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By Robert Ward . April 25, 2013 . 2:00pm
There’s something amiss in Gransys. Murmurs among the villagers of Cassardis have heightened to audible whispers, and it seems that everyone now knows of the mysterious, other-worldly woman who waits on the docks, staring into the abyss of the night-time sea. To the villagers, only darkness lies beyond the waves, and by night, a promise of death rides on the back of chilling breeze blown in from afar. In Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, the true form of this darkness is revealed, and out of the shadows the harrowing underground labyrinth of Bitterlback Isle takes shape.
Needless to say, if you thought that you finished 2012’s Dragon’s Dogma with no stone left unturned, you think again.
Just shy of its one-year anniversary, Capcom has released the bulky Dark Arisen expansion pack together with a new and vastly improved version of the original game. If you’re a Dragon’s Dogma veteran, the purchase will land you some extra goodies—including 100,000 rift crystals, infinite ferrystones, and an apologetic costume set called the Gransys Armor Pack. If that’s not enough to lure in returning players, they’ll also get the meaty 15-30 hour Bitterblack Island campaign, the option to play through the game with Japanese voice acting, an HD texture pack for improved graphics, and a number of new skills and augmentations for your character.
Dragons Dogma: Dark Arisen offers the most, though, to new players.
Dark Arisen is riddled with noticeable changes from the get-go. To compliment the need to switch equipment or use items at a moment’s notice, the menu system has been streamlined and interconnected. Transportation, though still an occasional burden, has been improved by reducing the price of Ferrystones and including new Portcrystals. The HD texture pack not only does away with most of the muddy textures of its predecessor, but also reduces the game’s occasionally frustrating loading times. Don’t get me wrong—you’ll still arrive at shops about 3 or 4 seconds before the clerk does, but that’s certainly better than waiting twice that amount of time. You’re now also able to save quickly and do so at your convenience, so an unexpected death is not likely to merit the same frustrations associated with the game’s autosave system.
The true heart of Dark Arisen, though, is Bitterblack isle, which you can reach by speaking with Orla, the aforementioned specter who looms over the docks of Cassardis. She is the first part of an expectedly weak narrative that plays out as you descend deeper into the island’s deadly collection of dungeons and mazes. You’ll come across corpses shrouded in a dark mist that will trigger some cryptic speech about helplessness from a set of disembodied voices—and you soon find out that discovering what, or who these voices are, is only the first step of unraveling the mysteries of the Bitterblack Isle.
Unforeseeable evils await players in the depths of its gloomy halls, including 25 new (but sometimes disappointingly familiar) enemies who can’t wait to have a chance at tearing you and your pawns apart. These range from small threats like the Pyro-Saurians, which deals fire damage on contact, to heavy hitters like the Prisoner Cyclops, which is covered in untouchable spikes that render it un-scalable. Although these enemies can be tamed with the same strategies used in the main quest, there are some enemies, like Strigoi, that require a less standardized approach. You’ll want to mind your manners around the game’s Eliminators, too, as one devastating blow from their colossal hammer is enough to knock you and your pawns out cold.
If there’s one thing Capcom knows, though, it’s how to give a monster a unique presence. This is exemplified by your encounters with Gazers, which are more or less a cross between a Beamos from The Legend of Zelda and The Imprisoned from Skyward Sword (although in this case, you don’t have any pompadour-donning friends to save the day, and the Gazer’s toes aren’t vulnerable). Taking down a Gazer can be either excruciatingly difficult or surprisingly simple, depending on how you want to go about doing so—and the first encounter you have with one will likely leave a favorable impression of what’s to come.
Another constant presence in Dark Arisen is Death. Not figurative death, either, but the hood-wearing, scythe wielding one that will likely have you peering around every corner before proceeding through parts of the dark labyrinth. Capcom doesn’t try anything risky with his design—and the phantom is about as classic-looking as it gets. The fear comes not in is aesthetics, but his imminence; when he appears, you’ve been sentenced, and you have little time to think before the reaper takes a swing at you with his trademark scythe.
Death doesn’t have many tricks, just a reputation, and all it takes is one misstep or miscalculation to send you and your party of pawns back to the nearest checkpoint. Death makes you think, and the most effective strategy is delightfully metaphorical: keep your distance.
My run-ins with Death were by far the most enjoyable part of Dark Arisen, though most of the showdowns with the island’s more gargantuan foes become disappointingly systematic. Once you learn to keep your distance from death, his attempts at reaping your souls can be laughable. Gazers, whose eye-lasers once created a path of destruction before you, become so familiar that you almost feel pity for them. You know that there’s nothing under metal plates of Living Armor after your first encounter with one, and instead of fearing for your life while you wonder why your daggers aren’t damaging him, you’re sending your mages forth to dissipate the threat while you stand back and take an apathetic swig of harspud milk. If you’re bored with how you go about battling, though, you’ll likely find some solace in looking stylish doing so.
One of the most rewarding aspects of Bitterblack Isle is the assortment of cursed armor and weapons you can find throughout your journey. Many of these pack quite a punch—and you’ll deliver that punch in style. When you find a cursed item, you must bring it back to Orla, who will purify it for a set amount of Rift Crystals. You can also find scrolls that unlock new augmentations that you and your pawns can learn. I can’t say that many of the ones I’ve found have been particularly useful, though – the most recent scroll allows me to use less stamina while carrying a person or an object. Whether or not there’s some strategy that makes that a game-breaking ability, I’m not sure.
It’s difficult to treat Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen as an expansion. Its countless improvements represent Capcom’s attempt to breathe life back into an existing game. Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is more of a second chance than an expansion, and though it may not be worth the investment for veteran players, it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re new to the series. This is how Dragon’s Dogma was supposed to be played.
Food for Thought:
1. There is only one thing I was disheartened by in Dark Arisen, and it was the removal of the B’z from the start up menu. Instead, you’re treated to…the Last Story title theme? Maybe it’s just me, but the similarities were uncanny. If I’m hunting dragons, though, I want my musical backdrop to be the hypnotic vocals of Koshi Inaba.
2. Dragons Dogma is not a game for the impatient. Traveling is still a huge, huge hassle—and if you forget to put a portcrystal on some distant stadium like, say, Bluemoon Tower? Have fun making the two-hour trek back to its top.
3. Dragon’s Dogma throws quests at you left and right, and you have the chance to fail them and lose them forever. Also, it’s almost impossible to discern what’s a main story quest and what’s a side quest—you have virtually zero guidance.
4. Don’t expect to enter Bitterblack Isle until you are at least level 30 and have some solid equipment and well-developed pawns. As I said, the enemies here rely more on difficulty than diverse tactics, and it’s better to be prepared than to be flashy.