Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
I remember seeing Dragon’s Dogma back when it was released and being drawn to its matter-of-fact fantasy style. It eventually got modest sales and reviews, then was mostly buried with only a few fervorous fans left, adding to its mystique. Going in as reasonably blind as I can, I set out to test whether Dark Arisen, its expanded re-release, is as overlooked as it always seemed to me.
One and a Half Hours In:
It all starts with an elongated opening, very reminiscent of Vagrant Story: gritty and fiery medieval ruins hosting protracted battles, fought by fashionable warriors exchanging posh, archaic words.
I am the Arisen, once a fisherman from the village of Cassardis whose heart was literally stolen by the dragon Grigori and is now the only person capable of bringing him down, with some help from magically appointed AI companions called ‘pawns’. During the character creation screen, I noticed the standard height was quite tall for the old-time peasant you supposedly are; it turns out that this stature is enough to tower over most of your fellow townspeople and to a lesser extent the capital’s people – heroic proportions – if you will. The creator is more suited to making larger than life figures, not so much the weird little caricatures I tend to go for in games like these, but I did manage to conceive Erdna, a tough and spunky goblin, as my permanent pawn.
Two Hours In:
In the time it takes to comfortably finish Capcom’s own D&D beat 'em ups, is when Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen starts. Initially it lulls you into a tedium: one moment you’re killing tiny rabbits on your own, and then not half an hour later you’re facing massive mythical monsters. Still euphoric from the monotony-shattering encounters, I wander into a gloomy cave off the beaten path and receive my first death in a matter of seconds. This unceremonious experience taught me two things, that lantern management is an essential skill and that the game is indifferent to where you choose to go, for better and worse. Unlike the constantly windswept vegetation, the passage of time is very gentle, it’s night before I realise it.
Four Hours In:
A novel escort mission, taking to the capital a head severed from the hydra that kickstarted the plot; starting at dusk was probably not the best option, but it did make for a more exciting journey. Archery is tough, especially against the droves of harpies, the first flying foes and the third from Greek mythology. I reached Gran Soren, seat of Gransys, a coastal duchy. While the creatures can be standard RPG fare and the Cassardian clothes could be a coincidence, the mention of myrmidons and selling of mithridate is to me enough proof to pin Dragon’s Dogma as set in an imaginary amalgamation of ancient and medieval Greece. It’s a very welcome decision, but it did get me wondering as to why antiquity is so underused and commonly relegated to strategy games, maybe it’s the heavy Tolkien influence, maybe it comes from movies, which have a similar genre bias? Maybe I’m straying a bit from the original subject…
Eight Hours In:
The last couple of hours were mostly taken up by questing and dying often, all the while steadily getting a grasp of DD:DA’s multiple systems. Jumping around, chest hunting through the ruined battlements outside of Gran Soren reminded me of Central Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the disposition of the geography, the flow of its traversal and a lesser enemy or two all suggest possible inspirations for that title.
Thirteen Hours In:
The more I play it, the more it comes off as a modern interpretation of 1980s Blobbers, which in turn were much closer to pen and paper RPGs than what the genre had become by 2012. Like those, it takes a lot of guts but it does let you in on more glory too. It’s a special feeling when the normally pretty sporadic score swells up with the stakes of a battle and after several minutes of struggle, rewards your triumph with a bombastic fanfare before fading into post clash chit-chat and the twinkly sounds of collected supplies.
I found out that this version starts the player with an Eternal Ferrystone in their stash. This item enables you to fast travel, and while Capcom didn’t change the description to match its distinction from regular Ferrystones, I assume they implemented it because while flavourful, it probably wasn’t worth the busywork involved.
Fourteen Hours In:
This was almost hour thirteen again, went long without manually saving and didn’t feel like waiting around to die while on a lengthy escorting journey. I froze while getting back to the menu, uncomfortably confident that I’d just lost important progress. As it turns out, the option to restore the latest checkpoint is a bit misleading, as it takes you to where you last slept and you need to access the main menu to come back to the last save on the field, which is normally the most recent one. In their defence, it says so in the explanation for the checkpoint; in mine, inventory and menu navigation takes more inputs than necessary. it can get aggravating in critical situations, and in this case the hurry caused me to see it a fraction of a second too late. Talk of running from fights happens every once in a while and it should always be in the back of a player’s mind, in fact, in addition to worldbuilding, the pawn chatter acts as an organic hint system, and it saved me at least once from wasting more time on a specific unkillable adversary.
