A lot of the reviews for recent release Dragon’s Dogma are rather lukewarm, or suggest that for all the things the game “does right” it does plenty more “wrong”. I spent all of last week trying to figure out what, exactly, was wrong with the game. I began to consider that I might not be able to do an objective write-up on the site, in fact, as I am absolutely in love with this game. I cannot see the flaws that all others do. I’m infatuated.
Then I began to read The Escapist’s review.
I think I get it, now. If you’re playing the game as a reviewer, then you have a deadline. If you have a deadline, then you’re trying to play as much of the game in as short a time as possible, which means you’re going to be frustrated when obstacles interfere with that goal.
For example, a lack of fast travel, such as seen in Skyrim.
A number of these reviews state that “if you can deal with the fact” that the game has no fast travel, as if this is a clear flaw. Well, if you’re trying to rush through content, it is. If this were also a Bethesda game, all that walking around in explored territory certainly would get boring. Fortunately, this is not a Bethesda game.
See, exploration is nice, yes, but in Dragon’s Dogma you’re not exploring just to see the pretty landscapes or for the loot. You’re exploring so you can find more monsters to fight. The more monsters you fight the higher in level you get. The higher in level you get the more monsters you can fight.
This is what Dragon’s Dogma is all about, and this is also why fast travel would actually be a bad idea.
Before I explain why, I should give a bit of context. I normally don’t do well with hugely open-world games where the side-quests are the main attraction. Sacred 2: Fallen Angel got boring outside of co-op, and unfortunately the console network code was never patched to the point of actual functionality. Morrowind, Oblivion and Fallout 3 all became boring games to explore because that’s all there was to do. Walk around and find a dungeon that looked like all the others, all while meeting monsters that slowly shambled your way and swung at you. In Fallout 3 they had to get innovative and program A.I. that could wield guns. How next-generation.
In other words, those games were lacking in proper reason to do all that exploring. Once you reached a location you had no reason to return.
Dragon’s Dogma? Well, first you need to be able to survive that first run to a new location. This is going to take some frequent saves to do.
Which is one of the problems. Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t have regular automatic checkpoints. Not like modern games. It saves when you rest at an inn or similar location, then at few other places. This game is old skool, in that you have to be saving manually, and you must do it often. Particularly at the start of the game.
At first, this is rough. It is easy to die early on in the game as you’re not very strong and everything else is decently powerful. You have to be cautious, and if you’re not then you’re probably going to have to replay a good chunk of game, and therefore a good chunk of travel.
When you’re reviewing a game, this is automatically a flaw because it just took time out of your limited schedule. When you’re a gamer, well, it will also be inconvenient. However, it’s also a sort of “fool me once, shame on you…” situation. This is a game that basically teaches you to play cautiously, and that’s one of the ways. You can bet your ass that the next time you see an unfamiliar road, a group of bandits in the distance, a brand new creature you don’t recognize or something rather large, you’re going to save your game.
Congratulations, you’ve just learned that the world is dangerous.
Once you’ve learned this lesson it is no longer a flaw. It is just a part of playing the game. You save early and save often. Most importantly, you’re never stuck in a situation where an auto-save stuck you in a spot where you’re mostly screwed. You know, a spot where you’ve wasted a ton of resources in a dungeon you can’t finish anyway, but you have no way out of.
Now, as for fast travel being a detriment, well, if you were able to fast travel you wouldn’t be able to fight. If you weren’t able to fight you’d miss one of the biggest draws of the game. More importantly, you wouldn’t be gaining so much experience. If you don’t gain so much experience then you don’t level up, which means you will be ill prepared for all the missions ahead.
For example, I had three separate missions that all took me to a location known as the Shadow Fort. The first was an escort mission, and it was rather difficult. Along the path was a Chimera, and the first time I fought it I was also attacked by local lizard men. My client died, and so did I. Fortunately I had saved right before I tried to attack the foe (see? All part of learning how to play the game), and instead aggro’d the Chimera alone from a distance. I was able to tackle the Chimera more carefully without the added irritation of the lizard men and a greater focus on the health of my escort. I succeeded, but I took a lot of damage.
The rest of the journey to the Shadow Fort was not much better. Rocks fell from the cliffs, I nearly encountered a Cyclops I was ill prepared to fight, and at the edge of a forest a dragon patrolled. I was able to evade these monsters, but found myself taking heavy damage through a group of hob goblins. Once I reached my destination I sighed, glad to finally have made it. The journey was difficult, and I didn’t want to make it again soon.
Then, a few quests and a few levels down the line, I got a second escort quest to the same location. At first I was expecting an equally troublesome journey, but instead was able to conquer the Chimera and local lizard men with less effort. I knew to expect falling rocks from the high cliffs, knew where the monsters to avoid were and made short work of the hob goblins. After delivering my second client to this location I decided to attack the nearby Cyclops, vanquishing it.
The Dragon made short work of me.
The third time was the main quest directing me to this new location. Evidently something needed to be done at this Shadow Fort. I was not afraid of the path this time. I dove head first, making short work of the Chimera, taking down the Cyclops, and sweeping through the hob goblins. I was stronger, more powerful, capable of taking on hardier foes.
Which is good, because it turns out that story quest throws two Cyclops and a bunch of hob goblins at me at once.
See, Dragon’s Dogma is not a game you simply cut through the main quest of. I guess you could try it, but you’d probably die an awful lot. Without all those side quests, without all those fights, you won’t stand much of a chance. If you were able to fast travel to a location then you would miss out on all the experience.
Fortunately, fighting is a lot of fun. While many foes have weaknesses, and everyone already knows about the “Shadow of the Colossus” aspect of climbing beasts, there are so many more strategic options. Your character class has a lot to do with it, as does the experience of your Pawns. Pawns, cohorts that only gain knowledge based on experience themselves.
In short, fast travel would ruin the game. Like Kid Icarus, changing how the game currently operates would change its core mechanics. It would be like pulling right at the bottom of the Jenga tower and everything toppling over. This goes for a number of the other complaints as well.
This doesn’t mean Dragon’s Dogma is for everyone. It is certainly for me, as it is the first open-world style of game where I have cared more about side-quests than the main quest. This is unheard of. I typically prefer a game like inFamous, where you have a limited number of side quests per section of the main quest you complete, keeping me on a more focused and linear track.
However, I believe many of the flaws have only been considered as such because the reviewer has the misfortune of having to play this game on a deadline. True, I also desired a fast travel between locations early in the game. Now, I would never dream of it. If there was a fast travel then there would be so little for me to explore. So few locations for me to think “maybe another time”.
I am more intimate with Gransys, the world in Dragon’s Dogma, than I am with most other games. The only other such worlds I have any such familiarity with are among the likes of Zebes in Super Metroid and the mansion in the first Resident Evil. Games which required much in the way of retreading old ground.
This is important to Dragon’s Dogma, because it enforces the whole reason you’re playing the game: to cautiously explore, to fight new beasts and monsters lurking in the dark, and to come back another day if you’re simply not ready. Because when you are, victory tastes that much more sweet.