It’s the year 2012, successful Kickstarter campaigns all around, the mobile games market is on the rise, and the PS3 and Xbox 360 are slowly winding down to make way for a new generation of consoles. Amid all this, Capcom releases a little game called Dragon’s Dogma. This very game was re-released in enhanced form as Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen in 2013, 2016 and 2017 for various platforms. Now Capcom is about to release the years old RPG once more for the Nintendo Switch, but has it aged like fine wine or is the newest port closer to stale bread?
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is at its core an Action RPG with a bunch of seemingly intricate systems on top, but let’s start at the beginning. After a short prolog, in which you get to know a few of the game’s basic mechanics, you are thrown into the character creation. This in itself isn’t too complicated and if you don’t have the will to spend time here you can nevertheless get a decent looking character quickly thanks to the many presets.
What happens next is a bit more out of the ordinary, as your village gets attacked by a huge dragon. You try to stop it, but similarly to a single ant pitted against a spider in Sim Ant, this is to no avail. The dragon stops you, talks some mad smack and rips out your heart. Our silent protagonist is now heartless, but alive as one of the titular Arisen and connected to the dragon immaterially. Soon you’ll pick one of initially three vocations and are off to your glorious adventure.
A big part of that adventure will be combat, with some elements differentiating it from the standard fantasy, monster slaying fare. Essential to each fight is your positioning and clever use of skills, really lightly reminiscent of World of Warcraft’s combat with a bigger emphasis on action. If you’re a magic user it would be better to keep your distance, so your casts won’t get disrupted.
The vocation system allows you to change your playstyle pretty flexibly, including hybrid classes, yet based around the archetypal choices of fighter, mage, and rogue. Just dabble in what strikes your fancy, as you can always go back without losing progress in each vocation.
The controls are pretty reactive and you can climb ledges, jump around and explore, just be careful of fall damage. The menus are not as much of a chore as in some other games in a similar genre and there are a few handy shortcut combinations for certain functions.
You will however not be alone in your quest. You are soon given the chance to create a so-called Pawn, who will never leave your side. For this one, your options are the same as for your main character in terms of character creation and vocation choice. After a bit of progress in the game, you can change vocations, learn and set new skills and so on. Two more Pawns will join you on your adventure with far fewer options of customization, but the twist is that you can switch them out at Riftstones, a feature which you should make use of more often than not.
There is a community element here, as your Pawns, even your main Pawn, can become part of the team of other players and learn things about the quests and the game world. All this is explained as part of the lore, but like a lot of the story, it doesn’t feel that well thought out. I won’t go into too much detail here for fear of spoiling this now seven-year-old game, but the next few story beats feel a bit disjointed, to say the least, especially if you’ve taken up some side content before continuing on the critical path.
Speaking of side content, there is lots of it. Find a notice board and fill your quest log to your heart’s content, but much of these quests will be in the vain of “Kill 60 undead”. Some NPCs offer more varied assignments but don’t expect The Witcher 3 levels of side missions. In general, some quests will offer you specific map markers to go to, some will only hint to a region and for some, you will have to run around town and actually get some information out of NPCs on your own. As I said earlier, your pawns might even be able to help you out and clue you in if they’ve gained knowledge of a specific quest in another player’s game.
The sheer amount of side quests can feel like a mountain that’s just stacked on top of you and I can see it easily becoming a completionist’s nightmare. As a fair warning, quests can become unavailable through progress in the main story with no chance of going back.
By accomplishing quests and crushing your enemies you gain experience (through which you level up and get more stat points) and Discipline, which you can trade in for new skills and a change in vocation. No skill trees to be found here and all in all a pretty simplistic system, but equipment is another part of the equation. Get dressed up, buy new weapons and fancy jewelry. Still, it’s one of those games where a level up doesn’t feel like a remarkable bit of progress and the same enemies can kick your ass a couple of levels later, equipment is the more important piece of the puzzle in Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen.
Of course, this is a port of game close to a decade old, so how is the performance and the graphical fidelity? The latter definitely feels 2012. Some of the particle effects are pretty nice, but the environments can be barren in some cases and the textures are hard to look at sometimes. For the most part, the performance is fine, on the big screen as well as in handheld mode, but I’ve experienced some stuttering in certain areas.
Unfortunately, the end product has its fair share of problems on top of that. On paper, all of the systems sound great, yet when it all comes together it makes for a frustrating experience, where a part of that problem is that player progression feels stunted. Even in the first few hours, I was destroyed a bunch of times by the trashiest of trash mobs and at times I was punished very hard for exploring just a bit too much of the map off the roads. +
Of course, that might be fine if grinding was more of a viable option of getting better, but this is not the case. A lot of my time with the game was figuring out which quest I can actually tackle next by dying a lot, a process that I found to be the polar opposite of fun.
Don’t get me wrong here, the game tries to hold your hand to a degree with informative load screen messages in the vein of “keep off the roads” or “if the enemy keeps on killing you, maybe find another enemy” but in the end, it felt more patronizing than helpful. Of course, there are games where you have to stick with it a bit to get to the real fun, but this process in itself has been way more fun in even older titles. On top of that, you can feel the age of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, both in gameplay, quality of life features and visuals. Maybe it’s time for a sequel instead of another re-release.