Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen
Playing Time: About 250 hours between the PS3 and PC releases, plus about 100 hours of the original Dragon's Dogma release on PS3
Now, admittedly, the vast majority of my experience with this game comes from about five years ago. I played the shit out of the original Dragon's Dogma after I'd first picked it up, and then I played the shit out of the Dark Arisen rerelease, and I kept going back to it every now and then as something to mess around in when I didn't have another game taking up my focus. When I saw it come up during a sale on GOG.com, I bought it just to show some support for the game, without any real intentions of playing it more (this was influenced by my computer at the time being incapable of running it in any remotely playable capacity). However, I've been getting hyped up about the upcoming release of Monster Hunter World, and this being the closest thing that I own to a Monster Hunter game, I decided to give it a try on PC to see if my memories of the game were accurate.
By and large, they were, and since I've been dedicating most of my video game efforts towards Star Ocean 4 (where I expect to have chaos mode unlocked soon, so that I can finally play it for real), I figured that it'd be fair to go ahead with posting a review for it now.
So, reaching all the way back to the original release of Dragon's Dogma, the game was pushed as some sort of evolutionary step in the action/RPG hybrid genre, because some guys from the Devil May Cry staff also worked on it. As with most cases when it comes to advertising, this turned out to be an example of stretching the truth to its breaking point. Much like I've said for the Souls games, while Dragon's Dogma can be played like a pure action game, it'd be a very gimped version of one, because the game just doesn't give you the tools to play in that way, nor is the AI deep enough to make the experience anything comparable to playing the likes of Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden, or other high caliber action games.
This is fine, because Dragon's Dogma isn't any of those games. Despite the presence of some action game elements, this is an RPG, and it's a pretty good one.
Superfluous cosmetic character generation and somewhat playable introduction notwithstanding, the game pretty much starts out with you picking whether your protagonist will be a fighter, strider (thief), or mage. While you'll be stuck in this for a little bit, it doesn't take long before you're allowed to switch more or less freely between the game's nine vocations (classes). Your vocation does affect your stat gains on leveling, but that's not as significant as the stats that you get from your equipment, so it's not really a problem to switch between vocations as you feel like it. There's a fair bit of variety in the basic play between most of the vocations, though the game can devolve rather quickly into being a matter of either waiting for opportunities to spam your best attacks or just spamming your best attacks and healing through whatever damage you take. It's also a bit mystifying why warriors are so gimped, despite being presented as the advanced version of the fighter vocation. For the record, I did my first playthrough of Dark Arisen as an offline solo warrior, so I've got a pretty good idea of how it works, and even allowing for some problems being because of playing in an atypical way (trust me, needing to kill physical-immune enemies with either grenades or gravity isn't as fun as it sounds, and it sounds pretty fucking lame to begin with), there's really only one viable setup of active skills due to warrior being the only vocation limited to 3 skill slots. But anyway, while there are definite imbalances between the vocations, all of them are reasonably viable, so I can't complain too much about it.
Aside from your protagonist, you also get to make an AI helper called your main pawn, who works the same as your protagonist aside from only having access to six of the vocations. In order to round out your party, you can also hire up to two other pawns, either generated randomly (and thus pretty much universally awful) if you're offline or created as main pawns by other players (and thus only 90% assured of being awful) if you're online. With one special exception, this is basically the extent of the online interaction, so it's actually tolerable. However, it's not just a charity situation. See, the game has two forms of currency: gold and rift crystals. Gold is basically worthless since the game's economy is completely broken (especially in hard mode, where even the lowliest enemies can drop absurd piles of cash). Rift crystals, on the other hand, are given out in ridiculously stingy quantities for finishing quests, in slightly more reasonable quantities for killing enemies in the Bitterblack Isle extra dungeon added in Dark Arisen, and in stupid quantities as a reward for other players hiring your pawn in their games. The thing is that the costs of things paid for with rift crystals are balanced around that last mechanic, so playing offline means that you're going to be hurting for rift crystals all the time (unless you have both the original release and Dark Arisen on console, in which case you get a huge pile of rift crystals for free as some type of loyalty reward). This is a good thing since it actually makes rift crystals feel valuable (and really, when was the last time that any RPG managed to keep its currency meaningful for any length of time?), though I do wish that some of the skin/hair colors weren't locked behind rift crystal purchases.
As the term "pawn" might imply, your AI party members are basically cardboard piles of stats, and the NPCs in the rest of the world aren't much better. Sure, there's a little bit more depth to the characters in Bitterblack Isle, but that's not a high bar to clear. Whether it comes to the main plot or Bitterblack Isle, it's all basically a simplified version of Berserk. It works well enough, and it's kind of cool that the main plot does try to do a little bit of a unique thing after the confrontation with the dragon, but if you're looking for an RPG with a compelling plot, there are several better choices available.
