As with other Berserk-inspired games, which include treasures such as Dark Souls and the Drakengard series, Dragon’s Dogma has carved out its own niche. Originally published in 2012, it captured gamers’ attention with its intense combat system and dungeon-diving mechanics. However, an empty-feeling world, grating travel, and fuzzy graphics limited the experience.
In 2013, an expansion was released – Dark Arisen – which capitalised on everything players loved about the game by introducing a huge new area, a sheer gauntlet of tough combat named Bitterblack Isle. Developers realized that the game’s appeal doesn’t come from ‘realistic’ travel around a bland environment, or fetch quests, but in whacking a group of hobgoblins with a greatsword and watching them fly.
Dark Arisen also included a graphical update, plus Japanese options for the dialogue (the latter, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be included in the PC release).
An often understated part of Dragon’s Dogma is the plot. While not as subtle as Dark Souls, it adopts a subversive storytelling that leaves much for the player to work out for themselves. The player character is an inhabitant of Gransys, a small coastal country at threat from monster attack. However, many powerful monsters have vanished since Duke Edmun slayed the Dragon several decades ago. The game starts with the Dragon’s rebirth, the return of monsters, and the player’s grim inauguration as Arisen – one fated to fight the beast.
Standard RPG fare, right? And Dragon’s Dogma goes on to entertain other fantasy clichés, such as dark cults, a princess in distress, barbarian tribes… But something more sinister underlies the story. To go into it would be spoilers, but you trust me, right?
Another one of Dragon’s Dogma’s standout elements is the Pawn system. Pawns are, essentially, your party: NPCs that fight alongside you, allowing you to build up the standard RPG group of fighter-ranger-mage-healer, or experiment with your own combinations. You can design one ‘main Pawn’ of your own, and hire two extras. While connected to the servers, you will hire the main Pawns other players have created, which can be hilarious. Right now, I’m running around with Casca, Shrek, and Dante on my team.
You can hire and fire Pawns as you please, and even give them gifts to take back to their original hosts, with ratings for good performance. This gives the system a kind of social etiquette: while you’ll never see other players directly, you get a sense of struggling together, and helping one-another out.
The combat is, by far, Dragon’s Dogma’s greatest asset. Nail-bitingly tough at times, the game does not spare the unwary player wandering into the hydra’s nest, or sprinting blindly across a bridge where invisible Saurians are basking. But, with experience, the wily gamer will learn to face these threats. You might learn that hydras can regrow their heads, but setting their stumps ablaze will prevent them from doing so. You might discover that Saurians become much easier to stagger after lopping off their tail. Cyclopes are less threatening when you blind them by attacking their eye, while Chimeras stop casting spells when you kill their goat-head.
This learning process applies to your Pawns, which will also experiment with their attacks, and learn to adapt their tactics for particular enemies. It is possible to hire a Pawn that knows how to fight a specific monster, and have it share its knowledge amongst your team. The effect is simple: you have a sense of always progressing, always getting stronger, and learning to negotiate this dangerous world. I believe the Monster Hunter series influenced the developers, as you get better at facing foes independent of your character’s level. So, while grinding is a valid way to advance, skill matters just as much. Owing to the game’s tight controls (it feels good to move around), most players will quickly adapt to the combat.
Another important system is the Vocation tree. You and your main Pawn are able to change class, which effects your abilities and stats as you level up. For example, a high-level Ranger is able to double-jump, and will gain high stamina increases. Changing Vocations will cause you to lose your offensive skills, but you will keep any passive abilities you have gained. Therefore, you could train as a bow-and-dagger-using Ranger, gaining a good amount of stamina, before switching to Warrior for the health and damage bonuses, while keeping the ability to double jump.
In my opinion, there is no best Vocation, as every one is unique and fun. As an Assassin, you can climb on massive opponents and strike their weaknesses (all together now!) for massive damage. As a Warrior, you can charge into the fray with a greatsword, slaughtering groups of foes with every swing, or send even giant enemies flying with charged attacks. Mages and Sorcerers are versatile, able to heal or buff their allies, inflict status ailments on foes, or create blazing firestorms to stagger even the largest of monsters. However, my favourite are the hybrid Vocations: the Magic Archer, which can fire ten bouncing, spell-enhanced arrows at once; or the Mystic Knight, which can summon a magical cannon or enchant its shield to damage attacking enemies.
In short, Dragon’s Dogma lets you find a combination that suits your play-style.
The game suffers from an annoying carry-weight limit, slow walk speed, and a sprint that runs out too quickly, despite being the primary way of crossing the vast world-space. Pawns may become annoying with their constant commentary (‘Wolves hunt in packs!’ ‘Watch out, Arisen!’ ‘This skeleton is skilled indeed!’). If it doesn’t sound too bad, consider that most voices in the game sound like the actors are on helium. There is a way to make your main Pawn shut up (most of the time), but not your hired Pawns.
Overall, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is an intense, fun game with dense but easy-to-learn mechanics, good controls, insanely good combat, and a few annoyances that you miiiiight come to think of as charming. Maybe.