Oh, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen. I want to like you. I really, really do. On paper, I should. On paper you and I should be thick as thieves. So why, please tell me why, I don’t like you?
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is an expanded, budget re-release of the original game which, you might recall, Kotaku’s own Tina Amini gave a no to. I tried my hand at it as well when it came out and found that while I appreciated a lot of the things it was trying to do, and felt that the game really shined at moments, that I agreed with her — it was a buggy, inconsistent and frustrating experience.
Editor's note: For the sake of complete editorial transparency, I should mention the following: I did not finish the original Dragon’s Dogma. This is not a reassessment of that game, as I feel what we have said about that game still fundamentally stands, despite fixes and additional updates. This is a review of the new content in the game - Bitterblack Island - using a review build provided by Capcom with pre-loaded late level save states and characters.
Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen takes the original game — a fantasy romp about a hero whose fate is magically tethered to the dragon that tore out their heart — and adds the dark island of Bitterblack. Accessible only by boat via a mysterious and cryptic woman named Orla, she tasks you with the goal of figuring out exactly what awful, foul thing has possessed this island. She would explain more, but it seems she's come down with a mild case of amnesia. While you're there, there are new bosses and enemies to slay, quests to complete, and high end loot to collect.
With that in mind — does Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen’s new content have enough going for it to validate a total re-release? Is it worth your time? Not totally. First off: there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be DLC and a couple of patches. Aside from the balance and menu tweaks, the Japanese language option and the texture pack, the new content is meant purely for the hardcore — devout fans that have played this game and love it. That they have to re-buy a game they already own to access content that's meant almost exclusively for them seems a tad silly.
To compound matters, the island of Bitterblack is not without it’s flaws. Yes, it’s brutally difficult, and the Demon and Dark Souls nerd in me respects the hell out of that, but it doesn’t feel like an organic kind of difficulty — It feels like they’re just throwing meat and health bars at you to slow you down. Battles with enemies like Death himself (who appears at random and will murder all your pawns in about five seconds) or the packs of giant, carrion wolves that occasionally will spawn out of nowhere after a particularly difficult fight, feel like a cop out. More frequent than not the best solution is just walking past them, into another room. That’s not even me talking — the pawns more or less say it to you a million times.
My encounter with one of the earliest bosses in the new content, dubbed ‘The Gazer’, is a good example of how I feel about Bitterblack. He’s a giant, floating, toothed beholder that I banged my head against over and over trying to defeat in the order the game was telling me to (avoid it’s gaze, knock out it’s tendrils until it exposes it’s eye, wail on it, rinse-repeat). I kept dying and dying, immensely frustrated, until I realized I could just climb on to an invisible wall inside it’s mouth (you know, the one full of rows of razor sharp teeth?), and wail away more or less with impunity while hovering in mid-air inside its clearly horrendous, toothy smile.
The Gazer fight is a perfect metaphor for Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen — strangely balanced, frustratingly padded and begging to be defeated in the glitchiest and most counterintuitive of ways.
It doesn’t help that much of that content is self-cannibalized. You’ll wander down a corridor and into a courtyard, only to realize that you’ve been down that corridor or courtyard twice already, and that it’s simply been copy-pasted with different lighting to pad out the experience. I can think of at least six environments that this happens in.
If the plot was somehow engaging, maybe that would make up for the content’s shortcomings. And it is — for about ten to fifteen minutes near the end. Bitterblack is a tad hands off with the plot until you get to the big bad near the end, and while there is a slight of a payoff, I wish the game had given me more to go on in the preceding 13 hours leading up to it.
It’s a shame because Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen still does things that I adore. In a world full of safe games that hand-hold you all the way through the experience, it doesn’t. When it all works, when everything clicks, felling giant monsters feels empowering and liberating. The main problem is that it doesn’t — it feels watered down and frustrating when it should feel robust and challenging.