Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Biggest Problem With ‘Dragon’s Dogma 2’ Isn’t The Paid DLC Controversy

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Dragon’s Dogma 2

Credit: Capcom
I’m having very mixed feelings about Dragon’s Dogma 2, the long-awaited sequel to Capcom’s wonderfully odd Dragon’s Dogma (later expanded and improved and appended by Dark Arisen).

I think that my feelings stem both from the game and some of its more questionable design decisions and from my own changing interests as a gamer, 12 years after the first game’s release. 30-year-old Erik and 42-year-old Erik are simply not the same person.

In any case, that’s how reviews work. You can only assess a video game or any other work of art based on your opinions. Obviously you hope to remain objective to a degree, but the reality is every review is going to have a lot of subjectivity to it, which is why it’s important to read reviews from critics who you trust (not necessarily with whom you agree).

I am enjoying Dragon’s Dogma 2 for the most part, though I am not enjoying it as much as the original game or its improved Dark Arisen version. There are several reasons for this.

The most controversial thing about this game so far has been its (frankly bizarre) microtransactions:

Dragon’s Dogma paid DLC

Credit: Capcom

This was clearly a corporate move, though it feels as though the suits and the developers came to an uneasy truce and limited the number of items a player could buy. If Assassin’s Creed took away fast-travel and sold it for $2.99 a pop, they’d sell as many as they could. Here, you can only buy one Portcrystal.

Speaking of fast travel, let’s get to the heart of Dragon’s Dogma 2’s main non-narrative problem.

Fast Travel (Or The Lack Thereof)

In Dragon’s Dogma 2, the world is quite vast and the fast travel system is not up for the task. The first game had very limited fast travel also—until the arrival of the Eternal Ferrystone in the Dark Arisen expansion—but its map was smaller. Perhaps there was also a novelty to that game that made trekking back and forth less tedious. It feels incredibly tedious in Dragon’s Dogma 2.

There are aspects of the game that make that tedium worse. The size of the map, as I’ve noted, is one of these. The map is roughly four times the size of the first game. It’s also just a busier world. There are more NPCs stopping you and Pawns walking around hailing you and tons of side-quests which, I hate to say, are often not that interesting.

The reason for this lack of fast travel is apparently to encourage exploration, but I often find that I’m just bored or exhausted from going from point A to point B and after the initial fun of the new world and new game wore off, I find myself mostly just annoyed that I can’t fast travel at least to places I’ve already been.

You can hire an ox cart for fairly cheap between some towns—and dozing off gets you from one to the next similar to fast travel—which is an okay system, but this often requires you to wait for the right time (so you need to “pass time” in the game) and you can be ambushed en route. The first time this happened, my Pawns and I and some soldiers we were with had to fight off a massive ogre. It was a fun, chaotic battle but afterwards I couldn’t find the ox cart. I ran in the wrong direction for a while before turning back and finding it again, whereupon I was charged a second 100 gold pieces to finish the journey I’d already paid for once.

There is nothing so thrilling in a game as riding in the back of a slow-moving ox cart.

Credit: Capcom
There is only one way to properly design a game like this without fast travel, and I can describe it in two words: Dark Souls. What I mean by this, is you need to craft a game world that is dense and filled with short-cuts to discover. The opening areas of Dark Souls are built in such a manner that each section wraps up and over and under and around one another, and as you unlock short-cuts (like ladders you can kick down or doors you can only unlock from the other side) getting back from Point F to Point A becomes much quicker. Effectively, you unlock faster routes by overcoming challenge.

I still remember the first time I kicked down the ladder in the Undead Burg—after finally defeating the Black Knight, the Taurus Demon and surviving the Red Wyvern’s flames—and it led me back down to the bonfire at the start of that whole gauntlet. What a feeling that was! What relief that I had returned—returned—to safety. Now, I could leave this same point and go face the next challenge (a wyvern’s tail, but also poison-inflicting ROUS’s, another Black Knight and more).

This kind of level design was what made the first portion of Dark Souls so perfect. When you reached the Undead Parish and activated the lift down to the Firelink Shrine, it felt like coming full circle on an epic journey. Like coming home. And yet, in truth, the journey had only just begun. Eventually, Dark Souls became far more vast. You had to be flown to Anor Londo and eventually you open up the ability to fast-travel between bonfires. This made sense. As much as I’d love to see a Souls game built top-to-bottom the way that opening act of Dark Souls was, it would be a tremendous challenge. Offering up fast travel later on in the game allowed you to return to distant areas and traverse a now much vaster world without spending all your time running.

