Pushing Buttons: What makes Dragon’s Dogma 2 a fiery breath of fresh air

<span>Dragon’s Dogma 2.</span><span>Photograph: Capcom</span>
Dragon’s Dogma 2.Photograph: Capcom

I love when a game properly captures me, to the extent that I’m thinking about it throughout the day while going about my real life. It doesn’t happen very often these days, because I have played too many games in the past 30 years and am becoming immune to their most common spells. When it does happen, it’s usually because a game does something I haven’t seen before – like Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom last year, with its madcap contraptions. Or sometimes – as with Dragon’s Dogma 2, which I am very much still playing after reviewing it last week – it’s because it does something I have seen before but not for a very long time.

In the 12 years between the original Dragon’s Dogma and this sequel, the only game that has come close to recapturing its chaotic and stubbornly idiosyncratic brand of fantasy action role-playing was Elden Ring. This is a game in which you can screw up quests by faffing about for too long before pursuing your next objective, where a griffin can show up in the middle of an otherwise unexceptional journey through the countryside and claw you near-instantly to death, where the interdimensional being who serves as your travelling companion can contract a mysterious illness and unleash the apocalypse on your game save. There’s only one save slot, so every decision you make matters. Makethe wrong one, and you have to live with it.

Some players have reacted with dismay to this game’s inflexibility, but I respect Dragon’s Dogma 2’s willingness to ruin your day from time to time. It doesn’t bend to your will; you have to work around its rules – even when, at the beginning, you don’t necessarily know what they are. At first you might be frustrated that, for instance, characters often tell you about intriguing legends and rumours, but the game never marks these things down on your map to tell you where you might find them. Then, as the hours go by, you might find yourself caught out in the wilds at night without a camping kit, and seek shelter in a cavern that turns out to lead to a crumbling mountain shrine, where you find an actual sphinx. You realise that if someone had marked its location on your map, you’d never have felt so awed when you first spied its glowing eyes in the dark.

The prevailing wisdom in open-world games, for a long time, has dictated that they are structured like to-do lists. You see a character with an icon above their head, they give you something to do, the game conveniently marks that location for you, and you set about ticking the boxes before returning for your reward. The map is forested with tiny icons showing you where to find anything you might possibly need to upgrade your equipment or further your objectives. In recent years, games such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring have dispensed with these conventions, making their worlds feel mysterious and real and dangerous again – but Dragon’s Dogma never had these conventions in the first place.

Dragon’s Dogma 2 is no different. You get the impression that its development team has spent the last decade-plus playing nothing but their own game; it is charmingly immune to outside influence, adopting none of the ideas that other games have made standard since 2012. For instance, apart from a couple of rare instances, you can’t fast-travel around the map by going through a menu. If you want to go somewhere, you have to walk. For ages. You take the path, and if you wander off the path, you will very likely come across something that will kill you – but you will also have an adventure, such as the time I found a haunted castle full of skeletons.

By the time you and your team make it to the next town as night begins to fall, exhausted and overburdened with trinkets you picked up on the way, you will feel as if you have actually achieved something. There’s one alternative to getting around on foot: take a ride on an oxcart, which unbelievably is even slower than walking, unless your character dozes off and wakes up at their destination. Also, you might get attacked by monsters mid-journey that destroy the whole cart, leaving you stranded in the middle of the night in unfamiliar territory. It’s like a cruel joke.

What all of this achieves, for the player, is a sense of … I’d describe it as the sensation of being fully awake. You can’t switch your brain off playing a game like this. You have to remember things that people tell you, use your eyes to read pathways and spot things in the distance in the absence of a mini-map or a quest marker that shows you where to go. You’ve got to be ready to fight when you’re called to, and to run for your life when you’re caught short. I keep seeing things I’ve never seen before, such as this player being caught in the arms of one of his pawns after being sent flying through the air by an ogre. It’s invigorating, especially when so many games feel like extremely pretty spreadsheets, with nested task lists and menu-based fast-travel and predictable, gradual learning curves.

