Dragon’s Dogma is a flawed game. Anyone who has been tracking its Metacritic score can attest to this, as critics seem to be all over the place with their assessments. It’s been criticized for its poor story, its whacky AI partners, occasional graphical glitches, and strange interface. The game was released unpolished, to say the least, and user experiences have fluctuated dramatically since it hit store shelves.
Yet, despite all the complaints and nitpicking, I still love this game. A lot. In fact, I think some of the critical opinions on this game seem mean spirited and entirely off-base. With this in mind, I would like to try something a little different for this review. Let’s have a reasonable discussion about Dragon’s Dogma. If you want opinions on the graphics, save systems, and controls, go elsewhere, because I am not interested in side tracking what matters.
DD is an action RPG in the realm of Monster Hunter or The Witcher. Though many people are quick to point out the game’s similarities to Dark Souls and Skyrim, I think it’s important to draw distinctions between the titles. The combat is not much like Dark Souls, and neither is the difficulty. The open world is not as large nor as diverse as Skyrim’s, nor is there any dialogue tree nonsense.
Combat in DD is much more akin to a customizable, special attack centric Monster Hunter title. Combat is visceral and dynamic, and, for those who are unfamiliar with this style of combat, the tougher enemies are very well armored and are extremely threatening. All of the boss creatures require strategy and proper preparation to defeat. If you try and tackle an enemy with the wrong elemental attacks or special abilities you are going to have a very rough go of it. Since you can only have four abilities equipped for each hand/weapon you have, you can’t always just stack the best elemental attacks. I was often conflicted in my skill choice, unsure whether to take easy, catch-all damage dealing attacks or more unique, situational special abilities. Skill choice is especially important because enemies react realistically to debilitating effects in a manner similar to Monster Hunter. However, unlike Monster Hunter, these visual and behavioral cues are taken to a new extreme.
Certain enemies have to be debilitated to even be damaged. For instance, the gryphon must be grounded with fire in order to fight it hand to hand. This can be achieved by aiming a fire ball spell at the monster’s wings, setting them ablaze and rendering the monster unable to fly. This sort of cause and effect combat is extremely satisfying, as exploiting enemy weaknesses is often the only way to win these dramatic confrontations. People have been complaining about the hardiness of DD’s boss characters, but this leads into the Monster Hunter comparison from before. These fights are meant to be long and grueling. Your every action and mistake has huge weight during the fight. A single gryphon can take a very long time to defeat especially when you are under-leveled or without proper abilities. Too many mistakes and you’ll have used up all of your healing resources before the monster is even close to death.
This style of combat, in my opinion, is very rewarding. Monsters react to being set on fire, shocked, or trapped with at least some respect for realism and cause and effect. If you don’t take the time to learn your enemy’s weaknesses, the combat is going to feel sluggish and slow. If you are properly prepared, however, these fights become very fun and rewarding, as most major encounters very tense and dramatic. My first drake attack was horrifying, for instance. The monster appeared from nowhere, tackling me and several orc combatants. I couldn’t figure out how to bring the beast out of the sky so I decided the best course of action was to flee. Moments like this validate the game’s open world and the fear of death is often enough to keep egos in check.
In fact, the manner in which your actions are heavily judged is part of this game’s strength. Even minor decisions have very serious repercussions in gameplay. No, the storyline is not very flexible or even interesting, and the world does not react with much reverence for your conquests, but the combat and exploration are so rewarding that my only concern was what monster I might fight next. Every encounter seems well crafted and dungeons didn’t feel recycled. Even the unscripted, open world boss encounters still felt fair, if not a bit terrifying.
As for exploration, straying too far from the beaten path can be hazardous. Enemies do not scale to your level and much of the early game will involve trying to avoid confrontation. But once you are comfortable with combat and are properly equipped you can easily topple enemies that are much more powerful than you and your team. Giants become a breeze once you understand how to defeat them (though even the best of us can’t dodge every club swing), and I found leveling much less grindy because of my ability to fight these more powerful creatures early on.
Just don’t stay out too late at night. Even with a lantern, I often felt the darkness too dangerous to fight in. Once, while wandering the forest at night, I was ambushed by a gryphon, which forced me deep into the woods. Light dwindling, I chose to clear an orc camp for shelter. Yet the night was still young, and wolves and beasts were walking the peripherals of the camp. For the remainder of twilight, I was forced to fight off wolves and harpy attacks until one of them crashed into our fire, destroying it. Left in complete darkness, I had to fall back into the side of a mountain, all the while hearing the beating wings of the still at-large gryphon overhead. I survived, but a valuable lesson was learned – don’t adventure too late, but, if you have to, plan your trip so that you can stop at a rest camp along the way. Even minor combat can fatigue your team, leaving them with less health than desirable.
Speaking of team mates, the Pawn system is disappointing. I find it totally inadequate in a situation where co-op would have been a much better fit. Capcom definitely missed a huge opportunity with this game by removing the ability to play cooperatively online. I don’t understand why they decided against online co-op, but the potential for this franchise to evolve into a much more open and flexible Monster Hunter is too tantalizing to pass up. Unlike Dark Souls, it would be great if co-op was open by allowing friends to join friends, and that most of the bigger monsters could be found in the wild. Since many of the powerful monsters stick to a specific area of the map, players already have to hunt and track these beasts through the wilderness, leading to emergent cooperative gameplay. Though the pawns can often hold their own in combat, they are an ill substitute for human allies and only serve to make the journey feel more lonely.
Perhaps, for a sequel, the DD team will avoid the emphasis on story and add actual co-op. Either that, or maybe we’ll see Monster Hunter adopt some of DD’s combat mechanics. In the end, however, I believe it’s safe to say that DD is a very good game. It is, in my opinion, more enjoyable than Skyrim for an open world RPG, but it falls just short of greatness. The world is a bit small, I would like to see additional monsters, and the lack of co-op is irritating. If given just a bit more polish to alleviate other peoples’ concerns, this game would have been something incredible. As it is now, though, Dragon’s Dogma is a very good niche game and I look forward to seeing more of this franchise in the future.
Dragon’s Dogma was released on May 22nd, 2012 for Xbox 360 and PS3. Review is based on the PS3 version.