Like its cyclical fantasy world, Dragon's Dogma has lived many lives. First released for PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2012, it was then re-released on those same consoles, updated and expanded, as Dark Arisen in 2013. In 2016 it returned with a PC port, then again for PS4 and Xbox One in 2017, and, eventually, it came to Switch in 2019. That its cult success endures to this day is testament to its wonderful, singular strangeness.
On the surface, Dragon's Dogma appears a rote open-world action RPG – Japanese developer Capcom trying its hand at Western ideas and Tolkienesque fantasy. Dig deeper, however, and you discover something far more distinct and alluring. Capcom had its own vision for what a game like this could be: something built on turning left wherever its contemporaries turn right.
At its core, Dragon's Dogma is about journeys – long, hard treks across its sprawling kingdom. It's about learning the landscape around you, managing dwindling supplies and the moment of relief when, after days on the road, you finally spot civilisation on the horizon. It's not afraid to inconvenience players in favour of giving its world and its quests a greater sense of scale. And it's not afraid to be scary – not simply hostile or difficult, but dangerous.
Thanks to a brilliantly unfriendly lighting system, nights are pitch-black. Even with a light source, navigation after sundown is terrifying, as you stumble through trees and scrub pursued by predators who only wake in the darkness. Its caves and dungeons aren't simply handfuls of fights and stashes of treasure; they're lairs. Exploring their cramped, lightless tunnels is an exercise in tension and release as you creep forward, pushing your luck ever further, before a great beast erupts from the shadows and smears you across the walls.
Dragon's Dogma's threats, especially in the early game, aren't overcome by learning attack patterns, or perfecting the use of your abilities. The combat is, ultimately, too loose for that. The challenge isn't to master fighting; it's to learn the rules and whims of the world. You didn't die in the dungeon because you dodged at the wrong moment. You shouldn't have entered the dungeon at all, not weak and undersupplied and unseasoned as you were.
Expanding your adventure
The game does recognise this is a world where you need help, not just for protection in combat, but to explain your environment. It provides an adventuring party in the form of Pawns, fellow travellers with a strange connection to your quest. Instead of being authored characters or generic hirelings, each is a player's creation. You make one yourself, to serve as your consistent sidekick, but to round out your foursome you pull two in from other people's games before each excursion. And others can hire your Pawn too.
Whatever game they're battling in, Pawns are always learning, gaining knowledge of the land and its creatures – so by adventuring with others, when it returns you might know the weaknesses of a monster you've not yet fought, or a shortcut in a quest you've yet to complete. They may even return with a gift granted for good service, a star rating for their appearance, service in battle and helpfulness, and a comment on their performance – like some kind of interdimensional Yelp review.
The result is that it's in every player's interest for their Pawn to be picked as often as possible, creating a sort of community popularity contest. Some latch onto the purity of numbers, creating the most mechanically adept Pawn they can, and trusting others to know a min-maxed build when they see it. For others, it's a fashion contest, where the game's versatile character-creation tools and modular outfits are used to create striking heroes (and, it must be admitted, scantily clad maidens).
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For some, it's a chance to recreate characters from popular culture, allowing players to hire rough simulacra of Hulk, Gollum, and Homer Simpson. And it can even be an avenue for the kind of absurdist humour only character-creation sliders can facilitate: red dwarves with pink ponytails, warped parodies of political figures, malnourished eight-foot jesters, and odder besides.
So, while they might not be scripted, they take on a personality regardless, because of their connection to the creativity and experiences of others – or, in the case of your Pawn, because of the life it seems to lead even when you're not playing. It greets you after your time away having grown and prospered in other people's games, perhaps even returning with a few oddly warming comments, messages from people whose journey your creation enhanced in some way.
