Playing Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen made me feel physically ill. I’ve had many different emotional responses while playing video games (elation, fear, dread, remorse, confidence) but never before has a game elicited a physical response, much less one so negative. DD contains so many poor design decisions and bewildering gameplay elements it’s hard to imagine that someone actually played the damn thing before it was sent out the door (in this case for the second time as an enhanced edition).
We start in the bland, dull land of Gransys, perhaps the most boring environment I’ve ever had the displeasure of exploring. You are the Arisen, a poor soul who tried to stand stoic before a dragon and met the most logical end possible. Rather than burn you to a crisp like the rest of the villagers, however, the dragon simply took your heart and flew off, leaving you to, naturally, go on an adventure for some reason. Apparently this kind of occurrence is the stuff of legend, so now you have to go off and do… something. I lost all interest in the game following this rather elaborate setup. What follows is a series of quests and side jobs that are painfully standard for the genre: go here, kill X amount of this, talk to this guy, get this cutscene; you get the picture. I couldn’t bring myself to finish Dragon’s Dogma as I had no investment in the world or characters therein.
Capcom touted the open world of Gransys when they first showed off DD, but this is perhaps the game’s least appealing feature. Walking around a terribly vapid, hilly environment with very little in the way of actual art direction leaves much to be desired. Gransys looks like the bog standard world you see on the front cover of any Dungeons and Dragons expansion. Proper exploration and discovery can save any seemingly dead world, but Dragon’s Dogma does little to incentivize would be travelers from rolling off the beaten path. Setting off in one direction may “reward” you with a few enemies hidden away in a crevice, but you’ll reap almost no reward for your troubles. At best, you’ll find some money or a raw piece of meat. While The Elder Scrolls series exhibits similar problems in some of the copy and paste level design, at least those games have the potential to surprise you with a new quest or perhaps a unique faction living in seclusion from the rest of the world.
It doesn’t help that Dragon’s Dogma looks like a first generation PS3 game. Textures are smeared and low resolution, character faces lack any real points of articulation beyond simple mouth movements, shadows rip, tear and flicker as you pass by, and pop-in can result in very oddball situations and rather cruel deaths. At one point, a giant ogre spawned about ten feet in front of my party and then disappeared when I turned the camera slightly to the left. Worse still, the framerate skips and jumps around, making certain sections and areas almost unplayable. Trying to line up an archer’s shot is a test in pure frustration as the whole game spazzes under its own engine. How a game that looks this bad can run this terribly is maddening, especially when you consider some more time could have gone into optimization for this “special” release.
Looks aren’t everything when the gameplay is smooth and tight. At least that’s what I’d been hearing from the devoted Dragon’s Dogma fans for nearly a year now. You can tell a great deal of time went into the real-time, combo-heavy combat design. After all, this game was made by a bunch of guys behind the Devil May Cry series. Admittedly, combat is rather intriguing and feels amazingly weighty at the onset of your adventure. Fighters swing their swords with slow, powerful strikes that knock enemies back in stunning fashion. Archers riddle their opponents with arrows, leaving a lovely pincushion corpse for the crows. And mages, well, mages spend a lot of their time waiting for a charge meter to fill before devastating the landscape with lightning strikes and fireballs. It all looks rather impressive upon first sight, though there are significant problems. The game features a very soft lock-on mechanism, meaning your character should gravitate towards enemies when attacking. Unfortunately, this soft lock is more of a suggestion. I battled the air between my enemies more than anything else, my slashes finding empty space rather than flesh. Character movement is far slower than the typical action game, meaning that you’ll slowly reorient yourself every time you miss with a combo. It starts to feel odd when the enemy’s best tactic against your assault is simply to walk slowly past you.
Gransys is an open world without level scaling on the enemies, which is great in theory. However, you won’t realize that you’ve run across a terribly powerful foe until you actually try to plant your sword into its backside. At this point, the whole combat system breaks down. You don’t do any kind of damage to an enemy far beyond your level, and all of your best tactics and abilities are shrugged off with barely any effect. Moves that should stun and allow for openings no longer work while some enemies break a stun attack mid animation. Over-leveled enemies feel cheap because of the numbers game; the RPG mechanics prevent you from fighting them on even ground. Enemies aren’t smarter or more aggressive, they just hit harder. You never see these tough enemies coming, either. One random bandit amongst a heap of powerless foot soldiers killed me in one hit. At least put a helmet on this guy that says he’s one bad dude!
