Originally released in 2012 and re-released with a major content pack in 2013, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen has now come to the PC, albeit nearly 3 years late. A delayed port of this sort is bound to show its age, and there’s no exception to that here. Still, Dragon’s Dogma is a meaty action RPG worthy of notice for primarily PC gamers (like yours truly) who couldn’t catch it the first time around. Hopefully my fresh perspective will be useful for others who might be considering picking it up for the first time, so I’ll talk about the game in general as well as some specifics of the PC adaption.
In broad strokes, Dragon’s Dogma is a big, detailed game with the feeling of an offline MMORPG, more than a traditional CRPG. The player is first free to customize their character with a great deal of variety in physical appearance options. In fact, this stands out right away as the game allows not just a variety of facial adjustments, hairstyles, and the like, but pretty robust control over the avatar’s body type, including height, weight, and shape. I’ve rarely seen games that let you make tall, short, thin, fat, muscular or even older characters to such a varied extent. nor any that let you alter your character’s posture. But this one does. After that, you pick one of three basic classes along the typical fighter/mage/rogue axes and then it’s off to save your village from a dragon. Well, sort of. I’ll get back to the story in a bit.
Once in game, Dragon’s Dogma blends a simple control scheme (heavy and light attacks plus two weapon-dependent skill sets that swap in for those attacks with another key) with a great deal of tactical variety and options. There are your typical sword slashes, charges, shield blocks, ranged spells, area effects and so forth, as well as a separate archery mode and dodge mechanics. On top of this, the player also has the ability to grab and climb onto larger monsters, allowing targeted attacks at more vulnerable or important areas. All of these things combine to make it a very kinetic game, with successful timing, distance and movement yielding combinations with big payoffs. It also has a pretty high learning curve and the margin between a pushover fight and one that wipes the floor with you can be razor-thin. The game isn’t afraid to let you encounter enemies you’re not ready for, leaving you to adjust tactics or run away and come back to try them later.
You also get access to a typical party of companions, albeit in an atypical way, via the “Pawn” system. Pawns are inter-dimensional mercenaries that serve the main character, using the same basic leveling system, gear, and skills. There are some basic options to command them around, but mostly these guys fight according to their AI, and while they’re not brilliant, they generally seem to get the job done. It’s a very hands off approach and while not as sophisticated as the full control some RPGs offer, it’s probably the best choice for the game’s frantic pace. The Pawns will also learn about things in the game that they experience, and then start offering advice in their random sound-byte dialogue. Their info can be surprisingly useful, so the mechanic is interesting overall, although their lines can become repetitive.
With 200 levels of advancement (the first hundred comprising basically a standard playthrough and the second being devoted to post-game play), character building may be the game’s biggest selling point. Classes control stat growth and advanced classes build on the basic ones, either by enhancing them (mage to sorcerer, say) or by hybridizing (like the mystic knight), allowing you to use different combinations of skills. Skills and class unlocks are on a point system, and so you can freely purchase these, swap jobs, and mix and match skills. While it may be daunting for more casual players, there’s a lot to do here for the serious number-crunching RPG enthusiast. Add in a pretty sophisticated gear system with a variety of slots and item upgrades and one could easily devote hundreds of hours to perfecting your avatar. And since the original Dark Arisen added a super hard postgame area, there’s meaningful incentive to do so.
Apart from its RPG mechanics, the biggest thing Dragon’s Dogma has going for it is the scale and design of its environments. From the humble starting village to the much larger capital, and throughout the wilderness, the maps are big and while not quite a true open world game, it always feels like there’s tons to explore. Items and upgrade materials can be found almost everywhere, offering a nearly endless treasure hunt to those who like that sort of thing. All the environments are very 3D, with multi-tiered towns with rooftops to explore, ladders to climb, and the occasional interesting jumping puzzle. There’s a great sense of exploration wherever you go, and it’s one that quickly gets turned on its head by the game’s time system. Nighttime is when all the worst monsters come out, and vision is drastically reduced, requiring lanterns to provide even minimal light. I haven’t played many games that got this more right, and going out at night is really a totally different experience, one that you will carefully weigh as you venture into more dangerous areas.
The flip side of the game’s engrossing world, unfortunately, is the often rushed or generic feeling story. Dragon’s Dogma throws you into the plot head first, with your character encountering the big badguy of the title in the opening sequence and shortly after assuming their role as some sort of chosen one, the Arisen. I can see the urge to cut to the chase here, but unfortunately these kind of shortcuts continue through the game, with the Pawns being introduced just as abruptly. “Shocking” plot-twist reveals are often substituted for of measured character development, which there’s little enough of to begin with, with the often generic Pawns instead of more fleshed out allies. The big story touches on some interesting ideas, but these are burdened with wonky metaphysics that reveal the game’s JRPG pedigree. While it’s fun, those who need Obsidian-level character focus in their RPGs will be disappointed.
Graphics are going to be the first thing people look to when considering the jump to PC, and simply said, the game does look its age. Ramping up the settings doesn’t do much to alleviate things like lower resolution textures, which can be glaringly obvious during in-game cutscenes that show the character models up close. At the same time, the normal third person view distance and quick pace of action means it doesn’t distract too much during actual gameplay. While the game’s visual effects aren’t spectacular, everything looks good enough at speed that the experience stands up pretty well. Also on the plus side, the game runs extremely smoothly, without any draw distance or pop-in related problems, which were both criticisms of the console version. So while the game may not look any better, it may very well run better.
A more glaring issue with the PC port is the control scheme. This is absolutely a game that is meant to be played with a controller, and no real effort has been made to adapt to keyboard/mouse conventions. Navigating between various menu and equipment schemes can be awkward at best with bizarre default keybindings (like backspace for confirm – this actually causes a bug where you can’t fix your character name if you input it wrong!) and difficulty using the mouse to control seemingly mouse-friendly graphical menus. Keys can be rebound, but this doesn’t fix all that much. Skills themselves can only be accessed by using a modifier key, with no ability to bind the activations directly. I got by rebinding the toggles to extra keys on my gaming mouse, but it wasn’t the most elegant solution.
The last, and probably worst technical issue is the save system, which I found totally wretched. Part of the problem here is the clash of console and PC expectations. On consoles, automatic, checkpoint based saves make sense while on PC, we tend to expect manual control. But even accepting this, the save system is just a confusing mess. There are two kinds of saves, both normally automatic, but one very infrequent. This means you can tell the game to go back to your last checkpoint and literally lose 10 levels and multiple hours of gameplay, making the checkpoints nearly pointless. The other autosaves happen as you’d expect, between area transitions and the like, but there’s no default option to revert to them (though the game will revert you to the beginning of a combat if you die). You can manually save (which overwrites the second kind of autosave), but not manually load without fully exiting to the menu and then going through multiple splash and load screens.
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is definitely a game worth playing for action RPG fans and so is this particular release, at least if you happen to be a PC player who missed your first chance. The port definitely shows its console origins as well as its age, and it’s not a game you’d play for the story. What it is, however, is a huge and mechanically deep game with a whole, whole lot to do. The highly explore-able world with its terrifying nights, character customization, and tactical depth provide an almost intimidating amount of gameplay, and the boss-climbing, fast-paced combat is highly engaging. Just make sure you pick up a USB controller before you get too involved.
Platforms: PC/Steam | Devloper/Publisher: Capcom | ESRB: Pending | Controls: Mouse/keyboard, Controller
This review copy of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developer.