It’s Old and It’s Clunky, But You Really Must Play ‘Dragon’s Dogma’
For those who want a solid world in which to experiment, explore, and behave like a dick, Capcom's revived RPG is a bucket of gold.
When Dragon's Dogma first popped up in 2012, there didn't appear to be much reason to get excited. During the days of the Xbox 360 and PS3 we were frankly inundated with bland over-the-shoulder shooters and action RPGs, and Capcom's oddly flat-looking offering didn't appear to be anything different.
But underneath the muddy veneer hid an admittedly fairly inferior game that was still quite genuinely worth getting psyched about. Four years later, and a swanky re-release on PC (in its Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen guise, albeit now supporting 4K resolution and looking delicious) has people like me popping out of the woodwork to defend this gorgeous flawed-gem of a game, which having finally waved goodbye to many technical issues that plagued it originally is now the definitive version to play. Here are five reasons why it's worth your attention.
The Combat Is Incredible
There are tons of strange things to be said about this game, but to look at Dragon's Dogma as a mere hip curio does it a huge disservice. It's natural to punctuate conversations about the game with tales about how weird the thing is, but Dragon's Dogma would be throwaway nonsense if it didn't have such a superb combat system.
Initially though, you really won't see it. Mages splurt magic piss-peas out of the glowy end of their staff, ineffectively tapping foes like a chain of wet kisses. Fighters swing swords with an immediate sense of heft, but the lack of a lock-on feature feels terribly dated. The enemies are tough, you get royally roughed-up, and you start to wonder why people like me said that Dragon's Dogma was fucking amazing back in 2012.
Two things change. You spend more time with your initial abilities, and start to discover that behind these seemingly simple systems hides deeply satisfying layers of subtlety. What initially seems sluggish becomes weighty, considered. You learn to start that swing at the exact right moment, and Capcom's expertise in combat suddenly starts to shine.
You realize that the lack of a lock-on feature isn't an oversight—it's an attribute that's only available when using certain abilities, and even then doesn't always behave in exactly the same way. Every technique and ability in the game behaves in a slightly unique way, and mastery comes about through learning, and practice. It's important to point out that Dragon's Dogma is often a deeply repetitive game—but the process of mastering the skills that you're given proves to be joyful enough in itself.
Once you've been given plenty of time to appreciate how smart the game's combat is, the second dramatic change swings into play: Suddenly, the powers you can wield are fucking crazy. Piddly piss-peas are a thing of the past—you're conjuring huge whirlwinds and dragging meteors from space. Swift-footed classes like the Assassin still offer players immediacy and speed, but there's something genuinely special about how slow and sluggish it feels to cast spells.
There's no click-your-fingers-for-lightning bullshit here, magic is wrenched into the world with care and concentration. Few games conjure up the same sense of power—magic in Dragon's Dogma is a visible force, a theme that provides the world with real awe, real gravity. Wet enemies are frozen solid with ice, while foes bombarded with ceaseless forms of fire eventually catch light, visibly smoldering, burning, charring. Burn you fucker. Burn.
No wasting time with Fluff
In many regards Dragon's Dogma makes more sense in 2016 than it did back in 2012. Dropping you into a game full of spectacular sorcery without giving you an amazing spell within the first ten minutes was a bit of a faux-pas at that point in time, and the rest of the game's design wasn't terribly current either. After a brief bit of back-and-forth with a big red dragon, the game sort of just lets you get on with... stuff? Go and find that dragon, I guess? I dunno man, LOL.
Dark Souls gradually enticed new fans, but when Dragon's Dogma first hit the scene it was still very much a niche-interest deal. Skyrim was the 2011 act to follow, very much defining the current comfort zone. Clean and clear bit of YOU ARE THE HERO exposition, then you wander off into a world that largely adapts itself to suit your current ability: a neat, simple, welcoming design that gives everyone the joy of exploration while only really having to worry about those fucking bears.
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In contrast, Dragon's Dogma lets you explore just as quickly—but has no qualms about pissing on your chips. Want to know what's over there? If you're lucky, you might get a decent look just before it kills you. It was easy to stumble across enemies substantially stronger than your under-leveled avatar, and in 2012 people simply weren't primed to deal with that shit. But since then, plenty of other games have laid the groundwork.
There's also a ton to be said for how refreshingly sparse and simple Dragon's Dogma is—after years of games increasingly packed with OCD-tingling lists of things to do, it's nice to have a game where you just roam around killing monsters, finding treasure, and unlocking awesome new abilities.
At some point during the last ten years, the modern RPG became an exercise in admin, checking off boxes and maximizing XP whilst bouncing between an encyclopedia of new and exciting minimap markers. Dragon's Dogma—for all of its shortcomings—feels like an entirely different direction.
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We Are Living in a Physical World, and I Am a Physical Girl
You can climb up stuff. What stuff? Stuff. Just stuff. Enemies, walls, cows. It's a wonderfully simple and clunky system that makes the world seem solid, and makes fighting large foes a genuine thrill. Clamber up a cyclops and bosh him in the eye! Make the ill-advised decision to grab the wing of a griffin before it takes off and starts soaring around. Gosh, this is high. Am I going to die? I'm probably going to die.
