Dragon's Dogma Review
Dragon’s Dogma so desperately wants to be something special. But it doesn’t strive to mimic or emulate; it doesn’t wish to blend with the elite crowd. It desires a very distinct sort of “special,” an experience that doesn’t easily settle into the standard role-playing category. It insists upon itself. It isn’t perfect and it doesn’t care. And if you click with this unabashed, invigorating adventure, you’re in for one hell of a ride.
My guess is that you will find contrasting viewpoints when it comes to the graphics. On the one hand, you’ve got a lack of vividness and vibrant color, as many of the environments can appear drab and bland. But on the other hand is the game’s spectacular world design, which excels in the realm of diversity and style without necessarily blowing you away with its technical capability. Bottom line: You will only appreciate this massive world if you explore it fully. Until then, don’t pass judgment.
The artistry and animation of certain enemies is absolutely amazing, and the effects kick in big time when your party is flailing away, attempting to take down a gigantic beast that towers above you. It’s true that a bevy of visual glitches can be spotted and do have a negative impact on the adventure, but if you’re a glass-half-full type of person, you will appreciate the highlights. The graphical highs are especially lofty in this presentation, even if the lows can be disappointing. I don’t normally dedicate two paragraphs to graphics, but this deserved elaboration.
The sound is another mixed bag but again, I’m going to take a more positive approach. I liked a lot of the voice work and although I’m not typically a fan of Japanese rock, I think such tracks were used with great effectiveness here. In fact, I don’t think those kick-ass beats were used enough; too often, a more generic orchestral score accompanies our questing. That being said, the balance of the audio is decent, and both the soundtrack and robust sound effects enhance every intense encounter. There may be a fair amount of subjectivity involved but chances are, you’ll dig what your speakers are presenting.
In a very large world, a cohesive, compelling story attempts to be heard. Like the entire production, the plot insists on recognition; it demands your attention and even shows flashes of storytelling excellence. But too many of the events and occurrences are just plain bizarre and don’t seem to gel. In other words, there seems to be a lack of continuity, in that a side quest or even a main event doesn’t always alter the development of the characters. In some cases, you’re just going, “uh, wait…shouldn’t you hate me?”
I mention the story first simply because I’m an old-school fan of linear role-playing games, and I miss the brilliant story portrayal and delivery we used to see in old Squaresoft gems. But to be fair, a game like Dragon’s Dogma, despite its appreciated emphasis on a somewhat disjointed story, survives almost entirely on its solid and even addictive gameplay. And here’s where things get awfully interesting, because players will initially draw parallels between this game and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, without realizing that Dogma is very much its own experience.
Firstly, you will utilize a party mechanic that involves three “pawns.” One of the pawns will always be by your side, and you have full control of his or her name, appearance, class, skills, equipment, etc. The other pawns can be hired and fired as you see fit, which gives us an intriguing strategic element that actually reminded me a bit of Final Fantasy Tactics. In the latter, you could recruit new soldiers and train them. It’s a little different here in that the hirelings can't be entirely built to your personal specifications, but the "throwaway" pawns still add flair.
Anyway, the pawns are interesting for a variety of reasons. I’d often get a little annoyed at their incessant jabbering, but it’s often so cheerful and good-natured that I found it hard to get legitimately upset. Besides, they can be immensely helpful. They might reveal a tough enemy’s weaknesses (after the pawn discovers that weakness himself) or remind you that healing is required. Still, I have to say that the constantly repeated lines, as optimistic and carefree as they typically were, started to grate after the ten hour mark. I mean, really...enough.
I did enjoy the old English dialogue, though, and they did make me smile. The only truly frustrating part was when they didn’t react quickly enough to my commands, or failed to perform up to par. This is where I wanted a more detailed AI system, like the one we had in Final Fantasy XII (sorry, I keep referring to FF here), because Dragon’s Dogma really could’ve used a more advanced AI command mechanic. But overall, I’d say the ally AI can be labeled as competent, and the size and scope of the journey keeps one riveted despite buddy silliness.
And speaking of size, you just gotta see the bosses in this game. In addition to featuring fantastic animation and design, the bosses are huge, vicious, and extremely intimidating. The first you encounter is a gigantic griffon, and that’s also when you realize that battles can have numerous outcomes. The griffon might pick you up and drop you to your death, or you might light its wings on fire and beat the snot out of it for a while. Then, as you progress, chimeras, golems, and even the occasional awesome dragon will test every ounce of your stalwart mettle.
Once again, though, as soon as we talk about a high point, we must address a drawback. While the bosses – and indeed, most of the enemies – provide the gamer with a substantial challenge and afterward, a significant reward, one will quickly notice that backtracking is the unfortunate name of the game. Well, at least for a while. You just spend far too much time wandering through the same areas, and as many of those landscapes are kinda barren to begin with, this can get tedious. Exploration and travel needed to be more streamlined and dynamic.
Ah, but that gameplay is just so good! The control is great, the character advancement and customization is even better, and you will always be on the edge of your seat. Few games are capable of keeping you involved and interested; few, especially of such immense size, can manage to keep every encounter entertaining. It’s frustrating when you run into a challenge you simply can’t take down, but this happened to me quite often in Skyrim and I didn’t complain then. To me, this only encourages further exploration and redoubled dedication. Given the intense, ultimately satisfying nature of the combat system and the fact that I just wanted to see new enemies, I never felt overwhelmed or outmatched. I just felt temporarily underpowered.
At the very least, Dragon’s Dogma is a huge game that will keep you on your toes. There’s a good 30-40 hours of gameplay here (and a lot more if you choose to do everything), and the consistently fun and demanding battles will keep you playing. If you look close, you really will appreciate the extra attention paid to small, seemingly inconsequential details. They’re not inconsequential at all; they add to the overall panache and atmosphere, which can be erratic and patchy, but when it’s good…it’s great. Plus, you factor in some decision making and a world that just begs you to explore, and you’ve got major bang for your buck.
It doesn’t fire on all cylinders all the time. It can be disappointing and frustrating. But at the end of the day, you will reflect and conclude that all in all, you’re experiencing what could be a memorable adventure.
The Good: Fantastic enemy design and supreme animations. Some good music selections. Combat is almost always demanding and entertaining. Big, diverse, engaging world. Competent, often helpful AI. Decision-making is a huge plus.
The Bad: Obvious visual glitches. Erratic pawn behavior. Too much backtracking involved. Disjointed storyline.
The Ugly: “Yes, that is a big tree. I heard you the fifty-eighth time, damnit.”
6/5/2012 Ben Dutka