One of the best action RPGs ever made was released 10 years ago on May 22, 2012. It sold 1.5 million copies in its first month and gathered positive reviews from major publications worldwide. Despite that, it remains underappreciated, unknown even to many RPG fans. But anyone who tries it immediately sinks deep into the experience, and they’ll wind up with the same response: “I can’t wait for Dragon’s Dogma 2.”
It’s not hard to see why so many people overlook Dragon’s Dogma. There’s nothing particularly eye-catching about its dark fantasy aesthetic. It’s filled with familiar monsters like ogres and chimeras. Maybe you’ve seen the Dragon’s Dogma animated series on Netflix, which doesn’t exactly leave you wanting more.
Everything on the surface of Dragon’s Dogma suggests a generic fantasy adventure, but dive deeper, and you’ll find an incredible open world, satisfying and distinct character classes, and a host of innovative (sometimes half-baked) systems that you won’t believe haven’t been copied ad nauseam by now.
The inciting incident of Dragon’s Dogma is as simple as it is ridiculous. A dragon steals your heart, and you want it back. So you set off to kill that dragon, hoping it’s kept your heart in the fridge or something to keep it fresh. Like you’re in a run-of-the-mill D&D campaign, you set out from your small fishing village, laying waste to goblins, bandits, and wolves along the way.
Your first taste of what makes Dragon’s Dogma so special comes when you reach the next encampment, where a glowing stone beckons to you. Touch it and you’re kicked back to the character creator, this time to design an NPC companion called a Pawn. After customizing their look, you pick your Pawn’s class and tune their AI through a questionnaire that reads like it’s plucked from a bizarre alternate universe dating app (“As a ruler, which gift would please you most?”).
From then on, your Pawn will be ever at your side, helping you in combat, hoovering up items, and constantly reminding you that wolves don’t love being set on fire. Even when you’re not adventuring, your Pawn can keep at it. Each time you rest at an inn, your Pawn’s equipment, abilities, and level sync with an online profile. Other players can then summon your Pawn to journey with them, or even encounter Pawns wandering the world and recruit them on the spot. When your Pawn returns, they’ll bring gifts from the player who summoned them and knowledge about what they’ve seen, which manifests as both better battle tactics and new voice lines to repeat until you can’t stand them.
In some ways, it sounds like a better co-op system than Elden Ring’s convoluted finger-focused invasion policy.
The Pawns of Dragon’s Dogma, however, represent the wild ambitions and flawed execution that define the game. Pawns often stop mid-battle to pick herbs or carry incapacitated allies to you in a way that feels remarkably similar to a cat depositing a mouse at your feet. Oh, and pawns are also prone to walking off cliffs. As a mechanical concept, Pawns are brilliant, but it was an idea way ahead of its time.
What makes Dragon’s Dogma great isn’t any single system, however. It’s how all its quirks and experiments, even the ones that don’t quite work, fit together to make its world come alive. Quests in Dragon’s Dogma are often vague, and the main story wanders aimlessly. The fun comes from exploring and seeing your own goals through along the way. You might come across a mining tunnel in your travels, where a beleaguered merchant is prevented passage by an ogre lurking within. You might be fighting lizardfolk in a shaded grove when a minor dragon swoops overhead, raining fire around it.
Dragon’s Dogma wants you to journey through its world slowly, taking in each unique sight as you map out dangers. It helps that the world is relatively small but full of character. After you’ve traversed the map, you’ll remember the windswept canyon full of harpies, the griffon’s feeding grounds, and the secret paths and caverns that crisscross the world.
Really, you don’t have much choice about getting familiar with the map.
Fast travel in Dragon’s Dogma is unconventional. If you find a place you want to return to later, you need to make your own fast travel point using a rare item. It’s the kind of decision that would probably be sanded over today when even games like Elden Ring replace FromSoftware’s traditionally stingy fast travel with generous checkpoints. Dragon’s Dogma is about the journey and the surprises along the way, which just wouldn’t work if you could teleport at will.
Having to hike around the map the good old-fashioned way also gives you a lot more opportunities for combat. Fortunately, that’s one area where Dragon’s Dogma shines without caveats. Melee combat feels like a mashup of Monster Hunter, Dark Souls, and Kingdoms of Amalur (to cite another cult RPG). While not as precise as some of those games, it requires good timing, stamina management, and judicious item use to stay alive. Classes all feel distinct, from the hulking Mystic Knight to the death-dealing Sorcerer. Magic feels scary, slow, and huge, with high-level spells that take several seconds to cast but can summon tornadoes from thin air and turn foes to stone.
One of the defining combat features of Dragon’s Dogma is the ability to scale enemies. See that cyclops? You can climb it. Confrontations with giant monsters feel wholly unique as you scramble out of reach of their swipes to strike where it hurts and bring them crashing down. It’s incredibly satisfying to cling to a chimera as it charges, chop off its snake-headed tail, then leap free as it stumbles to face its lion head from the ground. It’s clearly inspired by Shadow of the Colossus but tuned for harrowing acrobatic combat.
The least memorable part of Dragon’s Dogma is its story. It’s a fairly predictable fantasy tale leading up to your confrontation with the dragon. At that point, it reveals hidden depth and, again taking cues from FromSoftware, an obsession with breaking and maintaining cycles. While the story is forgettable, how it ends certainly isn’t. After credits roll, you’re presented with an entirely new endgame challenge, and beyond that, an unbelievable turn of events links the first playthrough to New Game Plus.
Dragon’s Dogma shows its age today, but it’s still every bit as fun to play as it was at launch. Its vast open world and thrilling combat make it the perfect cure for your Elden Ring hangover, but be warned — once you’ve played it, you may not be able to resist joining the horde of fans clamoring for the long-rumored sequel every chance they get.
Dragon’s Dogma is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.