Netflix’s Dragon’s Dogma is a chore to watch
When Netflix announced that they were going to be adapting Dragon’s Dogma into an anime, there was only one thought on everyone’s mind:
“What the heck is Dragon’s Dogma?”
I’d forgive you if you forgot because it certainly wasn’t the most popular game of all time. Dragon’s Dogma came out in 2012, back when everyone wanted to get in on some of that Dark Souls action. Made by Capcom, its basic formula was open-world Dark Souls meets Shadow of the Colossus and, frankly, it was pretty fun. What it wasn’t, however, was a compelling story by any means.
You see, Souls-like games tend to tell their story through ambient lore. Dragon’s Dogma certainly had more direct storytelling, more reminiscent of an RPG, but for the most part, it still weighed the majority of its narrative on that same ambient lore. After all, your character was a player creation so the most they could do was just unravel the mystery surrounding the world they are in, and the dragon they are hunting. In fact, Dragon’s Dogma was praised for pretty much everything except its story, meaning that any adaptation would have a lot of gaps to fill.
And… Netflix didn’t do a great job filling those gaps.
Instead of a player-generated character, the protagonist of this adaption is Ethan, a peasant from a small peasant village who just so happens to be jacked and has never learned how to effectively shave his face. In Dragon’s Dogma, you play as the Arisen, someone who comes back to life to hunt down a dragon that has been plaguing the world, and who has stolen your heart and cursed you with immortality.
But that wasn’t enough for Netflix. Nope, they had to give Ethan new motivation, which means giving him a pregnant wife and young orphan son, spending all of a couple of minutes developing them, and then killing them off so that Ethan gets all sad and tormented. It is one of the most blatant examples of fridging characters I have seen in recent days and it elicited more than a few cringe-filled groans.
In fact, cringe is pretty much this anime’s aesthetic. First of all, watch it in Japanese. Even though Netflix says that English is the original and natural audio language, it’s lying. The English voice acting is not great at all, despite its high caliber voice cast. The lines are awkward and the lip flaps aren’t matched at all. It feels like an early PS2 game, where only the barest minimum of effort was spent on making the audio sound natural.
Changing the voice language to Japanese makes things better because the lips match now, but it still doesn’t fix anything. This is an all 3D anime and the models just do not move fluidly. They all move in a weird and jerky style, once again like NPCs from a PS2 game. They are too stiff at some points, too expressive in others. The whole production just drops into the uncanny valley quickly. It’s not a good look.
One of the major aspects of Dragon’s Dogma was the “pawn” system, where you got to fill out an A.I. controlled party of companions that would help you out. They represent that system in the anime by creating characters with little personality and little motivation that just stand around as background dressing. A few pawns are important characters that factor into the story, but since the anime tries to frame them as boring as paste, it’s really hard to care about them, even after one, in particular, becomes a little more human down the road.
Dragon’s Dogma is absolutely obsessed with being edgy. For example, each of its episodes is named after a different deadly sin. This is a neat little bit of theming, except remember that the original game didn’t have any of this. So the anime has to work to add plot elements that fit this theming, and those plot elements clash with the source material hard. The ending feels convoluted and anticlimactic, which to be fair is also true in the game, but the whole point is that adaptations are supposed to, you know, adapt the stories of games to better fit the Netflix format. If you were going to just leave the questionable parts of the game in… why bother?
In fact, you can see this perplexing design ethos in the plot’s pacing. One of the things Dragon’s Dogma was known for was side quests, and for some strange reason, Netflix decides to integrate some of these side quests into the plot of their anime. As a result, it feels like there are just a ton of side stories that keep distracting the anime from its main plot, which keeps trying to convince you is very important and compelling.
And this attempt to jam all this content from the game into this adaptation really backfires because the whole thing feels rushed. There are only seven 25-minute episodes, which is not enough to tell the sort of story Dragon’s Dogma is trying to tell, even without the added inside stories. As a result, important characters from the game barely show up, or sometimes show up only to die minutes later. Important locations from the game are omitted entirely. If you are a fan of the game you’ll be upset at how much it glosses over your favorite parts and if you are coming into this raw, then you’ll struggle to care about certain characters who the audience is supposed to have empathy for simply because they recognize them from the game.
Adding to the cringe, Dragon’s Dogma feels like it is trying way too hard to be an HBO-styled prestige TV show. Episodes are just crammed to the brim with gory violence and sex. The thing is, it feels pointless. The fight scenes are pretty cool, which is good because combat was one of Dragon’s Dogma’s major selling points, but the “tragedy” of monsters just destroying random characters feels gratuitous at best and immature at worst. It’s not that violence and sex themselves are immature. Castlevania had a ton of violence and sex in it, and it was fantastic. The thing is, you can’t just throw in violence and sex for shock value and that’s what Dragon’s Dogma is trying to do.
Watching Dragon’s Dogma felt like a chore. I couldn’t get into the plot because it meandered too much. I couldn’t get into the characters because it didn’t spend enough time on them. The fight scenes were cool, but this is the season of animes like God of High School, Deca Dence, The Misfit of Demon King Academy, and Re: Zero Season 2, all known for their impressive sakuga without the need to put up with stiff NPC animations in between.
(Note: While sakuga technically literally refers to all animation, it’s colloquially come to mean “eye candy” or particularly high-quality action animation in the anime community.)
There’s room for improvement here but, I’m not sure there’s a need to wait for it. I’d be surprised if this came back for a second season. We are in a pretty golden time for anime right now, and an even stranger golden time for video game adaptations with Castlevania and the Sonic: The Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu movies being so good.
Dragon’s Dogma is just kind of a mediocre adaptation of a niche game, and I just don’t care enough to see if more time would make it any better. Part of that is because, while I enjoyed the original game, it’s not one of my favorite titles, or even a particularly memorable one. I’ll sit through any number of seasons to get to see one more frame of Alucard’s pretty face, but no one can name their favorite Dragon’s Dogma character, and that means no one’s going to be waiting with bated breath to see them hit the small screen in this Netflix adaptation.