Death is your faithful companion beneath Bitterblack Isle.
It's soaked into the very walls of the gothic demesne that ensnares your party, permeating the bones and bodies that litter the bleak labyrinth sprawling ahead of you. It glints in the eye of werewolves the size of people carriers who rip your pawns to tatty shreds, or cannibalistic necrophagous beasts gorging themselves on charnel. Death stalks you constantly, literally calling to you from the shadows, lashing out of every booby-trapped chest and dripping from the teeth of countless over-levelled horrors. At your lowest ebb, death itself appears to you as the grim reaper, a horrific persistent adversary who kills with a single touch and hounds your every step.
Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is out to kill you, but with enough patience and skill, you can bring death to its knees.
We're getting ahead of ourselves here, so let's back up a tad. Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is effectively a GOTY edition of last year's biggest surprise, including the original Dragon's Dogma in all of its wonderful yet slightly janky glory. I agree with the points raised in Matt's 7/10 review, which praised the sensational genre-defining combat, impressive recruitable ally system and superb RPG gameplay, but sadly had to ding it for its slightly buggy and bland world full of uninteresting people and long slogs through repetitious terrain. It might interest you to know that we came up with our Editor's Choice award in order to redress the balance, since Dragon's Dogma is one of my favourite games of this generation, and we felt that we needed to provide something beyond numerical scores.
Despite its continual butchery of quaint ye olde Englishe (that resembles bad Game Of Thrones fanfiction auto-translated into Japanese and back again several times), Dragon's Dogma's enormous open world teemed with monsters to slay, to clamber all over and stab to death, to brutalise and abuse in countless different ways thanks to the versatile class system. Its blend of instantly-responsive combat and deep underlying RPG systems made it an utter unforgiving joy, while the maudlin world grows on you as you ferret out its darker secrets. For my money, Monster Hunter became obsolete the day Dragon's Dogma hit shelves.
It's all there in the review, and if you're interested in this fresh fusion of Eastern RPG systems with Western open-world philosophy, Dark Arisen is an essential purchase. Not only has it released at a budget price, but there's also a fair amount of new content to boot.
The first thing you'll notice is an extra disc containing an HD texture pack and optional Japanese voiceovers. Both can automatically be installed to the hard drive with mixed results. Though you'll notice far less in the way of graphical anomalies and glitches, there's not a huge amount of difference in terms of raw visual clout, meaning that Dragon's Dogma still looks rather primitive especially when it comes to fine detail and facial expressions. Thankfully server access and load times also seem to have been smartened up considerably, though it still takes an age for certain NPCs (Caxton the shopkeeper chief amongst them) to clip into existence.
Dark Arisen also adds some new gameplay features, such as plenty of extra loot, new secret abilities to learn and powerful cursed items that confer bonuses to specific skills once cleansed. If you already have a Dragon's Dogma save file [remember to back it up - Ed], you'll also recieve some bonus rift crystals to hire on powerful Pawn companions, several bonus gender-specific outfits and an Eternal Ferrystone that lets you teleport back to the capital city or Cassardis any time you choose. If you're sick of traipsing through the same scenery time and time again, this will be a godsend.
The main event, however, is Bitterblack Isle: a new expansion that bolts on an enormous dungeon full of new gear, traps and unrelenting horrors that will push even veteran Arisen to their absolute limits.
After accepting a plea for assistance from a mysterious woman who appears on the Cassardis docks at night, your party will be whisked away to Bitterblack Isle, a ruined gothic fortress and dungeon that (as previously mentioned) is permeated by the ever-present stench of death. A bleak storyline only starts to make sense if you go out of your way to engage with a small selection of uncanny characters and optional missions, forcing you to use your imagination and initiative as the voices of the dead call out from beyond. Maudlin and grim to a fault, the tone of the expansion proves to be subdued, thoughtful and melancholy, as evidenced by the amazing rock theme tune being substituted for a more soulful and haunting refrain. I personally mourn the loss of Dangan, but it's a harbinger of the horrors to come.
