Dark Arisen follows the course set by Dragon's Dogma-a great, atmospheric RPG with a few flaws. If you haven't played the original, the fact that Dark Arisen comes with the original Dragon's Dogma, all its DLC, and a moderately lengthy expansion (in a market otherwise saturated with low-quality DLC) at a discount price makes it a solid purchasing option. If you loved the original... the new content is well worth the investment.
Before I get into the game, I'll talk a bit about the packaging and changes made to the original. First, Dark Arisen comes with two discs-one installs new high resolution textures and a Japanese voice track. The new textures are hardly noticeable on my 1080p 42" HDTV, but cause sometimes significant issues loading NPCs (especially in Gran Soren's busy market.) I have not tried the Japanese voice acting out yet, nor do I really care to... not in a world based so firmly off of medieval Europe (with monsters from Greek mythology thrown in, but in both cases, it's strictly western-looking.)
If you owned the original game, you can import your old save. This creates a copy of the save-but doesn't touch the original. If you put in your old Dragon's Dogma disk, you can still play with your old character. The new character, however, has access to all the new Dark Arisen content, which features the new Bitterblack Isle-the subject of most of this review, but no more of this paragraph. The new DLC content can either be purchased at the Black Cat in Gran Soren... but it's not cheap. To get two of every new piece of equipment it cost me over 20,000,000 gold. Other content comes in the form of quests, on various boards. Even if you had the original game, the new DLC content cost more than twice as much as Dark Arisen, purchased individually. If you bought the old DLC gear... well, then this expansion is something of a slap in the face. Other new stuff has been well publicized-an Eternal Ferrystone (which allows you to fast-travel around the world for free, but only to customized Portcrystal spots) and 100,000 Rift Currency, which allows one to purchase custom gear... which is far less rewarding in Dark Arisen than in the original game. You also get some DLC NPC-based armor for free (Madeline, Julien, Aelinore, Festus, and Nun apparel.)
Going into Dark Arisen, I had a pure-offense level 200 Assassin build (10 levels of Fighter, 190 of Assassin.) I thought I was ready for anything... but, without getting too deep into the mechanics, many power-gamer skills were nerfed. Still, my character was rather potent, so I figured Bitterblack Isle wouldn't be too rough. I felt that way until I ran into my first Elder Ogre, which was able to smack me around for 1800 damage a hit, and took me several minutes to kill. Even if you're fully leveled, Bitterblack Isle is a stiff challenge. Many of the new monsters are palette-swaps of original monsters, or larger versions. Despite they, their ominous surroundings, feral power, aggressive AI, and sinister appearance work well. Some of the redesigns are so drastic, they hardly even feel like the old monsters you're used to fighting. Living Armor, Golden Knights, and Silver Knights hardly even feel like the old Skeleton Lords on which they're based, and the Gazer and Gorecyclops have increased in proportion over their originals so much they can't help but impress. If the game felt like Shadow of the Colossus before, these newer, even more immense foes can't help but heighten the connection. Some foes, however, are just shameless copies with special auras or lighting-Dire Drakes, Dire Wyverns, Dire Wyrms, Dark Bishops, etc.
Bitterblack Isle's content all takes place in a subterranean dungeon, divided into three strata, after the first two of which you'll find a shortcut to the surface. Minor stops exist along the way, where a former Arisen will help you out by providing Inn/Merchant services, such as storing your loot, changing your Vocation, and enhancing your gear. Inventory management has been improved with some better navigation options (the ability to try out gear right from your stash without having to take it into your inventory is a welcome addition.) All in all, you shouldn't ever feel like you're doing a serious grind. Unlike Dark Souls, safety is never too far away. Lifestones exist in great quantity to take you back to the surface should you need respite. If you're going to die, you'll do so in one encounter, not over several. On the other hand, monsters and treasure respawns much more quickly, so back-tracking to get to the surface is likely to be just as perilous (and less rewarding) than soldiering ahead until you reach a shortcut out or your friendly fellow Arisen.
The game starts out fairly easy-Hobgoblins and Wargs (a new wolf creature in between a Direwolf and Hellhound in power) aren't much of a threat. The difficulty picks up satisfyingly a short distance into the dungeon, however. Individually powerful new foes like the Elder Ogre, Living Armor, Cursed Dragon, and Gorecyclops provide thrilling encounters, and Death-cast as the typical tattered-robe wearing wraith with a huge scythe-shows up randomly throughout, adding to the suspense. Death is a multi-stage boss, he kills in one hit, and can put you to sleep with his lantern, but can be driven off with enough damage. He is not invincible, like many reviews have said.