Unlike what one might initially expect from its title, spotting a so-called wyrm in DD:DA is in truth an extraordinary occurrence, and for the very first time I happened upon a comparatively small one while roaming the land, although its ruthlessness and level advantage were a bit too evident for me to engage it, especially after the latest odyssey.
Twenty Hours In:
There’s plenty of freedom to go about however you choose. Even though that means you’ll learn some very tough lessons, they’ll at worst come at a deliberate pace. Some highlights from the latest expeditions:
-Cleared a dungeon well before finding its respective quest, then had to haul back a bulky slate from my inventory.
-Soon after, I found my first Portcrystal, heavy items that act as mobile fast travel spots, which given the oddly shaped and largely unexplored territory, currently don’t feel that useful for a first time Arisen, although the concept is promising.
-Since it had been available for a while and I had grown about a dozen levels since, I visited Bitterblack Isle, the only Dark Arisen-exclusive area. Got promptly mauled to death by poisonous wolves in the very first room.
-Had my first ragequit, was slapped by a flailing cyclops near the end of an hour-long mission, fell to my death. Not unlike the previously mentioned old school RPGs, DD has a propensity to heavily punish most amounts of carelessness: another lesson learned.
Twenty-two and a Half Hours In:
Finally set aside some time to experiment with combining; while fairly complex, in the sense that you can turn a lot of items into a lot of other items, it takes very little tinkering to create potions, and the average player probably won’t need much more than that.
Twenty-seven Hours In:
Even though there aren't as many unique locations as similar open world titles, every one important enough to get its own map marker feels distinct. That also got me thinking about how much of the level design is based around chokepoints, no doubt as a measure to save on resources (both in processing and development), but it also acts as a clever excuse to create very tense encounters and enable specific tactics not viable in broader spaces.
In one particularly tight spot, my merry band faced a creature that could very well have been the origin of BotW’s Igneo Talus, a climbable rock giant with sparkly weak points, which trigger a fiery full body explosion after a few too many blows. Soon after, we had a climactic ascent through a crumbling tower with ever diminishing solid ground, paired with an anticlimactic gryphon encounter. While the unexpected aid of a grateful acquaintance did cut the moment short, it revealed to me that some quests can and will directly affect others.
Thirty-three Hours In:
Despite intending not to do it at the start of the game, I decided to change my vocation from Strider to Assassin and Erdna’s to Warrior from Fighter, since levels seem to grow linearly and vocation ranks are tied to player performance, so they tend to increase faster as time goes on. I had my second romp through the Catacombs (most dungeons are used in more than one quest, which unlock shortcuts and alternate paths with each excursion) and made my way through the very Lost Woods-like Witchwood. In between these adventures, I took some errands to try and prove the innocence of a fat cat from the capital. In truth, this and some other episodes have started giving me the impression I’m not being quite a champion of the people, though thankfully my yes-man nature was not enough to hinder justice.
Thirty-four Hours In:
Ever heard that nonsensical factoid about bending over to grab 100 bucks on the ground not being worth a billionaire’s time? It becomes actually true here, the game never stops spawning small bags that are worth just 100 gold even when you’re in the 7 digits and it only feels reasonable if you’re waiting for a round of healing after a skirmish. I know they didn’t need to do that because there’s a subtle rebalancing of enemies and other rewards to keep things engaging – possibly an oversight?
Thirty-six Hours In:
Oddly, it has gotten progressively more enjoyable in the last dozen hours and even a tad easier as time went on, I attribute this partly to my now decent understanding of most mechanics and mostly to DD’s biggest strength, the skillful blending of the (relatively) mundane and the marvellous. Chaos-dunking skeleton mages and witnessing their limbs break off into spinning tops seems like it's going to amuse me for a good while still.
