Three hours of hands-on play proves it: now is the perfect time for Dragon’s Dogma 2

When I suggest that Dragon's Dogma was a cult hit, series creator Hideaki Itsuno is quick to hit back. Maybe it was at first, he says. But now, after years of a slow-burn and ever-growing sales - the first game has at this stage sold over 7 million copies - he’d prefer if we regarded it as a bona fide hit. It’s rare a developer steps up to set the record straight in a sit-down like that - but I have to admit, Itsuno has a point.

Dragon’s Dogma’s long-term allure is something that is curious to consider. How did this quirky game that stumbled out of the gate find its feet so very firmly? It’s a confluence of factors, I suppose. For one, to Capcom’s credit, the publisher stuck with it. The Dark Arisen expansion-turned-re-release was crucial to the turn-around. So too were late ports to the PC, and then to more modern hardware. But there’s more to it than that.

Moreover, I’d argue… It was also just a matter of time. Dragon’s Dogma was always brilliant, I reckon - but a lot has happened since its 2012 release. Inspired in part by Oblivion, that first game was unlucky enough to be released just a few months after Skyrim. Demon’s Souls was out, but a few months after Dragon’s Dogma hit, Dark Souls would cement FromSoftware’s role as the blacksmiths of a new frontier of action RPG - occupying, funnily enough, a superficially similar space to Itsuno’s creation.

With that in mind, and thinking about what’s changed since, you can see how the time might now finally be truly right for Dragon's Dogma 2. The world is used to these challenging, esoteric, thought-provoking, surprisingly hands-off sorts of RPGs. A heightened social media is now more ready than ever for funny videos of the intricately-built Rube Goldberg machine of a world to tumble and trip over itself, learning, procedurally-evolving pawns clashing with enemies with broad, open AI routines to make joyous madness unfurl before your very eyes. 

A lot of this comes over perfectly in my three-hour hands-on with Dragon’s Dogma 2. In what’s clearly a near but not-quite final build of the game, I go hands-on with two different character builds and just take to noodling around the world. It’s a world that’s built for it; you can just sort of pick a direction and walk, and interesting things are guaranteed to happen. Many of them are completely unscripted - just elements of the gears of the AI-driven open world catching each other and spinning into overdrive.

Ultimately, what I discovered is a game that’s richer, bigger, more ambitious… but also keenly focused on one thing: delivering that which made the original great, again.

It’s a smart play. Like I say, I think the world is more ready than ever for this kind of game. But better still, it’s that kind of game made better.

Take quests, for instance. Dragon’s Dogma was a hell of an RPG, but it had deficiencies in certain areas of RPG tradition. Quests was one such area. Reader, I love that game, it’s a classic, but they were pretty rubbish. Other than the ability to accidentally marry a horrible little Jester man by mistake, I couldn’t tell you any of the side storylines of that game. They were unmemorable, rudimentary stuff. Even in three hours of the second game I encountered a few quests that made an impression - stumbling upon a town under siege and helping to restore its peace, for instance. NPCs are more chatty during these quests, brimming with personality and stories to tell. So, too, are the pawns.

Pawns are the lynchpin of Dragon’s Dogma. If you never played the first game, it’s the one truly stand-out element of the game that bears a quick explanation. So, let’s quickly do that.

In Dragon’s Dogma, pawns are your party members. But they’re not customized characters created by the developers - they’re user made. When starting the game, you’ll create your lead character - the Arisen - and your ‘main pawn’, a companion character that’ll be with you all game. To make a party of four you’ll then be able to hire two other pawns from special portals or or just by finding them out in the world. 

The clever wrinkle is that the pawns you’ll hire are actually the main pawns of other players. Dragon’s Dogma is a single-player experience, but through this simple online hook it connects players. Pawns don’t just carry looks, gear, move sets and the like from one world to the next - they also carry knowledge. If you’ve exploited a particular enemy weak point, found a hidden cache of treasure, or completed a specific quest with your pawn, when hired to join somebody else they’ll share that knowledge with their temporary master. Other players will benefit from your experiences, and you will likewise benefit from theirs. 

The pawn system hasn’t fundamentally changed from the previous game, but what is on offer here is a careful amping up of the system’s depth and verisimilitude. Pawns are famous for spouting the same dialogue repeatedly (Did you know that wolves hunt in packs?) and generally being slightly unhinged, over-hyper NPCs… but they’ve been iterated to feel more useful, more real. This sounds simple, but it must have been an enormous amount of work. 

This upgrade to the pawn system is a perfect encapsulation of the design philosophy behind Dragon’s Dogma 2. The extra horsepower of modern machines, faster connections, and all that other guff has been leveled at elevating every concept and idea the original game delivered, and clearly some it couldn’t deliver and had to cut 12 years ago. More. Bigger. Better.

Dragon’s Dogma is a game that I’ve been a staunch defender, supporter, and recommender of for many a year now. But my recommendation always had to come with a caveat. You’ll like it if you can forgive… if you can look past… if you can understand… Each one of these caveats, knowing how magical the game is when it clicks, is like a dagger to my heart. But with the sequel, Capcom says no: no more daggers. No more caveats. No more excuses.

The aim is obviously to make a Dragon’s Dogma title that captures all that made the original special, but delivering it in a more polished, acceptable, enticing, and broad-appeal package. It helps, too, that the market has moved towards these kinds of games. They have more acceptance now than in 2012 - but this game is also meeting the audience where they are right now. I have a strong feeling that the result is going to be really, really good.

Dragon's Dogma 2 is releasing for PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC on 22nd March 2024.