Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
You’ll climb the backs of giant ogres, desperately hacking and slashing as they try to wriggle you off. You’ll triumph in the glory of slicing a chimera’s snake-tail from its body and watching it writhe in pain. You’ll gobble down health potions as bandits rain explosive arrows down upon you as wolves nip at legs. You’ll curse your luck as you hide in the shadows of a cave, waiting for the sun to come up and the monsters to go away.
But you won’t fall in love. You won’t make friends. And you won’t find yourself lost in a storybook tale within a rich fantasy universe.
Dragon’s Dogma is an action role-playing game that’s heavy on action, but sadly lacking in role-playing. Fortunately, its riveting combat and challenging gameplay mostly make up for a meatless plot and mindless characters that leave the world ringing hollow.
Capcom’s stab at the open-world RPG genre begins when a dragon descends upon your picturesque village and you’re called upon to take up arms in the form of a discarded, rusty sword. This turns out to be not unlike stabbing a giant in the leg with a toothpick. While you don’t do any real damage, you do manage to annoy it. The dragon, having had quite enough of your shenanigans, picks you up and flings you the ground. After scolding you in a mysterious language, he bares a single claw, which he then uses to rip your heart out and eat it.
But you get better.
You are henceforth known as The Arisen – because you arose, get it? – and you set out with your nifty new nickname and chest scar to protect the world from the dragon scourge.
And that’s pretty much when the excitement, plotwise, ends. But there’s plenty else to be excited about here. Like designing your character. There are a breathtaking number of options, down to the tiniest detail, putting even BioWare’s character creation to shame. You can be bulky and Amazonian, or lithe and pixie-like. You can be a sweet little girl or a wizened old granny. You can even be a plus-sized medieval hero (and I mean actual plus-sized – not just hips that don’t lie.) Once in the game, you can spend discipline points to change your vocation, or even head to a barber for a new “coiffure.”
But the time spent making your character just right is made somewhat moot by the animation, which renders your carefully crafted design just a little, well, off. Aiming for a fearsome and seductive elven rogue with a pixie haircut, I ended up with more a pointy-eared Rachel Maddow.
Once you’re off to the world, it’s time to round up some companions. Instead of happening upon party members in quests like in Dragon’s Age, Dragon’s Dogma lets you build your party using an innovative pawn system. Pawns are characters created by other players, and are basically mindless slaves you can swap out at any time. Some pawns are wandering around in-game with vacant, dead-eyed expressions on their faces. Others can be summoned from a netherworld called “the rift,” which is accessible at riftstones in various locations. You also get to make one of your very own, who stays with you throughout the game.
It’s like having a toy box full of action figures to play with, and comes in handy when a quest calls for specific skills. Plus, there’s the titillating voyeurism getting to see what kind of characters other gamers are creating. But the downside to mindless zombie slaves is that they’re mindless zombie slaves. Nobody will ever make a Sarah McLachlan-scored fan video on YouTube dedicated their Dragon’s Dogma companions. These are personality-free automatons who will never drop any dialogue more riveting than: “Wolves travel in packs.”
There’s a romantic subplot within the main quest involving sweet little blondie-bear princess, but it’s so poorly written – so painfully cheesy and cliche, it puts Harlequin to shame – it’s hard to feel anything.
The towns and cities are almost as dull as the pawns. There’s little to look and very few people to talk to. But that’s probably for the best. The dialogue is so bizarre you’ll find yourself longing for the wordsmithery of Skyrim’s “arrow to the knee” guy. The NPCs speak with this half-baked attempt at old-timey dialogue that sounds like someone ordered the cast of Jersey Shore to do their best Shakespeare impressions. Everyone’s dropping the word “aught” all over the place, but rarely using it correctly.
But the woods! Oh, the woods are a different story! The hills and landscapes are beautiful, there are hidden gems everywhere, and there are all manner of beasties. The combat is sophisticated and insanely fun, especially as you level up and learn new moves. A warrior or a striker can climb up bigger foes and stab them while they wriggle and shake. You can throw stuff. You can throw characters. And if you get bored, you can spend a few discipline points and to change your vocation and try fighting as a mage or a sorcerer or a warrior. In fact, the game rewards experimentation.
Boredom, however, is unlikely because each battle feels sufficiently epic. Gamers who love a challenge – who crave an adrenaline-pumping, skin-of-your-teeth fight and the satisfying way a hard-fought victory tickles the brain's reward centre – won’t be able to get enough of Dragon’s Dogma.
But be warned: Your character’s level seems to have no impact on monsters’ difficulty, so expect to run into foes you can’t defeat early in the game. Health doesn’t automatically regenerate after a fight, either. And without special, hard-to-find stones, there’s no such thing as fast-travelling. Sometimes, when you’re a noob with basic armour, the simplest quest can be derailed by one hair-pullingly, rage-quittingly, controller-throwingly impossible battle after another. Any time you leave a city or a village, especially early in the game, you can’t be sure you’ll survive the journey. And for God’s sake, do not get stuck far from civilization when the sun goes down. In the darkness, you are doomed.
When it comes to challenging gameplay, epic battles and sweet, sweet loot, Dragon’s Dogma is a real fun romp. But if you want a game with a fascinating world, cinematic cut-scenes and romantic escapism, Dragon’s Dogma underwhelms.