It actually came as a bit of a shock when we first learned that Capcom were preparing to invest heavily into an original title this late in the console cycle. Why, you ask? Well, let’s just say that the company reputation has suffered from one too many controversies this generation, and it was simply unclear what level of quality we could expect from the final product. However, Dragon’s Dogma did release to generally positive acclaim, and it wasn’t long before Capcom had acknowledged the game’s success by securing the title within an entirely new franchise.
It also came as yet another shock when we learned that the new Dark Arisen expansion would not actually be downloadable per se, which is strange when you take into account the many on-disc DLC “scandals” Capcom have been faced with recently. And yet Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen was to be released as an all inclusive package that included the original game, previous DLC’s and an entirely new dungeon to explore. Not only that, but additional tweaks to the core game that have been influenced by player feedback over the past year. Honestly, how often does this happen in our industry, and who would have thought it would be Capcom to embrace this approach?
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen will re-introduce players to the massively open world of Gransys, as well as the all new and deadly Bitterblack Isles. There isn’t actually a restriction preventing players from accessing this new content from the get go, but we wouldn’t recommend attempting the trip until your character is at least level 60. It is for this reason that we have chosen to cover the core game as well as the expansion in this review as the tweaks and adjustments to the experience absolutely have a positive impact on how you invest your time. If you counted out the original last year, keep reading as we hope to deliver an entirely fresh perspective on this re-release.
The initial premise behind the main plot is actually very simple. During a raid on the fishing village of Cassardis, the hero of the story attempts fend off an enormous Dragon. Ultimately these efforts prove for naught, but instead of killing the player, the Dragon explains that they are the “Chosen One” and proceeds to tear out their heart before flying away into the distance. The hero is then revived as an “Arisen” who is destined to search out and slay the Dragon to reclaim their lost heart. However, the player will also learn that this is a path that others have traveled before, and with the help of non-human characters known as pawns, the truth will become known.
It doesn’t sound incredibly deep at first glance, but there will still be a surprising amount of mystery to uncover, and whilst the fans reaction to these revelations have been a polar opposite upon review, we personally thought the overall direction was satisfying. However, that is not the core drive behind Dragon’s Dogma, as with any open world game the story is often driven by the unique interactions the player has with the world. We like to call this environmental narrative, and this is something the game is not lacking whatsoever. Do you remember that exciting moment when you first faced an Ogre? The rest of your party had been defeated, all your healing items were exhausted, and you still managed to take him down with only moments left to live. That’s what we’re talking about!
It’s a style of narrative that has become more widely appreciated with titles such as Dark Souls, and whilst Dragon’s Dogma does not quite achieve the same depth, it is certainly a worthy effort. However, this is not to say the game doesn’t have unique positives of its own as the Pawns will often share knowledge about quests they have embarked on before delivering additional narrative via conversation. In regards to the Bitterblack Isles, it also develops it’s own story in much of the same way, although it lacks any massive revelations that made the core plot so compelling. However, This is still only a small aspect of the expansion, and we’re intrigued by what’s to come.
The first question on many players minds will be, what are the core differences between the original version of Dragon’s Dogma and the re-release that is included with the Dark Arisen package? The answer to that is fundamentally simple, and yet it makes such a major difference. The fast travel system has been completely rebalanced, which means you are no longer required to walk everywhere. It might sound lazy, and it’s not that it ever became a chore to explore the world, but if you ever wanted to get somewhere quickly you could count on your stamina to make life hard. However, there are now three static port crystals, as well as the ability to collect and place your own across the world. Ferrystones are also 10% of the original cost at The Black Cat in Gran Soren.
If you ever thought travel was a problem, consider it fixed. However, to those who don’t know what these strange items are already, the Port Crystal is a static marker you can return to at any time, and a Ferrystone is your ticket to travel there. Other alterations to the game include the addition of a second ring slot, and the inclusion of the Japanese voice track. Otherwise, it’s off to the Bitterblack Isles if you want to experience any of the additional content, which also includes new weapons, equipment, skills and augments. Just take note that all high level equipment is cursed, and you will be required to purify it with rift crystals on the surface before it can be used.
Whether we’re discussing the original game, or the new expansion, one thing is for certain and that’s the massive scope and size of the game. Players will begin Dragon’s Dogma by creating their very own customised character as well as a dedicated Pawn who will embark on the adventure with them. It’s a process that we should all be familiar with by now, and the level of customisation available certainly provides some of the best options we’ve seen yet. Upon completion, players will then be moved into a tutorial section to take on various challenges, and just a word of advice, be prepared to have a lot of different systems all introduced at once. It’s absolutely okay if this feels very overwhelming, just don’t let that scare you away as it will all start to come together within a couple of hours.
