Four Thoughts on Dragon's Dogma

Austin Walker

Listen to Austin read this article (with additional commentary!) here.

In a couple of days, on Remap Radio, you'll be able to hear me and Patrick discuss our early hours impressions of Dragon's Dogma 2—Capcom’s frankly huge sequel to their 2012 open world action RPG and its 2013 expansion Dark Arisen. But, given my deep love of the first game and its expansion, I wanted to put something out there in time for today’s embargo. 

I also want to hold myself to a promise I made myself last year, which is: When I have the desire to write something, I should write it (even when I don’t have the time to give it the polish and precision I would’ve given it back in my old days as at Paste, or Giant Bomb, or Waypoint).

And hey, spoilers, I also just really like this game—I’ve put dozens of hours into it despite a packed schedule right now, and I wanted to pour that enjoyment into some words that I could share with you.

So: I wanna share four big thoughts about Dragon’s Dogma 2

If you don’t know anything about Dragon’s Dogma, that’s fine, the short version is that it is a big open world, action RPG series from Capcom, including some of the folks behind Devil May Cry and Monster Hunter. It has a big focus on character creation, class variety, and combat feel, and its secret sauce has always been its pawns, recruitable NPC party members who are borrowed from other players, learn things about the game world while you adventure with them, and then return with that knowledge the next time their player boots the game up. 

Okay, that’s the gist, here’s four big thoughts.

A feline looking archer explores a rocky crag with a lantern clipped to their belt.

One: I didn’t expect so many caves!

Let’s say you’re not a Dragon’s Dogma person. That’s fine. A lot of people come to RPGs for bold characters, or a focus on lots of novel narrative content, or complex worlds and factions and situations—and while I truly love the first Dragon’s Dogma (and the particular turns its own story eventually takes), its focus wasn’t on those things. So maybe you skipped it or bounced off of it, even though people like me couldn’t shut up about how good the Magick Archer was—it’s still good, by the way.

So: You might be surprised when I say that the first Dragon’s Dogma, despite being a fantasy RPG-ass fantasy RPG, didn’t have that many caves. Seriously, like… Dripstone Cave, the Bandits Den, Frontier’s Caverns… more broadly, Watergod’s Altar, Ancient Quarry… like six, okay, maybe like 8 caves. Total!

You might now be thinking: “Austin, why is the first big thought you’re sharing about caves”? 

That’s because caves are important to RPGs, and yes, I’m being both literal and figurative here.  Caves are gateways to the unknown, places to be explored and mapped and (eventually) understood. Or, places to run through at full speed because you don’t know exactly where you’re going but you do know it’s out of here

Yes, yes, I know, I’m talking about dungeons, but caves is a better word here, partly because Dragon’s Dogma 2 just has a lot of actual caves along with dungeons of other types of interiors, and… I say caves partly for reasons I’ll get into later, you’ll see. The point is: The first Dragon’s Dogma does not have a lot of caves! 

Dragon’s Dogma 2? Cave buffet. 

A trio of adventurers stand on a plateau above a maze of brown rocky canyons.

The world of Dragon’s Dogma 2 is structured around a series of hubs, loops, spokes, and caves. Leave Vernworth, capital of the human kingdom of Vermund, and head in any direction and you’ll end up on a snaking pathway into the wilderness which will, eventually either hit another settlement or find its way out, around, and back again towards the central city. Along the way, you’ll pass countless side pathways out towards the unpathed wilderness, down into ravines, up into the hills—and yes, into caves

Those caves bring something that was sorely missing from the first Dragon’s Dogma, a reward for poking around this gigantic world. I don’t mean a reward as in a new piece of armor or experience points. I mean that fundamental scratching of the itch of curiosity. Game development collective The Arcane Kids once wrote that the purpose of gameplay was to hide secrets. “What’s over there?” you think to yourself. And in Dragon’s Dogma 2 the answer is the lair of a chimera, the sorcerous study of a lich-like wight, a flooded cavern that’s home to countless saurians. And you know, yes, treasure also.

But that’s not their only purpose. Dragon’s Dogma 2 is big. It’s bigger than I thought it would be, and I thought it would be pretty big. I think some folks might take issue with enemy variety or argue that you shouldn’t be able to rank up all of your vocations in a single playthrough, but I don’t think there’s a good argument that the world isn’t big and diverse in environments. And there’s a chance that could all feel like… too much. You know, you leave the capital and go through the fields and walk into forest and then climb the hills and then there’s different type of grass and oh no a cyclops attacked, and one of your pawns takes a fatal hit and you revive them, but then get pulled away by a harpy and now you’re on top of a different hill and… oh, a cave. 

Dragon’s Dogma 2, with its huge open world, could feel like a run on a sentence. Its caves, its dungeons, its lairs… they’re punctuation marks. They delimit all those words—all that world—to make something comprehensible, meaningful, and digestible.

An archer stands on a rocky outcrop in a placid ocean bay looking across at a city on a peninsula.

