The release of Dragon’s Dogma on PC shows that this RPG still provides some of the most exciting and fun combat found in any genre. From leveling up abilities that can engulf battlefields in fire, to climbing a cyclops and stabbing him in the eye, Dragon’s Dogma proves it is the master of fantasy combat.
Dragon’s Dogma was a pleasant surprise when it was first released 4 years ago by Capcom. It was a brand-new franchise that combined the deep and stylish action of the company’s own Devil May Cry and Monster Hunter games with the RPG design found in the Elder Scrolls and Dark Souls franchises. The end result was a refreshing take on the western RPG with some of the most interesting combat found in gaming. Sadly, the game was plagued by technical limitations. The combination of a large world and detailed visuals (for the time) led to low frame-rates and forced the game to run with permanent letterbox bars, to limit the amount of pixels being displayed so as to improve performance. Nonetheless, the game garnered plenty of attention in the closing days of the last generation, both as a brand new franchise and an exciting new RPG with incredible potential thanks to its fun combat system.
Minor complaints such as the difficulty of traveling through the large world were addressed in an upgraded re-release with added content, still on last generation consoles. However, that version also suffered from performance issues. Now, Capcom has decided to at last release the game on PC, packaged with all of the upgrades and DLC of the Dark Arisen expansion, and adding polish that takes advantage of modern PCs. The outcome is a game that, while looking slightly dated, runs like a dream with game play mechanics that are still as unique and fun as in the original release.
The core of the combat that make Dragon’s Dogma such a joy to play is the way class skills are utilized. Abilities such as special attacks are earned by leveling up and buying them with Discipline Points, which you accumulate through battles, and more powerful options are unlocked as you keep leveling. These abilities reveal the care and intelligence put into the combat design; every ability has distinct strengths – such as a backwards leap to escape an attack followed with a counter-attack, or an upward slash that can hit enemies flying above. By assigning each ability to one of the face-buttons on your controller – or mouse and keyboard, which are equally effective – the abilities function as attacks do in action games.
The variety of abilities gives the combat depth and a unique level of action game strategy, not unlike Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry. However, the pacing is kept deliberate as each ability costs you stamina, meaning you have to time special attacks for when they are most useful, and otherwise utilize a standard fast/heavy attack combo that doesn’t use up your energy. The variety of abilities is immense, as there are 9 classes you can switch between, each with its own unique talents.
This is layered atop excellent enemy designs. Smaller creatures will try to swarm and surround you, and those equipped with shields will force you to time your attacks to circumvent their blocks. Larger enemies such as cyclopes, manticores, and hydras provide some of the most epic battles. They mirror some of the grandest fights from God of War and even Shadow of the Colossus, as they force you to learn enemy attack patterns and to take advantage of their size by climbing on top of them to hit weak spots. Needless to say, the combat is the core of this game, and it is difficult not to get excited about this aspect alone. Despite the age of Dragon’s Dogma, the combat has yet to be replicated, and only games such as Bloodborne and Dark Souls have provided such enthralling action. Dragon’s Dogma is easier than those examples, but deserves the same attention for its variety, excitement, and pure fun.
While the combat does take many cues from other games – and it does so intelligently – Dragon’s Dogma also innovates. Since this is a western RPG at heart, inspired by tabletop party RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, you will find yourself in the company of three other NPC’s who aid you in your adventures. These NPC’s are called “Pawns”; they are player created characters that can be customized, leveled up, and equipped just as much as your own character.
Every player creates their own Pawn alongside their character, and that Pawn will be with you throughout the game. You are then able to (and encouraged, due to the game’s difficulty balancing) to hire other people’s Pawns online to fill out the other two spots in your party. Hiring Pawns costs Rift Points which you accumulate as you play, and even then Pawns only cost Rift Points if they are of a higher level than yourself. This is an awesome way to simulate the interactivity of online multiplayer, as it feels like the creation of and effort you put into your Pawn benefits the players who choose to hire them. You do not see your Pawn leave, they will simply tell you after resting at an inn that they have learned more about the world on a recent journey, as the AI of Pawns allows them to memorize maps and enemies. They can use this knowledge to tell you if an enemy has a certain weakness, or to guide you if you start a quest that leads to an area where they have previously been with another player. Atop this, Pawns can bring back items that they have found, or gifts from the players that have hired them. Managing your main Pawn and the ones you hire delivers a surprising level of satisfaction similar to that of Pokemon games.
The combination of excellent combat and party management delivers a game that is very easy to enjoy from the start, and hard to put down. This is all held together by a massive world left open for you to explore. For the most part, the environments are well designed with decent variety and an immense scope. There are plentiful areas to discover and it is easy to get lost. The landscape feels very natural and welcoming, and at times even epic, but it never feels as interesting or as exciting as something like Skyrim, or The Witcher 3. It is a generic fantasy world that can at times be very beautiful, but otherwise is easy to ignore. Cities, towns, and random outposts tend to feel bland, and the models of trees and bushes seem noticeably dated. That being said, there are plenty of discoveries that keep things moving in this massive world.
As well, there are important discoveries that make exploration worth while, such as ruins and dungeons containing challenging enemies and rewards. Some of these, such as an early quest dungeon, provide both fun combat opportunities and light puzzle mechanics as in earlier Resident Evil games, requiring you to find keys and items to unlock the dungeon’s treasures and important areas. While finding these dungeons and ruins requires traveling long distances, the game does provide an item early on called an “Eternal Ferrystone”, which allows you to fast travel to unlocked portals found across the world, including the main city.
Excitement is added to the open world at night-time, however. Dragon’s Dogma is one of the few games that tries to truly replicate the darkness of the wilderness after sunset, forcing you to carry lanterns. As well, enemies such as bandits are no longer outside, but are replaced by undead who can easily ambush you in the shadows. Getting lost in the darkness while seeking a goal is dangerous, as the game shifts its focus on the thrill of adventuring in the night amid monster-infested lands.
The other area that must be criticized is the game’s technical presentation. While it is understandable that the visuals have aged – and Capcom has made some effort to improve that with much higher frame-rates and resolutions – it is still noticeable that this is a game from a previous generation. Armor and weapons are at respectable levels of detail, but environmental textures can be noticeably flat.
Dragon’s Dogma suffers from simplistic lighting that compounds the problem by taking life out of the details, and which also creates a distracting effect called banding. Banding is when the transition between light and dark areas on the screen do not smoothly blend, but appear with thick bands that go from light to dark. Even the flat textures could be forgiven if only the lighting and banding issues were taken care of. Happily, this can be fixed with some simple mods such as the well-known ENB lighting systems that players have been using for years, but it is disappointing that more advanced lighting design is not in the vanilla version of the PC release. In addition to the visual shortfalls, the game also lacks quality audio. The sounds are far too soft, and at times unclear.
At the same time, there are other technical areas that are actually excellent. The special effects are stunning, even in comparison to current games. Magic users can create stunning displays of fire and lightning that dance across the screen and are big enough to be exciting, but not distracting. As well, the animation of melee combat abilities is beautifully done, delivering weight and unique visual styles to every ability.
Dragon’s Dogma is well worth the time of most gamers, especially those that have enjoyed adventuring through the worlds of Skyrim and Dark Souls. Despite the mentioned shortfalls that reveal the game’s age, the core mechanics and fun abilities still make this one of the most enjoyable RPGs I have ever played, with combat that stands far above most games today. The team behind Dragon’s Dogma focused their efforts on combining the best of recent action games and RPGs with their own unique style, and in that they have certainly succeeded. I am eager for more people to enjoy this very big and very fun game, and I hope that this leads to a well-deserved sequel.
Rating: 4 out of 5