'Dragon's Dogma' is the Action RPG You Never Knew You Needed

'Dragon's Dogma' is the Action RPG You Never Knew You Needed

2012's 'Dragon's Dogma' is an engrossing oddball RPG that's been frankly begging for a true sequel Capcom/Glixel

Capcom's flawed gem from 2012 was wild, odd, and vicious, and it's getting a next-gen remake

Capcom's flawed gem from 2012 was wild, odd, and vicious, and it's getting a next-gen remake

If you were inclined to dismiss Capcom's Dragon's Dogma, you'd probably say that it often resembles a fan's scrapbook filled with standout scenes from other fantasy works. Upon its release in late May 2012 – hot on the heels of Skyrim, the latest, greatest Alpha and Omega of fantasy geekery – Capcom's attempt at a sprawling Western-style RPG met a gaming climate that damned it with gentle praise. Five years later, with yet another re-release of Dogma looming for PS4 and Xbox One, and legions of die-hards pounding on the house that Mega Man built for a true sequel, the strange, threadbare world of Gransys is begging to be rediscovered.

It'd be a stretch to call Dragon's Dogma's world original. Where most works that rifle through old Dungeons & Dragons monster manuals present at least the spectre of a fresh idea, Capcom was fine with straight-up lifting its contents. Those who play The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher to vacuum up lorebooks and plumb the depths of their fiction need not apply here. A dragon attacks your quaint fishing village and (literally) steals your heart, branding you an "Arisen." Your job is to go get it back. You serve a plot that is skeletal and at times incomprehensible, a combination that fans of Capcom's work will recognize and perhaps even embrace. To dwell on it would be pointless; after all, the game itself barely bothers with it. Gransys might be wide and wild – and populated with nearly every creature in Western mythology – but, not surprisingly, your character is more interested in dismembering them than learning their ways.

It shouldn't be a huge surprise that an action RPG made by some of the minds behind the Devil May Cry series would thoroughly excel at the action part. While its open structure and focus on interminable side content won it many comparisons to Bethesda's games, the instant you draw your sword, Dogma hews far closer to the shield-clanging of Dark Souls than the mindless mook-bashing of Skyrim or Oblivion. It lacks the keen precision of Fromsoft's masterworks – you can spam healing items to your heart's content, for example, provided you have the patience to gather them – but its edge remains sharp. Early on, simply wandering outside civilization at night is a harrowing endeavor, with gaggles of goblins, griffins, or worse roaming the wilds, all too eager to end you. This "hardcore" ethos permeates the entire production: the sheer frequency of combat encounters demands that you pay attention to mundanities, such as your level of lamp oil, or your bundles of stamina-restoring herbs. Stray too far off the beaten path, and you might stumble upon a gleaming shortsword – or, more likely, a chimera looking to rip you to shreds.

Throughout these misadventures, you'll be accompanied by supposedly-subhuman companions called Pawns, who essentially act as your magical servants, simply by virtue of your awesomeness. (Since Pawns are essentially slaves of the Arisen, this subtext is rather bizarre.) The Pawn system is Dragon's Dogma's most significant innovation, and one of the most unusual things ever devised for a big-budget video game. Early on, you're charged with customizing the appearance and build for your "Main Pawn," the companion character who remains at your side throughout the entirety of the 70-hour adventure, slinging spells, firing arrows, or simply hacking monsters to bits. Your pawn isn't just a doll for you to dress up or an infinite-health damage sponge – he's not the Miles "Tails" Prower to your Sonic – but a significant addition to your party, capable of making or breaking an encounter depending on their equipment and tactics. Each time you save your game, a copy of your Pawn is backed up to the Dragon's Dogma server; if you enter a nexus known as The Rift, you can hire somebody else's servants to complement your party.

Like the good little video game companions they are, the Pawns have a tendency to announce their every action, including healing you, pinpointing the weaknesses of enemies, and targeting specific foes. (To be clear: if Dogma had working toilets, these Pawns would tell you when they were ready to take a shit.) While this certainly beats silence – after all, you want to have some idea of what they're doing – it means your most excruciating brawls are accompanied by screaming matches between your two Pawns, both struggling to be heard over the other. For better or worse, barely-successful design conceits like this are Dragon Dogma's trademark – viewed from the right lens, you might even say they come across as charming.

With your two companions taking hearty swings at a massive Cyclops as you climb up its back to stab its eye out – not to mention the swaths of NPC combatants massing behind you, anxious to join the fray – it's fair to say that the battles in Dogma tend more towards baroque chaos than, say, Geralt's more-considered clashes with harpies and bandits. But don't let that fool you: underneath all the mysterious auras and flaring fireballs lies a battle system that's far more tactical than you might expect. Your build isn't just a static, inscrutable collection of numbers, but rather a collection of equippable moves, each useful in different situations. These maneuvers are far more crucial than you might expect – for example, you have to unlock the dodge-roll, that linchpin of all hack-and-slashers, and only a few classes can use it. But fret not, as you can change your class at any time, for any reason. The fuzzy math that underlies Dragon's Dogma might prove irritating to min-maxers – overall character level, separate levels for each subclass, and a multitude of currencies – but the game manages to give you a smorgasbord of choices without overwhelming you.

As a full-bore western RPG in 2012 from a Japanese developer, Dragon's Dogma never really had a chance. Capcom tried again a year later with Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, a version that came bundled with an expansion area and a small hoard of DLC. But now, on Steam, in its quiet existence as a modestly-priced, combat-heavy palette cleanser for megahits like The Witcher 3, it's finally managed to gather a dedicated following. Dogma might be a little bold, a little trite, and a little bit half-baked, but, in the end, it's the ideal candidate for the remaster that was just announced for current-gen consoles that's due this fall – not a classic that broke every barrier upon its release, but a fundamentally decent game that deserves a second chance. The edge of its broadsword might not shine with the same careful brilliance as Geralt's silver weapon, but you might find that its crude heft suits you better.