‘Dragon’s Dogma 2’ Scares Me More Than Most Horror Games

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My pawns and I had been trekking about for several in-game days when we (I) accidentally stumbled into a Griffin’s nest. I’d been playing the thief vocation, fully maxed out, thrilled with how it allowed me to nimbly maneuver around enemies and limit break my DPS in fundamentally insane ways. With me was Christian, my main pawn (modeled after my partner), an archer with a penchant for chastising the others whenever they suggested how I spend my gold. Eagle, a shirtless hunk I swear on the Arisen I only hired for his level, was a skilled warrior who accompanied us too. And SphinxMother, weak as she was, came equipped with anodyne, a necessary healing spell that ably offset my “charge forth” playstyle. I needed her for a quest and hadn’t yet thrown her to the Brine.

We were en route to Vernworth, the Capital City of Vermund, one of two major cities in Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma 2, the recently released sequel to their 2012 cult classic. For the uninitiated, both the original and sequel are Hideaki Itsuno’s fantasy fever dreams, games that gleefully buck modern design convention, eschewing expectations for whatever cruel machinations Itsuno wants to conjure next. In his own words, think of it as a JRPG refracted through a Street Fighter 2 lens.

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Core to the design philosophy are those aforementioned pawns, player-created AI companions who dwell in a liminal realm known as the Rift. From there, players can summon them to their own world. They round out a party of four as you, broadly, endeavor to reclaim a stolen seat as the new Arisen, a warrior whose heart has been plucked and eaten by a fierce dragon. I’m 40 hours in and still can’t tell you where it’s going. I’m having too much fun, and experiencing too much fear, off the beaten path to do what needs to be done.

Eagle, Christian, myself, and a rando

So, I stumbled into the Griffin’s nest, and like the supportive champs they are, my pawns belly-flopped after me, making too much noise as they did so. Asleep in the center, of course, was the titular beast, one I’d tried (and failed) twice before to take down. I was in an unmarked region of the game, seeing only black splotches when I pulled the map up in my menu. There was no way back up, so our only option was to proceed forward, to sneak around the Griffin and find a way back to the main road.

Eagle, the defiant hunk, wasn’t keen on that. Without warning, he charged the beast. It awoke, flew into the air, and smashed down on him. The game started loudly yelling at me. Eagle was down and needed to be revived. Sorry, Eagle. The rest of us needed to skedaddle. I signaled for Christian and SphinxMother to follow me, but Christian—the trooper—wasn’t going to leave a fallen comrade behind. He rushed to Eagle’s aid and threw his dying body over his shoulder. The Griffin got him too.

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SphinxMother and I made a break for it, emerging not back onto the road, but into the obfuscated, impenetrable Misty Marshes. I could barely see two feet ahead of me. But I could hear. And what I heard was a death rattle. Clanking, clacking bones. All around us, monsters rose from their slumber. Skeletons. The undead. Phantasms. We were cooked.

More than any game in recent memory, Dragon’s Dogma 2 has made me afraid in the best possible way. Like the first game, Itsuno zigged as most studios zagged. I sank over 100 hours into the original Dragon’s Dogma and was thrilled to see several of its key mechanics make a return despite industry trends and shifting consumer expectations.

Fast travel remains as limited as ever. Nightfall spells death. Still, Itsuno augments those former Dragon’s Dogma mechanics with an entirely new and gleefully cruel bag of tricks. Dragon’s Dogma 2 isn’t a survival horror game, though in its best moments, it certainly feels like one.

As the Griffin assailed my comrades, I felt no differently than I did playing another Capcom gem, 2003’s Clock Tower 3. I was faced with an insurmountable enemy, questioning whether to run or fight. Later in the game, one of my pawns was afflicted with Dragonsplague, a controversial new mechanic that, when left untreated, ends with the pawn massacring an entire town, essential NPCs and all. In that moment, I recalled The Quarry and, more broadly, Supermassive Games’ philosophy of living with the choices you make as a player. If I left my pawn untreated, the casualties would be mine alone to bear.

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It was, in other words, the best of horror gaming conceptually packaged within a sprawling, fantasy RPG. What could be better than that? There’s risk and danger around every corner and a deliberate unwillingness to accommodate the players’ needs. The tools needed to survive are there, and Itsuno wisely allows just enough developer guidance to maintain the kind of addictive, one-more-quest replayability modern games need to endure. For casual gamers, much of it must feel like sadism.

That innate sense of danger and fear isn’t something I’ve felt much of lately, even in games deliberately designed to cultivate it. Riding an oxcart through the night, desperate to shave off some travel time, carries with it the risk of an assault, hordes of hobgoblins pouncing from the shadowy periphery to kill the driver and smash the cart, leaving me stranded in the wilderness. I felt the same frightened elation I did playing through procedural possessions in The Mortuary Assistant. My last oxcart ride was a breeze. There’s no guarantee this next one will be.

And that, truly, is where Dragon’s Dogma 2 excels. There’s a growing trend, motivated by several variables, to keep media safe. Online discourse, for instance, repeatedly questions the merit of sex and nudity in film. Videogames, eager to avoid visceral frustration, too often remove player control, constraining their actions lest they suffer any semblance of permanent consequence. 

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Dragon’s Dogma 2 relishes in that unpredictability. It relishes in the fear, the rise and fall of tragedy and relief. One jaunt might end with a respite at a wayside inn. Another might conclude with a terrifying Sphinx’s riddle, a Sphinx whose gaze lingers just a little bit too long. Better hope you answered them correctly.

Dragon’s Dogma 2 wants players to be afraid. Every adventure feels like it could be the last. There’s a distinct genre flavor to even the most mundane of encounters. It’s a game that centers the danger and stakes quotidian to horror texts writ large, regardless of medium. I think that’s a beautiful thing. Even as my pawns and I are fleeing from the undead, finding ourselves deeper in the mist, I can’t help but smile and anticipate whatever terror Itsuno has planned for me next.

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