When baking an adventure, mystery is the fundamental base. It is the sugar in your cake, the flour in your sourdough bread. It’s how you compliment that mystery that determines what kind of magic your adventure has. Dragon’s Dogma has ample mystery. The medieval countryside you wander is vast, full of secret ruins and caves; its tale of destiny is gossamer thin, but personal as a result; and its rules for play are so poorly explained that it’s up to you to figure them out. Though it looks familiar, Dogma is distinguished from its swords-and-sorcery contemporaries. Cruelty is Dark Souls leavening agent and grandeur is Skyrim’s cream cheese icing, but quiet, graceful speed is the yeast that lets Dragon’s Dogma rise.
The land of Gransys is a rough place. Every few hundred years or so, a dragon shows up and starts laying the place to waste. The only one to put the sumbitch down is a warrior of the dragon’s selection, the Arisen. After the dragon shows up in your home town and eats your heart marking you as the destined hero, its off into the countryside to chase that scaly jerk down, unraveling the mysteries of the land as you go, righting wrongs and killing giant beasts for kicks in the meantime.
You have a goodly amount of freedom in creating your character in the game. Dogma’s world is for the most part drab and mundane, lots of dirty cliffs and dark green forests, but that plain façade makes it feel a bit more real than more fantastic fake countrysides. What it lacks in colorful flourishes it makes up for in detailed, attractive character models that look nice in motion and can look just like you. Pick a hairstyle and a character class—sword-and-shield warrior, mage, or bow-and-knives ranger type, with six more unlocked as you progress—and you’re off into the world without much more than a brief dialog with the village chief.
That nonchalance threatens to drown Dragon’s Dogma at the outset. Even as you learn new skills, the combat feels swift but devoid of nuance, so fighting bandits that can down you in a single swipe feels no different than facing a giant cyclops that you can kill after ten minutes of climbing on its head. The Arisen feels like a mannequin wandering a Lord of the Rings-themed window display at Macy’s more than a chosen hero, and the game is less mysterious, more hollow. It’s only after your start to journey on the game’s myriad quests, and come to understand interactions with pawns, that Dogma reveals itself.
Pawns are actually both the narrative and play justification for Dogma’s initial empty feeling. The Arisen is the only person that can command a race of warriors that come from another world, soulless mercenaries called pawns. Three travel with you at any given time, one of whom is your personal buddy who you design from the ground up, and much of the game’s hidden flavor comes from understanding how pawns work with you. Only your personal pawn levels up, necessitating you hire new ones created by the game or from other players online.
Capcom barely sidesteps the murky ethical territory raised by the pawns; lots of games team you with artificial intelligence partners but few are explicitly slaves like the pawns seem to be. The characters you meet early on go out of their way to stress “PAWNS AREN’T PEOPLE,” but their humanity is slowly revealed as they help you and the story further unfolds. When your own pawn shows up in the morning at an inn, telling you about their adventures in another Dogma player’s adventure, they start to feel more autonomous. They slowly become as likable and reliable as any party of role-playing game partners, but your closeness to them is based on their actions, not some speech about heroism or friendship.
Those actions are largely performed in the game’s fast battles. The fighting that at first feels so thin and unforgiving becomes balletic quickly. A Strider, the ranger type, for example can double jump on to the game’s huge beasts—Dogma constantly pits you against both mobs of small enemies and huge monsters like chimera and basilisks that take upwards of ten minutes to put down—but the light and heavy dagger stirkes they can do feel weightless. At the upper tiers though moves like “Ensnare” that let you hog tie and knock down a whole crew of enemies changes the entire dynamic of the game.
Moving into a new territory of Gransys feels laborious at first as well. The terrain doesn’t change as quickly or dramatically as it does in Skyrim, so it feels like a trip into a new mountain guarded by lady thieves takes forever. (Even longer, since there’s no quick travel ability in the game, save for an item that returns you to just one town.) Like the combat though, return trips feel fleet and light. Just like travelling to a real place, it only feels like it takes a long time because you’re unfamiliar with the terrain.
For as savory as Dogma’s personal experience is, it’s not without real rough edges. Needless menus and restrictions obscure simple things like unlocking new skills, crafting items, and reviewing quest information. There’s no good reason why you should be at an inn to assign skills you’re using, and the game doesn’t bother with an explanation. That sort of barrier building, the sort of token role-playing game obliqueness, mars the lightness that’s Dogma’s greatest strength.
Capcom has made a solid but imperfect mystery, one that lets players discover its secrets quickly and always provides more. Its flaws aren’t enough to overpower its fundamental flavor, but are enough to keep the game from matching its peers. Dogma‘s worth playing if only for the moment the dough starts to fluff and you can make your character dance rather than walk.
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Capcom)