Since its initial announcement, commentary on Capcom’s latest game, an open world action-RPG has been divided into two groups. On one hand, there were those optimistic about the game and it’s climbing monster-climbing mechanic, and looked forward to its release. On the other side of the conversation were those who flat out rejected the game, and dismissed it as destined for failure. Personally, there was no part of the phrase “open world action-RPG with giant monster battles” that failed to capture my full attention, and previews and demos both did little to dismiss my high hopes from Dragon’s Dogma despite the mixed reviews surrounding its announcement. The midnight release at the local GameStop indicated, a shared enthusiasm at least in my neighborhood, so as I settled in to begin the game during the wee hours of the morning, my hopes remained high. From the demo, early comparisons of the game measured its style as a balance between Demon's Souls and Shadow of the Colossus, so armed only with my controller, I set out into the world of Gransys with my chin held high -- I was immediately met with crushing amounts of disappointment.
The game puts you into the shoes of a player created character who, after having his heart torn out by a gigantic dragon, finds out that he is an “Arisen”. As an Arisen, the protagonist is destined to become a hero of the lands and rid the world of the evil which has been unleashed on the land as well as its harbingers: dragons. From there, the plot is as forgettable as the preliminary description may lead one to believe, but creation of your character is one of the game’s more enjoyable points. Players begin with one of a set of premade body types and from there may mix, match, shrink, and swell the character’s proportions as they wish. You’ll also have to choose a character voice, which seems silly considering the only dialogue players will be taking part in will be the occasional grunts during engagements. The same will be done for the player’s main pawn who may be hired out through a feature called “the rift” where players on the PSN may hire pawns created by other players in exchange for in-game currency. Finally, players will have to choose a vocation: fighter, your basic hack and slash warrior type, strider the duel-wielding, bow firing melee physical damage specialist, and sorcer, the magic wielder and support vocation. Later in the game, players may mix and match skill-sets between their vocations to create unique combinations, so nothing you do here is truly set in stone.
Once the game’s opening cinematic had finished, players are immediately turned loose into the grim setting of the game’s prologue. After a fairly impressive opening, the game’s deficiencies become overwhelmingly obvious, forming a wall between the player and the immersive, fantastic experience Dragon’s Dogma could have been. To start with, sounds in the grand world of Gransys are unbelievably average. It seems that developers thought the best way to overcome this general lack of quality was to make all of the sounds incredibly loud instead, however in doing that they also neglected that underneath all of the sound an actual plot was supposed to be unfolding. In particular, the “high intensity” music meant to play during the game’s action sequences erupts into life the moment your character seems to be in any remote danger of taking damage. Pawns, the companions which accompany throughout your journey as Arisen, are beings which appear human, however lack the certain “spark” which humans possess that allows them to appreciate such things as art, love, breathing, and all of that fun stuff. For beings who are dry and uninteresting, the Pawns you choose to take with you on your journey make no qualms about shouting out their thoughts on literally everything you may come across during your time with the game. Unlike other games, which tune out background noise when important characters are speaking as parts of plot-vital sequences, Dragon’s Dogma keeps the knob turned to eleven at all times, so expect to miss important details linked to whatever it is you’re doing while your Pawns comment on the odd placement of logs at the side of roads.
The game’s UI does little to ease the collective agony created by its many other pervading problems. Whether it’s in the system menus, navigating a merchant’s, or one’s own inventory, players will face menu within endless lists of menus. It’s hard to think of a game since Final Fantasy VII that has found so many ways to hide simple objects one might try to find. For example, while upon reaching the first big city after the game’s tutorial, I took a moment to find a blacksmith and upgrade my character’s armour and weapons. Aside from a category of items called “Accoutrements”, I found little to smile about in the odd way the game requires you to select quantities of items to purchase all at once before heading to a final checkout. Admittedly, later in the game, I came to appreciate the process because it makes buying bulk quantities of items easier to accomplish and mimics the checkout procedures of most online stores, but overall, it just seemed like one more convoluted system in an already suffering game. Another layer to the game’s UI woes manifests itself in the form of a neat brown box at the bottom of the screen. While useful information on obscure aspects of the game, such as how to sprint and that the game’s crafting element exists, more often the box seems intent on telling you how great Dragon’s Dogma is, or at least that it's not as horrible as you're thinking. Imploring you to look at the grass, or notice how bustling the cities are (they aren’t), you’d think some marketing executive from Capcom was sitting at the other end trying to convince you that the game was worth all the time and money you put into buying it. As a tutorial platform, the box is made redundant by another box which appears in the center of the screen whenever the game thinks it has something to teach you. Whether it’s repeating that tidbit about how to sprint, or reminding you that you can climb on enemies, this bigger box will pause the game and let you know what you’re supposed to be doing. Thanks box!
