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‘Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen’ review: Capcom’s almost-sequel explores a deep, dark place

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Dark Arisen is not quite a full-fledged sequel, but it’s far more than the average expansion. The only recent comparable example to Dark Arisen is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim campaign Dragonborn, but even Dragonborn doesn’t fully equate to what Dark Arisen is. This release includes an improved version of the 40+ hour campaign of the original, but adds on Dark Arisen, a vicious adventure that can take more than 20 hours to finish all on its own. What’s more, the package radically improves the fundamental building blocks of Dogma, from nuts and bolts fixes like improved graphics to newly balanced difficulty. It is, for all intents purposes, a whole new game.

A Very Dark Place at the End of the Sea 

The main event in Dark Arisen is a self-contained campaign set on Bitterblack Island, a landmass a rough sail away from Gransys itself. Even new players can tackle the island from the outset, since it opens up almost immediately after the beginning of the original story. Waiting for you in the game’s little fishing village is the ghostly Orla, an amnesiac blonde whose physical body is trapped on the island itself. She asks you to come with her, to free her from the shackles of the island and to silence the tortured voice that calls adventurers to its shores.

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If Bitterblack Island’s story didn’t take place during the events of Dogma’s central tale of the Arisen versus the Dragon, it could have been billed as a sequel for how it riffs on and evolves the game’s formula. Just as Dogma went without a detailed story in favor of personalized exploration, so too does Dark Arisen, inviting you into the grim little spot of the world with only a scant few characters popping up to tell you what’s going on.

Unlike Dogma’s campaign though, which has you wandering far over the Gransys’ peninsula, Arisen sees you going down deep. There are no small dungeons, caves, and castles to explore as you trudge through hills and forests, just a terrifying labyrinth of tombs, prisons, and eerie courtyards. Bitterblack opens up after a few hours of diving in, though it’s linear at first with one wing yielding up the keys to another. After diving down once, you and your crew of soldiers can use a special stone to warp back to the entrance. It makes for a very different game flow than the regular campaign, bringing it more in line with From Software’s Dark Souls than its previous incarnation, thanks to the feeling of venturing out and slowly returning to a safe place.

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Even looting takes on a different feel in Arisen. Bitterblack Island is literally haunted by Death. An enormous becloaked, scythe-wielding grim reaper will randomly appear throughout the dungeon with an army of the undead at his side, and even high level characters will have a hell of a time putting him down. Appropriately for the place Death calls home, most of the best weapons and pieces of armor you find on the island are cursed and have to be purified by Orla before they can be used. Purifying in turn requires the use of special crystals rather than cold hard cash. These are the same crystals you use to hire warriors for your four-person party, creating another layer of pressure and difficulty on top of the adventure.

Dark Arisen captures a very different feel to adventure than Dogma. It captures something essential about the old pen-and-paper role-playing games, the primordial fantasy of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, and even the world’s scariest underworld myths. Dogma was an adventure about a countryside, a battle for the fate of the world. Dark Arisen is private and dark, a descent, a welcome inversion of the main game.

More Pragmatic Than Dogmatic

Dogma is still here, however, packaged alongside Dark Arisen and given a second chance to capture people’s hearts and minds now that it’s out of the shadow of Skyrim and Dark Souls. (Both games were released just seven months before Dogma, and high fantasy exhaustion likely limited the appeal of the game last year.) The basics are unchanged. You build a character of your own choosing in one of three classes, eventually opening up to nine different roles with different skills. The hero also controls the Pawns, a mystical race of inhuman people that obey your every command, one of whom you create to be your constant companion (and to send out into other players’ games.) Together you roam the land, taking on quests and climbing over giant monsters to bring them down for profit, glory, and the good of man- and Pawnkind alike.

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It can’t be overstated how much better this version of the game is, though. The HD texture pack makes it more attractive at a superficial level, but it’s the other changes beneath the hood that make all the difference. Since the game has no substantial tutorials, learning the ins and outs of skill building, controlling a party, and even managing your inventory was a chore in the original release. Information was buried between layers of poorly designed menus and long loading times. The menu systems have been streamlined perfectly here – just being able to access equipment and items with one click makes a huge difference – and loading times have been curbed dramatically. The easy difficulty, which was actually introduced last year as a downloadable, also makes Dogma far more approachable. 

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Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is effectively two different games interlocked with one another, both of which are excellent. Everything that was good about the original release is improved upon here. But there is still a worm in the core of Capcom’s game. The warmest, most exciting parts of playing exist purely in the player’s mind. An unexpected discovery, a hard won victory; it’s a bit like playing Dungeons & Dragons by yourself, with an over-reliance on the player’s imagination. Like the game’s main character, Dragon’s Dogma feels like its missing a heart.

Even if it’s heartless, this is an excellent game (or an excellent set of games as the case may be.) Last year’s Dragon’s Dogma was a near miss. This is that game perfected and more. Now it’s up to Hideaki Itsuno to find the game’s warmth in its follow up.

(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Capcom)