I strain, often, to avoid the word “franchise” when writing on this medium, and in every case settle with the narrower and therefore rarely useful “series.” Not every IP is a “series”, and the term “IP”, or intellectual property, is contentless and – despite the name – covers no ground. This why, for similar reasons, I’m never tempted by the monotone, clinical-sounding “interactive entertainment” or its equivalents in attempts to sidestep the word “game”, which has with time only become an ever more impoverished, but stubborn slang. In the circumstance of Dragon’s Dogma, though, “franchise” is hands-on-cheeks, exaggerated-kiss-on-the-mouth perfect, because it’s exactly how Capcom needs to think of it, dollar signs jumping fences when they dream of it at night. This advice is typically dangerous as fire, I know, and it’s the companies whom play most with the mentality that most risk burning down their properties and selves; however, Capcom has before them now an opportunity to reignite a franchise whose only major flaw was financial.
This introduction would have ended there, except this past Tuesday, while I was working on this piece, it was announced the publisher has in fact already begun this process: Dark Arisen, the expanded release of the original Dragon’s Dogma, is now on a flight path toward PC’s start of next year. With this news, the impetus behind my writing here relaxes a little, but not completely; it’s marvelous more people will get to experience the game – one which, cult status or not, deserves both more recognition and more accommodating hardware – but there is more to be done yet, and this “more” will fail to surprise those of you already familiar with the franchise, as you’re likely hoping for the same outcomes. But for the unintroduced, a bit of introduction to the game itself is, I think, in order.
Dragon’s Dogma is an incredible game, head to scaled toe. The combat is masterful and the highlight of the experience, though there are many. Each class (what the game coins “vocations”), whether it’s archer, strider, sorcerer or otherwise, effects how encounters will unfold. Even your weight class drastically changes the tactics you’ll rely on: light-bodied characters can scale, Shadow of the Colossus style, trolls, cockatrice, griffins – even if and when the creatures are aerial; heavy-bodied characters can plant their feet, raise their guard and absorb more of enemies’ onslaughts, as well as wield much larger weapons.
There is a “pawn” system in the game which allows the player to design one of their A.I. companions, and put them up for employ by other players in an ethereal marketplace known as the “Rift.” Hiring these pawns for use in your own single-player odyssey is of considerable consequence to combat particularly, as high-level pawns, for example, will cost you a great sum of gold but also smooth out spikes in difficulty (the game is quite). You’re incentivized to rent out your pawns in several ways: one of them is your pawn doesn’t exit your world when it enters another, so you get to keep elbow and elbow with your darling creation, and have them earn their keep elsewhere by express-mailing you sweet, sweet scratch. On top of encouragements like these, this community element of the game, in the pawn system, brings with it the ultimate joy – let us admit – of capitalism: boasting. Your pawns are forever attributed to your online handle, meaning others may gawk at and even assimilate your creation unto themselves, but they will never be able to take the credit. Yours but not yours; have’s and have not’s with uniquely little distinction, despite accreditation.
Dragon’s Dogma also takes a nonhierarchical approach to the relationship between main and side quests respectively. Rather than separate streams, the player encounters characters central to the game’s plot during pursuits of ancillary objectives (and storylines miniature by comparison), creating an unusual ambivalence in the prioritization of such quests. In most RPG’s (and open world games generally), the divide between tasks which do and do not progress the story is clear-cut, the two pieces non-interacting arithmetics; in Dragon’s Dogma, they muscle together, the player having to relinquish some control over the pace of their adventure. You’re free to go about the world and your tasks however you choose, but the story which revolves around you, oh Arisen, revolves nevertheless.
It’s a story spare enough not to need a spoiler warning here, nor essential enough to spoil. You are the hero Arisen, killed by a dragon (your heart literally torn out), so you may avenge your own death, take back your heart, and….
