While Capcom actually has a firmer grounding the world of RPGs than we give it credit for – Breath of Fire, anyone? – the company’s name doesn’t instantly spring to mind when discussing the genre; that’s what made the release of Dragon’s Dogma in 2012 such an unusual event. Following hot on the heels of FromSoftware’s critically-acclaimed (and thematically-similar) Dark Souls, Capcom’s action role-player had the hallmark of a hastily-assembled clone, released solely to capitalise on the gaming public’s newfound interest in the fantasy genre, but in actual fact, it had been in development since 2008 and shares some similarities with studio stablemate Monster Hunter. Still, the comparisons with Dark Souls – and other action RPGs – did Dragon’s Dogma absolutely no harm whatsoever, and it quickly sold over a million copies globally; no mean feat for an entirely new IP.
Fast forward to the present day, and Nintendo players are finally getting to find out what all the fuss is about. Despite meeting with critical and commercial success at the time of release – and getting an updated release in the form of Dark Arisen – Dragon’s Dogma has never been blessed with a proper sequel, outside of the Japan-only spin-off Dragon’s Dogma Online. Capcom has instead been content to simply reheat the Dark Arisen update, which was first released in 2013 and has since seen its way onto the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. That’s the version we’re getting today on Switch, six years after the original game hit the PS3 and Xbox 360.
So yes, this is another ‘remaster’ release of an old title that Sony and Microsoft fans have played (and perhaps even replayed) years ago – but before you judge it too harshly, it’s worth noting that Dragon’s Dogma has rightfully earned its reputation as one of the finest action RPGs of recent memory, and even a straight port – which this effectively is, as the additional content is meagre at best – is cause for celebration, especially as we can now explore the rolling expanses of Gransys on the move.
You assume the role of the titular Arisen, a customisable human avatar who is plucked from obscurity following an early encounter with an apparently malevolent dragon. Accompanying you on your quest are up to three ‘Pawns’; versatile (and, with the exception of your first Pawn, whom you create from scratch) totally interchangeable warriors who lack the free will to make them truly human. While you don’t have the ability to directly control these AI companions, you can issue them basic instructions during battle, such as coming to your aid or simply urging them to fight.
The level of Pawn you can ‘hire’ is tied to your current level, so you’ll want to visit the many Riftstones dotted around the landscape to swap them out for stronger characters from time to time – or keep an eye out for wandering Pawns as you walk the roads of Gransys. You can also exchange Rift Crystals to hire Pawns that are above your current level, which is a sound tactic when you need a powerful helper for an especially tricky quest. The really cool thing about Pawns is that they are created by other players, just as you create your ‘main’ Pawn, giving the game a sense of community even though there are no traditional multiplayer options present. You can even share Pawns using your Nintendo Account without the need for a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, which is a nice touch.
The Pawn system – and the combat mechanics which tie in with it – set Dragon’s Dogma apart from other games of this type. We dare say that since its initial launch in 2012 many people will have gazed at screenshots of the game and dismissed it as another boring fantasy RPG, but that couldn’t be less true. While it has all the staples of your traditional role-playing epic – consumable items, a crafting system, experience points, upgradeable equipment (which, like other items in your inventory, adds to your overall weight, slowing you down the more you carry) and loads and loads of NPCs to chat with, many of whom sound like they’ve wandered in from a local amateur stage production of well-known Shakespearean works – Dragon’s Dogma’s combat system is a joy to behold.
Whereas titles like Skyrim boast enjoyable yet clunky combat, Dragon’s Dogma puts Capcom’s experience in the realm of action titles to good use; director Hideaki Itsuno worked on the Devil May Cry series, and it shows. At its most basic level, you have a weak and strong attack, and these can be used to create simple combos. The game does a decent job of making sure you’re locked onto the nearest enemy, and battles tend to be pretty swift affairs, making this feel more like a hack-and-slash brawler than a slow-paced RPG. However, the combat engine has surprising depth thanks to the fact that you have different abilities mapped to the L and R buttons. Hold one of these down, and the Y, X and A buttons become assigned to certain skills, such as dashing attacks, grapples and other special moves. All of these skills are linked to your current ‘Vocation’, which is Dragon’s Dogma parlance for character type, and using them consumes stamina, which takes a short time to recharge (running also eats away at your stamina gauge, and draining it down to zero leaves you breathless and exposed).
You start the game with the ‘Basic Vocations’, such as Fighter, Strider and Mage, and as you gain experience through combat you boost not only your base level (which of course means your stats increase) but also your Vocation level. Growing your Vocation level opens up more skills, which can be unlocked using Discipline Points earned in battle by speaking to certain NPCs (usually at inns or points where you can sleep and recover). Visiting the same NPCs allows you to switch out your skills and even your Vocation, and a massive part of the game’s appeal is changing to a different character type and exploring fresh battle strategies. Even when you’ve arrived at your preferred Vocation there’s ample room for experimentation and customisation as you chop-and-change your assigned moves and abilities to find the perfect balance for your own personal playstyle.
