Genre: Third-Person Action RPG, Sandbox/Open World
Release Date: May 22, 2012
Developer & Publisher: Capcom
Platform: PS3, XBOX 360
Some games, like wine, need time to reveal their true flavor. Late Reviews is an ongoing series that seeks to shed light on overlooked games, new and old, away from release week hype and the brand-new game high. Today we’ll be looking at Dragon’s Dogma.
Dragon’s Dogma is a third-person action RPG. A dragon steals your heart (literally) and you have to journey across the country to save the… country. Dragon’s Dogma’s setting, despite being incredibly huge in scale, is limited in variety: the entire game consists of green fields and dungeons. You’re stuck on a portion of land for the whole game, and the game’s fake walls—deadly knee-deep water—prevent you from exploring what is beyond it.
Every facet of Dogma’s map is littered with love, though. Every nook and cranny in Dogma—and there are many—has something in it. The amount of secrets and optional areas is shocking in a time where most developers try to avoid making content that won’t be experienced by most players. Every corner of Dogma’s countryside and dungeons is totally unique, to the point where anything you see can be used as a landmark. –And you’ll need landmarks, because there is no fast travel (with exceptions), and you’ll be doing an annoying amount of backtracking. You will never see a single portion of a map reused in Dragon’s Dogma. It’s the exact opposite of Dragon Age II.
Dogma’s setting deserves a lot of exposition because 80% of your game time will be spent on the same field, traversing areas you’ve already traversed before. Travel is made slow, irritating, and interesting by wildly tangled canyons, cliffs, rivers, mountains, and forests. The map is very realistic; you can tell that the medieval civilizations in Dogma were built around and forced to obey the land, unlike games like the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where the uninspired terrain poses no threat. In Dogma, the land is just as significant and dangerous as its monsters are: At night, the land is barely recognizable, and you are absolutely fucked without a lantern. Massive boulders are a constant threat from unstable cliffsides, goblin booby traps wait on many paths, and even the wind is a force to be reckoned with. Those who attempt to cross any body of water will be consumed by the “Brine”, a “monster” (actually, it’s just a type of invisible wall the developers use to keep you out of the ocean). –But you’ll find more than danger in Dogma’s countryside. Herbs and ore are hidden everywhere, ready to be crafted into powerful consumables and equipment.
Despite how many times the game forces you to go back and forth—and this happens a lot—each and every area you visit is memorable, and by the end of the game you’ll be able to navigate the countryside by heart. The developers clearly put a lot of effort into the map. There isn’t a single cut corner to be had.
Dogma’s combat and character progression systems are pretty standard fare, with a few exceptions. You pick a class, you level up that class to open up more advanced abilities for that class, and you have the option of changing your class at any time during the game. You can be a Mage, and then a Warrior, and then a Sorcerer if you want—all on the same character. More class types are opened up as the game progresses, but most of them are just combinations of the base classes.
Dogma has every standard RPG ability—heals, fireballs, buffs, debuffs—but it also has a few unique ones. A Warrior, for example, can hold out his sword to let his allies use it as a footstool to reach flying enemies. A Mage can create a line of fire that burns any who cross it. The game does feature its share of useless abilities, like a “super powerful” melee swing that takes 10+ seconds to charge and doesn’t do as much damage as a bunch of regular swings would have. By far, Dogma’s most interesting combat mechanic is a player’s ability to climb enemies, a mechanic that is obviously inspired by Shadow of the Colossus.
Unfortunately, Dogma’s enemy climbing is clunky—and as far as I know, it can be completely avoided by simply playing a non-melee character. Much like in Shadow of the Colossus, you can mount and climb enemies for as long as your stamina bar lasts, but in Dogma, your character never quite understands where exactly you want to climb. You’ll press up and your character will start to climb down, so you’ll press down and then your character will climb left. The controls are very strange and they don’t seem to follow any kind of pattern. Fortunately, there are only about five enemy types in the game that need to be climbed, so the mechanic—while flawed—does not become annoying; the opportunity is so rare that it’s almost always fun to do.
The enemies in Dragon’s Dogma are absolutely gorgeous. I’m unafraid to state that they are the best-looking enemies in any game I’ve ever played, period. –But they don’t just look good. Their artificial intelligence is up to snuff, too. If you’re climbing that cyclops’ back, he’s going to grab you and try bite your head off—or, if you’re near the edge of a cliff, he’ll toss you right off the side, to your doom! Enemies will douse areas with poison, fire, and other maladies. Flying enemies will snatch you off of the ground, fly to great heights, and drop your ass. Bandits don’t approach alone—they come in massive groups, complete with tanks, healers, and Indiana Jones-style boulders. The enemies are great, the bosses will impress you (which is so rare in recent years), and I’m happy to announce that the final boss is just awesome.
One of Dogma’s most touted features is its “pawn system”, which is, in the end, one of the most unimpressive parts of the game. Pawns are your allies. Though pawns are technically explained via the game world’s story, it’s clear that pawns primarily exist to avoid having to flesh out an entire cast of characters, as is typical in popular Japanese RPG series, like Final Fantasy. In Dogma, your pawns have no backstory or emotions of any kind. Convenient for the developers, right? Pawns are essentially pets.
The one saving grace for pawns is that they can be “borrowed” by other players online. Right now, I could load up the game and recruit your pawn, Biggie McHuge, into my party. This would not prevent you from using Biggie McHuge; I’m basically using a copy. Any items Biggie gains, and any enemy strategies Biggie learns while playing with me are eventually transferred to your version of Biggie McHuge. If I kill a Golem with Biggie in my party, then the next time you start up the game, your Biggie will already know how to kill the Golem. If I give Biggie 20 Poison Arrows in my game, he’ll have those arrows next time you play. Cool, right? Unfortunately, the novelty runs out quickly. I don’t care about Biggie McHuge. He has no personality and he has no real reason to travel with me. Dragon’s Dogma would have been better off with a static cast of characters similar to Dragon Age: Origins, or any other typical party-based RPG.
The story sucks. It’s a one-trick pony, but the one plot twist that Dragon’s Dogma does have is worth playing the game for. What little exposition that actually occurs in the game is marred by bad audio mixing that makes virtually all of the voice acting in cutscenes inaudible. To put it briefly, Dragon’s Dogma never tries to have a good or interesting story. This game’s focus is definitely setting, exploration, and combat.
Dragon’s Dogma is heavily flawed game: It has a nightmarishly convoluted inventory and crafting system, “fake widescreen” bars on the top and bottom of the screen, and most players will be begging for more fast travel options just a few hours in. Without much story or character exposition, the highly detailed world never quite comes to life. But the game is too unique to ignore: The intricacy of the game’s maps are trumped only by Morrowind, and the game houses so many mysteries and secrets that you’ll want to keep playing to see what you’ll discover next. Even after the credits roll, the game isn’t over. I can’t say much more without spoiling anything, but Dragon’s Dogma is the first game I had to Google about to see whether I had finished the game or not.
Looking for a story? Skip it. Looking for a sandbox that is unique and interesting enough that you won’t even need quests to want to explore every part of it? Buy Dragon’s Dogma.