Developer: Capcom / Publisher: Capcom / Played on: Xbox 360 / MSRP: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, Suggestive Themes, Violence]
In a post-Demon’s Souls world, hearing about interesting western-style RPGs coming out of Japan isn’t as surprising as it might have been in the past. But if you had told me that one of my favorite RPGs in recent memory would come from Capcom, I probably would have dismissed you. It’s really easy to be cynical about the long time publisher’s iterative fighting game releases and Resident Evil sequels. And sure, at first glance, Dragon’s Dogma seems like a totally serviceable open-world RPG; there’s magic and swords and a whole land of quests to complete. But you may be surprised to learn that it successfully abandons many widely accepted design conventions. Up front, it does little to communicate why but if you’re willing to embrace the game’s lack of conceits, there’s an immensely engrossing adventure to be found.
There’s very little reason to invest much emotion into Dragon’s Dogma’s forgettable main story but, like many other open-world RPGs, it’s a good excuse to push you out the front door. Your uneventful, fishing village life gets rudely interrupted when a large dragon, quite literally, steals your heart. You survive the encounter, shortly afterwards learn you are a chosen one known as an “Arisen” and gain the ability to command a legion of inter-dimensional sellswords known as pawns. As it turns out, these pawns prove quite useful in your appointed task of removing monsters, bandits, and other such undesirables from the land of Gransys. Side quests and main quests alike will occasionally touch upon the political intrigue and courtroom goings-on of the capital city of Gran Soren but this is generally nothing more than a short distraction from your quest to take revenge on that asshole dragon.
The AI-controlled pawns that make up your party on this journey are the crux of Dragon’s Dogma’s unorthodox, asynchronous cooperative component. You’re free to define your four party members with any combination of the game’s nine classes. Along with being effective combat partners, these pawns are quite the chatty bunch, constantly relaying quest tips, enemy weaknesses, and story tidbits that they’ve picked up while questing with you. When connected online, other players will have the ability to recruit your pawns (using a separate “Rift” currency) with their newly gained quest knowledge and all. Up front the moment-to-moment impact of this system will seem pretty minimal but don’t underestimate having a knowledgeable pawn by your side. In fact, the biggest compliment I can give Dragon’s Dogma’s pawn system is that it’s useful. All the direction the Pawns provide ends up being pretty necessary.
You see, Dragon’s Dogma forgoes a lot of conventional design ideas to benefit its ambitious structure. For one, I didn’t acquire the ability to fast travel until about 30 hours into the game. And even then it’s severely limited. Additionally, Dragon’s Dogma gives no indication of how difficult a specific quest will be. I often found myself, especially toward the beginning of the game, way over my head with enemies I had no business fighting. And some quests are just ambiguous enough to leave you scratching your head about what to do next.
On paper, this all might sound like someone forgot to finish the design document before development on the game started but the more time I spent with Dragon’s Dogma, the more I realized just how deliberate these omissions are. By requiring patience and exploration to progress, the game will break you of the overly systematic habits that emerge in most players of open world RPGs. You’re really forced to enjoy and take in the world here. The best parts of Dragon’s Dogma don’t come earning XP and gear by successfully making it from point A to point B but rather from experiencing everything in between. The refusal to hand-feed you is jarring but the result is an experience that’s almost always rewarding.
For example, epic, fifteen minute-long encounters with dickish Cyclopes are not uncommon. The way these encounters catch you off guard when they seemingly randomly erupt in the open world injects a level of excitement and unpredictability into your long treks across Grandsys. And it’s all enhanced by Dragon’s Dogma’s substantive combat. There’s nothing particularly deep about its systems but experimenting with the game’s myriad of cool spells and satisfying combat maneuvers keeps it from ever becoming mundane. And just about all of your possible spells can be important given the proper situation. Your rain of holy arrows will work great against the undead but you’ll need a powerful fire spell for taking down griffins. And the ability to change your class, or vocation as the game calls it, at any time allows you to fully explore the potential of the combat system in one play through.
Even while writing this review, I struggle to find a visual point of comparison for Dragon’s Dogma. It’s setting isn’t entirely original, but just enough “Japan” made its way into the art style that it’s hard to call Dragon’s Dogma cliché, Tolkien-fantasy.
While Dragon’s Dogma is surprisingly a smooth ride, it does fall victim to the many technical issues that befall other open-world RPGs of a similar scope. Across the game, lighting is flat and if you spend a little too much time staring at the world, there are plenty of ugly, low-res textures to be found. However, spell effects are the exception here and always look rather slick. Strange audio glitches involving dialog are frequent and fighting with the game’s one slot save system can be pain given how infrequently it auto-saves. And I can’t, for the life of me, figure why there are two separate inventory interfaces, one for your equipment and one for your other items.
It may not be saying much but Dragon’s Dogma is the ballsiest, most ambitious thing Capcom has attempted in years. Not in any genre-redefining ways, mind you, but some substantial tweaks to a familiar formula breathe an often-lost sense of wonder into the game. Some of its more unforgiving mechanics may test your patience but if you can find it in you to leave your baggage at the door, Dragon’s Dogma will deliver an exciting level of freedom.