Some dragons live in the hills and steal your sheep. Others dwell in caves and demand the occasional virgin sacrifice. Still others, like the antagonist in Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma, like to get a little more personal. They may collapse the occasional keep with the beat of their wings, but they haven’t even really begun their reign of terror until they’ve picked some poor sap as their nemesis, stolen his heart, and then dared him to come get it back. Sometimes, it’s the personal touch that makes all the difference.
Dragon’s Dogma is an action RPG that combines old-school elements from both Western and Eastern influences. This isn’t one of those games where dragons are just another link in the fantasy food chain. Here, the dragon is the food chain, the ur-monster from which all corruption spreads. This is Saint George and the dragon, the hero strong and true charging headlong into the serpent’s flames and hoping against hope that his faith will be enough to choke it.
Feel free to ignore most of the plot. Dogma’s eponymous dragon, whose appearances are all too few and far between, is a treat in the way that well-written unstoppable embodiments of destruction tend to be. He may be the wise old monster at the center of the world, but if so, he seems to have hoarded his world’s personality—plot-wise, the rest of Dragon’s Dogma is pretty well forgettable. It’s not particularly good or bad, but these orcs and goblins and bandits don’t do much at all to distinguish their story from the last hundred versions of same.
Where Dragon’s Dogma does stand tall is, well, where it stands tall. Though its various lesser creatures may not carry their weight, Dogma really comes into its own when one of its greater monsters takes the stage, and when they do, it’s hard not to sit up and take notice.
Dragon’s Dogma is at its best when its played as a series of mini-boss encounters between the player, his minions, and the various larger beasts that roam the land. This is where Dogma works best, with single battles against massive creatures that actually require more strategy than the standard tactic of running up to the target and bashing it in the knee until it dies.
Try that against your average cyclops, and he’ll bash back and win. But enchant your sword with lightning and have your party distract it while you leap from a nearby rocky outcropping onto its shoulders, and you might have a chance to put its eye out. Dragon’s Dogma encourages getting in close with the enemy, grappling and climbing your way to its weak points in encounters that feel like smaller-scale, tactical versions of Shadow of the Colossus.
But where it rewards, the game can also punish. Dragon’s Dogma offers one of the most realistic perspectives on the fantasy world in a long time, due in no small part to the terrible transformation that the world undergoes once the sun sets. By day, Dragon’s Dogma is typical fantasy fare, all goblinoids and harpies and the occasional gryphon warming its wings on a lazy noonday flight. Nothing for the dragon’s chosen and his merry men to be too frightened about, right?
But when night falls, the game goes from fantasy adventure to survival horror in about three seconds flat, as though the dragon itself looked down from on high and belched forth darkness and monsters upon the land. Without sunlight to keep them at bay, Dragon’s Dogma’s menagerie comes out in force, and from where they’re lurking, a dragon slayer and his group of pawns look like tasty morsels ripe for the plucking.
A player’s first unexpected nightfall in Dragon’s Dogma is a harrowing thing, relying as the game does on single-save files and automatic save points. Proper preparation is a must, but the sheer difference in difficulty between the daytime and nighttime worlds can easily lull players into a false sense of security, only to leave them trapped far from safety at dusk. Once you’re out there, you’re out there, and unlike you, the nocturnal chimera that’s sizing you up for a meal from just out of sight typically has at least one head that can see quite well in the dark.
It’s a fun (if sometimes frustrating) way to separate the heroes from the has-beens. Throwing oneself into the maw of darkness over and over is a great teaching tool, if only to teach why one doesn’t go out at night without preparing for it. By the time you’ve mastered it, you feel almost powerful enough to take on a dragon. You probably haven’t, as Dogma’s dragon is one of those creatures that’s just that tough to beat, but with Dragon’s Dogma, it’s definitely worth it to try.