Engrossing and frustrating, Dragon’s Dogma is a flawed and unique gem.

The Good

  • Fantastic combat encounters against awesome monsters
  • One of the best boss fights in any role-playing game, ever
  • There is always a surprise around the corner
  • Atmospheric touches that make the world feel authentic
  • A series of striking choices leads to an unforgettable ending.

The Bad

  • Tedious backtracking through familiar territory
  • Exasperating pawn behavior
  • Bizarre quest-related and story events.

You might have heard Dragon’s Dogma compared to Shadow of the Colossus, the The Elder Scrolls series, the Monster Hunter games, or even Dark Souls. But while this open-world role-playing adventure has some superficial similarities to these games and others, it can’t really be described through such comparisons. Dragon’s Dogma is stubborn and defiant, wonderful and infuriating in the way it does its own thing without regard for whether or not it was the right thing to do. That defiant attitude will have you cursing the game and rolling your eyes at the frustrations, yet you will be enchanted. When a game plays by a set of rules this unique, there is always a surprise lurking around the bend, or ready to strike from above.

He might be big–but he isn’t invulnerable.

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And so you may love Dragon’s Dogma. Prepare for a passionate relationship but a dysfunctional one, in which your lover refuses to give an inch, and yet you return for more. And like many relationships, this one begins with a bright spark–in this case, a prologue that gives you a taste of the legendary battles to come. And if that scenario doesn’t draw you in, then an early cutscene certainly will: a dragon tears open your puny chest with a gigantic single claw, pierces your heart with that same claw, and swallows the vital organ in a gulp.

How could you possibly survive such an attack? After all: you have no heart! Answers come–well, some, anyway–but not before you ask countless more questions. You discover that you are the Arisen, but what does this title truly mean? How are you connected to this giant wyrm? How is it you can understand its guttural, unknown language? But before you find resolution, you must come to grips with yet another discovery. As the Arisen, you can command humanoids known as pawns that hail from another dimension. These pawns exist to serve; they wander the roads, ready to enlist as your companion, and aimlessly stroll in a murky otherworld called the Rift, where you can call them to your cause.

Up to three pawns can join you on your journey. One of them is a permanent fixture; you choose his (or her) looks, his name, and his class, and as he levels, you can equip skills and upgrades for him just as you can for yourself. Your other pawns are hirelings and can be taken on and dismissed as you see fit. These poor lost sheep aren’t necessarily products of the game’s creators, however; they may also be other players’ main pawns who have stolen away to your own world, serfs to be bought by the land’s rising star. Provided you have enough of the rift points needed to purchase them, you can bring on pawns of any level–even one much higher than yourself.

Monsters are everywhere, so be vigilant.

Monsters are everywhere, so be vigilant.

Traveling with pawns is like having the company of curious, forgetful children who are constantly delighted by the world around them. And like children, they never shut up about things, interrupting each other with abandon. “What a large tree,” one enthuses, each time you pass the same oak. “It’s weak to fire!” your mage exclaims, as if it isn’t the hundredth time he’s seen a goblin. There are ways to adjust your pawns’ social behavior, but the repeated lines can get tiresome. How is it possible they’re so surprised that the path is near the beach, when they’ve noted the information countless times already? The chatter is meant to make pawns seem aware of the world around them, but with so much repetition, the illusion is shattered.

Yet despite their short-term memory loss, there’s a charm to the dignified acting and affected Ye Olde English dialogue of your pawns. Your minions are just so happy to serve you, so happy to remind you that you need to shoot at a cyclops’s single eye that you can only shake your head in wonder of their dedication. If only their other transgressions were so modest. “Heal thyself” you will cry aloud to your mage, who possesses any number of healing items, yet ignores them in favor of throwing another few fireballs. You can set general behaviors and give general commands, but a system for micromanaging the AI in the way of Final Fantasy XII or Dragon Age: Origins would have been a godsend.

Nevertheless, your pawns–bless their childlike souls–have a way of earning your affection, both by announcing their desire to serve, and by summoning meteor showers and spikes of ice when you most need them. Dragon’s Dogma’s closing moments use this attachment to enormous effect. Don’t worry that this is a spoiler: nothing could prepare you for the bizarre and memorable turn of events to come. Well, nothing, perhaps, but the few hours of incredible gameplay leading up to it, beginning with an amazing and heroic boss battle that just keeps going and going, yet never drags because it keeps introducing new ideas and finding new ways to build tension.

Your lamp provides illumination when you most need it. Just make sure you don't run out of lamp oil.

Your lamp provides illumination when you most need it. Just make sure you don’t run out of lamp oil.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the same boss creature is many, many times your size–as are a number of the other monsters you face. Griffons, chimeras, and golems are among the beasts you slay, and the ensuing battles are the game’s primary draw. Imagine this scenario: You exit the city of Gran Soren, and a massive shrieking griffon flies above, circling in the air before landing just a few feet from you. As a warrior, you lash away at its talons while your companions set its wings ablaze, though this is by no means a certain victory. The griffon may simply fly away if you don’t occupy its attention long enough. It might pick you up, fly upward, and drop you to your death. But you might gain the upper hand by leaping upon it, grabbing its feathers, and flailing away as it soars through the skies.

Such moments are the culmination of Dragon’s Dogma’s outstanding combat scenarios. These are some of the best-animated creatures in any game to date. You’ve never seen chimeras like this: part lion, part goat, part snake, and all fearsome. The lion’s head roars and bucks, while the goat atop it yowls its displeasure at the flames you have rained upon it. When you lop off the serpentine tail and the beast falls, it kicks its legs wildly as it tries to get back on its feet. With substantial creatures, you can grab an appendage and climb your way to any body part accessible, provided you’ve got the stamina. These may be beasts of legend, but they behave in believable ways. Gravity affects them in ways that make sense, and armor falls from their bodies as you smash into it.

Engrossing and frustrating, Dragon’s Dogma is a flawed and unique gem.

By Kevin VanOrd