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EGM Review:
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Posted on April 24, 2013 AT 05:14pm

Arise, arise, Riders of Gran Soren!

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, I attended a panel by Dragon’s Dogma director Hideaki Itsuno, where he talked about the origins of the game and its AI-controlled teammates (called Pawns). It was a very interesting 45 or so minutes of presentation, as Itsuno-san discussed how the project was originally referred to as “BBS-RPG,” how “Pawns” started off as “Custom Multiplayer Characters,” and how—at one point—players would find their adventures taking them to the Moon.

At the end of the presentation, Itsuno-san opened the floor to questions. I was the first up to the microphone—or maybe I was the second. I looked across the room, yielded the introductory question to the guy at the other mic who’d gotten up at around the same time as I had, and waited for my turn. When it came, I started off my question with this statement:

“Itsuno-san, I hope this doesn’t hurt your feelings, but while I really liked Dragon’s Dogma, I did not at all like the Pawns.”

Saying directly that you don’t like something is kind of a messy situation in Japan. Typically, you either just lie and say that you do, you avoid having to answer the question, or your response is little more than a simple “Well…”

That was the truth, though: I did not like the Pawn system in Dragon’s Dogma. As engrossed as I became in the world that Capcom’s development team had put together, key elements of my NPC partners drove me crazy to no end. It wasn’t the concept of computer-controlled partners that I had a problem with, as that’s something that I’m actually am a big fan of. I like the feeling that my band of adventurers aren’t just, well, pawns—pawns who have little life beyond those commands that I give them.

No, my problem with Dragon’s Dogma was that I felt it tried too hard to be different and unique in what it did with its Pawns, and in doing so, ended up with characters I could make no emotional connection with. For those not familiar with the original Dragon’s Dogma, when you create your customized characters, you’re also given the ability to craft your personal Pawn—strange beings born of the Rift, living only to serve the Arisen (you). This is a computer-controlled character that will always be with you; he or she will level as you do, learn new skills along with you, be there from the very beginning until the bitter end.

To fill the other two slots of your party, you must continually “borrow” other Pawns, and these on-loan teammates are stuck in time at whatever level and with whatever skills they had when you recruited them. Instead of having a team of characters customized to your particular play-style, you must make do with whichever options are available around your current level—and because you’re continually swapping old Pawns out with higher-level ones, there’s no reason to care about them any more than you would the sword you just picked up or the armor that you’re planning to soon replace.

As I battled through the depths of Bitterblack Isle—the most prominent new chunk of content that’s been integrated into Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen—those bitter feelings I held toward Pawns suddenly came welling back up. With time, I’d forgotten some of my frustrations with this piece of Dragon’s Dogma, and instead only looked back in fondness at everything I’d loved about the experience. Yeah, sure, sometimes Pawns and their existence in the game had rubbed me the wrong way, but really, I’d enjoyed so many other things—including the good times that I’d had battling alongside my otherworldly friends.

But now, as I struggled against what awaited me on this mysterious island I’d never traversed before, I remembered. I remembered that Pawns being disposable can be a pain in the ass when you don’t have a Riftstone convenient for replacing them after they’ve gotten themselves permanently killed. I remembered that having half of your party comprised of characters who you can’t control in specialty and skills can be very annoying when you’re in need of a lean, mean team of individuals who perfectly complement one another. And I remembered that, while normally the AI for your Pawns can be pretty darn good, when they fail, they can fail to epic proportions.

Speaking of that, let me present to you a reenactment of one of the turns that I took engaging in battle with one of Bitterblack Isle’s deadly bosses.

“All right, team, we’re ready to fight this giant lich dragon thing…again. Let’s keep it together better than we did last time. Deneb, as our main healer and the only Pawn in this group I actually care about, I want you to stay back, keep the heals coming, but also make sure you keep yourself safe. Warrior…whatever your name is…get in there with me and go all-out against this thing. You, Sorcerer, stand back and pummel it with some of them high-powered spells you have in your arsenal. Ready? Let’s go!

“Now, let’s…waitaminute. Why is he suddenly flying around the ceiling and not coming down? He didn’t do this any of the last eight tries we made at him! Come…come down! Seriously, this is stupid! I have no actual way to reach you up there! Sorcerer, use your magic to knock him down! Sorcerer…where are you going? Don’t run over there! Cast spells against him! Warrior, be careful of that red circle on the ground; it means the dragon is going to turn you to stone. And, wait, where’s Deneb? She’s dead?! Oh, my lord. Fine, let me go over and revive her. There, now you’re back, Deneb. Now, please… Deneb, honey, what are you doing? Why are you standing RIGHT NEXT TO THE THING THAT JUST KILLED YOU when you’re trying to heal yourself?! And…Warrior, why are you doing that? You can’t…you can’t hit him like tha… Sorcerer, for f***’s sake, CAST SPELLS AGAINST HIM! And Warrior is… Warrior got turned to stone?! Are you freakin’ kidding me? I gave her items to use to cure herself if that happened, and all she had to do was avoid the BIG RED CIRCLE! And where the hell is Sorcerer?! Wait, Sorcerer isn’t even on my status screen anymore! She’s… OH, MY GOD, DENEB, I JUST REVIVED YOU FOR THE EIGHTH TIME! STOP STANDING NEXT TO THE GIANT POISON-BREATHING DRAGON WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO KEEP YOURSELF FROM DYING AGGGGHHH!”