The graphic quality of Dragon’s Dogma is a mixed bag and while there are many elements in this category to find lacking, it is also the section where the game begins to rally back some points in its favour.
Beginning with the bad, do not be fooled by hi-res screenshots, the overall graphic quality of just about everything in Dragon’s Dogma is incredibly average at best. The continent of Gransys is a mess of dark greys and smudged geens; all forgettable, all ugly to look at. Textures merge with one another in cities, turning the ground at least into a gravel-covered, pixel distorted mess. Stone and wooden elements of the environment in the countryside share the same issues, but somewhat avoids the problem, by covering the base textures with tall grass. Facial expressions are non-existent in the game, and outside of purely cinematic sequences, character voices never sync up with actual movements. Things like this, combined with the clunky tutorial system described earlier will likely keep even the most adamant RPG fan from developing any level of immersion into the world. Moments where one might find themselves content with the game’s overall practice are typically interrupted by some annoying element of the game, propelling the player back into reality for some unforgivable reason that could have been remedy with the most preliminary forms of testing.
Now for the good! While the game’s design on a technical level is average at best, it’s overall design is commendable. Towns and cities aren’t designed with any grand, new concepts in mind, but they do fit into the medieval niche very well. Everything the eye comes to rest on conveys a sense of crowded grittiness one would expect to find within a community facing the grim situation presented to the people of Gransys. While details are lost to the poor texture quality, armor sets in the game compliment one another quite well, and look cool while remaining fairly realistic in their appearance (at lower levels at least) as opposed to the glowing, armored bikini pieces some games put forward. Finally, the way darkness is presented as a real obstacle in the game does well to enhance the sense of realism and danger both at night and in dungeons the game sends you crawling through -- I always checked to make sure a lantern was in my inventory before heading out on a quest.
Gameplay is another mixed affair in Dragon’s Dogma. Combat is not particularly difficult, enemies become staggered by just about any form of resistance so defeating most enemies boils down to who attacks first before dispatching the opposition with a flurry light or heavy attacks. The game only boasts a single combo with special skills being unlocked as you move through your vocation's ranks. Like other things in the game, spells aren’t particularly pretty, but they do satisfy the eye when impacting an enemy or splashing over a landscape. The sword swing animations in particular seem like the most polished element of the game, but any focus during actual conflicts is drawn away from that by horrendous slow-motion sequences triggered on a whim, either by a companion initiating one of the game’s “teamwork” mechanics, or sometimes for no reason at all. At any rate, during these sequences, the camera’s focus is immediately ripped away from the player and focused on whatever the game deems most important before snapping back to the player in whatever awkward predicament they’ve woven themselves into by that time.
The game’s main selling point, giant monster battles, sadly follow the same patterns other elements of the game have to this point. Latching on and climbing enemies is very easy to do, and while it is entertaining at first, the game’s lack of attack variety will quickly leave you bored while mashing the square button and clinging to the back of whatever fiend you encounter. It is equally easy to find yourself being knocked off of said enemy for what may seem like no reason, as any movement the goliath might make could be vaguely interpreted as some form of attack, while obvious attempts to shake the player off may go completely ignored while you hack away. The movements of these enemies is typically very unpolished and clumsy in terms of the animations themselves, much like the rest of the game. You will chuckle in mixed awe and and surprise as the tail of some reptilian beast lashes out to swat a wooden tower to splinters like a child marching through a lego city, then frown in disappointment as that same monster flagrantly clips through some other non-scripted portion of the environment. This game is an emotional rollercoaster, and certainly not because of the plot.
Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma is a mess of good ideas smothered in lazy execution. The pervading development philosophy seems to have been, “why fix it when you can hide it”. Poor texture quality is covered up by an abundance of grass, the lack of interesting characters to occupy the world is covered up with an abundance of dull characters, and the lack of interesting combat sequences is covered up by making some of the enemies larger. One can’t help but think that if Capcom had traded its “more” philosophy for a “fix what is there” one, the game would have followed suit. While there are many elements of the game beneath the flaws that I feel some niche audience may latch onto, the game as a whole is a disappointment. After being asked to sum up my experience with the game, I told a friend that Dragon’s Dogma seemed to be a game in which a main semi-unique concept was sort of finished, then “finished” with generic RPG leftovers found laying around the studio. After losing so much cache with fans over Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, I hoped Capcom would redeem itself with Dragon’s Dogma but for most, I think it will be a miss. As for me, I love somethings, hate a lot, but if a friend asked if they should buy it, I’d say they could live without it.