As a kid, I always considered myself to be a “die-hard fantasy-RPG junkie.” What I meant by that, of course, was that I had pumped an unholy number of hours into Skyrim but had no interest in anything else the fantasy-RPG world had to offer. Tragic.
Alas, I regret to say that I spent my teenage years (the period in my life when I had the most free time to waste playing video games might I add) obsessing over the same handful of games and letting lots of other popular fantasy RPGs completely pass me by.
But now that the world as we know it has ground to a halt, I made myself a solemn commitment to invest all this free time into broadening my horizons, doing something important, character-building and self-improving… by finally playing all the long-lost fantasy RPG gems I had neglected as a misguided youth. Truly a noble cause.
Where better to start than with Dragon’s Dogma, a high-fantasy RPG developed by Capcom. It was originally released in 2012, but a slightly updated version called Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen was released in 2013, which is the version I played. Dragon’s Dogma was one of Capcom’s only expeditions into the world of RPGs, having been most famous for their fighting, action and platformer franchises. It is strongly influenced by Capcom’s other successful fantasy-RPG franchise Monster Hunter, which happens to be one of my most beloved video game franchises of all time – what could possibly go wrong?
The Pawn System
Let’s be honest, a lot of fantasy-RPG gamers are not particularly inundated with friends. I should know, being a basement-dweller myself. In that regard, it seems Capcom knows it’s audience well! Necessity is the mother of invention – I give you, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen’s pawn system.
Using riftstones, the player can summon up to three ‘pawns’ to assist them in their adventures. These pawns function much like regular companions, except they are designed to be disposable and can be swapped out for a different set of pawns an infinite number of times.
Pawns are more than just extra bodies to throw at enemies – they can heal you, enchant your weapons, scavenge for items, give directions and relay important quest information. They are designed to simulate a multi-player experience, but without the need to actually interact with another person. It’s like a dream come true, isn’t it?
The pawn system is Dragon’s Dogma’s most distinctive – and useful – feature. Their combat AI is usually very good, which means pawns make good decisions in the heat of battle and actually assist you instead of just getting in the way. Being able to completely reshuffle your party on a whim means that you can make sure the types of pawns you use are the right match for each quest. The riftstone allows you to filter pawns by their individual spells and abilities, making it easy to select the most perfect pawns from the database. Clearl, a lot of thought has been put into the pawn system, and it shows in it’s utility.
Dragon Dogma’s combat system is the jewel in it’s crown, just as you’d expect from a game developed by Capcom. Varied and enjoyable classes…extravagant moves and skills… going head to head against bands of bloodthirsty brigands and massive mythical monsters in chaotic, adrenaline-pumping encounters… it’s the stuff wet dreams are made of.
With an emphasis on timing your attacks properly and playing attention to an enemy’s “wind-ups” (the cues in their animations that signal they’re about to attack) the combat should come naturally to fans of Dark Souls, the Witcher 3 or the Monster Hunter series.
Whilst conjuring walls of flame from your staff as a caster is fun and all, melee classes have the ability to mount larger monsters and scale their bodies, so you can brutally mutilate them with your own bare hands! Yay – violence! However undeniably satisfying that is, it’s actually more than just a gimmick; climbing monsters has real tactical advantages – for example, it can help you to force a flying enemy to the ground, or to reach it’s weak-spots such as it’s eyes, neck or heart.
Like most action-RPGs, Dragon’s Dogma uses a class (or in this case, “vocation”) system to determine which weapons, armour and skills you can use. Skills can be purchased using Discipline points that are earned by killing mobs; the longer you stick with a vocation, the more Discipline points are accrued. However, since it’s very easy to switch classes – there is only a small Discipline point penalty for doing so – this means it’s easy to chop and change to see which play style works best for you and your pawns. The vocations themselves are extremely generic, with the painfully standard selection of warrior, rogue and mage… until you reach level ten and access hybrid vocations like magick archer and mystic knight, then things get interesting.
Even though your choice of vocations might not feel all that original, they do all feel distinct. Each vocation has its own strengths and weaknesses that are very obvious in combat – the vocations you choose for you and your pawns, as well as their individual skills, make all the difference in whether you’ll be chipping away at an enemies’ health, or piling up corpses like it’s going out of style.
Where the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an example of period-accurate NPC dialogue done right, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is an example of period-accurate NPC dialogue done wrong. Every time one of the NPCs speaks in that awful, overly try-hard faux Olde English accent, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. In theory, I’m sure it was intended to enhance the high-fantasy aesthetic of the game, but it comes across as fake and cookie-cutteresque in practice, not to mention the fact that I can barely understand what the NPCs are actually saying because their manner of speaking is so stilted and awkward.
Primary and secondary characters aren’t so bad, it’s the NPCs and side-quest-givers that are the chief culprits. How am I supposed to become invested in the plight of these poor unfortunate quest-givers – or give a damn about what they’re trying to tell me – if every time they open their mouths I almost cringe myself into the next dimension?
