Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen … a review
Posted by joeabbott on December 14, 2014
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (DD) was released in 2012 to positive reviews and modestly good sales, but seems to have died out quickly as a “forgettable” title. I picked up a copy for ~$10 and had it in my “get around to it” pile for a while. As I start to close out my gaming on my Xbox 360, I’m working to finish off these sort of games. It was with that intention that I played the game almost entirely from using a game walk-thru.
By using a walk-through, I was admitting that my expectations were low. I was also saying that I was looking for the gamerscore and not interested in getting sucked into a long game-play. And so it’s something as a surprise to me that while I started on 10/31, I just finished today (12/14). And that’s not “finished” in the sense of completing the game … that’s finished in the gamer sense of getting all the achievements. I really enjoyed my time with the game and surprised it didn’t do better in the market.
But, let’s take a look at the game. While I’ll make quite a deal of the things I’d like to see changed, they were mostly the “sliver beneath the skin” sorta issues: problems that were irritating but didn’t break the game.
Oh, and for those interested in playing the game and not wanting to read spoilers, go elsewhere … I will make no effort to conceal game details in this write-up. My blog, my policy. <g>
DD’s main unique characteristic is the introduction of “pawns”. A pawn is a non-player character (NPC) who stays with your character, grows with your character (levels up), and can be tailored with a unique set of skills. In this regard, other games have this mechanism but DD goes farther in allowing you to “hire” two other pawns to round out your company. This is awesome in that DD also throws some huge creatures at you and so having three NPCs help you in taking it down is great.
Your pawn will always stay with you and the two others you hire will come and go at your bidding. Pawns never die but will be banished from your world if they are driven to zero HPs, and then you need to go to the “Pawn Shop” (groan … my pun, the game never called them that) and you can rehire them. Here’s a key: hiring any pawn at your level or lower is free, however, hiring pawns of a higher level will cost “experience”. Experience isn’t the right word, but the currency used is only gained through successfully accomplishing quests or winning battles … just like experience.
Now here’s a key exception: you can hire the pawn of any of your Xbox Live friends for free regardless of their level! When I started, several of my friends had played the game before me and so, with my level 1 character, I was able to hire their level 40 and level 62 pawns! And, considering I was just trying to walk through the game, I did just that and it made things pretty easy.
For me, the pawn system was a great feature of the game and one I really liked. Single-player RPG gamers don’t often run in a group (not like multi-player shooter friends) but I was happy that three of my friends had played the game and were able to donate high level pawns to my battles.
One aspect I really liked were the monsters. Most were from Greek mythology or fairytales (cyclops, chimera, cockatrice, ogres, harpy, griffins, etc.), but they also had bandits, undead warriors, and wolves. Later in the game you get amped up versions of these creatures who have different attacks, pack bigger punches, and have lots more health. Many of the creatures were gigantic, allowing your character and NPCs to scale the monster and attack from on top of them! Felling these creatures was especially satisfying.
While the variety of monsters was good, there were a few problems (see below), yet on the whole I count the creatures as a strength of the game. Some were susceptible only to magic, some were more easily killed with normal attacks, and all had a weakness or weak spot that, if targeted, would yield a quicker death. The monster variety and qualities were well considered and gave players some interesting fights.
The one thing I didn’t like was that sometimes you were swarmed mercilessly! Undead, wolves, and harpy were attacking me once while I was fighting off a quest boss (some stronger bandits). It didn’t happen often but seemed like a miserable coincidence when it did. And they all seemed to want a piece of my character!
A small touch that I felt went a long way to giving the world a substantial quality is that nearly all NPCs had names. In a city full of people bustling about, each one had a name, a place to go to and from, and would say something different to you. Well, that’s say something different from what the next person would say … they, however, might say the same thing each time. But it was unique and interesting and fun to walk around a world that well considered and developed.
