Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review - Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen (PS3, 2013)

Dragon's Dogma, originally released by Capcom in the summer of 2012, marked one of the company's biggest risks of the PS3/360 generation. It was a hugely expensive, ambitious project attempting to blend Japanese and Western RPG sensibilities into a coherent whole that appealed to customers on both sides of the world. It borrows elements from any number of popular games; the open-world exploration is clearly inspired by Western RPGs such as the Elder Scrolls series, combat is hack-and-slash heavy with bits of a very simplified Devil May Cry-style moveset, climbing larger enemies is reminiscent of a small-scale Shadow of the Colossus, and the oppressive atmosphere in dungeons (and the game's title) feels like an attempt at capturing the allure of Demon's/Dark Souls. Dragon's Dogma has a few rough edges, but it's such an exciting, scary, silly experience that I can overlook them and love it for what it is.
A year after release, Dark Arisen, a new edition of the game that added a huge new dungeon and rebalanced its core elements, was released, giving players a definitive edition of the title. In this review, I'll cover both what's present in the original game and what was changed and added for Dark Arisen.
dragons dogma savan chimera

The story begins with the player controlling the knight Savan as he ventures through a cave, recruits buddies, and slays a Chimera. This segment of the game serves as its tutorial, introducing players to the game's combat, its party system, and a variety of monster types. Once the tutorial ends, players are moved decades into the future where they build their own character, a humble nobody hanging out in the fishing town Cassardis. The player's character fights an invasive dragon which then declares your character The Arisen and steals his or her heart out of their chest. Turns out this doesn't do much to slow you down, and you're only out of commission for a short while. Thus begins the quest to hunt the dragon, slay him, and take back your heart. It's a charmingly goofy story that gets much zanier as the game ends, when things take a tone-shift from Dungeons & Dragons style adventuring to a more typical Japanese RPG finale.

There are a lot of undercurrents in the story about rejecting authority, whether it be familial, religious, or monarchical. Your Arisen is chosen by fate to save the world from the dragon, but constantly bucks or helps other buck the authority that surrounds them. There is some subtext to dig through there, but it's not told in a very interesting way, with the game choosing to focus instead on The Power of Will and Love Conquers All messages. Nothing here is new for a Japanese RPG, but seeing it told through the lens of a Western aesthetic is fun.

Players build their Arisen in every way, from gender to height to character class. I actually really like this game's character builder a lot; it's harder to make hilariously ghoulish characters than some games, but it's much, much easier to make nice looking characters than I'm used to. This is a minor point, but it's nice to be able to give characters curly hair that actually looks reasonably real, and not just like a plastic helmet shaped like hair. If you're later unsatisfied with your look, you can visit a barber in Gran Soren, the game's capital city and main quest hub.

Aside from a couple specific bits of armor, your character's gender doesn't matter to the game's plot and your One True Love can end up being almost any major character in the story, regardless of their own gender. This actually feels pretty progressive and not at all sleazy the way the romance scenes feel in, for example, a Bioware game. Romance is a very minor part of the game, and it's possible to make another character fall in love with you without you even wanting them to. This leads to some pretty silly possibilities, such as the town's burly blacksmith falling for you and playing the part of your damsel in distress at the end just because you helped him make some money earlier in the game.
dragons dogma Madeleine
You may play the game in pursuit of Madeleine's hand in marriage...
dragons dogma feste
...and somehow end up with Wario instead.
There are a few different endings to Dragon's Dogma, but most are just exquisitely designed Game Over sequences. They're all worth seeing, and you're given a Retry option afterwards instead of having the game save that as your final destination. There is only one full ending, with dialogue and animations that shift based on who fell in love with you. The outcome of the story is unchangeable, which makes sense in a game about being the Chosen One. You can fight it all you want, but fate grabs you in the end either way.

Gameplay is fun but relies far too heavily on levels and equipment than on reflexes and skill. Those definitely matter a great deal, but no matter how good you are, you're not taking down enemies you can only chip one HP off per hit. Combat is much more fast paced and fluid than most open-world RPGs, but not as skillful or weighty as something more controlled like Dark Souls. For most enemies, you're fine just mashing out your attack skills. Boss and miniboss enemies are more complicated, and can be quite challenging with certain characters builds, but aside from the beginning and end, most enemies you'll encounter in the main quest are just cannon fodder.

Players can initially choose from a small number of classes, but the choice expands as you play and class can be swapped without much cost. Classes specialize in close-quarter melee attacks, magic attacks/enhancement, or ranged fighting with bows. Director Hideaki Itsuno previously directed Devil May Cry 2 through 4, and the impact of those games on Dragon's Dogma's combat shows pretty plainly, from forming new combos by delaying button presses between strings to outright borrowing Dante's Stinger attack for the game's sword-based characters. There's not nearly the amount of depth or complexity found in a Devil May Cry title, but combat is refreshingly fast for an RPG, even when you're just plowing through junk enemies. Magic attacks are big and flashy, which fits Itsuno's style, and I'm glad to say that elemental enhancements are actually extremely critical to the game.
The most interesting  part of the gameplay is the Pawn System. Players build a main Pawn early on who will accompany them through the remainder of the game. Pawns are AI controlled and are unable to use certain classes, but are just as customizable as the player character and are an inseparable part of The Arisen's journey. They're quite talky, and more often than not say completely useless things, but by the end I found their nonsense prattling loveable. 