Two: The deconstruction of the open-world map and quest design

One of the embargo requirements from Capcom was that reviewers not show the “map screen while icons are displayed.” Which is interesting, because (while I get that they’re trying to avoid some particular spoilers here) let me tell you: There aren’t that many icons displayed on these maps. Yes, the aforementioned caves will show up there after you find them, along with other landmarks, like the riftstones where you can summon new pawns or camp locations, where you can recover HP or change your skills. 

That’s not because the world isn’t dense with things: Like I said, it can feel almost like a run-on sentence sometimes. But the game doesn’t need a ton of icons on the map. 

Partly, that’s because it has so many other ways of communicating information to the player besides just tossing a bunch of icons up on a map. There aren’t exclamation points that indicate that an NPC has a quest for you, because NPCs with quests for you will just run up to you in the street and say “yo, hold up, can you help me with this?” Then if one of your pawns has done this quest with another player before, they’ll offer to guide you to any relevant destinations they know about. And if you’re stuck, fortune tellers can offer you tips on your currently selected quest for a small fee. And that’s on top of regular old communicative level design which draws your eye to natural paths of egress and exit. 

The result is like taking the map of a standard open world game and distributing the information inside of it across all these other vectors—and often, vectors that are characters, which means it’s not just a moment of information sharing, it’s a moment of characterization too. 

A masked warrior vaults toward the camera past a kneeling peasant in a forest.

But, like I said, I think that distribution of information is only partly why the game doesn’t rely on a screenful of UI elements to communicate world and quest details. The other part is that it just doesn’t want things to be that obvious sometimes. 

I don’t want to get into spoiling specific quests, but over and over again, especially but not only in its side quests, Dragon’s Dogma 2 gives the player objectives without any sort of destination marker attached to them. 

Reclusive sorcerers will ask you to find them some key books. Good-hearted knights will ask you to investigate secret communiques and mysterious masquerades. Mercenaries will ask that you point a new recruit in their direction. And then you just gotta… figure it out. You have tools—all the tools I mentioned above, along with quest text in the menu that often serves as a sort of narrative clue that will put you in the right direction. You might even find yourself, on a whim, going to talk to an NPC from a different quest line to see if maybe they have something to add to this new quest—and you know what, sometimes they do

If there is one thing that game designers are going to talk about in their weekly design team meetings, or that YouTube game critics are going to make videos about, it’s going to be about the, frankly, fearless decision to make so many open ended, unguided quests in this game. It will be like the year Dark Souls hit big, except instead of saying ‘look at how this game trusts the player to tackle difficult combat challenges,’ they will be saying ‘look at how this game trusts the player to engage with its narrative systems.’

It’s cool and, frankly, it’s something I did not expect from this game at all.

A dimunitive archer saying to man in armor, "You look upon me so expectantly, are we acquainted?"

Three: Unafraid to play it straight, and better for it

Here’s something I wrote back in June of 2022 about the first Dragon’s Dogma:

It is a familiar taste concerned with soft distinctions.

Despite eventually subverting the fantasy conventions it is draped in, [Dragon’s Dogma] cares a lot about capturing what is attractive about those ideas to begin with. Like Record of Lodoss War or Dungeon Meshi, it is unabashedly clear in its inspirations, but never feels like a dull or lazy copy. As the world comes into focus, it feels almost like filling out a Picross puzzle and beginning to recognize a shape. Aha, the valorized knight with a dark secret!

Dragon’s Dogma 2 continues this strategy, across narrative, art, and gameplay design. It is, like I said, a fantasy RPG-ass fantasy RPG. It’s a game where giant heroes wield giant claymores, where ruined swords are restored to their former glory, and where amateur mages foolishly pursue dangerous magic for greedy ends. It is wholly comfortable in the common tropes of the genre. I mean, shit, this is a game whose elves have a deep cultural relationship with archery, and where one of the most important decisions you can make as an archer is whether to spend your precious few explosive arrows on the current fight. 

And I think it’s better for it, for two reasons that pull in different directions but also rely on one another.

First: It’s a warm blanket. If you like the sound of arrows whipping through the air, or the magical gleam gathered at the end of a sorcerer’s staff as they incant their spells, or the long, ominous shadow of something passing overhead as you climb down the long, green hills… Then let me tell you, this is gonna hit.

Second: Because it hits the baseline so cleanly, Dragon’s Dogma 2 is able to really emphasize when it’s diverging from the norm. 

A humanoid lion in heavy armor saying "I doubt such a thing would be asked of a human instructor, but I'm beastren aren't I?"

Sometimes, that’s in a unique setting element, like the Beastren, a feline-ish fantasy species of humanoids that are available along with humans as a playable species. They exist across both of the game’s nations, but also have their own interesting history that you’ll slowly start to wrap your head around as you play. Importantly, though they are occasionally a vehicle for racial-tension storytelling (just ask the Beastren mercenary who complains that he’ll get in trouble for something his human counterparts would not), they aren’t in the world as a naive stand-in for any real human ethnic group. (And, also important, Dragon’s Dogma 2’s human population is racially diverse, putting a spotlight on the same incredible skin options that I shouted out during the video preview Patrick and I did a few weeks ago).

