“I had a hard run, runnin’ from your window”

Finally, the burly bearded sorcerer Jerry Garcia and his sidekick Bobby Weir have a game world equal to their own dazzling multicolored visions of fiery dark stars and cavernous wharf rats. Finally, Jerry can climb up realistically onto the ledge of a cliff and hurl down a whirling wind at a group of bandits to send them spiraling up in the air only to fall back lifelessly to the ground, while Weir attacks the ears of a band of goblins with the strains of “Mexicali Blues.” Finally, more foes worthy of these talents: a massive cyclops that can be ascended in order to stab at the eye with precise dagger shots; mysterious glowing undead orbs that disappear so quickly that no one’s sure if they were just remnants of that acid at Kesey’s place in ’68. All of this action spread out across a massive world of forests and dungeons, rendered with fluid animations and responsive controls.

This is Dragon’s Dogma, a spectacular action RPG with a dynamic combat system and some innovative role playing elements. Originally released in 2011, the game was given an overhaul with the addition of a menacing new dungeon under the title Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen. This re-release is the definitive version of the game, with its essential travel improvements and the imposing difficulty of the new content, Bitterback Isle. While it may lack the extensive lore and quest options of Bethesda’s Skyrim, Dragon’s Dogma offers a more viscerally exciting experience.

The combat system is stunning. The action itself is akin to a sophisticated fighting game rather the typically staid controls of RPGs. Characters can brawl with magical axes, scale up the limbs of monstrous foes for well placed dagger strikes, and double team bandits with an NPC holding them in place for an open shot. Ranged weapons feel loose and natural, offering options like multiple and fire arrows that become quite powerful at higher levels, while melee skills include all sorts of special maneuvers and combos that are satisfyingly destructive. I played primarily as sorcerer, with fat bearded Jerry Garcia availing himself of the fantastic magic system. The spell animations are environmentally subjective, so their results can be quite spectacular. Jerry’s whirlwind spell (or “Eyes Of The Whirled”) will send bandits and goblins spinning up in the air for massive damage, while other spells cause ice spikes to burst from the earth (“Bearth”), freeze enemies in paralysis (“He’s Gone”), or set fire spreading out across a hillside (“Fire On The Mountain”). You get the idea (“Truckin'”). Of course enemies have many of the same abilities and will work in tandem to add varying difficulty to the battles. All sorts of foes inhabit the forests and dungeons, including griffins, harpies, spectres, and a massive three-headed combination of a lion, goat, and snake. And regardless of the size or number of enemies and spells onscreen, the animation rarely slags or stutters.

“I had a run in, run around little run down”

Movement and exploration across the vast world occupies a majority of the gameplay. Traversal across the landscape can feel like a viscerally dangerous experience, particularly early on in the game – Jerry and Bob had flashbacks to the halycon days of Europe ’72 during the treks across the forests and cliff sides. But character movement is so freely and realistically animated as the group climbs up a mountain or scavenges for loot in treasure chests that the process of exploration and skill advancements is irresistible. Many battles will unfortunately spawn at the same points on the map each time the party passes through, but the wealth of character options and the dynamic environmental combat system keeps things interesting. Chop off a suarian warrior’s tail and he’ll go scrambling around the vicinity on his four legs or watch a cyclops flail about after a few magic arrows to the eye. Nightfall brings about an even more powerful cast of creatures that can destroy weaker parties. And don’t even think about venturing into Bitterback Isle without a high powered, well equipped party with a good stash of sticky thai.

The other innovation of the game is the pawn system, which essentially allows for a customizable AI party which can be shared online. The player creates one main pawn as a partner to assist the main character, with the capacity for two additional NPC party members. My main pawn was of course Bobby Weir: strider, bow and dagger specialist, and campfire singer of endless versions “Me And My Uncle.” The AI is quite responsive and never gets in the way, even offering key assistance in the bigger fights. More pawns are added from a pool of other online players or preconfigured characters tailored with varying skills and playing styles. I’m not an online playing guy, so I haven’t gotten involved in the sharing of other players’ pawns, but it’s a clever idea for a role playing experience. I liked shuffling other characters in and out of the party depending on the circumstances and these additional pawns will appear on the roads like hitchhikers looking for a roadie gig for the summer. Still, I wouldn’t want Bob Weir out there playing with other groups when he should be resting up for the next battle with a dragon or that upcoming run of shows at the Fillmore.

The experience and leveling system has also been revamped from the traditional RPG system. There are several main classes with attending skills and playing styles, which can be switched without sacrificing proficiency. So the player isn’t locked into a single class type during a playthrough, and the game seems to encourage experimentation to find different styles and matching skills. There are powerful skills and spells available only for high level characters, but I never felt like I was grinding through monsters for experience or worried about sacrificing levels while I switched up character types. Sure Jerry Garcia is a wizard at heart but I’ve had him fighting through goblins with a shield in hand like he was running through the crowd at Altamont.

The lack of towns and useful encampments across the land is the only problem with the game design. There is only one major town with a few shops; the other outposts are merely barren castle structures with a few NPCs standing around aimlessly. This is particularly troubling for a game in which exploration can be quite difficult and treacherous. Jerry and Bob would have appreciated a few more towns with actual inns, healers, traders, and head shops. A few more quests would have been welcome as well, aside from the boards offering experience or gold for a certain number of monsters slayed.

A final word about the Dark Arisen version of the game: the additional dungeon Bitterback Isle is a throwback to the unrelenting difficulty of old CRPGs like The Bard’s Tale. This means that traps, monsters, and puzzles are everywhere, and the overall design is tailored for players who’ve mastered the original game and are looking for a bigger challenge. So far Jerry and Bob haven’t had much luck: we’ve been poisoned, turned to stone, and I think the other pawns OD’d at some point because they just disappeared. I already knew Jerry and Bob had a problem with piano players dying off but I never thought it would be so tough to keep a healing mage through two levels of this dungeon. Still, it’s fun and it’s rewarding and Dragon’s Dogma is every bit as challenging as good RPG should be.

“I just can’t go on, you win again”

Recommended musical accompaniment for this game:

Bob Dylan    Under The Red Sky

Frank Black & The Catholics    Devil’s Workshop

Mayhem Lauren    Queens Outdoor LoLife

Grateful Dead    Europe ’72