This review is based on the Nintendo Switch port, the title is also available on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.
Having put more hours into Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen on PC than I should probably admit, I was incredibly excited to hear that Capcom’s excellent RPG was being added to the ever-growing list of games being ported to the Switch. And man, oh man, has it ported well. The controls are intuitive (and changeable to fit your personal preference) and the game itself looks and handles great in either handheld mode or on TV. This isn’t the first time this game has been ported to a new system, but I’ll be damned if it’s not quickly becoming my favourite.
In Dragon’s Dogma you play as the Arisen as you try to prepare to fight the great dragon that stole your heart – and I don’t mean that metaphorically. You are accompanied by your pawn, a soulless human apparently determined to spend their life serving you (honestly, I try not to think about it too much). You are able to hire two more pawns (created by other IRL players) to join your party, and the four of you run around the world of Gransys, exploring, completing quests and slaying beasts both magical and not. This is a game that takes everything great about the fantasy genre and runs with it.
Dragon’s Dogma was originally released back in 2012 (and then remastered in 2013 and re-released as Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen) so a bit of an old-school RPG vibe is expected. Despite the slightly aged graphics, I honestly still think the game looks great. The design of the different regions throughout Gransys really convey a sense of atmosphere; whether it’s a dark, misted wood where you can barely see three feet in front of you, or the wide-open plains with crumbling ruins scattered here and there – the design of the world not only imparts a brilliant sense of scale, but each area has a unique feel to it. This atmosphere is changeable however and with the coming of night you’ll find even the most familiar or locations feels different. This day/night system is a brilliant way to make once familiar areas strange again, and the use of light is done very well in both. During the day, beams of light will filter through the trees – at night (or in dungeons) the soft glow of your lantern is the only thing separating you from the darkness and whatever it hides.
Character design is varied, and character creation for both your Arisen and your main companion (called ‘pawns’) are surprisingly in-depth, and most importantly will affect how you are able to play the game. Tall, bulking characters are able to reach ledges higher up, whereas smaller characters are able to fit into small spaces where larger people cannot venture. In terms of enemy design, Dragon’s Dogma has some of the most well-designed monsters I’ve ever come across; they not only look awesome, but the animation and the way they fight is excellent as well.
Sound effects in Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen are done incredibly well. Whether it’s the rush of waves at the shoreline, the screech of a harpy, the swing of a sword or the crackle of lightning magic – the variety and clarity of the sounds used in this game is just brilliant and really fleshes out the world around you. Music is also done well, and though it can at times seem quite generic, it certainly does the job – the score fades in and out depending on what is happening at the time, increasing dramatically during battle and fading to a gentle tune as you explore peaceful settlements. Once again, the sound here really helps to create a sense of the world – even from the title screen, we’re given a taste of the audio aesthetic telling us that this game is straight up classic fantasy and the music is as well.
Voice on the other hand is a bit of a let-down – though some voices are relatively pleasant others are just straight up grating. When creating your Arisen or main Pawn, there are a number of voice options to choose from – however many of these sound like the exact same voice just tuned to be lower or higher in pitch with an autotune. This makes for some decent voices and some that are just weird. Unfortunately, there’s nothing here that really stands out as excellent voice acting, and I feel like Dragon’s Dogma could have been that much better if the voice work was as well done as other aspects of the game.
Right at the start of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen you are asked to choose one of three classes (called vocations); a fighter, mage, or a strider – however unlike many other RPGs you are not restricted to this class. As the game progresses, you can specialise within your chosen vocation, or – and this is really cool – you can change it entirely. If you started the game playing as a classic swordsman, but after an hour find that the spellcasters draw your attention – you can change your vocation to a mage or sorcerer. You need to have enough experience points to do this, and when you change to a new vocation you need to build your rank again – but the freedom of gameplay this allows cannot be overstated.
You have a primary weapon and a secondary weapon – this could be a sword and shield, two daggers and a bow or – if you play a magic wielder – simply a staff with primary and secondary spells. As is standard in RPGs, each of the classes has its own abilities that can be learned as your character progresses. You learn and set these skills at inns (where you can also change your vocation). Both the Arisen and their main pawn have a vocation (as do the pawns you hire to accompany you) – this means that you can set the skills of both of your characters and tailor their abilities to best suit your playstyle.
While there are other aspects of gameplay that are detailed and done very well (such as the status effects, the way pawns learn as you play, and the crafting system) it is the combat itself that really make Dragon’s Dogma stand out from the crowd. While the fighter and warrior classes are done well and are a lot of fun, it’s through the magic system that this game truly shines. The spells in this game are what every mage-main has ever wanted: they’re varied, they’re bombastic, they’re just so goddamn fun. From simple healing spells to whips of lightening to explosive meteors raining from the sky – the magic in this game has style and power in spades. The magical archer vocation combines the best of playing a mage and playing a strider, and you can fire bolts of energy from your magical bow or use your daggers to slam a burst of flame down onto your enemies.
Something else that I love about Dragon’s Dogma is the ability to grab hold of and then climb your opponents. This is a frankly genius aspect of the game (even if it does look ridiculous at times) and it means that you really experience the scale of some of your enemies – you’re not left slashing at the feet of a cyclops, you can actually climb it’s back and cut directly at its neck or eye; any body part you can reach is a target you can hit. It also means that you can be mid battle with a dragon or other monster that can fly, and it can take off with you still aboard. The first time this happened to me (while fighting a griffin) it took me completely by surprise and remains one of my favourite gaming moments to date.
Apart from lacklustre voice-acting, some pacing issues (the fast travel system in this game is a goddamn pain), and missing out on completing a few quests that were apparently time constrained, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is one of the best games I have played – ever. I’m a sucker for high fantasy, and this game delivers on just about every level, from the character creation to the sound effects to the combat. The plot is classic fantasy and though the tropes are familiar they’re familiar because they work. If you’re looking for a great RPG, if you’re a mage-main, if you want to hunt monsters, if you want a challenging game that isn’t punishing – if you’re looking for all this and more, then this is a game you should definitely check out.