Your lantern sputters to half-lit status, only dimly illuminating the massive form of the cyclops as it lurches towards your party. Hearing your fighter pawn yell, you move closer and allow yourself to be launched into the air, grabbing hold of the cyclops’ arm and climbing to its armored head. As the cyclops swipes at you, it misses and knocks its helmet to the ground below. Your mage pawn casts a flame enchantment on your strider pawn, who takes the opportunity to shoot an arrow straight into its eye.
Welcome to Dragon’s Dogma.
The heart of DD is its action-based combat system, and the interactivity it allows. Inspired by Capcom’s 1990s fantasy beat-‘em-ups, it also encompasses a great amount of more recent influence, from the monster-climbing of Shadow of the Colossus to the weightier realism of Demon’s/Dark Souls, as well as Capcom’s own Monster Hunter and Devil May Cry series (Dragon’s Dogma director, Hideaki Itsuno, also directed Devil May Cry 2, 3 and 4).
In combat, characters may grapple a small opponent to hold it in place, pick up and hurl an explosive barrel at foes, or climb onto large monsters and hack away at weak points. Frequently, they call out tactics to each other, depending on cooperation for success.
Monsters, too, take advantage of interactivity, and a player may find himself dragged into the air by a harpy’s claws, bitten and held down by a wolf, or seized and crushed by the hands of a cyclops or ogre.
Magic also possesses a rarely seen physicality. Spells differ not only in elemental effects but also in how they manifest themselves, from a wall of flame, to a pillar of ice (which you can climb over), to a maelstrom sucking up smaller foes and flinging them.
You play as the Arisen – a hero destined to battle the Dragon. In a unique on-line component, you can be joined by up to three AI-controlled pawns – a main pawn that you create yourself, plus two others recruited from a pool of pawns created by other players (or randomly-generated, if you’re playing off-line).
Pawns draw from six vocations (i.e. classes), each with access to a multitude of skills and categories of weapons with only some overlap, causing each vocation to play distinctly from the others. Rangers have a more powerful and farther-reaching bow but are less effective at melee than Striders, Sorcerers sacrifice some of the healing and support magic of Mages in exchange for powerful offensive spells, and Warriors hit harder than Fighters but are less defensive. The Arisen also has access to the hybrid vocations: Mystic Knights combine melee ability with magic spells, Assassins can mix the weapons of the Fighter and Strider vocations, and Magick Archers combine dagger-wielding with magical bow abilities.
There are interesting nuances in character creation. Unlike other games where appearance is purely cosmetic, in Dragon’s Dogma the choices you make determine your height and weight class, which has tangible effects such as making heavier characters more difficult to knock down while smaller characters can fit through small openings.
The story is somewhat rudimentary, linking the Arisen to the Dragon from the beginning, and thereafter following a largely linear series of main quests. There are many optional noticeboard quests of the type “kill 5 wolves”, but more interesting are the side-quests initiated by talking with characters, where decisions can lead to or block further quests, sometimes even eliminating prominent NPCs.
Dragon’s Dogma contains an impressive but poorly explained depth as features such as making forgeries of important items (to keep the original for yourself or to sabotage a quest, changing its outcome) and the NPC Affinity system (which controls your relation with every single NPC and determines your romantic interest) have lasting consequences, yet the game barely mentions them.
Initially intended to be an open-world game, the scope was drastically reduced during development, leaving Dragon’s Dogma with the vestiges of open-world design but a setting too small to match. Aside from the city of Gran Soren and the fishing village of Cassardis there are no real settlements to speak of, only a few forts or camps. The game’s many quests will take the player across the map multiple times, forcing unwitting players to waste time backtracking and fighting the same respawning mobs of low-level foes.
Thankfully, the Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen version released a year later expands the existing fast-travel system, greatly reducing the amount of backtracking necessary.
Although Dark Arisen also makes various minor changes to the base game, its real draw is Bitterblack Isle, a vast dungeon that introduces new treasures and monsters – including deadly necrophages that attack by surprise, attracted by the corpses of slain enemies. Intended for high-level play, the isle is separate from the main game and can be ventured into as early or late as one desires.
Curiously, Dragon’s Dogma fails to play into its strengths as much as it could have, with the larger monsters – both climbable and featuring a range of interesting behaviors – appearing only sparingly at first, and a number of creatures emerging only in the final stage of the game. Important systems such as NPC Affinity and Pawn Inclinations (which control Pawn behavior) are opaque and poorly-explained, often resulting in frustrating outcomes and leading wiser players to seek online sources of information.
Still, Dragon’s Dogma manages to recapture much of the spirit of group adventuring. Those willing to give it a try will not only encounter many legendary creatures but also that rarest of beasts – an RPG with action-based combat done right. Zed Duke of Banville