It's a very fun system that gets better when played online, as players can hire up to two additional Pawns crafted by other players. There's no direct multiplayer component, but being able to journey with characters made by your friends, or seeing some of the weird things strangers build, is a big part of the game's appeal. If you play offline, you can recruit pre-made Pawns, but they're not as interesting or strong. Pawn AI is generally decent, and will follow your example and learn from fighting different types of enemies. My favorite bit of Pawn learning is that if you spend time walking around farms picking up pigs and hurling them around, your Pawns will join in.
Dark Arisen
The Dark Arisen expansion, which was unfortunately sold only as a full, new game purchase and not as a DLC add on for people who owned the original edition, makes changes both large and small.
For a minor change, the J-pop song that accompanied the original game's title screen is gone, replaced with a forgettable but more appropriate vocal song. I know now that it's blasphemous to say this among Dragon's Dogma fans, but I'm glad to see that song go, even if it's replacement isn't stellar.
For a much more important change, travel is no longer an exhausting slog. Teleport items are now both very affordable and easy to find in treasure chests, you can now warp back to both of the game's towns instead of just Gran Soren, and there are at least five portable warp markers that you can find and place anywhere in the world, giving you fast access to almost every important landmark. More can be bought/counterfeited, as well. This does reduce the danger of the world, but at the same time, it makes it so much less repetitive that I can accept that tradeoff. Players who have a save file from the original version receive a warp stone that can be used infinitely.
Dark Arisen includes all DLC released for the original version, including cosmetic options, new armor/weapons, and new notice board quests, most of which amount to "Go here and find a thing" or "Kill X enemies." While you probably won't want to go out of your way to do them, finishing these quests naturally along the way through the main story results in much faster experience growth throughout the first half of the game, which in turn made my character much more well prepared for its final act. It's a nice way to pad out your character's growth curve, and it's always fun to have constant QUEST COMPLETED notifiers pop up. One problem I had with the original game is that its final dungeon felt like I had to grind for levels/equipment in order to succeed, but this time, its difficulty felt more natural while still presenting a challenge due to my stronger character. There have also been some changes to specific skills, some strengthened and others weakened.

 The main addition to the game comes in the form of Bitterblack Island, an area you can access through the docks in Cassardis at any point in the game. This island has its own unique characters, story, and equipment to discover. Also added are Secret Augments, abilities which must be found in the island's dungeon and can then be equipped regardless of character class. There's one that sometimes prevents what would otherwise be one hit kills from taking you out, which is fantastic to have, as many enemies in this new area can potentially one-shot you. Another greatly boosts the speed at which you pick through piles of items. In addition to these new augments, there are also rings that allow your character to use third-tier versions of existing skills, though I didn't find any on my run through Bitterblack.
The new equipment found here generally outclasses whatever you can find on mainland Gransys, so it's worth poking around in early just to see what you find, even if you won't stand a chance in combat until you've plowed through the main story. Most quality items come in the form of cursed mystery items that you can uncurse by spending Rift Crystals, which were fairly useless outside of hiring higher level Pawns in the original game.

Bitterblack Island sheds the bright, colorful world of Gransys for a darker, more lonely world more akin to Demon's/Dark Souls. I totally dig the aesthetic of Bitterblack, but I'm glad the rest of the game is mostly vibrant. The contrast makes Bitterblack feel that much more hopeless, as does its relentless monsters. Most of the creatures here are new, though several are palette swaps of existing enemies. There are four major boss fights, each of which is unique to this area. The final two have unreasonably high HP, making them damage sponge fights that each took me well over a half hour to finish. They're fun, well designed fights but they simply go on far too long.

Along the way, you'll also encounter huge minibosses, some of which are much more deadly than the actual bosses (I still don't know how to deal with Elder Ogres.) Larger enemies are drawn to blood, so if you kill all of the smaller ones in an area you may find yourself randomly summoning something far more threatening. Death himself also stalks Bitterblack, showing up in some very inconvenient places. He leaves after you've fought him for a while, but any damage dealt persists, so taking him down requires many encounters.
 I really love the design of Bitterblack's dungeon. It's huge and terrifying; you could easily spend 20+ hours on this dungeon alone if you intend to do absolutely everything. Completing it once causes its enemies and chests to reset, with stronger enemies replacing previous ones and better items filling those chests. I don't know who in their right mind would take the final boss of this area and say, "Let's make a second version of him that takes even longer to beat," but that's there if you're interested too.

Bitterblack brings back the feelings I had when I first started the original game, before I was strong enough to plow through everything in my path. You absolutely must be smart about when to fight, or you won't survive. There are encounters that will demolish you if you're not strong enough, and avoiding them in order to make progress is often essential to survival. Unfortunately, there are still moments where even if you're good enough to dodge every enemy attack, you're still not going to deal enough damage to win a fight with every enemy unless you have the right levels and gear.

The only things I wish Dark Arisen had done differently is that I wish there were more sidequests added to the mainland beyond "Kill/Find this Thing" and I wish there was a way to sort Pawns by vanilla/Dark Arisen versions. You can recruit allies from the original game, but can't rate or comment on them or gift items, and on top of that, they tend to just have far worse equipment than characters made in Dark Arisen proper. There are already plenty of Pawn filters available, this would have been a simple and obvious one to add. Also, the compression rate for pictures taken with the in-game screenshot button is still terrible.
For players new to the series, there's no reason to buy the original game. Dark Arisen includes everything and more, at a much cheaper price than buying the vanilla version plus its DLC. I still think not offering the Dark Arisen content as DLC at a discount to players who own the original disc was a mistake, and Capcom should have gone the same route the did with Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition, offering both a discounted upgrade DLC and an all-inclusive disc version. Dark Arisen doesn't even have a new Trophy/Achievements list, in spite of having new quests that would work perfectly as such.
Minor issues aside, I had a great time going through the main game multiple times and the new content is exceptionally fun, even if the enemies eventually become exhausting battles of attrition. Dark Arisen learns from some of the design mistakes of the original game and leaves me very excited for the team's next project. As it stands now: It's one of the best action RPGs of its generation.

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