Game Review: Dragon’s Dogma [Xbox 360/PS3]
Triple digits in the “hours played” section of games tend to be restricted to multiplayer. Even old-school JRPGS would often be hard pressed to reach 100, often peaking around 80. Dragon’s Dogma, on the other hand, easily hits the century and continues onwards.
Describing Dogma is a hard task without comparing it heavily to Capcom’s own Monster Hunter. You will often find yourself spending days in the same village just venturing out to kill some sort of monster to acquire items to get better weapons to kill bigger monster, which in turn drop better items to get even better weapons, and so on. This escalating tedium, for want of a better phrase is the majority of the gameplay, but tedious is the last thing it ever feels. Like Monster Hunter before it, this sense of progression from weapons leading to bigger kills is addictive enough to warrant “just another beast” well into the early hours of the morning.
Unlike Monster Hunter, however, Dogma has a main story quest and side missions that break away from this. The main quest will see you travelling across the land of Gransys on your quest to find the dragon that ate your heart. Yes, after a brief prologue following the final moments of the previous “arisen”, you create a character (using a ludicrously in depth creator) and are then attacked by a dragon, who quickly turns your heart into a snack, marking you as the new “arisen”. From there onwards the main story tends to fall away for vast patches of time, leading to a disjointed and under-whelming sense of purpose. Everyone talks of the “arisen” and their fight against the dragon, but days will go past without even so much as a thought of “I’m supposed to fulfil a prophecy”.
This, as with many open world RPGs isn’t such a big deal, though. Being given access to a huge game world to practically live in quickly overshadows the bare bones plot. Instead of conform to an ages old tradition, its much more fun to hunt, help and even escort. Yes, even escort missions can be a thrill in Dogma. A lot of this comes from the fact they aren’t mandatory, if you want to go somewhere and could do with some extra money why not take on an escort while you’re going there? Even if the escort dies it isn’t game over, though you will miss out on any bounty they were supposed to pay obviously.
Most of the fact that these escorts can be fun, however, comes from the way that just the act travelling itself is so much fun. There’s a sense of adventure that no games of recent memory have managed to capture. What exactly causes this is hard to pinpoint, and doesn’t seem to be a single x-factor, instead seeming to be a case of “sum is greater than its parts”. The lack of fast travel means that every journey has to be taken whole (with the exception of using expensive items to fast travel to either a previously designated spot or back to the major city of the world) and the lack of frequent autosaving can make these journeys fatal to the unprepared and foolish.
The crest of every hill can easily hide a monster that is far too powerful for you to combat effectively, though it will never be cheap in killing you as the option is always available to run away and avoid the battle completely. This creates an unnerving amount of tension as you cautiously journey from A to B. Luckily though you will never be alone on your quest.
Shortly after becoming the “arisen” you will be sent once again to the character creation screen, though this time it will be for your main “pawn”, a race of creatures that while seemingly human have no free will, and exist to assist the “arisen”. Your main pawn will be bound to you and will journey everywhere you go.
Although your main pawn may be bound to you, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to help others as well though. Despite being a single player game, Dogma includes an online component that allows main pawns from the around the world to be hired to form a full party of four. It’s both an interesting and well executed mechanic that allows players to search for specific roles and at specific levels (with levels higher than your own costing “rift crystals” while same or lower levels come free). Once you’re done with your hired help you can then send them back with a message, a rating and a gift for the player they are bound to. Your own pawn is also part of this pool so it isn’t uncommon to have them return from assisting someone else with a gift and knowledge of areas and quests you may have yet to undertake.
It creates an online community without diluting the solo experience, and as with Dark/Demon’s Souls before, it is a fantastic way to include an online component in a single player experience.
Once you have you party ready and a quest to complete you can start to get into the real meat of Dogma, the combat. Roles in the game are your usual fair of sword or bow or magic, with hybrid classes available later in the game. These roles can be freely switched (for a small initial cost to unlock a role) allowing for both experimentation and adaptation, choosing the right role for the objective at hand. Your pawn can also switch roles, though certain high level hybrid classes are locked to them.
