It’s wild to think Elden Ring is almost here. With hype reaching all-time highs and diehard FromSoft fanatics crawling up the walls in anticipation, it might be time to consider revisiting (or trying out for the first time) an overlooked game that could help us better understand the Lands Between.
Dragon’s Dogma, initially released back in 2012, was jointly directed by Devil May Cry veteran Hideaki Itsuno and Monster Hunter’s Kento Kinoshita, and it shows: there was a really strong focus on hack-and-slash action and taking on giant monsters. In fact, I remember Capcom’s marketing focusing on the massive boss battles you and your companions could face in the fantasy world of Gransys.
Dragon’s Dogma already toyed with some action RPG and open-world elements that would explode in later years, following Skyrim and Dark Souls’ popularity. If Capcom’s title was in the middle of it all, why has video game history forgotten about it? I mean, most folks know about Dragon’s Dogma, the game has received several ports over the years, and its community is dying to hear about a sequel. But the number of gamers who have actually given it a chance remains astoundingly low. And I feel like it’s not part of the current conversation around open-world games at all.
In an era where action RPGs have become immensely popular, Dragon’s Dogma has as much to teach us as The Elder Scrolls, From Software’s unique efforts, or Breath of the Wild. Thankfully, it appears that Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team have picked up on many of the game’s strengths – every new Elden Ring preview has presented an evolved and more flexible take on their classic Soulsborne formula.
As we've noticed with Elden Ring's open world, Dragons Dogma's Gransys may look daunting at first, but as you spend a few hours roaming around the map and trying to figure out the game’s structure, you begin to notice that the overworld – really – isn’t that big. It’s no Skyrim. Yes, every trek between points of interest normally becomes a blood-soaked odyssey, but Gransys is really just a bunch of big areas connected by wide roads, canyons, and a bit of goblin-infested chunks of countryside. And it works great for that game.
The world’s limited scale could be attributed to the project’s limited budget (we know for a fact original plans were much bolder), but it’s also clear the game’s core systems and mechanics came before the level design, and not the other way around. In fact, Dragon’s Dogma shines brighter when you venture inside dungeons, caverns, and dark dwellings – cramped spaces make for great combat moments in which both physical and magic attacks make quick work of the weaker enemies. Remember: Dragon’s Dogma wears its hack-and-slash roots on its sleeve, and the Dark Arisen expansion only doubled down on this basic philosophy.
Looking at what we’ve seen so far of Elden Ring (especially its map), we can infer From Software has gone bigger and more open-ended, but without losing sight of what has made their worlds click together in the past. While the overall mobility and travel options have been upgraded, the Lands Between look and feel like many cool places glued together instead of a big bunch of nothingness filling the gaps between key locations. Dragon’s Dogma might not pack Soulslike combat, but it’s a perfect example of how to bring tight battles and rewarding exploration, normally found in games that funnel you forward, to more open environments.
Much like in Soulsborne games, your main character in Dragon’s Dogma – the Arisen – is kind-of a blank slate that can be customized and developed in many different ways. Shortly after you start out, you’re introduced to the Pawn system, the game’s most unique feature; Pawns are permanent companions who offer support and advice, and the fun thing is that two out of three Pawns in you party come from other players, with the third one being your own hand-made companion. Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t have online co-op, but you’re actively getting help from (and helping) other players every step of the way, as these characters complement your skills and can level up.
Elden Ring brings back cooperative play in the style of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and it’s still tied to specific items and area progression, but the open-world nature of the game, plus Summoning Pools (a new feature that allows players to summon each other across the world) will bring a different feeling to the co-op experience: brief team-ups can now become expeditions of sorts, with up to four players creating parties with defined roles thanks to a renewed focus on build variety. Suddenly, this new dark fantasy world doesn’t feel as hopeless as the previous ones.
More viable builds in FromSoftware's latest means that magic combat doesn’t suck this time around. The Elden Ring network tests have proved FromSoft’s claims about wizardry to be real, and Gandalf wannabes are squealing with joy – it's been a hot minute since all things arcane have felt viable in a FromSoft title. And do you know what other game allows you to incinerate enemy hordes while your partners hack them to pieces? You guessed it, Dragon’s Dogma.
That game went so gloriously overboard with magic that the original PS3 and 360 releases got hammered hard whenever you had more than one high-level mage in the team. Furthermore, there were advanced vocations (classes) that spiced up melee and ranged combat with over-the-top magic, too. I like to say that really good RPGs allow magic users to be busted, and Dragon’s Dogma is a prime example of that.
Elden Ring’s magic looks quite fun, but don’t expect to become system-crashingly powerful – this is still a FromSoft game, and it's still going to be sadistic. Still, it’s nice when an action-RPG allows players to sit back and cheese partially through areas which are hell for melee builds. If you’re looking for power trip ahead of your journey into The Lands Between, give spells in Dragon’s Dogma a chance. Who knows, after tasting some of that sweet forbidden magic, maybe you won’t play through the newest Soulsborne as a sturdy knight yet again?
Elden Ring launches on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and PC on February 25.