How you’ll view a game like Dragon’s Dogma depends heavily on how you take a statement like, “This game starts to get really good once you put 50 hours into it!” Is suffering through that much staggeringly bland content a reasonable tradeoff for you? If so, Dragon’s Dogma might be up your alley. If you have any of the billion other games out there that have a more immediate payoff and value more than quantity in your games, however, it could very well end up being one of the worst RPGs you’ve ever played. I can see the value of both viewpoints, and wound up playing through the game three times despite a hatred of many of its systems that runs so deep that the only way to describe it is “biblical.” Like, Old Testament, fire-and-brimstone hatred. It doesn’t help any that it’s a game with a single-minded fixation on grinding. Grinding for levels. Grinding for better equipment and items to level up your current equipment. Grinding for money. Grinding for new combat moves. When it comes down to it, that grinding is really all this game ever is.
But first, the story-ish garbage
When you initially start the game, you’re greeted with a tutorial where you’re playing as a generic fantasy-hero type as he fights his way to a dragon that needs a-slaughterin’ for one reason or another that’s not immediately clear. Cryptic statements and unfamiliar terms are tossed around randomly by both said dragon and your party, which is made up of “pawns.” Pawns aren’t explained in any depth except to point out that they’re loyal allies. Why do they randomly appear after interacting with a fancy, swirly stone? Don’t hold your breath for anything approaching a meaningful explanation, because Dragon’s Dogma loves excusing its game-y mechanics with lame story justifications that don’t really hold up to scrutiny. More on that when I get to talking about The Brine. For now, back to the tutorial, which suddenly ends after an awkward Chimera fight mostly comprised of running around and not really understanding how combat works.
After that, time jumps forward and you’re finally able to make your own character, crafting them from a bunch of presets and sliders reminiscent of creating a Mii on a Nintendo console (with similar limitations/flexibility to what you can create). Within a minute or so of deciding who you’ll play as, your conveniently sleepy village full of presumably decent people is attacked by a big bad dragon, and your playable character has their heart stolen by said dragon, only to survive somehow. Then a whole lot of nothing happens for 50 hours, and that’s not even the biggest flaw of the story; the lore necessary to understand what happens at the end of the game is available as part of a sidequest, and this sidequest is only available if you’ve done one much earlier toward the very beginning of the game. If you don’t, progressing far enough will cause the requisite sidequest to automatically be canceled, locking you out of the content that explains the ending. You’d think that crucial story stuff would be rolled into the main story somehow, or at least be easily enough obtained for it to be nigh-unmissable, but instead you’re required to run around a labyrinthine forest taking care of a village NPC you have no attachment to in what amounts to a giant escort quest. And for what? So that you can meet another random NPC and trigger later content to be available? That’s ridiculous design, and it only reinforces the sad truth behind the game: the story doesn’t matter one bit. Sure, your pawn allies’ endless bloviations (and I do mean endless—they never shut up) may make it sound like something interesting or impactful is happening, but in the end, the story is just a means of shuffling you from point A to point B and enticing you to start a bunch of tedious escort/fetch quests. It makes a valiant effort at crafting something intermittently epic, but apart from the very beginning and very end of the game, nothing of note actually happens.
The Brine and meaninglessness
As I mentioned earlier, Dragon’s Dogma attempts to justify its mechanics with bits of story, but this doesn’t work. Nothing illustrates this better than The Brine, the monster that lurks in water deep enough for your character to become submerged in and teleports you back to land without doing any damage to your character. It’s painfully obvious that this is just to cover up the fact that no one bothered to add in a swimming mechanic, and if there was any doubt about this, part of the very end of the game sees you both invisible and invincible for a short time. Even in this state, wading into the water is enough for The Brine to attack you and teleport you back to the shore. Things like this leave a mark, making much of the game’s story stuff seem like an afterthought, more present to explain away game mechanics (or the lack thereof) than to actually tell anything resembling a real story.
The quests and sidequests highlight this
This game’s quests are so bad that they’re only really comparable to Sacred and Sacred 2’s quests, mirroring their kind of incoherent, rambling nonsense that doesn’t bother to hide the fact that it’s just stretching out play times with busywork. Most quests are either of the fetch or escort variety, neither flavor bothering to be enjoyable in any way. Take one quest where someone asks you to collect a war bugle for their collection. The quest is only actually completed when you collect 50, because apparently running around looting random things isn’t annoying enough without also making it incredibly tedious. Then you have the escort quests, which can range from inoffensive to downright cruel depending on where your fast travel points are. If you have one close to where the quest ends, you can just teleport there with them for easy experience. If you don’t, then you’re going to be running through the same groups of wolves, bandits, harpies, and goblins you’ve fought for the past 10-40 hours. Every time you leave to go out on a quest, the same enemies respawn in the same locations, so the endless repetition on your first playthrough is brutal and sucks all the fun out of the game by forcing you to do the same thing dozens of times until you dread setting foot outside the city for all the wrong reasons. It’s arguably even worse when the escort quest has you running to an area you haven’t explored yet, because suddenly coming across a large enemy almost always spells a comically quick death for whoever you’re accompanying thanks to their lack of survival instincts or combat prowess.