The DD story is pretty rich and had more detail than I’ll share here. I will note that a central theme to the game is the “unending world” or the cyclic nature of reality. This theme influences a number of aspects of the world and story and, in the end, you become a god-like character and are only allowed to “die” when someone else succeeds your place or you kill yourself. As there was an achievement for playing through twice, I ended my life so I could play a second time through.
The fun part is here is, when I finished that game a second time, the final boss battle against the prior god was my original character!
Critiques from others
When I finished the first time and thought: hmm, I’d like to know more about this world, use what I learned to “play it better”, see what it’s like to be a different character type, and find the changes in a second play-thru. I then took a look online for critiques others had; why was I looking for a second play-thru on a game that wasn’t really a blockbuster?
One gripe I read about was the lack of a robust fast-travel system. In most games like this, where you’re free to roam through a huge world, they provide a fast-travel system: a way of getting across the map without slogging through. DD does have a “ferrystone” system that allows you to fast-travel back to the main city, but that’s about it. Late in the game you find a “portcrystal” allowing you to set another location wherever you like and you can teleport to that.
During my second playthrough, when I wasn’t constraining my actions to a script, I found you could buy additional portcrystals from a seller and setup just about as many as you’d like throughout the world. I really like that system. To be clear, I didn’t like slogging through the world, but the developers game me a system that I could use to get around … I just had to put some work into it. And for me, that was fine.
Will you stop all that yammering
A shared complaint that I have with others is the dialog of the NPCs. Not only do they incessantly comment on every little thing around them, they same the same things in the same place all the time! You couldn’t walk past a rack of drying cod in a fishing village without one of them saying, “I wonder how long dried fish keeps”, saying, “this bridge looks ancient, I hope it holds” at an appropriate (but all-too-often) time, or “the road splits, we should be sure of which way leads to our destination”. And dozens of others.
They say the same things all the frigging time!
While it didn’t get to me badly on the first playthrough, playing a second time, it really started to wear on me. Same things, same places. Each and every time. I’d sprint past some places just to distance myself from them and hope they wouldn’t trigger the comment. Nope, they’d say it. Each and every time.
Just like the NPCs spouting the same thing in the same places each and every time, the same monsters would appear in the same locations of the world each and every time!
At the top of that rise you’ll find some bandits … oh, there they are! Around this bend, a cyclops … and here he comes! In these woods, a chimera … oh, it sees you!
In some cases it allowed you to plan your play; you’d know you were about to be attacked, so you could prep the appropriate gear and head in. And yet, there were times you just wanted to get to that northern castle and didn’t feel like fighting through the saurians at the river, the goblins by the graveyard, and the harpies a bit further on. I wouldn’t count this as one of my main complaints, but I could see why someone else might.
While I noted the above and they either more or less bothered me, I did have a couple of things that nearly broke the game in my eyes. Take a look.
Loading the game
I did this a bunch and, as such, learned to hate the start-up routine. Every single time I started the game, I’d have to sit through the following screens:
And, no, that’s not a typo … the “Checking download content dialog” screen appeared both before and after I selected my save game.
If you didn’t get through all of these screens quickly enough, the orchestral background music would swing wildly into an early 90s hard rock Japanese power ballad; it was jarring and really felt out of place and something you worked to avoid. By button mashing I learned if you transitioned through all screens as quickly as possible, you’d just miss the start of the screaming guitars.
Loading games was my least favorite part of the game.
Managing your gear is at the heart of most RPG games but the choices they made here swung from considerate to what?!?
Late in playing I found I could sell items from my “stored back at the inn” inventory (a nice feature) and items back at the inn were also considering as part of my gear when upgrading weapons and armor; again, very nice. Sadly, you couldn’t see if I already had an item when making a purchase unless you were carrying that item already… only when selling or upgrading could you “see” what you had back at the inn. You see, you had completely different screens depending on whether you were selling or buying and it made some scenarios a nuisance.
