Dragon's Dogma Review
A promising new franchise that stumbles with its pacing.
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A dragon as big as a Boeing 747 comes to your village one day and starts to cause a ruckus. Townspeople are mercilessly slaughtered, buildings are destroyed, and everyone is generally upset. There is only one person who can defeat this dragon and it is you, the Arisen! You must embark on a grand quest of epic...
We'll stop right there. No, this is not Skyrim, it's Dragon's Dogma, the newest franchise from Capcom. Other than sounding like any other high fantasy game that involves dragons, what exactly is Dragon's Dogma?
Think of it as Monster Hunter for a Western audience. Never played Monster Hunter before? That game is a stylized RPG where you repeatedly kill giant monsters that drop items which are required to craft better weapons and armor. Dragon's Dogma uses this formula, too, but adds plenty of character classes (nine total), an innovative system for acquiring party members, and a (mostly) open world.
All of this sounds great on paper, but Dragon's Dogma has its fair share of problems. Even with these flaws, Capcom has a worthwhile new franchise on their hands that just needs some polish.
In Dragon's Dogma, you play as the Arisen – the last and only hope of slaying the evil dragon. The game is primarily about two things: fighting big monsters and getting better weapons to fight these big monsters with. The system that the game uses to build your party is excellent and offers a layer of strategy when deciding on the best way to overcome a challenge.
Unfortunately, not all is green in the world of Gransys. While fighting bosses and big monsters is a blast, normal combat gets tiresome. There is also the problem of difficulty: this game would rather throw you into the fire than hold your hand. The worst problem of all is how long it takes to travel anywhere. Dragon's Dogma offers many hours of gameplay, possibly hundreds if you want to do everything, but many of those hours will be spent backtracking and running into similar monsters.
The very first thing you do in Dragon's Dogma is fight a large monster – a chimera, to be precise – as the previous Arisen. This gives you a taste of what's to come. The second thing you do is create your character and your trusty sidekick.
The character creation process is very well done. There are the basic options for choosing a gender, making your character slim or fat, and choosing a hairstyle. Then there are options for adding wrinkles to your character to give an older look, choosing how your character stands, selecting how their eyes look, and choosing how their grunts sound. The whole system is intuitive and actually makes creating a character that isn't a horrible looking freak possible.
You're walking through the beautiful city of Gran Soren and turn a corner, only to run into the most stunning woman in video game history. Before you get any ideas, you should probably know that she isn't human. Seriously, they're creatures that look and sound human, but they totally aren't according to the game's story.
These creatures, both jaw-droppingly gorgeous and grotesquely amusing, are called pawns. Pawns are the characters that fill out your four-person party, which includes yourself and your personal pawn. These creatures are pretty much slaves of the Arisen and exist solely to help him or her slay the dragon. Each pawn that you run into is actually player-made and can be hired, sometimes for a fee.
As mentioned before, you create one main pawn that will be your trusty sidekick. The process for creating this pawn is identical to creating your main character. This sidekick pawn can be outfitted with weapons and armor that you find or purchase from a vendor.
Choosing two other pawns to complete your party can be done by either talking to a random pawn in a town or by visiting the Rift, which is a spooky place that allows you to search for pawns based on level and vocation. Everyone that plays Dragon's Dogma with an internet connection will have their main pawn uploaded and available for hire by any player. If a pawn is your level or lower, it is free to hire. Pawns that are higher levels are not free and cost Rift Crystals, a form of currency only used for purchasing pawns. You gain the majority of your Rift Crystals by having other players purchase your pawn, so make sure he/she looks good or interesting.
Any pawn that you hire will not gain experience and level up with you and your main pawn, which means you will be going back to the Rift frequently. On the same note, your main pawn will level up and gain better equipment and skills as you play. In order to update your main pawn for the rest of the Dragon's Dogma community, you must rest at an inn.
Dragon's Dogma offers nine different vocations, or classes, to choose from. Each of these vocations falls into the category of fighter, mage, or rogue – typical RPG class archetypes.
