As we round out a year in which Nintendo built cheat codes into its most revered series and Insomniac let us swap between two superheroes on the fly, it’s worth looking back at 2012, when Capcom ignored convention and did something dastardly: It made Dragon’s Dogma, an open-world game that actually felt dangerous. And with the sequel right around the corner, now is the perfect time to return to the cult classic, which you can play on Windows, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
Dragon’s Dogma, as the name might imply, is about slaying a mythical dragon. Along the way, you also accept contracts to hunt griffins, hydras, and harpies, to name a few, as a Witcher-esque sword for hire. But Dragon’s Dogma is also about venturing into a foreboding landscape that doesn’t want you there. It’s about gathering a party of AI companions that you’ll grow to trust (or hate) when the shit hits the fan. It’s about that moment after you’ve just triumphed over a cave troll and begun the long trek back to the city, only to see the sun sinking, knowing that you may not have enough supplies for the return journey.
Created by Street Fighter and Devil May Cry veterans, Dragon’s Dogma is as much an arcade-y hack-and-slash as it is a vanilla survival sim. There’s even a bit of Monster Hunter in the way you can latch onto a cyclops’ back and cut it as much as possible before it shrugs you off. Game designer Makoto Tanaka compared the game’s concept to the act of walking across the plains of Africa and encountering a lion, elephant, or giraffe — just swap out the creatures of the savanna for mythological beasts, and you have something similar to the fantasy world of Gransys. (This elevator pitch reminds me of Far Cry 2, and that’s never a bad thing.)
Compelling “hunt and kill or be killed” mechanics notwithstanding, it’s Dragon’s Dogma’s “pawn” system that makes it truly special. In addition to your playable character — which you can assign the “vocation” of Ranger, Assassin, or Mystic Knight, to name a few — you also create an AI-controlled ally that accompanies you for the rest of your playthrough. Crucially, you can also recruit two additional allies in the form of other players’ pawns. All told, you’ll be traveling across Gransys with a team of four, with the option to swap the latter two out for improved pawns as you encounter tougher monsters and more challenging quests.
Dear reader, I have played many video games. In doing so, I have encountered many video game characters. But I tell you this: I have loved none so fiercely as the fighter Gloink, who took more ogre fists to the grill than the rest of my party combined — his staunch determination and rock-hard skull opened countless windows for my player-created Ranger to finish off monsters from a distance. I forget the name of the player who created Gloink, but I am eternally in their debt.
I have also hated few other video game characters as much as I hated Cilantro, an AI Mage of my own making who may as well have bounced around on his ass for all the good he did us in combat. I built him as a healer, a role I thought to be self-explanatory. Cilantro, however, took the word to mean “the party member who gets eaten by dragons in record time and is never around long enough to heal his teammates.” To anyone who has recruited Cilantro in their travels: I am truly sorry.
The pawn system is the fuel of Dragon’s Dogma’s emergent storytelling. I’m reminded of the Nemesis system from the Middle-earth series, in which your behavior, your defeats, and your victories play into the evolution of your orc enemies. The pawn system is certainly not as robust or complex as Monolith’s opponent factory, but it does put player-led narratives front and center. I still think about both Gloink and Cilantro at least once a week — I can’t say the same about the talking heads in 90% of the more rigidly scripted games I play.
When the pawn system intersects with the open world itself, complete with its day-night cycle and dynamic weather patterns, Dragon’s Dogma operates on an entirely different level. It’s genuinely terrifying to be jogging back to the city of Gran Soren at night, eyes and ears peeled for creatures on the prowl — even more so, considering that more dangerous enemies emerge when it’s dark. And this is dark: Without lanterns or handheld light sources, you might be tumbling over cliffs or stumbling upon a bandit camp as they sit down to hatch the next day’s clandestine schemes. (The only games that have come close to capturing this kind of nightly despair are Dying Light and its sequel.) Grim situations like this only heightened my appreciation for Gloink, whose resilience and resolve saw me through many episodes of despair. They also amplified my disdain for Cilantro, whose magical and medical senses dimmed along with the sunlight. Fuck you, Cilantro.
Dragon’s Dogma is a fascinating creation from developers who had never really made anything quite like it before or since. The result is something thrilling, but also a bit bizarre. There’s a macabre zaniness to the world of Gransys, and pawns take on a mannequin-esque uncanny quality when they’re not leaping around in combat. With every return to Dragon’s Dogma (you can play Dark Arisen, the PS4 re-release, with a PlayStation Plus Extra subscription right now), I’m hard-pressed to think of anything else like it, even in 2023. Chances are, that pattern will continue for a few more months. Here’s looking at you, Dragon’s Dogma 2.