You’re living your peaceful life in a little fishing village in a medieval land of yore … when a gigantic fire-breathing dragon suddenly swoops down to ravage the land. Everyone heads for the hills. But you pick up a discarded sword and charge in. And why wouldn’t you? This is a dragon-quest video game! Then, oops, the creature casually bats you aside and proceeds to use one razor claw to bloodily slice open your chest, pluck out your heart … and eat it.
Sounds like a short game, doesn’t it? Bloody, but short.
And it would be if your chest didn’t quickly mend itself. Or if people didn’t start calling you the “Arisen” and giving you heroic tasks to tackle—such as searching for medicinal flowers and smacking down the local troll population. Or if a “pawn” didn’t show up from some otherworldly dimension and pledge that he and his kind will help you right the dragon’s wrongs.
So you choose to belong to one of three initial classes (fighter, strider or mage), and you’re given the option of developing into one of six other classes (such as a mystic knight, a mighty warrior or a magic archer) as you rack up experience points. You can also rack up those pawns I mentioned, keeping up to three of them by your side, shaping a team with skills that complement your own (the best being a balance of up-close sword swingers, ranged shooters and healers).
A fun note about pawns: They’re not all automatically generated by the game. Your main pawn is yours to design and power up, much like your personal avatar. But that’s nothing compared to the fact that the pawns can travel between random online gamers’ worlds, yours sometimes slipping away from you and others’ showing up in your game to be hired onto your team.
The Long and Winding Grind
Then it’s off to the quests! And this is when the game takes on a kind of open-world MMO feel. It’s also where things can start to become a boring grind. There are certain quests that follow the central storyline, but they’re not often well defined. So for quite a long stretch of gameplay it’s simply a question of completing quest after unrelated quest without a clear sense of where you’re going—except that you’re somehow making your way back to the dragon and leveling up your team to dragon-busting strength. It’s only after about 30 or 40 hours of play that the story really kicks back in and you actively plot out your path toward one of several possible endings.
Along that forked path, your quests take you into battle with all manner of creature and beast—from griffins to Chimeras to Cyclopes and ogres. The associated graphic visuals can be pretty interesting, and climbing up on top of these monstrosities with blade in hand is a unique experience. Unique … and gruesome. Grabbing onto a Chimera’s fur and hacking at the beast’s screaming goat head—while your pawns fill its lion body with arrows and magic blasts, or chop off its serpent-mouthed tail—can be a noisome, gory, limb-dismembering mess.
These hacking and blasting battles can also be frustratingly difficult. Dragon’s Dogma is often very unpredictable in its attack schemes. You might be fending off a manageable pack of wolves when a Cyclops and a gaggle of harpies join the fray and quickly rip your pawn helpers to shreds. Oh, and the harpies also add a bit of sexuality to the mix. There’s nothing really enticing about the screeching meanies, but the half bird/half woman creatures never worry about how much female skin they’re exposing as they fly in for the kill.
Of Love and Colossus
There is something enticing about the lover you take during the story, with whom you share embraces, kisses and a dash of sexualized dialogue. And if you chose to play as a female character, that woman paramour becomes a same-sex love interest. (There’s no option for a male partner.) It should also be noted that by game’s end you can choose to selfishly sacrifice this loved one’s life to save your own skin.
Surprising. Creative. Bloody. Painfully frustrating. Dragon’s Dogma is all of those things at once. It contains the sort of vast open-world questing of the latest Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, mixed with the team-based fighting structure of, say, Dragon Age and the king-sized scope of a monster battler like Shadow of the Colossus. It delivers some steep challenges and interesting story solutions right alongside M-level splatter and grinding quests that have a way of sucking the life out of the dragon’s magic.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.