I never played Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen when it first launched back in 2012 (I assume I’m far from alone in this). The Capcom-developed RPG kind of flew under my radar as my time and attention was dedicated to the likes of Borderlands 2, Mass Effect 3, and Far Cry 3.
So when I heard a cult RPG from one of my favourite developers was being re-released for Nintendo Switch, I was thrilled. I know a lot of people roll their eyes at yet more Switch ports of games from the last gen, but I see it as a golden opportunity to catch up on titles that I missed the first time around, all from the comfort of my train/bed/toilet.
What of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, then? In a nutshell, it’s a fairly average, often repetitive RPG that doesn’t seem to have aged very well. In the years since Dragon’s Dogma released, games like The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild came along and casually destroyed what it means to be an open world role playing game.
Hell, I find it hard to believe that Skyrim came out nearly a whole year before Dragon’s Dogma. Where Bethesda’s open world and storytelling was full of confidence and innovation, the realm of Dragon’s Dogma is claustrophobic, empty, and devoid of personality by comparison.
The lifelessness of the world becomes all the more apparent when you constantly have to trudge back through the same areas (on foot), and find that the enemies you killed on your first trip through have simply re-spawned in the exact same place they were before.
Wandering through an (admittedly very pretty) fantasy realm should be full of possibility. You should feel like anything could happen. Unfortunately, all I was left with was a creeping sense of boredom because the massive world put in front of me was mostly frustratingly rigid.
The story is bare bones fantasy guff with little humour or nuance, and heaps of pointless exposition that you’ll likely not care for. After creating a character from a surprisingly robust creation kit, you immediately have your heart plucked out by a dragon and must set off on a quest to get said vital organ back from the beast.
I’d say there are twists and turns along the way, but that would be a lie. It’s very much more of a straight road with thuddingly obvious story beats along the way.
It doesn’t help that everybody talks in a deeply irritating generic “fantasy” manner, either. The next time an NPC tells me there’s “aught of use in yonder cave” I might actually snap my Switch in two. It’s not immersive, it’s ridiculous.
Yet for all my gripes, I can’t help but feel that the Switch is the perfect home for a game of this nature. The ability to pick up and play Dragon’s Dogma in short bursts at any time actually helps a lot of the game’s more repetitive quests.
Being asked to trek all the way to X to slay X number of X really doesn’t lend itself to longer play sessions, but when you’re on a train or about to go to bed, quickly whacking the game on to explore a dungeon is a genuinely pleasant way to while away an hour.
I’m aware I’ve not really had much nice to say about the game so far, but to be clear, there is a lot to like about Dragon’s Dogma beyond the fact that I can now play it on my Switch.
While the portability of the Switch does help to alleviate some of the game’s more obvious problems, there are some genuinely cool ideas in the game that no doubt helped make it such a cult classic back in the day.
The most immediately gratifying element of the game is the combat system, which in itself is packed with enough variety to help stop all of the quests and generic open world from blurring into one dull slog.
Dragon’s Dogma gives players the chance to choose between multiple vocations (basically classes). Eventually there are nine to choose from, including hyrbids and advanced classes, but all are essentially expansions of the base three; fighter, mage, and strider (archer).
Each class has a massive selection of moves, special attacks, and weapons to master, and you can eventually swap out vocations at any time without losing the progress you’d made in your previous build. This is a nice touch that does even more to help everything feel a little less repetitive.
The repetition in your standard enemies is also broken up by the larger bosslike foes that will occasionally appear to challenge you. These giant beasts can actually be climbed on, Shadow of the Colossus style, as you attempt to hack at their weak points while your party hack and slash at their feet (or claws).
The first time I came across a Chimera in the woods was an incredibly experience, and gripping onto its back as I sliced its snake head clean off was epic and thrilling. It’s just a shame Dragon’s Dogma can’t surprise like that consistently enough, and with every genuine high I knew I was set for another few hours of slog.
Then there are the Pawns. Pawns are NPC characters that you can have join your party on various quests. In addition to a “main” Pawn which you create yourself, you can also have up two others join you. These Pawns are actually based on other players’ character builds, so you have a vast sea of possibility to choose from as you build a party to suit each specific quest.
Pawns (not to be mistaken for prawns) will then follow you on your adventures, aiding you in combat and offering sage advice on whatever quest you happen to have active. I say sage advice. What I really mean is that they literally never shut up and will often speak over one another, so I fully advise you mute them if you want get the most out of the game.
While I do think Pawns (again, not prawns) are a neat idea that help to keep gameplay fresh, I can’t help but feel they come at the expense of actual interesting characters that could have joined your party.
Pawns are, by the game’s own admission, empty shells with little to no personality, meaning you’ll spend hours travelling the world with a bunch of a shallow lifeless husks that you don’t actually care about – Dragon’s Dogma is kind of like going on a press trip with influencers in that way.
All in all, I found myself frustrated by Dragon’s Dogma. I genuinely wanted to like this game a lot more than I did, but for every inspired idea, boss fight, or combat system, there are a dozen repetitive quests that force you to slog through a tedious open world.
It honestly feels to me that every strong concept in the game merely papers over its inherently grindy nature, and that’s a real shame. With a better open world, a more interesting story, and smarter quest design, Dragon’s Dogma could be one of the greatest RPGs of the last decade.
As it stands, a cool combat system and the fact I can now play it on the go only takes it so far, and it’s never long before I find myself wishing I was playing Skyrim or The Witcher 3 instead. I truly believe that any time a game leaves you wanting to play another game more has failed to an extent.
With that said, if you’re after a fairly clumsy, basic RPG to waste some time on an upcoming flight or holiday, you could do a lot worse than Dragon’s Dogma. It’s an imperfect RPG that’s found a perfect home on Nintendo Switch.