It might sound like blasphemy to some but I missed Dragon’s Dogma not just once, but both times it came around to consoles. The original 2012 release stirred up quite a bit of hype, despite the game’s reported shortcomings, and then again when the Dark Arisen remastered/expanded version dropped in 2013.
Capcom’s wild, ambitious dark fantasy adventure would go on to grow a faithful, dedicated core fanbase who swore to anyone who would listen that the game was one of the best, overlooked titles of all time.
Fortunately, for fools such as myself who missed the game’s initial launch, Capcom is bringing it back one again for a re-release on modern consoles.
I’ve spent the last week exploring its huge open world, slaying beasts and fulfilling my destiny as a dragon hunter on Nintendo’s Switch console and the only question left to answer is this: is the reputation surrounding Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen deserved?
Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen Review
Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen casts you as the titular Arisen, an unfortunate soul who survives a dragon literally ripping out their heart. As an Arisen you are looked upon as a person of mythical importance as destiny casts you as the one who will defeat the dragon. According to legend, the coming of a dragon signifies the end of days and as such everyone in the land of Gransys is very eager to see you fulfil your destiny and slay it.
After a brief introductory mission which serves as the first of the game’s countless tutorials, you’ll be thrown into the current day where you create your very own Arisen. The character customisation has aged about as well as you’d expect for a seven-year-old game but still gives you just enough options to feel like you’ve created your personal vision of an Arisen warrior.
Visual customisation aside you are asked to pick your vocation, options that serve as the game’s classes. Again, a limited range of options doesn’t allow for anything crazy specific but the available fighter, strider and mage classes will feel familiar to anyone who’s played a fantasy RPG. Later in the game, you will be given more vocation options to expand your skill set and further customise your Arisen.
This basic introduction to the world isn’t to say that the game’s plot doesn’t build to some pretty wild revelations and surprising depth. There is much to be said about the third act of Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen but frankly, it is better experienced than told about.
Players who may look at the relatively simplistic early stages of the game’s narrative be assured that investment in this classic fantasy tale is well rewarded.
While the premise of the game is not the most original concept for a fantasy plot, it serves as a terrific launch pad for one of the game’s core conceits. The Pawn system not only provides players with a customisable companion but also serves to lend the game’s narrative, and systems, some extra emotional weight.
The Pawns exist in an ethereal plane where they wait to be summoned by an Arisen to assist in the fight against the dragon. If you’re connected to your gaming network of choice, Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen even allows you to share your Pawns with other Arisen through this magical plane.
Your first Pawn is a premade, lovely young man but after that the game allows you to create your own using the same character creation tools used on your own character. This creation tethers you to your Pawn in a very personal way that many other games struggle to forge between player and companion.
These Pawns are also charmingly written, if a little repetitive, helping you with standard RPG tasks such as collecting loot after a battle and spouting a short quip about how good it is to grab earned bounty.
My Arisen was a young woman mage named Qi’ra and although she could use her staff to blast through even the toughest of foes, I still felt the need for some traditional muscle on my quest. As such, I created Atreides, a brute of a man with flowing brown locks and shirt which always hung open.
I was immediately enamoured with my Pawn and if at any point during combat he found himself in danger I would beeline for him, spurred on by a strong sense of connection and protection.
A whole old world
Once you’ve enlisted the help of the Pawns, and accepted your fate as an Arisen, the game lets you loose in the massive world of Gransys. While the exploration of the map is somewhat hindered by the restrictions of the age of the game the tradeoff is well worth it when you learn how to navigate the dangerous land around you.
Though the environments never rise above your standard fantasy landscapes there is an abundance of little details to appreciate in Gransys.
It helps too that Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen still looks and runs with a crisp smoothness. Early impressions can do it a disservice as the game tends to lean a little too far into a realistic fantasy setting, creating far more washed out brown textures than anyone needs to see, but those little details again elevate the whole experience.
Something as simple as a beautiful sunset or the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the shore do a lot of heavy lifting for the game as even the simplest locations are bolstered by environmental systems.
Civilized areas don’t fare much better in the washed out colour department but precisely designed city streets and explorable homesteads more than make up for it. Gransys capital is a huge, labyrinthian city which houses many stores, quest giving NPCs and even some dark secrets for those willing to venture deeper in.
