Does the prospect of climbing up the back of a multi-headed chimera, hacking off the snake’s head before jumping to the lion and stabbing it in the face, excite you? Would you be interested in recruiting a party from characters created by other players? What if I told you you’d be spending most of your time trudging across bland landscapes, struggling to land blows with a nearly non-existent targeting system, and cursing every time a character says the word “aught”? For everything that Dragon’s Dogma gets right, there’s something to drag down the experience. If you have the patience to sweep off the frustrating bits, you will find there’s a solid action RPG shining through.
The story starts off with a bang: A huge red dragon attacks your village and just when you think it’s going to finish you off, it snatches out your still-beating heart, mutters some words, gobbles it down, and flies away. Despite the massive chest trauma, you do not die, and the people of the village call you Arisen, believing you are the only one who can defeat the dragon. It’s a fresh twist on the admittedly tired trope of a player character with a destiny. There are no elves or dwarves underfoot, other than an actual dwarf serving as court jester, and the story owes more to Arthurian legend than Tolkien. The writing is generally entertaining, but the characters are weak and the overly flowery language can be grating. Seriously, you don’t have to do aught to make a setting seem archaic; the knights in shining armor are enough.
Open-world games can struggle with keeping the character moving along a strong narrative, and Dragon’s Dogma loses that fight once you get past the brilliant opening. For each compelling story quest, there are ten requests to kill X amount of wildlife that you must complete in order to gain precious experience points. And because there’s no indication of how difficult a quest is, you will often try one and die repeatedly before you realize that it’s time for the Arisen to grind levels. It’s not that the game’s too hard, just that it does a poor job of funneling you to enemies you have a chance at slaying.
When you are in the right area at the right time, the third-person combat action is enjoyable. I mostly played a mage, and it was a fun challenge to survive the casting time and loose a fireball in the face of a charging bandit. Melee fighters can swing a sword or block with a shield, and rogues switch between a bow, daggers, or devastating special moves like Cloudburst Volley. The targeting is a problem, though. You can aim timed spells or attacks with a big circular reticule, but quick abilities will hit the wrong target often as the game tries to determine where you should attack. Success depends on mixing up your light and heavy attacks with the weapon skills you unlock through gaining levels, and there’s more than enough customization with specialties, hybrid-classes and upgradable builds to keep the strategist in you happy.
Dragon’s Dogma‘s innovative pawn system adds another layer of customization. Storywise, pawns come from another world through rifts and they collectively serve the Arisen (that’s you). Early on, you create one pawn using the same basic creation system you used to design your hero. This is your main pawn, and he or she will have your back for the whole game. The cool meta part of all this is that you fill out your party of four by recruiting two more pawns from the pool of pawns that other real life players of Dragon’s Dogma create. You can easily search for whatever type of pawn would complement you and your main pawn, like a svelte ranger or a sorceress with elemental magic. Your main pawn levels with you, but the other two pawns don’t, so you will want to upgrade by recruiting higher level pawns. You can even blow real money on recruiting pawns way above your level.
Because I didn’t drop some dough on a badass Gandalf-lookalike (and there are many of these available to recruit), I had a little trouble quickly defeating the big monsters that inhabit Dragon’s Dogma. The battles against huge ogres, cyclopes, gryphons and chimeras are really exciting at first. You can climb up the limbs of these beasts to strike at their squishy bits, which does add some realism to taking down such huge creatures. But even after you figure out a strategy to defeat them, it just takes far too long to whittle down their huge HP bar. There’s only so much novelty you get from climbing up a golem’s legs and endlessly gobbling curative items when he tosses you around like a side of ham.
I would have appreciated the open world of Dragon’s Dogma a lot more if the color palette didn’t just go from dirt brown and spring green to sandy brown, burnt sienna, and bile yellow. There’s a fast travel option, but because it’s tied to a rare consumable item, you’ll spend a lot of time traversing the bland landscape just to get anywhere. I understood that the visual style leaned more towards realism than the fantastic, but the colors were too washed-out and uninteresting.
Bottom Line: It’s a true open-world RPG with an engaging combat system and neat pawn mechanic, but Dragon’s Dogma has some flaws you have to overlook to enjoy.
Recommendation: If you’re tired of Skyrim, and want a challenge to your skills and your game design sensibilities, give Dragon’s Dogma a shot.[rating=3.5]
This review was based on the Xbox 360 version.