Worst fast travel system ever
I’ve seen some people claim that Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t have fast travel. I’ve also heard other people correct them to claim that it does. Both are right, really; the game has a method of fast travel, but it’s entirely useless to you on your first playthrough because of how poorly it’s designed. Basically, you can use expendable Ferrystones (or the reusable Eternal Ferrystone) to teleport to your home village or the big city that serves as your main hub for much of the game. If you want to teleport anywhere else in the world, you need to travel there manually and place a Portcrystal that you can then fast travel to. The obvious problem with this, then, is that you’re placing these rare Portcrystals without having any knowledge of which areas are important and which you’ll never need to travel to again, so you can’t put them in convenient locations until your second playthrough. This means that your first playthrough is bound to be painfully repetitive, full of long, groan-inducing treks that you’ll be forced to embark on over and over again.
Stabby and shooty and firebally
Early in the game, you’re asked to choose your “vocation,” which is really just your class. This determines the equipment you can use, as well as the combat moves that are available to you (and that will become available to you later as your vocation levels up through combat). Your vocation isn’t set in stone, however, and you’re bound to switch vocations quite a bit while looking for one that suits your play style. There’s a lot of variation in how different vocations handle, from the sword-and-shield fighters to the staff-and-spells mages/sorcerers, and I eventually settled on the “assassin” vocation since it allowed me to use swords and a bow. This, like many other mix-and-match vocations, isn’t available as a starting class, but instead something you can jump into later on in the game.
Buying new moves
As you level up, you earn something called “discipline.” This is the currency with which you purchase the new moves and passive bonuses that become available as your vocation levels up. Since the starting combat moves are usually pretty generic, it’s always worth buying new moves that seem like they’d suit your unique play style. For example, if you have no faith in your pawn allies (and I never did—those incompetent chatterboxes were a constant thorn in my side), the combat moves that allow you to stagger or knock down enemies are a godsend. If your pawns somehow prove more trustworthy than mine, allowing them to act as a distraction, it might be worth purchasing some of the slower, devastatingly powerful moves. If you’d rather stand back and launch a ton of magical attacks at enemies, you’ll probably want to buy a diverse palette of spells since enemies are typically weak to one or two things (snow harpies are weak to fire, for example).
There’s not a lot of vocation overlap
One of the more annoying elements of Dragon’s Dogma is how little you get to carry over from vocation to vocation. If you play as a warrior and then delve into magic, you suddenly become locked out of all those cool combat moves you picked up. I suppose that makes a certain kind of sense in that case, but when the combat moves you learned in one sword-focused vocation don’t transfer over to another sword-focused vocation that allows you to use the exact same type of sword, the game is just being irritating for the sake of being so. It feels weirdly limiting and punishing to be locked out of all of your purchased combat moves mid-game when you want to try out another vocation, and while you can always switch back, losing all your favorite combat moves means that there’s really no reason (apart from curiosity) to try out other vocations once you’ve become comfortable with one.
A main pawn and two others
Early in the game, you’re thrown back into the character creator to create your “main pawn,” a kind of constant companion who’s always by your side. My advice to you is to not mess with their voice; I played around with all the settings to where everything looked and sounded right at first glance, but it turned out that my creation’s voice was a bit too low. Dragon’s Dogma accomplishes different voices through the lazy and ear-grating practice of pitch-shifting, so I spent the entirety of my first playthrough suffering through her constant—as in, “comments on absolutely everything in sight almost non-stop”—observations in her weird, possessed-by-the-most-annoying-demon-ever reverse helium voice.