And await answers, I’m afraid. You’ll learn more about the dragon’s intent (why does it manufacture the circumstance but not the certainty of its own demise?), and you’ll get an opinionated earful from many NPC’s about this harrowing attack on you and its repercussions for the world itself. This ecliptic provided you by the dragon from the onset was a smart play on the part of the developers, as it can, when recalled, remind the player they’re making some level of narrative progress for every lost farmhand, slain ogre or wyvern, every stats-level gained, these three rarely mutually exclusive.
But whatever you’re engagement at any moment, you’ll likely not be concerned with context. The gameplay mechanics are immediately and lastingly satisfying, the sound design a palatial character all its own, and – besides a less than ideal framerate – the presentation dynamic and gorgeous.
Daggers glow in the night, smoke rises from the distant beachfires of bandits or benign fellow travelers (only one way to find out which), and all of it drawn in a style which is both cosmopolitan and coherent: a medieval western aesthetic with obvious Japanese and mythological Greek influences. In short, this is a gameworld in which every creek and cave feels cold as bone, and every tree the fountainhead of a vast and interconnected labyrinth of roots which reach deep, deep down toward a smoldering heart. It can also be pleasurably lackadaisical while on a town or village stroll, even serene when the sun’s soft on the grass and your immediate travels have been for lack of large, bipedal reptiles or wolves with bright red eyes.
…It’s ironic, isn’t it, that a world which so urges you to play your heart out has already done this work for you.
Of course, caliber is no guarantor of sales, no matter how great, and Dragon’s Dogma‘s takeoff was more measured, it seems, than Capcom would have liked. The original version of the game released in 2012, and other than an updated and expanded edition in Dark Arisen a year after, the fact it’s taken until now for a PC port to be announced suggests the franchise didn’t alight consumer interest to the publisher’s satisfaction. Often, a PC release this postponed is a means of retesting waters, as PC users can be surprisingly receptive to former console-exclusives so much after the fact, and I think the main reason we’ve not heard the same news regarding the Playstation 4 and Xbox One platforms is owed to continued skepticism on Capcom’s part.
The question is whether the iron is still hot, as it were. And, as if in answer this past week, all relevant stats were released for Dragon’s Dogma: Online, an online addition to the franchise I view as a test similar to the one mentioned above. Currently only available in Japan, the game has had over one-hundred thousand concurrent connections, three-hundred-and-thirty-thousand characters created, and has been downloaded over one million times. These numbers should not just impress you; these numbers should have you, and Capcom, loudly declaring the “test” done with, the straw target dummy but a vapour on the wind.
If, for argument’s sake, we place Dragon’s Dogma: Online under its own microscope, do we not have confirmation this social variant of the franchise has earned western release, at least? And if Capcom doesn’t wish to factor in manufacturing costs, a digital-only release would suffice, though I selfishly hope they consider brick and mortar as well, if they consider it at all.
The end-game here is unquestionably, for all parties involved, a sequel. But Capcom may need more than IP interest to realize such an affair, as the company is at present taking as little risk as necessary, re-releasing titles which have already gained them critical and commercial favour both, and which ask a scintilla of the cost of developing brand new, curent-gen entries in their respective series. New IP’s are ostensibly, for now, out of the question – which is fine, as long as this strategic recuperation does its intended work.
With both Devil May Cry and Resident Evil, the company is not only trying to relight fires, but determine which stones generate the most sparks. Resident Evil’s “Remake” remaster was enormously successful and certainly the catalyst for the much greater undertaking that is the roots-and-all remake of Resident Evil 2. The as-yet-unannounced, possibly not-yet-even-in-development Resident Evil 7 is a mist, and one which will probably only clear once reception to Resident Evil 2 Remake becomes naked to all. If the remake retains the original’s tank-controls and static camera angles – as well as other classic survival horror characteristics – and the market responds optimistically, odds are these elements from the series’ past will carry forward into its future, if modernized some. DMC4: Special Edition‘s strong sales likewise indicate the eventual DMC5 will shirk gun-for-hire Ninja Theory’s rebooted vision and resume the original canon, white hair et all.
