Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen Review
Developer: Capcom / Publisher: Capcom / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, Suggestive Themes, Violence]
I’ve mulled over and over how to tackle Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen. Neglecting artistic concerns, it’s hard to comprehend it just as a product. It’s an expansion, yes, but you can’t buy it as DLC – you have to buy a new disc, which complicates its value proposition. If that weren’t enough, the new Dark Arisen content is plentiful different from the main game that it can’t simply be qualified as “more of the same.” This conflicts with how we typically think of expansion content… but that doesn’t make it bad.
The neatest bottom line I can draw is that Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is a must-play for any action RPG fans that missed its first release in 2012. The situation is trickier for everyone else, and requires more understanding about how Dark Arisen’s content fits in with the first game.
If the original Dragon’s Dogma, with its huge outdoor world, near-comical emergent scenes, and unpredictable difficulty spikes is the Japanese Skyrim, then Dark Arisen is the Japanese Dark Souls. Err… there are issues with that comparison, but hopefully you understand my meaning. Dark Arisen’s new content consists of a single, massive dungeon sprawling beneath Bitterback Isle. This dungeon trades away the idyllic fantasy landscapes of Dragon’s Dogma’s Gransys for enclosed (though varied) environments. As you work your way down, down, down towards… something (goals are vague in that Dark Souls way), you move through sewer tunnels, castle hallways, and pastoral clearings with trees and wildlife with little to no transitions in-between.
The jarring cuts between locales are a probable symptom of Capcom’s rearranging existing assets from Dragon’s Dogma to create new areas, but it creates a beneficial effect: Going from a pitch-black water-filled hallway to a fire-lit stone corridor in an instant is surreal. These transitions make Dark Arisen’s dungeon feel like a warped, stitched-together aberration of reality rather than lazy patchwork of game content. Dark Arisen’s depths are a schizophrenic stretch of Wonderland.
The monsters prowling that Wonderland echo the same shades of content reuse, though less effectively. Many of Dragon’s Dogma’s basic enemies like skeletons and wolves have been scaled up in size and stats, making for boring fights that don’t offer anything new in the way of attack patterns or challenge. Sadly, these make up the majority of Dark Arisen’s “new” bosses, which is a shame considering the handful of actual new enemies are incredible. The most notable is a multi-story demon that looks like God of War’s Hades. It’s the sort of enemy that makes you turn around the instant you see it, convinced that it will kill you, delete your save, and ignite your PlayStation just by looking in your direction.
Dark Arisen’s new item system heaps hours of potential plundering onto the original game along with a subtle hook for microtransactions. Rift crystals are the new de facto currency, now consumed to “decurse” mysterious items you pull from the dungeon (similar to Diablo’s identify feature). You can also now improve items past their levels in the original game, but doing so requires — you guessed it — rift crystals. Even checkpoints must be reassembled by cramming them full of crystals. All of this makes cynical sense once you discover that you can buy packs of rift crystals for small chunks of money. I never ran out of crystals myself, but I can appreciate how devious it would be to have no crystals and a trove of unidentified items, any of which could be The Sword You’re Looking For. The subtle gambling slant is a digital interpretation on the blind box toy craze.
Despite the content re-use, subtle microtransaction hooks, and gnawing similarities to Dark Souls, I still had fun playing the new content. Dragon’s Dogma’s mechanics and combat work well in Dark Arisen’s dungeon setting, regardless of how similar it may be to another game. It plays like Dark Souls at 150% speed and a bit more forgiveness when it comes to combat, which is just fine by me.
But there are ways in which Dark Arisen’s twists on Dark Souls’ formulas don’t work so well. My biggest gripe is that boss monsters can “move” throughout the dungeon, supposedly attracted by a buildup of corpses from your slain enemies. Regardless of pretense, it just means an impossibly strong boss may drop in on you for no real reason. I guess Capcom was shooting for exciting unpredictability, but in reality a visit from a larger boss just forces you to run from your task at hand while possibly picking off a pawn that wouldn’t get his/her ass in gear. It’s a nuisance; one that adds nothing to the experience. At least it doesn’t happen often.
My other main complaint stems from the dungeon’s organization. While there are some hub areas that reduce the amount of travel time from the dungeon entrance to your deepest traveled point, you’re locked to linear progression through the dungeon. That’s not bad on its own, but if you hit a boss you aren’t a high enough level to tackle, you have no other recourse aside from returning to the main game to grind out some levels. There’s no path but forward; no solution but more levels.
That’s why it’s ideal if you haven’t even touched the original game yet. Dark Arisen’s content is best enjoyed in chunks alongside Dragon’s Dogma’s main quest, both mechanically and thematically. Hopping back and forth between Gransys’ wide-open areas and Bitterback Isle’s thick dungeons makes for an enjoyable, varied, and gameplay-dense experience, provided you haven’t explored every inch of Gransys already. If you have, you can import your existing save from Dragon’s Dogma into Dark Arisen, but Arisen’s dungeon would grate without a vacation in Gransys here and there to punctuate it.
Gamers tend to balk when one series borrows liberally from another. Whether or not you regard the strokes of Souls in Dark Arisen as theft or inspiration doesn’t change the fact that there’s a whole lot of game in Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, and almost all of it is fun. From that perspective, I can almost understand Capcom’s ballsy method of releasing this content as a pack-in with the original game only, but it does complicate who would enjoy this game and why.
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is a great product, objectively speaking, but its worth depends on your circumstances as a player. If you missed out on Dragon’s Dogma the first time around, Dark Arisen is a must-play. Arisen’s content is different from the original game, but in a way that’s additive when combined with the experience. On the other end of the spectrum, dedicated Dogma fans will get their money’s worth thanks to the increased level cap, scads of new items, and new end-game boss encounters. I’m not fooling myself though — if you’re on your third new game+ run, odds are you didn’t wait for this review to buy the game anyway.
If you fall anywhere in the middle — maybe you played Dragon’s Dogma a little and thought it was decent — Dark Arisen isn’t substantive or profound enough to justify its price on its own.
+ Tons of content
+ Dark Arisen’s dungeon is fun and different
— Awkward retail-only release
8.5 / 10