In terms of level design, Bitterblack Isle is an utter masterpiece. The enormous labyrinth initially confounds as you delve into the dark, a sprawling mess of dead ends, secret chests and multi-level corridors, but eventually starts to make sense as intricate shortcuts and secret passages start to open up. Exploration as opposed to dungeon crawling is the aim of the game here, with numerous hidden pathways and walkways to exploit and uncover. It's also a ruthlessly unpredictable proposition, since powerful new monsters such as hulking lupine Garms respawn in areas you previously made safe, while corpses sometimes attract immensely dangerous Necrophagous Beasts who can be battled for huge rewards or force you to flee headlong from certain death. Should you die or reload, there's no guarantee that you'll run into the same thing twice. Fight or flight has always been a key part of Dragon's Dogma, but here it's a fundamental component of what ends up being an incredibly punishing experience.
Capcom have clearly decided to challenge high-level players with one of the toughest gauntlets on the market. Things may start out slowly enough, but barely a few minutes in, you'll find yourself being brutalised by colossal gorecyclopes that wipe out Pawns in a single hit, hulking beholders bigger than houses blasting out ruinous conditions and even chests containing disgusting worms who fling instant-death spells about like confetti. In a nod to Resident Evil's Nemesis, the grim reaper unpredictably shows up at the most inopportune times, a dark spectre that kills with a single touch. In almost every case, you'll have to decide whether to engage or run for your dear life, harrying the biggest foes in hit & run attacks that eventually result in a truly satisfying takedown. Since the reaper takes cumulative permanent damage, finally managing to annihilate it is one of the new seminal moments of the game.
This sheer level of difficulty often crosses the line from satisfying to unfair, though. Unless your Arisen's level is in the high hundreds, you'll likely find yourself continually Godstomped by some of the larger foes and forced into utterly ridiculous situations. When you're in a small room with numerous sorcerors boasting knockdown stun attacks, two enormous Cyclopes and Garms, all of which will usually be instantly aggroed by your brainless pawns and kill them in one hit, it's hard not to feel just a little put-upon. I personally had to experiment with a range of classes until finding one that worked for each particular boss encounter (my Assassin became a Mystic Knight for a while in order to abuse his devastating cannon skills). At least Dragon's Dogma isn't short of opportunities to grind, and the mainland is just a short boat trip away.
On a personal note, I feel compelled to point out that Dark Arisen's influences have never been more obvious. The grim difficulty, gothic surroundings, haunting storyline and intricate interlocking levels are practically ripped straight out of Dark Souls, which may not be a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from good places - indeed, the entire creative industry is built on iteration and influence - but it's perhaps slightly galling that Dragon's Dogma has looked to emulate other games rather than forging ahead with a new and exciting identity of its own.
But if you're ready for a stiff challenge, Dark Arisen's £19.99 price tag is ultimately more than appropriate for what adds up to 10-15 hours of new content, more if you take your time searching for hidden quests, items and story details.
- Biterblack Isle provides 10 or more hours of tough adventuring, well worth the price
- Intricate level design, massive unpredictable new enemies and plenty of new items
- Original game is still a massive, visceral and quirky proposition
- Still graphically primitive despite HD texture pack, hopeless ye olde dialogue
- Bitterblack Isle is sometimes unfairly cheap as opposed to satisfyingly difficult
- Wonky clamber camera, long NPC pop-in, Pawn idiocy and other annoyances remain
- WHERE'S DANGAN?!!
The Short Version: Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen excels as a way of experiencing this wondrous if slightly flawed gem as a value-laden package, and makes for a fantastic budget purchase for newcomers. You've never had it so good.
The expansive new content also makes the price tag worthwhile for Dragon's Dogma veterans, but honestly ask yourself: are you prepared to die? If not, Bitterblack Isle's ferocious difficulty might tax your patience beyond the realms of enjoyment. Pain and pleasure in equal measure.