If money were no object, that would’ve been the point where I picked up the Xbox 360, lofted it over my head, and brought it down to my knee, breaking it in half just as Bane did to Batman.

There were times like these in my return to Gransys, times when the insane difficulty of Bitterblack Isle punched me in the gut with those reminders of how Pawn AI can be drastically stupid, how the inability to properly customize my team is infuriating, or how cheap a giant boss creature with an overinflated amount of lifebars can be when half the time I’m fighting it, I’m also having to basically herd the group of cats the game calls my backup.

There’s something more to Dark Arisen—and Dragon’s Dogma in general—however: better, happier moments, moments when everything did work, moments when my Pawns supported me in the ways that I hoped they would, moments when I once again found myself lost in Gransys’ sprawling meadows or craggy hills. In fact—much to the chagrin of our managing editor, Andrew Fitch—I’d even go so far as to argue that Dragon’s Dogma was one of the most exciting releases of 2012.

What the original game did to make me feel that way is still alive and well in Dark Arisen. It’s the big things, like the game’s outrageously fun battle system, where fighting back a random group of goblins in the ruins of a once-great castle can be as exhilarating as facing off against a gigantic beast of legend. It’s also the smaller things, like taking the time to stop and watch the sun rising from behind the distant horizon, appreciating the work that has gone into not only crafting Gransys on a technical level, but also making sure it feels active and alive.

And that’s why—even as I’m so vocal about and so frustrated with the parts of Dragon’s Dogma that I don’t like—I think you should try Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen. Although, to be honest, I don’t totally understand Capcom’s rationale behind the release. At its core, it’s the original Dragon’s Dogma that we received before, bundled together with the various DLC releases that came out, new refinements and interface updates, the added hardcore-focused Bitterblack Isle content, and other additions or changes, such as new skills, equipment types, and main-world encounter refreshes.

I mean, I do understand Dark Arisen—if viewed as Super Street Fighter IV to Dragon’s Dogma’s Street Fighter IV. For fighting games, that’s a very Capcom thing to do; for an RPG, it’s a somewhat bizarre choice. If you’re an owner of the original Dragon’s Dogma, there’s absolutely no DLC upgrade path present here—if you want the new content and updates, you’re going to have to shell out for the entire release.

That’s a suggestion that it’s hard for me to make. New skills and spells, expanded equipment, the addition of stat-boosting rings, the masochistic pleasures of Bitterblack Isle, they’re all nice to have, especially if you want to give Dragon’s Dogma another runthrough. The problem is, they might not be nice enough to justify the upgrade cost.

Instead, I’d pitch Dark Arisen to those who never played the original. Maybe you missed out on the game the first time around, back when it was an unknown, untested property that cost $60 and which some people—mistakenly—compared to The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim or Dark Souls. Maybe you always meant to get around to picking it up, but you never did. You’ll be getting a bigger, better, and—at times—badder (as in threatening) experience than you would have originally, all for a price that makes taking the chance less of a risk. For you, this release won’t be about bullet points marking off the list of features that separate Dark Arisen from its predecessor—it’ll be about taking in the experience as a whole.

Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen isn’t the full sequel or major makeover that many of us would’ve loved to have seen the game get, but I’m not sure that’s what it was meant to be. Instead, I think this was a way for Capcom to both make a second attempt to introduce their huge new RPG project to the gaming masses, and convince previous purchasers to make an additional investment in the franchise beyond just another DLC pack. In at least one of those two goals, I think their efforts will be a success.

For me, Dark Arisen has been a nice chance to go back and revisit a game I both loved and hated—and it’s been a comforting, compelling, yet also somewhat disappointing and exasperating reunion. From here, I now set my sights on a potential Dragon’s Dogma 2. I’d love to see Capcom make a change to their lofty goals for the Pawn system and just let us have a full team of custom companions. I’d also love the see the development team go back and play Final Fantasy XII again—and hopefully learn the wonders of programmable partner AI.

Developer: Capcom • Publisher: Capcom • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 04.23.2013

The content added to Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen over the original Dragon’s Dogma might not be enough for previous players to be able to justify buying the game for a second time. For those who missed out on Dragon’s Dogma the first time around, however, this is a great way to finally give the game a shot.

The Good A sweeping, epic RPG updated with new content and additional features.
The Bad The concept behind Pawns still hasn’t won me over.
The Ugly The language I’ve used when engaging in some of Bitterblack Isle’s encounters.
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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