Pros: Solid combat mechanics, Enemy Variety, Enemy Designs, Special Moves, Exploration, Night time battles
Cons: Takes a while to get going, Story is rather bland, World is static, Pawns splurt out verbal diarrhea, Console graphics really showing their age
Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is essentially both an expansion and patch of the original game that released last year. DD:DA has new content along with a whole host of bug fixes, gameplay changes, and an HD texture pack to round things off. For transparency; I have not played the original version and as such, can not make any comparisons between the two. The first part of this review is based on the first 10 hours of gameplay that I have experienced. As I play further into the game, I will update this review accordingly and as such, it is possible for the rating and some of the pros/cons to increase or decrease depending on the impression the rest of the game leaves me. I chose to do this as a review in progress as the game has a HUGE amount of content and I think, in order to be able to accurately recall the earlier stages of the game, that a review in progress is the best method for reviewing this game. Now lets get on with it!
The first thing that strikes you when playing DD:DA is that it is quite obviously not to the same quality as the likes of Mass Effect or The Witcher. As this is Capcom's first venture into the world of Western RPG's, it certainly seems like they took a rather reserved approach so as not to over-invest in a potential failure. However, despite that extra layer of polish missing from DD:DA, it certainly isn't a failure.
Without giving any spoilers away, lets just say that after the 10 hours I have played so far, the story hasn't ever really grabbed me. In fact, I have spent the majority of my time doing side quests and exploring. You see, its not a bad story, its just not a particularly good one either. It feels a bit bland, stale even. Kind of a "been there, done that" feeling. Though I must say, the opening gameplay sequence of the game will certainly grab your interest. Its just a shame that after that, the story feels flat and rather cliche. Hopefully the story will begin to pickup steam as I delve deeper into the game. But as of now, it really is rather mediocre.
Gameplay is the key area where DD:DA really shines. The combat mechanics are rock-solid, certainly leagues and bounds ahead of the "click and spam" combat mechanics you find in Skyrim. The combat mechanic consists of two basic attacks (in the case of the Hunter class) which consist of a heavy and light attack along side a third skill which in the case of the Hunter, is the bow attack. However, on top of those basic skills you can use special moves by using discipline points you gain from leveling up. You can assign up to three special moves which are activated by holding the RB button and using the X,Y, or B buttons in combination with RB. This adds for a really interesting dynamic because you can only have up to three special skills assigned at any one time, and in order to change you need to visit an innkeeper to reassign the skills.
The reason why this makes the gameplay interesting is because of the next great thing about the gameplay; the combat balance. In DD:DA you can travel with up to three companions, referred to as pawns in the game. One companion is with you throughout the entire game and you actually create this NPC companion just like you do your own character and you can then assign traits to them depending on what you want to spec them for (ie. if you choose a mage companion, you can spec them for heals, or damage etc.). The other two pawns are essentially hired mercenaries and can be changed for other mercenaries at any point throughout the game for a varying fee of rift crystals (currency used to buy pawns). Either by using special summoning stones found throughout encampments around the world, or via the Pawn Guild located in the capital city. But the real reason why this is very much worth mentioning is because each of the NPC companions is a specific class (Warrior, Hunter, Mage).
So as the player, you are stuck with some difficult choices at times because certain enemy types are more vulnerable to specific types of attacks. For example, an enemy may be especially weak to holy damage. But if you have an entire party that is spec'd for fire damage, then you will find that the battle can be incredibly difficult. As such, you always need to be thinking a few steps ahead and thinking of the types of enemies you will be engaging on the quest you are undertaking before you chose your party make-up. Or for that matter, which special skills you are going to equip for the journey. Its a very interesting mechanic and it makes you really stop and think strategically about combat. Something which most other WRPG's do very poorly (such as Skyrim). So DD:DA definitely needs to be commended for its excellent combat mechanics.
Another area of the gameplay that I have enjoyed so far is the armour system. To be more precise, the way in which armour is upgradable (both for you and your created NPC). Now, the armour designs aren't the most elaborate designs I have ever seen and you certainly don't collect lots of awesome armour as loot, but when you do get armour (helm, chest, shoulders, hands, legs, feet), every single piece is upgradable with three stages of upgrades. Its actually a really useful mechanic because especially early on in the game, when you don't have mountains of gold stashed in your pockets, it can be more economically viable to just upgrade what you already have than to buy new gear from the vendor. I should note that upgrades aren't just as simple as giving money, you also need to have specific materials. For example, to upgrade a particular sword to tier 3, you might need to pay 3000 gold and give the smithy 3 x copper ore as well in order to upgrade to tier 3. Its a really good system because it encourages the player to explore the world and collect loot and materials. Because what might be considered random junk when you first pick it up, can actually lead to your new sword dealing extra damage, or your new helm giving added physical and magical protection.
