Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen was one of the standout action role-playing games of the last generation, with an emphasis on 'action'. Indeed, Capcom's Western fantasy-infused tale offered up a breathless combat system -- a deep and very customisable combination of light attacks, heavy blows, and special abilities. It was the cherry on top of an already fantastic adventure title, and now, five years later and remastered on PlayStation 4, Dragon's Dogma is back to shame the vast majority of the genre with its superb hacking and slashing.
Combat has held up incredibly well, then, but what about the rest of this rather bleak re-release? Well, when we first played the game back on PlayStation 3, we weren't overly fond of the main story. To be honest, we found it to be a bit of a mess, with disjointed cutscenes pushing a plot that we could barely understand. However, playing through it again has opened our eyes somewhat. It's not that the plot is stunted -- it's that the storytelling has a subtlety that we almost completely overlooked the first time around.
There's an air of mystery to the narrative that all but asks you to seek your own answers, especially when proceedings take several bold turns later on. This is a story that'll give back whatever you put in, rewarding your curiosity with some shocking revelations. Not everyone will appreciate this style of storytelling, but it's unique and artfully done.
The story isn't what most players will be hanging around for, though. The land of Gransys may lack the finer details and the visual prowess of today's open worlds, but it's still an absolute joy to explore. The game's environmental design is top notch, making even the lowliest of fetch quests feel like a grand adventure full of danger and discovery. Very few games capture this feeling quite like Dragon's Dogma, and outside of combat, this is easily its greatest strength.
Other notable strengths include character progression and the pawn system. A wide selection of playable character classes offer up a bunch of different play styles to muck around with and potentially combine. Learn various skills as one class, and you can transfer them over to another, plugging up weaknesses or enhancing proven talents. Tweaking and exploring your options proves to be a really enjoyable process, mostly because each class feels so fleshed out when you're taking them for a spin on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned pawn system presents you with a constant influx of travelling companions plucked from the games of other players. Pawns are essentially a group of human-like beings that follow the Arisen, and the Arisen is you. Near the beginning of the story, you're given the opportunity to create your own personal pawn -- a permanent partner who'll have your back in any and every situation.
As mentioned, this personal pawn can be recruited by other players, and the experience that they gain elsewhere can be brought back to your game. You pawn may be whisked off on an ogre hunt by another Arisen, for example, and the next time you load your save, your companion will know how to better combat the brutes, shouting out fresh advice when you cross paths with one. It's an intricate system, and there's a nice sense of pride to be had when your pawn returns to your side that much stronger.
It's great that Dragon's Dogma still stands so strong half a decade later, but that's thanks to the original development team rather than Capcom's remastering efforts. Returning players can be safe in the knowledge that the regular framerate drops which hampered the original release don't rear their ugly heads here, but it's a real shame that the game doesn't aim for that hallowed 60 frames-per-second, instead appearing to opt for a smooth but safe 30 -- even on PS4 Pro. What's more, the game generally looks quite jagged, and although the improved lighting adds a lot more visual depth, it's difficult not to feel as though more could and probably should have been done to polish the overall package.
Despite Capcom's uninspired remastering, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen remains one of the best action RPGs of the last decade. Tight controls hold together thrilling combat, and the sense of adventure that the game exudes is almost unmatched. At its budget price, newcomers should definitely give the PS4 release a fair chance, while veterans will find a good enough excuse to begin the cycle all over again.