Dragon’s Dogma 2 is all about the journey — of figuring out how to even play it

Dragon’s Dogma 2 is all about the journey — of figuring out how to even play it

The blemishes of beloved video games are sometimes referred to as their “jank.” The term encapsulates things in a game that may be slightly broken or inherently peculiar — aspects that should be detrimental to the experience, but aren’t. Ideally, these broken bits are overshadowed by a game’s superior elements, be they intricate combat systems, rich stories, or unique worlds.

To call what makes Dragon’s Dogma 2 special “jank” is unfair to Capcom’s new role-playing game. But Dragon’s Dogma game director Hideaki Itsuno certainly flirts with jank in the latest incarnation of his medieval fantasy series, all in pursuit of vision. Central to that vision, Itsuno says, is “to be in a place where your destination is within sight and not too far away, yet you feel excited about the path there.”

The path in Dragon’s Dogma 2 is its biggest draw. Travel is done almost exclusively on foot, with fast-travel options being extremely limited and slow-travel options (in an ox-driven cart) slightly less limited. What may seem like an annoyance in a modern open-world game, where convenience of travel has become the norm, eventually becomes pleasing, the way real-world hikes can be. The game world is packed with sights to see, hidden caves to explore, and hundreds of monster encounters. Curiosity has driven me to explore the game’s forests and deserts, finding new treasure and new threats, all at a light jogging pace.

The game’s sense of adventure goes beyond the geographical. It’s also a journey of reckoning with the game’s esoteric and opaque mechanics, some of which seem designed to test players’ resolve. Dragon’s Dogma 2 is not particularly difficult in the way action-RPGs like Dark Souls and Nioh are, but it is challenging in that it requires me to meet it on its terms. Figuring out its quirks makes it special; reevaluating how an open-world game can play leads to discovering its joy.

An adventuring party looks across fields at the town of Vernwerth in Dragon’s Dogma 2 Image: Capcom

Moving through this fantasy world and uncovering its huge map, discovering hidden secrets along the way, is a big part of what makes Dragon’s Dogma 2 so intoxicating over dozens of hours. The unremarkable fantasy world of Vermund is full of threats large and small, from packs of wolves and malicious goblins to giant griffins and ogres that can be climbed in hard-fought battles. As promised by its title, there are dragons to fight too, though these battles are rare and special.

Combat drives the game; there is a variety of battle styles to learn, from the straightforward warrior, who wields sword and shield, to more complicated vocations like magick archer, a bow-wielding spellcaster, and the trickster. Adding to the uniqueness of Dragon’s Dogma 2’s combat system are pawns, computer-controlled characters who will aid you in battle. Pawns are hired from other players in a sort of passive multiplayer component of the game. You may encounter and hire one on one of the many long walks you take in Dragon’s Dogma 2, or you can enter a sort of interdimensional portal called the Rift and select one, as if you were the hiring manager at your job. Your merry little band of pawn followers have their own fighting styles and their own personalities; some are aggressively violent or driven to ransacking treasure, while others are kind and helpful, constantly coming to your aid with curatives.

Pawns add an asynchronous multiplayer element to the game that goes beyond just swapping hired hands back and forth. Through pawns, you’ll learn how other players play, what discoveries they’ve made in their worlds, and even how others treat the pawns they hire. Over the course of your adventure, your main pawn will likely be hired by someone else, and they’ll return to you with rewards for their service. Upon their return, pawns will provide you with Yelp-like reviews of the players who hired them. These are ultimately light touches in the overall experience of Dragon’s Dogma 2, but they’re another fascinating layer in the unique construction of the game.

An Arisen and Pawns settle in around a campfire and tent at nighttime in a screenshot from Dragon’s Dogma 2 Image: Capcom

You’ll even get a sense of other players’ tastes by way of how they’ve customized their own pawns. A lot of them are minimally dressed and showing lots of skin, so be warned if you have delicate sensibilities. But also expect a few giggles as you look at other players’ pawns; they like to recreate celebrities — I hired “Taylor Swift” as a pawn once — and famous fictional characters. Opting into online play is a choice, though. You can forgo that option if you want, hiring only officially made pawns created by developer Capcom.

