Dragon's Dogma (2012, 360)

By William Shakesman / April 2, 2017

tl;dr: A better ARPG and a better game than Witcher 3.

A song of ice and fire (and lightning, and feathers)

   Imagine you are playing a melee character fighting a giant griffin. There aren't many options because you have no ranged weapons and no way to stay on it for an extended period of time. Then you remember a griffin has feathers. Feathers are flammable. So you do what any sensible Arisen would do, you light yourself on fire when the griffin lands. Then you dive onto the griffin as it takes to the sky. It covers a decent distance before you climb over to a wing and set it aflame. This causes the griffin to crash into the ground. Now the playing field is even. You promptly deal with the grounded griffin.
   Another scenario where a cyclops is staring down at you. You aren't strong enough to take on this cyclops, it will tear you to shreds. Not wanting to look like a scrub you dive onto it. You poke the cyclops's eye so it can't see. The cyclops starts flailing around. You see a nearby cliff. You proceed to force said cyclops to run right off the cliff and let gravity do the rest of the work.
   A final scenario where you're a sorcerer. The game has been easy. You make anything you come across your bitch by calling down a meteor shower or giant tornado. Then you come across a golem as it starts to get dark. You try magic on it and realize it is mostly immune. Well, shit. The best you can do is draw the battle out to try and get a lucky meteor hit on the cores that are the only damageable place on the golem. When you have exhausted all the spots that meteors can hit you start to panic. Then you realize you can melee. You unequip your staff for the first time in the entire game and proceeded to climb on the back of the golem punching the last two or three cores. It takes you fucking ages but he eventually goes down as the sun rises.
   Dragon's Dogma is a game of small moments that add up to make one of the best action games ever. It is also a game of contradictions. It's about the times where you are battling goblins in a field only for a griffin to swoop in unexpectedly and surprise you with a boss fight, but also about the times where you are fighting goblins in a field and nothing cool happens so you walk to the next field and fight some more goblins. It's about a hero slaying a dragon and saving a colorful fantasy kingdom and at the same time it is about none of those things. It's an open world adventure and then a closed copy-paste room arena fighter.
   You have not played anything like Dragon's Dogma. What DD does, nobody else comes close to. Your character, and a party of three other AI-controlled characters, picked from a half dozen swords and sorcery classes, go out and wail on monsters. No, no, bear with me. This isn't some Diablo-esque clickfest or Souls-style somersaulting knight-fighter. Everything feels visceral and just right. Powerful sword swings, flurries of arrows, wizards causing giant ice spikes to slam up from the ground, the rogue climbing the monster and just stabbing like a madman at the softest spot he can find on the creature... The combat here is up there with some of Capcom's most satisfying stuff. This isn't just an ARPG where you are swinging at health bars, it's a bona fide action game. Every single monster in the game gets just as much care. They all have a lot of character, are instantly recognizable, and are satisfying to fight.
   The problem is, almost everything else DD does isn't even as close to as good as the combat. The world-craft and writing are charming, with shrewd merchants, crafty plotters, busybody nobles, a secret cult, dragons, knights, the church, a mysterious witch in the woods... the theme is spot on and yet... everything comes out kinda rushed. Quests aren't highlighted at all, and you are only going to find half of the story-important side quests on a normal run, if that, without a guide. Which is fine enough because almost nothing you do has any real impact by the time the ending rolls around, which I shall not spoil but to say it is almost the videogame equivalent of your DM suddenly having a fit of CREATIVITY during your D&D campaign and ruining everything.
   The world does not reward exploration. Fast travel is not only extremely limited but quite expensive. You are expected to want to explore the world on foot, yet chests and loot are everywhere, but you better be excited to find yet another flower that can craft with another flower on the opposite end of the map to make an alright healing potion that you just found in a chest anyway. Oh boy, another 30-second magic defense buff hooray.
   Worse still, the leveling system is a huge part of the game, so before long you'll be leveling massive cyclops monsters in three hits, removing all the fun you used to have in those fights. High-end play is almost completely busted as the class variety just sort of fades out to each class's most damaging engine. Crank it over and over and the game's toughest bosses are a joke.
   But despite all that, the parts of DD that work truly are incredible. Nobody has even attempted swords and sorcery combat like what Capcom has here. It's absolutely worth digging in, so long as you are willing to cut the game some slack for its silly parts.

Dragon's Dogma is runner-up to Insomnia's 2012 Game of the Year.