Getting the actual gameplay, it's a good example of a game that doesn't try to do too much. Your protagonist and main pawn can set up to six active skills (unless one of them is a warrior and thus limited to only three) which are determined by your vocation and up to six passive skills that can be used with any vocation. Any hired pawns are stuck with whatever skills they had set up at the time of hiring, and they also don't level with you, which is what's supposed to give you some incentive to keep changing them. Personally, I think this is one of the few games that's more fun to play solo, but that might be because I hate the constant pawn chatter. The PC version actually had an option to silence them (which I'd hope was also patched into the consoles versions after I stopped playing them, but I can't confirm that), but I was so used to playing solo from my time on PS3 that I just kept doing that.
Anyway, you can also learn additional passive upgrades for certain vocations or weapon types. These are things like rolling, alternate attack strings, or parrying with shields. The mobility upgrades are the big ones here, which are what make daggers (for rolls and double-jumps) and staves (for levitation) so damn good, which factors into the vocation imbalances. I would've preferred to have had those upgrades all unlocked by default since I don't think it adds much to the game to have to unlock them, given how trivial it is to grind, but it's not a big deal either way.
As for the game world, it's open world, but not to the degree of games like Morrowind or The Witcher 3, and I mean that in a good way. It's got many of the general open world problems of having tons of pointless shit to do, "special" areas with built-in narratives getting undermined by their items respawning after some time, and so forth, but it's compact enough to not need literally 3-5 minutes of just holding a direction to get between points of interest, sequence breaking is very limited (i.e. aside from a few fetch quests, there really isn't anything that you're likely to short circuit on accident), and there are enough unique dungeons locked behind plot progression that it doesn't have the problem of feeling like there's no point in advancing the main plot. I don't like it, but as far as open world game design goes, it's not completely terrible.
What's great, on the other hand, is Bitterblack Isle. Added in the Dark Arisen expansion, this is basically a huge linear dungeon, with some optional side rooms. There is some self-contained plot there, too, but even Capcom knew that it wasn't important since the main appeal of it is that it's full of unique, stronger enemies (some of which get upgraded further after beating the boss for the first time in order to make it a more interesting trip to go through it all again in order to fight the true boss), including special monsters that spawn after a certain number of kills in the same area (which I thought was a fun mechanic). While it also has plenty of issues (e.g. enemies that are supposed to be threatening which are actually quite easy to get caught up on restrictive geometry so that the only challenge is if you've got the patience to literally spend 45-60 minutes plinking away at them because you're not supposed to be able to fight them with your current equipment), it's the best designed area of the game by far, and the fact that it's so huge works to its advantage in this regard. Incidentally, there are actually only a handful of different room layouts, but they all use different entrance/exit points, so it does a good job of disguising those limitations and keeping things from feeling stale.
In terms of graphics, it's not a bad-looking game by any means, but it's clear that this came out at a time when major developers still paid some attention to gameplay instead of just graphics and branding. I'm sure that there are texture upgrade mods for PC, but I didn't look for any. In any case, the graphics are good enough to do what they need to do. Special mention should be made of the lighting, which is to say that the dark areas of the game are actually pretty fucking dark, so the lantern is useful. It might not sound like it, but this also adds some vocation imbalance in favor of dagger-users, since one of their best skills gives the ability to cancel out of any animation, including the animations for removing/equipping the lantern, which is the only way to refresh it if it gets wet.
There isn't a huge amount of music in the game, but what's there is quite good. Aside from the main title screen music (both versions of which are good, but the original one was the better of the two), it kicks in most notably during fights with bosses and other monstrous enemies, and it tends to do a great job of giving an epic, hot-blooded feel to things. I love that the music actually changes to a more heroic/rousing song when you get certain enemies low on health to further add to the sense that you're doing something cool in taking them down. Of course, the feeling does get undermined somewhat because they'll just respawn after some time, but in the heat of the moment, it's easy to get caught up in feeling like a total badass.
The difficulty of the game is hard to judge, since it depends a lot on how you're playing it. The main game is pretty much a cakewalk in normal mode. Bitterblack Isle is tougher, but since you can put it off for as long as you want, I can't fairly say that it's hard unless you refuse to do any main game content. Hard mode makes enemies do a ton of additional damage and makes your active skills consume much more stamina, which sounds like it should make things harder, but it also scales up your experience gains (and gold, for whatever little that's worth), so you end up leveling much more quickly and thus having an easier time of grinding. In general, I prefer to just play the Bitterblack Isle content on hard mode with fresh characters (since there's also a New Game + feature, which obviously trivializes everything), and even with that, there are a good number of ways to break the game, but at least it puts up some resistance and encourages me to be selective about spending limited resources.
That last part is why my rating isn't higher, by the way. I love playing the game in the way that I like, but that's not really the way that the game is meant to be played, so I'm not going to give it credit for allowing me to make it more fun than it should be. Despite that, though, it's a pretty fun game, which I wouldn't feel any reservations about recommending.
Playing Time: About 250 hours between the PS3 and PC releases, plus about 100 hours of the original Dragon's Dogma release on PS3