If it's too small to climb then you can probably pick it up and carry it, and then throw it when the mood takes you. Smash a jug of oil into an ogre's face and then set it alight with some mad fire magic. Throw an old man off a cliff for a laugh. Chucking stuff and climbing stuff provide endless opportunities for moments of humor, but also ensures that the environment around you often plays a valuable role in each fight—keeping the game feeling fresh and surprising for as long as you're willing to add your imagination.
It's the kind of game that dares you to ask the big questions: "Why don't I throw that wolf off a cliff?" I mean honestly, why don't you? It seems tactically viable. Dragon's Dogma's greatest strength is how it manages to make the world feel like a playground—even to the point that this aspect of game throws a spotlight on the game's greatest weakness. Gran Soren—the city at the heart of the game—feels empty and desolate, a bloated ghost town. The only fun to be had? Climbing to the top of a building and leaping between the rooftops.
If story and character are a must, this game really won't hold your attention. But for those who want a solid world in which to experiment, explore, and behave like a dick, Dragon's Dogma is a bucket of gold.
The Night Is Dark and May Contain Terrors
One of the key reasons that you won't know what killed you is that Dragon's Dogma treats night as a thing. Games are always telling us that it's dangerous at night, or that isn't safe to go into that forest, or that nobody comes out of that cave alive. It is always, always bullshit. Video games use the threat of danger as nothing more than a breadcrumb trail. This is where you go next, because you are the best and nothing can stop you. Dragon's Dogma offers hints that you need to take note of, and doesn't tend to waste time with idle threats.
But while 2011's Dark Souls often felt like a grueling test of spirit—pitting you against traps and unfair odds to either break players, or cement their resolve—Dragon's Dogma creates a world in which danger is more overtly obvious, and much of this comes down to the excellent naturalistic lighting engine. If the landscape around you is bright and open, you've likely no reason to be fearful. If not? Worry.
Dragon's Dogma's world initially seems drab, up until you realize that light here is a physical asset rather than just a visual pom-pom. Walking down a path at sunset isn't a problem—but when you're lost in the woods? It's time to get home. You check the map. It's rubbish. You go to get your lantern out, but it's already equipped. You forgot to turn it off at daybreak, and now you've burned through all of your oil.
It's dark now, you can barely see anything, and there are things out there that are coming for you. You don't know what they are, and you can't see them. So now you're sprinting—running through the woods, hoping you don't stumble off a cliff-edge. A group of tents lit by torches comes into view. You don't recognize it. Allies? Bandits? You've no idea. By stripping away the tools that we take for granted—the ability to rest and regain health, or immediately fast-travel to a nearby city—Dragon's Dogma creates a world where danger feels real.
'Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen' PC trailer
It Is Incredibly Weird
Much of Dragon's Dogma's strangeness comes from what it fundamentally is—a Japanese design team trying to make a Western-style RPG. You've got a crap quest log, a sometimes infuriating inventory system, unintentionally hilarious voice acting, and an inexplicable soulmate-choosing system. There's a bunch of optional stuff you can do during the game that boosts your "affinity" with specific characters, but you're never given any idea of what affinity actually does.
But the real depths of oddity come from Pawns—the companion warriors you summon to assist you as you battle beasts across the realm. In a fight they're perfectly capable, but outside of that their mileage tends to vary. They largely tend to function like adult-sized toddlers, dashing and smashing their way around the world while constantly narrating what they're currently doing. "I'm wet through!" one exclaims, have inexplicably decided to jump into a river.
These factual outbursts frequently end up being terribly funny, but there's something about the fiction of Pawns that's fascinatingly creepy. Despite looking like humans, they're effectively just robots, people-shaped puppets that spout clips from the game world's version of Wikipedia just in case it might be useful. The fact that these creatures have no kind of agency is emphasized by just how badly you can treat them—roll one down the side of a particularly high hill, and they won't even be miffed.
Only one of the three Pawns you can travel with is ever really yours, too—the rest are just empty warrior vessels you borrow by logging into the void and finding the perfect one to borrow. You can use search criteria to look through an online database and find the exact kind of Pawn that you want. You could probably spend hours just flipping through pages of strangely soulless offerings. It's a lot like Craigslist.
The Pawns fight for you, get left to die, and then return to the void to be summoned by yet another stranger—creating this odd paradox that's functionally emphasized by a feature in the game: your Pawn gains knowledge when adventuring with other players, and it then brings that knowledge back into your game. It means that sometimes your Pawn specifically gives you advice on how to finish your current quest, on the basis that they've done it before.
If the logic of that has your brain doing wheelies, then you owe it to yourself to finish the game: after 20 hours of apparently forgetting to actually have a story, Dragon's Dogma serves up the most incredible and unlikely finale. It's telling that the PC release of such a bland-looking RPG has set so many hearts aflutter—those who give Dragon's Dogma the time that it demands uniformly find themselves very richly rewarded.
Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is out now for PC, with older versions for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 available everywhere. More information at the game's official website.
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