After a while, you unlock Hybrid and Advanced Vocations, such as Magik Archer, Mystik Knight, Assassin, and Sorcerer, and these not only allow you to carry over other skills you’ve unlocked elsewhere (for example, any skill tied to the use of a sword will be available from the off when you switch to another sword-based Vocation) but you also get the chance to gain more powerful skills exclusive to that Vocation, as well as access to exclusive weapons and gear. Vocations like the Assassin allow you to mix ranged bow attacks with robust blade skills, while assuming the Mystik Knight Vocation means you can support your Pawns with spells without sacrificing your melee potential. Because so many of the Vocations have abilities that apply to other character types, slowly but surely expanding your skill base – which also includes ‘Core’ skills which are activated immediately, and ‘Augments’ which bestow special talents – becomes an incredibly addictive pastime. It also means that every single enemy encounter in the game is worthwhile, as it not only gives you the chance to boost your Vocation level but also gain Discipline Points which can be used to unlock more skills, starting a whole new cycle of experimentation as you swap out existing skills for freshly-obtained ones.
Of course, even the most satisfying of combat engines will lose its appeal if you don’t have a wide and varied selection of foes to dispatch, and Dragon’ Dogma certainly does not disappoint in this regard. Sure, there are certain weaker enemies you’ll encounter regularly (the lizard-like Saurians and a host of goblins spring to mind) but occasional encounters with larger opponents – such as the Griffin, Troll, Chimera and Cyclops – give off more than a slight whiff of Monster Hunter, another of Capcom’s famous franchises. Using the ZR trigger (which also allows you to grab smaller enemies and restrain them while your Pawns finish them off) you can grapple bigger foes and climb onto them, delivering as many devastating, targeted blows as your rapidly-depleting stamina will allow.
Facing off against Dragon’s Dogma’s bigger monsters is a real thrill, especially as your Pawns begin to grow in experience and learn the correct tactics to take down certain beasts. The Cyclops, for example, is covered in tough armour which must be picked away to reveal its tender flesh, but its true weak spot is its single eye. The Crimera, on the other hand, has the head of a lion, goat and snake, each of which has its own energy bar. Silence the goat, and the monster’s ability to use magic is removed, making the confrontation easier. While these epic battles aren’t quite as nuanced as those in Monster Hunter, they’re still surprisingly deep and very enjoyable.
The thoroughly rewarding feedback loop afforded by the Vocation system would be enough to encourage hours of play, but its appeal is buttressed by the fact that the world you inhabit is so vast and rich in detail. Gransys is massive; it takes a considerable amount of time to walk from one end to the other, and while fast travel items are available, more often than not you’ll find yourself moving on foot so you can comb the forests, beaches and caves for valuable items and get into as many brawls as possible to earn more experience points. A day-and-night system is also in place, and travelling in the dark is made more difficult by the fact that your most trusted source of illumination – an oil-based lamp – needs to be constantly restocked.
Progress in Dragon’s Dogma is underpinned by an evolving story which sees you journeying to Gran Soren – Gransys’ capital city – to meet with Edmun Dragonsbane, the current ruler of the kingdom and a former Arisen himself, before striking out into the wilds in different directions from this main base. As is often the case with these games, you’ll find that things aren’t strictly as they seem, but along the way, there are a staggering number of side-quests and missions to undertake, all of which offer items, money and experience points as reward. Some even have ramifications on other quests later in the game; a character you aid early in the game may prove pivotal at a later juncture, for example.
On your initial playthrough, you will almost certainly invest tens of hours into Dragon’s Dogma; even if you decide to rush through as quickly as possible (a speedrun mode is included, in case you were wondering), you’ll still be expending many, many hours. A complete run – where you try to finish as many quests as possible – could see your time in Gransys creep over 100-hour mark, and once you’re done, there’s the NG+ mode to consider. Longevity is not an issue with Dragon’s Dogma, and let’s not forget the inclusion of Bitterblack Isle, a super-tough dungeon exclusive to the Dark Arisen update which will test even the most dedicated of players.
What could be an issue is the fact that the game does become slightly repetitive over time; while Gransys is undeniably massive, you’ll end up seeing some parts of it more often than others, purely by virtue of the fact that there are only a handful of major settlements to speak of and missions tend to be focused around these bustling bastions of humanity. Other parts of the kingdom remain criminally underused, perhaps only seen during a single quest before being forgotten. It’s a minor issue admittedly, but one that does tend to stick out after you’ve spent a large amount of time in Gransys.
Another problem is the fact that even in 2012, Dragon’s Dogma looked a little rough around the edges. While the landscape is incredible and you’ll never grow tired of the amazing sunsets and vistas which go on for miles in the distance, this visual beauty is balanced out by the fact that some environmental details pop-in awkwardly as you get close to them, and many of the game’s motor-mouthed NPCs look primitive and goofy. Like Dark Souls, Dragon’s Dogma nails the grim fantasy aesthetic the majority of the time, and we suspect the two call upon some of the same influences (Kentaro Miura’s ultra-violent medieval fantasy Berserk being one obvious example), and, like FromSoftware’s seminal series, actually ends up being a more convincing western fantasy than many games created by western developers; still, in places it does look and feel like it could do with a little more polish. And did we mention that the constant, incessant chatter of your Pawns during battle can become utterly maddening? There’s only so many times that we need to be told that “Wolves hunt in packs!” and “Fire works well!” before it sinks in.
Like the PS4 and Xbox One update of Dark Arisen, this is a largely untouched update. The visuals haven’t been polished up, so you’re getting pretty much the same experience as was available back at the time of the original launch. The Switch version runs well enough, with only a slight drop in performance when there’s a lot of on-screen activity – and this is only really noticeable when playing in handheld mode. You could argue that getting the likes of DOOM and Wolfenstein II running on Switch is a far more commendable achievement, but cramming a world as large as Gransys into a portable system feels – to this writer, at least – just as impressive; while it’s not as huge as Hyrule is in Breath of the Wild, it’s arguably richer and detailed.