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.
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.
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.
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.
You and your companions can clip into a monster's geometry, and the camera can get somewhat unwieldy when you're crawling up a hydra's waving tentacles. But considering the ensuing thrills, these are minor blights on a fantastic combat system. You choose from three initial classes, but six more open up later, each with its own particular skills and weapons. Whichever you choose, there's a great sense of impact. You feel sword meet flesh, and when you unleash a particularly powerful move, the game slows down to highlight your feat. Firing a bow feels fluid, and you hear and see the arrows hit their mark.
The excitement is compounded by the sensation that anything can happen, because it so often does. In one early mission, you shouldn't stay and fight the tentacles that rise from the ground: you need to sprint away as fast as you can. (Your companions all the while helpfully proclaim how there seems to be an endless supply of tentacles, prodding you to get out of there posthaste.) You find yourself donning a party hat at one point, unsure if everyone's laughing with you or at you. And in the final hours, new concepts, new enemies, and new visuals are introduced. At this stage, not only does Dragon's Dogma not feel like a typical role-playing game, but it doesn't even feel like the same game you had been playing just a few minutes before.
If only the brilliance weren't surrounded by so much tedium, and so many conceptual missteps.
Most of the frustrations come from Dragon's Dogma's structure. The game wants you to earn your victories, which is not a bad thing. But it also refuses to give you a helping hand, even if it means making your adventure feel like work rather than fun. For several hours, traveling the world of Gransys is more annoying than it is adventurous. There is no travel-on-demand system, so you spend many hours traveling the same brown canyons and winding paths you've seen countless times already, fighting the harpies and saurians that prowled there before. There are items to help you get back to town, but these one-use items are expensive--and the items that let you choose your own destination are even more so.
Questing can also take some time to get a handle on. An early quest might send you up a hill, where the wolves are thick but manageable, and then straight into a coven of bandits--which are anything but manageable. Even in a large, freely explorable game like Dragon's Dogma, you expect the enemy placement to have a certain flow. The abrupt shift from easy to impossible is disheartening when it comes just after a long trek from town, and leads to a long trek back. The lesson: there is no shame in turning back. But the time spent on the journey can end up feeling like time wasted.
The monotony of travel is compounded by the grayness and brownness of the roads and canyons. For too long, you crave visual variety that doesn't come, especially if you're used to the visual diversity of a game like Skyrim, where you might cross snowcapped mountains and survey lush caverns in the same hour. Yet there's more to Dragon's Dogma's art design than initially meets the eye--it's just that the variety is easy to miss when environments are painted with subtler brushstrokes than you're used to.
In other words, "art" means more than "color," and Dragon's Dogma makes excellent use of its earthen tones to bring Gransys to life. Explore to the north, and you discover a valley where you struggle against the wind, and then emerge to a cragged stronghold looming above the sea. Elsewhere, lifeless trees rise from the waters that pool amid the surrounding plateaus. Explore at night, and the sense of mystery intensifies. Your lamp illuminates only enough to aid your journey. Other bright orbs may appear, but these glowing visions are hardly friendly beacons of light. Tension is not exclusively a nighttime visitor, however. Snoozing lizards sun themselves on rocks, their snores warning you away--or perhaps inviting you to pierce them with arrows. And danger is consistently communicated by a cymbal undulation that you may never consciously notice but that instills anxiety each time.
Unlike its landscapes, Dragon's Dogma's story is hardly subtle, with its broad portrayals of cult leaders and crazed royalty. It tries to pull you in, but some events are so laughable that they effectively break the narrative. For instance, at one point, another man's betrothed professes her love for you, though you may have met her only once prior. After a twist, a turn, and a big fat lie, you face individuals who should--in theory--react very differently to you than they did before. Yet the event goes unmentioned, no love is lost, and you're left wondering how the game could fail so profoundly to acknowledge vital developments. Multiple quests can result in similar head-scratching inconsistencies--including outright mission failures--depending on the order in which you perform them.
That doesn't mean that Dragon's Dogma is always ignorant of your choices, only that you are at the tale's fickle mercies, as if it is tolerating your presence rather than welcoming it. You occasionally face decisions that might cause you to miss out on entire quests. The same decision, however, might inspire a newfound ally to make a welcome appearance during a challenging battle. Toward the game's end, it's hard to know what consequence your decisions might even have, considering all the vague high-fantasy soliloquies that ultimately communicate so little. Yet one choice stands out, and may even leave you horrified. You don't just choose: you act. And those actions are shockingly final, even cruel.
These are the moments that stand out in a role-playing game destined to be remembered by anyone who plays it. Dragon's Dogma takes chances, and it's that riskiness that makes this role-playing game so unique among its peers. Of course, some of those risks will have you groaning in frustration. Dragon's Dogma is many things: a flawed classic, an exciting disaster, a triumphant mess. One thing it isn't is a generic rehash. Dragon's Dogma will remain with you, frustrations and victories alike, when your memories of other games have long since faded.