dragon's dogma characters on nintendo switch

Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (NS) Review

The Switch is, or at least in my personal experience has become the machine of choice for large RPG adventures. The ability to play large games in chunks anywhere and at different times thanks to portability and the ease of a touch of a button “sleep” mode has made playing massive games quite an enjoyable, and achievable task.

In fact the only thing that has kept the system from truly being the perfect gaming machine has been the fact that (understandably so) it is underpowered, sitting somewhere between the Wii U and the base Xbox One in the power ranking meter.

That however hasn’t stopped the system from featuring the three greatest open world adventures in the last 10 years (Skyrim, Witcher 3, and Zelda: BotW) which is a fairly impressive accomplishment for the hardware.

The Switch’s position as a bridge between Last gen consoles and current gen ones meant that it got, and will continue to get PS3/360 era ports featuring improvements to the overall performance in the ported titles.

Capcom’s Gamble

2012’s Dragon’s Dogma was Capcom’s first first foray into the open world Western RPG fray. Yes, with DD Capcom crafted an adventure of scope and size that was more in line with Fable and Elders Scrolls IV: Oblivion than it was with Capcom’s own JRPG franchise Breath of Fire. 

In fact, there is very little Japanese influence on the surface of the game. For better or worse DD looks like a prototypical Western Fantasy RPG.

Capcom’s bold direction paid off as DD and its expansion went on to sell over a million units.

A Straight Port

DDs Dark Arisen for Switch includes the original full game, and its expansion. It is easily the best way to play the game in comparison to last gen versions of the game and it falls short visually ( and performance wise ) to the PS4 edition by the same name.

This isn’t surprising, for some reason DD originally ran like crap on the 360 ( it was the reason why I only played about 5 hours of it before losing interest) so the Switch version offering a stable (mostly) 30fps experience is a notable if vital improvement.

That said DD wasn’t exactly a great looking game back in 2012, and as such it is a tad disappointing that a greater effort wasn’t made into improving its visuals over the original versions and basically what we get in DDDA, is one of the laziest last gen ports to ever grace the Switch.

Drab and Generic

Like most Capcom games DDDA runs on their MT Framework engine. The engine itself is capable of stunning visuals which makes DDDA’s stale look even a bigger disappointment in the grand scheme of things.

The art work itself is a 101 crash course of Western Fantasy mainstays. Everything from the NPCs, to the huge variety of enemy types look generically Western. The generic visuals have more in common with Two Worlds pedestrian take on the fantasy open world, than it does with Skyrim’s spectacular grandeur. 

The castles, and caves all look the part; bland, generic and drab. There is nothing that seasoned players haven’t seen in other better games, and in greater glory.

I can forgive uninspired artwork, after all Capcom wanted to make a western style RPG, and that they unequivocally did. If I hadn’t known Capcom was behind DDDA’s creation I would have swore it was a product of Western Game makers.

What I can’t overlook is the technical deficiencies, even when compared to last gen versions of Skyrim.

The foliage in the Switch (which is a powerhouse in comparison to last gen hardware) is as disastrous as it was in the PS3/360 versions of the game. The foliage literally loads and pops in a few meters in front of your character. This is a problem in other games, but all of those other games including Skyrim look worlds better than DDDA does.

What makes the short pop up distance more jarring is the fact the most of the environments are not as dense and as stunning as Skyrim’s world. While the game has trees and bushes here, and there it is clearly behind Bethesda’s offering in that regard. Because of the lack of density in the environments when elements such as rocks and trees pop into view it is quite noticeable, and clearly this is a staple of last gen tech that the Switch should be able to breeze through.

While the environments leave much to be desired, the game also encounters a few hiccups in frame drops, curiously this happens more often when playing undocked which is a rarity on the Switch as the lower resolution on undocked mode usually helps keep the frame rate up (see: Breath of the Wild). This is particularly embarrassing because I sincerely doubt DDDA runs at the standard 720p that most Last gen ports run at on the Switch while the system is undocked.

While the game docked looks sharper than ever at 900p, undocked it is a blurry mess at times, making it hard to make out some of the smaller enemies in forested areas even during broad daylight.

My pawns would scream throughout my playthrough “Goblins!”, and I would run around for a few seconds before I actually saw the damned creatures. The combination of enemies popping in up close because of the horrible draw distance, and the sub 720p undocked resolution made world traversal an occasional pain in the arse.

Now, not every single aspect of the visual package is pedestrian. The character models while generic and devoid of personality for the most part (a few exceptions which I won’t spoil) are very well modeled, nothing along the lines of the Witcher 3 mind you, but top of the line stuff as far as open world RPGs went during the last generation of consoles, and as such they haven’t aged badly.

