The Arisen stands next to an escorted NPC in Bloodwater Bay.

I like video games that surprise me. Games that I was sure weren’t worth my time, that then single-handedly reverse that view over the course of play. Dragon’s Dogma is a great example of this concept.

In this game Capcom pulls many contorted punches in its brave but ultimately strange version of an open world.

An endless source of devoted foot-soldiers

Dragon’s Dogma drew me in with the concept of pawns – the player created characters which form the basis of your party. I never thought that it would fall to Capcom to comment so cleverly on the flippancy of game-controlled characters.

I can admire the elaborate storytelling that Capcom has employed here to explain away such common gaming conventions as characters supporting you so unflinchingly – dying over and over for you without question.

Pawns are humanoid beings that originate from a mystical portion of the gameworld known as the Rift. They operate almost as a hive-mind. As companions they share advice and help you in combat, but they’re evidently not of the same world. Although humanoid they’re not human, and are treated differently to other residents of the game world. There’s something out of sorts about the way that pawns respond to your every request diligently, and how they’re regarded by other player characters – with distrust and disdain.

This is the first time that Dragon’s Dogma makes you sit back and question the rules of not just this gameworld – but any. Happily it’s not the only occasion.

Breaking the norms of the genre

There’s a subtle humour to Dragon’s Dogma that I simply didn’t expect from it’s medieval setting and open-world trappings. This is perhaps best summarized by the bombastic introductory music – the catchy J-Rock melody striking out against the calm landscape of the title screen – complete with brooding dragon milling about in the transition from sunrise to set. It’s a contrast of sound and vision – a careful brush of two themes (part power ballad meets attempted Tolkienism) that shouldn’t really work together but somehow in this game they strike the right sort of mood.

You start the game and this careful interplay of themes is not mentioned again – at least not immediately. It is glimpsed at though. The obvious innuendo from key characters in the plot mixed in with the delicate innocence of others. And there’s not a hint of this strange, sinister and humourous underbelly until your first appearance in court.

Humour and whimsy

Awkward ill-judgements on your part – to help or talk to a character or go to a place which you shouldn’t (despite what your decades of gaming experience are telling you – to explore). You start to meet characters that in truth you really shouldn’t be speaking to in the context of the game and your heroes part in it.

Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t just slap you on the back of the hand (as similar games of this genre do) for idle misdemeanours. A wrong decision is quickly revealed and the in-game punishment all too fleeting thereafter. It’s not a complaint about the difficulty of the combat more a design decision that means that every decision carries some genuine risk.

I have spent more time inadvertently putting my character in prison than I have in any other game – I am forced to by Dragon’s Dogma solitary save file and auto-save system which prevents cheeky avoidance of its rules. In truth I am enjoying the experience all the more for it. The in-game characters thinly disguise a mocking tone, making the game a glorious curio – a game that is aware of how strangely it behaves (in a normally straight context) and revels in it. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of an NPC winking to you – the player – knowingly from inside the screen.

For all the humour and the intrigue, dark subplots are also at play, things more sinister than I expected from this game, subjects implied in the shape and movements registering on my characters face, and this is all far before I have followed the games main story to its end. I have yet to meet the titular dragon properly. I am having far too much fun flirting with the games silly underbelly, and mastering its effortless combat.

Whimsy and fun – things altogether too easily forgotten in games like this, a genre usually weighed down with sombre and serious tones. Dragon’s Dogma strikes a different, almost perverse balance, some of it works, some of it doesn’t, and I love it.

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