The thing about challenging games is that it becomes hard to really deliver the full experience in an explanation without complaining a lot. The great thing about challenging games like Dragon’s Dogma, however, is that it promotes toward a demographic that really enjoys games like Dark Souls. I can’t say for sure, but what was intended by Capcom to be a Monster Hunter game on consoles became something much better, but without the fanfare and the gameplay mechanics of the successful handheld title. Capcom has skipped over a Monster Hunter for most next-gen consoles, but the potential for a stronger console IP is all here.
In the world of Gransys, you are destined to save the land and are titled The Arisen. You become aware of this after a massive dragon attacks your tiny beach village and steals your heart. Literally. The entire showing is great, considering that the dragon is almost born through the cloud formation which accompanied it. After a "bout" with the dragon upon finding a rusty sword on the beach, the dragon takes over the fight. It pins you down, claws into your chest, and then removes and eats your heart. You lose consciousness and wake up in the home of one of your neighbors and overhear that you’re still alive, but she’s astonished, because you don’t have a beating heart. Upon becoming an Arisen, you set out on a journey to overtake the dragon that has “stolen your heart” and free the land of Gransys from the fear of the dragon and the land-wide overrun of monsters.
Capcom has done some really great things with Dragon’s Dogma. Vocations, or roles, are chosen at the onset of the story, which are the mage, the warrior, and the rogue. Each vocation has two options with which to play. The warrior can be either a tank or a melee damage dealer, the rogue can be either an archer or a traditional rogue, and the mage can be either a healer or a damage dealer. These vocations can be truly specialized, but the sub-vocation options aren’t exactly forced either. Players can be both of the vocation options, such as being a fire mage with healing abilities or a rogue that is skilled with a bow. The best part about vocations, however, is that they can be changed, almost at any time. This is done at an inn; the inn you will use most will be located within Gran Soren, the heart and soul of Gransys.
Gran Soren is a hub where you can enhance equipment, rest, and buy materials. In games like this, it’s traditional to combine gathered and purchased materials to construct and enhance items, and Dragon’s Dogma does a decent job in this respect. Though players can’t necessarily create weapons and armor, looted and purchased gear can be enhanced at the blacksmith with money and materials gathered from the environment and monsters. It’s a bit disappointing that Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t have any full-fledged crafting mechanics, but, since it’s sold pretty well, it’s not weird for game companies to developer sequelitis.
Gransys is massive, especially since it has to be navigated on foot. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own, since monsters frequent the land and gatherable items and equipment can be found in every nook and cranny in the world. In fact, after every significant fight, take a few seconds to look around that area. Chances are that a chest lies in hiding with uncommon items and scads of cash ripe for the picking. The major drawbacks to this game lie in transportation, being the ability to quickly go from place to place and return to Gran Soren without having to run back. In order to go anywhere, you have to go there on foot—that’s right, no fast travel function—and the only way to quickly return to Gran Soren is to buy an item called the Ferrystone that costs 20,000 of in-game gold, or happen across one that may rarely be lying next to key areas in towns.
Players create a companion at the onset of the game, and that companion goes through the same beginning customization steps as the player character did, selecting vocation and aesthetics. These companions are not mere additions, however. Companions can be fully suited like your main character can, and their equipment can be customized in the same ways that yours can. They can also carry extra equipment and materials found out in the wilds of Gransys, and they have the AI to handle any expected role of which they’re required. It’s quite impressive really, with the only incontingency being when players issue the simplistic commands via the D-Pad, which are “Come!” “Go!” and “Help!” with the latter being bound to both left and right. When this happens, companions tend to still pursue enemies even when fleeing, but spamming for them to come gets the job done well enough; it’s still a bit frustrating when a world monster clobbers your companion and you have to reconnect with them at the Pawn Stone.
