Platforms: PC (Reviewed)
Dragon's Dogma takes you on a journey across a fantastic fantasy world full to the brim with everything you expect a particularly eclectic dungeon master to throw across the board when he's annoyed at his players for not paying attention. Accompanied by talented voice acting and plenty of old-timey fantasy words like “aughts,” Dragon's Dogma claws hard to keep you interested in moving forward, but does so like a passive aggressive troll hiding behind the smallest bridge in the kingdom. It wants you to do things, but it hides behind an open world motif that insists that you come a-clomping along just the right bridge to get things moving, and then will send you packing minus a number of healing items when your character hasn't finished enough side quests to merit slaying the beast beneath the cobble.
There's no doubt that Dragon's Dogma is challenging, but it's challenging in the way that almost every single RPG of my childhood was. Find the biggest numbers and ram them like a particularly rusty needle in the paw of every dragon (or god) you come across.
A story without handrails
Dragon's Dogma kicks off its story in a big way. After character creation you find that the friendly neighborhood doomsday event has come knocking on your front door, and as the main protagonist you decide that, unlike every other bloke that sizzled under dragon's fire, you might be the one to really stick it to the scaly bastard. Instead the dragon bats you aside like the annoying first-level adventurer you are and rips your heart gently from your chest, instantly transforming you into one of the Arisen.
Your soul quest at this point becomes a pretty standard "find dragon, kill dragon" motif that we're all familiar with, eventually even evolving into the kind of story that's worth talking about, with interesting twists and turns that make for a decently memorable experience. Unfortunately the path to get to the interesting bits is where Dragon's Dogma starts to feel less like an interesting RPG and more of an MMO-style grind.
Once you finish up the opening sequences the game turns you loose to accomplish your goals, and quickly it becomes apparent that no one really knows what the main questline is. So you're free to do whatever you want, something that normally excites me in a fanstastic fantasy landscape, until I realized that I was doing the same thing in this game that eventually turned me away from games like WoW and Borderlands. I was being sent across each area to retrieve items, kill monsters, and even escort helpless well-guarded caravans against enemies that could literally spring out of thin air.
Occasionally these quests evolved into interesting adventures where a griffin or some other fantastical beast would pop up ready for some real action, but the ratio of interesting quests compared to those that just had me vaguely searching an area for an abstract item wasn't what it should be.
Innovation that should be recognized
Some of the best parts of Dragon's Dogma come in the form of the larger boss battles. In the same way that you don't play Shadow of Colossus for the long horseback rides through the countryside you don't play Dragon's Dogma for the thousands of goblins and wolves you'll slay along the journey. You play it for the chance to hang off of a hydra's neck and fire thousands of magic missiles into its spinal cord at point blank range. It's the kind of satisfying experience that makes the rest of the game's grind worth it.
These battles require you to take a step back and really start analyzing boss mechanics, to listen to your companions that may have some helpful insight on how to mount an enemy that has more teeth per square inch than your average hand saw, and to start treating this game like a serious RPG. You need a good team to tackle hard bosses, you need a good idea of which attacks will kill you in one hit, and you need to know when and where you should move in to climb on an enemy, and when that will lead to your death.
It's these kind of challenging enemies that make the game worthwhile. Occasionally you find ways to defeat bosses that only a mad scientist hopped up on cocaine would even remotely consider possible, and sometimes these battles go so far as to make you feel like you've become a skilled master of the game. That's the kind of feeling that sticks with you through the entire game.
Ultimately every combat mechanic in Dragon's Dogma works, from the climbing, to the hack and slash, to the massive spells full of sound and fury that you can eventually call down at a moment's notice, and they can all make for some extremely fun combat. Dragon's Dogma focuses on doing something different than your average triple A title, and where it really pushes the envelope is where things become fun.
Even the Pawn system can layer in a surprising amount of fun, making it possible to enjoy a kind of soft multiplayer where you can have the quiet solace of your single player campaign while still knowing that you have friends and other players nearby willing to lend a hand.
Pawns exist as a kind of customizable player avatar that you get early on in the game, and with every quest and bit of experience these characters will learn a bit more about the world around them. Later when you log off for the night other players can recruit your pawn for a short time to take them on more adventures where they'll continue to learn and also give advice about quests and enemies they've already encountered, eventually returning to your side when you log back on with a wealth of knowledge and small rewards they collected along the way.
Occasionally Pawns can get annoying, spouting off the same information ten to twenty times in a row and sometimes detonating explosive barrels you're standing right next to for the tiny bit of coin hidden underneath. Yet they can also be extremely helpful, keeping you moving in the right direction during normally difficult quests, providing crowd control and much needed DPS, and even occasionally surprising you with just how intuitive their A.I. can be. When you create your pawn you get a chance to outline their basic personality, and in doing so it'll change how they approach different situations, like a focus on healing and support, or gathering as much loot as possible.
It's the kind of soft mutliplayer I'd like to see in other single player games. A (hopefully optional) chance to allow your friends to give you a leg up on the competition even when they're not online.
Making the best of 2012 graphics
Dragon's Dogma originally rolled out in 2012, with this PC version an update on the 2013 PS3 and Xbox 360 Dark Arisen release. Even after the port it's hardly going to wow anyone graphically, but it somehow pulls off that somewhat charming retro gaming feel that good graphical ports manage. It's not quite as good as nostalgia might paint, but it's good enough to be enjoyable.
Dragon's Dogma's animations both suffered and thrived under the port to PC. The game runs at a crisp 60fps even on lower tiered gaming rigs and this higher framerate seems to show off a lot of the more jittery animations in cut-scenes. Even some of the simple animations became somewhat comical to observe, but that glorious 60fps also does a lot to make the spells and bosses feel crisp and impressive, especially when multiple entities are all working in concert on a single screen.
As far as ports go Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is still not entirely perfect, but its faults mostly come with the control scheme. Mapping or changing settings requires some forethought of exactly what buttons you need to hit to save your settings rather than have them all reset to default, and navigating the many menus and dialogues often requires you to use the enter and arrow keys as much as your mouse when one or the other doesn't seem to work. Not something gamebreaking by any means, but not a sign of flawless PC port either.
There are options for 4K and the sort but it's highly doubtful that it's something that you'll actively want to search out. I ran the game in 1080p and I can't imagine the jump to 4K is something that'll attract even the most die-hard of enthusiasts. The audio also has a few issues where the game isn't quite sure whether to classify cut-scenes as music or effect audio and as a result when I tweaked the music volume down to 25% many of the cinematic scenes felt less than satisfying, playing out like silent movies across the screen.