Disappointment:- The feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one's hopes or expectations.
Disappointment can come to all people in every way possible, some more consistently than others. Some might find disappointment in an under-packed cheese sandwich, another a promising lover. Disappointment in most cases succeeds hope; a vibrant emotion where the best is always wished, but with an awareness that realistically your ambitions may be thwarted. Dragon's Dogma is a disappointment. It is not bad by any means, it just could, and really should, have been so much better than it is. For every glorious five-minutes of action where everything slips into place, when you finally think a corner has been turned, another ugly issue raises its head to tarnish the experience. With Dragon's Dogma, Capcom has got so much right that it is baffling to see how it's ended up so thoroughly underwhelming. From the setting to the story, the pawn system to the combat, everything has been well considered for the type of game they wanted to develop. A little bit of Shadow of the Colossus here, some Skyrim there, sprinkled with some MMORPG sensibilities and a hefty cleft of Monster Hunter and you have something that, although perfectly decent, fails to reach the heights of its influences. Always decent, never outstanding; disappointing.
For this genre of game, of grand set-pieces and fantastical adventures, it is of absolute paramount importance that it possesses a narrative to grip the gamer, enticing them to spend the next 30 hours in this world and to care what happens next. Dragon's Dogma, unlike the fascinating Witcher 2, for example, entirely forgets this very basic fantasy principle. What story there is can be summed up thus:
All powerful dragon (RAAAAARRRR) attacks village (AHHHHHHH!), mysterious man fends off dragon and is badly hurt (OOOOOOOOOOOH), he must be the dragon-born (sorry, Arisen) destined to save the world (HUZZAH!).
This takes up the first half an hour or so of gameplay and is thus promptly dropped and forgotten about until the last half an hour of the game, by which point you have either forgotten the premise or are beyond caring. As much as I realise that the main focus of the game is really big-game killing (as will be discussed later), it is a real waste that more effort was not made with the story. Although Dark Souls was perhaps limited in narrative, it made up for it in scope, tension and the terrific levels of detail; Dragon's Dogma unfortunately fails here too. What is there is simply not sufficient enough to drive the game towards its 30-40 hour limit (approx); you will either drag yourself through because you enjoy the game (certainly possible), a sense of obligation to completing the game (ye of stout-heart) or because they bloody well have to (I, Eroll Flynn). If you do make it to the end, expect little satisfaction; when little has been truly done to ferment intrigue, tension or lore (like the world created in an Elder Scrolls game, for example), then it would be fanciful to anticipate an appetising finale.
As the main narrative has been so fragrantly (and deliberately?) compromised, Dragon's Dogma must fall back on its gameplay to win the day. To Dragon's Dogma's credit, this is by far and away the strongest area of the game. At the start of the game you can choose which class you wish to be out of three: the Warrior, who uses heavy melee weapons; the Ranger, who uses a bow and short-knives; and the Mage, who (surprisingly) uses magic. If you decide you don't like your choice you can change classes later; this is, however, unlikely. Each class is actually very good fun to play, each with enough strengths and weaknesses to keep you on your toes. In many ways it plays like an MMORPG (like Guild Wars) but without the other players; when fighting a large monster, you keep expecting another player to launch in and join you, such is the uncannily familiar feel. Preparation is absolutely key here; time must be spent carefully upgrading your squad, swapping in pawns and having plenty of medicine spare for when the faeces inevitably hits the fan.
Ah, the Pawns. This much-trumpeted system involves the hiring of, effectively, mercenary combat slaves to fight alongside you, arranged in the same classes as previously described. These mercenaries exist in an uneasy truce with the rest of humanity, which sees them as a group of outsiders more akin to slaves than individuals. You are assigned one Pawn who is yours to embellish as you wish, whether you want them to become a useful member or society or a walking nightmare. Once created, your pawn can be drafted by other players to use in their game-worlds; here, they will learn about areas, monsters and quests which then will relate to you. You are allowed to bring a total of three pawns with you at any one time, meaning that you can develop and hone your squad to suit the monster you are chasing; however, one of each class plus you normally suffices. This is a terrifically clever and intuitive system, and Capcom deserve praise for making such a customisable and social element work in what is a lonely game world.
Here, perhaps, is the real kicker; it has no real character, no soul, the 'je ne se quoi' that separates the classics from the also-rans. Walking around the world, you do not get the sense of greater things that you do in Witcher 2, or the spirit of community and character that you get in Skyrim or Guild Wars. Of course, half the point is that you are the under-dog in a world of beasts and monsters, but as your levels rise these dangers are easily swatted away, meaning you are effectively trooping around a disarmingly small world (albeit one without fast-travel until a second play-through) chasing monsters who cause you little trouble in pursuit of a story which gives you no reason to care. You may be left wondering what the point of it all is.
Graphically, the game stays consistent with the inconsistent nature of Dragon's Dogma. For the most part it's decent verging on pretty, with some nice details and imaginative monsters, but unfortunately this is marred by poor draw distances and some major glitches; on many occasions my character and pawns clipped through the landscape or got caught on invisible obstacles, and once my main pawn fell through the game world to (another) nether world. The humans that inhabit the world are ugly, soulless monstrosities, and not by design either; they are bland and lack any real character, spouting nonsensical repetitive crap in monotone voices. The only voice that didn't grind me to death was the shrill J-Pop one I attached to my main point, but that was only because I have a low sense of humour. Meanwhile, the rest of the score is quite nice, in an obligatory epic, cello and fiddle sort of the way, but that might be because, unlike your pawns' repetitive advice, it doesn't grate you like a dry Parmesan.
I want to love Dragon's Dogma, I really do. It ticks off many of the boxes required for great RPGs: huge monsters; good combat; fantasy world; interesting gimmick. And yet, it fails to live up to this potential, and is not helped by a lazy and lacklustre story. Instead we have a game that, although blessed with an excellent combat system and the revelation of the Pawns, mystifyingly manages to remain entirely uninteresting. It's not awful, far from it; in many ways, it's actually quite good, but this positive feeling is always tempered by a poor quest, confused AI, or the rough engine. There is plenty to build on for a sequel. It would be much easier to review Dragon's Dogma if it was terrible, or more pleasurable to enthuse about if it was terrific. Dragon's Dogma is just average; nothing more, nothing less.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 version of the game, provided by the publisher. Dragon's Dogma is also available on the Xbox 360.