By this stage in our cultural development, a typical Western-style Fantasy RPG can easily find itself reduced down to a crude selection of tropes. Someone may ask: “What was that game you played about?” and the typical reply is along the lines of “Oh the usual: swords, sorcery, dragons, goblins, yada yada yada.” But what is so easy to forget is that these aspects became clichés for a reason, and when a game comes along like Dragon’s Dogma, it reminds us exactly why these facets of style have become so embedded into our understanding of this genre. And the surprising thing is, it’s a game made entirely by a Japanese company.
Dragon’s Dogma seems to delight in creating a situation where it seems like it’s following every point on the checklist of standard features until suddenly throwing a curveball in some way. The storyline is no different. The nation of Gransys finds itself under assault by a gigantic dragon, which seems to appear every few decades, which leads the ruling duchy of the area to organise a “Wyrm Hunt,” a military effort designed specifically to hunt and defeat the dragon. Soon after appearing, the dragon attacks a small fishing village, and encounters a valiant yet futile resistance from a fisherman (or fisherwoman). This is your character, and instead of killing you, the dragon casts a spell to remove your heart, while leaving you alive. You awaken some time later, known now as an Arisen, a person who receives both fear and respect from the populace. You then set out to reclaim your stolen heart and defeat the dragon.
At this point, you adventure off into the wilderness, encountering many interesting places, people and events, and leading to an inevitable climax with the dragon. I never wish to spoil anything for the player, but anyone who may not feel quite like playing through to this encounter definitely should, as what happens from that is one of the finest examples of a twist and surprise in gaming recently. My mouth was actually slack-jawed as I became aware exactly of what was happening.
When reading a quest list for Dragon’s Dogma, you may not feel very intrigued; most are a list of “go here, pick this up” or “go here, kill this.” But what those fail to convey through text is the fact that any trip outside of the main hub feels like a genuine adventure. You look across the horizon, over the sea, and see a tower of a ruined castle, jutting out on a peninsula. It seems to be about 20 miles away. Nevertheless, your map tells you that the monster you need to slay makes its nest there. You start travelling along the route in that direction; you are attacked by bandits at some stage, but manage to repel them. You reach a point where a cliff blocks you, so you need to find a narrow mountain path leading around a treacherous route, where you are waylaid by a flock of harpies, usually annoying enough, except that now they are able to fling you off the edge with what was previously just a harmless knock-back move. After defeating them, you see it beginning to get dark, you have stayed out to late, and now it is night-time. You use some of the provisions you have hunted and farmed for to heal, and turn on your lantern. But now, the world is much more frightening, and the skeleton and ghost enemies that emerge at night use this to their benefit. You fight your way through a cave full of undead, and reach the castle you saw in the distance earlier as morning dawns. This is where the mission is apparently supposed to “start,” when you feel like you’ve already conquered the world just reaching it. And this is just one of the missions.
The game also has a variety of environments, ranging from forests to plains to caves and swamps. Nothing too extreme, as the geography would not allow for massive changes logically, but there is a definite feeling that the nation of Gransys is a real world. Animals react in normal ways; NPCs lead full and productive lives. Travellers pass you on the roads, sometimes selling wares, sometimes also adventuring. There are even a few tantalizing clues about the depth of the world you are not seeing, as mentions of Gransys’ neighbouring states are made, but never fully explored.
A world is only as good as what you can do in it, however, and Dragon’s Dogma does not disappoint in that regard. Gameplay for the player is determined roughly by their class. These classes are aligned along the typical holy trinity: Warrior, Rogue, and Mage. Added to these are additional upgraded classes for each and hybrid classes between the three, creating nine classes all together. Players level these jobs up through usage, which runs separately to main levelling up. Jobs may be switched at inns, and new abilities may be bought and assigned also, only at inns. Jobs generally use different equipment, but there is some overlap. Certain abilities may also be carried across from one job to another, if applicable. This interaction makes your job growth feel much linked, and by end game means you can switch between many fully matured jobs as necessary.
Once you actually find yourself in combat, these jobs show their true enjoyment possibilities. Swinging a sword actually feels like doing it, and shooting an arrow causes exactly the same reaction as you would expect, with realistic wind effects and arching motions. There is also another feature that makes combat all the better. When encountering a large enemy, rather than just hacking at its feet, you are able to grab onto and climb it, reaching a weak point before striking. Shades of Shadow of the Colossus emerge, but now it can be done to just about any monster larger than you, with many encouraging it. Many enemies have specific, logical weak points that enjoy this feature. When encountering a Cyclops for instance, many wear a helmet to protect their eye, so you first climb onto their head, knock off the helmet, then shoot an arrow into the eye, and then strike its legs so it falls to the ground for you to finish it. This is an experience that never gets old.
One of the best things Dragon’s Dogma has done with its quests is to make so many of them linked. Quests must actively be sort out by you for certain points in the story, and depending on whether they are completed, or even how they are completed, will have ramifications in ways you did not expect or foresee, with quest chains being opened up or closed, or progressing in different ways. The game also has a certain number of named NPC’s who may live or die depending on your actions, and if you please them, may find themselves attracted to you, which can change various cut scenes and events. A detailed crafting and upgrade mechanic is also present for items, with loot being found from all many of places, and used and combined to make new and exciting items.
One of the deepest features of the game however is that of the Pawn mechanic. Pawns are the name given to the party members summoned by the Arisen. Near the start of the game, the player constructs one Pawn specifically to remain as their permanent one, designing them with the same tools used to construct the player’s own character (Which, by the way, are amazingly detailed, allowing for a brawny huge barbarian or little old lady to both be the ones swinging a massive war-hammer around. Hours of fun can be had with the character creation alone). This Pawn levels up with the player, and has his/her role and equipment assigned by the player. If this character dies, they are summoned again from a summoning stone at no cost. As for the other two character slots, they are filled by Pawns created either by the computer, or borrowed from another player who uploaded them online. You may choose which class you want, but these do not go up levels, and are the same level as you are when bought. Higher level pawns may be bought with unique currency in the game for this purpose, meaning a difficult dungeon can be conquered with Pawns who are 3 levels higher than you even. If your Pawn is used by another player, it may receive items and a rating from that player about its effectiveness.
This leads into describing Pawn AI. Pawns learn how to fight better from fighting specific monsters enough. When facing a Cyclops for the first time, they will run panicked at first, but upon fighting your third, they will leap into action to attack key points. This AI is very well constructed, and Pawns rarely make glaring mistakes. It also allows for a better sense of progression and development with your party members.
Dragon’s Dogma is fun. Incredibly fun. I finished the game, and immediately set out into New Game Plus, because I simply had not had enough yet. The amazing part was that I was still finding things I had missed, new quests, new areas; the world still had so much to offer, even after 40 hours of gameplay. At the end of the day, this game feels like a living, breathing world, that you step out to conquer, and every fight seems to bring another victory that leads closer to that goal. A must buy.