At the beginning of the game, you can only choose from the three basic classes, which are fighter, mage, and strider (not that Strider or that Strider). After making your way to the main city, Gran Soren, you can speak to the inn keeper and change your vocation to a slight variant of the base class or a hybrid class. Each vocation has specific weapons that they can use as well as different skills and spells. You can change vocations as many times as you like, as long as you have enough Disciple Points. Discipline Points, which are earned by gaining levels, can be used to purchase skills and spells as well. Skills learned can be assigned to certain buttons on the controller. Most vocations can assign a total of six different skills, although the warrior vocation can only assign three.
The different vocations and the ability to change to each and every one of them are great, but the actual skills and spells that you can choose from are lackluster. Each vocation has only a few really useful skills, which you end up using over and over again. After playing for a while, the combat starts to get stale.
Speaking of combat, Dragon's Dogma has it in spades. Every time you travel somewhere, you will end up fighting. In order to get better items, you need to fight. To advance the story, you need to fight. Maybe Dragon's Dogma is a metaphor for conflict and how it shapes our lives, but we just want to know if it's fun.
Combat is done by using two basic attacks, light and heavy, and then using your skills and spells. Skills and spells use up stamina while basic attacks do not. You can assign skills and spells to different buttons on your controller, but you are usually limited to six at the most.
We mentioned in the vocations section that many skills in the game are lackluster and players will probably stick to the few skills that deal the most damage. While this may make combat stale at times, Dragon's Dogma makes up for this by having some of the best boss battles in a video game.
You will occasionally run into a giant creature while exploring or doing a quest. When this creature sees you, its boss time. These enormous monsters have an equally enormous health bar, which means that these fights can take anywhere from five minutes to fifteen minutes. One of the combat features in Dragon's Dogma is the ability to grab onto enemies. This feature is mostly useless in normal combat, but is essential to some boss fights. You will be grabbing onto these huge monsters and climbing to their heads, where you can more effectively hit them. Finishing one of these battles is satisfying, to say the least.
We don't want to spoil anything, but if you do make it to the final battle, prepare to have your mind blown to smithereens.
There are more items in Dragon's Dogma than we knew what to do with. Items can be dropped by monsters when they are killed or harvested from plants that populate the world of Gransys. Items can be used to heal your character, make your character more powerful for a brief time, or make your weapons more powerful. There are also items that are strictly used to combine with other items which will result in something completely new.
Every item in the game has weight and carrying too much weight will slow down your character. Part of the challenge in this game is knowing what items to be carrying, especially in terms of healing items. This aspect gives the game a slight survival horror feel.
The controls feel fine in Dragon's Dogma. Everything is mapped out in a comfortable position and your main character responds accordingly when buttons are pressed. Like we mentioned in the combat section, skills and spells are mapped to various buttons on the controller. We never had a problem using skills because the controls weren't responsive enough – we had problems using our skills because monsters were ripping us to shreds.
After finishing the game, you can keep adventuring in the world of Gransys with more difficult monsters and better gear to acquire. Dragon's Dogma is compelling enough to stick around after the final battle, just don't expect much more story.
Pacing & Flow
What would an RPG be without the all-important quest? Dragon's Dogma has plenty of quests to choose from and these quests set the pace of the game.
Quests can be divided into three categories: main quests that advance the story, quests you find on a bulletin board, and quests that you receive by talking to townspeople. Unfortunately, quests in Dragon's Dogma expose two of the game's biggest flaws: awful difficulty scaling and slow travel speed.
Dragon's Dogma is hard, and at times, it is frustratingly hard. Quests will send you to all parts of the world and will sometimes lead you into areas that are much too difficult for low level players. There is no indication of difficulty when you take on a quest. The most egregious example of this difficulty scaling is when your quest involves escorting a non-player character to some part of the map. You will probably run into at least one boss monster and plenty of fights that you are not ready for. Had Dragon's Dogma used some type of system where it ranked how difficult each quest was, this would not be a problem. Instead, each quest is a crapshoot in terms of difficulty, plus the rewards are never that great.
