Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen (PC) Review

By Jordan Hurst 22.02.2016

Review for Dragon

Imagine diving into a ball pit, each ball representing a fantasy RPG trope or mechanic. This is the sensation of playing the enjoyable mess that is Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen. Most quick summaries will describe it as the mechanics of Dark Souls set in the open world of Skyrim, but that is far too shallow to illustrate the range on display here. For starters, it ignores the narrative, thematic, and atmospheric cues drawn from both of those games, as well as significant contributions from Monster Hunter and Shadow of the Colossus (the former could really be considered this title's lighter counterpart). Additionally, this would downlplay the game's own ideas, while also neglecting to mention how much it improves on its ancestors. Dragon's Dogma is neither disciplined nor revolutionary - it's just straightforward, unbridled fun.

The first couple of hours are about as paint-by-numbers as RPGs get: players input their preferred appearance into an absurdly comprehensive character creator, then select from fighter, mage, or strider classes, and then get tossed into a plot kicked off by a legendary dragon assaulting their tiny hometown. From there, the gameplay spirals out into eclectic madness. There are hybrid classes with unorthodox abilities, item combination and equipment enhancement systems (both of which exist in a great middle ground between depth and simplicity), and separate slots for clothing and armour on most body parts. There are also portable fast travel markers and an "affinity" system that leads to shop discounts and an altered third act. Even the customisable protagonist's physical characteristics operate as game mechanics - run speed is affected by leg length, weight affects stamina and item capacity, and overall size determines hitbox proportions.

By far, "Pawns" are the most important feature of the lot, and are an entire race of sidekicks characterised by human appearance, subhuman intelligence, and simulated emotions. Each player can travel with three Pawns at once - though two of these will be designed by other online players. The system is incredibly thorough and unexpectedly brilliant. The Pawns don't just provide the three extra weapons necessary to take down most targets; they also provide hints and information regarding quests and enemies, which is knowledge they earn through encounters in other people's campaigns. This is a vastly superior alternative to the hit-and-mostly-miss pseudo-multiplayer messages of Dark Souls. Additionally, whoever decided to explicitly spell out the Pawns' lack of intelligence deserves a raise. They suffer from many of the AI deficiencies expected - faulty priorities and notoriously incessant chatter - but, with this context, it becomes more endearing than annoying. The fact that there is dialogue for every imaginable situation also helps mollify their repetition.

Screenshot for Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen on PC

The Pawns are also generally competent during combat, which is crucial, because combat is the heart of the game, and can get pretty tough. However, it is much more humane than its peers in the "difficult action RPG" genre. There are no traps that require precognition to avoid, nor are there any moments where enemies can attack without you being able to defend yourself. This approach to challenge is much more straightforward, basically amounting to fighting powerful things on fairly level playing fields. The engagement, therefore, comes not from any particularly remarkable feature, but from the depth and multiplicity of the many typical features it has smashed together. The right trigger, for example, can be used to pin stunned enemies, grab and toss them off cliffs, or (in the case of larger ones) cling to their bodies and climb to their weak points.

This last one is where the gameplay truly shines, because it amplifies the aspects that made it strong to begin with. Teamwork between player and Pawns is essential for toppling boss monsters. Locational damage allows climbing characters to target wings and weapon arms, magic users deal the highest damage, and armoured characters specialise in distracting the target. Each class has access to a variety of offensive and support skills that make them reasonably customisable within their own domain, and characters can switch vocations easily, meaning if one party combination is proving uninteresting or ineffective, there are dozens of others to try. Skills are executed using combinations of shoulder and face buttons that are fairly intuitive, considering they have to share space with primary and secondary weapons, quick and strong attacks, jumping, and grappling. The jumping and movement controls are considerably smoother than in any of the game's inspirations, as well.

The setting specifics of Dragon's Dogma areusually attributed to Skyrim's influence, but that's a rather short-sighted connection. The only thing that screams "Skyrim," rather than "open-world titles in general" is that the two games share a bad habit of dropping sheer cliffs that must be circumnavigated all over the map. Ironically, the environments' unwavering dedication to the imagery of a temperate summer evokes Oblivion more than its sequel. Apart from these shortcomings, the setting is quite well-designed, featuring believable composition and an endless stream of hidden treasure that encourages exploration. Calling the game open-world is also selling it somewhat short; it's just open, period. Most NPCs can be killed on a whim, quests can be completed by returning forgeries of useful items and keeping the real ones for yourself (which may have consequences if the real item is supposed to turn up in future events), and that affinity system works on anyone.

