Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen Review (Switch)
The most wonderful thing about a successful handheld and home console hybrid is that it receives a whole bunch of ports, especially those that have never appeared on a Nintendo console before. While many independent games receive a “Switch tax” in order to cover the cost of the physical cartridge, many high-profile ports get a discount, offering a classic or celebrated title at fraction of a normal full retail pricing. Case in point, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, a title released in 2012 and given a substantial downloadable content campaign, both of which are now available on Nintendo Switch collectively for thirty dollars.
While price rarely tends to be a major factor in the way I review games, it’s hard not to make a favorable comparison here, as Dragon’s Dogma stacks up well against other full-priced Switch titles despite being half their price and years older than them. It’s surprising to think that large-scale enemy encounters were done justice in this title long before Breath of the Wild had players fighting Lynels and Hinoxes, that warp points and meaningful traversal could be better executed than in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. While not without its own quirks and odd design choices, by the end of this review, you’ll see why Dragon’s Dogma ranks among the top RPGs on the Nintendo Switch, and why it is an essential purchase for genre enthusiasts.
As the fabled Arisen, the fate of the player character is to combat the great dragon threatening Gransys, though this mythic beast is not the only high fantasy creature you’ll encounter. Proving one’s worth by completing tasks set forth by various citizens of Gransys and the inhabitants of its capital city Gran Soren is how you’ll gradually increase your capabilities and prepare for an epic showdown with the winged red beastie, but that doesn’t mean the game lacks in any sort of gravitas along the way. By using a vast and impressive open world filled with very specific and lovingly designed areas, Dragon’s Dogma presents the player with a variety of scenarios, from routing out a goblin horde from a stronghold, exploring the catacombs that snake underneath Gransys, to tackling titanic monsters that threaten the countryside.
Not every quest is combat oriented, with some simply asking for recovered items, gathered materials, and even conversations with certain individuals, but most quests have multiple success states, meaning the outcome of the narrative and characters can change depending on what the player chooses to prioritize. What’s more, there are key narrative-based quests as well as side-objectives, so if a player is feeling unprepared, or simply wishes to explore the regions of Gransys in more depth, they have every opportunity to do so.
Combat in Dragon’s Dogma is a mix of flashy-yet-practical special abilities, stamina management, and a grapple ability that rivals Shadow of the Colossus. Each primary weapon possesses light and heavy attack options which do not deplete stamina, and are mostly used for mixing up enemies when downtime is necessary. Secondary weapons, such as shields, bows, and specific magic spells, are often highly situational and sometimes require stamina usage to be truly effective.
By holding the left or right trigger, the face buttons become a quick select for a variety of stamina-based special abilities. These range from distance-closing blink strikes, to aerial-targeting upward slashes, and even co-operative launch moves that help party members get major air. Utilizing these moves is imperative for clearing out large swarms, and of course, for knocking down the larger monsters in the game.
When engaged with enemies of similar stature, the grapple ability will snatch up the closest enemy and pin or put them into a vulnerable state, allowing your party members the opportunity to wail on them. Where grappling becomes truly useful, however, is when in contest with larger monsters. If a player grapples one of these creatures while close to them, they will cling to the monster and be able to freely climb its body- so long as it isn’t bucking to get them off. Once on a monster, the creature may attempt a number of contextual animations in order to deal with you, the problem, but this is also an excellent opportunity to try cutting off specific body parts, or to expose and exploit certain weak spots.
A Chimera, for example, is a terrifying beast with a lion, goat, and snake head on certain parts of its body. Grappling the beast offers the opportunity to sever the poison-spewing snake head, or knock out the spell-casting goat head. Likewise, some cyclopes will don armor that protects their weak singular eye, but climbing on their back causes them to reach to swipe you away, disrobing them in the process. Ogres, the game’s equivalent of a big, strong guy that will beat you silly, simply rage when grappled, though they will also attempt to fall backwards in order to squash you underneath their own weight. Its the multitude of tiny, animated details like these that make the game’s combat immensely rewarding.
Leveling up abilities and character base stats is a multi-pronged process, involving class points accrued from quest completion and monster slaying, experience gained from similar activities, and of course, buying, equipping, and upgrading certain equipment. Dragon’s Dogma does the equipment enhancement concept right, with three tiers of increasing ability for every piece of armor and weapon, and additional late- to post-game unlocks that take a great deal of effort to obtain, but are well-worth the investment.
Players choose what class they wish to experiment with at the start of the game- hardy warriors, sneaky striders, or mystical mages, and can mix and match abilities based on how much of the class they have mastered. Dual- and advanced-class options are available, allowing players to complicate their loadout further with new tactics and abilities both passive and active, all on the way towards mixing and matching the perfect character class for themselves.