Same with equipping. I could see all my gear from my inventory menu, but if I wanted to wear a different piece of armor or hold a different sword, I’d have to exit out of that menu and enter another. It was odd and a bit tedious but at the complete center of so many gaming scenarios that I really got to hating the developer’s choices.
Another aspect of their odd choices was the inability to easily compare gear and choose the best armor and weapons. While you could look at one piece of gear and see how it related to what you currently were holding or had on, your inventory could hold hundreds of items and the differences in items was sometimes just tiny percentage different. I’m absolutely certain I had better gear in my inventory that I wasn’t using purely because it was so tedious to compare, contrast, and equip.
Can’t aim, can’t lock on
When targeting something with a bow and arrow, you were able to aim and hit the exact spot you were targeting. The usual, typical, expected behavior. If you wanted to throw something, swing a sword at a particular monster, or shoot a creature in a given spot with a magic spell, good luck.
For a game that allowed you to throw flasks of poison or various environmental components (rocks, knives, furniture, etc.), the inability to target with these items was a mystery. Same with magic … I could fire an arrow at a monster’s eye, but try try doing that with a spell or wand and you’re just generally casting in their basic direction. It was all very frustrating.
I started my first playthrough as an archer and my second as a wizard … it wasn’t long through the second session that I changed to a different character class: my wizard was useless at hitting what I wanted to hit! The only description I can give this area of the game is to call it bad. It just had poor written all over it.
I’m hard pressed to rate the game on this account largely because I was following a walk-through that was designed to give me all of the achievements by following it. Given that, I’ll just comment on the achievements that stood out.
Many games have different endings that, if you wish to see them all, require you to make copies of your game saves. You then complete one ending, load up a different game save, make different choices, and then get an alternate ending achievement. Happily, DD allowed me to play through one ending, and then essentially said: want to do it differently? Giving me the option to get a different ending. I’m certain this had to do with choosing the “bad ending” options first, and the walk-through helped here a lot.
After completing the first time, here are the achievements I had remaining
Completed 50 notice board quests.
While this was easy in the sense that none of the notice board quests was particularly hard, you had to go out of your way to work on these if you wanted to get 50 completed. They were a good source of experience for leveling up my character, and yet they were a mix of the same old quests: you either had to fetch something, slay a certain number of monsters, or escort a miserably inept character through a bewildering number of hazards.
The one good thing I found about the escort quests (of which there are many), is that if you run past the bad guys and let your escort chase after you, the enemies you encounter do not seem to “see” the NPC and will leave that person alone. Only if you’re in the area and fighting will your escort be in danger.
Obtained 350 pieces total of weapons and armor.
This was a horrid experience. Remember how I complained about the item management screens? Well, in another example of how poor this area is, they give you no way of sorting items by name. Yes, they ask that you collect 350 items, but to determine if you already have one of <insert weapon or piece of armor name here>, you have to look through all items, all screens! And remember how you can’t see your “back at the inn” inventory in the Buy screen? It makes it all the harder.
The game mercifully breaks inventory into categories: weapons, head items, body items, feet items, etc. While initially going for this achievement I would load up myself and all my NPCs with the footwear (for instance) that I had at the inn, walk over to the gear vendor, and compare item by item through what I was carrying. If I didn’t have it, I’d purchase. It was tedious.
What was less tedious was creating a spreadsheet of all items! Yes, I created a spreadsheet that I used to track everything I had and would keep my tablet handy while I played so I could compare during my purchase runs.
Worst achievement in the game.
Earned a total of 10,000,000G.
This one seemed pretty hard for me and, to be honest, it’s not coincidental I got this right after getting Well Equipped: once Well Equipped popped, I sold everything I had in my inventory to the vendor and once I had over 10,000,000G (and you will have over 10,000,000G if you collect 350 items) this one popped. I then quit the game without saving, reloaded, and carried on.
