Last year’s Dragon’s Dogma was a delightfully unforgiving third-person action-RPG whose combat mechanics, boss battles, and party system won it a warm critical reception and sales that exceeded a million. Taking place primarily in expansive outdoor environments where fast travel options were extremely limited, it had the player and three trailing NPC “pawns” seek out and destroy a dragon which had literally stolen the player’s heart. Capcom’s first attempt at such a game, it was an off-kilter yet well-executed and thoroughly enjoyable swords and sorcery romp whose thin premise not so much bloomed as exploded during its crazy final act.
For Dogma’s first expansion, Capcom has avoided the DLC route altogether, instead charging mid-price for a bundle that features the original game, around a dozen hours of all-new content, and – for the Xbox 360 only – an HD texture disc that shortens load times. The new content is all found on Bitterblack Isle – a rugged island that appears off the coast of the Gransys mainland about an hour into the game. However, newcomers should be advised that they’ll need to put a serious chunk of time (around 15-20 hours or more) into the main campaign before their party is strong enough to face down even the first handful of beasties that lurk in the new area.
Bitterblack is accessible via a memory-deficient NPC whose vague mutterings make it immediately clear that Dark Arisen will share its parent title’s narrative inertia. It also shares Dogma’s frame rate and pawn command issues, but compounds things by adding its own problems on top. The biggest is that the labyrinthine dungeon of Bitterblack simply isn’t as interesting as Gransys: while detailed, there is little in the way of tonal or environmental variation.
Bitterblack also contains several recycled areas, which further confuse a player already disoriented by some deliberately obtuse level design. The day/night cycle that lends Gransys much of its sense of impending doom doesn’t come into play in the island's sprawling caverns, but the low lighting is admittedly very effective, and the plethora of hidden passages a delight.
Sadly, most new creatures are also recycled – simple reskins of Gransys foes that have a ton more health and deal a proportionate amount more damage. Dogma’s celebrated boss battles are present, but these rarely match the thrills offered by their counterparts in on the mainland. Most are hampered by the confines of Bitterblack, which allow the player to long-range snipe from a perch out of harm’s way, or to lead hapless giants in circles around pillars while peppering them with spells and arrows.
The playing field is occasionally levelled by enemy attacks that clip through walls, or completely flipped by the arrival of another – usually much higher level – boss, which can show up at any time just to keep players on their toes. The best big baddies, then, are those that have been designed specifically for their exact environment, and the challenges they present are a too-infrequent thrill.
As in Dogma, quick deaths at the hands of creatures the player isn’t high-level enough to deal any damage to are fairly commonplace in Bitterblack, but now so are preventable deaths at the hands of lesser beings. While pawns may be commanded to “go”, “come”, or “help”, the intended consequence is rarely seen, so players incapacitated by a special attack are often brutally finished while pawns spectate rather than interrupt.
Framerate drops can also hinder combat, but these are rare, and usually only occur when a multitude of spells and complex enemies are on screen.
Elsewhere it’s as expected expansion-wise: Dogma is a loot-heavy game so there is a ton of new high-level yet unremarkable gear to plunder, along with a new tier of skills to unlock. Arisen also seeks to silence complaints about the lack of fast travel in Dogma by adding more locations and providing many more opportunities to use them, but this removes the tension that used to creep in as daylight faded and the howls of incoming wolves echoed off the hills.
Yet the Dark Arisen package is unquestionably the best way to purchase Dragon's Dogma, and in fact its acquisition is a no-brainer for newcomers to the series. It adds an easy mode to the entire game, cleans up parts of its interface, and comes at the very reasonable recommended retail price of just $50. However, for those who have already sampled the delights and weirdness that characterise Dragon’s Dogma, the Dark Arisen content is disappointingly inessential, and in few ways justifies the asking price.
The bundling of content presents a quandary for scoring this review. The score adjacent applies only to the expansion. Viewed as a package with the original Dragon’s Dogma content, it would be an 8.0.