The same goes for the creatures, including some of the gigantic bosses. Comparisons must be made though, and considering DDDA is competing for your time and money against Skyrim, and Dark Souls on the Switch. Bethesda’s effort is obviously bigger, and a much more majestically ambitious game that holds up beautifully today. While Dark Souls remains a shining example of incredible artwork and technical mastery.

In short DDDA is by far (out of the three titles) the inferior product in terms of looks. That is not necessarily a terrible thing, From Software made in Dark Souls one of the most hauntingly beautiful games of last gen and Skyrim as much as we can debate and criticize the character models, in terms of landscapes was really unmatched until the Witcher 3 arrived on more powerful hardware.

DDDA however fails at things that it shouldn’t on the powerful Switch, things like a steady 30fps framerate, a 720p res while undocked and a decent draw distance should be easy for the hardware to handle on a game what was released in 2012.

Inspired by Oblivion, but plays like the Witcher 3

dragon's dogma gameplay on nintendo switch

I know, “heresy!!” many will scream in condemnation of that heading. We must keep in mind that the Witcher 3 was still in the development cradle a few years after DD first saw the light of day, and yet somehow it is the RPG that DDDA most resembles.

I am not saying the Witcher 3’s development team drew inspiration from DD, but I am also not so sure that they didn’t.

Many have described DDDA as a game that stands somewhere between Dark Souls and the Elder Scrolls (mainly Oblivion and Skyrim) in the gameplay, and artistic spectrum. In my opinion that’s a misguided description.

In truth, by Capcom’s admission Oblivion was an inspiration (DD was likely in its final developmental stages by the time Skyrim arrived on November, 2011), and the setting (Knights, castles, Green forested areas, and an assortment of bandit, goblin, troll enemies) bear a resemblance to Bethesda’s 4th entry in their popular Elder Scrolls series.

It is also true that the 3rd person combat bears a resemblance, albeit less polished to Dark Souls brand of fighting. We will add to that: the nameless, silent protagonist gimmick that both DS, and Oblivion used as it is also at play here in DD.

On the surface it seems that indeed it is a game caught between ‘two worlds’ (which is ironically the name of a popular, yet badly received two game series that also made a mark in the fantasy open world genre back in the 360/PS3 era) but on deep inspection DDDA is for better or worse its own brand of action RPG gaming.

There is nothing in DDDA that made me think ‘Dark Souls’, and I should know because I played about 90 hours of DS over the summer.

DS was a different beast. The way it approached combat was different. Grinding worked, as it does in every conceivable RPG ever made, but your skill had to grow along with the stat numbers or you were going to have a messy, frustrating time with the game.

DDDA is way, way more forgiving in that area. Yeah, you can get killed if you venture too far, too quickly, and run into a group of high level enemies but that doesn’t make it (DDDA) Dark Souls. Venturing out of the predetermined path has led many to an RPG death since the 90s (possibly since the 80s) so in that regard DDDA is just following established RPG conventions.

DDDA, provided you take on all the Quests that are handed out to you is actually a game of medium, and maybe for some easy difficulty. Just mashing (buttons) my way through, and healing when in trouble served me well in pretty much every single fight. DS required near perfection, and mastery of its defensive, and offensive systems (Astorias was hell). DDDA requires that you have decent equipment, healing items and a decent exp level in order to succeed. Skill helps but it is not a requirement for the completion of the game or its expansion.

That’s not to say that the investment of time in the game is minuscule. This is a long game, over 60 hours to be exact. It takes time to do the many quests and errands that grant you precious EXPERIENCE points.

But the game is not the solitaire, depressing expedition into despair that Dark Souls is, DDDA is much brighter, much more forgiving, and much more in line with the Elders Scrolls in that sense.

Oblivion’s influence begins with the art direction of both the world, and its population. But Capcom never really took the game further into Oblivion’s path either. So its similarity to Oblivion also ends in the superficial.

Oblivion offered a true open world game: you could go anywhere, and hop your way over every hill and mountain in the distance. DDDA in turn, follows a more traditional Japanese blueprint with mountains serving as natural barriers in between the different roads available for traversal. That’s only one of the many differences between the two games.

What I am trying to convey is that the only things that DDDA shares with Oblivion and DS are the general traits that pretty much every action RPG in the open world genre inherently possess.

DDDA carves an identity in spite of its pedestrian tale

DDDA is its own game, and does things its own way. It is a unique experience in the “open” world action RPG genre.

The game has an interesting way of presenting its quests to the player. Unlike other games in the genre, DDDA doesn’t make a distinction between “Side Quests”, and actual “Story Quests” therefore it forces the player to tackle most, if not all of the quests in order to advance in the story.

After a slow start, DDDA introduces a few interesting characters and villains. Said characters never really get much of a chance to develop, but unlike other games such as the Elder Scrolls Series, DDDA tries hard to deliver a dramatic (if at times ridiculous tale) and the game suffers a bit for it.

