Dragon’s Dogma originally released last year, and although many praised Capcom for trying something new and exciting, the general consensus was that the game fell just short of greatness. Despite boasting a huge open world, an intriguing class system, and fantastic boss fights, the title faltered on the smaller things like awful menu screens and poor narrative pacing. Skip forwards a year and the publisher's released Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen – the game that some have dubbed as ‘Super Dragon’s Dogma’.
So, what is Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen? There’s been plenty of confusion thanks to Capcom’s rather vague marketing, but the answer is a simple one: this is a re-release of the 2012 title with additional content piled on top. You’ll find all of the previously released DLC here, plus the lengthy expansion from which the game gets its subtitle.
Disappointingly, the second coming of this grand adventure doesn't fix much when it comes to the main game. The story remains disjointed and lacklustre, while the menus are still terrible and difficult to navigate, although they are a little faster in loading up. However, with the addition of Dark Arisen, Dragon’s Dogma now feels much more like a complete package – it adds a certain flavour and contrast that was strangely amiss within the original release.
For those who are completely new to Capcom’s behemoth RPG, Dragon’s Dogma places you in the shoes of the Arisen – a legendary figure of your own design who has their heart stolen by a nefarious dragon. Your quest to retrieve said organ takes you across the beautiful kingdom of Gransys, where you’ll command your own gaggle of warriors, delve deep into foreboding dungeons, and tackle gigantic mythical beasts in true Shadow of the Colossus style.
Your party comprises of pawns – humanoid beings from another dimension who swear fealty to the Arisen. Fearless in battle and extremely talkative, pawns form the basis of the gameplay. Besides making your own pawn to cherish, you’ll always be accompanied by two secondary allies whom you have limited control over. This is where the game’s online component comes into play – you can recruit supporting pawns from friends or strangers, allowing you to form a ragtag group of adventurers that suit your current needs. Offline, the game generates randomly created characters and places them throughout the world. Either way, the ability to constantly swap out your party members leads to a lot of tactical experimentation, and the game openly encourages this style of play.
And it’s certainly best to gather a diverse band of heroes who can adapt to different situations. For the first ten or so hours, Gransys can be a punishingly difficult and brutal place, so you’ll need every advantage that you can muster until you've gotten used to the flow of the game. Indeed, Dragon’s Dogma refuses to hold your hand much past the first fifteen minutes, and it throws numerous concepts and mechanics at you with little concern for your sanity. However, by pacing yourself and slowly working towards understanding the details of such a dauntingly long title, you’ll soon find a brilliantly crafted balance of gameplay that will keep you engrossed for hours on end.
The further that you delve into the world of Gransys, the harder that it becomes to tear yourself away. Exploration is easily the game’s biggest draw, and it’s especially difficult not to become ensnared in the picturesque countryside Capcom has so lovingly crafted. While it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before – rolling green hills, treacherous mountain roads, and dense, dark forests – there’s an imposing atmosphere that keeps you constantly engaged. Perhaps it’s because of the ever-present threat of monsters that could eat you alive, or the thrill of stumbling upon vast quantities of loot. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to think of a game that provides a bigger compulsion to explore every nook and cranny.
Adding to the already excellent sense of adventure, the combat is top notch. While it’s not quite as refined or as action packed as you’d find in an RPG like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, it’s still head and shoulders above the vast majority of the genre. It's action-based, so you’ll be jumping, sprinting, hacking, slashing, and climbing your way to victory across a variety of brilliantly designed creatures.
Combat has a lot of depth thanks to a class system that rewards experimentation. All of the basics are here: the sword and shield wielding fighter, the staff swinging mage, and the dual dagger loving strider. However, unlike many RPGs, each class – or vocation – feels completely different to the last. They all sport their own unique skills which can be learned through trading battle-earned discipline points, and applying them to your own character and main pawn puts a large emphasis on customisation. Finding the skills that work best together and the vocation that you feel most comfortable with is a joy due to the combat’s prowess, making both systems feel perfectly matched. This is complemented further by a basic levelling mechanic, which increases your stats depending on your current vocation.
