Recondite and uncompromising, Dragon’s Dogma is an open love letter to Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, The Elder Scrolls and Shadow of the Colossus. It is a game that is both inviting and constraining, one that requires a deep investment in order to accept its tough-love method of encouraging player betterment. In many ways, you don’t play Dragon’s Dogma – it plays you.
Save, save, save. This is the single most important tip to remember. Dragon’s Dogma is less difficult than its Dark Souls mood and manner might suggest, but it is brutal in its own way. Powerful enemies will regularly ambush you and attack without compunction, making you definitively deceased in seconds if you aren’t prepared for it. Because of this, a slow and steady approach is the best way to play; completing quests, levelling up, gaining better gear and learning all that you can about your surroundings and its bevy of blood-thirsty creatures.
Learning is at the forefront of the game’s design, evident in the only original addition it brings to the RPG genre, that of pawns. These computer-controlled companions are summoned from magical rift stones scattered about the world and will follow you and do your bidding without question. These vacuous golems talk to you incessently, displaying a child-like obsession with everything that they see and do. Their observations will range from comments regarding the area you are exploring to methods for attacking certain creatures or knowledge gained from completing quests. Once an area has been explored or a monster slain, your pawns retain specific knowledge and skills from those adventures, which actually makes them almost as valuable as a real life co-adventurer. During battle, they’ll shout out tactics to more easily kill difficult monsters, even going so far as acting as decoys so you can attack drawn monsters from behind, or in some instances grabbing hold of a weakened enemy in order for you to sink the killing blow.
Pawns are like vacuum cleaners, scooping up all manner of collectibles from smashed crates and barrels. There is so much stuff to find in Dragon’s Dogma that their constant scrounging rarely becomes a nuisance. The only problem you will encounter is in the game’s woeful menu system, which feels like it was purposely designed to troll. It takes ages to work out whether you should be pressing the Start or Select button to do what you want to do, as all of your options are spread between the two menus with no logical recourse whatsoever. Expect to spend a cumulative total of many hours just sorting through equipment and organising your team’s skills. Esoteric is almost too weak a word for this ungainly design.
Your pawn also represents a vicarious connection to other players. Every time you rest at an inn, the game connects to its online server, bringing back into the game information on what your pawn has been doing with other players while you’ve been away… or something, it’s never really explained when or how your pawn buggers off. The important thing is that it will earn experience and items by doing so, which can be extremely helpful, especially if he/she has learnt of enemy weaknesses in an upcoming area of the game that you are yet to explore. This knowledge, called out to you during battle, can often mean the difference between annihilation and survival. The viral nature of pawn experience is the most impressive thing about Dragon’s Dogma. The developers also regularly throw “special” pawns into the recruitment pool, so checking back regularly and changing your party is an important aspect of play. You can also make a decent amount of money from hiring your pawn out, that is if someone is a big enough sucker to pay your hiked-up fees.
The rest of the game is somewhat generic, but laced with enough menace that there’s enjoyment to be had in the slow-and-steady approach to exploration and player levelling. Quests also suffer from obtuse design. For instance, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing for the first two hours of the game. It wasn’t until I returned to my home village that a story scene played and a new round of quests became available. This isn’t a game where you follow a mini-map arrow, it is one in which you must explore and backtrack and earn every single item and upgrade through hard work.
Fetch quests abound for many hours, as well as escort missions, which suck in just about any genre, yet there’s always an element of randomness to make things interesting, such as a massive monster appearing (perhaps even a dragon!). Each large encounter has its own weak spots and tactical prerequisites for bringing it down, often requiring you to jump and grab onto them, clambering up, over and around in a glorious, if miniaturised, homage to Shadow of the Colossus’s epic confrontations. These battles are amazing, messy affairs where death always hovers near. Your pawns will shout out tactics such as “Strike the legs!” while you flail about atop a cyclops, holding on for dear life and watching with mounting anxiety as your stamina meter depletes. These moments make the previous three hours of grinding waft away in a breeze of unimportance.
When you get to the capital of Gran Soren, which in itself is a feat, the game opens up and allows you to customise your character beyond the generic beginning classes. Six extra classes await you, split across advanced options for the original three (warrior, ranger, sorceror) and three hybrids (mystic knight, assassin, magic archer). You aren’t completely locked into a class, either, with the option to spend Discipline points (earnt through killing enemies) to switch between classes if you choose.
Your class option is quite important, because a balanced team will have a far greater chance of surviving encounters. It’s advisable to have a couple of magic users on your team, to act as support and imbue your weapons with elemental damage while the more active members take the responsibility of bringing the biffo. You can also further customise your character by purchasing and setting individual skills and class-specific augments. Set skills assign moves to each face button, enabling you to create a character that plays exactly how you would like, including moves that can deal with airborne foes just as easily as those on the ground.
Initially, Dragon’s Dogma is a somewhat ugly game. On-screen controller commands take up a large chunk of the screen, staunchly declaring their non-immersive intentions from the get-go. Quests are boring, there’s no hand-holding to tell you where to go next and your pawns seem little more than half-witted annoyances. Similarly, the graphics, whilst nowhere near as unnatractive as the user interface, pales in comparison to its peers, falling more towards the muted tones of Dark Souls than the snow-swept beauty of Skyrim.
Persist, however, and the evolving nature of the game comes to fruition. Pawns start to learn things about the world and enemies and put that knowledge into action, your character grows ever so slightly stronger and the slow burn of the main story inches you ever closer to more exhilirating battles with a variety of mythical creatures. Dragon’s Dogma gives back equally what you put in, but with so many great titles vying for attention right now such an investment is something that must be actively nurtured. Massive, meandering and full of menace, Dragon’s Dogma ambushes you from the darkness and attempts to remove your still-beating heart. Are you going to let it?