Games such as this have regularly snapped me out of a funk over the decades, reminding me that they can still be exciting and unpredictable. Regular reader Iain wrote in with a question the other week that partly inspired this issue: “As a gamer in his late 70s, I have been playing since 1985. I seem to have reached a point where I have ‘seen it all before.’ Are there any truly innovative titles out there or am I stuck with ongoing series, some of which have reached double digits?”

Well, Iain, for me Dragon’s Dogma 2 is one of those games that restores my faith. It might be a sequel, but there’s still nothing else like it.

What to play

Out today, Unleaving is an interesting arthouse project from a small team of developers who describe it as “a thought-provoking puzzle platformer, that takes players on a journey through child’s eyes”. You move through eye-catching hand-painted scenes, exploring them from within; every frame is a real, acrylic painting, and they are pulled together using a technique akin to stop-motion. I am finding it meditative and eerie, like Limbo if it were painted by Van Gogh, and it bears the unmistakable imprint of its creators and their contemplations of mortality.

Available on: Windows
Estimated playtime:
2 hours

What to read

  • The Game Developers Conference wrapped up at the weekend – our reporter Kari Paul as there to document how games industry workers came together amid layoffs, AI threats and resurgent harassment campaigns to support each other (and scream collectively in a park in San Francisco).

  • Also at GDC, Ubisoft showed off AI-powered non-player characters (NPCs) that listen to the player and respond in real-time, based on a language model created and trained by a human writer on that character’s knowledge and personality traits. They can also adapt to what’s going on in the game, or to the player’s ideas. The mixed reaction to this technology was summed up by what video game academic Brendan Keogh said on X: “The idea of AI creating ‘realistic’ NPCs is based on a false myth that video games are ‘worlds’ as opposed to ‘media texts created by people to express ideas and tell stories’. Why would I want to listen to dialogue nobody wrote?”

  • Thomas Hobbs interviewed the creator of RollerCoaster Tycoon for its 25th anniversary – and also the real-life rollercoaster designers who were inspired by it to pursue a career in theme parks.

What to click

Question Block

Here’s reader Miles giving me an opportunity to talk even more about Dragon’s Dogma:

“I wanted your take on the ‘dragonsplague’ in Dragon’s Dogma 2, which can see a disease kill off potentially dozens of characters. I’ve seen some on Twitter say it’s unfair game design, and others say it’s good to have a game with real consequences. What do you think?”

I mentioned this contagion further up, but if you’re spoiler-shy, this is your cue to stop reading, as I’m about to go into more detail. The dragonsplague is the most radical thing that players have yet discovered in Dragon’s Dogma 2: your “pawns”, – companions – can contract it when they’re travelling with other players in their games, possibly from hunting down drakes though nobody quite knows its origins. You won’t know if one of your hired pawns has it until they start acting strangely, clutching their head and ignoring your orders. Left unchecked, the disease progresses until, one day, when you sleep at an inn, the pawn in question transforms into a hideous dragon-like creature and lays waste to whatever settlement you’re in. They’ll kill every character in the vicinity, including ones that you need to progress quests. If you’re somewhere especially populous, that can be a hundred characters lying in the morgue. It’s possible to revive dead characters with magic wakestones, but you’d need a lot of them to undo the damage.

Naturally, this has players terrified. I have had text messages from friends going “have you heard of the dragonsplague? How do you avoid it?” The answer seems to be that you can’t avoid it, or cure it, but if you notice that a pawn is displaying symptoms, you can either dismiss them immediately (making them into some other player’s problem) or, if it’s your own pawn, mercy-kill them by , perhaps, throwing them into the sea. They’ll revive shortly afterwards, plague-free.

As to whether this is unfair game design or a stroke of genius: I think it’s both. This is a game-breaking cataclysmic event that can come about through no fault of your own and potentially ruin your game. It’s also so radical that it’s got everyone frightened of it, checking their companions for symptoms and spreading the word around the real world, coming together to find ways to avoid it; maybe someone will yet figure out how to cure it.

I can’t remember the last time a game had an idea like this.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on pushingbuttons@theguardian.com.