The dragon that stole my heart.
Format: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed)
Released: May 22, 2012
A few of the games I’ve played lately have fought against their failings to still end up being a largely positive experience. Cosmic Star Heroine managed to excel despite some flaws and Vanquish was so mind-bendingly fast-paced and loud that you could barely notice it’s issues. When I think of flawed games that have still drawn me in, none stand out quite as much as Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen.
Developed by Capcom, Dragon’s Dogma is a third-person action-RPG with more than a few twists to the gameplay and story that make it stand out amongst the competition. You take control of a character labelled as the “Arisen”, dragged from your idyllic life in the coastal fishing village of Cassardis to try and discover why your fate has been entwined with that of a powerful and terrifying beast.
Your life is thrown into turmoil thanks to the sudden appearance of an enormous fire-breathing dragon, and its attack on your town. The beast seems drawn to your valiant attempt to stop it, and rather than continue its wanton destruction it pins your character down, tears out their heart, and leaves. Against all odds, you wake up some time after the attack with a glowing scar on your chest, and the voice of the dragon in your mind telling you to seek it out and reclaim your heart, and thus your freedom. Whether you like it or not, it seems your life and the dragon’s are now intertwined, with you only being freed when the dragon breathes no more.
From the moment you’re given control of your character, it becomes apparent that this game won’t be quite like any other. Honestly it feels as though Capcom took a huge bag of ideas they liked and threw them at a wall to see what would stick. Individually many mechanics of the game aren’t all that impressive, but the way they interact with each other is what makes the magic of Dragon’s Dogma work. Many of these mechanics are simple and small, such as food and plants rotting if you carry them around too long, while keeping them in an airtight container seals their freshness. Others can have a much greater impact, like your characters carry capacity, or encumbrance. Usually this would be a single number based on your strength, constitution, or some other random statistic. Although this is still partially the case, your starting carry capacity is primarily derived from the height and weight of your character, with your stamina use and mobility, including your ability to climb the terrain and large enemies Shadow of the Colossus style, being affected by your encumbrance.
These quirky little takes on normal gameplay mechanics add some complexity to the normal gamer habit of hoarding as much stuff as possible, particularly if you’re playing as one of the more agile Vocations. A Vocation is essentially your characters class, which can be swapped relatively freely after a certain point early in the game. Your Vocations come in three flavours; Basic, Advanced and Hybrid.
Basic Vocations are fairly straightforward and work well to establish the mechanics of certain combat styles. The “Fighter” wields sword and shield with a focus on tanking physical damage and opening up foes with shield bashes and parries. The speedy ”Strider” can be kitted out to focus on ranged damage with a bow or high-mobility melee attacks with paired daggers, while using sneaky tricks to keep foes off-balance. The “Mage” has minimal health and physical armour but can provide ranged support with powerful elemental spells, can heal your party and cure them of many ailments, and even provide your team with elemental buffs to their weapons. Each of these Vocations function admirably in the early stages of the game, where enemies are weak and player still getting their bearings. As you grow more confident with your skills and have perhaps tried each of the 3 Basic Vocations, the Advanced and Hybrid Vocations offer playstyles that, while similar to what you’ve started with, offer altered mechanics that can dramatically shift your playstyle.
Over 150 hours of adventuring has given me plenty of time to decide on a few Vocations that stand out as my favourites. The “Warrior” Advanced Vocation trades a Fighter’s trusty shield and heavier armour for a ridiculously huge weapon. Wide sweeping attacks and incredibly powerful charged smashes make this Vocation a fantastic damage dealer, but the lack of mobility and ranged attacks can make some opponents extremely tough. The almighty “Sorcerer” is another Advanced Vocation that does away with much of a Mage’s support magic in exchange for immensely lethal sorceries. No longer able to heal their party, a Sorcerer can instead petrify their foes, summon enormous spears of ice, or even call meteors down from the heavens. Finally, the “Mystic Knight” Hybrid Vocation can support their entire party while simultaneously crushing their foes and weathering even the strongest of attacks by wearing immensely heavy armour, wielding a magick shield and a one-handed weapon, while also having access to an array of supporting spells and powerful mystical glyphs.
It may seem like I’ve spent a huge amount of time throwing Vocations at you, but for me they are what makes the game so entertaining. Being able to swap these Vocations out when you grow bored or frustrated can make the game feel totally different. Honestly, with my low tolerance for boredom, being able to more or less recreate my character whenever I want was a welcome addition. When you add in the party of customisable “Pawn” companions you travel with, the combinations you can pull off are infinitely rewarding.
The Arisen’s party can have up to three Pawns accompanying them at any one time. Your Arisen will have a personal Pawn that you custom build near the start of the game, while the other two are taken either from characters generated by Capcom, or those crafted by other Dragon’s Dogma players. One of the strangest mechanics this game has is how the Pawns will learn from your fights and slowly alter their AI to suit your preferences. If you teach your pawn to support you in battle with healing items you’ll find it automatically helping you out without your command, whereas if you consistently tell it to charge the biggest monster on the field it will become an aggressive fighter that always targets the most dangerous threat. The two other Pawns you borrow don’t learn while with you, but you can see what sort of personality they have before choosing to bring them with you, letting you fill out the gaps in your party in whatever way suits you.
When you piece this all together you end up with some of the greatest set-pieces I’ve seen in non-scripted Action RPG’s. Discovering a Griffin feeding in a field can lead to your supporting Mage Pawn igniting its wings with fireballs to ground the beast, while your Strider climbs onto it’s back to keep it down. All the while your Fighter keeps its attention and tanks the hits while you, the Arisen, slowly summon a titanic barrage of meteors from the sky to obliterate your foe in one fell swoop. Those are the moments that stick in my mind when I recall my time playing Dragon’s Dogma.
What doesn’t stick in my memory is the stories and subplots encountered as you play. Poor storytelling is always a threat for an RPG, and Dragon’s Dogma is certainly guilty of many poor choices. Perhaps chief amongst them is how purposeless your quest can feel at times. Though you’ll hardly struggle to push through the main plot, the individual moments between major plot points feel perfunctory at best. This problem is even more apparent in side quests that have little to no bearing on plot, though I will admit some smaller quests will make subtle changes to certain characters’ interactions with you. When I’m remembering the order of key events only because I’ve played this game so frequently you know there’s something wrong with the quality of the plot.
I’ll readily admit that individually, many parts of this game are a little less than stellar. The story is often vague and unrewarding, though given time it begins to unravel into a surprisingly deep plot. The characters aren’t all that complex at the best of times, and many a dire situation will fall flat when a Pawn decides to comment on the local sights. But when you place these paper-thin characters and the threadbare plot into a world as interesting as this, wrapped up in some of the greatest RPG combat I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying, it’s extremely easy to overlook the flaws and embrace it as one messy, living, breathing, experience. Dragon’s Dogma won’t ever be considered a masterclass in RPG design, but it’s damn good at what it sets out to do.
Take the time to immerse yourself in the world of Dragon’s Dogma and be rewarded with a brilliantly unique game. Also, the magic spells in this game are perhaps some of the most visually stunning I’ve ever seen.
Writer: Jack Soric
Editor: Joseph Diskett