Another things I love about DD:DA is night time exploration. Night in DD:DA is just that, its night. Its a dark, creepy, horrid time to be out exploring. Especially in areas with high levels of enemy activity. So in order to counter-attack the drawbacks of exploring the world at night, the player can actually equip an oil lantern to illuminate their path in the night. Its an excellent system because not only does it add somewhat to the realism and atmosphere of the game, but it also has some really clever, logical mechanics that make using a lantern more or less effective. As an example, the oil in the lantern will eventually diminish and the player has to refuel the lantern with more oil, otherwise they run the risk of the lantern burning out whilst they are out in the middle of some enemy infested forest. Also, if the player gets the lantern wet (by running under a waterfall for example), then the lantern will be extinguished, leaving the player in darkness. Now these are only small little details, but they do a LOT to add to the feeling of the game.
Like everything though, its not all roses for DD:DA. The world feels rather static, certainly when compared with the likes of Skyrim, The Witcher, or Mass Effect. The NPC's just feel......dead. You don't quite get that sense of being in a real village, or real capital city in DD:DA that you get from other RPG's. Another criticism is the pawns. Dear lord do they say some incredibly irritating lines at times. They like to state the obvious, treating the player as if they are a monkey with down-syndrome who can't comprehend that "wolves hunt in packs" and feel the need to shout it out every single time you encounter wolves (often). The rubbish that the pawn's mutter from time-to-time really does wear thin after a few hours and some pawns are more annoying than others (depending on their personality traits).
DD:DA certainly isn't the prettiest RPG out there. In saying that though, it never looks ugly either. Its really just another example showing the age of the current generation of consoles. There's only so much visual fidelity you can ooze out of a 7 almost 8 year old system (X360) and it really shows in DD:DA. Especially someone like myself who is typically a PC gamer and has experienced the eyegasmic (orgasm for your eyes) visuals of the likes of The Witcher 2 on max detail @ 1080p.
Although one area where DD:DA shines visually is the character designs. Some of the enemies (such as the boss fight in the very first gameplay sequence) look absolutely incredible and certainly break away from the norm. Whilst generally you will be running around killing wolves, goblins, bandits......the usual really. Occasionally you will come up against some fantastic looking enemies which certainly look different to anything you will see in any other WRPG.
Lets just get this straight, DD:DA is obsessed with trying to sound like some 'ye-olde' english hack job. The NPC's all try to speak with some sort of cockney British accent and try to use some form of old English wherever possible. It does occasionally get a bit much with you sitting there wondering what on earth this old coot is talking about. However I have to say, for the most part, the voice overs are actually pretty well done. I haven't heard any totally cringe worthy lines just yet, and whilst its not a the Bioware level, its certainly far from the bottom of the barrel stuff we hear occasionally (e.g. Arcania: Gothic 4).
The environment sounds are rather solid and certainly make you feel like you are in the world and the combat sounds are fantastic with music being used to great effect during combat. So while DD:DA doesn't particularly shine with its sound design and voice overs, it certainly does a competent job and there isn't much to complain about.
Finally, the presentation of the game. Well for one, the menu system in the game is pretty easy and simple to use; with a solid user interface. It is certainly reminiscent of a JRPG so don't go in expecting a Mass Effect style menu system as the system used in DD:DA has more in common with the likes of Final Fantasy than it does with traditonal WRPG's.
On the package as whole, the game is generally presented really well. As mentioned in the introduction, it is lacking a bit of polish that we see from the big Triple-A WRPG developers, but in saying that, the game is by no means presented poorly. It simply has a few rough edges but underneath that rugged surface lives a heart of gold.
In conclusion, based on the 10 hours of gameplay so far, I have to say that I am thoroughly impressed with DD:DA. While there are some issues and some rough edges, if you are willing to look past that you will find a game that has an absolute mammoth amount of content that any RPG fan would love to sink their teeth into. Just for a quick idea as to the amount of game you are getting for your $40, the level cap is 200 (after 10 hours I'm level 19) and I have read figures of anywhere up to 100 hours worth of content on a single play through. With numbers like that paired with solid gameplay, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is shaping up to quickly become one of my favourite RPG's in recent memory. So at this stage of the review (10 hours), I award Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen four flames out of five.