(Xbox 360 Review) Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Dragon’s Dogma was one of my favorite titles last year, and as an action-RPG from Capcom, it was one of the most surprising new properties to hit this generation of consoles. In effort to expand the series’ reach, Capcom has released the first official expansion, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen. Unlike most expansions, Dark Arisen contains a host of new material, including enemies, gear, quests, character and Pawn augments, as well as all of the content from the original game, all for the discounted price of $39.99. For new players, Dark Arisen is absolutely worth buying, and I recommend reading my review to get the full details of why it’s such an exciting and enjoyable entry into the genre. This review is for the expansion, and for those who, like myself, have already completed the main quest and are curious as to what this latest adventure has to offer. To get everyone up to speed, I’ll quote my final summary from my initial review (Award, 9/10), and then move on to the new content.

“The story may be generic, the dialog inconsistent to the point of being schizophrenic, and the engine ever teetering on the point of collapse, but the action is phenomenal and the adventure grand. Dragon’s Dogma is for those who want their lanterns to go out when they run under a waterfall, move and fight slower the more gear they carry, and see every long-haul quest as a means to discover what lies ahead. The lack of amenities, the shallow characterizations, and the clunky tech might be tough to overlook, but if you are even remotely interested, I highly suggest checking out Dragon’s Dogma. It’s a quest well worth taking.”

The Xbox 360 version of Dark Arisen comes on two discs, one of which is used solely for installing content. After finishing the installation, which includes a texture pack and Japanese dialog pack (new to Dark Arisen), you can load a save file from the original game or start a new quest as one of several types: Regular, Hard Mode, or Speedrun Mode. The latter two are new, but I went the traditional route and chose to play a new game using a completed save from the original. Because I loaded a save game, I was gifted with 100,000 Rift Crystals, some armor, and an Eternal Ferrystone. Not too shabby.

Initially, it isn’t entirely clear where the new area, Bitterblack Isle, is located. The only documentation included is a paltry on-disc manual that only explains the very basics about the controls, Pawns, and quest system. A late pop-up eventually indicates that a new island has appeared off the coast of the peninsula and that the only way to access it is by going to Cassardis, the protagonist’s hometown, at night and speaking to a mysterious woman named Olra at the town’s wharf. After a brief introduction, she will take the party to the new zone, where a permanent portcrystal is set up to allow for fast travel between the island and the mainland. One of the most common complaints about Dragon’s Dogma was that traveling was difficult and time consuming, and the new portcrystal is one of the means by which the issue is addressed in Dark Arisen. Although the initial blurbs from Capcom about easier travel raised hopes of a more fully realized fast-travel system, a la Skyrim, they were in fact referring to the addition of more permanent portcrystals and the aforementioned bonus Eternal Ferrystone. This is helpful for returning players who didn’t mind hoofing it in the wilds, and goes towards making travel less tedious in general, but I don’t think it goes far enough for those more accustomed to the conveniences offered in Bethesda’s and BioWare’s work. Then again, Dragon’s Dogma is its own beast, for better or for worse. Fortunately, some of Dark Arisen‘s changes are more concretely positive, such as being able to access items from storage while at a vendor rather than having to have them on hand.

The entirety of the new quest takes place on Bitterblack Isle, and most of it within the catacombs that lie beneath. There are moments when the party will need to return to the surface, but that is largely to grab new tasks from one of the job boards and to have Olra ‘purify’ the many cursed items randomly placed throughout the subterranean dungeons. The items that are returned after purification are quite useful, varying from spell scrolls to powerful stat-boosting accessories. Rift Crystals are required for purification, as well as a new level of armor enhancement, and represent an added layer of difficulty for newcomers who weren’t the recipients of the windfall bonus and must budget wisely in order to recruit other players’ high-level pawns. A new skill tier has also been added, and is gradually unlocked as players make their way through the depths. Aside from the occasional trip to Olra, the majority of the player’s time will be spent going ever deeper into an increasingly dangerous world.