The horizon is literally the limit, and that’s something we really admired about Dragon’s Dogma. There are no restrictions that prevent you from going somewhere other than your own ability to survive the challenges of that particular area, so it makes sense that the designers chose to use fixed enemy positions that respawn over time. Of course, this could have easily been a dangerous recipe for repetitiveness, but as the game does not include a scaling difficulty, it actually encourages players to want to overcome the many obstacles that block their path. The Bitterblack Isles admittedly takes this principle a little too far at times, but it ultimately proves rewarding to learn the area, build your character, and earn the satisfaction of defeating the final boss at the end of the dungeon.
Fortunately, you will never truly be alone on your quest either as the game also introduces a unique multiplayer concept known as the Pawn system. What is a Pawn? Well, to put it simply, they are a support character that you can enlist within your main party. In the beginning of the game we outlined how players will create their own Pawn that will statically grow with their main character. However, this unique system also allows the player to loan that same pawn out to other players online, whilst also bringing up to two additional pawns into their own party. This process doesn’t actually remove Pawns from anyone’s game, but it does allow the gathering and exchange of knowledge. It’s a unique system that worked really well in Dragon’s Dogma, and we hope to see it evolve with the franchise.
Dragon’s Dogma is a game that wants to empower the player, and there are certainly a lot of ways that you can specialise and grow your character. Players will never be locked into one specific build, and are free to customise their experience with the many different classes, weapons, armor and abilities that are available. This is again expanded upon in the DLC to help compensate for the difficulty, but it’s really just more of the same equipment, only stronger. Ultimately, it’s a system that works, but it’s far from perfect and honestly a little clunky at times. In fact, a lot of the system menus could use a coat of polish as we also encountered one too many issues with the quest markers. It doesn’t really hurt the overall game, but it would certainly be on the list of improvements.
Gameplay is definitely the strongest attribute of Dragon’s Dogma, and it’s easy to see why. The combat system is inspired by a unique blend of so many other games that actually come together in a fantastic manner despite a couple of awkward spots. It’s just such a satisfying game to play, and when you take down a large enemy and you hear that music chime, you know you’ve truly done something great. There just isn’t anything else quite like it, and whilst we feel a lock-on system could have enhanced the gameplay further, we walked away satisfied and wanting more. Of course, the developers went on to deliver this in the form of Dark Arisen, and as mentioned on several occasions, be prepared to have your limits pushed. It’s difficult, but it will ultimately prove to be rewarding.
If you’ve played an RPG before, you will more than likely be familiar with such terms as character classes, and level caps. It’s a strict format that allows the player to define a character’s attributes and skills within a specific direction until that cap has been reached. However, what Dragon’s Dogma does differently is introduce an almost unreachable level cap of 200, as well as allowing players to change their own vocation at will. Ultimately, each of the vocations play out very differently in combat, as well as requiring their own specialised armor and weapons. Additionally, switching between vocations allows you to focus on specific attributes, whilst building a collection of core skills that can carry over into your favourite character class. It’s different, but it also works incredibly well.
Unpolished is the best way we would describe the game’s presentation as it has the potential to look absolutely incredible at one moment, and then remarkably average in the next. Clearly, we need to take into account the size of the world, and with all things being said, it generally performs quite well considering the scope. However, the menu system is too clunky, quests can be unclear at times, and we just feel a little more polish could have really taken the experience up a notch. Of course, just like with so many other JRPG’s it’s hard to fault the music design, and Dragon’s Dogma provides a captivating score of its own. However, we can’t say much for the dialogue or the voice performances that accompany them, but that’s not uncommon in foreign games, and the option for the original Japanese track is available in this expansion. To put it simply, there is still a lot of unrealised potential.
Dragon’s Dogma is a game that feels so familiar, and yet it’s also like nothing we’ve ever played before. Sure, it lacks a bit of polish, but with some fine tuning this new franchise has the potential to really go somewhere. If anything, it reminds us very much of Demon’s Souls, which was also subject to it’s fair share of criticism when it first released, and we all know how that went on to achieve critical acclaim in the form of Dark Souls. The changes that were applied to the core game in the Dark Arisen expansion honestly make such a crucial difference, and it’s a clear indication that Capcom is actually trying to make an effort with this series. It still has a long way to go, but instead of focusing on some truly major issues in the game, we can now recognise a fantastic route for potential.
Honestly, we can’t really say that the content of the Bitterblack Isles truly builds upon this potential, but we also don’t think it was trying to either. It’s very much what we would call a “Mega Dungeon”, and it feels as if this new content was specifically targeted at those who had put a lot of time into the post-game and were keen to take on new challenges. Of course, it’s not exactly the same as it takes on a much darker tone, and offers a painfully difficult series of trials until you can finally face off against the final boss and discover the mystery behind the Dark Arisen. If you’re like us and are playing from the beginning, be prepared to invest a lot of time if you’re going to have any chance in this place. Ultimately, the Dark Arisen DLC is a rewarding experience, but it really could have been released on its own. It’s clear this re-release was just a strategic way to address a crucial issue in the original game, and we think this was a wise decision. The price is low, and the content is massive. It’s fantastic value!