Game review: Dragon’s Dogma for Xbox360

Dragon’s Dogma is yet another game that I initially balked at playing due to near unanimous reviews talking about how difficult it was. I have always considered myself a mediocre gamer at best, so buzzwords like “insanely difficult” have always turned me off. But in the last two years, I’ve discovered that most of the games billed as “insanely difficult” really aren’t. It’s not that my skills as a gamer have gotten better with time. I still suffer from wrong button syndrome with most controls schemes, and I can screw up even the simplest missions by going the wrong way for upwards of an hour or two. But what I’m discovering is that I’m in pretty good company in the mediocre gamer wagon, and a lot of these people talking about games as “insanely difficult” are just really bad players.

Having conquered all the Dark Souls games as well as dusting off some older games and cranking the difficulty slider up to maximum, I now feel more confident in choosing titles, and so Dragon’s Dogma became a viable choice.

As far as Western Fantasy goes, Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t take any risks. You create a character who is a simple fisher, but destiny pushes them to become “the Arisen,” a fighter of monsters and slayer of The Dragon. Only, you’re not really slaying it so much as giving it a dirt nap before it comes back again. This same story keeps playing out every few years, so your character’s role as the chosen one isn’t all that special.

Similarly, the story playing out isn’t anything special. It’s a serviceable plot, sure, but there’s only one major surprise, and the rest is just your stock standard fare.

What was supposed to set Dragon’s Dogma apart from other fantasy games was the introduction of the pawn system. Early on in the game, you are allowed to create a secondary character to compliment your main, and this pawn could be sent into a rift to be hired and used by other players, while you can also hire two more pawns to join you on your travels. Considerations of slavery over mind-numbed fighters aside, it’s not a bad premise, in theory. In practice, though, pawns take most every aspect of the game and wreck them so thoroughly that I can fairly say Dragon’s Dogma’s best idea is also its worst.

The main problem with pawns is that even as they repeatedly claim to have learned new tactics against enemies, they remain hopelessly incapable in most fights. Though the game pitches the idea of hunting monsters, the bigger threat to your party is usually human bandits. Regardless of the level of the pawns, even a low level bandit with a sword and shield can easily kill all three pawns, leaving your character to play babysitter and keep reviving them.

At one point I loudly declared that I’d have an easier time running the game solo, and shortly thereafter, I dismissed my hired pawns and tossed my pawn over a cliff. (She revives any time I get near a rift stone, so I only felt the slightest tug of guilt over doing this.) I then went into the same area filled with bandits and proceeded to massacre them along with two cyclops (cyclopses? cyclopsi?) and a gryphon. I later on repeated this same experiment, and each time the results were the same. I could easily solo areas that were giving me fits with a full party of “hired help.” The game really is better without the need to constantly babysit morons.

The pawn system is also hampered by a strange design choice concerning their health. As they take damage, more and more of their health bar is rendered unusable. This makes them progressively weaker and more useless. Also, even if you stock all your pawns with healing items, they have the tendency not to use them until they’re near death, or to not use them at all. They’re quite literally too stupid to live.

AND they talk all the time, and it’s almost always the same inane chatter that has very little to do with the current quest. Now I admit, at times, they might have something useful to say. Hiring a pawn with knowledge of an active quest will cause them to declare, “I know the way,” and then guide you to your destination. And, this is fine. What’s not so fine is the constant comments about our surroundings, most of which gets repeated every single time we pass a certain area. Yes, it’s a lovely view, Rook. You’ve said that fifteen times already, so please shut up.

The version of the game I played had an optional “HD textures” package to install, but honestly, I’m not sure if that worked or not because the game looks bad. Like, worse than vanilla Skyrim bad. Textures on rocks and castle stones look blurry at any distance, and the night sky has some really ugly banding that made any night quests super-extra-meh.

The music at least is pretty good, but it’s not really memorable like something from Dark Souls. I’m currently playing Absolver, and even an indie studio with only a few people can manage to crank out music more memorable. All I can say is, the music of Dragon’s Dogma is okay, but not great.

