Appearances can be deceptive. Take Dragon’s Dogma, for instance. On the surface, it seems like an ill-informed attempt at a Western RPG designed in the East. Look a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that it brings some well-disguised originality and highlights the failings of our most recent, beloved RPG experiences.
It’s fair to say that Dragon’s Dogma is a game made from, often opposing, and dramatically different design mentalities. From Japan, it brings strong combat, precise controls and tight structure. From the West, it brings epic scale, ham-fisted olde English and more Tolkienesque fantasy tropes than I care to remember. It is a game built on familiar foundations; all castles, titular beasts and sorcerers. Naturally, all the standard fantasy RPG elements are firmly in place; questing is open and broad in its nature, dungeons are there to be pillaged and explored. The names and faces may have changed, but you’ve definitely been here before.
Despite the gravitas that posturing dreamers like myself may attach to it, Dragon’s Dogma is a game and not a statement. It is a developer attempting to give its audience what they seem to want and, for the most part, it succeeds.
First and foremost, it succeeds by addressing one of the largest problems plaguing most contemporary RPGs. I love Skyrim, I truly do, but its combat, and that of most of its peers, is 90% garbage. Capcom brings its long and illustrious history of pulverizing and decapitating to the table and tackles this issue head-on. Combat is all at once, deep varied and accessible. Simple combos and signature moves are all at your disposal and brighten the screen with typical Capcom flourish and physicality. It’s not exactly Devil May Cry, but you’ll certainly get a faint whiff of Dante’ with some of the more agile character classes. Depending on your chosen class, of which there are several, you can employ a mix of skills and strengths. Agile hunters, stalwart knights, battle mages: the list goes on. Remember: you’ve been here before. However, Dragon’s Dogma excels by making it so that you should never be punished for your choice of hero. It’s happened to me time and time again: where I’ve felt punished for not picking a diverse enough character, setting myself up for a fall with particular enemy types. With its pawn system, Dragon’s Dogma offers you a team of companions, allowing you to select appropriate roles for supporting you and filling the gaps in your own hero’s personal skill set.
Pawns form a substantial part of the game as both an online and offline experience. Pawns can be traded online, hired out to build their own experience and recruited from all over the world. Not only does this show Capcom’s understanding of a positive shift in RPG standards post-Demon’s Souls, but it also allows for a more involving and tailored experience. The beauty of this system can be seen when you are able to hire a top-tier pawn to assist you with a particularly challenging area that would normally be above your ability. As the player, you are in a unique position where you can choose to plough your accumulated experience points into either the development of your own character, or for hiring out some high-level cronies to do the dirty work for you. It’s a genuinely refreshing change.
Dragon’s Dogma also boasts a pleasingly robust sense of physicality, and through this it brings a surprisingly unique quality to contemporary RPGs. No matter how grand the experience or the breadth of the world that has been so lovingly built, many RPGs fall down in that they fail to offer truly personalised experiences. Whilst most offer the choice of a variety of character classes and an option of moral dilemmas, few really deliver personalization through the way that individual missions and scenarios play out. What Dragon’s Dogma offers is dynamic, frantic battles and a system open enough to bestow upon you the ability to tell some truly heroic battle stories. Take the time my party and I encountered a giant in the depths of a murky dungeon. My noble hero, Misty, grappled the beast, clambering up its back, thrusting his blade into its ugly, misshapen head. The beast seemed not to falter as it attempted to swat Misty as if he were little more than an annoyance. Then, as luck would have it, the beast lost its footing, Misty capitalised and used the beast’s weight to his advantage. The mighty foe stumbled over the edge, plummeting towards certain doom. Noble Misty rode the impending corpse all the way to the bottom of the well and used it to break his fall. The beast was dead and Misty was a true hero. It’s this sense of weight and physicality that makes every battle an absolute joy. Goblins and Harpies are dispatched quickly in the game’s earlier stages, but they are all just appetizers for the game’s main course.
Boss battles and larger enemy encounters display Capcom’s sense of the epic: a skill sharpened on their experience with both Monster Hunter and Lost Planet. Larger foes can be climbed upon and watching your character swing from a Griffon’s frantically bustling feathers as it takes flight is a sight to behold. Taking down such an enemy mid-air, or clambering atop a Cyclops to stab at its eye is undeniably satisfying. This gives Dragon’s Dogma a valuable sense of involvement and allows you to attempt just about any battle without having to resort to a war of attrition with bows, arrows and a tonne of health potions.
Whilst it may lack the sheen and presentation values of its contemporaries, Dragon’s Dogma retains a unique personality whilst reminding us of the importance of solid gameplay foundations. It certainly doesn’t cut corners on its scale and length either. From its undeniably camp J-Rock theme tune, to its blend of different design philosophies, Dragon’s Dogma is a distinctly varied experience. I like to imagine it as the older guy lifting weights at the gym. Sure, he may not be as tanned and as well-sculpted as his younger peers, but you know that his insulation layer obscures genuine strength and that you would really never want to fuck with him. If he speaks anything like the inhabitants of Dragon’s Dogma though, I will seriously consider trying.