These roles are also levelled separately from the characters. Base stats are upped whenever a characters gains a level, as is the norm for RPGs, but the role they currently fill will level separately, allowing its more powerful abilities to be unlocked separately. This means that switching roles even late in the game will not see you underpowered. Instead you will still retain your health and strength etc, but will be new to your class and as such will be unable to perform the fanciest attacks until you gain some experience, unless of course it’s a skill that’s shared between classes and their hybrids. It’s a natural progression system and means there will always be something to level up, despite how high your level may be, adding longevity to the satisfaction of becoming even more powerful.
The actual combat plays out in a very action-rpg based way using a two button combat system. Light and heavy attacks are the main focus of the action, but role specific special attacks (limited by a stamina gauge) can also be utilised and range from arrow volleys to calling down a rain of meteors onto your foes. It’s all very satisfying in practice, especially at higher levels when more useful abilities can be used and higher level enemies present more of a tactical challenge.
Yes, tactical, for you see it isn’t always as simple as running up to an enemy and hitting them, sometimes a larger foe needs to be climbed upon and have weak spots attacked in a similar vain to shadow of the colossus. Granted the enemies you encounter in Dogma aren’t always as big as the aforementioned colossi, but holding on to the back of a griffin while you attack its wings with a flaming sword is a rush.
Travelling across the vast game world, as I mentioned before, is also great fun. The whole world is available from the start to explore, whether you’re out looking for monsters or simply just looking for treasure, running through fields and forests and abandoned settlements always carries a sense of adventure. For example, climbing a decrepit tower always carries the risk of falling to your death, which if you haven’t saved since your last autosave (which will have been when you left the last major city) could lose you up to a couple of hours of gameplay, but once you get to the top and see the world spanning for acres in every direction it’s a reward that’s worth it (also there’s chance to be a chest with something special in for those that want something more than a nice view). From up there you’ll no doubt see something else you want to explore, and so begins the climb down to journey ever onwards.
It’s all very addictive to just set out and create your own story as you explore, venturing further and further off the main quest until you forget you were ever supposed to save the world. Just one more chest, one more hunt or one more tower to climb quickly turns into days of treasure hunting.
Unfortunately it isn’t without its low points though. While the world is always fun to explore it can be said that it’s a little bland at times, with the graphics being less than what we’ve seen from genre stalwarts such as the Elder Scrolls. The world is colourful and well realised, but is just missing that certain shine that we have come to expect, leading to an onset of slight environmental tedium. Monsters suffer the same fate, with the same creatures sharing just a handful of models for the entire game. After so little as your 20th goblin you’ll have seen everything there is to see about goblins. That isn’t to say raining arrows down on them ever becomes a chore though, just that a bit of variation may have made it even better. The characters also suffer from the graphical power of the game. Despite the complex creation system many will often look the same when travelling through towns.
Animation for everything is a better note, with actions being fluid and satisfying to watch over the course of a hundred hours. Beasts move convincingly and telegraph dangerous attacks just enough that it’s never obvious until you know what you’re looking for, leading to a natural learning progression of how to defeat them.
Natural isn’t an adjective that can be used when talking about the voice acting though. While the acting itself is competent it’s the frequency of certain phrases that can really become annoying. No matter where your travelling your companions will often say “this road doesn’t lead to where were going, I wonder what’s down here” over and over, or during combat will shout “It doesn’t like fire!” until you use their advice against your speakers. With a full party of three pawns all shouting this over each other it can be immersion breaking and grating, but never really harms the overall experience.
The overall experience, after all, is such a great piece of entertainment. The sheer vastness of exploratory possibilities coupled with the never tiring combat culminates in a game that is just so much fun. So fun in fact that 100 hours without touching the main quest is a probability. All from a game about repeating tasks ad nauseum, a style which Capcom knows well from Monster Hunter, but has almost perfected for solo adventurers with Dragon’s Dogma. With a sequel recently announced, it’s going to be something to look forward to. In the mean time I implore you to see where the franchise begins.