But what if you’re the type who prefers a stealthy, long-ranged approach and doesn’t like to get down and dirty with goblins? This is where the game’s expansive and very creative Pawn system comes into play. Just like the playable character creator, Pawn are designed from an extensive customization palette and given a starting class. Each player designs their own Pawn as a permanent companion, but they may recruit Pawns from the game’s own reserves or Pawns shared from other accounts who have uploaded their creations to online servers. While only the player character and their Pawn gain levels, one may recruit higher level Pawns for a price or for free if they are of an equal or lower level. This allows players to create specific party compositions for certain kinds of engagements, allowing for player specialization in a specific role and a balanced party of supports.
Pawns aren’t very bright, but they are extremely capable in combat, and offer a variety of hints, tips, and lore depending on their specific strengths both in and out of combat. Despite their soulless nature, they add a great deal of character to the game, and their inclusion is welcome. If one should ever tire of their banter, they can always turn off their dialogue in the in-game menu screen.
Narrative and Aesthetics
The story of Dragon’s Dogma is filled to the brim with twists and turns, from its unexpected start, to the many odd and jagged zigzags it makes along the way. The way the game’s very thoroughly fleshed-out lore and world are revealed over the course of its multitude of quests is impressive, though not always evenly paced. Because of the expansive nature of Gransys, there can often be a substantial amount of time during which information is not relayed to the player, instead needing the assistance of the Pawns through their colorful, yet somewhat repetitive dialogue.
Some cutscenes are used to accentuate specific details during story-related quests, but often, narrative threads are continued a long while after they are established. Who this rewards is a detail-oriented individual, able to keep track of the four-to-five key plotlines that weave their way throughout the various narrative-based quests. Unfortunately, the sometimes obtuse and rote objectives of other side-quests can obscure these plot points.
It’s rather impressive that the game manages to establish such a rich and unique location, however, with details about Gransys and lands beyond filtered through bits and pieces of dialogue. All of these choices are enhanced by a sense of agency throughout, as the player is given freedom to interact at specific points in order to alter the relations they have with specific narrative figures. That’s not to say the game isn’t without its occasional lapses into bizarre characters and behavior, of course, but it maintains a grim and level-headed tone throughout.
The wrapping paper and bow of the writing, creature design, and combat is the high fantasy setting used by the game.
Although the character creator allows for a bit of absurdity, the end result is more often than not something that looks pretty (or pretty ridiculous) in neutral lighting and a bit ugly in the environments. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, as most character models in Dragon’s Dogma aren’t all that aesthetically pleasing. Enemies are suitably disgusting and horrendous, textures are earthy and muted, and the entire world gives a feeling of near-collapse, assisted by the crumbling design of most structures outside Gran Soren.
There are a few armor designs that err towards “sexy fantasy” rather than traditional, but the overall design is geared towards sensible and practical outfits. Yes, it’s not a beautifully breathtaking game in terms of graphical fidelity, though a number of its landscapes are impressive and tranquil, but what Dragon’s Dogma attempts to achieve is successfully executed, even with its dated and limited appearance options on Nintendo Switch.
Experience and Conclusion
Dragon’s Dogma is a game that features impressively consistent performance, even when multiple enemies of varying sizes are taking shots at the player character. Although I experienced one slightly horrifying “face slingshot” at the start of the game, these occurrences became infrequent to non-existent in a matter of hours. The most punishing aspect of the game itself doesn’t come from inconsistencies in design, difficulty, or balance, but rather, how the save system works.
Despite the amount of quick travel teleports you make, or the amount of landmarks you pass, Dragon’s Dogma is a bit unforgiving when it comes to autosaves, meaning you can lose around an hour and a half of progress if you should forget to save while charting unknown territory. In the process, you’ll lose whatever you mapped or collected and be booted to your last true checkpoint- wherever that might be. This means prolonged expeditions are risky at every point in Dragon’s Dogma, especially because larger beasts can and often do appear out of the blue to royally screw you up.
There is one other element that may draw some ire from role-playing enthusiasts, and that is the natural aging process of most consumable items. When a player strips meat from the hide of a beast, or gathers herbs and plants for usage, each item can exist in the inventory for a certain span of time before aging and eventually rotting, meaning the player will need to either preserve them or make use of them as soon as possible. The result of eating rotten materials is often a poison affect, though there are other results for certain combinations, as well. This pressures the player to utilize recovery items whenever possible, which can be seen as either a smart design choice, or a baffling element of realism that doesn’t make the game enjoyable. This reviewer leans more towards the former.
In the end, it’s this odd, grounded energy that sets Dragon’s Dogma apart from most other RPGs on the Nintendo Switch, but it earns its keep due to these unique factors. The story is a slow drip that favors a committed player and the combat is increasingly rewarding due to the way skills transfer from one class to the next. The world of Gransys is varied in a way that is gloomier than the desolate Hyrule of Breath of the Wild, yet also significantly more varied. Additionally, its Dark Arisen content adds brutal and high-level endgame challenges to the mix, offering hours of content to those who have conquered the foes of the base game. Dragon’s Dogma is a rare and special title that, even when removed from its initial launch, continues to enthrall, surprise, and delight.