The Pawn Stone is another great tool, which should be used frequently—literally, every time you return to Gran Soren. When companions die in combat, you return to the Pawn Stone and your created companion returns to your side. Upon its return, you can literally enter the Pawn Stone and search for other companions that other players of Dragon’s Dogma have created and bring them along with you on your journey. Two pawns, the technical word for companions from other players, can be added in this way to your group, and they can also be used as extra storage; in the event that they die, items they were holding go to an item bank located at the inn in Gran Soren. Pawns can’t be leveled the same way that your main character or companion can, so having to find replacements after a long excursion is a good idea. One of the most interesting aspects to the Pawn system is that these pawns also can be found walking around the world, and they can be recruited on the spot. Even if you have a group set that you like, you can favorite other pawns you find and access them later when you need them via the Pawn Stone.
Dragon’s Dogma has a vast array of monsters to fight, and each one has more than one way to manhandle any player. Assassins will ambush and maul you, Cyclopes will withstand massive damage and smash you with a huge club, and chimera will circle you until they find an opening. This is where group makeups are paramount. You must ALWAYS have a tank and a mage, so monsters can be managed and assessed properly. If a Cyclops is allowed to run rampant on a group, all of the damage-dealing characters will be laughably destroyed—believe me, you will not be laughing at this. Much like some of my experiences in Demon’s Souls, death can come from enemies that are easily dispatched. Every once in a while, random enemies will overtake you, albeit ambush or simply bad luck, and cut you down to size. When party members die, they can be revived without any effort. But when your main character dies, it’s game over. This happens frequently, on account of tricky monsters and the “auto-save function.”
When this game first loads up, it prompts players with a notification that it has an auto-save function. This is a loose technicality, since I had wasted countless hours backtracking through areas that I had already done multiple times over because of dying constantly. The game actually saves when a cutscene occurs or if you load into a new area. For your own sakes, upon starting this game, get in the habit of pressing start and then select after each triumphant victory. It will save you both time and heartache.
Cutscenes are rendered with the in-game engine, which doesn’t do the graphics many favors. The game doesn’t look terrible, by any means, but they’re not awe-inspiring either. The game looks its best when the screen is full of action, monsters are moving around all over the place, and the party is managing multiple variables at once. It even becomes almost nerve-racking at night when everything gets pitch black, and the undead start attacking, and all your party has to rely on are small oil lanterns. Tread lightly; it will be dark.
The sounds of the game are wonderful, offering very robust animal noises that fit the bill for each creature. Voice acting isn’t moving, but the story isn’t exactly the full driving force to Dragon’s Dogma either, but every non-player character has a voice actor. Even pawns and companions have a full collection of diverse phrases, which initially feel quite repetitive and annoying when they say the same things constantly. After the first few hours, when the game starts getting much more challenging, the voice prompts become welcome commodities, warning you of potential ambushes, looted items, and mid-battle strategies.
Cutscenes were a welcoming asset to Dragon’s Dogma. They weren’t explosively great by any means, but they helped to create some personality without getting preachy. To compare it loosely, I was better able to connect with the story in Dragon’s Dogma better than I was able to connect with the story in Skyrim simply because the game directed me via cutscenes to emphasize what was important rather than assume that I would pay full attention to every random guy, or dragon, that came my way. This isn’t bashing, mind you, since the main story line in Skyrim was pretty epic. I simply found that cutscenes have more of an impact to the plot; to iterate, the rare cutscenes in Skyrim really brought home what was happening for me.
This will not be a full replacement for anyone who wants a Monster Hunter experience, but Dragon’s Dogma definitely has what it takes to become a deep, highly-sought IP. Its difficulty matches that of Dark Souls and its immersive world mimics that of Skyrim, but the drawbacks are vicious and taxing. Having a full group of characters created by fellow players of Dragon’s Dogma feels really unique, since no single group can easily be mimicked, but it doesn’t help that the consequences of navigating an entire world can be wiped away because of one simple mistake. High risk and high reward are all part of this game, and the consequences can easily be outweighed by micromanaging. Oh, and save your game often often.