Thankfully, you don’t travel the dangerous world of Gransys alone. You have a party of AI controlled pawns, spiritual beings who exist to help adventurers. After designing your main character (with a generator that can create human monstrosities, beautiful heroes, and everything in-between), you create a pawn who will always accompany you. This pawn can be recruited by other players and gain knowledge from their adventures. This can result in better battle tactics and information in your own game. I say “can” because the AI on both the pawns and enemies is rock stupid. Party members run straight off cliffs, yell that an enemy is weak to fire and then proceed to use ice attacks, split up when facing a tough group, or stand completely still when a giant monster is about to turn them into a fine paste on the floor. They’re also a chatty bunch, repeating the same God-awful lines of dialogue over and over in a seemingly sinister attempt to drive you mad. Dragon’s Dogma seems like the perfect game for multiplayer, and its absence feels like a result of the game’s admittedly smaller budget or a completely insane oversight. Pawns are a liability in battle, and there’s nothing worse than losing one and having to travel all the way back to town in order to recruit another.
And now we reach the crux of Dragon’s Dogma’s problems. These exploration and combat faults are present in most other open world RPGs, so they can be excused if the rest of the experience is worthwhile. But DD’s biggest problem is that it wastes the player’s time to an absurd degree. Traveling the land is tedious, boring, and repetitive. Enemies spawn in the exact same spot time and time again, the same boxes reappear upon every return, and the world is a static and very literal Groundhog’s Day-like purgatory. Hoofing it to the local encampment can take upwards of ten minutes, and then you have another ten minute trip back fighting the same enemies again and again. Quests send you north to find a trinket, return south for a paltry reward, and then send you back the exact same way for another banal task. My eyes began to hurt as I ran through the exact same hilly environment for the fortieth time on my way to complete another monotonous assignment. Nothing changes, nothing gets interesting, and nothing will hold your attention, save for the combat which may bore you as quickly as it did me. There is a fast travel system that received a slight overhaul with the release of Dark Arisen, but the consumable item still costs far too much given the game’s economy.
I’m honestly tired of complaining about poor user interfaces in games, and yet I find myself having to rail against Dragon’s Dogma in this area as well. With a separate menu for using and equipping items, a mini-map that shows almost nothing in the open world because of its size, a completely wasted piece of screen real estate where the game has to show the attacks and modifiers you can use in combat, and four separate options when you manually save, DD’s maze-like menu design makes every action feel like an arduous waste of time. The auto-save system is abysmal, saving when leaving a town and only when certain thresholds are met on quests or dungeons. I ended up losing a great deal of progression when I tried to explore the world and died on a randomly difficult enemy. This kind of open world screams for a friendlier respawn system, of which there is none.
There’s supposed to be a ton of enhancements and additions to the Dark Arisen release of Dragon’s Dogma, but I can’t really comment on it having never played the original game. There’s a new high level area that I couldn’t explore without dying almost instantly, and, supposedly, a ton of new equipment and items to use. But the main problems Kyle mentioned in his original Dragon’s Dogma review are all still there, and it’s baffling that none of the key issues were addressed.
That stomach pain mentioned before is most likely related to my massive disappointment with Dragon’s Dogma. I don’t hate this game so much as I’m astonished with just how many things went wrong during development. There were minute moments of genuine fun spread out during my fifteen hours with DD. Equipping a lantern and traversing a seemingly deadly dungeon got my heart racing, and climbing on top of a massive chimera was certainly exciting. And yet, I can’t recommend this game while so many others do these things better and more consistently. Dragon’s Dogma is the worst kind of time sink, a game that feels like a waste of energy rather than recreation. It’s like reading a book for an hour and then being told to repeat that hour over and over again. It’s shameful that a game can have this much disregard for a person’s time. And yet, I’m left with a small glimmer of hope. The idea of a hardcore, open world RPG is alluring, and that Deep Down video during the PS4 unveiling certainly looked cool, right? Let’s just hope Capcom can find the heart and soul of the experience without sacrificing gameplay on the altar of technology and vision.