Despite getting better at combat and management, I'm still not confident enough for a “healerless” party, although mages without a focus on healing do feel more viable now.
Forty Hours In:
…and Grigori claims I'm still not strong enough, although my embarrassing performance against a cockatrice not too long before that seems to corroborate the dragon’s opinion."Shall we jump? It might shorten our path, or our lives" is an apparently throwaway comment your pawns might make at the edge of a precipice, but it does become poignant if you, like I did, hear it for the first time after the characters have been through so many adversities.
And now I have access to what looks to be the final boss.
Forty-one Hours In:
I figured I should do a few more pending quests; there’s indication this will be another point of no return. And a tip to prospective heroes: have your lantern lit at all times, I realised it late, but you get oil with such ease that constantly turning it off and on isn’t worth it, and it will alleviate some of the more menial tasks that come with inventory management.
Forty-six Hours In:
After four tries and two hours from first entering the dungeon, the dragon is no more. The first half of the confrontation is all through QTEs and I illogically assumed the curatives scattered around weren’t going to be needed. I do appreciate how your comrades stoically land by your side from the top of the screen at the start of the second phase.
I did quickly get much better at dragon slaying, but there was an uncertainty about his actions that had me constantly adjusting my tactics. In fact, all through the game enemies seemed to do this to some extent, which coupled with nifty touches such as certain foes occasionally rolling on the ground to extinguish their fire lest their posse goes up in flames, gives many encounters a strong sense of dynamism.
Erdna, trusty as usual, bravely sacrificed herself for the cause, and I don't think I'm going to respawn her after that, for role-playing’s sake.
Forty-seven Hours In:
The defeat of the “final” boss doesn’t actually end the game, another feature I believe is underused. I have to go back on my plan of keeping Erdna away, the battles have become too drawn out at this point in the game, a trio is not enough for a reasonable pace.
Forty-nine Hours and Forty-five Minutes In:
I’d been on this particular main quest for hours with very slow progress. With the exception of the grandiose conclusion to Grigori’s saga, the game’s production values and plot appear to have gone through the floor (in more ways than one), it’s the least amount of fun I’ve had with the game. There was some padding in other forms before, but this one is too brazen, so much so that I had to break my vow and look up what I could be doing instead, or at least what followed this part…
There isn’t much after the part I stopped, definitely not enough to justify having Gransys suddenly turn for the worse after the false final boss has been defeated. I am aware there’s an actual final boss, which they decided to keep despite scrapping a fair chunk of the content leading up to it, it’s just that I believe the adventure promised to me is already through. Ultimately, my annoyance comes from being right about my growing concerns over the “rest” of the content, which does put a dent on my overall experience even if I’m free to stop wherever I please.
Dragon’s Dogma is openly incomplete; in a way that’s so evident, it’s hard to believe given its pedigree. The clues are plentiful: a main quest that jumps from one major plot point to another with little breathing room or meat, several allusions to seemingly undiscovered places, people and creatures, important-looking but underused locations and most stunning of all, somehow no artist redrew the map so as to not dedicate the entire left half of its landmass exclusively to teasing players. Did the resources run out and this was their way of sticking it to the suits? I was better off not knowing how much content didn’t make it, although I do have to give credit to the developers for overlooking arguably secondary aspects in favour of keeping the remarkable gameplay mechanics unscathed.
Long before I finished writing this article I knew this wasn’t quite like any other game, but even that’s a bit of an understatement, it astonishes me that such a bold, spartan AAA title like this exists and can be so enjoyable even in a plainly unfinished state, given how risk averse major developers have become since the late 2000s and how underwhelming Capcom’s output was at the time. Worst of all, it came out in a then recently formed post-Skyrim, post-Dark Souls world, which I’m sure earned it many warranted and unwarranted comparisons and most likely less recognition than it deserved (although Aonuma et al. are clearly big fans). Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is roughly 60% of a masterpiece, and you’ll have a blast as long as you enjoy some tough love and don’t mind being reminded of what could have been.
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