Other times, that divergence comes through combat or class design, like with the Trickster, a unique class that uses a magical censer to spread smokey illusions that distract and disrupt enemies while buffing allies.

(As a quick aside: I don’t have the time for it, but I really wanted a fifth point in here, just about the joy of character building in this game. Picking up a new vocation, figuring out what its unique traits are, what the loop is like while playing it. Then taking some of its passive augments and bringing those with you into a new class? And then eventually taking a collection of active abilities and bringing them into the new Warfarer class to make your own little hybrid? It’s so good.)

But sometimes, as was the case in Dragon’s Dogma’s final act and in its expansion campaign, Dark Arisen, that subversion or divergence happens in the narrative or in the world. And that is true here, too. Every once in a while you’ll hit a plot beat—both in the main story and in some of the side quests—that is truly surprising. 

To be clear: you can make games filled with unique story and setting elements. But when you’re playing something that is generally playing in a well-trodden genre space, and then it swerves… that effect is different. The destabilization is enhanced, underscored. 

And let me tell you: If you, like me, are a Dragon’s Dogma sicko, then this game is for you. 

A warrior with a long spear stands on a ledge overlooking a bay and a massive cathedral-looking building.

Four: The “natural world” / Or whatever else it’s called

My favorite open world games of the last decade have something in common: A real interest in what it means to be outside, and in finding a particular perspective on artistic depictions of the wilderness. 

For Breath of the Wild, the wilderness is a place of vistas: A horizon dotted with dozens of landmarks, waiting to be approached, explored, understood, and yes, conquered. For Death Stranding, the wilderness is a cliff—and it puts as much focus on the quiet beauty of the crags and bluffs as it does on the devastating comedic potential of a dozen packages bouncing hundreds of feet down a ridge and into the river.

Dragon’s Dogma 2’s wilderness is, I think, the wind whipping through the world. Blades of grass swaying in the breeze, yet remaining in place. Branches shaking, dust gathering in the air. Nature is always in motion in Dragon’s Dogma 2, even as it is also at rest. 

I’ve taken a lot of video clips while playing this game. In one, I attempt to fight a minotaur and a chimera in a downpour so heavy that I can barely make out their figures in the rain. In another, I use Mystic Spearhand’s telekinesis ability to lift a stunned enemy, but before I can launch him into his own ally, my pawn appears from the left like a twirling yo-yo of knives—as if I’d lifted the enemy up as a little offering to her. In a particularly good one, I launch one of those explosive arrows at the head of a cyclops that’s charging towards the ox cart I’ve been riding in… and when the explosive goes off, it takes the oxcart with it. This is the sort of game it is. 

But of all of them—all the close-calls and dramatic victories—my favorite is a simple moment that really emphasizes the game’s aesthetic approach to the wilderness.

In the video, I’m about as checked out as I can be: I’m running up a mountain pathway, escorting a boy I’d saved from wolves, a quest I first completed last month during the final preview event. Since then, I’d probably traversed this path ten or more times. It’s become familiar in the most pejorative sense. At one point I nearly trip over the remains of an ogre I’d beaten just 15 or so minutes prior. I stop for just a second and then keep moving. It’s all so… routine.

And then, at the 40 seconds mark, I stop in my tracks. At the edge of the escarpment, a tall figure in a blue-black cloak stands looking out towards the cliff face opposite her, bow strung across her back. I take a screenshot immediately, even though I don’t quite know why. 

Maybe it’s the strength of the composition: a dark silhouette against the gray-green alpine mountains. Maybe it’s the quality of light—the sun is setting, here, and some places are dim enough that color is leaving them, while others—the highest, western-most reaches of the opposite cliff, a pair of birds flapping through the air—are perfectly positioned to catch the last rays of light, reflecting a soft, painterly gold below. 

Maybe it’s the quiet. While Dragon’s Dogma 2 Pawns don’t repeat as many of the same lines as they did in the first Dragon’s Dogma, they are still talkative, funny people. But this one wasn’t saying anything, she didn’t turn to approach me immediately, didn’t offer to swear service or to help me with a quest. She was just standing still, watching the sun set, taking it all in. 

An archer wearing small round sunglasses addresses a phantasm saying, "I enjoy tackling fierce foes."

All around, the world moves in place: A bush tilting back and forth in the wind, the grass dancing, her cape—made from iridescent feathers, I now see, fluctuating like waves. Below it all, the roil of the river below, just off screen—churning, yet constant, too. All of it, magical because it is a sudden puncture in the mundanity, a striking visual surprise in the routine trip home. The blades of grass you walk past daily, now blowing in the wind, and bigger, somehow for it.

This is the rhythm of Dragon’s Dogma 2: Movement and stillness, sometimes in succession, as in the exhale-depletion of resources—like your ever-decreasing maximum health cap—and their inhale-restoration, whether through crafting or camping or simple discovery. Movement and stillness, sometimes all at once, like when you are atop a griffin, holding perfectly still—while the being you cling to cuts through the air across regions you haven’t even seen yet. Movement and stillness, like breathing, like storm wind in trees, in succession, all at once, from hub to loop, from loop to spoke, from spoke to cave, and back.

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