Listen now, as I play for you the song of my heartache. Let me spin you a tale of confusion, anger, humility and bona fide bewilderment in the face of abject mediocrity. Let me tell of Seraphina the Arisen, her loyal pawn Josephine, and their stupid, stupid quest to save the kingdom of Gransys. Let me tell you of Dragon's Dogma. The game opens in a small fishing village on the coast of Gransys called Cassardis. As the villagers go about their day, The Dragon and an uncountable flight of harpies are expelled from a great smoking vortex in the sky. Naturally, Cassardis is The Dragon's first stop, where the game's main character (Seraphina in my case, as you name him/her yourself) attempts to stop it from murdering the town. Once The Dragon easily bests Seraphina in combat, it recites an incantation and deftly removes her heart from her chest, though somehow she remains alive through untold magicks. Because she has been marked by the beast, she is now known as The Arisen, and must quest to save the kingdom from destruction.
It's a legitimately strong opening, but the rest of the game's plot is unable to live up to the high dramatic bar set by its first five minutes. Dozens of hours pass between plot points, if you can even call them that, and when something finally does happen it is often a confusing, clumsy exchange between unfamiliar characters without context or explanation. Subplots are established and almost immediately abandoned, if they take the initiative to establish themselves at all.
Quests that advance the story are only tangentially related to The Dragon's appearance, sending you to roust out a goblin infestation or investigate a cult, but never sending you to actually go look for or attempt to learn about The Dragon. Seraphina always had something to do, but it never felt important. The vast majority of quests feel like they've been randomly generated by an algorithm parsing tired RPG tropes. It may never stoop to "go collect twelve wolf pelts" levels of inanity when it comes to main story quests, but it's nowhere near as sophisticated as Dragon Age: Origins or Skyrim in terms of its plot arc or its ability to construct a compelling narrative.
I may have cared more about the quests had I cared more about the characters giving them to me, but Dragon's Dogma has no characters as such – rather, the game is filled with lifeless cardboard cutouts, bereft of any semblance of personality, dryly parroting ludicrous faux "ye olde" rhetoric. Conversations with important story figures are entirely one way and often exhaust themselves in seconds, having imparted no information about their character background or the history of Gransys or its neighbors. Everything just exists, without reason or explanation, which makes it hard for you to connect emotionally with the world around you.
Seraphina the Arisen was no great bastion of character development either, of course. Consider her the yin to Commander Shepard's yang; a dumbfounded, ineffectual mute whose built-in inability to take action both confuses and infuriates during the course of the game's events. People were murdered, corruption went unpunished and several villains escaped for literally no reason, all while Seraphina stood and watched, motionless – her eyes adrift in the thousand-mile stare of a blind dog.
It's possible to coerce the Arisen into action when actually playing, but staying alive in Gransys is a skill hard learned. Dragon's Dogma's difficultly doesn't "curve" so much as it "juts abruptly skyward at random intervals," without warning, rhyme or reason. After completing one of the very first story quests (a slow and tedious escort mission, naturally), an NPC from Cassardis appeared and told me that there had been a kidnapping. After following the NPC back to the village and accepting the quest to find the missing girl, I discovered that a group of bandits blocked the path to where the girl had been taken. I would not be able to defeat these bandits until 10 levels later, by which time the quest had expired from my quest log.
"It was the gaming equivalent of breaking down a brick wall with my face."
Similarly, the Duke sent Seraphina out west to investigate the goblin infestation of a fort. On the way there she was murdered by bandits, crushed by boulders, torn apart by a chimera, mauled to death by a griffin, eaten by a cyclops and burned to death by a dragon, which may or may not have been The Dragon. In truth, it took 18 in-game hours of desperate grinding to reach that fort, because the level at which I was given the quest was disproportionate to that of the monsters that blocked the way. It was the gaming equivalent of breaking down a brick wall with my face.
Camera problems also plague most encounters. While Josephine became transparent if she obscured the camera's view, the same can not be said for set pieces like trees, shrubs, etc, which made fighting outdoors even more of a chore than it already was. Most encounters in the woods (of which there are many) took place behind a heavy shroud of foliage. While Seraphina fought for her life, I fought the camera for a view that wasn't completely obfuscated. Again, the lack of a lock-on system for melee combat didn't help things. Similar problems were encountered when fighting aerial creatures, as long grass has a tendency to obscure the camera's view when aiming ranged attacks upwards.
Josephine didn't help much either, bless her poor dumb heart, though the problems she suffered in combat are universal to all pawns. The Arisen can command their pawns in one of three ways (Go, Come, and Help), but it's not possible to command a pawn to use a specific item or ability. Instead, the pawn tries to figure out what action the player is requesting based on the circumstances of the situation, and is almost always wrong as a result. I can't count the number of times Josephine healed me while I was at full health, or waited until all monsters in the area were dead before placing a fire enchant on my weapons.
" Pawns also don't seem to understand the concept of staying away from things that will kill them ..."
Pawns also don't seem to understand the concept of staying away from things that will kill them, especially pawns that fall into one of the caster classes. Josephine, for instance, had a bad habit of running right up next to a monster before casting, despite being a ranged class. She also would move herself into harm's way before casting healing spells, and would routinely cast high-cost damage spells on targets that were extremely close to death, wasting valuable energies that would be better spent on other, still standing targets.
Despite all this, Dragon's Dogma does manage to do one or two things well. Its character creation system is user friendly and is just about the only thing built in an intuitive way, allowing players to select from dozens of presets for every feature. I'm exceptionally awful at creating non-hideous humans in almost all character creation systems, yet somehow my Arisen ended up looking like Christina Hendricks with heterochromia.
The game's plot makes a last ditch effort to establish a coherent narrative at the very, very end, and while the last few encounters are wildly more interesting in terms of both design and execution, they're not nearly enough to justify the 50 or so hours of mundane drudgery that precede them.
I did have one or two of genuinely fun experiences in Dragon's Dogma; exploring the temple to the water god was atmospheric and exciting and the Gransys countryside occasionally provided some fairly interesting vistas, but any brief flickers of fun I came across were consistently extinguished by the game's oppressive flaws.
This review is based on review code of Dragon's Dogma for the Xbox 360, provided by Capcom.
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