Speaking of running, I think I’ll enjoy Dragon’s Dogma 2 a lot more once I install a mod that gives you unlimited stamina. I actually think stamina is a good mechanic in games like this. It makes you think more tactically in a fight. It makes running away from a fight a little more tense. Again, in Dark Souls it works to create a very specific type of rhythm. But when you run out of stamina so quickly it gets old fast—and I find myself often over-encumbered since I can’t choose to pick up items I search for, I just automatically pick them up, and even with Pawns to share the load it’s just a hassle.

Elden Ring fixed this by giving you a summonable horse to ride. Horses would make Dragon’s Dogma 2 about ten times more fun. Again, the ox cart idea is fine, but having the ability to ride around with your pawns on horseback would be much better. Hell, go back to The Witcher 3 for another game that would have been a huge slog without Roach to ride around on. Horses are cool! Imagine Red Dead Redemption 2 without horses!

Health Regeneration (Or The Lack Thereof) Dragon’s Dogma 2

Credit: Capcom
Finally, the health regeneration system—while clever—makes all of this just a tad bit worse. Basically, as you take damage you slowly start to lose your maximum health level. Without a full night’s rest—you can now camp at specific locations or rest at an expensive inn, which also serve as places to level up your vocations—you will slowly lose more and more maximum health, which you can’t recover from healing spells or items. This may be intended to create something akin to D&D, but it actually reminds me of yet another FromSoftware game: Demon’s Souls.

In that game, when you die you go into Soul Form. This does a couple things. You no longer make footstep sounds (which is good!) but you also lose a healthy chunk of your maximum health bar. And it can’t be restored until you return to human form, which requires you to beat a boss, use the Emphereal Eyes item, become a blue phantom and help another player beat a boss or invade another player’s game and defeat them as a black phantom. You could also mitigate the loss of total health by wearing the Cling Ring.

Granted, these are more challenging than resting for a night, but the entire system is pretty central to how the game works (and was still a bit annoying, and quickly abandoned for the rest of FromSoftware’s games).

The Culmination Of Game Design Choices Dragon’s Dogma 2

Credit: Capcom
It’s the combination of all these factors—lack of fast travel, lack of horses to make constant stamina bar loss less of a pain and distances shorter, the decreasing maximum health bar, the size of the map, the sheer number of side-quests and NPCs, the back-and-forth nature of mission design, the lack of enemy variety—that have me already feeling a bit burnt out. I like that the world is busier, but I get a little overwhelmed by it all.

I never felt that way in Dragon’s Dogma, even before the Eternal Ferrystone. And I wonder if there isn’t something else that’s missing also. Something a little harder to pin down. Perhaps it will come to me in time.

The game is prettier than the first, though it captures the original’s aesthetic quite well. I’m just not as invested in it. I’m not obsessed with it like I was with the first.

Granted, I haven’t finished the main story yet either so this is not a full review, and maybe I’ll change my mind in the end. But for all its new systems and ideas and the much bigger, busier world, and the fun combat (that needs a dodge-roll from the start, thank you very much) something isn’t clicking with me the way the first game did. I could get lost in Dragon’s Dogma. It was the only game that even came close to Dark Souls for me at the time, and not by being a Souls-like but by doing its own weird thing. I’ve eagerly awaited the sequel for over a decade. Now that it’s here, I’m struggling to find that same joy.

The weirdness is still here, thankfully. The quirky humor is one of my favorite things about Dragon’s Dogma 2, which hams up the Pawn banter and even has you do goofy things like give your Pawns a high-five after a fight. You can still carry around pretty much anybody, and they’ll slap at your back as they struggle to be put back down. It’s hilarious. A lot about this game still works really well, including the fun powers, character customization, weapon and armor variety and much more. But I feel as though my enjoyment of the overall experience is being held back by a tedium (and busywork) that I never felt in the original.

Perhaps that’s just me. Perhaps my patience has worn thin as I’ve grown older. Perhaps I expected more from the sequel, which in some ways feels like a step back from Dark Arisen.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts. I’ll have more as I continue. I tend to be a bit of an obsessive completionist and it can take me forever to finish a game like this, but I’m honestly starting to think that might not be the case here. Wandering around and exploring has already become less fun than just doing the story missions and progressing. That’s a shame, because this is a world I genuinely do want to explore, if only it gave me the right tools do that in a way that was fun. I just don’t want to have to keep huffing and puffing back to town before nightfall, fighting the same damn goblins over and over again. I want to whistle my horse over from the Rift and ride. I want fast travel to unlock at least from a reasonable number of locations without having to use a super rare consumable.

Ah well. I want a lot of things. You don’t always get what you want.

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