Platform: PlayStation 3 (also on Xbox 360)
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
My favorite fantasy game (as well as the one that got played the most) of 2012 was Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma thanks to the level of immersion it offered as a single player experience, the massive land of Gransys and its assorted dangers above and below ground, tons of hidden secrets and unique Pawn system. It was impossible for me to not spend at least two to three hours at a minimum exploring outside the main quest, poking about in areas and often running like hell from some high-level monsters just to beef up my character a few more levels and hire some more powerful pawns just to drop back in and kick that big boss and his minions around. Of course, there was that cranky, level-shifting Ur-Dragon to give me fits a few times until it was able to be defeated multiple times, coughing up some cool treasure, but that’s a book I can write some other time.
Anyway, this year, we get a wonderful expansion, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen that packs in the original game with some nice fixes and an all new massive underground dungeon and rewards geared for high-level players only. Make that high-level players with a ton of patience willing to go through hell before they reach high water, as DD:DA is even more brutal than the original, but in a good way…
While some foolish folk are comparing the game point by point to From Software’s stellar (and COMPLETELY different) Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls or other open-world RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, this is a really lazy way to look at the game and how well it does what it does. Every RPG series doesn’t take place in the same world or play by the same rules, so using one as a barometer for another makes little sense in terms of how to fully enjoy what’s in front of you. It’s like trying to compare an arcade shooter to a 4X strategy game because both have spaceships and aliens. In DD:DA, you need to focus on learning how to kill the monsters it throws at you, not the monsters from another game that may look similar, but take MUCH different techniques to take down.
As an example, those many Chimeras you’ll come across in DD look almost EXACTLY like those in Trinity: Souls of Zill O’ll, Omega Force’s vastly underrated (and yes, more simplistic in terms of gameplay when compared directly to DD and DS), but if you rush in with your party expecting the same type of battle to unfold, you’ll be buried within a few seconds and cursing at the screen until you figure out you need to focus on THIS game and nothing else in order to survive. Granted, this also goes for almost any other game in any other genre, but if you need me to tell you this, you might need a different hobby…
Once that’s clear in your head, things get much more enjoyable, particularly if you’re a veteran DD player getting the cool bonus items and gear for having an old save file. New players have the luxury of freshly exploring the wide world of Gransys from the beginning, but there are ways for them to score those bonus goodies with a little clever thinking and about a half hour or so of playing the game. That said, venturing onto Bitterblack Island before you’re prepared is a very, very bad idea, particularly if you hate dying needlessly at the hands, paws and claws of some VERY pissed off and relentless monsters. The sense of dread you feel as a high-level party is bad enough, particularly when you stumble across the first of many Mimic chests in the dungeon or worse, encounter Death as it patrols about seeking new flesh offerings.
Fear is a key element of the new area and overcoming it as you delve deeper makes for a rewarding feeling. However, it doesn’t last too long, as the game has a way of tempting you into one more floor or entering a hidden area that you may have discovered or missed on a previous venture into the darkness. It’s usually then that your party gets its collective ass handed back and you’ll barely scrape by, low on healing items and perhaps with a few dead pawns to revive. Of course, revenge is the best medicine when that happens and you’ll be back and better prepared for that rematch.
Fate is cruel in this game, but abusing your own stupidity makes for a harder lesson learned. The enemy AI is even more fearsome on Bitterblack and the dungeon below, as each fight tasks your knowledge of the original game’s tactics and skills usage to a great degree. In addition to the best gear, magic or potion-based buffs are even more necessary here, as many enemies are immune or can take quite a bit of punishment from normal and some magically imbued weapons that would easily kill lesser foes and some bosses in Gransys proper.
As with the original game, DD:DA looks and sounds incredible and seems to have gotten a nice visual upgrade overall. New players will take note that Granysys’ bleak open-world landscape comes complete with a day/night cycle, some nice weather effects, gorgeous healing spring spots where deer prance about (ripe for a bit of hunting) and plenty of far more fierce wildlife for you to fight (or get the heck away from). Daytime and nighttime travel are completely different as enemies are stronger when the sun falls and getting caught traveling unprepared or worse, fighting a pack of creatures as the sun dips from the sky can mean a ton of trouble if you’re in the wrong places. The expansion’s much darker tone is reflected as soon as you install it, as it replaces the goofy J-rock main title from the original game with a shorter, more haunting theme that’s much more fitting.
That said, there’s still humor to be found throughout the expansion if you know where to look for or create it. Grabbing a higher leveled pawn or two and tossing them down to fight some enemies to see how they do while you watch or make a break for an exit never gets old, and it’s also pretty amusing to pick off some enemies from afar with spells or ranged gear before they can get too close makes for some satisfying smiles. Of course, new enemies have some nasty tricks of your own, as status effects play a much larger role in incapacitating you and your party members and some bosses have no compunctions about showing up in way too small areas for you to make a valiant escape effort, forcing you to take them on and deal with them quickly or suffer the consequences. In fact, the same “know thy enemy…. and kill it as soon as possible” vibe from the original works here as well, but with a few times as many traps and other hazards.
As before, there’s no co-op online play save for using other players’ pawns and sending yours off to their games for a spell for fun and profit or playing dress-up and show off on the game’s community pages online. I prefer going it alone and not dealing with some of the more, er… unusual elements of people showing off their fetish pawns, but the overall idea of sharing characters and getting treasure once they’re back from their adventures is still cool. As far as value goes, this one’s fantastic considering it delivers a nicely packed and supremely dangerous new area for veterans while offering new players an even bigger game to discover.
Some have complained that this should have been a cheaper add-on with no original DD, but those “some” aren’t that bright, as the old game has gotten some nice fixes and for me, it makes sense to offer this as a retail disc for new players as well as a download for those who just wanted to add on the content digitally. As for the price point, $40 is a solid deal for what you’re getting, but as this is the age of entitlement combined with the age of nearly every publisher asking premiums for their day one digital and retail content, it’s a rock versus hard place situation that forces gamers to choose a side and stick with it. DD:DA is well worth the cost, will give the best players a run for that money and like any great game, will get replayed often as new classes and pawns get experimented with.
For me, the mark of a great game is how well it does at making you feel as if you’re part of its world and DD:DA does that and then some. This one comes highly recommended and it’s pretty clear that Capcom is is going to be taking this onto newer consoles at some point in the future, as they’ve really uncorked a bottle full of ARPG magic that’s bottomless and has potential far beyond what some can see. Grab a copy and see for yourself, but make sure to let friends and family know where you are, as you’re probably not going to surface for some time…