A Hard Swing, But Still A Foul Ball
I don’t think I've made it any sort of secret that I think that the current regime at Capcom makes a lot of flagrant bad decisions. The way they have handled one of the most beloved stables of characters and IPs, probably seconded only by Nintendo, has been nothing short of mind boggling. So when you look at a game like Dragon’s Dogma, a Japanese take on the western RPG that has been in development for 5 years, has tied up power players in the company like Hideki Itsuno from making ensured successes like Devil May Cry 4, and is the most expensive game created by the company to date, you can do little else but rub your temples and try to figure out how they still consider the concept of the game to be a good idea. Well perhaps you don’t, but I certainly did. On paper, everything about this game is a train wreck, a massive flop waiting to explode, a cheap cash in on a quick bevy of other, better done WRPG’s, right?
Well, not really.
Dare I say, Dragon’s Dogma is fun, a lot of fun in fact. What we have here is a fairly decent attempt at a massive world exploration game pared with one of the greatest combat systems Capcom has ever devised. From an initial standpoint, the world of Dragon’s Dogma is huge, has a lot to see, and provides a lot of room to expand the way you want to, rather than the normal linear path that most JRPG’s provide. It’s far from perfect though, hell, every other game of its ilk is better by leaps and bounds. But there’s a lot of good here, too much to simply pass it over.
So let’s start with the good, and in this game, that’s the combat. No matter which of the 9 vocations you decide to equip your main character with, combat always feels good. Basic attack strings feel fairly light when clashing against your foes, using more of an auditory response to let you know that you’re connecting or hitting hard opposed to the more traditional pause-on-hit system that more character action focused games use by default. You can purchase and assign skills that fit your specific play type, allowing you to manage crowd control in the way you see fit. Whether you decide to attack from far range using bows or magic, or to get up close and personal; literally climbing over massive enemies to hit their weak spots, the choice in how you approach every combat puzzle is yours and yours alone. I’ve swapped some really interesting stories with other people about how they chose to tackle taking down a Drake and everyone’s methods were very different. It’s the kind of variety you look for in games like this, and the kind of variety lacking in other similar games like Skyrim or the Witcher. It’s a ton of fun, and the fun had in combat will be the main reason why you stick with this game.
The other interesting system in this game is the Pawn swapping system. Once you start the game and go through a few tutorializing missions, you create your Pawn, your second in command, who will be alongside you throughout the entire game. These characters can only be 6 of the 9 vocations, but you will generally be using them as long range support or close range bait. Your pawn will level up alongside you and you can outfit them as you see fit, assigning skills and traits to them as you would yourself, and you can stop at an inn to change basic AI routines, altering how your pawn handles itself inside and outside of battle. The most interesting thing about the pawn system is how you gather your main parties. Once your pawn is created, it enters “The Void”, which is essentially a nexus containing all the pawns created by people playing the game who are connected to the internet. You can select a 3 and 4 pawn using currency called “Rift Crystals” and add them to your party through visiting Rift Stones, which are scattered throughout the world. These pawns, however, do not level up while playing with you, so you will find yourself dismissing them and gathering new pawns every few hours. Again, on paper this system seems rather silly and almost serves as a last ditch replacement for a proper multiplayer mode, but it ends up working rather well. Some of the menu choices and loading issues of the Rift make things slightly annoying when it comes down to actually choosing that perfect pawn with the skills you’re looking for, but never so much so that you’ll want to go it alone. There are certain bonuses you get for using pawns created by people in your friends list, or having pawns with exceedingly high ratings. When you rest at inns, your main pawn “returns” (It never really left, you are never without your main pawn unless you kill them) with gifts from other users and a payment of Rift Crystals that you use to keep the cycle moving. It’s a fairy streamlined system that works with very little issue. It’s almost elegant for a single player game.
