Dragon’s Dogma follows a dynamic trajectory. Although its shortcomings are immediately apparent, the first few hours hold a certain hope, as the opening segments suggest a world of immense possibilities. After completing a few early quests and acquiring a basic knowledge of the game’s mechanics, the flaws seem forgivable – forgettable even – as exploration and thrilling combat dominate the experience. Novelty fades quickly, however, and then comes the third, final, and longest stage of the game’s schizophrenic progression: repetition, the flaws made worse by it and the merits cancelled out by it. Dragon’s Dogma collapses under its failed ambition.
Dragon’s Dogma drinks deep from a well of classic sources, including The Elder Scrolls, Demon’s and Dark Souls, Shadow of the Colossus, and even pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons. Like a proper D&D campaign, Dragon’s Dogma provides the freedom to explore a large and detailed world filled with enough life to generate stories independent of a greater narrative. With a nuanced approach to combat and a focus on “hardcore” exploration and survival, Dragon’s Dogma should have ended up on my tentative Game of the Year list. Although the oppressive monotony of the mid- to late-game explains much of its failure, a host of other faults puts Dragon’s Dogma on the tentative Most Disappointing list.
After an intriguing prologue, the protagonist finds his fishing village assailed by a red dragon. Foolish fisherboy (or girl, man, woman, etc.) that he is, he attacks the dragon in little more than his skivvies, enacting a doomed battle on the beach. Instead of merely slaying him, the dragon harvests his heart and retreats, leaving the poor fisherboy beguiled at the magical glowing scar on his chest. Afterward, the wyrm haunts Gransys, and the fisherboy finds himself in the role of a legendary hero with the power to end the tyranny of the dragon.
The “narrative” consists of a series of largely irrelevant tasks that quickly devolves into treks across Gransys between the same few distant locations, ushering in an age of repetition. Aside from one recurring villain and his nihilistic cult, the plot doesn’t make much ground until the final quest, which attempts to revive the story with an Important Choice and some existential musing. The result is a lot of silly pretend philosophy, and the conclusion is incoherent and awkwardly interrupted by a half dozen loading screens.
An absent storyline can be forgiven under the right circumstances, but those circumstances are also absent from Dragon’s Dogma. Gransys has all the presence of an ant, its lore amounting to a few mentions of an anonymous Maker and the generic wyrm legend at the heart of the game. Nor are Gransysians a compelling lot, or even a human lot. They’re the dreaded quest-giving golems found in lesser RPGs and hack’n’slash games, delivering repetitive lines of half-assed olde English dialogue while sending you out to traverse parts of Gransys already familiar with your boot soles. Investigative and escort quests are tedious or impossible, as NPCs follow unknown schedules and AI-controlled escortees stand beneath the feet of stampeding chimeras.
The commendable character creator can generate a variety of humans and sub-humans, including pretty ones, a rare feat in the genre. Although players choose a vocation (read: class) at the start, they can later switch to any other, testing other play-styles or breaking up the eventual monotony. Although easily recognizable, the vocations don’t feel like the typical archetypes, particularly the bow-wielding ranger. Each vocation has access to unique passive abilities as well as weapon proficiencies, and basic skills are tied not to vocations, but to weapons. Some vocations share weapon types, and thus certain skills can be carried over from one to the other.
Leveling up provides relatively unnoticeable upgrades in health and endurance, but acquiring new skills is quite the event. Whether he’s shooting ten arrows at once or spraying a horizontal line of a dozen missiles at his enemies, the ranger is a skilled combatant. Spells transcend peasant fireballs and lightning bolts with outstanding effects. One spell conjures a towering twister that sweeps up nearby enemies in a powerful juggling act – probably my favorite thing in the entire game. Martial classes seem boring in comparison, if less vulnerable, but switching between vocations comes at a small enough cost that no player should be stuck with a ho hum hero.
Brilliant in theory, the skills work well in practice as well, but combat becomes a tired affair all too quickly. For six to eight hours, I craved combat. I would wander from the path just to ambush a troop of churlish goblins, and the big monsters – the enemies that crowd the screenshots and trailers – were a thrill to slay, particularly because I could climb a cyclops’ protruding backbone and ride it to the ground. The controls are responsive, the skills wonderful, and the action dynamic, so what goes wrong?
