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Dragon’s Dogma seems to be Capcom’s answer to the ongoing Westward shift in mainstream gaming. Lacking the overt visual flair we tend to expect from the publisher’s in-house titles, here instead is a role-playing game that exudes Westernization, from its Tolkienesque appearance to the recognizably Western bestiary.
Riding the coattails of FromSoftware’s highly acclaimed Souls series, Dragon’s Dogma tries very hard to appeal to an audience beyond Capcom’s comfort zone. The result is a mishmash of borrowed ideas from some of the most iconic RPGs in the genre’s recent history. The formula sounds foolproof on paper: extract successful elements from other games, cram them together to create an entirely new one. Yet if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it.
Arise, O Great Arisen
An unavoidable tutorial starts things off, leading into the character creation bit once players have been given an early taste of combat. Character customization in Dragon’s Dogma allows for some fairly detailed body tweaks (Fat girls allowed!), but finer facial adjustments are missing. Still, most players won’t have a problem creating an Arisen to their liking; that’s your name, by the way.
In the game’s opening sequence, a dragon appears out of nowhere and suddenly lays siege to your humble seaside village off the Gransys coast. Being the only villager with a spine – and extremely poor judgment – your Arisen charges in with the nearest pointy object, only to wind up having her (or his) heart confiscated. That she manages to survive is what makes her “Arisen.”
Initial classes entail the three basic fantasy RPG vocations: Fighter, Strider, and Mage. More advanced versions become available later, but keeping the starter choices limited is a fairly smart move on Capcom’s part. This ensures players aren’t overwhelmed with too many options before the game even begins. Once you’ve grinded a few hours and reached the capitol of Gran Soren, several new classes – including some unique hybrids – can be unlocked for a modest one-time fee in skill points.
Endless Questing, Grueling Combat
Dogma’s meat and potatoes are found in its simple yet satisfying combat and, by association, character progression. Despite a daunting triple-digit level cap, the grind is made surprisingly tolerable by generous XP rewards for every quest and kill. Similarly, you’ll never be left wanting for extra gold, assuming you’re the sort of player who enjoys escort or hunt-and-gather quests. If so, then you’re in luck, because Dogma has so many that it’s beyond ridiculous.
The sheer number of these superfluous quests might be daunting to new players at first, but once you realize 90 percent of them involve killing 45 critters, gathering 20 random objects, or escorting an NPC from one end of Gransys to another, the urge to slack off inevitably kicks in. Rarely are side quests ever story-driven, but the few that are can be surprisingly compelling, if a bit short-lived. That Capcom didn’t see fit to push the quest narratives further is really such a shame too, especially when they tie directly into Dogma’s otherwise underexplored lore.
The primary story is similarly neglected in Dragon’s Dogma. Though the overarching plot is apparent, it also feels insubstantial for a game of such scale, marked by poor pacing and abundant JRPG tropes. Granted, the story isn’t without its share of twists, just none that are exceptionally compelling. The characters aren’t exactly well-written or likable either, coming off as depthless and, at times, annoyingly egocentric. Unfortunately, the Arisen can’t actually respond to NPCs with any answer more complex than your basic “yes” or “no,” so Renegade-slapping some sense into the dimwitted denizens isn’t an option.
Incredibly, Dogma manages to compensate for its barebones narrative through its astonishingly gratifying combat, pitting players against a generous array of mythological beasts of all sizes. Larger quarry such as Cyclops, Griffins, and Chimeras ensure even the most ambitious Arisen have something to hunt. Facing down these iconic creatures of Western mythos is unbelievably fun and never seems to get old, namely because of the strategy involved in slaying them. Each behemoth has its own strengths, but the basic idea behind every encounter is to somehow climb onto the beast – unless you’re a caster – and beat it to death. In this respect, Dogma is highly reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, albeit much more watered down.