At times I wondered if it was necessary to have much of a plot line apart from the main “Get your heart back from the Dragon while saving Gransys in the process” end goal. Silent protagonists seldom work in epic tales, and the game is designed as a big grind for experience points and crafting materials for weapon and armor enhancement.

In other words DDDA attempted to bring an engrossing tale to the open world action RPG genre a few years before The Witcher 3 did, unfortunately Capcom’s effort fell flat on its face.

Skyrim succeeded in spite of its pedestrian storytelling and silent protagonist…but it had a world and a population that felt alive. One would power joyfully through Skyrim because the game would place you in situations during the quests that could take a turn towards the unexpected (and they often did) DDDA offers no such joy.

Most quest are of mundane, if predictable nature: Fetch an item and bring it back to an NPC, go to a cave or ruin somewhere and eliminate some monsters and report back to the NPC that set you on the quest, etc. None of those quests really set the plot on fire. Only a few of them have any character development at all, and as such the game feels like an exercise in constant battling (which is required in order to consistently level up).

There were loose ends at the conclusion of the game, and though the ending is interesting and takes a turn towards the unexpected (if not weird) it only serves to hammer the point about the story being one of the weaker ones seen in the genre even though Capcom seemed to genuinely try to craft a decent tale.

Gransys (the game’s world) has a history of dragons, pawns and Arisens. Yet there is no lore to be sought out, nothing that would enrich my experience in this fictional fantasy world, and because the story is so unfulfilling it truly hurts the immersion in the game.

Your main character “The Arisen” has a party composed of 4 members; A customizable pawn, which you get to name, customize his/her appearance and skill set, and two other pawns found at spots with Rift stones that transport you into a weird void where you pick and choose Pawns constantly in the game as these optional pawns can’t Level with you thus the need for constantly replacing them with higher level ones.

While the pawns help immensely in combat…aside from your main pawn (I won’t spoil that part) none of them really add anything but generic chatter, and a lack of substance to the story. Pawns are meant to be empty soul less vessels, so I guess them having little to no personality fits the bill.

If you play games of this nature for story purposes DDDA isn’t going to rock your boat.

A Lengthy Undertaking

DDDA does excel at crafting a Lengthy adventure, with plenty of monsters and bandits to kill. The main game can easily take 40 hours to complete. There are annoyances that make the game longer than it should and they will not go unnoticed.

First, and perhaps worst of all, there is a stamina meter. For Switch owners that have played BotW…yeah it works exactly the same. Sprint through the world, let the meter run empty, and you will be treated to a few annoying seconds of the character slowly stopping to a crawl in order to catch his breath.

Traversal through the game world gets quickly annoying because the character moves slowly even under normal circumstances. To further compound this issue, your character has a weight limit as to how many items, armor, materials he/she can carry. The heavier the load…the slower your character becomes, further slowing the time it takes to get anywhere in the game on foot.

Now, the weight limit for carrying stuff has always been present in open world games. Skyrim being big on it, however, never since I first played Morrowind on the OG Xbox have I ever encountered a game in which I had this much trouble with stamina and weight limit issues.

There is a way to store your items at Inns but even then, it is an annoyance, and because every monster drops important materials, and the world is full of chests and mining spots; storage didn’t really solve my issues.

I understand the strategic value of having a stamina meter and a weight cap for items during combat, but for normal Traversal both limits should have been more forgiving.

Which brings us into the combat itself…which is mostly responsive, but a high-level, and good to great equipment is a must for success. Vocations (classes) such as Fighter, Strider, Assassin etc. Are useful in providing abilities, and certain statistical benefits. The fact that you can’t change classes in mid fight is a bummer, as a Fighter can’t use a bow, and encountering a flying wizard mixed with other enemies can become a problem when you have to rely on pawns bringing the wizard down for you. So choosing the right vocation early on is impactful.

There are positive things that DDDA does too; it’s level progression system is better than the Witcher 3’s and rewards combat. Quest completions (Like in W3) grant the highest amount of EXP. But unlike W3, grinding and fighting enemies grants sizable EXP points making combat a more meaningful, and productive venture.

The game can be unforgiving, especially in the expansion. Go ill prepared into a fight with a Cockatrice in Bitterblack Isle, and you will quickly see the game over screen by being turned to stone in the blink of an eye. When Capcom says the recommended level to start the Dark Arisen expansion is 50 they are not kidding in the least. At level 55 I found death a few times early on in the isle’s labyrinth.

The bigger foes can be climbed on (Like in Shadow of the Colossus) but I found myself rarely doing this because of Stamina issues. DDDA mixes a lot of ideas from previous open world games and combines them to somewhat good results.

There are light attacks, heavy attacks and special attacks that consume stamina. You gain attacks and special skills depending on your Vocation level. It is a simple yet effective system, and I did have fun and tense moments during battles in the game. Some bosses do take an inordinate amount of damage in order to be taken down, and at times it can be frustrating.

