Although it received respectable reviews from critics and sold over 2.5 million copies, Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen never quite achieved the level of popularity and recognition that it deserved. Overshadowed by RPG behemoths like Skyrim or Dark Souls, Dragon’s Dogma was wrongly considered a last-gen inferior product. Recently re-released and gussied up for the PC, playing through Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen reminded me that the game does at least four big things significantly better than either Bethesda’s or From’s games.
Bring on the Night
Most RPGs and other games with a day and night cycle do relatively little with the darker hours, substituting a desaturated color palette and gray wash of sky to pass for “night.” In contrast, Dragon’s Dogma makes nighttime really meaningful and dangerous. For one thing, it is dark. Inky, black, and impenetrable. Anyone who has spent time in the woods or out in the country knows that kind of heavy darkness. The game populates the night with particular creatures that only roam in darkness and warns the player that perhaps they should rest at night. Lighting a lantern or casting an illuminating spell pushes back the darkness in the immediate area but just like in real life, makes seeing past the light that much more difficult. Being up close to a bright spell or fire effect is blinding and disorienting. I have never felt quite so afraid in the game as when I was unwise or unlucky enough to be caught outside at night and far from a safe town. Then, the game smartly designs several quests that can only be accomplished when the sun sets.
A Game of Pawns
It’s surprising that Dragon’s Dogma‘s brilliant pawn system has never been copied into other games. Pawns are AI characters that take the place of other human players, since the game does not offer traditional co-op or multiplayer modes. Each player has one “main” pawn that is leveled and trained alongside the player character, but two additional pawns may be hired. The additional pawns come from a pool of developer made characters, but also may be hired from a pool of online player characters’ main pawns. Pawns’ appearance and performance in battle are rated and higher-level, battle tested pawns fetch a much higher rental. Additionally, pawns “learn” from watching the player character and visiting specific locations, so that you might hire a pawn that already knows the map, where the enemies are hiding, and the best strategy for besting them. Pawns have been called “slaves” or “pets” but they are actually non-human entities and the game’s lore does a pretty great job — at the end of the story — of explaining who they are and where they come from. Sometimes their verbal reactions can be repetitious, other times poignant and amazingly appropriate.
There’s no getting around that the original Dragon’s Dogma on Xbox 360 and PS3 weren’t graphical showpieces and figure models were especially disappointing. But the Dark Arisen expansion and update for PC have added a lot of polish and textural improvements and on high settings , the game looks really good. Not Witcher 3 amazing, but at least as good as Skyrim and much better than the original Dark Souls. What really makes the world come alive is the attention to the details and minutiae of real spaces: the way wind blows through the awnings over shops, the way water slows down movement and extinguishes the lamp’s light, the way moonlight reflect’s off a dragon’s scales. Character, animal, and monster animations are incredibly lifelike. Goblins cower in terror if they are the last to be attacked, rabbits and wolves move authentically. The towns feel lived in and real, and not just like video game movie sets.
War is Hell
The developers of Dragon’s Dogma come from a lineage of action games and fighting games, and they have made the battles exciting, fast-paced, and dangerous, with every class able to chose from a large array of useful abilities, special moves, and hard-earned enhancements. There is no lock on in combat, and while most of the encounters are not Souls-like in difficulty, there are definitely occasions where retreat is the only viable option. The Dark Arisen expansion added an entirely optional — and notoriously brutal — set of dungeons on a remote island. In general, the AI pawns are incredibly useful in combat, something that still cannot be said for From Software’s AI summoned characters.
Many otherwise astute gamers gave Dragon’s Dogma a pass, but there is much to recommend, especially in its most recent PC version. Amazing combat, great atmosphere, engaging and useful pawns are paired with environments that feel alive. It’s not as big as Skyrim or as pretty as The Witcher 3, but Dragon’s Dogma is still one of the best action RPGs of the decade.
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