Unengaging Quests and Characters
Quests are one of the most important, most definitive features of an RPG – after all, they put the RP in RPG. Great quests and interesting characters can woo players into forgiving a multitude of sins and shortcomings when it comes to the graphics or gameplay; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for RPGs with excellent graphics and gameplay but poor writing or an uninteresting narrative. The magic of RPGs is in stimulating the player’s imagination, and it’s in immersive worlds and a captivating stories – not in shiny graphics and fancy combat – that this end is achieved.
It should be no surprise that Dragon’s Dogma’s greatest downfall as an RPG comes from it’s unimaginative quests and uninspiring characters. There are few long side-quest chains and almost no faction quests – it’s mostly one-and-done stand-alone quests. The formula these stand-alone quests follow is quite predictable – by and large, it’s fetch-quests, search-and-rescue quests, escort quests and (everybody’s favourite) ‘kill X number of Y’ quests. The game often doesn’t set the scene enough for players to get invested in the quest’s story. So with quests having a predictable structure, and without any interesting backstory to compel me onwards, I often found myself wondering whether I could even be bothered exploring the game outside of completing the main campaign.
The structure of the quests is only half the problem though. A dynamic and immersive world is only as dynamic and immersive as the characters that inhabit it, and therein lies the problem – Dragon’s Dogma’s characters feel bland and soulless, and they certainly don’t inspire me to assist them, or care about their problems. This is largely because not enough time is spent on character development; a lot of the time, the player finishes the game without knowing any more about their allies or enemies than they did when they first met them.
RPGs from the 90s and early 2000s often had terrible menu systems, but it’s OK because back then people didn’t know any better. Most modern RPGs have grown out of this now and have menu systems that function properly, but Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t appear to have gotten the memo. There is absolutely nothing intuitive about Dragon’s Dogma’s UI; it’s complete lack of useful keyboard key bindings or visual prompts on the HUD, make the game feel unnecessarily frustrating and difficult to play.
Dragon’s Dogma is the first RPG I have ever played that doesn’t have a key bindings for quickly accessing the quest log, or even the map. This is a game that makes players access their map manually every time they want to go somewhere, and doesn’t even have the courtesy to offer players a mini-map as compensation. It’s frankly cruel.
80-100 hours RPGs are common place these days and if an RPG is anything less than 60 hours modern gamers start feeling short changed. Ideally, developers should fill those 60 hours minimum with wall-to-wall quests, lore, action and adventure – y’know, content – but Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen proves that we don’t always live in an ideal world. In this game, players get to spend 20 hours experiencing the content, and another 40 hours wading through game mechanics specifically designed to waste their time.
There’s only very limited fast travel, so players will have to walk their ass to every quest objective on foot. Gransys may not be the largest open-world I’ve seen before, but it’s certainly too large to expect players to navigate on foot. I’m sure travelling on foot was intended to be immersive and add ‘realism’ to the experience of travelling in a fantasy word, but ‘realistically’ Medieval folks would have at least had access to a carriage when they wanted to travel long distances. Also, are you telling me the Arisen, Saviour of the Known World, couldn’t cough up a few gold pieces for a horse?
Perhaps it could be argued that I’ve just been spoiled by the conveniences and amenities of modern RPGs, but I just can’t see how developers justify designing a game where the quest itself takes fifteen minutes to complete, but travelling to and from the quest location takes twice as long. You start to wonder whether Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is a 60 hour RPG because there’s 60 hours worth of content, or whether it’s a 60 hour RPG because everything takes so long – 20 hours playing through the quests, and another 40 hours navigating menus, travelling to quest locations, and trying to access the map.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…
Although my opinion of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen might appear overly critical, I always give credit where credit’s due. The combat is very polished and extremely satisfying; the Arisen’s encounters with chimeras, golems, gryphons, dragons and all manner of fantastical beasts are where the game truly excels and exceeded my expectations for a fantasy RPG. It’s the time between these enemy encounters where it’s weaknesses are most obvious – it’s in the details, the menu system, the quests, the characters, the UI, where the cracks start to show. As a fantasy action game, it stands up brilliantly and endears fans for the same reasons the Monster Hunter franchise does – epic showdowns + epic beasts = profit. But as an RPG?
In the end, Dragon’s Dogma feels like a fantasy game made by people who don’t really know how to make fantasy games. It ends up feeling like a caricature of what people who don’t play fantasy game think a fantasy game should be. They spent so much time filling the game with castles, dungeons, dragons and prophecies, that they forgot to add engaging quests, interesting characters and compelling lore. It’s form over function; a classic case of over-compensation. Ultimately, this makes Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen feel like the fantasy RPG that could have been, with the right expertise, but wasn’t… but it may one day be.
Only this week a huge data leak at Capcom all but confirmed that Dragon’s Dogma 2 will be released at some point in 2022. At that point, it will have been almost a decade since the original Dragon’s Dogma was released. Who knows what a Dragon’s Dogma sequel will look like?