Dragon’s Dogma is a surprising game. As a new IP for an aging generation of consoles, and as a western RPG done by a predominately eastern developer (Capcom), Dragon’s Dogma just doesn’t seem like it should succeed. That the game’s biggest piece of marketing was its inclusion of a key to the Resident Evil 6 demo certainly didn’t help that perception. And yet, Dragon’s Dogma is good. It’s bold. It takes chances. Its quirks will both stun you and confound you. Dragon’s Dogma has its own rhythm, and it’s a funky one, but if you’re along for the ride, you won’t regret it.
One of Dragon’s Dogma’s most unique and most successful aspects are the pawns that serve your hero. You’ll create a primary pawn to be your permanent sidekick, then recruit up to two others to form your party. What makes this system special is the fact that the pawns you recruit are actually created by other players. As long as you’re connected to Xbox Live, you can call upon other player’s pawns randomly; input search conditions to find exactly the kind of pawn you need for your journeys; or find pawns that your friends have created. Your pawn can be downloaded as well, and any experience or items they earn in their time with another Arisen are transferred back to you whenever you sleep at an inn. Sharing pawns adds a fun form of online interaction to an otherwise single-player experience.
Since pawns are central to the game, it’s a good thing they’re mostly reliable travel partners. While they repeat dialogue often (how are you still surprised that tree is so big? We’ve passed it forty times!), they often sprout off useful information about the quest you’re tracking or the location you’re at. Pawns are also invaluable in combat. They act independently, and with the exception of your primary pawn, you have no control over which skills they are equipped with or use. The AI does a good job of prioritizing enemies and attacking weaknesses, but it would be nice to be able make your pawns use the healing items you give them.
Of course, you’re not useless in combat—far from it, in fact. Combat feels like it was lifted straight from an action game; it’s swift, responsive, and includes a variety of attacks like combos, launches, and special moves. Ranged options also work surprisingly well. I spent much of my time in Dragon’s Dogma as a magic archer, and I loved using my enchanted bow for long-range support. There are multiple variations on the typical warrior, rogue, and mage vocations, and each is layered with its own batch of active and passive skills, resulting in a strong sense of progression. And if you get tired of one vocation, you can easily switch at an inn. Your progress is saved in every vocation you try, so you’re encouraged to try multiple play styles.
Dragon’s Dogma comes with a surprising degree of challenge. It’s no Dark Souls, but you’ll constantly be reminded how dangerous the world of Gransys is. Dragon’s Dogma champions preparation, which means you’ll end up running through a checklist before setting out on a quest: Do I have enough curatives? Does my lantern have enough oil? Are my weapons enhanced enough? It’s also important to have a balanced party of pawns. Embarking on a quest with four large warriors might be tempting, but you’ll be in trouble when you realize you have no one to heal your army of brutes. In Dragon’s Dogma, you’ll quickly learn that not being prepared leads to many unwanted deaths, but it never feels cheap. You’ll die often early on, but you’ll know it was your fault for being underprepared rather than overly difficult gameplay.
Once you see the monsters that roam Gransys, it becomes apparent why preparation is paramount. Dragon’s Dogma contains a number of huge beasts, and the sense of scale they convey is staggering. Cyclopes and ogres are lumbering creatures that shake the ground when they walk, while gigantic griffins stalk the skies and evoke a majestic feeling—until they slam to the ground ready to fight. It’s when battling these giant monsters that Dragon’s Dogma is at its best. Naturally, traditional tactics won’t get you far in these fights, so you’ll have to cling to their hefty frames and attack their weaknesses, which greatly amplifies the thrill of combat. Dragon’s Dogma’s mythological creatures excel at creating a pervasive sense of danger, because you never know when you’ll run into one during your journeys. And it’s because of that danger that slaying these monsters provides exhilaration in a way few other games can.
Dragon’s Dogma blazes its own path, to be sure, but it doesn’t come without a fair share of stumbles. For one, the world is actually more linear than it initially seems. Unlike, say, Skyrim, there’s usually only one correct path to an objective, leaving players who like to forge their own trail out of luck. Which is just as well, because there isn’t much incentive to explore the bland world.
Both of these issues highlight what is Dragon’s Dogma most puzzling design choice: a lack of cohesive fast travel. A standard in most RPGs, fast travel in Dragon’s Dogma can only be achieved via an expensive, single-use item. Even then, it’s limited; said item will only transport you back to the hub city, and if you want to fast travel anywhere else, it’ll cost you even more gold. As a result, you’ll retread through boring areas a lot and encounter tons of repetitive filler enemies. It’s these moments that suck all the exhilaration out of Dragon’s Dogma, leaving you instead with a dull slog.
If you’re the type of player who needs a strong story to anchor your RPG experience, you’ll be disappointed by Dragon’s Dogma’s narrative. You become the Arisen after a dragon plucks out your heart at the game’s start, which leads you to enter a hunt for the dragon, because I guess that’s just what the Arisen does. The story doesn’t amount to much more, despite attempts to add depth. The main questline, on the other hand, stays pretty interesting throughout. One quest had me escorting a hydra’s head to the capital while fending off ambushes, while another involved chasing a wounded griffin back to its gusty, abandoned tower for a final showdown. Though primary quests offer up enough incentive to keep playing, the side quests are mostly rudimentary fetch tasks or “slay X number of Y and receive Z”.
The gulf between western and eastern RPGs is only getting wider as the years pass, yet Dragon’s Dogma feels like an attempt by Capcom at narrowing that gulf a bit. Distinctly western in appearance and style, Dragon’s Dogma retains the boldness and bizarreness of eastern design, for better or worse. Dragon’s Dogma successfully manages to conform to western RPG tropes while maintaining its own unique (and uniquely flawed) identity. If you can put up with its eccentricities, you’ll be rewarded with a fun, if uneven experience.