When Dragon’s Dogma first came out, many people treated it as an amalgamation of all kinds of games, ranging from Shadow of the Colossus to Dark Souls, with hints of Monster Hunter and hues of The Elder Scrolls. Despite seeming to be a mish-mash of gameplay ideas and fantasy tropes, Dragon’s Dogma asserted an unwaveringly confident sense of self that people became enamored with. At the same time, some of its most ambitious efforts only proved successful at the expense of more standard details; characters were considered flat and it was plagued with technical issues.
Despite this, back in 2012, Dragon’s Dogma was a game that received a great deal of praise. GameSpot gave it an 8/10 score almost seven years ago. You can read our original review here.
The Switch port for Dragon’s Dogma is derived from the Dark Arisen version of the game, which has since become the standard form, and it performs spectacularly. It’s a magnificent world filled with goblins and griffins, prairies and palaces. Sometimes the road dissipates into forests and over precipices, out of foliage and under edifices. At all times, it’s alive, its beating heart pulsating in every creek and creeper dotted across its boundless landscape.
The controls are clean and intuitive, with combat wheels mapped to the bumpers. The left set of buttons commands ally pawns, whereas the right set triggers abilities. The game wonderfully juxtaposes real-time combat with tactical squad play, and runs smoothly throughout the entire experience. Perhaps the only issues that date the game are how stiff the characters are in certain cutscenes, and how lifeless some of the secondary voice acting is. It’s a world where everything seems awry, largely thanks to its diverse well of influences, so the voice acting does have a curious way of making things seem even more obscure. However, on occasion it uproots your sense of immersion. One second you’ll be traversing the wilds of the Witchwood, utterly encapsulated by the game’s charm; the next, you’ll remember that you’re not really in Gransys, but sitting on your sofa, listening to deadpan voice acting.
Dragon’s Dogma’s iconic and idiosyncratic opening sequence looks better than ever on Switch. The gargantuan dragon that plucks your heart from your chest does so in vivid color, and the sharp visuals make this extraordinary episode even more enchanting. In a way, this asserts the Switch port’s relevance to the contemporary circuit, as if it’s immediately attempting to make a case for why it deserves another look in 2019.
Another common critique of Dragon’s Dogma in the past was to do with its grey, earthy palette. Cassardis–the first town you come across on your adventures across the land of Gransys–was always considered the worst offender, its stone buildings standing amid a wish-wash of brown and green. However, as I walked the winding paths around the town’s outskirts in handheld mode, I became lost in a world of wonder.
On one occasion, I was playing before bed with the lights off. As the moon rose in the game and visibility was swallowed by the encroaching night, I drew my lantern, illuminating both my room in real life and the path ahead in Dragon’s Dogma. This begot a peculiar phenomenon that couldn’t ever be experienced on anything other than a handheld console. There’s a strange solemnity endowed in playing handheld, huddled up with the Switch close to your face, the sound turned down to conjure a quietness seamlessly locking with the surrounding atmosphere. In a way, it almost summons a sense of borrowed nostalgia for the handheld consoles of the 90s, playing with the lights out and sound off, lest you wake up your parents three hours after you feigned sleep to continue playing.
Dragon’s Dogma performs brilliantly in docked mode too. Technically, it’s a vast improvement from the original versions of the game, being closer to the performance of the newer, Dark Arisen re-releases. The aesthetic disparity between this version and older ones was immediately striking when it launched six years ago, and the Switch port follows suit spectacularly.
However, there’s something experiential about making the most of the Switch’s portable capabilities. Maybe it’s because Dragon’s Dogma is a slow-burner that prioritizes exploration over gratification, or maybe it’s due to the intimacy created by its vivid soundscapes and arresting visuals, but it’s easier to get lost in the small screen than a bigger one. When I played handheld, Dragon’s Dogma received my undivided attention–in fact, it demanded it. This is the first time Capcom’s iconic RPG has ever been condensed to a small screen, but it seems as if even the 2012 game was made for this exact purpose.
However, there’s more to it than that. When you consider Dragon’s Dogma’s vast array of influences, it becomes abundantly clear that several of them haven’t had the Switch treatment either. I named my main pawn Geralt, gave him white hair and yellow eyes, one of which was scarred, and had him specialize in sword fighting. However, it wasn’t until I saw him tangoing around the thrusts of a cyclops that I truly noticed how well-suited this kind of immersive RPG is to a handheld console. Switch porting is a phenomenon that’s still working out its own kinks, but large-scale open worlds previously considered incompatible with handheld consoles have found a welcome home on Switch, unfurling beautifully on the small screen. Games like Breath of the Wild and Skyrim already tested the Switch’s mettle, and now the ability to undertake odysseys across the worlds of Gransys and The Continent whilst sat on a train is another compelling option for those looking to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds. The Switch’s capacity to persuade you into utter immersion goes hand-in-hand with what fantasy is all about.
As for its mechanics, Dragon’s Dogma’s control mapping is refined and intuitive on the Switch. The Joy-Con layout allows for clean combinations and instinctive reactions, to the extent that action can be spontaneously taken instead of being the result of a measured calculation. You’re never pulled out to consider your next move–you just know what to do. Whether you’re a majestic mage or a belligerent brawler, even the most boisterous battles are uncluttered in makeup and meticulous in execution.
Dragon’s Dogma’s iconic pawn system functions in much the same way as it always did, which is a bit of a missed opportunity. Despite their intuitive AI in combat and world traversal, their occasionally endearing chatter is often overbearing. It’s intriguing hearing your main pawn describe a nearby encampment as a “bulwark against the forces of evil” early on, but when they mention it for the tenth time in 10 minutes, Dragon’s Dogma’s age betrays its appearance.
Unfortunately, the weakest aspects of Dragon’s Dogma are the same as they were seven years ago: its dialogue and voice acting. At times the cutscenes are at odds with how fresh the rest of the game looks, as characters make unnatural gestures that rarely match the tone of their words, and the secondary voice cast sounds dull and lifeless. It’s as if someone mapped voice lines to a control pad and simply pressed the relevant buttons in sequence, without respect for intonation, emotion, or expression. Luckily, this is only the case for the minor cutscenes–the major ones look phenomenal, and the writing is at its best in these short, sporadic bursts of tension.
In 2012, Dragon’s Dogma was considered an excellent game that made some questionable decisions. The Dark Arisen re-release rectified the majority of the issues the original game faced, mostly in terms of technical performance, but the Switch port continues to build on the game’s legacy because of how well-suited it is to handheld experience. However, even with its revamped graphics, updated mechanics, and improved functionality, it’s somehow managed to retain that same sense of weirdness that both complements it and stunts it, depending on the occasion. In the Witchwood, for instance, the sparse, disconcerting conversations affect the atmosphere in a wonderful way, playing upon the mysterious enchantments at work in this curious forest. However, in scenes with more urgency, it’s difficult to take characters seriously because of the deadpan delivery of the voice acting, and even with subtitles enabled it’s easy to miss what’s going on. The gameplay is fantastic, but the narrative is lackluster at crucial points in the story. Despite this, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen on Switch is a drastically improved version of a game already recognized as great, mostly thanks to the fact that you can hold the game’s wonderful world right in the palms of your hands.