Apart from your main pawn, you also have two slots in your party for more generic pawns. Your main pawn will level with you and can have their vocation and combat moves changed to something that complements yours, but the two other pawns don’t level and can’t have their vocations changed. This means that they’re constantly falling behind you and becoming even more useless than they were to begin with, forcing you to regularly run back and switch them out for new ones. You can search for pawns with specific traits, mitigating the annoyance of the whole thing by allowing you to find similar pawns as needed, but this really only drives home how meaningless this random limitation actually is; those two pawn positions are a revolving door, and you end up switching pawns out so frequently that it’s really no different than if the game had just given you three main pawns that were all allowed to level and change their vocation. The only real difference here is that Dragon’s Dogma’s current system requires lots of running back and forth to switch out pawns, adding yet more tedium to a game that’s already built a monument to it. Oh, and being able to find specific types of pawns allows you to create a party before a big fight that’s focused on that upcoming enemy’s weakness, but I didn’t find that this ever made much of a difference. In fact, the only thing I found important was to keep at least one healer in the party so that I didn’t have to rely solely on consumable items to restore my health.
Combat is up to you alone
I’ve seen some players claim that their pawns can finish off some of the tougher enemies entirely on their own. I can only assume that they’re playing online, where pawns can go over to other people’s games and level up, because that’s simply not possible playing offline without some serious grinding. Even on my third playthrough, when both I and my pawns were around level 70, they would routinely die to the bigger enemies. To put this into perspective, enemies don’t become more difficult to fight in new game +, instead remaining exactly the same as in the first playthrough. Maybe my pawns would stand a chance if I grinded to level 140, but I found that their only real role against harder enemies was as cannon fodder. They’re just not smart about how they approach situations, even once they learn how to attack certain enemies. Sure, they can eventually learn that a dragon’s weak spot is its heart, but they never seem to pick up on the fact that standing right in front of said dragon as it prepares a huge attack isn’t the wisest course of action. Because of this, I never felt like part of a party of four while playing, but instead like a single person carrying the slack of three complete idiots.
Climbing enemies is okayish
Combat in Dragon’s Dogma falls into one of two extremes, with enemies either feeling like annoying damage sponges or being torn through like tissue paper with little middle ground between the two. Combat’s biggest draw is climbing enemies; this is decent at times, and it can admittedly be fun climbing a cyclops to attack its eye. On many occasions, though, enemies flail around far too wildly to get a handle on where you are and what direction moves you in which way, and that’s when they don’t throw you off randomly, or fly up high before magically causing you to let go and fall to your death. Taking those things into consideration, climbing is really only okay at best, never really becoming anything particularly amazing or worthwhile. The animation isn’t even always on board, either, with enemies sometimes moving and leaving you grasping the air several feet away like an idiot. It looks wrong, often feels wrong, and just isn’t enough to make up for the overwhelming blandness that is the rest of the game. Possibly worse, the game uses a stamina bar like the Dark Souls/Bloodborne games do, and climbing uses up the bar. This means if you want to actually scale enemies to fight like the game pretty much demands you do, you have to stock up on stamina-regenerating consumables and constantly open the menu to use them just to keep from falling off.
So many miscellaneous irritations
The amount of scripted stuff in this game is annoying, not because it’s scripted, but because the scripting is inconsistent and ridiculous. Take a fight with a griffin midway through the game; it’s scripted that it flees far across the map when you damage it enough, but you can actually knock it down and kill it before it flees if you’re strong enough (I could only do it in NG+). On the other hand, there’s a fight against a sorcerer around the same part of the game, and this plays out much the same, with the two of you fighting and him being scripted to flee. In this case, however, he can’t be killed in the first encounter, and if you try, you’ll notice his health freezes at a sliver. He becomes invincible out of nowhere, and he’s not the only enemy NPC to randomly become invincible with only a sliver of life left. The inconsistency here is grating, and there’s plenty more inconsistency to be found.
Take falling damage. If you fall from a roof in the city, you die because falling damage is bad enough to allow you to cheaply finish off even huge enemies by knocking them off high ledges (or for them to do the same to you). However, in the final fight with the dragon from the beginning, you fall from what must be a mile up in a cutscene, only to safely land on the ground. This makes no sense whatsoever.
Then there are the incessant QTEs. Pinned on the ground by wolves? Quick time event! Grabbed by a cyclops? QTE time! Caught in a hydra’s mouth? Prepare for a QTE! Even fighting the dragon toward what seems like the end of the game (it isn’t, technically, but is where things start to become entertaining for the very first time) is full of QTE sequences. They’re not fun, they come out of nowhere, and failing them causes huge chunks of damage. Who thought this was a good idea?
We’re not even close to the end of the game’s annoying flaws, either. My notes have a character limit, and 1-2 entries have always been enough to cover a game. I filled up 3 just covering all of the things I hated about Dragon’s Dogma. Like how your pawns randomly have a “cinematic camera” type thing that moves the camera away from you so that you can see them say something epic (but it never actually is) before shooting fireballs at an enemy, or attacking an enemy, or grabbing an enemy. Problem is, you can’t see where they are in relation to you because they moved the camera off of your character. Anticipating these kinds of problems doesn’t take a rocket scientist, so there’s really no excuse for this.