The high points of combat, however, come in the form of huge creatures with exceedingly large health bars. Every enemy in Dragon’s Dogma requires some degree of strategy to defeat. Slicing off a scaly Saurian’s tail, for example, results in lizard men losing the ability to stand on two legs, forcing them to hug the ground and take far more damage from your attacks. Giant monsters on the other hand offer ever-changing and thrilling battles that can last long amounts of time, and can see you scampering across their bodies, weapon in hand, trying to find that one illusive weak spot. Some fights are dynamic, with griffons swooping upon you from the sky without warning, while others are scripted events. Regardless of how they begin, though, the course of these fights is always exciting due to varied AI behaviour. For comparison's sake, the dragon battles in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are made to look tame and completely static.
Action and exploration join together to create a world that’s an absolute pleasure to explore, but proceedings are hampered by a limp story line and characters. The main quests themselves are a fulfilling experience, but the cut-scenes and dialogue that weave them together leave a lot to be desired. Thankfully, there really isn't much of either throughout the release. For the vast majority of the campaign, you’ll be fulfilling side quests or simply wandering the land as you see fit. It’s really a game where you’ll be crafting your own stories rather than following the ones that the game lays out for you, and fortunately you’ll have plenty to share.
In stark contrast, narrative focus is where the Dark Arisen expansion excels. In many ways, this harrowing, meaty slice of content is the yin to the main game’s yang, providing a suitably dark and chilling expedition into a labyrinth of caves and ruins underneath the fittingly named Bitterblack Isle. There’s a dark power at work, and no one comes back from the island alive – this is endgame content in every sense of the phrase, and if you arrive unprepared, you’ll soon be leaving with your confidence in tatters.
As previously mentioned, there’s a distinct focus on the narrative of this forbidden place which slowly unravels the deeper that you journey into the darkness. It’s certainly not the best that we've seen in an RPG, but unlike the plot of the main game, this is something that will keep you invested throughout.
Where the original game gave you a vast, open world to explore, Dark Arisen provides a series of shadowy, claustrophobic rooms and corridors that all add up to a maze-like structure which seemingly stretches on forever. The monsters here are the toughest that you’ll face, meaning that the synergy of your party is paramount to not just success, but also survival. The expansion’s tense atmosphere also serves to make some fights even more gripping, setting the stage for some spectacular showdowns.
Dark Arisen is a triumphant success not just because of its fantastically grim nature, but also because of how it keeps Dragon’s Dogma’s gameplay perfectly intact, while still remaining fresh and exhilarating. It’s the perfect counterpart to a title that was let down by just a few rough edges, and its presence is almost enough to make you forget about the flaws completely.
If there are any gripes to be had with the additional content, it's that things become a bit of a grind later on. We can all appreciate a challenge now and then, but troublesome enemy combinations coupled with little time to relax can lead to some unnecessarily frustrating encounters. Of course, this is also a problem in the original release, leading to some frequent reloads when a long journey is stopped short by an unforgiving foe.
Both in terms of audio and aesthetic design, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen glows with polish. Despite being a medieval RPG, its styling lends itself to realism rather than high fantasy. The colour palette is dour, but suits the feel of the game perfectly, while the lighting effects are some of the best that we've seen on the platform. Meanwhile, music is used sparingly but to great effect when the situation arises, the highlight being an orchestral melody that plays after a particularly powerful beast has been slain. To top it all off, every sound effect that accompanies an attack is brilliantly pronounced and really gives the impression of powerful, destructive strikes.
As if a sixty hour adventure topped off with a twenty hour expansion wasn't enough, Capcom even saw fit to throw in a new game plus mode, a feature that many RPGs disappointingly lack. Upon completing the game and fulfilling a few different requirements, you'll be able to start a new save carrying over your character along with all of their equipment and experience. You simply can't go wrong with the release's budget price when it contains this much content.
Dragon’s Dogma isn't for everyone. It’s a time consuming and often brutal title, and its original flaws still remain – but the inclusion of Dark Arisen is just enough to push Capcom’s grand RPG up there with the best that the genre has to offer. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more rewarding, dynamic, and atmospheric adventure on the PS3.