Less impressive mobs like bandits, goblins, and wolves also occupy the wilderness and dungeons of Gransys, with certain creatures like harpies and zombies appearing at different times of day. Despite the attempt at variety, the frequency with which you encounter these creatures makes them more of a hindrance than a welcomed challenge, especially during escort missions. As it stands, Dogma’s open world isn’t quite as inviting as it could be thanks to the sheer oversaturation of such “normal” mobs, and the game would seriously benefit from randomized spawns or longer spawn cycles. That’s not to say these enemies aren’t fun to fight and even the most common mobs require some strategy to dispatch. Wolves are nimble and can dodge projectiles; harpies need to be struck from the sky and killed quickly before they take off again; skeletons are best approached with a blunt weapon in hand. Moderation is key, however, and their numbers aren’t moderated very well.
Playing with Pawns
The most noteworthy characters in the game might be its cast of Pawns. Similar in purpose to Monster Hunter’s Felynes, Pawns are a human-like race from another plane who, according to Dogma lore, possess no desires of their own. Whenever a new Arisen pops up, they pledge their services to her, driven by this exceptional individual’s strength of will. Some Pawns can be found wandering Gransys’ roads, but you’ll likely be hiring yours from a Rift Stone, portals that lead to the rift between worlds where these otherworldly henchmen can be summoned, perused, and hired. They’re essentially the game’s answer to a conventional party system.
You won’t be able to interact with Pawns on a deep personal level or anything, but what makes them so interesting is the customization aspect and player-to-player interaction. Everyone is allowed to make a single Pawn from scratch, using the same character creator for your Arisen, and this Pawn can be fully tailored to suit your tastes – from visual appearance to skill setup. Though you can’t actually carry meaningful conversations with your special Pawn, the game lets players choose a basic personality type, which determines his one-liners and tactical behaviors. The AI is surprisingly solid as well, blemished only by an occasional fumble here and there.
The game generates a fair population of its own Pawns, but players can also share their creations online by simply allowing Dogma access to their data. Normally, hiring a Pawn of a significantly higher level than your Arisen would cost RC, but if the owner happens to be your friend on LIVE (or PSN), no fees are applied regardless of level gaps. It’s an interesting take on asynchronous multiplayer and adds a sense of camaraderie to an otherwise single-player experience.
Room for Improvement
As enjoyable as the Dogma’s gameplay feels, it isn’t without glaring design flaws. The menus, though functional, are notably cumbersome. This can be attributed to the lack of any shared inventory between your Arisen and her Pawns, meaning quite a few extra clicks for the simplest of tasks. Equipping gear is also more of a hassle than it ought to be; weapons and armor can’t be equipped from the inventory, instead requiring the player to hit a separate Equipment menu. The entire system is counterintuitive, and after 30-some hours of playtime, I still found myself instinctively hitting “Give” on item I was attempting to wear.
The shoddy localization is difficult to ignore, and cutscenes are painfully awkward to watch as a result. Spoken dialogue doesn’t always match subtitles and almost never syncs with lip or body movements. Nearly every cutscene or conversation I can recall suffers from this problem, where characters will gesture silently while clumsily moving their lips in silence. Not bothering with lip sync is one thing, but having such a huge disconnect between the audio and animations is unbelievably jarring, particularly during the game’s more dramatic moments. Imagine a cackling villain standing at the top of a tower, declaring his sinister machinations to the world – now imagine how strange that looks when he has no voice.
In most ways, Dragon’s Dogma is a successful game, and it’s definitely worth playing if you’re looking for an easier alternative to Dark Souls with a heavy hack ‘n’ slash feel. RPG fanatics will recognize shades of other role-playing titles coloring every aspect of the game; the quest system takes a page from Elder Scrolls, difficulty is fashioned after the Souls series, and monster battles mirror those in Shadow of the Colossus. Just because Dogma draws its inspiration from high caliber games, however, doesn’t make it the pinnacle of its genre. The lack of both identity and polish is something that should be addressed if Dogma hopes to become a serious contender.
Yet Capcom made Dragon’s Dogma a lot of fun, and in the end, that might be the most important factor to this equation. For better or worse, Dogma remains a JRPG at heart despite wearing the trappings of Western influence, yet the gameplay is solid and incredibly engaging, which ought to win over most JRPG skeptics. This is an IP that could be developed into successful franchise, assuming it receives some proper TLC.
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