When The Pawn Thinks Like A King
HIGH Sharp melee combat, great character creation, memorable environments.
LOW Moments of grinding and crushing difficulty. Occasional character pop-in.
WTF Groups of bandits pose more threat than a chimera?
Though the steady torrent of remasters, ports and remakes can make gaming feel stagnant at times, it’s worth remembering that a re-release can give an overlooked gem its due. In the case of 2012’s Dragon’s Dogma from Capcom, its arrival on the Nintendo Switch gives it proximity to other open-world 3D action-RPGs that have recently become popular.
The ducal state of Gransys is the stage for Dragon’s Dogma, and the marvelous environment design is arguably its strongest suit. Rolling hills, twisting mountain paths and sweeping valleys all weave together to create a sense of wonder and danger, especially when the sunset gives way to an unfathomably dark night where the only light is the faint glow from the player’s lantern. The narrative starts out fairly tropey and less impressive than the world, though — the player must slay a dragon after being cursed and turned into an Arisen.
The Arisen have a unique role, which is reflected mechanically through the game’s Pawn system. This system allows players to create, share and hire AI support characters from other players online (those playing offline can hire NPCs wandering in the world.) Only an Arisen can summon Pawns, and not only do they provide formidable support through effective AI routines, but their comments during battle can feel like a play-by-play commentary that can potentially reveal useful strategies.
Players will have ample opportunity to hear that pawn dialogue in battle because there’s no shortage of combat — Dragon’s Dogma gleefully invites the player to dive into the fray and mix it up. Some of the most thrilling play comes from sprinting into a wild brawl and slicing through the frontline with slick combat maneuvers that call back to some of Dante’s flourishes from Capcom’s own Devil May Cry. (Hideaki Itsuno, the director of the game, is also a veteran director of the DMC series.)
Non-melee character classes, or “vocations” as they’re called, do offer interesting diversions from the frenetic pace of close combat — ranged attacks from archers and mages can lock onto enemies, while sorcerers can clear the screen with bombastic magical bombardments. However, Dragon’s Dogma is truly a brawler at heart.
Juggles, parries, and even finer-grain techniques like animation cancelling are available as melee skills, offering a level of finesse and mastery that isn’t quite matched by the skill trees of the other classes. Thankfully, support pawns can be hired to join the party and cover any missing character types, allowing players the flexibility to freely explore different play styles at their leisure.
Unfortunately, Dogma’s pedigree as a brawler can occasionally work against its broader ambitions, particularly when it comes to enemy variety.
Its large-scale enemies are initially great as Shadow of the Colossus-styled setpieces, but other encounters quickly degrade into a disappointingly shallow selection of idle mobs. Even as goblins become hobgoblins and harpies become snow harpies, the rhythm of incidental encounters rarely changes in the long run, leading to an experience that can oddly feel easier at the end of the adventure than at the beginning.
Similarly, there are also moments in Dogma‘s quest design that undermine its pitch for a more epic journey. Poorly-cued directions can occasionally lead players into frustrating difficulty traps or aimless wandering in the hopes that a scripted event will finally trigger. Sometimes, the quests feel completely detached from the story altogether — one intense scene leaves the player locked in a dungeon with doubt of how the rest of the game could proceed… until they escape and return to work as though absolutely nothing has happened.
Despite its stumbles, Dragon’s Dogma still manages to create a satisfying world with some unorthodox storytelling and design choices. Refreshingly, almost any character can become the player’s love interest, regardless of their gender or their involvement in the critical path of the story. Many characters also have routines that can lead them to wander to other parts of town or to other settlements altogether. Even the ability to fast travel has to be ‘earned’ for an area through the manual placement of a “portcrystal” stone that has to be lugged around as part of the party’s inventory.
Ultimately, it’s the nature of the Arisen and their pawns that leads to the adventure’s most interesting choice — its ending.
Like any good postmodern work, Dragon’s Dogma confronts a threat of stagnancy from a broader cycle that goes far beyond the simple tropes that spark the player’s quest at the beginning. It eventually becomes apparent that there are other Arisen within Gransys, which forces the player to explore the metaphysical link between the Arisen and the Pawns that have so dutifully served them to that point. This final act shows characters haunted by regrets of compromise, while others are left scarred as a warning of the strength required for true, meaningful change.
It’s from our precarious vantage point in 2019 that such a story can still resonate and, in doing so, remind us that contemporary perspectives can unearth new meanings from older works. Even though the spectacular combat in Dragon’s Dogma makes it seem like a successor to other Capcom fantasy beat-em-ups, the depth of its world design and surprising story twists make it one of the more fascinating games of its era. With a fantastic port for the Switch audience, it’s as if Capcom made a deal with a dragon and somehow came out the winner.
— Steve Gillham
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Capcom. It is currently available on PS4, XBO, PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 50 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no dedicated multiplayer modes, but all optional passive multiplayer functions (such as pawn trading) work as expected.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains
Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is an action-adventure game in which players assume the role of Glynn, a militiaman on a quest to kill an evil dragon. As players traverse through fantastical “open-world” environments, they complete missions and quests that impact the storyline and eventual fate of their character. Players use swords, bows and arrows, and magic attacks (e.g., fireballs, ice blasts) to kill various enemies (e.g., zombies, goblins, human soldiers) in melee-style combat. The frequent combat is accompanied by slashing sounds, cries of pain, and large splashes of blood; attacks sometimes result in dismembered limbs and/or scattered body parts. Some sequences allow players to injure/kill non-adversaries, including unarmed villagers; such acts are penalized by lower “charisma” levels for players’ character. Other acts of violence appear in cutscenes: a man strangling a woman in her bedchamber; a character impaling himself. The dialogue sometimes includes innuendo and suggestive material (e.g., “I would never violate His Grace’s privacy while he violates milady’s privates” and “. . . perhaps you seek . . . a turn in the sheets with His Grace’s own wife!”). During the course of the game, players may also encounter female harpies whose breasts are fully exposed at certain camera angles.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay – pawns will often give vocal warnings whenever enemies are coming, but these warnings are also visible through subtitles. There are no options to resize or recolor text.
Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable, but there are multiple control schemes to choose from. Here is the default control diagram: