This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Dragon's Dogma.
In video games, as in all things, first impressions count for a lot. That's why you won't see Andrew Lloyd Webber's face on box art even for a game about Andrew Lloyd Webber. And it's hard to say that first impressions of Dragon's Dogma left me particularly electrified. "Oh look, a game in which a lone wandering adventurer of humble beginnings is tasked to ensure that a pre-industrial fantasy world can continue existing unscourged long enough to become a post-industrial one. A staggeringly unique concept if it weren't for every game ever made ever."
But the game's status was updated during the opening screens when the bog-standard slightly mournful piano music gave way to a generic riff someone made by holding an electric guitar next to a sewing machine and someone with a voice like they'd stubbed their toe on a chair leg on the way to the microphone starting whining the lyrics to unironic J-rock. "Well, that changes things," thought I. "I was gearing up for a boring, generic RPG, but now I'm still doing that while sandwiched between a pair of rigidly clenched buttocks and a scalp that appears to be trying to tunnel into my skull with embarrassment."
Dragon's Dogma is a fantasy RPG by Capcom, of all people, a company whose attempts at storywriting are routinely plagued by the closest thing to a competent storyteller in the company being one bloke's daughter's Mad Lib collection. Happily, then, Dragon's Dogma doesn't seem to make any attempt at all. Stop me if this sounds familiar: you're in an open-ended fantasy world, you start in a small town that gets smashed up by a terrible dragon, and fate dictates that you must give the same dragon what for after having completed every minor odd job in the kingdom because the land was founded by some fanatically work-shy cult and sorting out your own damn problems is religious taboo.
Yes, this does smack of Skyrim a smidgen, but only outwardly. Unlike Skyrim, the character creation lets you play as a fat bastard, so obviously I spent the entire game playing as a six-foot, fat, middle-aged black lady in fond recollection of how I lost my virginity. But the love interest character is always the same willowy white girl, strangely. And after that whole introductory dragon business, this driving central plot kind of disappears while you trek to the main city picking flowers and uppercutting wolves.
But Dragon's Dogma does have one major unique mechanic that deserves a close examination. It's, um. . .well, do you remember Neopets? It's kind of like that but with slavery. As part of the introductory missions, you have to generate a primary NPC sidekick in the same way you made yourself: class, race, appearance, favorite Spice Girl, etc. But for adventuring purposes, you can also enlist two additional sidekicks who are the main sidekicks of other players elsewhere in the world. You go into a little connecting universe where a sampling of available hired hands swan about trying to catch your eye, you go over to the ones you like, look at their equipment, check their teeth, bob their scrotums, and if you're happy, take them adventuring with you. When you're finished with them, you give them a little present and send them back to their owner with a fond slap on the bum. You even have to rate them like you're filling in the timesheet for the temp agency. It creates motivation to make sure that your sidekick has the best equipment and skills and looks good in tights so they'll be more likely to get hired by other players, acquire experience, bring you back presents, and...wait a minute! Am I pimping?!
Once that thought occurred to me, I just couldn't shake it off. It didn't help that I deliberately designed my sidekick to juxtapose my protagonist, making him a long-haired, blond, petite young white boy with rosy cheeks and pouty lips, or the way he'd come back from his temp jobs timidly asking if he'd done a good job and clutching a really, really nice present that haunted me as I tried to picture what kind of service had earned it. "No, it's all right," says the game. "They're not actually intelligent, free willed human beings. They're pawns, a sort of magical slave race who look a lot like humans but actually don't have minds of their own." Oh, even better. Now we're pimping the mentally sub-normal!
In all seriousness, it is an interesting idea. It's the closest thing the game has to multiplayer, but to my mind multiplayer is at its best when it involves interaction with other human beings as little as possible. It's just that I feel weird being asked to assess their performance when, class aside, they're pretty much all the same behavior-wise - a cadre of absolute dunces that point out baddies, pick up shiny objects, and constantly repeat the bleeding obvious. "This area is quite verdant," "We are on a path," "We could get a good view from the top of that tower." I know we could, asshole. You know how I know? Because I was just on the top of that tower AND SO WERE YOU!
Another somewhat unique feature of Dragon's Dogma is that occasionally (although to my mind not occasionally enough) you have to fight big giant monsters. And you can use the standard grab button to climb onto their big, furry bodies, smell their hair, wonder what it would be like to be held by those big, strong arms...sorry, lost my train of thought. I mean, stab them. You can organically climb to theoretically any point on their body to start stabbing away, but answer me this: when you've latched onto an ogre's bum and the camera is overhead and the ogre is swinging off a tree trunk trying to shake you off and you're left wrapped around its crotch like a sentient nappy, which way are you gonna climb if you press Up? Will you wrench yourself nipplewards or use their prostate for a face flannel? So that can get confusing. And they often have way too much health compared to how much damage they do to you, at least until you've spent a good quarter of an hour whittling them down, at which point they get frenzied and suplex you fatefully into a concrete surface while your mage is going "We must use fire!" while ideally picking parsley from a nearby herb garden.
The whole game world is available to roam from pretty much the word go, but that's not the praise it sounds like. There's still a standard leveling system, and it would be nice if the game would in some way indicate if a quest is too high-level for me, ideally before I've trekked fiften miles into one of the overlong escort missions to find a high-level Chimera sitting in the road, at at the very least before I've screamed "Charge!" and shoved my broadsword up its bum to the hilt. It's almost like DragDog is terrified it will alienate people who like their RPGs freeroaming and has cut out almost everything resembling direction or linear storytelling. Hence all your party members having the personalities of random number generators. And after the initial tutorials, you pretty much have to try and guess which of the grab bag of available quests actually advances the plot. I'd say that at least it doesn't patronize me, but then one of my brain-dead tagalongs helpfully informs me that I'm carrying a sword and that swords are pointy.
Still, the game's at least noteworthy for its mechanics, and you might even appreciate an RPG that's willing to take its hands off the reins so you can drive it off as many cliffs as you like.
- Pimpin' ain't easy and neither is long division: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- "DragDog" also appeared to be the name of a legless Yorkshire terrier I adopted a while back
- So it's a game about things dragons accept without reason or evidence
Extra: Escapist Expo
So me and a bunch of my Escapist chums are attending a bit of a get-together this year we're calling "the first Escapist Expo". September 14 to 16 in Durham, North Carolina, Check the website for more details. Hope to see you there! Yes, you! No, not you, the pretty one.