Friday, June 29, 2012

Arise Uhh...Arisen: Dragon's Dogma Review

After spending many grueling hours digging deep into the finer points of Dragon's Dogma, fearless Rock has finally finished it!  Here now are his unadulterated feelings on this quite unique RPG.

"Well, that was...interesting..." That was my prevailing thought after seeing the end of Dragon's Dogma. Don't worry, no spoilers! I'd heard for a couple weeks that the game got really weird in its last act and I thought I was prepared, but damn... It's not a bad ending, just and ending that I didn't see until it was right on top of me. So how was the rest of the game? Let's get into it!

When I last wrote about Dragon's Dogma, I was only a few hours into it and just beginning to explore the world outside the little village of Cassardis. And I learned something about Capcom- they don't make very compelling open worlds in their games. Let me get a bit more specific. The world of Gransys is absolutely gorgeous! Truly, one of the most beautiful game worlds I've seen and the main city of Gran Soren is just stunning.  Not only is the world visually pleasing, it's also convincing, almost as though (minus monsters) such a place could have once existed on Earth.  The only problem? Gransys is not a very interesting place to explore.

The world is damn pretty. Too bad about it being kind of dull....

Over the approximately 65 hours I put into the game, I visited many of the same places a bunch of times, and having to hoof it back and forth to the same damned forest five or six times in a row can be a bit grating. There are a ton of quests to do, and there's a pretty good variety here, so that helps lessen the sting a bit. To compare to Skyrim, that world is so interesting, it takes almost nothing to compel me to explore, and the world is always filled with provocative things to do. I really didn't feel obliged to explore Gransys because it is, quite frankly, not very interesting a place to be. I can put it best by saying that I wanted to want to explore, but nothing actually made me want to.

This feeling wasn't helped by the day/night cycle, which had me deliberately avoiding exploration in order to get back to town before sunset. You'd better hope you don't get caught far from a resting place when night falls, because otherwise you'll be hiking back while emboldened monsters constantly ambush your party from outside the meager sphere of light cast by your lanterns. Also, fast travel isn't an option until you reach Gran Soren, where you must buy special stones that will only take you back to the main city until much later in the game. These Ferrystones can be prohibitively expensive early on, exacerbating the fact that most of your time is spent traveling, fighting, or traveling to fights.

It's a good thing, then, that the fighting is absolutely outstanding! Keep in mind that a lot of Devil May Cry veterans worked on this game, so to me it wasn't really a surprise that the combat is as good as it is. It's not nearly as fast paced or combo driven as DMC's, but I definitely had a lot of fun figuring out which of the Strider's attacks worked best for me.  There are plenty of combat skills to choose from, and you can change your vocation at any time with minimal cost, so you're really encouraged to try out different vocations and get a feel for what you like. Throughout my playthrough, I ended up maxing out two vocations, Strider and Magick Archer. As mentioned previously, the Strider is your classic dual dagger wielding, arrow launching, nimble as hell ass kicker. Think Legolas and you're almost there. The Magick Archer is basically just a souped up Strider, with devastating special attacks like one which paints up to ten targets and fires magical seeking arrows at all of them, or one that fires electrically charged arrows that richochet around the environment. Some of the fights can become a bit bland later on, as you end up fighting the same groups of bandits in the same places, which gets pretty tiresome. Things really get spiced up when you have a big monster encounter, though! These can range from ogres, griffons, chimeras,  cockatrices, and cyclopses. These beasts require a bit more strategy and finesse if you want to bring them down, and this is where your pawns can really show you their usefulness.

Take that!
You see, as you travel around with your pawns, they're constantly learning.  They're learning about the environment and what treasures might be found there. They're learning about quests and what needs to be done to accomplish them. And they're learning about the enemies you fight.  This is where having well travelled pawns can really help you out, because if a pawn has fought a certain enemy before, they may have picked up some knowledge about that enemy's weaknesses.  So when you run up to a griffon, your pawns may shout to you that fire attacks to its wings may keep it from flying away. Or when you face a chimera, your pawns might tell you which sections of the beast to destroy first.  This can be incredibly handy, especially if you're fighting something you've never seen before and aren't really sure what the best strategy is. The pawns won't just stand around idly shouting directions either, they'll jump right into the fray and get shit done right alongside you.  They're given just enough autonomy so that I didn't feel like I was the only one contributing the the fight, but I also didn't feel like I could just sit back and let them do all the dirty work. It's definitely great fun to find out a monster's weakness and then work together with your pawns to systematically take them down.

