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by James Beckett,

Dragon's Dogma

Dragon's Dogma
Based on Capcom's cult RPG, Dragon's Dogma tells the story of Ethan, whose idyllic life in the village of Cassardis is destroyed when a dragon attacks, killing his entire family in front of him. Instead of finishing Ethan off as well, the dragon steals his heart instead, transforming Ethan into the undead Arisen, who must travel across the world to take vengeance on the beast. He is joined by Hannah, who is a Pawn that has been brought into the world to fight by Ethan's side, though she struggles to understand the complexities and contradictions found in the human heart. Their journey will take them into the darkest corners of the land, in which hide fearsome monsters and other villains in need of slaying, but Ethan and Hannah will stop at nothing until the infernal dragon that set them on their path is destroyed, once and for all.

I've put well over seventy hours into the Nintendo Switch port of Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen that got released last year, and while I don't think I'm anywhere close to finishing it, I have played enough to see why the game has grown into such a cult hit over the years. That said, its strengths as an RPG lie firmly in the gameplay side of things; everything about its setting, lore, and story feel decidedly secondary to the experience, aside from an infamously bonkers ending that got spoiled for me ages ago. When I learned that Netflix was releasing an adaptation of Dragon's Dogma as a 3D animated Japanese/American co-production, my number one question was “How the hell are they going to turn this game into a TV show?” Unfortunately, the answer is that this Netflix Original does what many a game adaptation has done before: It stuffs as many references and callbacks as it can muster into an incredibly flimsy story that still manages to barely resemble its source material.

What makes this even more perplexing is that, when it comes to plot, Dragon's Dogma gets the basics of the game right. The stand-in for the player avatar in this case is Ethan, and Hannah is the lone Pawn who has materialized into being to aid him in his quests. They make for a typical pair, with Ethan's rage being tempered by his innate heroism, while Hannah slowly sheds the stunted emotions and naivety that come from being a Pawn with every passing day. From then on, each of the series' seven episodes sees Ethan and Hannah taking on the big monster baddies that were so fun to fight in the game: The Griffin, the Hydra, the Cyclops, the Succubus, the Lich, those little Goblin bastards — they're all present and accounted for, and each of them proves to be a mighty challenge for our heroes as they seek the dragon that started this bloody business in the first place.

So far so good, but this is also where the show's similarity to the game ends, and it begins to resemble a trashy Berserk knockoff instead. While the video game features plenty of monster killing, Dragon's Dogma the series is overflowing with gushing blood, spilled intestines, and all sorts of other macabre methods of manslaughter. Another thing that the game definitely doesn't indulge in is overt sexuality, but there's explicit sex and nudity abound in this anime, not to mention one particularly excessive instance of attempted rape. That the show is going down a much gritter, R-rated path than the game is not in and of itself a bad thing, but Dragon's Dogma's approach makes for the kind of boobies-n-bloodbuckets affair that feels specifically designed to impress young nihilists who've just discovered the thrills of hacking password protections on thier parents Netflix accounts.

In trying to find a unifying theme that might properly frame the story, writer Kurasumi Sunayama seems to have settled on the line that gets repeated ad nauseum by heroes and villains alike in this series: “Humans are foolish creatures.” If the point wasn't clear enough, each of the episodic monster encounters is themed after one of the seven deadly sins, and when the humans aren't getting vivisected by beasts the size of small buildings, they're doing everything they can to backstab, exploit, abuse, and otherwise destroy each other. There are very few recurring characters in Dragon's Dogma besides Ethan and Hannah, and while the two of them are decent enough protagonists, it gets pretty exhausting when every single person they meet on their journey exists either to be a cartoonish, mustache-twirling villain, or a meek and helpless peasant that need a big toughie like Ethan to protect them. The series tries to take a stab at some of the headier concepts that makes the game's finale so infamously bonkers, but it's too little, too late.

One of the most interesting things about this anime's production was that the Japanese crew heading up the animation worked with a script that was recorded in English first, but don't expect to hear anything groundbreaking in the dub on that account. Greg Chun and Erica Mendez turn in fine performances as Ethan and Hannah, but the corny dialogue leaves them little to work with; save for the flimsy faux-British accents, the dub sounds like any other generic fantasy anime out there, and it can't elevate the material beyond its cheap, cliché trappings. The only subtites available are transcribed straight from the dub, too, so no matter what audio option you pick, you're stuck with the same crappy script.

The good news is that, whenever it isn't trying to convince you to give a damn about its stupid story, Dragon's Dogma can be a lot of fun to watch. This is director Shin'ya Sugai's first time at the helm of a full series, so far as I can tell, though he and the crew at Sublimation have been contributing to the CGI elements of various television and film productions for years, and their experience is on display here. We're finally reaching the point where fully computer-rendered anime can stand toe-to-toe with their 2D counterparts, and studios besides the likes of Orange are proving that they can make “good 3D animation” the rule, not the exception. The character's animations and facial expressions are rock solid even when the story isn't, and whenever Ethan and Hannah are slicing and magicking their way through Dragon's Dogma's bestiary, the show stops getting on your nerves and starts kicking ass.

These lengthy and lavishly-produced monster battles are impressive enough that, when you're watching them, you could almost mistake Dragon's Dogma for a legitimately good anime. Alas, eventually the characters have to start talking to each other again, and all of that goodwill vanishes, just so that Dragon's Dogma can keep screaming “Humans are foolish!” at you until the credits roll on its final episode. If you need to kill a few hours with some mindless action, and you don't mind ignoring or skipping the filler in between, this isn't the worst option in the world, but anyone looking for a truly compelling fantasy adventure will be sorely disappointed.

Overall : C-
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : D
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B

+ Some excellent CG animation that really shines during the thrilling action scenes, faithfully recreates the monsters and battles that made the video game so memorable
Lame story, weak characters, the emphasis on over-the-top violence and sex feels trashy and juvenile

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Production Info:
Director: Shin'ya Sugai
Script: Kurasumi Sunayama
Character Design: Iku Nishimura
Executive producer: Taiki Sakurai
Takashi Kitahara
Hiroyuki Kobayashi
Shin'ya Sugai

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Dragon's Dogma (ONA)

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