Review: Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen for PC

After a year or so of lavish and enormous open world role-playing games – The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Dragon Age: Inquisition – it’s perhaps a little odd to see a rerelease of a fantasy RPG from 2013: Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen has at long last been ported to PC. It includes the original game, the Dark Arisen expansion content, plus all DLCs and pre-order content ever released.

Dragon’s Dogma has all the trappings of a western RPG: there’s the titular dragon of course, as well as the usual mages, fighters, and archers to fill out your party. But the game was directed by Capcom veteran Hideaki Itsuno, the lead for several of the Devil May Cry titles, and the game bears his virtual fingerprints throughout.

Fans of the original release will be wondering about the quality of this modern port, and I have good news for them: It’s terrific. Gone are the dodgy framerates and juttering issues that plagued the console release (particularly the Xbox 360 version). Draw distances in the game’s overworld have been increased tremendously and I never saw the framerate drop below 60 fps (with vsync enabled – the framerate is uncapped). Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen on PC also supports HD resolutions up to 4K, and drops the letterboxing of the original version.

This is not necessarily an unqualified improvement, however. The Dark Arisen edition of the game came out in 2013, and even then it wasn’t the prettiest duckling in the pond. While the uncapped framerate is welcome, seeing the often muddy textures and low-poly character models of Dragon’s Dogma in high resolutions doesn’t do them many favors.

That’s not to say Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is an ugly game. Designers did a lot with a little, and after the initial realization that I was definitely not playing The Witcher 3 anymore, I settled into the look and feel of the world of Gransys pretty quickly: It felt like watching a familiar old fantasy film.

And familiar is definitely the right word. Dragon’s Dogma’s story is a fairly paint-by-numbers, generic fantasy RPG plot – a dragon appears, signaling the end times, and you bravely run to fight it in the harbor near your fishing village. This doesn’t go well, and the dragon winds up plucking out your heart, marking you as the new “Arisen” who must challenge the dragon and save the world.

Fortunately, Dragon’s Dogma hangs its jaunty hunting hat on its innovative systems and combat. Players choose an initial class (or vocation, as they’re called here) focusing on the standard ranged, melee, or magic specialization. But as the game progresses, you’ll be able to cross-specialize, opening up opportunities to mix fighter and caster specialties, for instance; or developing an archer into a lethal assassin.

In addition to your player character, you also create a main companion, or “Pawn.” In the world of Dragon’s Dogma, pawns exist as a kind of underclass in human society, but will only serve the Arisen. Your main pawn will always accompany you, and you’ll level this character and equip them the same way you do with your Arisen. However, you’ll also be able to bring along two additional pawns, which you’ll recruit either by encountering them in the world, or by finding them in an alternate dimension called the Rift.

Here’s where things get interesting: the pawns you find in the Rift are the main pawns created by other Dragon’s Dogma players. As they travel through the game, these pawns learn things about the areas they’ve visited, monsters they’ve encountered, and even quests other players have taken them on. They’ll offer advice on how to approach situations they’ve already dealt with in other games (they can be annoyingly repetitive, mind you). And your own main pawn, when recruited in another gameworld, will learn from her experiences there as well.

This is helpful, because the land of Gransys is filled with all manner of nasty beasts and baddies to fight, and you learn quickly that running headlong into combat is a bad idea. Different monsters will require different tactics, and having pawns around who know how to handle a particular creature can mean the difference between life and death.

Combat is where the game really shines, and the sheer variety and challenge of the fighting in Dragon’s Dogma is head and shoulders above what you find in, say, The Witcher 3. The Capcom influence here is strong: melee classes can use specials to send goblins soaring like whiffle balls over a neighbor’s fence, while archers and mages can unleash punishing area of effect spells and disables that set up other party members for devastating finishers. Connecting hits feels more like Devil May Cry or Dynasty Warriors, with ever-so-slight pauses as each blow lands home, giving combat an almost Street Fighter feel of meatiness. Your AI-controlled pawns do a fairly good job of working with you, and you can issue basic commands (Go! Come! Help!) via the D-pad. Combat is never as surgically precise as it can be in Dark Souls, nor as demanding as in Monster Hunter, but it manages to evoke both games to great effect.

The best moments are during the battles with Dragon’s Dogma’s array of large creatures. Rather than whacking away at a giant’s ankles, you’re actually able to grab onto the beast and climb it during combat, finding a way up to poke at more sensitive areas, like necks or eyes. Here again I was reminded of fantasy films of decades past: ogres and cyclopes are reminiscent of the stop-motion monsters created by Ray Harryhausen for films like Jason and the Argonauts. Clambering onto a griffon’s back as it takes flight is a thrilling experience, easily topping the samey dragon fights from Skyrim.

But I also found myself fighting the game itself at many points. The menus are clunky, systems for enhancements and training are poorly explained, and the fast travel system is all but unusable until late in the game. All this meant I spent a lot more time sighing and wishing I was fighting some huge monstrosity instead of actually fighting. While checkpoints are used in the game, they’re rare, so it’s wise to save very often – in the one save file you’re given.

These complaints aren’t minor, because together they’ll represent a lot of the time you spend in Dragon’s Dogma. Hiking back and forth across the world map gets pretty old pretty quickly, and realizing you’ve forgotten to save for the last 15 minutes as your party is wiped out can be infuriating.

But there’s something very special here that makes me awfully glad Capcom decided to bring Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen to PC. Exploring the world of Gransys feels exciting and dangerous, the swashbuckling combat never stays on one note for too long, and while the story is riddled with tropes, it’s still fascinating to see a western RPG through Dragon’s Dogma’s eastern lens.

It’s certainly a flawed gem, but it’s definitely a gem. If you missed out on this game when it first appeared, or have been looking for a reason to return for it, now’s a great time to check it out.

Final Verdict

7/10

Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen comes out for PC Friday, January 15, 2016. It was developed and published by Capcom. A review copy was provided by the publisher.