Modern RPGs: “Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen” (PC)

Capcom‘s fantasy action-RPG Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen might look like another Monster Hunter clone, but it offers much more original ideas.

Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (PC)
(Japan 2016/2017, developer/publisher: Capcom, platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One)

After a dragon attacks the village of Cassardis and rip’s one of the inhabitants heart out who tries to fight it, but he/she is resurrected as an Arisen who travels the world of Gransys to take it back and destroy the dragon tyrannizing the world once and for all.

Epic Japanese-style
Japanese games tend to exaggerate quite a bit with their melodrama and convoluted storylines. While Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t feature the most complicated plot or deep characters, it certainly has all these Eastern elements that make it unintentionally funny at times. This is too bad, because there’s a lot to like about the world and people one meets. Without taking too much away, the game’s story starts to be epic in scope and has more than its fair share of political intrigue and emotional scenes, but it’s not really on par with Baldur’s Gate, The Witcher or other classic and modern examples of RPGs in terms of subtlety or memorability. This doesn’t mean that the NPCs and their stories are boring. Far from it, because the world Gransys is a living and breathing medieval fantasy world that feels as real as it can be.

A world and its people worth saving
Giant castles and fortresses, towns and villages that are populated by people going their daily business, but also providing the player with quests, items, or simply information are common in fantasy RPGs, and while Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t do anything particularly original with these, one still feels a real emotional connected with it. Outside of the populated areas, there are wide open spaces, deep caves, and whatever else one expects from the genre. Traveling from one place to another can take up a lot of time and depending on day or night time it can also mean a quick death with more powerful foes attacking. Despite later being able to teleport to a limited number of locations one can set, the only way to get from one point to the next is by walking or running as far as stamina or the weight of the inventory allows. Especially the latter can be a huge hindrance at times, and one will spend quite a lot of time to deposit stuff at an inn, even if it means going back again because one needs certain items for crafting weapons, potions or for numerous quests. However, being forced to take these long journeys adds to the classic high fantasy atmosphere, as it gives the player plenty of opportunities to explore, discover, and also fight.

Slash and dice with some magic and big beasties to take on
The fighting mechanics work like in a hack-and-slash action game and are a lot of fun, especially when going against big beasts and monsters that don’t only require fast reflexes, but also endurance and strategy. Climbing on top of a monster that is a mix of lion, goat, and snake with individual spell powers is as much a sight to behold as cutting off the heads of a hydra or even fighting a griffin in the sky. In addition to having good reflexes, being well equipped with weapons, armors, and items, while perusing some good spells depending on one’s profession, it’s also essential to have a deep understanding of the classes/vocation and pawn systems that offer a tremendous amount of customization options.

Choose your classes and augments wisely, whenever and however you want
Unlike in many RPGs in which one levels up in a specific class, like fighter or mage, one can switch between so-called vocations. There are basic ones, like Fighter, Strider, and Mage, advanced versions like Warrior, Ranger and Sorcerer, and Hybrid vocations like Mystic Knight, Assassin, and Magick Archer. One can go up in character as well as vocation level, and depending on one’s current class, certain stats are automatically increased, e.g. more strength and hit points for a fighter/warrior, more magic for a mage or more stamina and dexterity for a ranger. So it’s perfectly okay to make one’s character stronger with one vocation as a basis and then decide where to go next. There are few games that motivate the player to try each class like this, because all of them bring additional fighting techniques and, more importantly, augments with them that can be carried across each class.

Augments are special bonuses that help to build very unique characters. With seven augments per vocation that are slowly unlocked with each new vocation level (which is different and works independetly from the player level), there is an overwhelming amount of options available to the player. More stamina helps the character to cover greater distances or hold on to enemies longer without running out of breath. More strength enables him/her to carry more objects at a time. These are just a few but essential augments worth investing in. Of course there are only a limited number of slots, so one has to decide which are the most relevant bonuses.

Don’t pawn your pawn, but take good care of him/her
The pawn system is another very important part of the game, as one usually travels in groups of up to three companions. These aren’t simply for taking the heat in battles and serving as cannon fodder (although the A.I. isn’t the brightest), but they’re quite helpful with other things as well. The interesting thing is that one has to choose a specific pawn for oneself which can be leveled up with all the vocation and player level-specific attributes as well.

There’s also a very unique online system at work that makes it possible to choose other players’ pawns in a lobby. Having them on one’s travels makes them learn about enemies and areas. If one decides to part with them later, they keep their knowledge and the next time the player the pawn belongs to sleeps at an inn, this knowledge is downloaded from the internet server and one’s pawn can comment on all these things in the other one’s game. Of course the same applies to one’s own pawn when he/she returns from another player’s travels. So equipping him/her with some good gear and leveling him/her up makes sense in order that people are interested in taking him/her with them and maybe even part with some of their gear or an item. It’s a very rewarding system and it works quite well, as there are always enough pawns to choose from. However, selecting one of a higher level requires the use of certain rift stones that can be gained by slaying monsters. Opting for the same level or lower level pawns doesn’t require these, though.