It turns out I didn’t have to do that. In order to get 350 items I nearly broke myself, money-wise and, after the reload, I just ran around, completing tasks and working to the end of my second play-through. Well, in the fight with the Ur-Dragon (see next entry), I had to purchase some healing spells and I realized my character was carrying something like 1,250,000 gold! Yup, over a million without trying.
Money flows pretty easily in the game and, toward the end when you complete quests and whatnot, you’re well rewarded.
Enlisted a large number of pawns.
This turned out to be hard for me only because my friends had inadvertently helped me out. You see, each time I leveled up late in the game, I’d go to the Pawn Shop and hire on two new pawns at my current level to help me out. As only you and your pawn get experience during fights, the two extra NPCs would never improve … so it was always worthwhile to go to the shop and get higher leveled pawns to help you out.
But, recall that early on I noted I had a level 40 and level 62 pawn to help me through the game; it was great for progress but by the time I got to working on this achievement, I had only really hired these two NPCs … and to get the achievement you need to hire 70 pawns! It made things harder but (after I was over level 62) I continued to go to the shop every chance I had, hire a couple others, and not get too attached to any particular pawn.
And, as this will be the last time I get a chance to mention pawns, they are procured in “The Rift”; an alternate dimension, other-world accessed via strange stone tablets (Rift Stones) scattered throughout the land. Far less cheesy than a Pawn Shop.
Defeated the Ur-Dragon. (Secret)
Preparing for this was really my biggest concern. This was a boss battle that could easily kill you; I read up on it from other players and approached it cautiously. In the end, it really wasn’t that big a deal.
Some people said they died a lot while fighting the Ur-Dragon and needed resurrection spells to keep going; I didn’t die once. That said, I approached this fight with their help and tuned my team for it: two archers (with myself having an archer skill) and a healing mage. The dragon can only be killed by targeting specific spots on his body and some are on the wings and his back … you can only hit them with a bow and arrow.
It wasn’t necessarily easy, it just took time. The Ur-Dragon will fly down, fight you for about 10 minutes, then he’d leave … giving you time to dust off, heal up, and get more provisions if necessary. You’d then re-enter the arena and pick up where you left off … with his health depleted appropriately.
My approach to the fight was: have archers continually firing arrows, run around reviving them when they fell, and do what damage I could from a (reasonably) safe distance. In other battles I’d found that if I was too far away, my fighters would disengage and I’d be at some fights by myself. A good thing about this battle is that the safest place was sometimes right next to the dragon! Otherwise, if you were away from him a bit, he’d breathe fire and cast spells that could hit you.
Given that I was ready for the fight (again, having lots of healing and the right pawn-types to help), this was one of the best, most satisfying fights: long and pitched, required lots of “work” on my part, and few things more fun that scaling a dragon and beating on the back of his bean with a dagger!
The Ever-Turning Wheel
Completed the adventure a second time.
This one just came from completing DD a second time. As I noted above, it was fun to see my first character in the throne as the final boss but was otherwise pretty routine.
Overall, I had enough fun with the game to both play it twice and for about six weeks exclusively. It had a lot of variety and most of the parts were well thought through to give the world substance and interest. Some of the parts I didn’t like really affected the flavor of the game, things like crafting. I found a huge number of items that would allow me to “craft” things, but it was never clear what I’d craft or that the thing crafted would be worthwhile. And so, when I finished the game I had hundreds of materials to craft stuff with but no interest in pursuing this feature. And then there were other flavor components that I looked forward to finding: skill books that, when I read them in the presence of my pawns would give them better knowledge on how to fight specific creatures. I LOVED finding these, although I found very few. It was a neat inclusion.
And on and on. The game appears to have died the death of paper cuts: lots of little things that didn’t seem particularly material but in the whole detracted from a great game. Which is too bad because I found it engaging and fun. Give the game a try if you have time and some patience; there are rewards here if you do. And if you don’t feel like you have a lot of time or wish to be patient, grab it and the walk-through for some gamerscore and a diverting time.
I’ll give this an 8.5 out of 10.