Deeper and downer.
There aren’t many surprise successes anymore in the risk-averse world of console gaming, but last year Dragon’s Dogma was one of them. It’s an ambitious action-RPG with an excellent combat system, a great sense of adventure, and a suite of technical foibles that make it harder to love than it should be. But at this lower price and with many extra hours of late-game content, which show off the abilities of one of Capcom’s most talented in-house development teams in a new context, Dragon’s Dogma is considerably more attractive this time around.
Dark Arisen includes the full version of Dragon’s Dogma – with a few minor adjustments – as well as a good 10 to 15 hours of new adventuring on a mysterious black island that rises from the sea outside the fishing village of Cassardis. Don’t be fooled by its starting-area placement, though; the new content is very much designed for the post-game, and if you don’t carry over a high-level save file from the original Dragon’s Dogma you’ll get slayed. Actually, even if you’re high-level you’re still very likely to get slayed; Bitterblack Isle’s difficulty sometimes threatens to cross the line between fist-eatingly tough and just plain unfair. That said, I enjoy that type of challenge, even though luck sometimes seems to have more to do with my success than skill.
The new dungeon on Bitterblack Isle is a deeply unpleasant place, in the sense that it does an excellent job at evoking an atmosphere of despair and foreboding. My forays into the depths of locations like the Rotunda of Dread and the Shrine of Futile Truths were tentative, and often ended ignominiously. It looks so foul in places that you can almost smell the stench of death, and for the first hours I was captivated by its bleakness. In its final third, though, there are multiple enemies that can kill you in one hit even if you’re seasoned, which feels deeply unjust; even level 100+ characters can be dispatched immediately. At least out in the open fields of Gransys, you could always run away from whatever creature was kicking your ass. That’s not really an option in these claustrophobic corridors. The temptation is to inch down them, lantern blazing, saving every 35 seconds. Pro-tip: don’t try to take on Death. It pretty much never works out.
When you have a fighting chance, at least, the heart of Dragon’s Dogma’s appeal remains its genuinely great combat. You can be a standard mage, ranger, or warrior to start with, but things get interesting when you’re allowed to start mixing them up in unusual combinations, like a magic archer, and you can switch between classes at will if your current playstyle is getting stale. I like to switch between magic and close-up fighting, casting walls of flame at a chimera in a fabulous sorcerer’s robe one hour and clinging desperately to a cyclops’ leg whilst stabbing at its knees with a sword the next. The challenge is rewarding; victories feel hard-won, and exploration is more exciting when you know that you’re in genuine danger.
That sense of adventure is what really hooked me on Dragon’s Dogma. Going out into the wilds feels like a real expedition. You must spend time preparing well, gathering knowledge about a quest, and adjusting your party and equipment, because once you’re out there there’s nothing and nobody to save you when night begins to fall. It inspires genuine fear when the sun begins to set and I’m still far from anywhere I can be safe for the night. Visibility fails after dark, and the most dangerous creatures come out of hiding: the undead, the phantasms, and powerful bandits that wait for the cover of darkness before they strike. You never know what’s out there.
But here’s a hint: huge monsters that would be bosses in most other games roam the wilds, forcing you to either flee or fight to your last breath at unexpected moments. Climbing these beasts to hack bravely away at their heads as they thrash around brings back good memories of Shadow of the Colossus. At its best it feels like a synthesis of Dark Souls’ challenge and versatility and Monster Hunter’s satisfying physicality.
Dragon’s Dogma’s main problem, aside from those forgivable technical idiosyncrasies, remains the deeply bland fiction and writing that envelop its action-RPG gameplay. The land of Gransys is beautiful and compellingly explorable, but the people and quests that populate it are, for the most part, about as interesting and flavourful as cement. The exception is the ending, which is sublimely bonkers. I didn’t even realise exactly how insane it was when I reviewed it last year. Even thousands of players together have yet to uncover the full range of bizarre permutations.
The only interesting characters are the Pawns, which managed to make me care about their fates. These A.I.-controlled interdimensional mercenaries help out in combat, making Dragon’s Dogma feel a little like an offline MMO – which is great in fights, and makes exploration feel less lonely, but unlike human companions they endlessly spout the same soundbites. That’s annoying, but not so much that I didn’t find myself forming irrational attachments despite their total absence of personality – letting go of faithful Raymundo at level 27 when he just couldn’t hack it anymore was a sad moment.
While the overall trend is an increase in difficulty, Dark Arisen makes a small and overall wise concession to convenience with the addition of just a few extra Ferrystones, which transport you back to the capital or to a Portcrystal that you’ve placed yourself out in the wilds. I was reluctant at first, as exploration is such a crucial aspect of Dragon’s Dogma and I never found its long treks dull, but found that I only used fast-travel in emergencies. Ferrystones are still rare enough that it never becomes a go-to method of transportation.
What’s disappointing is that I saw no changes from a technical standpoint. Even after an install on the Xbox 360 there’s a lot of pop-in, and the framerate struggles when there are more than a few enemies on screen. Frequently you’ll sprint through the capital and stand outside a shop for a good five to 10 seconds before its occupants have time to stream in. Larger enemies clip through scenery, and not all the equipment plays nice with the character models; if you’re a mystic knight, your character’s elbow will frequently poke through their shield. The PS3 version performs better in terms of framerate, but it still has the same issues with character models and animation.
Really, it’s new players for whom Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen holds the best value: it’s a bigger, better version of one of last year’s most interesting games at a great price. But getting all the way through this expansion content is an endurance test, and not always an enjoyable one. I was forced to give up before the end, and I would venture that will be the case for all but the most dedicated of players. It’s those players, who’ve put the most time into Dragon’s Dogma, who will feel rewarded by the expansive new challenges in Bitterblack Isle.
It’s fan service, but it also shows the development team applying its talents in a different context to the original game, creating a tightly designed dungeon crawl rather than the open world of Gransys (which is so ambitious that it often rubs up against technical limitations.) For anyone who loved Dark Souls or the original Dragon’s Dogma, it’s a tantalising glimpse of what a sequel – or perhaps Deep Down – might have to offer.
It’s difficult to argue that Dragon’s Dogma is a universally great game. It’s great at combat and exploration, but the quests are often boring, the fiction is turgid and its technical problems are unignorable. But it’s a very good game, and it’s so interesting that I’m inclined to forgive most of its problems because it succeeds in such important ways. The Dark Arisen expansion content pushes the boundaries of fairness towards the end and saves its best rewards for the most dedicated, but in terms of design and ambience it’s an encouraging indication of what this talented team might come up with next. At this budget price, Dragon’s Dogma is absolutely worth a try.