Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (Switch) Review
This is a review-in-progress due to some online features not being fully functional pre-release. Once we’ve had time to verify these are working as expected the review will be updated as necessary and a final score given.
Every now and then, a game comes along that you just fall in love with. It might not have the visuals or the polish of a big budget game, but it makes up for it with its heart. It brings along a fresh new experience you don’t get anywhere else and just speaks to you in a way that few other games do. Dragon’s Dogma was that for me back in 2012. Since then I’ve replayed it multiple times, bought the expanded Dark Arisen re-release on PS3 and then bought and replayed it some more across other platforms. With its exciting combat and unique take on open world structure, it has held a solid grasp on its position amongst my favourite games of all-time. So, needless to say, I was tripping over myself to play it again on Switch, and found it to be a surprisingly solid port of a game I already loved.
At first glance, Dragon’s Dogma looks like a generic fantasy RPG. With its attempted realistic art style and its lacklustre plot and characters (at least til the endgame, whew) it certainly doesn’t do itself any favours. But within the first hour, when you’re leaping across the rooftops of Cassardis and climbing a cyclops to stab it in the eye, you realise that there’s something special here. Its combat and encounters are exhilarating, offering you so many options and empowering you to pull off all sorts of cool things, like climbing on top of enemies to strike at their weakpoints or soaking enemies in oil and then igniting them with explosive gunpowder-laced attacks. The quality of the melee combat is to be expected, given that the base game that Dark Arisen builds off came from Hideaki Itsuno of Devil May Cry fame, but the magic classes are some of the crazier ones I’ve seen in action RPGs. You start off by throwing fireballs and enchanting your allies as you’d expect, but eventually you can summon tornadoes or call down meteor strikes from the sky that collide with a massive thud and eradicate all in sight. There’s also some unique hybrid classes that combine traits from different classes, like the Magick Archer that plays like a mix between the Ranger and Sorcerer. You’ll be able to shoot electrified arrows that ricochet off walls, or beacon arrows that light up the darkness. There’s so much variety and everyone will be able to find something they like across the game’s 9 classes.
You’re not alone on your quest, as you’ll have up to three ‘Pawn’ NPCs following you who will have their own set of skills. Your main Pawn is designed by you and you can customise their skills and equipment just as you would your own character. Your Pawn will learn from their experiences in battle and by completing quests, making them more competent. If they know that a golem can only be damaged by hitting its glowing power sources, for instance, they will climb up on its body and strike at them. The other two slots in your party are filled by Pawns hired from other players. They will bring all the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired from their master’s game and use them to help (or hinder) you.
If you pay for a more expensive Pawn, they can also give you hints for quests you haven’t completed or show you how to take on stronger foes. In a past playthrough I’ve seen Pawns stride gallantly into battle against a griffin, launching themselves into the air, grabbing onto it, and clipping its wings so that it came crashing down for us to finish off, and while playing this version for review a friend’s Pawn showed me the way to a dungeon I’d forgotten how to get to. This asynchronous approach to multiplayer is really interesting, and it aids the game’s sense of solitude and discovery because you don’t have someone doing everything for you, and yet you feel connected to these other players you never see. You build a strong bond with the Pawns you work with, feeling happy when someone rates your Pawn highly and get saddened when the owner of your favourite Pawn stops playing the game and the Pawn becomes too outclassed to use.
Dragon’s Dogma is a game about the journey and not the destination. If you’re expecting a rich narrative adventure with a cast of characters who you want to get to know then you’ll be disappointed. It’s very much a game where you tell your own stories as you explore the vast open world or the tighter, more Souls-like content added as part of the Dark Arisen expansion. Like the time where I misjudged the time and got trapped in a haunted forest at night — the place became swarmed with phantoms who were immune to physical attacks, and being new to the game I didn’t realise I’d need mages in my party. I tried to escape but the magical fog obscured my map so I couldn’t find the way out. We all ran around in a panic and two of my Pawns got dragged down into the earth by the ghosts and were lost for good. I depleted almost my entire reserve of healing items and managed to find the exit… just as morning came and the ghosts dissipated. It was a brutal and punishing experience, but so memorable all the same. Everyone I speak to who’s played this game has similar stories of exciting things they’ve found or creative ways they’ve taken out enemies.
Dragon’s Dogma is definitely a game that rewards those who slow down and take the time to explore and experiment. Its world is richer and denser than it first appears, with so many things to discover — whether it’s treasure hidden in areas you thought you were breaking the game by reaching, beautiful vistas in areas you’re never told to visit, or entire alternate paths through quests which you have to discover for yourself, there’s so much you can miss if you fast travel everywhere and make a beeline through the main quest. This is true even if you’ve played the original Dragon’s Dogma on last-gen consoles as the re-release has plenty of additions.
This release of the game includes the base Dragon’s Dogma game, all of its DLC quests and equipment, and the Dark Arisen expansion, which adds in a whole new game world with its own storyline, enemies and quests. A disappointing aspect of this is that some of this content was dropped into the game haphazardly when Dark Arisen was more of an expansion for the original game and was never integrated more organically when the game was released anew for other platforms. For instance, if you open up your item storage you’ll find a whole bunch of powerful items and equipment that were originally rewards for people who upgraded to Dark Arisen but are available for everyone now. It’s weird that people can jump straight in with these things when that sense of gradual progression was something so integral to my initial experience with the game.
But while I loved it, Dragon’s Dogma’s style of hiding things and not explaining much will definitely put some people off, because the game can feel a bit obtuse to begin with and it’s full of weird design choices. Like sidequests that can be failed without warning if you progress too far through the story without finishing them. It gives them a sense of urgency, but can be aggravating if you’re not expecting it. I myself forgot about this while playing this time around and locked myself out of a few optional areas and quests. Things like this and the general jankiness of the game means that it can be a bit of an acquired taste, but for those who are willing to put up with some lack of polish in favour of unique experiences that try new things, it won’t disappoint.
The thought of getting a portable Dragon’s Dogma was super exciting for me, but naturally I was worried about how it would perform. I was actually pleasantly surprised in this regard, because it looks and runs quite well. In docked mode it looks better than the original release of the game on last-gen systems and maintains a consistent frame rate most of the time. Unless you’re playing as a class that uses a lot of magical effects and are in fights with other characters doing the same, then you’ll rarely run into issues. Performance in handheld mode doesn’t hold up quite as well, but I never had it slow down to slideshow speeds like the PS3 version did. The drawback is that it seems to use dynamic resolution in handheld mode as I noticed things getting a bit blurrier at points, but I feel the trade-off is worth it in order to play the game on the go. Regardless of how you’re playing, you’ll run into a few issues, like object pop-in, that are present on all platforms. It’s a game that has always been held together with tape and glue from its initial release.
I could easily write thousands and thousands more words about Dragon’s Dogma, talking about all its details and intricacies (and some of my niggles with it, to be fair), but the important takeaway from all this is that, for those who can look past its quirks, it will be an unforgettable experience. It wears its heart on its sleeve with all the care put into its combat and world landmarks, and with all the unique things it tries. Even some of its flaws can be endearing, like the NPC sound bites that have become memes amongst the fanbase. It’s an experience that has never been replicated since and I can only hope that the team can finally work on a follow-up after all this time.
+Great at setting up emergent stories and encounters
+Pawn system is an interesting take on multiplayer
-Story and characters are mostly forgettable
-The scenery can get repetitive