The other problem here is the speed at which you travel. Many quests will send you very far away and this means that traveling to that area can take anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes. This may be fun the first time, but Dragon's Dogma reuses the same locations for multiple quests and you will get tired of wasting your time traveling and fighting the same monsters. There is an item that takes you back to the main city, but this item is expensive and money in this game is best saved for gear.
While the whole system for making and hiring pawns is excellent, the pawns themselves can be downright moronic. Their AI is unintelligent, to say the least. There were plenty of times when pawns would run ahead of our main character, only to engage in combat with extremely powerful enemies. Controllers might have been thrown when this happened, and it did multiple times.
Pawns come with skills that were set by whoever created them. You ideally want to choose pawns with good skills, but whether they use these skills is completely up to chance. There were plenty of times where a gigantic creature would be kicking our butts and we would be praying for a pawn to use that meteor shower skill that kills everything in seconds.
Story was clearly not the main focus in Dragon's Dogma. The dialog and voice acting is laughable at best and half-way through the game, you might find yourself skipping every conversation so you can get back to upgrading your weapons and slaying beasts. We wouldn't blame you.
Who would have thought that a fantasy game would make use of Old English? Dragon's Dogma sounds like it was written by someone who just discovered Old English (yes, maybe that, too). There are lots of "aughts" and "ofts" with a "ser" and "thou" sprinkled in for good measure. Maybe if the writing was actually interesting than this would be fine, but it is boring and the Old English makes it boring and clichéd.
The voice acting in Dragon's Dogma is bad, but even worse is how the characters weren't programmed to lip sync correctly at all. This makes dialog in the game unintentionally hilarious and just plain awful.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
Our review copy of Dragon's Dogma was for the Xbox 360, but the graphics look like they belong on Nintendo's Wii. We mean no disrespect to the diminutive white console, but its specs do not match those of the 360 and the Playstation 3.
There isn't much to say about the art direction here – it is typical high-fantasy, although we applaud the decision to not make use of dwarves and elves.
Dragon's Dogma's biggest contribution to the realm of art design is the heavy use of scantily clad females, although most of this is the result of players dressing their pawns like this. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it sure does make the world..._colorful_.
The world of Gransys looks decent enough, with forests, mountains, and beaches making up the landscape. The textures are low-res, though, and a close-up with an enemy or a character's face will show this.
We do have to applaud some of the spell effects, which are quite flashy and give you that tingly feeling after using them. What's better than toasting a monster with a giant wall of fire?
The music is mostly unremarkable. There really isn't much music playing throughout the game and when it does play, it is mostly a generic, orchestrated score. It doesn't sound bad, but it isn't particularly interesting.
There is one giant exception here: the intro music. Japanese rock duo B'z provide this guilty pleasure J-pop/metal song that is so good, it requires a full listen every time you start the game.
There is nothing to complain about here. The sound effects in Dragon's Dogma are spot-on. Zapping a monster with a lightning bolt, beating a goblin with a spiked bat, and calling forth meteors to rain destruction on your foes is all incredibly satisfying.
Dragon's Dogma was quite the adventure, although it was one that should have ended much sooner.
The high points in the game had us begging for more, chiefly the boss battles. There is something so satisfying about climbing onto a gigantic foe and heroically slaughtering it. While there are plenty of moments like that in the game, there is not very much variety. You will end up fighting the same hulks over and over.
Tedium seems to be the main problem with Dragon's Dogma. The constant traveling through the same areas without a viable fast-travel option (like Skyrim) wears thin and makes playing through parts of the game a chore. The random difficulty spikes, which the game should ideally inform the player about, also give this sense of tedium since you will get absolutely tired and fed up with trying to get through certain parts of the game after dying plenty of times.
If Capcom decides to make a sequel to Dragon's Dogma, and we hope they will, there are some obvious improvements to make. With an extra coat of polish, the next Dragon's Dogma could very well become the next great RPG. As it stands, the current Dragon's Dogma is merely a decent one.
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