When a griffin started tearing up the neighborhood, it was up to my gang to chase it off and kill it at its home in a distant tower. The journey was long and full of slow, plodding movement. I fought monsters even more deadly than the griffin itself, which kind of killed the mood by the time I got there. When I finally defeated the griffin, I was rewarded with a Portcrystal. This fast travel item could be placed anywhere, even left in its spot at the top of the tower, and I could quickly travel to that point whenever I wanted. Assuming I'd never return to this tower again, I scooped up the stone and headed back to Gran Soren.
Not even an hour later I fought an evil wizard who made his escape to that very same tower. There was absolutely no reason to ever think I'd return to that tower, and yet here I was hoofing it back. "What kind of asshole quest design is that?" I thought.
I got my answer shortly after, when the game did it again. Go to this fort, go back to town, go back to the fort. Travel to this hill so a wiseman can spout two sentences of nonsense, then report back to town. Do that again a few hours later. And all the way you shall suffer the same repetitive sprint-walk-sprint-walk method of travel. This wasn't challenging game design, this was sadism.
Dragon's Dogma seemed to get perverse pleasure out of thwarting every attempt to finish it. I insisted on seeing it through to the end and it hated me for it.
By the time I got to the Cockatrice boss fight I'd more or less had a good system for managing my inventory and encumbrance. I'd never once been afflicted with a status ailment that really worried me, so whenever I returned to town I'd sell off any curatives and save my health potions. Suddenly after over a dozen hours of precedent, the Cockatrice showed up and petrified my entire party. We all turned to stone, shattered and died, and reverted to a checkpoint outside of town (there's only one save file, by the way). The problem here was that I had no way of fixing my mistake because the cures were sold in town and the town had been turned into a giant boss fight. I could swear I heard the game whispering "Haha, suck it!" as if this had been a planned bait-and-switch all along.
I've been rewarded, challenged, and pushed to my limits of patience in games, but I've never felt despised as a player the way I felt in Dragon's Dogma. The game didn't want me to learn anything from its challenges, it simply wanted to see if I'd tolerate them. It hated me in a way no Ninja Gaiden or Dark Souls ever had, because behind every backhanded trick the game played on me, there was no greater lesson, no insight to be gained.
To think that Capcom's hands pulled the strings that made Dragon's Dogma is unsettling. People made these sadistic design decisions? They thought they were good ideas? Really? I just can't accept that. Instead I choose to imagine Dragon's Dogma as a game possessed by a sinister force, like a Necronomicon in disc form. It's the only way any of this makes any sense.
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I'd already heard the warnings from friends and fellow writers. I'd seen the reviews and played the demo, but that only piqued my curiosity. For better or worse, there was something special about Capcom's attempt at an epic RPG, and I was determined to discover it for myself. Deep down I knew I was headed down a dark path, but I wasn't wholly prepared for how dark it would be. Dragon's Dogma, it turns out, hated me from the start.
Like the start of any abusive relationship, it had some promise. The character creation tool was quite flexible. I was surprised when my finished product, an attempt to recreate Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, not only looked decent, but nearly matched that character's tiny stature. Hell, if I wanted to, I could have played the entire game as a small child—how cool is that?
The game's opening cutscene featured stunning cinematography typical of polished Japanese titles like Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil, but rare in these kinds of fantasy RPGs. It set up an interesting premise in which the hero's heart is stolen by a dragon. The dragon challenges him to a battle to win it back. Shortly after, a black hole opened and spat out a pawn; a recruitable party member designed by another Dragon's Dogma player.
The opening hour of Dragon's Dogma lived up to all my bizarre hopes and dreams. I wanted something unconventional and I seemed to be getting it. It didn't help that for all the Skyrim comparisons, Dragon's Dogma clearly had more in common with games like Dark Souls and Monster Hunter, Japanese series that many Westerners tend to misunderstand. In those opening hours I used that knowledge as a barrier to shield me from Dogma's many questionable design choices. I was giving it the benefit of the doubt but its terrible truths would soon be revealed.
My first hint of trouble occurred as I made the long journey from the game's starting town to Gran Soren, the major hub city where most of the quests begin. A stamina meter turned that journey into an endless staccato of quick sprints and painfully slow strolls. Sometimes my hero would stop to catch his breath, head between his knees, right in the middle of a battle. As I collected items off of my dead foes, items whose importance was not yet clear to me, my character became encumbered at an alarming rate. Under the weight of a few flowers, rocks, and potions, my stamina bar was draining faster than ever.
This constant, imposing limit on my ability to travel and fight continued from that first journey through to the final moments of the game. My character never gained the strength to carry more than his gear and a handful of healing items. His constant travels didn't give him an ounce of additional cardio training. His three pawns helped as pack mules, but they had little issue with drinking all the potions themselves in a matter of minutes.