Pawns can be quite helpful by distracting enemies, sometimes even defeating them, but they can also gather all sorts of treasure and crafting items in the environment. However, it’s not all fun and games with them, as despite the companionship one feels when wandering through the world, the incessant talking and commenting on everything can become quite annoying and repetitive, even if it’s quite nice to learn something about a certain landmark or be given advice on a certain quest. The only way to turn this off is if the other player or one’s own is trained to act more appropriately. This is done in an inn where one sits down with the pawn and goes through straightforward or more obscure psychological questions to influence him/her on future behavior.

Quests, quests, quest, wherever you go
An RPG wouldn’t be an RPG if it didn’t have many quests on offer and decisions that matter. Dragon’s Dogma has plenty of both with various degrees of success. Except for the main storyline that can seem to play second fiddle to what optional tasks one can do, there are so many quests to do that it’s difficult to find them all. It’s very easy to miss some or fail them due to time-critical sequences or how far one has progressed in the game, too. As some important quest givers can also die, one will have a hard time to complete everything without using a walkthrough that warns about this, like this excellent guide. Because there are many ways to tackle a mission and different outcomes depending on one’s choices, it’s often not clear which repercussions this has.

Decisions matter, consequences are uncertain
Making choices is one of the most important aspects of the game, and while there is an intricate system at work that makes certain people more friendly, indifferent, or enemies to one’s character, it’s often very difficult to see the outcome. For example, as in most modern RPGs, there is a romance between the hero and some of the NPCs, but how their relationship grows is never explained and only revealed in the last part of the game when it doesn’t even make much sense. Despite these narrative inconsistencies, one still feels to have an impact on people’s individual lives and one feels more sympathy or the reverse for them than for the hero himself who remains rather uninteresting throughout the story.

The quests are varied and even if there are more fetch quests, these can lead to more interesting revelations that are only hinted at during a playthrough of the main storyline, so it’s worth completing all of them, not just because of leveling up and receiving good gear or items, but because they’re simply well-designed and a lot of fun. Learning more about the characters and the world is also a big incentive to go through them, because the decisions have consequences and one feels more connected to each area because of them. As there’s also a lot of traveling going on, it makes sense to look out for more opportunities to complete quests. However, the descriptions aren’t always clear and one will wander around for quite some time without knowing where to go or what to do.

Traveling and escorting
Speaking of wandering around, there are many bounty hunter and escort missions found on boards in encampments, towns, and cities. While the former usually involves slaying a certain number of specific enemies, the latter is about going from one place to another while protecting a certain person. This is easier said than done, because as the A.I. isn’t the greatest and one usually travels a very long distance, coming across powerful enemies can already result in instant failure. This can be rectified by setting portstones from which one can travel from one end of the world to another with ferrystones, but as one has a small number of portstones, it doesn’t always work. The escort missions also don’t add much variety and the rewards are usually not worth the trouble or risk.

Expect to die… a lot
The game is certainly no walk in the park, as the difficulty can be very punishing at times, either because one isn’t prepared with the right gear, vocation, or party members (who seem to constantly die and have to be helped more than they help the player), or because the camera swirls wildly around and one is attacked from all sides or simply hit again and again without being able to retaliate, evade, or run away, something that can happen quite frequently. Those who want to attempt to go to the Bitterblack Island made accessible right at the beginning and being part of the Dark Arisen DLC will do well to first complete the game at least once, as one will die again and again without having a chance to survive. It should also be noted that one isn’t informed well enough at first that there is some really good equipment waiting in the inn (including an eternal ferrystone that makes traveling so much easier later on) that is enough to prevent some untimely deaths in the harsh first hours.

An old game in a more modern light and sound
The PC version of the game still looks surprisingly good despite its original 2013 console version that was released on Xbox 360 and PS3. Even if the character models and especially the facial expressions leave much to be desired and not all the textures indoors or outside look great, the open spaces are impressive to behold, as one can see far into the distance and actually go almost everywhere. The bright sun or the dark shadows in caves that are only illuminated by candle or torchlight also add to the strong fantasy atmosphere. Some of the larger enemies are actually pretty detailed and intimidating to look at, while the cinematic cutscenes, some CGI and some with in-game graphics, are also very well edited.

The voice acting is quite good, but not perfect, mainly because of the script and Japanese overacting of the characters themselves, so there’s a lot of melodrama. The same could be said for the soundtrack, but this would do it a disservice, as it’s quite a beautiful accompaniment to the more serene walks through the fantasy world or a motivating warcry for the battles. Being a mix of instrumental and choir music, it’s again very Japanese, but still nice for Western ears to listen to as well.

Not a timeless classic, but still a very unique and fun RPG
Dragon’s Dogma is a very long game with its 60 hours on the first playthrough, adding even more playtime with the DLC and a new game+. While its story and main character aren’t anything to write home about, the sidequests, decision-making, believable world and especially big beasts to slay are enough reason to return to it again and again. Even more interesting is the pawn and classes system that make it quite unique in the genre, offering all kinds of varied gameplay styles. As it is, it’s a great action-RPG that is as much fun as more well-known titles of the genre and definitely deserves a sequel.

Score: 8.5/10

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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