Emergent gameplay is sort of the forgotten Holy Grail of gaming. The idea of an experience which is a result of player actions, rather than programming, is worth all the graphical fidelity and realistic physics systems in the world. The original Dragon’s Dogma was a veritable smorgasbord of unexpected events and surprising encounters, making it not just a great example of the emergent, but also one of my personal favourite titles of 2012. Now the expansion pack is here as a kind of half-sequel, does Capcom’s foray into open world, action RPGs continue to impress? Short answer: yes, if it was your kind of thing to begin with.
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is, for all intents and purposes, a 1.5 version of Dragon’s Dogma. A Game of the Year box, if you will. The main addition is the titular Dark Arisen expansion, which whisks your character off to Bitterblack Isle and charges you with exploring an all-new dungeon. It’s content that seems perfectly suited to the DLC format, but is strangely unavailable unless you buy this re-release. Also included, however, are a slew of balancing fixes and a HD texture pack which slightly — but noticeably — smartens up the visual fidelity of Gransys.
I won’t delve too deep into the original content in Dragon’s Dogma, as it was all covered in that review. If you haven’t played the game before, the vast green expanses of its open world are an experience rarely matched in gaming. Mounting gigantic monsters and felling them with a flurry of sword strikes or engulfing the hideous beasts in a tornado of flames is remarkably dynamic, particularly compared with the western RPGs the game seeks to partially emulate. While Gransys isn’t the most interesting fantasy environment, and its denizens are more remarkable for their hilarious Ye Olde way of speaking than their personalities, the freedom to clamber from one side of the continent to the other with ever-present danger of ambush, cyclops, wolves, goblins, dragons, lizard men, griffins and that which lurks in the dead of night.
Those who have already bested the heart-stealing dragon may wish to avail themselves immediately of Hard Mode, which was much requested by the hardcore gamers among us, and raises the general difficulty of the game as a whole. There’s also an all new Speedrun Mode, in which saving is disabled and your task is to get to the end as speedily as possible — no mean feat considering the copious amount of walking Dragon’s Dogma forces you to do. The latter strikes me as an odd addition, considering one of the features — or flaws, depending on who you speak to — that makes the game stand out is its stubborn tendency to put the crawl in dungeon crawler, casting off modern ideas about limitless fast travel in favour of epic journeys across country and back again.
Of course, what practiced players are really looking to do is head to Bitterblack Isle for all that new dungeon smell. If you carry over your Arisen from the original game you can keep all your level progress and equipment, but even with a new character it isn’t long before you can head to the spooky island. A lady on the docks in your hometown will take you there under cover of night, and inform you that something resembling a plot requires you to fight your way to the bottom of an enormous catacomb.
How you experience what lies within depends strongly on the state of your character. Much like the rest of the game, going into the darkness with a level 50 mage who can decimate dragons with a glance will give you an entirely different experience to that level 15 rookie trying desperately not to get eaten. The former is quite a fun romp, although one slightly marred by repeated dungeon environments and the fact that many of the so-called unique enemies are just fancy reskinnings of familiar foes. The 15-20 hour location will take seasoned players through some fantastic battles, with new spells to learn and new loot to… loot. The bosses hidden in the bowels of the earth are a definite highlight, putting the best aspects of Dragon’s Dogma front and centre — although climbing can still be a frustrating experience.
The other option — which is, in my opinion, the superior choice — is to throw caution to the wind and leap into Bitterblack entirely unprepared. When I took my low-level rogue inside I faced certain death around each and every corner, and, in one case, a very literal, physical manifestation of Death, complete with scythe and robes. The experience was less of a rampage and more of a cautious, fearful and bracing exploration of an unknown location. I failed many, many times, but it felt like the richer journey, harkening back to harsh RPGs of the past.
Recommending Dark Arisen gives me pause. If you didn’t play the original game it is imperative that you give this a try. It’s the definitive version of an amazing action RPG, and a unique gaming adventure. There are some irritating flaws — chatty but useless pawns, tedious travelling, a world that has no interest in interesting you — but they pale in comparison to the joy of traversing the back of a flaming ogre in the dead of night, as your party member yells “Women seem to enrage it!”. On the other hand, Capcom is asking fans of Dragon’s Dogma to pay almost full price for a second copy of the same game, plus extra pieces. You do get a 20 hour dungeon and some extra modes for your trouble, but not allowing people to simply download Dark Arisen as an expansion pack is strange and a little insulting. Still, it’s good fun if you’re not sick of the ever-changing world of Gransys. And we can always hope for a real sequel at some point in the future.
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360