Pawns also occasionally display a bit of jank. They’ll follow you wherever you go, sometimes off the side of a cliff face, hilariously falling to their death. They’ll get caught up in battles you may not be aware of, and you’ll need to backtrack to revive them. In a fascinating game design decision, pawns can also become infected with a virus that spreads among these non-playable characters. Pawns who contract a disease known as Dragonsplague, an affliction you’ll hear about dozens of times from your chatty pawns, can lead to mass devastation in the game.

Dragon’s Dogma 2 is a strange mixture of systems. From its unique pawn mechanics to a perplexing save system, it’s not designed to be player-friendly. It rewards curiosity, and sometimes choosing the most difficult road. It has pronounced flaws: It runs at a chunky frame rate at times; the game’s map and UI are clumsy; and many mechanics and quests are poorly explained. It has jank. But it overcomes its shortcomings with confidence and vision, giving players freedom to discover the world at their pace and forge memorable and personal stories.

An Arisen takes down a big chimera in Dragon’s Dogma 2 Image: Capcom

Early in my experience with Dragon’s Dogma 2, I found myself exploring far from my home base, the castle town of Vernworth. The sun set and I became lost in the woods, looking for a group of monsters to cull as part of a task. I was taken by surprise by a spellcasting necromancer who commanded a small army of skeleton warriors. Over the course of a 10-minute battle, these undead foes eventually overcame us, as my character and my pawns fell one by one. I learned then that I was underpowered for such a fight, unprepared to face the deadlier nighttime monsters of Vermund’s wilderness. I learned the importance of rest, either by camping or saving my progress at an inn in one of the game’s smattering of towns.

Later, I would encounter powerful drakes and angry minotaurs who would also trounce me and my troupe. I was smashed out of the sky by a griffin as I rode a wooden gondola across a ropeway. I fought alongside a warrior named Sigmund as we battled a lesser drake atop a crumbling tower. These battles would become more memorable than the main story of Dragon’s Dogma 2, the game’s weakest component.

Although the game’s story starts strongly, it doesn’t end up being the point. You are cast as an Arisen, a chosen one whose heart has been claimed by a dragon and who is destined to rule the kingdom of Vermund. Jailed and left to rot as a slave laborer, you then learn that someone else has laid claim to being the Arisen as part of a shadowy conspiracy, denying you your rightful place on the throne. Over the course of a few missions given to you by sympathetic believers in your destiny as the Arisen, you can eventually root out the imposter. But Dragon’s Dogma 2’s narrative stutters and spurts as it moves past its premise, and the story laid out by its writers meanders. By the end of the game, I had lost interest in getting my revenge and largely forgotten why I should even care about the villains who had crossed me. The smaller, more emergent stories that come from side quests and exploration compelled me, not the ultimately messy and unsatisfying plot.

A mage casts an illumination spell in a forest at nighttime as goblins attack in a screenshot from Dragon’s Dogma 2 Image: Capcom

By the end of the game, I had uncovered much of its huge world, increasingly discovering that there’s not much variety in the monsters that I fight. At this point, I’ve battled hundreds of goblins, dozens of bandits and harpies, handfuls of ogres, minotaurs, and cyclops. Battles have begun to feel increasingly dull as a result; it’s a huge world with too little variety in the things I fight.

It’s the exploration that kept me going, even as I almost accidentally “beat” the game before I was emotionally ready to do so. I saw the conclusion within sight, and so I retreated to take a more circuitous path. The spectacle that comes from fighting giant brass statues or talking dragons isn’t nearly as attractive as discovering a well-hidden enclave of elves — who don’t even speak my language! — or a giant sphinx armed with challenging riddles.

Dragon’s Dogma 2 is the best video game adventure I’ve experienced since Elden Ring, a far more approachable open-world game that has no doubt colored how players perceive this year’s big fantasy RPG. (It certainly did for me.) But like another FromSoftware game, the original Demon’s Souls, I found that once I had accepted Dragon’s Dogma 2’s peculiarities and deciphered what it was asking of me, I fell deeply in love. Dragon’s Dogma 2 awakens those old feelings of learning to overcome my expectations of what a game should be, then discovering new types of experiences along the way. That’s the best kind of journey.

Dragon’s Dogma 2 was released March 22 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a pre-release download code provided by Capcom. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.