Perhaps foremost, Gransys houses too few enemies, and each can be defeated with identical tactics. I used the same one or two skills on every beast, be it a goblin or the final boss, and Dragon’s Dogma isn’t meant to resemble a hack’n’slash game. This is really a small piece of a larger blunder, however. Dragon’s Dogma is simply too easy. The game professes its hardcoreness with great confidence: NPCs offer emphatic warnings, preparedness is touted as a virtue, and each loading screen provides some form of bravado, even going so far as to say that wandering at night is certain death. This is all braggadocio. The more “challenging” battles just took longer, as enemies had more HP and I had to enter the menu to heal once or twice. Even distant adventures required little preparation, and I never had to choose my followers carefully. There were no dangerous traps, no life-threatening terrain, and even the most fearsome monsters didn’t intimidate me. With so many mechanics and gameplay tenets contingent upon difficulty, the lack of any makes Dragon’s Dogma an exercise in contradictions and a near complete failure.
Inspired by the party-based adventuring of D&D, Dragon’s Dogma gives the player companions in the form of rather anonymous AI-controlled “pawns.” Up to three pawns can be recruited at any one time, but one of these is the permanent main pawn, created and customized by the player. The main pawn can be manipulated in most of the ways the player character can be, including appearance, equipment, and vocation. The two support pawns are drawn from other ongoing games, as other players’ main pawns come to your aid. Your main pawn can also go on these spiritual quests in other Gransyses for treasure, knowledge, and experience, all without leaving your side.
The pawns are a bad idea implemented badly. They’re an irritating and constant presence, although that’s too strong a word. Even my main pawn, who I expected to feel affection for, was but a faceless automaton that I would have sacrificed for a few coins, and the transient pawns are equally appalling. I never got a handle on how effective the pawns really were, but the AI makes conspicuous mistakes, the most common being the pawns’ refusal to stay away from danger. They’re also a poor excuse for online play, as playing offline provided a nearly identical experience. Undoubtedly helpful to some degree in combat, they rarely offered sound advice outside battle, instead blurting the same phrases at the same turns of the road. With only six different voices, sometimes I didn’t even know which pawn was speaking.
Exploration, Dragon’s Dogma’s second virtue, is also initially exciting, but later diminished by repetition. That never tarnishes the great level design, however, and Gransys is a fully hand-crafted world teeming with discoveries. Hidden passages lead to treasure-laden chambers under the mountains and all manner of precarious ledges and rocky outcroppings hide chests or foes. The dungeons and landscapes never feel randomly generated, even if the same rock formations repeat all across the continent.
Unfortunately, the developers made a few beguiling design choices. Most monsters respawn in the exact same location, for instance, as does loot, even that contained in certain treasure chests. The quality of loot also deadens exploration. Finding useable, better equipment is a rarity, and most of the tools and healing items are unnecessary due to the easy difficulty. Finally, the lack of reliable fast travel is a vexation. In an effort to be edgy or hardcore, the developers inserted a primitive and incredibly limited fast travel system. Although items exist to create other portals (I got one during my playthrough), the costly ferrystones only take the player to the capital city. Many quests require immense and repeated journeys across terrain hiked six, seven, eight times before. Soon I knew when to expect a bandit ambush, when to expect an ogre, and where to pick up some healing herbs. Soon I knew boredom.
Gransys isn’t the prettiest of fantasy lands either. Abysmal textures, rampant screen-tearing, and inconsistent pop-up pulled me out of the adventure. In fact, the pop-up was bad enough to hamper gameplay, something that hasn’t happened in years. I can see the capital from anywhere, yet the goblin doesn’t appear until I’m atop it? There are some nice sights, however, and much of the architecture approaches realism, at least from afar. Monsters generally look quite realistic as well, and I love little effects like battle damage and arrows stuck right where I shot them. The quality of the enemy models doesn’t extend to friendly ones, though, and the NPCs surely belong to a generation long past.
Nor does sweeping orchestral music hasten you across the prairies of this world. The soundtrack is immediately forgettable when it’s not being outright inappropriate or obnoxious. The opening song is undoubtedly the worst offender, an incongruous and laughable piece full of piercing vocals and electric guitars. Other tracks imbue areas with incomplete or confused atmospheres, and the soundtrack as a whole lacks cohesion. The voice acting remains perfunctory and occasionally comical throughout, although certain monster sounds can be disconcerting.
Dragon’s Dogma makes no effort to endear itself to the player, making it one of the most unlikeable games to come along in quite some time, and this is independent of its crippling flaws. There’s something dreadful and oppressive about the game’s lack of personality, as if it were developed by machines and not human beings. A haze lifted from my head when I beat it, and this is one of the few games that actually put me into a minor depressive state. This is as strange as the game itself, and, like the Souls franchise it struggles to imitate, Dragon’s Dogma likely gives every player a different experience, and those with a tolerance, no – a love – of repetition are likeliest to cherish this curious mess.