By the time you reach the third strata, however, the difficulty spikes immensely, and unjustifiably. I had my head smashed in by an Eliminator (more as a result of bad play than the difficulty, but it set the stage for what was coming.) In another part of the third strata, I had to fight a huge Elder Ogre and an Eliminator in a cramped dungeon filled with water. Since I play a Ranger (formerly an Assassin, but since the Assassin's skills have been nerfed, the bow power of a Ranger is a welcome improvement) I need to dodge often-I can't block or weather blows. This forces me to drench myself in water, putting out my lantern. Stuck in a cramped, dark tunnel, with two huge, powerful foes capable of killing me in two or three hits was not fun. The next level wasn't any better-in the midst of fighting some undead, three Garm appeared out of nowhere, forcing me to scamper up some rocks and laboriously shoot them to death. It wasn't fun, it just felt cheap. Shortly thereafter a Sorcerer Pawn cast a Maelstrom spell that annihilated my entire party-my Arisen included-in one hit. By comparison, the end boss was fairly easy, but the massive ramp in difficulty was unexpected, not fun, and out of balance with the moderate increase in difficulty from the first to second stratum.
The worst part of Dark Arisen is-as it was with Dragon's Dogma, the AI. Your main character is called an Arisen, which-without going into the story-grants you the loyalty of the Pawn legion, or Myrmidons. They're essentially violent, kleptomaniacal, wonder-struck children who comment on everything you do and everything they see. They also are your partners in adventuring, and the steep difficulty of Dark Arisen (with the nerfing of skills like Autonomy) requires Pawns-at least initially. The confined spaces and ultra-challenging enemies conspire to make your Pawns more annoying than ever. Getting your Pawn to cast an offensive spell on a half-dead suit of Living Armor (at which point being immune to physical damage) is a nightmare. Having your Pawns mindlessly jump off ledges when you run over to loot a chest is aggravating to no end. When Death shows up, you can count on your Pawns to walk casually into his scythe attacks. If you find yourself prey to a monster in a chest (Maneaters), you're better off wiggling the analog stick like crazy and healing with inventory items... your Pawns would rather allow you to get devoured rather than walk over and whack the beast to free you. My greatest joy in Dark Arisen came from becoming so powerful that I could ditch my Pawns again, and rid myself of their incompetence.
There are only a few new augments, most of which are worthless (increasing ballistae reload speed, stamina drain when running, speed walking through water, lantern oil consumption rate, etc.) There are no new Vocations, the level cap hasn't been expanded, which is kind of a downer, if you power-leveled during the first game (like me.) Still, the original Dragon's Dogma was immensely fun, boasting the best combat in any RPG I've played in a long time. Whether you want to play a full archer, a robed mage, a platemail-clad sword-and-shield bearing fighter, a war-hammer wielding warrior, a foe-climbing, weakness exploiting rogue... you can do it, and in most cases, do it well. The variation between the fast-paced, dodge-happy Assassin, the massively powerful Sorcerer, the well-defended Fighter, and the ponderous, slow-swinging, weapon-charging Warrior, or the nimble archer is amazing, and it allows for many viable play styles.
You can level up to level 200, and your stats (Hit Points, Stamina, Magick, Strength, Defense, Magick Defense) raise as you level up-varying depending what your Vocation is each level. This encourages builds that focus on various strengths-Mages will end the game with more Magick, Warriors with more Strength, etc. And mixing Vocations will allow you to create specially-tailored characters to suit whatever your playstyle. Despite the obvious similarity to Final Fantasy Tactics, however, you cannot uber-grind godly jacks-of-all-trades. You cannot reverse the leveling process, so whatever character you make is bound to be locked into a certain role.
Almost as great are the character-customization options. Most RPGers by now are used to the fact that most RPGs only provide you with one body-and allow you to customize the face. Not so in Dragon's Dogma. Whether you want to play a young child, a buxom female, or a massive brute... you can do it. Your height and weight (variable from about four feet tall to seven feet tall, and over 100 kilograms) effect how your get about the world. Taller characters walk faster, use up less Stamina, but regenerate it slower, too. Smaller characters walk slower, use up more Stamina, regenerate it faster, and can fit into small spaces. Your weight also influences how you encumber foes you grapple. The custom options in Dark Arisen include many more hairstyles and colors than found in the vanilla Dragon's Dogma.
The new weapons are satisfyingly powerful, and look fairly cool (subjective, I know.) Improving all your resistances to 100% and becoming 50% resistant in all the elements is great fun, and it's provided me with hours of grinding to score all this new loot. The loot, however, doesn't just come usable out of chests and from the bodies of the slain-most of it has been cursed, which is a just a gimmick to limit the save/load farming that was so useful in the original game. Now you'll instead find 'Bitterblack Armor', 'Bitterblack Weapon', 'Bitterblack Novelty' or Bitterblack Gear', leveled one-to-to three, to denote it's basic quality. To make this new gear usable, you must take it to an NPC outside the dungeon and have her 'purify' it, lifting the curse and allowing you to identify and use said item. This isn't free, however, costing anywhere from a few hundred to nearly 30,000 Rift Currency... which thankfully drops in great quantities throughout the interior of Bitterblack Isle (expect over 100,000 or so for clearing one strata.)
