First Impressions: Dragon's Dogma

We live in a world where the Internet has become the primary medium for arguing about things, all sorts of things. Certain topics, among nerds, have always been contentious. Star Wars vs. Star Trek. Mac vs. PC. Nintendo vs. Sega. And, among a certain set, “Western-style computer role-playing games” (usually “CRPG”) vs “Japanese-style computer role-playing games” (usually “JRPG”).

Personally, I’ve never had a dog in this hunt: I am omniludorous. Let a thousand flowers bloom; if your game involves simulated fantasy combat in a vividly realized yet oddly constrained world, the chances are good that I will play it. But each side of the debate has its dogmatic loyalists, who are willing to swear that the games they like are good and the other games are crap.

There are stereotypes for each of these types of game, which, as we’ll see, only have a dollop of truth) to them.

The stereotype of Western RPGs is that they are open, unconstrained, liberating playgrounds of undirected sandbox play, where any character can go any place at any time and do any thing. They have deep statistical content and character growth can be in many directions. Plot is largely organic, arising out of the emergent content in the game. At their best, the games allow free-roaming fantasy and exploration. At their worst, they allow the player to trivially and unknowingly put the game in an unwinnable state. Western RPGs largely inherit their DNA from the Wizardry series of games. The example typically trotted out as the sine qua non of Western RPGs is The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which would happily let your first level character wander into the cave of high-level bandits cleverly placed right near the opening town, where it would be quickly murdered.

The stereotype of Japanese RPGs is that they are tightly controlled “long narrow hallways” in which a male teenage protagonist with spiky hair wakes up on the day of the village festival only to find out that their village has come under attack by airships from a nearby kingdom. He sets off with only his childhood best friend (secretly a princess), a scruffy bandit, and a dog. The protagonist’s team is immediately defeated by a level 862 bad guy. They then march down the long narrow hallways through about 15 different lands, fighting enemies who appear out of nowhere every 15 steps, acquire new companions, level up in a strictly proscribed manner, unlock additional powers, buy slightly better equipment, and eventually defeat the villain from the beginning of the game, but only after looking deep within themselves and finding a reserve of spirit.

These stereotypes have a little bit of validity, although they obscure more than they enlighten. The truth is that Western RPGs have often been more linear than their fans would claim, and much of the vaunted openness is really just a way of explaining away terrible user interface choices. While there are a few notable exceptions, the Western and Japanese CRPG traditions have both borrowed heavily from each other. The basic jumping off point for JRPGs is, in fact, Wizardry (ironically, due to emulation advances, the best version of Wizardry I you can play on a modern machine today is the SNES version.) Western RPGs and JRPGs are not distant cousins. They’re more like close siblings who fight a lot. Which brings me my commodious vicus of recirculation to Dragon’s Dogma.

Dragon’s Dogma is what happens when a Japanese developer plays The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and says “Hmmmmmm, we can do that. Hell, we can do that better.”

I’m not far enough in to say much more than that. But this is one heck of a strange game. The good sort of strange. It’s the sort of strange you get when someone from elsewhere visits the town you live in, and you see familiar places through new eyes. I think I like it.