Game Rant's Curt Hutson reviews Dragon's Dogma
The company that created the Breath of Fire series, one of the best RPG's in history, brings us Dragon's Dogma, an odd stab at an offline MMO styled RPG that's hardest quest is finding a decent story. Ironically, Breath of Fire designer Makoto Ikehara worked on this game's world and script elements. Go figure.
For those hoping for an engaging, epic tale, the band-aid needs to be ripped off right now. Initially Dragon's Dogma looked like an interesting experiment that meshed together several sub-genres of role playing games into one amusing concoction - an action-oriented RPG that took on many MMO elements, such as open world exploration and battle tactics. The combat shines, but contrarily the lackluster story takes a blow to the head early on and is left unconscious for the most of the game.
Dragon's Dogma opens abruptly in a dark, ominous cave, where players are thrown into a somewhat fluid tutorial, feeling bewildered as to what exactly is happening storywise. All that is clear is there is a dragon that needs dead and the player is the one to do it. Fighting a dragon is motivation enough at this point. The tutorial ends with an incredible battle with a Chimera, which can be mounted and ridden -- almost reason enough to play this game. The battle acts as a preview of the deep and complex combat system. Taking the suggestions of party members will garner a quick victory, after strategically incapacitating the different parts of the Chimera to dispatch it effectively - the different parts being the lion, snake and murderous goat. Shortly after the battle the main story starts, revealing everything played previously to be some sort of dream/flashback. A dragon wakes up and begins destroying the world for no apparent reason - maybe because, in this world, dragons are all jerks? After the player's village is attacked, they pick up a rusty sword and ineffectually start hacking at the dragon's legs, which is really annoying to dragons. As punishment for being agitated, the creature takes the player's heart, turning them into an Arisen, whose quest is to take their heart back. "Please try to kill me later. Right now I need to destroy the world for no reason," says the dragon. That's the gist of the main quest.
From here on out, the game is hard to follow. There are always quest objectives readily available everywhere by talking to NPCs or following the main story, but they are rarely interesting and often ambiguous. The game assumes players know their way around and doesn't give a lot of details - even the quest log doesn't give a lot in the way of advice or hints. There is a feature on the map that allows for quest markers, even letting players choose their main quest waypoint, but after closing the map, they will either have to memorize those locations or open the map back up and repeat the process to refresh themselves. It's tedious to say the least.
It isn't made easier by the fact that the world is huge. A lot of times a notice will pop up saying a quest has been inexplicably completed, mostly because players have forgotten they even had it because the quest description was either too confusing or too mundane to regard. Next thing they know, they've apparently killed 10 badgers and finished a quest. Blindly stumbling upon quest objectives is all too common and typically the only way to finish one at all. Don't expect an NPC to lay it all out, giving directions or specific instructions. Unless it is a main story quest, which are a bit more generous with information, expect to keep glancing at the map for guidance, of course. The upside to this madness is that rarely do players have to turn in a quest. Sure, they may not remember they had it in the first place, but when a message pops up with rewards of experience and gold, who cares? Unfortunately, the very process of questing can sometimes undermine the rewards.
As always with RPGs, the questing is intertwined with the story, which has all the depth of an episode of Glee - although Glee still has about twice the character development. It really is about the characters with games like this. They can make a mediocre game that much better. The main character in Dragon's Dogma is your typical silent protagonist, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it creates a void in which supporting characters must fill to be engaging. In this case, the supporting cast (the player's companions) are simply pawns for the hero - seriously, they are actually called Pawns.
Submissive, plain and forgettable, this cult of Arisen followers are more like Stepford Wives than a band of heroes. There are literally thousands to choose from and can be switched out regularly, which is more of a strategic combat device than anything else, but more on that later. There is an attempt to humanize Pawns by having them offer up advice, but the advice is given so often and so regularly and is rarely helpful. "Be careful! Don't walk off that gigantic cliff!" Very helpful. Since players are allowed three Pawns at once, they are always vying to be the most helpful, often at the same time. Not including friendly fire is an unfortunate oversight in the game's development. Pawns add very little to the overall story and add almost nothing in the ways of likable, memorable characters - and this game is devoid of any.