Despite being an excellent RPG with great gameplay, leveling, and customization, it falters in one major area-the story. From the beginning, the game focuses on the Dragon, your antagonist. After a brief but fateful encounter at the beginning of the game, however, you won't see much of the critter. The entirety of Gransys is concerned over the return of the Dragon, and its presence permeates most quests, but the presence of the wyrm itself is strictly limited only to the beginning and end of the game. NPCs are bland, and establish little character. Despite this you'll be forced into a romance, deal with political intrigue, combat a cult, and help out a great deal of characters on various errands. The NPCs that ask you to do these things, however, have very little long-lasting impact, and fail to endear. The romance, however, is the biggest failure for this game. Without spoiling too much, you don't get to choose your partner-but you will have one. This romantic interest isn't chosen by conversations, quests, or design-just an invisible affinity rating. You can give gifts to improve this rating, and some interactions do help (saving the duchess from imprisonment is bound to win her affection, for instance, or letting a she-knight eager to prove herself defend her own honor will increase her disposition), and a rare, one-time gift of a ring will provide a massive boost, but nothing is set in stone. You could easily go through the entire game flirting (and financing) a busty burgeoning merchant, only to end up dating a bland, overly talkative innkeeper or an elitist, shrewish child. Capcom has no mercy.
The first game looked pretty good already, even without the texture pack adding much. Despite this, the game was ridiculed as being fairly bland... or rather, cliche. Personally, I enjoyed the creature design, and the contained area of Gransys made more sense than the unjustifiably rapid climate changes round in Skyrim. The palette employed through most of Dragon's Dogma is green-rather than the typical brown and grey seen in many RPGs and shooters as of late. The verdant meadows and forests are broken up only rarely by dark catacombs, water-filled caves, and mountain rifts. The monsters all look fairly traditional-but in my mind, a well-designed staple beats a crappy novelty any day. The Goblins, Hobgoblins, Saurians (lizardmen), Drakes, undead, Chimeras, Griffins, and Evil Eyes (Beholders) all look spot-on, and if you're like me, you'll appreciate the attention given to cherished monsters. The world is, however, somewhat on the small side, for what aspires to be an open-world game, and there is a fair amount of dead-space. Some of the western areas of the game are never referenced in the story at all, and unless you wander off the beaten path, you'll never bother to see much of Gransys.
The atmosphere of Dark Arisen's Bitterblack Isle, however, is far darker than anything found in the original game, save the Everfall. Green meadows are now joined by dank dungeons, crawling with beasts, and the sometimes gruesome remains of Arisen to dared to tread into the depths before. Unlike previous dungeons, which tended to look incidentally dangerous, Bitterblack's depths aren't just decrepit-some areas look purposefully hostile to explorers. A multi-level cylindrical area connects elevated ramps with rickety wooden bridges, occupied by mages that love to pelt you from the safety of height. Piles of corpses and bones lie stacked nearby, a flowing river of blood drains into the abyss, and wrapped corpses swing at the end of chains. Darkness permeates the entire game, from the abandoned ruins near the entrance to the remains of the city near the end. The mood contrasts well with the lush countryside of the original game, and gives you no false impressions-you're on hostile territory.
The dungeon's appearance is fortified by its design. At any moment Death can pop up (with the somewhat annoying choir that picks up when you encounter him adding to the tension.) Any treasure chest could contain a Maneater-a tentacle monster that dwells in containers, waiting a foolish adventurer. Slay your way through a level, and the festering meat of your slain foes might attract scavengers-who aren't afraid to add you to the menu. The unpredictability of Bitterblack keeps you on your toes-especially when one or two hits can prove fatal.
The sound is also fantastic-particularly the music that plays when you injure one of the game's many gigantic foes. You've never fought a Chimera, Griffin, Cyclops, or Ettin like the ones in Dragon's Dogma. Sound effects are appropriate, and the voices are well-done, even though the NPCs rarely have anything important to say. Even more than the heraldry, the crumbling-yet majestic-stonework around Gran Soren (the capital and one real city in Gransys), the heavily-accented voice overs sell the world you're in, which aspires to medieval Europe. I'd be tempted to rate this category 5/5 for Dark Arisen simply for removing the awful title music that plagued Dragon's Dogma... but I'll practice some restraint.
Reviewer Bias (5/5)
Dragon's Dogma is much of what I had been waiting for in an RPG. A game with good character customization, great action-packed combat that allows for great variability in play-style, and that isn't shy about adding some statistics. We're not that dumb, Bethesda, most gamers won't get scared away by attributes and numbers. The story is a letdown, but the game is just so fun to play, I've been stuck on it for almost a year now. Shadow of Colossus-style boss fights, the gear and stat grinding, the Dark Souls atmosphere of Bitterblack, the beautiful (and sometimes misleading) tranquility of Gransys... I love it all. Dark Arisen adds to the challenge and content of the original game in a meaningful way. If you loved Dragon's Dogma, don't be shy about upgrading to Dark Arisen. If you haven't purchased the original yet... what have you got to wait for? It's easily the best RPG experience of the past year, and at $40, Dark Arisen provides an awful lot of great content.
Overall Score: 4/5
Review By: Nathan Garvin (Haeravon)
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