Pawns are very useful, and they are a nice addition to the combat system, considering I used a fighter class, most of the big damage delivered to the bosses was done by my pawns and their magic attacks. The pawn system isn’t without isn’t without its faults.

Constant recruitment of Pawns is a necessity because they can’t level up with you, so the pawn that you got at Lv. 10 will remain at that level for eternity; making him/her useless after a few hours of play. Pawns that die during combat also disappear forever, so you have to return to or find a Rift stone to find his/her replacement.

I just found this mechanic sort of an annoyance. In truth you can get better pawns if you have an online account as the game allows other users to share their customization pawns online, but I did just fine playing offline.

One thing I have to mention about the combat that did cause me stressing moments (and not the good kind of stress) was the ability of some enemies especially in the latter part of the game to grab the protagonist, and inflict major; sometimes fight ending damage to him/her. The only way to escape the “death grip” was to violently shake from side to side the left Joy con stick. Most companies know that joy sticks can break so they usually use the buttons instead for this type of situation during gameplay.

I understand that both the Xbox 360 and the PS3’s joy sticks were pretty resistant, but the Switch has faced considerable troubles with their faulty Joy Con drift issues. I cringed every time I had to shake the left stick because I feared I would damage my device. This is something that happened too often for my liking during combat, and Capcom should have been a little more cautious on this port.

Finally it does resemble Dark Souls in something 

While the main game is very different from Dark Souls, the expansion was clearly influenced by the former (greater) title. Bitterblack Isle is an enclosed location, carefully designed as a labyrinth of sorts with different levels. It is always bleak, danger lurks around every corner, and you have to carefully and strategically work your way through it.

The Isle isn’t as brilliantly designed as Lordran was in Souls, but very few worlds aside from Nintendo’s Zelda, and 3-D Mario efforts are. A level above 50 is recommended to start Dark Arisen, so it is recommended to finish the main quest and start a game in the New Game + mode before tackling the difficult new chunk of DLC.

It is nice to get this DLC content wrapped together in this package for the switch as it considerably extends the play time for the game.

Great sounds

One of the bright spots in the game is the music. It was epic throughout. Orchestrated compositions abound and they never get tired some.

Sadly the voice acting is subpar, especially when it comes down to the Pawns. Some villains do have better than average acting, and considering that this type of genre didn’t get stellar storytelling until the Witcher 3, poor voice acting is forgivable.

A solid RPG experience

With more than 80 hours of content for those who tackle the expansion, DDDA is a nice buy for the Switch especially when it is on sale on the E shop quite often. I would recommend Dark Souls over it every day of the week and twice on Sunday, but for those that already tackled that game DDDA offers a new, different and flawed challenge. There are better experiences in the system, but they are pricier.

I didn’t feel that I had played something special when I reached the end credits, but I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time either. So if you love Fantasy action RPGs you should give this one a try.

Gameplay: 7.0 — Standard action RPG fare. Large world, with plenty of quests (most of them being of the fetch and monster killing quest variety) and dungeons to explore. Solid combat system that never reached elite status because of a cumbersome weight cap and stamina system. The Vocation/Class system adds depth, while the Pawn systems adds much needed relief in certain situations. Materials are needed to upgrade weapons and they can be found all over the world but the weight cap system makes the entire operation a cumbersome, if frustrating venture. I fear that some Joy Cons will break because of Capcom’s over sight in utilizing the left stick in order to break up enemies “death grabs” on your character.

Graphics: 7.0 (Docked) 6.0 (Undocked) — The game was flawed last gen and ran badly on the 360 and the PS3. It would have gotten an 8, based on looks then. The game runs better on Switch and at higher resolutions. Pop up, and the drab, generic look didn’t age well. The Switch can do better, a lot better. Capcom truly slacked off on the port.

Sound: 8.5 — Fantastic music, bland voice acting. Not much else to say.

Story: 5.0 — The irony is that unlike Skyrim, DDDA tries hard to deliver a compelling tale but leaves too many loose ends unresolved and basically some major events have little or no consequence to the plot’s resolution at the end. I wondered at times whether Capcom should have just devoted more time into the game world’s lore, instead of delivering a half done, substantially empty love story (if it can be called that), a half done completely unsatisfying political subplot, and an introduction of somewhat interesting characters that never get to do anything after they are introduced.

Replayability: 8.0 — Long main quest, and the included expansion ups the ante in difficulty, and adds a new giant labyrinth of a dungeon and Vocations that will keep players busy for hours on end.

Overall: 7.0 — Not a bad game, but it is dragged down by technical deficiencies and cumbersome gameplay mechanics. The Witcher 3, BotW, Dark Souls and Skyrim are all much better alternatives but for those who have already earned their stripes in the former titles DDDA might be worth a try.