Dark Arisen adds some great new content to the excellent Dragon’s Dogma, though the new dungeon’s unbalanced difficulty turns fun into frustration.

The Good

  • Bitterblack Isle features lots of great battles with fearsome foes
  • Ominous atmosphere and pensive story enhance tension on the isle
  • Eternal ferrystone eases the burdens of long journeys
  • The main game remains a special thrill.

The Bad

  • The grueling final third of the new dungeon lacks any sense of balance or fun
  • Pawns require more babysitting than ever.

On Bitterblack Isle, there’s always something nasty lurking in the darkness. Perhaps it’s a ferocious wolf that snarls and charges, forcing you to run to safety or block its substantial weight. Maybe it’s a two-story-tall ogre, once restrained by impossibly strong chains, now on the loose and hungry for entrails. Or it might be the chilly grasp of death itself, the grim reaper floating menacingly toward you and threatening eternal sleep.

You don’t have to latch on to this undead freak if you don’t want to, but it’s fun all the same.

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This island dungeon harbors many fears, and is the main new attraction in Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, a rerelease of one of 2012′s best role-playing games, with new content added to tempt the faithful back to the city of Gran Soren and beyond. Strangely, Bitterblack Isle isn’t available to you any other way, though it would seem to be a prime candidate for release as a downloadable add-on. In any case, if you’re a Dragon’s Dogma veteran, seeing this new content means buying a new version of the game for $40, though the extensive dungeon is no small morsel, which makes it an intriguing proposition for returning adventurers. What a pity, then, that much of the new content gets in its own way, sometimes making it difficult to enjoy the story’s hushed mystery and the undeniable thrills of felling a gargantuan winged cockatrice.

If you’re new to Dragon’s Dogma, however, be prepared for a journey unlike any other. The core game is a flawed beauty, an almost-classic that merges the open-air qualities of Western role-playing games with the harsh delights and frustrations of Capcom’s own Monster Hunter series. The setting is the fantasy land of Gransys, which is flush with soft greens, browns, and grays; it’s a weary place, burdened by the colossal creatures that roam its plains. Dragon’s Dogma looks initially bland, but the soft consistent hues allow ornate towers to cut a powerful silhouette against the swaying trees. An additional disc allows you to install higher-resolution textures to your hard drive (as well as an optional Japanese voice track), which makes Gransys look sharper than before, though not dramatically so.

Of course there are dragons! It's right there in the name.

Of course there are dragons! It’s right there in the name.

As described in the original review, Dragon’s Dogma comes with its fair share of frustrations, though the wonders overshadow the weaknesses. Most of the standout moments come by way of astounding encounters with cyclopes, griffons, chimeras, and the like, with many such monstrosities looking like various creature parts were grafted together to create fearsome, never-before-seen breeds. If you choose a melee-combat class, you can leap onto these roaring beasts and climb all over them if you desire, stabbing them in the head until they throw you to the ground in a fit of disgust. Or you might summon an icy eruption and fling your foe toward the heavens, if magic is more your style.

Whichever path you follow, these battles are a constant thrill, with monsters rearing up and flailing about as you might imagine they should, presuming you have ever imagined what the progeny of a wolf and a jumbo chicken would look like. You’re joined in these endeavors by three helpers–pawns, as they’re called–that express unreserved wonder at their surroundings when not setting goblins on fire. “Perhaps we’ll find aught of use,” one might say as you scavenge for curatives–and a bunch of other times, too. “Attack when it reels!” another calls out in the midst of battle, reminding you of what you already knew. Having the company of pawns is like babysitting curious children, though like curious children, they often do what they wish, even when it isn’t the wisest option. They have a way of getting trampled by ogres even when they acknowledge aloud that it’s best to attack from behind, and if they’re in the midst of casting spells, they probably won’t respond to your manual command to regroup.

Brace yourself: it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

Brace yourself: it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Dark Arisen’s new area, Bitterblack Isle, offers many of the main game’s same delights, but it also tips the scales too far toward the “frustrating” end, especially in the final third of your sojourn. You reach Bitterblack Isle by speaking to a shimmering maiden who appears on the docks at Cassardis at nightfall. Her name is Olra, and she is still piecing together her memories of how she came to the dark, dreary island she transports you to. As you make your way through the dungeon’s dank passages, a melancholy tale of love and loss forms, related by the groans of an unseen visitor and the etchings that you piece together on a monolithic memorial.

The cheerlessness carries over into exploration. Bitterblack Isle’s biggest battles occur in spacious arenas and gardens, though much of the time, you are trudging through narrow corridors, holding your breath lest some flaming lizard reveal itself. Developer Capcom recommends that you be at least level 50 when you enter, and for the first two stages of the dungeon, that seems about right. There are moments that have you uttering profanities during these hours, though, such as at the first appearance of your pursuer, Death, who sometimes appears in a brief, terrifying moment of near-blackness. This dark lord is likely to mercilessly annihilate you along with any pawns nearby before you realize you’re meant to do scant amounts of damage, then run before you succumb to his will.

Dark Arisen adds some great new content to the excellent Dragon’s Dogma, though the new dungeon’s unbalanced difficulty turns fun into frustration.

By Kevin VanOrd