Without the support of a likable cast, the main story suffers. The bulk of the game is convoluted, and riddled with a series of distractions that don't move the story forward - unfortunately, it's hard not to know that as the game doesn't make a lot clear when accepting quests. The story will disappear for long spans, before popping up again near the end. A blasÃ© romantic sub-plot and a couple of semi-interesting story bits will keep players somewhat engrossed and in touch with the grand scheme of things until the bizarre conclusion throws them yet another a major curveball.
The customization options help add a bit of personal character to the game. Creating an avatar can be easy or intricate, allowing players to choose nearly every aspect of the character down to bulk of their biceps. Different character classes add strategy and shape how players will play the game and explore the incredibly large, but slightly bland world. Like it's denizens, it is bogged down by a lack of any personality.
The most positive aspect of the game is its brilliant combat. It borrows a lot from several different genres, but leans heavily toward action, using quick select, upgradable attack skills ala the Tales series. Finding weaknesses in opponents and exploiting them is fun and original, and often the only way to take down larger foes. Hopping on a dragon's back and riding it into the sky while hacking away at its wings is one of the many combat highlights in the game. Focusing on different parts of a creature to slow it down, blind it, and basically weaken it, is what makes the combat smart and incredibly entertaining.
The strategy in attacking a foe is also dependent on a player's chosen class: warrior, ranger or mage. Each has its own skills, support abilities and roles in battle. This is also when the companions really earn their keep. Occasionally stupid, but often crucial to turning the tide of battle, choosing Pawns and using them wisely in combat is the only way to progress in the game. Not only do they supply damage support, but they adapt after each fight, literally logging away what they've learned and applying it to the next round with the same or similar creatures. This is the only time their advice comes in handy, as they will alert players to an enemies weaknesses.
Dragon's Dogma boasts an impressive combat system that may not earn it a recommendation, but absolutely makes it playable, even enjoyable.
All of the strategy in the world won't help, however, if players are unprepared. Picking the correct team is one thing, but Dragon's Dogma is not an easy game. It's very, very hard. No amount of skill or luck will help players progress. Expect to be one-shotted constantly, and to be overcome by enemies that appear out of nowhere. Players may prepare by leveling, buying every piece of new armor available and upgrading their skills and equipment whenever possible - something not easily done nor cheap. As is the case with quests, nothing is clear and one minute the game will feel like a cakewalk, and two steps north has you being mauled by a group of goblins you're sure weren't there two seconds ago. This could also be chalked up to the game's wonky technical issues, which often ruin the experience.
Another issue is the absence of any quick item interface, so choosing a health potion from the items menu will slow the pace of the game. Another gruelingly hard feature is the day and night mechanic. Going out at night is just plain suicide. The game often makes players feel unprepared, even when they are, because of the randomness of the difficulty. After a successful victory, a player could be brutally taken down seconds later, leaving them feeling robbed and diminishing their experience.
Dragon's Dogma has many flaws - and, in general, comes across as unpolished and unfinished. Some RPGs find themselves choosing between gameplay and story. The key to a successful RPG is finding a balance, but Dragon's Dogma chose to focus on an, admittedly excellent, combat system, leaving a story that is laborious to follow and uninspiring. Quests are a drag, characters are lifeless and the game is unforgiving for the patience a player will put into it. The combat carries a lot of weight and is the saving grace for the title, making it playable for that feature alone. If your playlist is getting bare and you're looking for a game to fill that void, or just wanting to get early access to Resident Evil 6, Dragon's Dogma might be a slightly amusing way to waste some time - otherwise it might be best to let sleeping Dogma's lie.
Dragon's Dogma is available now for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Game Rant played the Xbox 360 version for this review.
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