Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is a Western-inspired Japanese action RPG that on the surface appears to be little more than a rather middle of the road game at best. The setting is instantly familiar and tired, with well-trodden dirt paths, castles, and the usual selection of character classes, monsters, and grubby peasants.
That, however, is only part of the story. Below that well-worn surface is a game offering enough new ideas, mechanics, and surprising turns to keep even the most jaded RPG fan keen to see what lies beyond the next rise. The destination may not always be what you would hope, but the journey is often fascinating, and seldom quite what you expect.
For any single player RPG, the story is the skeleton that everything rests on, and sadly what’s here is the weakest skeleton I’ve encountered in an RPG in a very long time. In the opening cutscene, your village is attacked by a dragon, which promptly kills you and devours your heart. You awaken to discover not only are you not dead, but are now the Arisen, and fate has destined you to do great things. World changing things! Things no other can do… you know the rest.
Hardly inspiring stuff despite the obvious desire to make it so, and sadly that holds true for the entire game. Thankfully, once you veer off the beaten path, Dragon’s Dogma will reveal not only many hidden secrets, but a fascinating and wonderfully crafted world that you will want to explore.
The real colour and detail of the world is found by talking to the various characters populating the landscape, many of whom will provide interesting titbits or useful quest information. This is important, because Dragon’s Dogma is not about to hold your hand and lead you to your destination.
So exploration and conversation are vital to completing quests, and unlike many modern RPGs, starting a quest does not mean you’re up to the task of completing it. Rather than being frustrating though, harder quests always feel grounded in the world’s reality, and emphasise your place within it.
The organic expansion of your objectives and the scope of the game is the real strength of the world building. A conversation with any NPC may unlock a quest, or offer up some interesting side venture or even a romantic entanglement. The best part of this is that these things are not signposted in any way, so their discovery feels natural as opposed to reaching point X to talk to NPC Y to unlock objective Z. Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen succeeds where few have; in making a world that feels alive, and your movement through it completely natural.
You do not walk this world alone. You party of up to four will consist of three Pawns: one custom made Pawn of your own design and two recruits. Pawns reside in a realm known as the Rift, and devoid of emotions or a will of their own, they are bound to the Arisen and will follow his or her command without hesitation. Even so, finding that perfect combination of warriors, rogues, and spell weavers to aid you in your quest is vital.
The only real irritation with the Pawns is their lack of distinct personalities, and their all too soon repeated inane commentary as you wander the world. Thankfully this can be turned off, but the lack of interesting party members is something that follows you just as obviously as the Pawns themselves.
While the two recruit Pawns are essentially disposable, your own Pawn remains at your side for the entirety of the adventure, and will level with you and adapt its behaviour based on how you play. This is important, because just as you can recruit Pawns, other players can recruit yours as well, and all custom Pawns can be recruited from within the Rift to join another player’s game.
Recruited Pawns earn experience, knowledge of the world, and loot while in another player’s party, all of which they will bring to realm of that Pawn’s creator. This asynchronous online functionality gives you additional reason to make the strongest and most appealing Pawn you can: you want your Pawn to be hired because not only will it become stronger, but sometimes it will provide your party with something unexpected and uniquely valuable.
You also need to treat your Pawns well, because they will save your life. Combat in Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is fast, brutal, and a lot more tactical than it looks. Knowing when to strike, when to call for aid, and when to rally your party are all equally important, and as a result, combat is seldom predictable and often very rewarding.
Heavy strikes have heft, while fast attacks feel fluid and reactive. Spells explode with elemental destruction, or provide much-needed support when the odds are stacked against you. Grappling and even climbing on top of the more massive foes you encounter opens up more offensive opportunities, and can change the flow of a fight.
It’s not a complex system, but the tight controls and versatility make it an endlessly enjoyable one. You will encounter enemies you cannot beat, but if you earn some experience, grab some better gear, and try a new approach later in the game, your party will be a well-oiled machine of death and gibs.
So the game is pretty damn fine, but how is the PC port? (And this is a port. It is not a remake or a remaster.) Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is the same game and DLC that was released on console four years ago, but thankfully the port here is exceptional.
It's actually one of the best ports of an older title I have ever played, and contains an uncapped frame rate, and all the bells and whistles you would expect. It will run well on most setups, and more powerful rigs can expect 60 or even 100+ frames per second at very high resolutions.
I run the game on an Intel i7 with an NVidia 980Ti, and at max settings in 4K the game hovers at around 90 frames per second. Performance is exceptional, but even at the highest settings there is no hiding that this is a four year old game designed for last generation hardware. Textures are muddy, models are fairly low polygon, and there is significant pop-in in all areas. These are not a massive distraction, but Dark Arisen is definitely a game from the days gone by.
However, I had a blast playing it. It borrows a lot from other games, can be tedious in places, and has an utterly uninspiring story, but when it hits its stride, it’s as good as any RPG available, and even offers up a few new ideas to help distinguish itself from the pack.