Dragon’s Dogma is a simpler experiment, but more precarious, I’d argue, because where Devil May Cry or Resident Evil will persist in one form if another fails to conjure wallets from pockets, Dragon’s Dogma is take it or leave it. Happily, verily, we have Dragon’s Dogma: Online by the numbers, and it numbers many. All that’s left, then, is a game plan.
Accepting the Quest
In bringing Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen to current-gen consoles, Capcom could take the low-risk route and port the game up-res’d with better performance; however, this strategy would be equally low-reward (comparatively speaking) without a few small – but worthwhile, I believe – additions.
Access to Dragon’s Dogma: Online from Dark Arisen‘s main menu, to start. DDO is free-to-play, so without a pay-gate there is little reason to limit entrances. Besides, players whom have already sought out the franchise in the form of Dark Arisen may be encouraged and more likely, not only to try, but to revisit DDO if the two are joined at the hip like this. (Bethesda may want to keep this in mind if The Elder Scrolls Online receives an expansion, or is still alive, within reasonable vicinity to the next TES release proper.)
Taking this interaction further: why not an option to have the relatively-auxiliary components of DDO present in your single-player-only excursion? By this I mean notifications when friends in DDO come online, reach a certain level, perhaps, complete a ‘raid’ or otherwise. A way, in other words, to synonymize the two in players’ minds, the experiences disparate but complimentary also; the fact DDO inherits its mechanics almost entirely from the main game also means the learning curve could be lessened to a gentle camber.
I imagine when Dragon’s Dogma 2 releases, should the day ever come, it will not be a purely solo experience like its canonical and/or numerical predecessor, thus any action taken by Capcom to marry the series, in people’s minds, as both a robust cooperative online experience and a rich single-player RPG, would best be taken now. And on the chance the port is successful, perhaps this re-release would be a good opportunity to remind the fantasy RPG-inclined of Deep Down, Capcom’s other free-to-play monster hunter/dungeon crawler/loot pillager. The game is apparently undergoing major changes since its last public appearance, so if a playable demo is out of the question, the original reveal trailer would even suffice. If anyone’s going to be interested in a game like Deep Down, it’ll be those already playing a game by the same publisher, in the same genre. Of course, in doing so Capcom would be implying a role-playing experience of similar quality, however different, which would be a tall order. But, honey, if Dragon’s Dogma makes a suggestion for you, you trust the recommendation, don’t you.
Not every IP is a series, and not every series a franchise, but Dragon’s Dogma deserves to be both. With exception to Hidetaka Miyazaki Souls‘ work, Dragon’s Dogma is, in my mind, the principal exemplar of the genre – even eking Souls out in combat (but not overall) design. I want to see it spread its wings to other platforms and audiences not only because it deserves to be recognized and enjoyed by more people, but because I have the utmost confidence it’s too bright a spot on the RPG landscape to escape sights for much longer. If Capcom rakes back the coals, I think they’ll find them still aglow, pulsing; or, said differently, will find the iron still searing and malleable.
“#DragonsDogma” was a top-ten trend on Twitter this past Tuesday, when the PC release was announced, and this isn’t nothing. There is a hunger at present for both RPG’s and open worlds, of which the game is both; Souls is as much an influence and force as ever, as are dragons and fantasy generally across all mediums. Not to mention, the user-bases of both Sony and Microsoft’s machines are as young as they are large, meaning not just a willingness but eagerness to enter new portals of living, breathing escapism. Dragon’s Dogma is one such portal, its most important “rift” not the violet, smoky realm in which resides soulless humanoids for hire, but the rift in time between its last published push and its next. Capcom should have confidence in Dogma‘s ability to rise back up from that first attempt to break through, but not so much as to think this window of time endless. While it’s not a case of ‘now or never’, the length between these shortens with each coin-toss of sun and moon, and eventually you’ve got to place your bets. A dragon is, more often than not, a safe one.