One gets a whiff of Dark Souls early on in Dark Arisen. It’s not so influenced that the uniqueness that made Dragon’s Dogma so enjoyable is overcome, but it’s enough to where the expansions feels fresh. Most noticeable is the increased difficulty. Almost immediately upon entering the first courtyard, my party encountered Death. Not death but “Death,” with a capital “D.” The massive reaper tore apart both the trolls rushing forward and my party in a confusing spell that blacked out my screen to near total darkness. About the only thing I could see was my life bar dropping and the occasional spell effect before a sudden and humbling transition to the continue screen. It was a hard, fast lesson as to what Dark Arisen had in store.

In truth, most of the enemies encountered throughout the dungeons are similar to those found on Gransys. The major, very painful differences are that they are now augmented by an elemental immunity or power. The random occurrence of encountering enemies that can cause blindness, set fire to flesh, turn man into stone, drain stamina, or cripple with poison in the original quest is the norm on Bitterblack. There are even massive worms that hide in treasure chests that are capable of swallowing adventurers whole. Throughout the campaign, there will be many expletive-filled encounters that awe as much as they frustrate, from the massive two-story-tall Beholder, the ethereal warlock that summons fire-spewing hellhounds, zombies, to—what else—dragons.

I found some of the encounters to be less well-thought-out than those in the original. In several instances, enemy placement emphasized ramping up the difficulty without concern for playability. This tends to hit full force whenever several enemies attack in quick succession and render the party ailing from everything imaginable, and making out exactly what happened was nearly impossible given the poor illumination; worse, many spell effects only decrease visibility.  The confusion is compounded by the need to wiggle the analog stick or quickly switch through menus to consume and dole out as many potions and foods as necessary to get everyone back into fighting shape. A prime example occurs early on when fighting the fiery wolves that spew large flames that torch your party members, who catches alight and need to drench themselves in water—a scene made even more bewildering by the inevitable hellhounds biting the player’s arm and dragging them along in an analog-wagging attack, over and over. Random problems will crop up during heated encounters from the engine straining to keep up with the action; despite the expansion offering a great opportunity to improve the engine, it is as erratic as ever, offering beautiful vistas and smooth animation one moment and flickering shadows, polygon clipping, and slowdown the next. The sheer bedlam that ensues from combat led to many deaths even before I had a handle as to what was going on. A general rule of thumb for surviving Bitterblack is “level up, stock up.”

Dark Arisen’s positives far outweigh its negatives, however. The combat system is as varied and addictive as ever, and surprisingly, the immensely satisfying feeling of discovery and adventure that was so integral to the original has made its way in full into the catacombs of Bitterblack. There are so many tucked-away passages, accessible from cracks in the wall, doors hidden behind brushes, and as small reachable ledges above sturdy rubble, whose collective exploration leads to no small number of thrills. The discoveries won’t be quite on par with those made on Gransys, but they are impressive in their own right, given how confined many of the areas are within the dungeons. The prospect of rare loot, especially powerful weapons, is a potent impetus to push on, as any means to alleviate the punishing difficulty weighs heavily in favor of taking on the island’s many risks. It’s this marriage of motivation and reward that served the original Dragon’s Dogma so well, and Dark Arisen will hopefully entice a whole new set of adventurers to discover the same for themselves.

Newcomers to the Dragon’s Dogma universe should buy Dark Arisen. The additional skill tiers, gear-enhancing system, enemies, loot, and quests expand an already great game. Veterans, however, should bear in mind that the many technical hiccups from the original are still present, and that several of the enemies they fought so often prior have returned, only reskinned and revamped with status-affecting attacks. My main contention isn’t with enemy variety but with the persistent framerate and polygon issues, as this proved to be a fantastic opportunity to iron out the engine’s remaining wrinkles. That said, the uneven technical performance doesn’t stop Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen from being an incredibly thrilling (and incredibly challenging) adventure.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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