Smaller villages and other inhabited locations never quite reach the level of complexity of the capital but remain fun places to discover while out on the road.
Attack on Titans
Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen gives players a fantastic degree of freedom when it comes to choosing how you will tackle combat. Though the Arisen and his or her Pawns will only be able to pull from the three base vocations, how you build your own team, and how each Pawn reacts in battle, is entirely up to you.
In my case, Qi’ra would hang back and blast spells from a distance, Atreides would charge in and attack the strongest target while my two archers would flank me and provide cover for us both. It takes some tweaking to find a balance that works for you but once it clicks into place, the game’s combat sings.
This freedom of choice is paired with Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen’s second core conceit, an impressive grappling system. During combat, you will have the opportunity to attempt to restrain smaller enemies and climb onto larger ones to inflict greater damage and allow for attacks of opportunity.
On your basic enemies, this can be a simple, quick exchange but as the opponents, you are attempting to grapple become larger, so too does the difficulty in holding on. These enemies are the highlight of the game’s designs; a remarkable variety of beasts of all sorts will set upon you while exploring.
From the lowliest bandit to the most intimidating monster, Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen boasts some of the best monster design I’ve ever seen in a game.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen’s relationship to difficulty. While the game is extremely generous with its tutorial messages, almost to the point of frustration, once it decides to let go of your hand you are well and truly on your own.
The game’s huge map is littered with dangerous creatures which do not scale to your level, meaning it is very easy to stumble into a combat scenario you’re in no way ready for. This becomes especially worse once night falls on Gransys and a whole new range of monsters begin to prowl.
The game uses its exceptional lighting systems to great effect at night, effectively turning even the safest corners of the map into death traps in which visibility is reduced to a minimum. It’s frightening at times and genuinely ramps up the tension in a fun way, though some will undoubtedly find the difficulty spike quite a hurdle.
Switch It Up
The game also makes use of its autosave system sparingly, meaning that you can easily lose a bulk of progress if you have forgotten to manually save. This, much like the limited character creation, is a system which has unfortunately been carried over wholesale from a previous generation. The gameplay is purposefully unforgiving but the user experience suffers from the lack of modern game design mainstays such as autosaves and fast travel.
This doesn’t break the experience but can lead to a very frustrating learning curve early on.
These gripes with the lack of basic design changes aside, the port of the game onto the Nintendo Switch is impressively smooth. A side by side comparison of the Switch port with it’s PS4 and Xbox One contemporaries reveal only the smallest of changes between them. The Switch port has a slightly lower frame rate and some minor texture downgrades but ultimately Switch owners can rest assured that they are getting a fantastic port.
In addition to the visual clarity, this port also comes with all of the game’s DLC built in from the beginning, making it a great value for money package.
Undocked the game runs just as smoothly, though the audio design suffers somewhat from the Switch’s built-in speakers. While docked, the audio mixing, sound design and music are all impeccable and truly add to the experience but when in handheld mode the mixing becomes uneven. I had to constantly adjust my sound levels when switching between the modes as while I was laying in bed with the game I could barely make out the dialogue and audio cues over the blaring music.
There are small issues peppered throughout the experience thanks to the game’s age but none of them prevents Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen from still achieving glorious highs. Everything about the game is so incredibly extra, undoubtedly due to Capcom alum Hideaki Itsuno’s direction, and this commitment to the extreme’s of fantasy elevate the whole experience.
The pop song that plays over the menu, the wild places the plot takes you, the impressive combat systems, and so many more little flourishes that pair beautifully with fantasy tropes and design choices that take you back to a simpler time.
Even for its time, the game’s visuals weren’t all that amazing but with simplicity comes a greater degree of player projection. While perhaps not as richly detailed as other high fantasy adventures, the bones of Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen are still solid and allow for an almost Dungeons and Dragons type experience with the game.
This is your adventure, your journey as an Arisen, and while it is not free of technical hiccups, the game well and truly earns its reputation as one of the best fantasy games of all time.
Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a digital code provided by Capcom.
Game Title: Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen
Game Description: An epic, high fantasy tale is reborn on the Nintendo Switch for a new generation.
Excellent combat systems - 9/10
Compelling narrative - 9/10
Huge open world - 8/10
Solid port of an older game - 8/10
Dated gameplay systems - 6/10