Capcom couldn't have picked a worse time to launch Dragon's Dogma when it originally released on May 22, 2012.
If anything, the reception of Dragon's Dogma proves that no review can be truly objective; whether you like it or not, when a game releases can factor into its evaluation just as much as any other aspect. Dragon's Dogma suffered the misfortune of arriving in the wake of Skyrim and Dark Souls, which emerged just six months earlier. The former came into being as Bethesda's most ambitious game to date, while the latter built off of Demon's Souls to create an experience that would change the gaming landscape forever. All this, combined with the waning days of the "Japan forgot how to make games" narrative, ensured that Dragon's Dogma would go immediately forgotten. And, for the most part, it was.
I know I ignored it—even though I should have known better. My then-boss and now-boss Jeremy Parish praised Dragon's Dogma with an A- review, which at least had me file it away in the back of my bran for a later date. I even went so far as to nab the whole Dark Arisen package on PSN, but playing the original console release brought the problems I was expecting: load times, a chuggy frame-rate, and UI lag. As you'd probably expect, the PC port of Dragon's Dogma eliminates these issues entirely—as would any modern release originally designed to run on an 11-year-old hardware standard.
So what does this mean to you? Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen PC amounts to the best way to play a great game you probably didn't.
I've only sunk 15 hours into it at this point—which is why this isn't a formal review—but after just a few sessions with Dragon's Dogma, I couldn't help but feel like it's the game I always wanted Dragon Age: Inquisition to be. In essence, Dragon's Dogma combines the scope of a western RPG with the abstraction and reliable systems of an eastern RPG, making for an experience that gets to the point. While Inquisition immediately burdens players with conversations, lore, and menial fetch quests—so much so that Kotaku wrote a PSA imploring players to leave its first area ASAP—Dragon's Dogma just wants you to get out into the world and explore on your own terms. Each town contains a handful of named NPCs with just a few lines of dialogue each, and while their quests might be pretty predictable, they're typically solved through things you'll do naturally while filling out the world map. And, as with Xenoblade Chronicles X, you can complete most of them without having to stop in your tracks and high-tail it back to the quest-giver—a friendly approach that's not used nearly as often as it should be. (I'm looking at you, Yokai Watch.)
Dragon's Dogma's rolling hills and vast plains may at first seem to hold a whole lot of nothing, but they actually feel more designed than what's seen in most open-world games of its ilk. I get the feeling Capcom wanted to make exploring fun without necessarily giving a specific incentive, so a meticulous approach yields the greatest rewards. A conspicuous outcropping of rock, for instance, may hold a treasure chest packed with great loot, while the sun-shaded forest floor hides its share of important items needed for crafting. And adventuring becomes a much more dangerous proposition should you venture out at night; rather than the blue-for-night effect most games go for, Dragon's Dogma's sundown hours feel authentic, with barely anything visible beyond the glow of your lantern. The only real limits to your exploration (which aren't gated by the narrative) exist in the form of "meat walls—" powerful monsters meant to impede player progress—or get them to upgrade their damn equipment already.
And that brings us to the star of our show: Dragon's Dogma's battle system. Seeing that Devil May Cry steward Hideaki Itsuno serves as director, it shouldn't surprise you that Dogma's combat feels very much like DMC-lite. Rather than go for a standard, MMO-inspired "ability cooldown" combat, what's found in Dragon's Dogma is more immediate and—dare I say—visceral. While the stakes aren't quite as high as in Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, enemy encounters are made more tolerable by the fact that they let you perform some pretty sweet moves—even Dante's famous "Stinger" move is present. And fighting some of the larger enemies only shows off the versatility of Dragon's Dogma's battles: much like in Monster Hunter or Shadow of the Colossus, you can grab onto them and clamber up to their weak parts before being tossed aside like a rag doll. Whatever approach you take, Dragon's Dogma makes fighting the same enemies over and over again an exercise in improvisation rather than boredom.
Truth be told, the somewhat-simple nature of Dragon's Dogma may throw off those looking for a more customizable experience. The class system, for instance, isn't much different than what's found in 1992's FInal Fantasy V: You use the equivalent of Job Point to learn skills, then carry these skills over to new classes. And your companions offer even fewer customization options: While you essentially create a partner for your journey, the other two slots are filled by "Pawns:" Companions created by other players, made available for temporary use.
This system makes up Dragon's Dogma's social component: After using a Pawn, you can rate their various abilities, and even give them a gift to send back to their master (and the same goes for your Pawn as well). If you're more accustomed to rolling with a group of distinct characters, having a party of pawns may be off-putting at first: They all essentially spout the same canned, context-sensitive dialogue, albeit in different voices. But the immediacy of Dragon's Dogma's combat really made this lack of complexity a non-issue for me: I'd much rather scoop two Pawns out of the abyss and get to fighting, rather than tinkering with their skills and builds.
Ultimately, Dragon's Dogma is charming because it doesn't mind being frivolous. While its characters speak Tolkienese, Dogma doesn't glow with the expected sense of grandeur or self-importance: It just wants to get you to the fun parts as fast as possible. From a 2016 perspective, there's nothing wrong with that; but in 2012, it's easy to see how this lack of ambition could be seen as uninspired or lazy. From my perspective, Dragon's Dogma doesn't have anything to prove: it just wants to be simple and immediate. And, looking back at all the RPGs I haven't finished over the years, we could use a lot more of that.