs to find their expressionless faces and repetitive, puppet-like hand motions when speaking with me. Their voices and mouth animations are completely misaligned.
Dialogue isn't particularly interesting, anyway. If watching a doll speak to me wasn't enough to deter me from the conversation, their dull replies certainly were. The worst perpetrators of this were my companions.
Your companions—or pawns, as they're called in the game—were another great idea that was simply not executed well. The system itself is an interesting concept. Pawns both help you in battle and help shed light on quests, but you can trade them in at any time. Find one journeying on the road you like? Scoop him/her up to replace one of your current three. Or you can enter a "Rift" to recruit new pawns, and even borrow pawns from other players. Though Dragon's Dogma is not a multiplayer game in the traditional sense, being able to interact with others by trading pawns and sending off gifts with them is an interesting way to connect.
The pawns are more evidence that Dragon's Dogma gets significantly more fun after many hours in. Rather than pawns just dying and blabbering, they will eventually level to get to a fighting chance against strong enemies. You finally won't have to always rescue them from near death. Though they can pick up loot of their own accord, they often make unwise choices, picking up skulls and rocks as opposed to anything that might be useful in battle.
You can guide/sculpt your pawn by sitting them down to answer survey questions that dictate their behaviors, but in my thirty hours of playing I have yet to see the fruit of that labor. I find myself mashing the command buttons in combat almost as often as I do the attack buttons just to keep my pawns nearby and not spread out, vulnerable to flanking. Why am I mashing? Because the vague "come, go, help" instructions need to be drilled into the pawns before they listen to you. And they get easily distracted.
I mentioned that the pawns blabber. Their idle side chatter seems to be an effort to capitalize on BioWare's Dragon Age companions who offered their thoughts on the progression of the storyline, reflecting their personalities and unique relationships depending on who you had following you. It was great companionship while moving between quests and new areas.
Unfortunately, the lack of any substantial story progression makes what was enjoyable idle chatter in Dragon Age obnoxious noise in Dragon's Dogma. And these pawns talk a lot. It's to the point where they speak over each other consistently, mainly saying useless and redundant things. Yes, I know this road leads to the main city. Yes, you've told me that before. I like the concept of the pawn system. I just don't like how it turned out.
Dragon's Dogma still attempted to do new and interesting things, and I have to give it credit for that. Bosses and mini-bosses like hydras, griffins, chimeras and ogres are all scalable. You can grab on to the leg of a chimera to reach up to slash at the goat head to weaken the mythical beast. If you were a fan of the combat in Shadow of the Colossus, you'll have instant flashbacks of the greyer game's beastly fights. Playing mainly as a hybrid class of half knight half sorcerer—known as the Mystic Knight—this technique was unfortunately not very well-suited to my abilities. For a character class that holds all its weight in its weapons, however, it's incredibly fun to attack your enemies while hanging off their backs and watching them attempt to swat at you.
The concept of hybrid classes is another commendable addition. If you're keen on magic abilities like I am, but miss the opportunity to wear hefty armor, the Mystic Knight class is the perfect marriage of the two. You can choose from classes that mix and match from archers and mages, as well as other combinations. It's an interesting mix to the otherwise rigidly cut character classes we're familiar with in most RPG games.
Capcom's effort to create a Western-feeling RPG with splashes of its own unique features makes the game feel torn. On the one hand, I appreciate an attempt to distinguish itself from other games of its genre. On the other hand, focusing on being different is a dangerous path. When Stephen Totilo interviewed the game director on Sony's PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale (also known affectionately as Sony's Smash Bros.), Omar Kendall replied saying, "When I first started working on the game one of my initial hangups was: 'How can I make this as different as possible?' And that's kind of a dangerous mentality to fall into, because that might not lead to the best decisions for the game...It would be silly for us to purposely hurt the game just for the sake of differentiation." And maybe that's the trap Capcom fell into here.
Dragon's Dogma wants you to be invested in the world. It wants you to enjoy it as much as you did a game like Skyrim. It wants you to investigate, explore, talk with people and take on random side quests, but it's just not compelling enough in those areas to respectfully demand that attention from you. Other games can do that, and we appreciate them for it. Capcom's frustrates you for it.
At the end of the day, a few good ideas aren't worth wasting hours playing a subpar game when there are plenty others like it that manage to execute everything else phenomenally.