Screenshot for Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen on PC

Ordinarily, this kind of flexibility would ruin a title's potential for decent storytelling, but Dragon's Dogma intelligently avoids that pitfall. Rather than try to shoehorn in a traditional story between gameplay sections, it crafts a more abstract tale specifically designed to accommodate the gameplay. There is neither deep world-building nor especially memorable characters to be found here; there is only a setting cleverly constructed to get in the way as little as possible. Most notably, after the dragon's initial attack marks the protagonist as an "Arisen" destined to defeat the creature, the majority of the plot consists only of completing tasks for the populace, and learning how best to fulfil said destiny. The later stages of the plot, on the other hand, introduce a theme of cyclical reality (previously exemplified only by a rotating ouroboros loading symbol) that beautifully justifies the inevitable New Game+ mode.

The rationalisation for the Pawns is another good example of this. They're explained as originating from the Rift, a primordial realm that ties together a multiverse containing thousands of other worlds, each with their own Arisen - that is, other players. It's such a perfect setup that, combined with the existing co-operative gameplay elements, it's easy to see why it was repurposed as a (currently Japan-only) MMO last year. Ironically, for a game that probably isn't even one percent cut-scene, the moments where its story falters are almost entirely due to poor cinematic direction. The protagonist is of the silent variety, unsurprisingly, but that trait was taken a step further, such that they become completely inactive when not being controlled. This drains every story moment of all dramatic tension, as the Arisen responds to every event by gormlessly staring at it for about four seconds. Similarly, the plot events determined by the affinity system are spoiled by the affected characters' utter silence.

Screenshot for Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen on PC

Their muteness is especially bizarre given the massive amounts of conversation the Pawns engage in with one of twelve selectable voices. Would it have put that much of a dent in the budget to get those actors to record a few extra lines to make the drama less laughable? Not that the voice acting is stellar or anything, but it's passable enough that such additions would have noticeably improved the experience. The static cut-scene animation poses a similar problem; it's impossible to take characters seriously when their lips and limbs shift like they're in a parody of dubbed kung fu movies. Fortunately, during gameplay, humans and monsters alike move more believably. The music is the real showpiece where aesthetics are concerned. In addition to simply being delightfully composed and impeccably directed, it's taken the game's diverse style to heart and incorporated everything from epic symphonic rock to sombre vocal/piano harmonies.

It must be noted that almost nothing in Dragon's Dogma works perfectly. The most detrimental example is the overwhelming amount of combat, which leads to the smaller, repeated encounters growing old several hours before the game is done bombarding you with them. In addition, while the controls in general are satisfactory, the monster-climbing can feel stiff and disorienting. The novelty of character builds affecting gameplay is also diminished when you realise that being tall and heavy is noticeably more advantageous than anything else. Furthermore, several side-quests have unspoken cut-off points that require a walkthrough to avoid, and, in the same vein, the affinity system is nearly impossible to direct intentionally. On a more nit-picky note, Pawns being unable to take on hybrid classes seems like a pointless restriction.

Disappointingly, certain faults in the base game were improved for the Dark Arisen re-release (which is what this PC version is based on), and they're still problematic. The interface was streamlined, but it's still simultaneously inadequate and overly complex (What is the point of having multiple inventory screens, only one of which lets you equip items?). The portable fast travel system is a much more obnoxious case, though. Sure, the items that enable it no longer need to be bought repeatedly, but the number of locations that can be teleported to is artificially limited, stretching the campaign out with an additional travel time of at least five hours. The primary selling point of Dark Arisen over the original release, however, is the addition of an enormous endgame dungeon. This area is dripping with atmosphere and contains some of the product's most satisfying challenges, but it also contains some of its most unfair, so it will likely only entice dedicated fans.

Screenshot for Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen on PC

Cubed3 Rating

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10

The "anything goes" style of game design employed by Dragon's Dogma is destined to fuel endless discussion regarding its pros and cons. It's no exception to the jack of all trades adage, but it has almost mastered enough things that it transcends the faceless, homogeneous garbage that such attempts at broad appeal usually result in. It's best described as consistently imperfect, which is more of a recommendation than it sounds. After all, a report card of straight Bs is preferable to one that's half A, half F.

Developer

Capcom

Publisher

Capcom

Genre

Adventure

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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