Love is war
The romance system is imbued with a similar kind of organic magic. Where in the games of BioWare, CD Projekt Red, and countless imitators, love is something achieved by selecting clearly signposted conversation options, and rewarded with a saucy cutscene, Dragon's Dogma tries something characteristically experimental. Fascinatingly, the game attempts to infer which of its many NPCs you like best, based on how you interact with them – and this invisible companionship tally is kept for almost every character you meet (notably regardless of gender). This enormously complex system exists not for the gratification of bedding virtual constructs, but to pull the rug out from under you. At a key moment in the story, you're told the Dragon, the game's main antagonist, has kidnapped your true love. You rush to confront it and, like a magician showing you your card, the game reveals who it thinks you've fallen for.
Of course, the nature of experiments is that their results are unpredictable, and never is that clearer than in this vital instant. For some players, it is a moment of true emotional impact, as a character they consciously pursued is put in danger. For others, it's strangely revelatory – maybe you thought it would be this person, but you actually spent far more time trying to please him than you ever did her. But for many, it must be admitted, their true love turned out to be the weapons merchant. 'Well, you spend so much time with him', the game seems to say with a sudden naivety. 'He's always the first person you run to. Isn't it because you love his smile?'
It's a moment that kicks off the beginning of the end of the story. Its twists and turns are too numerous and bizarre to fully explore here, but suffice to say they see your character both metaphorically and literally descending into an increasingly surreal world, long past the point you would have expected things to wind to a close with medals all round. In its final moments, you discover the truth: your entire adventure was a test, put into motion by 'the Seneschal' (to all intents and purposes, God) to determine whether you are worthy to take his place. Beat him in combat, and you gain his power. Following your ascension, you are shown the extent of your abilities. The world, once so dark and dangerous, is now your playground. As an invisible, untouchable presence, you are free to go anywhere you please, do anything you want.
Except there's nothing of consequence left for you to do. Where once you were the world's one driving agent, now you are the passive observer of a land in stasis, waiting for a new hero. You are allowed as much time as you need to come to the same realisation the Seneschal did: that godhood is a curse, not a blessing. When you finally bore of the novelty, your only option is to end your own existence, killing yourself and starting the cycle anew via the game's esoteric New Game Plus mode.
Evolving the RPG
How coherent any of this is is up for debate, but there's a wonderful boldness in a game even attempting such an existentially disturbing ending. Having played with the power fantasy inherent to the RPG genre – sometimes quashing it, sometimes indulging in it – the game ends by taking it to its most absurd extreme, allowing you to fight God for His loot, and ultimately discover it worthless.
We haven't even delved into the game's transitory progression system that sees you passing through its classes one after another; the effect of weight and height on gameplay, including the secret places only tiny heroes can reach; the endgame boss so powerful only the entire community united can defeat it; and countless other moments of strangeness that make Dragon's Dogma feel not quite of this world.
Perhaps understandably, it's a game that's inspired no imitators, and despite its enduring presence and cult success, it's yet to generate a sequel. Japanese players at least can enjoy an MMO spin-off, Dragon's Dogma Online, though it shows no sign yet of making its way to the west. A brief glimmer of hope sparkled at 2013's E3 with the announcement of Deep Down, seemingly a spiritual successor – but, save for a trademark extension in 2018, that project has shown few signs of activity since.
In fact, the only confirmed follow-up Dragon's Dogma has on the cards isn't a game at all: it's the animated Netflix television series from CG studio Sublimation, which launched to mixed reviews in 2020. Perhaps that's appropriately idiosyncratic for a game so devoted to the art of going its own way – but we can't imagine it's lived its last life just yet. Its director, Hideaki Itsuno, hasn't given up hope of a follow up, at least, revealing to Eurogamer that he'd still love to helm a sequel one day. "I already know what the story would be," he said. "It's just about convincing people to let me make it."
Perhaps, if the stars align, we may yet get see the cycle begin anew.
This feature first appeared in issue #334 of Edge Magazine. For more great articles like this one, check out all of Edge's subscription offers at Magazines Direct.