Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen Review
When Dragon's Dogma came out last year, I had just finished playing a weeklong marathon session of the underrated Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I had a serious hankering for all things action RPG, and Dragon's Dogma came at just the right time to keep me going. Forty plus hours later, I'd finished the game and moved on. I remember thinking a Dragon's Dogma sequel would be awesome, especially since we'll probably never get to revisit Amalur. Now, just twelve months later, we have one. Sorta. Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen isn't really a sequel; it is more of a 1.5 version of the first game, with tons of new content and fixes to some of the original's most annoying problems. Dark Arisen is the AAA game Dragon's Dogma aspired to be, and I can't think of a single reason not to recommend it to just about anyone.
If you didn't play the original, here's what you need to know. You'll be playing as the Arisen, a blank slate character you create from a limited set of components. Before you get to that, though, you'll get a prequel level that also serves as the game's tutorial, a move that draws you in and explains things at the same time. Anyway, after a quick battle with a chimera, you'll be creating your Arisen for the game ahead. Soon after, a massive dragon rips out your character's heart. Yup, just like that. It becomes your quest to hunt down this dragon and stop it from destroying the world. Boilerplate stuff, aside from the heart thing, but the story has more than a few interesting twists to keep you guessing. And the plot-driven way in which a New Game + is utilized is just plain brilliant. Still, the game becomes more about checking things off your quest list and existing in those smaller plotlines, rather than a rote adherence to the main quest and its characters. If you've ever enjoyed games like this one, you won't be complaining about it; I'm not.
Uh-oh... Quests? Is this another boring, analytical RPG? Not even close. The combat in both the original and this update has more in common with God of War than it does Final Fantasy. All the major fantasy weapon load outs are here - swords, daggers, bows, arrows, staffs, magic, etc. Pick your style and get to work slaying mountains of enemies great and small. This is still an RPG, though; you won't be able to go toe to toe with a level 30 giant at level 8, but a nice balance is struck between agile button pressing and careful character leveling and power distribution. The combat also benefits from the grabbing system, which allows players to latch on to larger monsters and scale them like rock climbing walls at R.E.I. It isn't on a Shadow of the Colossus scale, but it is almost as exhilarating.
The "hook" to Dragon's Dogma, though, is the pawn system. This allows players to create and share online toadies that help do your bidding. These NPCs help out in battle, chatter constantly and greatly aid in pretty much every aspect of the game. The ability to share your specially created pawn, and in turn have others join your game, is cool at first. After a while, though, they become an annoyance. Not everyone will feel this way, but I was MUCH happier in the solitude of Amalur or the worlds in Demon's and Dark Souls. Having the pawns along does make things easier to a degree, but they add a feeling of forced multiplayer I didn't like in the original Dragon's Dogma, and I don't like it in Dark Arisen, either. Did I mention they never stop talking? Like a high-pitched 14-year-old in a Halo: Reach deathmatch, your pawn will say the same stupid stuff, over and over, until you feel like you may just lose it and quit playing altogether. Again, some people will be head over heels in love with all the pawn-building options, but for me it is only a distraction from the parts of the game I actually enjoy.
Since I'm already talking about things that don't sit quite right with me, I may as well put my other extremely minor complaint out there, right? The original Dragon's Dogma featured an opening song, Into Free - Dangan by B'z, that was so bizarre and out of place that it became every bit as memorable as the game's greatest moments. If you haven't heard it, I'm begging you to look it up online; it starts with a slow, game-fitting piano piece but quickly morphs into an 80's hair metal homage. It doesn't fit Dragon's Dogma AT ALL, but it tends to grow on people. It did so on me, so seeing it removed for Dark Arisen was a heartbreaker. Does it make the game any better or worse? Or course not. But to say it will be missed by a large part of the Dragon's Dogma fandom is an understatement. R.I.P., strange Japanese rock theme, R.I.P.
I think it's pretty clear by what I've said thus far that I'm a Dragon's Dogma fan, but I wanted to touch on my favorite aspect of the game. The combat is pretty good, the story has its ups and downs, the pawns can get annoying... What really drew me into this game, and the original before it, is the world itself. From the small village of Cassardis to the capital of Gran Soren, the world of Gransys feels as if it is an actual place, and the tropes of video game confinement rarely hold you back. Instead of single paths and invisible walls, straying too far off course can land you in trouble with enemies you have no way of killing. This really drives you to get stronger, to check out areas you once found unmanageable. Most of the world is accessible right off the bat, but only those who get strong enough will be able to explore it all.
That segues nicely into what has been fixed and/or added to Dark Arisen in the time since the original release. In Dark Arisen, fast travel is now much better implemented, making the world feel both bigger and smaller at the same time. The original game had only a handful of places to which fast travel was an option, and it all depended on the use of a consumable item. No longer. The hubs for fast travel have more than doubled in number, and now it comes free of item use and completely unlimited. It sounds like a minor change on paper, but anyone who spent 15 minutes trudging across uncertain landscape to a destination can tell you how much more playable this makes the game.
In addition to that, Dark Arisen provides the expected new weapons, armor and items you may have thought would be a part of the release, as well as a massive new island to explore and conquer. There is enough new content to add 10-20 hours to an average playthrough, and it is definitely enough to warrant a purchase if you really enjoyed the original. You can even transfer your old character and save file to this new game, a tempting proposition for players who may be interested in the new stuff without wanting to start from scratch. Now if we could only transfer our characters from Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate to the upcoming Monster Hunter 4... It works great it Dark Arisen, Capcom, bring it to your other flagship series as well!
So what's the icing on the cake? Dark Arisen retails for about $20 LESS than the original Dragon's Dogma. So, yeah; you get a bunch more stuff to see and do for about 1/3 less money. That's a damn fine deal if I've ever heard one.
Remember when I said I'd have a hard time finding someone who wouldn't get an easy recommendation on this one? I meant it. The original game was good, not great. Dark Arisen adds content, fixes existing problems and offers a massive world to play in for a bargain basement price. Dark Arisen is a winner. Now if only my pawns would shut the hell up for a minute...
Final Rating: 91%. Dark Arisen is a winner, despite the best efforts of its pawns.