Oh you are SO fucked!

The pawns are just such an interesting take on AI companions. You'll create your main pawn at the same time you create your character, and you're given all the same customization tools as well, so there's a lot of variation possible. This pawn will stay with you for the duration of the game, but you'll be able to recruit up to two more pawns whenever you like by using Rift Stones found throughout the game. Here you can search for new pawns by pretty much any criteria: level, gender, vocation, etc. There are a lot of ways to make sure that you find exactly what you're looking for. The cool thing to remember is that most of these pawns are the main pawns created by other players! Which means that your pawn is hireable too. So when you hire someone else's pawns, they bring all of their experience and knowledge with them, allowing you to learn more about areas you've never been to or creatures you haven't fought yet. And when you rest at an inn, your pawn will come back from being hired out and will bring back whatever he learned. When they're not hired out, you'll find many pawns just wandering the world as free agents. This was cool to me, as I'd occasionally bump into pawns I'd hired before, and I always enjoyed checking them out to see how they'd leveled up or what sweet new gear they had.

In case you were wondering, yes, you can climb him and stab him in the eye.

There is also a pretty huge crafting system, but it honestly feels a little bloated. I mean, is it really necessary to have four different ways to make the same item? There are dozens of items for you to find, and most of the ingredients you'll find are used for one of three things- making curative items, making better ingredients for better curative items, or they're used for upgrading your party's equipment.  That's it. I was kind of let down to learn that I wouldn't be able to create new weapons or armor, as that sort of stuff is only available from merchants or as rare finds in chests. The whole crafting system just feels a little unnecessarily cumbersome, and I would have preferred to not use it at all.

So what exactly are we working toward here? Well if you'll recall from my Second Impressions article, that jerk face dragon ripped out my heart, ate it, and then cursed me so I'd come after him.  I won't go into details about how all that wraps up, but I will say that holy fucking shit that got weird! Seriously, just about the weirdest ending to such a serious game. Fuck! Just be prepared. Dragon's Dogma is best described as polarizing. On one hand, you have Capcom trying to branch out and try something new. The vocation system is amazing. The combat and RPG elements are boat loads of fun, and the world itself is just gorgeous.  On the other hand, that same open world has little depth and isn't very interesting or fun to explore. Still, I had a ton of fun and I'm really happy to see Capcom trying new things. I'm insanely excited to see what Capcom does with this property.

Verdict: 3/5

Rock promises to climb a cyclops and stab the shit out of it. You know, when cyclopses exist....


  1. A little inside baseball here, but that 3/5 score went back and forth quite a bit. If we did half stars, it'd be a 3.5.

    1. True that! Definitely went back and forth between 3 and 4 for a while on this one!

  2. What Dragon’s Dogma did well (the combat), is exactly what I hated about Skyrim. And what Skyrim did well (exploration and story), were exactly what I hated about Dragon’s Dogma. Can someone cram the two together please? Despite all its flaws, Dragon’s Dogma has been the best gaming-surprise this year. I only threw it in my Blockbuster @Home queue because a coworker at Dish recommended it. I’m glad I got this through the mail though; this is the type of game that you can sink some serious hours into (currently I’m at 58) and it would cost a fortune to rent by the day.

    1. Now this is just a guess, but I think there's possibly something to it: Capcom saw Skyrim release very late in Dragon Dogma's development cycle. Hoping to ride the hype train Skyrim created for open-world fantasy RPGs, Capcom decided to "add" a Skyrim-like open world to DD. However, being so late in the cycle, they didn't have enough time/manpower/money to make the world fun to explore. That's how the world ended up being massive, and empty.