And it’s quite a good thing that it does work well because the early game of Dragon’s Dogma is a rough road. Things plateau a bit once you hit level 10, which takes about 2 or 3 hours, but if you are flippant with the game before then, it reminds you that you can die at any time from any mob, no matter how inconspicuous. Unfortunately, this constant danger doesn’t last forever and you find yourself becoming rather bored with battling the same bands of goblins and wolves that you can take out in the blink of an eye, especially when they’re barely providing items or experience points, and what drops they do leave do little more than fill your precious inventory space. And that’s one of Dragon’s Dogmas biggest problems; part of the illusion for games like these is making the player think that it’s a living, breathing world; that things are continuing to conspire around them even if they are unaware of it. Dragon’s Dogma fails quite handily here. When you are walking from place to place (and you will, again and again) you will pass by the same set of mobs with no variation. You will always know that there’s a set of goblins at the top of the hill, followed by a set of bandits afterwards, and followed by a set of harpies after them. The game never changes things up, making it so, while the way you chose to dispatch them is totally up to you; you always know what’s around the bend after a good 10 hours of exploration. Occasionally there will be a random “epic class” monster that will take you by surprise, but these random encounters don’t happen often enough to really become a worry or an expectation. Eventually the difficulty of the game simply bottoms out, and even finding 2 chimera wandering around a forest at night becomes a ho-hum endeavor. Now that being said, the end game of Dragon’s Dogma severely ramps up the difficulty and makes things quite interesting again. Near the end of the game, I found myself in a room with 2 dark chimeras, a cockatrice, and an undead summoner who kept filling the room with hellknights and hellhounds. It was the kind of epic level battles I wish the game had more of. It took me an hour, but I finished it and felt genuinely triumphant afterwards.
But by far the biggest misstep this game has is the narrative. There are no interesting or likeable characters in Dragons Dogma. At all. Everyone is very cookie cutter, serving the roll of faceless quest givers who are there simply for window dressing. There are a handful of characters who do manage to have some bit of personality to them, but you never interact with them enough to really ever get emotionally attached. I was expecting to be able to build a relationship with Madeline, the secondary vendor in Gran Soren, but imagine my surprise when the game only had me ever do one meaningful quest with her throughout the entire game (which turned out to be a fetch quest…). Even on the rare times where something big happens in the story that really does demand the game shift its paradigm entirely, everyone just pretends it never happened and goes on with their life. Without spoiling anything, something very important happened between me, the duke and the princess that really should have created a massive new sprawling storyline. Imagine my surprise when, after getting to a point where I could gather up my pawn squad, no one in the world even acknowledged that it ever happened. That kind of lame story telling pared with the fact that your decisions literally make no difference in regards to anything really put a damper on what should be time getting to appreciate Gran Soren. In Skyrim, I loved Winterhold because of all the varied experiences I had there and the multiple personalities that gave the area character. I hate Markarth due to how I was treated by everyone in that city. I felt nothing about Gran Soren the entire time I played through the game. There’s something horribly wrong with that, and because of that, the idea of a new game plus loses a lot of traction. The idea is to be able to take your level and your gear and your skills and start over, but there’s almost no point as nothing story wise is interesting enough to see twice, and the most interesting combat puzzles lie in the late game state. The most crushing thing about the story and narrative is that the seams of it all are so apparent. You can see where they cut out story beats or removed entire quest lines or game mechanics due to time, DLC plans or who knows what. It makes the insanity that is the game’s ending feel mundane when the sky that’s crashing down around you consists of elements that you didn’t give 2 flips about for the previous 40 to 60 hours.
It’s my belief that, in this day and age, you have to be able to tell a story. Dragon’s Dogma fails doing this in an almost flippant nature. Capcom has succeeded where other games of the ilk have failed; they’ve made a combat system for a massive world RPG feel really excellent. But in doing so, they seem to have failed to realize why people keep playing Skyrim for hundreds of hours, or why people go back and replay The Witcher games each time a new iteration comes out. Capcom failed to make a world that you’ll want to get lost in. What they have done, however, is create an immensely fun combat sandbox that will keep you busy for at least a good 40 hours. If you’re looking for something similar to a less demanding “Demon Souls”, Dragon’s Dogma will be right in your wheelhouse. If you’re looking to be even vaguely entertained by the story Dragon’s Dogma has to offer, you will be left wanting. There’s a lot of good in this package, but know what you’re getting into beforehand.