Dragon’s Dogma is a game soundtracked by screaming guitars and a hyperactive orchestra; a game whose story is told with showboating faux-Shakespearean flourish; a game set within acres of countryside scrawled with boastful castles; a game fronted by a hero whose heart has been plucked from his chest by a dragon’s fingernails. Despite all of this, it is also a game that understands the value of understatement.
For years, video games have aped cinema’s love of the action set-piece, with critical fights telegraphed to viewers with grim ceremony. Warriors exchange worried glances as the string section falls silent; a tumbleweed tumbles as the party stands frozen in fight/flight uncertainty; an inhale of calm before the storm.
But Dragon’s Dogma’s set-piece battles have none of this. They occur brutally unannounced – truer to life perhaps, if life consisted of wandering through a dense forest patrolled by a two-ton Chimera. Midway through a routine battle with a band of goblins, a red wyrm might crash awkwardly through the tree canopy, breaking trunks like twigs as it tries to stow its wings while breathing fire. This sense that any monster could arrive on the scene at any moment lends the game a fraught tension.
Peel back the spectacle to look at the underlying rules and you’ll see that, while these monsters have their allotted areas (and will often respawn there some time after defeat), encounters are otherwise dynamic and unscripted. There’s a feeling that not even the designers know quite what’s going to happen, and this sense of randomness gives the adventuring in Dragon’ Dogma its exciting intensity.
Not that the game isn’t familiar. It’s constructed from a hotchpotch of borrowed ideas, both thematic and systemic. Tolkien’s fingerprints are pressed firmly into Gransys’ hills, castles and lore, while monsters and tics of terminology are taken from a range of contemporary Western fantasy and ancient Greek myth.
You climb onto the backs of your larger foes as in Shadow of the Colossus, nicking at their necks and tails as you seek to bring them down. Missions are received from Fable-style NPCs (minus the humour and character), while quests are handled in a similar way to the Elder Scrolls series, where selecting a new primary goal will shift your mission marker around the map.
The opportunity to carry out guild sub-quests and hunt down rare and dangerous beasts is reminiscent of Final Fantasy 12. Meanwhile, the game aims for Dark Souls’ difficulty, punishing the ill-prepared adventurer or aimless wanderer in the strictest possible terms. There are shades of Miyazaki’s classic too in the curious multiplayer, which prevents players from questing together but provides a remote opportunity to help one another out by sending characters across the network.
These are more than mere inspirations; Dragon’s Dogma is a curious hybrid, made of stitched-together designs. It gains diversity from this approach, but at the expense of purity of vision and, often, its own identity. Even so, at its best, Dragon’s Dogma comes close to the greats it apes.
You can read the rest of this review over at Eurogamer here.