I’m not going to pass up on mentioning the other things that irritated me, either, even if it makes this section busy to read. Screw formatting—potential players need to know these things, like how killing NPCs is completely meaningless since they randomly resurrect after a certain amount of time. On my first playthrough, I killed the village chief after being annoyed that he suddenly didn’t care that I didn’t go after the missing village girl (whose presumed death locked me out of important story content, if you’ll remember). Coming back to the village later, he saw me and ran off. What’s the point of being able to attack random people if they just randomly come back to life out of nowhere? It completely misses the point if you’re not actually removing them from the game, instead just giving them short vacations.
Then there’s the “magick archer” vocation, which shoots arrows, but can’t use special arrows like poison arrows for some inexplicable reason. These are the kinds of things that would have been great to know beforehand, game.
Speaking of things that would have been great to know before they screwed me over: prison. If you attack someone inside the main city, a guard will run after you and arrest you. On my first visit to the city, I got the tutorial prompt for this once I was already in prison. Would have been super if the game told you that beforehand given the fact that you can attack people everywhere else without consequences. Once you’re in prison, you need to bribe your way out or use skeleton keys crafted beforehand to break out on your own, so this inability to communicate the game’s mechanics beforehand cost me some early money.
We’re still only scratching the surface of my notes. There’s a stealth sequence where you have to tail a character, but the game doesn’t do stealth well at all. There’s a quest where enemies keep spawning randomly around you and it looks like you have to do something to stem the tide, but in actuality you only have to keep killing enemies until a cutscene is triggered that opens a door, which is incredibly sloppy quest design. NPCs you’re escorting have an amazing talent for getting stuck on trees and stumps. Boulders in mountainous areas only fall when you’re in their path. There’s a weight management system that slows your movement if you pick up too much, but you have to figure out what is and isn’t important and/or useful on your own through trial and error rather than the game giving you any direction in this regard. NPCs and enemies stream in like in a Ubisoft game (but much slower), so if you run to a merchant stall, you’ll watch as an empty stall has its occupants appear out of thin air. Guards in the city are psychic and even if there are no witnesses, attacking someone will cause them to magically find you anyway. If you have a flask of water and are on fire, you can’t use it on yourself because it’s not the right “put out the fire” item. I got a tutorial popup 20-30 hours into the game, right before the dragon confrontation (even Final Fantasy XIII was more restrained than that). Much of the NPC chatter remains the same even after a ton of people die right in front of them in a sudden catastrophe. And finally, sometimes you’ll load the game and be surrounded by enemies for some random reason even though none were around when you last saved.
AUGHT AUGHT AUGHT AUGHT AUGHT
When I played through The Experiment (or eXperience 112, depending on where you live), I thought that main character Lea’s constant reminders about the bathyscaphe made for some of the most annoying dialogue in all of gaming. Dragon’s Dogma’s attempts at old-timey speech, though, replete with instances where the word “something” has been replaced by “aught” so that you’re hearing it at least once a minute over dozens upon dozens upon still more dozens of hours, easily beats it. This is the most annoying dialogue I’ve ever seen or heard in a game, so all-consuming in its forced badness that it deserves this separate paragraph just to warn people about how grating it becomes.
Only one save? Come on, people
And you only get one save. On the plus side, the game is smart about when it autosaves, avoiding situations like in The Dark Eye: Demonicon where you’ll do a sidequest, only to realize later on that it didn’t actually save. On the other hand, these autosaves overwrite your manual saves since both are using the same save slot, and this makes preserving saves a hassle unless you’re constantly minimizing the game to back up the save somewhere.
Dull graphics, good music
The graphics in Dragon’s Dogma aren’t bad per se so much as they’re just underwhelming. A lot of that doesn’t have anything to do with the models, which are actually pretty good, but instead the fault of the atrocious lighting. Daylight looks like the cheapest lighting you can use in a 3D-modeling application, giving a generic bright-everywhere look that washes out a lot of details and makes everything just look overwhelmingly bland. Darker scenes with lighting from torches and magic tend to fare a bit better, but there’s still something weirdly unappealing about the graphics. The music, on the other hand, is surprisingly solid. The main menu music is strange (and has a faraway train horn shortly after it begins that I can only assume was something caught by the vocalist’s microphone, something I grew oddly fond of after awhile), but it works and has personality. My absolute favorite track, however, is the one that plays when you visit the Witchwood, with it sounding like it came straight out of a Final Fantasy game back when the series was in its prime. It’s a much more solid soundtrack than expected.