What is great, and I mean super-fun great, is the monster fighting. You find creatures like cyclops, ogres, chimeras, drakes, golems, and gryphons, and these massive beasties have multiple health bars that you need to chip away. Each monster has a different weakness and thus requires a different strategy to beat. So every time I saw some massive monster in the distance, my mood perked up as I thought “Oh boy, here we go.”

It’s a shame there isn’t more of that kind of fun to be found all over the map. Until very late in the game, there’s actually not that many monsters to fight, and most of the enemies encountered are humans. Outside of missions, the monsters can be fun challenges. But inside a quest, they often get some ridiculous added problems. As an example, after meeting with the Duke of the land, I’m given a quest to slay a gryphon. I’ve done this a dozen times right outside the castle, so I figure this is no biggie.

Except, this gryphon requires killing a goblin and dragging the corpse to a specific spot to bait it down to the ground. When its health is halved, it flies away, and by away, I mean WAY far away to a tower that requires a full day of walking to reach. If that wasn’t bad enough, the final fight involves a forced chase sequence up through a tower before you’re finally allowed to fight it, and in that time, it’s apparently found and scarfed down some health potions.

That’s also the same kind of problem plaguing the fight against the titular dragon. By this point in the game, I’ve fought many drakes, smaller cousins of the dragon, and I expected a pretty straightforward but tough final battle. Instead I got a long, long series of chase sequences and QTEs that slowly chipped away at the dragon’s health and my patience. When the game finally did let me fight the dragon without these distractions, it was pretty much what I expected, tough but manageable. (Well, I was also annoyed by the fact that the dragon spent half the fight monologuing. When it finally shut up and was reduced to simple roars of pain and anger, I was hugely relieved. Then again, my pawns also shut up, so that was like double the pleasure.)

But, that’s not the end of the game. The end of the game unleashes a whole slew of meaner, tougher monsters on the land and covers the skies in a cloudy canopy that effectively makes it twilight all the time. Returning to the castle under these conditions, the player is plunged into a hole in the world and must splatter land on various platforms to dungeon crawl until they’ve recovered a certain amount of an item, and then…then shit just gets weird after that. I can’t say anything without spoilers, but trust me, it’s weird shit. The actual end of the game had me scratching my head and going “buh?” repeatedly.

I should mention that while I did try to play the Dark Arisen DLC, I did not make it very far. I was maybe five minutes into it before running into a giant skeleton who killed my character in one hit. I made maybe a dozen attempts to defeat this thing, never once managing to do so before I decided I would just skip the DLC. (Hey, I said I was a mediocre gamer, okay?)

I should also mention that while I played a little as every available class in the game, the only one I felt confident enough to complete the game with was the magic archer. Armed with a magic bow that can auto target up to ten enemies or ten points on the larger monsters, the magic archer made most challenges fairly simple to deal with. I wanted to like the mage, but the slow casting speeds for all spells annoyed me, so I left that role to the hired pawns. The warrior classes aren’t bad, but there’s often enemies immune to physical attacks, and that leaves me running around waiting for my one magic user to do all the heavy lifting. So, yeah, in the end, being able to fire off magic beast-seeking arrows ended up the only way I wanted to play.

Maybe someday in the future, I’ll come back to this for another attempt with a different class, maybe even give the Dark Arisen DLC another shot. There is now a PS4 remaster, so that might address the crappy graphics. Maybe someone at Capcom might have toned down the pawn chatter for the new version or improved their AI. Who knows?

But in conclusion, what I want to say is that this is another game I avoided because I thought it would be too hard, and what I found playing it is that the difficulty isn’t in slaying beasties or bandits. It’s difficult to enjoy the story or the quests when you’re saddled with three hyperactive four-year-olds in adult bodies.

I’m giving Dragon’s Dogma 3 stars. It could have easily been a 5 with more work on the pawn system, but their addition makes the overall experience so much worse.