My old WC3 modding pal Dionesiist spent a lot of time urging me to play Dragon’s Dogma, to the point that I can barely type it without auto-correcting myself to “Dragon’s Diogma”. That was years ago, though, and I am not a man to rush into anything — but nor am I man to forget. So this one’s for you, Dio! (Give him a commission, why don’tcha.)
Besides, Dragon’s Dogma is a third-persion open-world action-RPG where you climb up giant monsters and stab them in the face; it’s totally up my street.
Though it’s all about killing that dragon and its dogma, the game spends a strangely large amount of time and energy justifying its AI-controlled companions. You get to have up to three pals join you on your quest (one of whom is created by and levels up with you, two of which are static and must be continually traded-in), and for most games, these would be presented simply as NPCs who are willing to chum along. Not here, though, oh no.
In Dragon’s Dogma, the companions you can hire are Pawns. Pawns come from the Rift, a magical realm that only spits them out when somebody important — i.e. you — turns up at a Riftstone. The thing about these Pawns, though, is that they’re only semi-sentient. In the actual lore of the game, if not given orders, they’ll stand around and not do much at all; they’re barely alive, barely human, and in fact, they enjoy being ordered around. Framing your companions in this way feels weird, as if it’s going to excuse all sorts of awful behaviour. They’re already treated with suspicion and outright disgust by some NPCs. “Who cares? They’re not even human!” Yes, I know, it’s a video game, but damn. Maybe fantastical racism will be important to the plot later?
This is immediately contradicted by how much agency Pawns actually express in moment-to-moment gameplay. They’ll smash open crates and pick up items, and use them. They’ll deploy offensive and defensive spells. They even talk, giving you hints and tips as you go; it’s not pre-baked BioWare-banter, but it’s certainly no worse than the randomised soldier barks in something like XCOM. The game even claims that they learn from your behaviour, but since I have no basis for comparison I have no idea if they’ve got their obsessive crate-smashing and item-hoovering from me or it’s just a sensible pre-programmed default.
The thing is — you don’t need any of the weird framing for any of this! They could just be mercenaries who are actual characters! So what if you can send your one customised companion online to help out other players? You don’t need to reduce them to sub-human status to do a character import! Besides, it’s not like the game’s “actual humans” NPCs are any more vibrant; indeed, as NPCs just stand or wander around with the usual canned snippets of dialogue, the Pawns are more vibrant and responsive.
Anyway. I decided to be a Fighter myself, because I love the sword ‘n’ board, and I felt comfortable doing that knowing that I could hire Pawns to fill the other archetypes to ensure a well-rounded party.
The Fighter begins with just Light and Heavy attacks, easily and naturally mapped to the left and right mouse buttons, but soon after that things get a little bit convoluted. In order to do a Blink Strike, for example, I have to hold down my Primary Skills key and then left-click. In order to do a Skyward Slash, I have to hold down my Primary Skills key and then press the Use button. It’s possible to select which skills go into which buttons, sure, but it’s still faintly overwhelming in combat to not only have 8 kinds of attack (2 normal, 3 primary and 3 secondary), but also to have to double-up buttons to get some of them. I may have a little of myself to blame for always remapping to the cursor keys and the halo around them, but I can’t imagine it being much easier to rub my tummy and pat my head simultaneously on a gamepad instead.
That’s not to say they are bad attacks. Light and Heavy attacks are very satisfying, and seem to chain together naturally to make your character do some nice slashing pirouettes. Blink Strike causes you to rush forward and stab a target right in the chest (unless you miss and run past), getting you into combat and potentially even throwing that hapless fool off their feet. It’s all satisfyingly crunchy, though of course enemies have an equal and opposite array of attacks they can use to crunch you back just as hard. Be sure to keep that shield up — now did I map blocking to Secondary Skills left or right…?
Then of course come the big beasts, the monsters who must be climbed. It’s as sublime as it is ridiculous, crawling up the back of a Cyclopes so you can stab it in the eye, two storeys up. Once you’ve jumped and grabbed on, your movement keys come back online and you can pretty much crawl all over — try to get on a leg to cause it to fall over, try to get on an arm to make it drop its club, try to get into its face to lop off its tusks and stick it in the eye… Anything large enough to be climbed upon has multiple layers of health bar, so you’re in for a long haul and nipping away at the ankles is never as effective as clambering up to slash a weak spot. Or, let’s face it, as fun.
Climbing is however limited by stamina, and you’ll also sometimes have to stop climbing and just hang on as the thing thrashes around under you. There’s a lot of clipping in and out of flesh by your character model so it’s not as perfect a feature as it could be, but overall it’s joyous enough to carry itself through any visual inconsistencies.
Needless to say, we’re also here for the dress-up action. Equipment and clothing is hard-locked to your chosen class, which is another reason to make sure you’ve got a varied party. Why is this suit of armour only wearable by a Warrior and not a standard Fighter? Who knows! There is an impressive array of clothing on offer, so at least if one thing doesn’t fit, the shop surely has something else that will. Plus, items can be upgraded by crafting, using bits of ore you’ve mined or bits of monster you’ve picked up along the way. Based on my current progress, you’ll spend more time upgrading things you’ve bought than finding anything new and unique out in the world. I haven’t even found a magic sword yet!
The inventory itself, however, betrays more convoluted interactions. Items are laid out in a nice grid, separated into nice categories, but in order to actually wear something you need to go through to a separate version Equipment screen — all for the sake of a stat comparison window that could easily have gone onto the main screen with some minor shuffling. Clicking isn’t responsive unless the correct part of the interface is in focus, and some of the button prompts are clickable buttons while some are merely prompts, so any inventory activity requires your hand to hover over the Escape key to get you out of whatever hole it thinks you’re locked into, so you can click on the thing that refused to respond moments earlier.
You may notice that I have not talked about the plot because… well… there’s not a lot going on here. While there is an overarching need to kill the Dragon (because it ate your heart in the intro), moment to moment the quests are fairly barebones. There is the usual mix of find-this-thing, kill-that-thing, escort-the-other-thing, but each requires a long and arduous journey across the land to some far-away dungeon, so progress feels glacial. Fast travel is reassuringly limited, but the variety of enemies I’ve met so far on these journeys is not the widest so they do start to feel more literally arduous than video-game-fun arduous.
You can pad things out by picking up quests from Bounty Boards found in civilised places, though these don’t do much either. The majority aree straight “kill X number of Y creatures” missions; so of course you just sign yourself up to all of them, and somewhere down the line you’ll spontaneously get a pile of experience and gold because you finally tripped over the counter.
Okay, fine, it’s a third-person action-RPG, we’re here to explore and slaughter things in their droves. Who needs quests anyway?
It is at least a pretty world, replete with gentle temperate forests and rugged cliff-lined coasts. Draw-distances are long enough that you can spot ruins miles away on the horizon, so rather than the Elder Scrolls-style compass markers dragging you off the road, it really does rely on you seeing something to tempt your weary feet. Of course half the time, that something you’ve spotted is a cave filled with enemies you’re really not ready for yet, but it’s the thought that counts.
Given all that, I actually have no idea how far through the game I am at the moment. I haven’t even touched the Dark Arisen expansion pack island (except to activate it and go, “yep, I’m not high enough level for this yet”), and with the quests lacking any particular urgency I’m not even in much of a rush to save the world.
Besides, I once met the dragon out in the wild and it totally slaughtered my team and I in two minutes, so I’m guessing I’ve still got a long way to go.