    2. I'm not really convinced that's the case, Chris. I feel like it's more a matter of Capcom just not really knowing how to make truly interesting open worlds, as evidenced by Dead Rising. With DR, you were similarly artificially constrained from exploring the world by the fact that your missions are on timers, and you don't want to fail them. A lot of people were upset on DR2's release that there wasn't a mode in which you could just run around the mall and kill zombies for hours. I have a feeling this was deliberate because honestly, that would get really boring fast. That world isn't interesting unless it's pushing toward a goal. Same with Dragon's Dogma. It just seems like Capcom really wants to make open world games, they just haven't really nailed down how to do it yet. But really, who has? I know that in my case, nobody's open worlds are very interesting to me besides the ones Bethesda makes.

    3. @ Jeff- I couldn't agree with you more. And despite the middling score, I really did have a lot of fun with the game, especially when it game to the combat and character customization.

    4. Rockstar's open worlds are incredibly interesting. Even LA Noire, while lacking in activities, was wonderfully realized.

    5. I agree with you about both being incredibly well realized. However, I found both to also be incredibly uninteresting. A well realized open world means very little to me if there isn't anything compelling happening there. If your open world is only open for the sake of being open, what's the point, really?

    6. A sense of atmosphere, and devotion to recreating the era. I feel the faithful recreation of 1940s LA is far more excusable than an empty fantasy realm. The fact that Team Bondi put so much time and devotion into creating their world made the game better. After all, the world was there to explore if you wanted to, but the player was never forced to traverse all those miles.

    7. I guess my point is that there's nothing interesting happening there because of the fact that they're open worlds. Sure, you could explore 1940s L.A., but you'll never have the kind of amazing emergent moments you'll get in a Bethsoft world. The atmosphere in L.A. Noire was great, but I never had a reason to explore, because at that point I'm just driving around in traffic. Nothing is going to happen. Street crimes are woefully predictable and repetitive. I really wanted to explore, but with the saddening knowledge that nothing surprising or emergent could happen it just seemed like exploring just because I could. And I just can't get into that.


  3. @RockMoTron I'm glad we see eye-to-eye.

    I like what you said here too: "If your open world is only open for the sake of being open, what's the point, really?"

    Exactly! Assassin's Creed has been one of the biggest disappointments to me in that respect: Gorgeous, densely populated worlds with practically nothing to do. I would rather have a scripted point-A to point-B adventure than an open world unless they're going to do the open world right.

    1. I was specifically thinking of games like Assassin's Creed and L.A. Noire when I wrote that. To me, there's little to no fun to be had in an open world if all I'm doing is hunting down pointless collectibles or scouring the landscape for landmarks. Sure, you can run around freely, but why? I see no point in exploring just because I can. In most of these games, nothing's going to come of it, really. The fact that an open world might be particularly well-realized barely matters to me if there's nothing interesting to do there. You'll never find me just cruising the streets of L.A. Noire just to soak it in. To me that's a bit of a waste of time, because that's pretty much all you can do that really takes advantage of the open world. This is assuming you're trying to enjoy the open world instead of following the story. Sure you can try to find all the hidden vehicles, but that gets pretty old too. Some of the cars are pretty cool, but unless you're a major automotive history buff or achievement hunter, I feel like the appeal of that is going to wear thin pretty quickly. I know it did for me...

      Sometimes those collectibles can lead to something new, gameplay-wise. I'm thinking of Arkham City's Riddler trophies and their rewards. But how many of them are there? 281! You mean I have to search the game trying to find 281 trophies just to be able to *spoiler alert* fight the Riddler?! Well fuck that! Again, that feels like a huge waste of time.

      I think that Bethesda's open world games are the big standout for me, mostly because of the fact that exploration is almost always rewarding! You might find some hidden grotto with some useful supplies or a long abandoned fortress just inviting you to plumb its depths for secrets! Exploring in these worlds never feels like a waste. And I think that's the heart of the issue for me: I need exploration to directly reward me in a tangible way in order for it to feel worthwhile. If my only reward is an achievement or just the knowledge that I succeeded in finding all five hundred blanks of whatever, then I just can't bring myself to do it.