Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen review: Cheating Death

Death has always been an integral part of Dragon's Dogma. From the intoxicating notion that it could come at any time while travelling the world of Gransys to the corpses that litter an area once you've torn through it, death permeates the narrative like a foul odor. The punishing difficulty ensures defeat in most cases, making it an absolute certainty that a restart will be necessary at least once. That same frustration, however, is what attracted the droves of players to Capcom's open-world RPG in the first place.

Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen ups the ante by introducing Death personified. Your first sighting could end up being your last, though with persistence, even Death itself can be cheated. And that's just one small piece of this sprawling hunk of supplemental content. The austere world of Dark Arisen is a meaty expansion pack that serves up a substantial amount of new material, opening up welcoming arms to veterans and enticing new players with what will inevitably be billed as the definitive Dragon's Dogma experience.%Gallery-177036%

While the option to purchase a digital copy of the expansion exists, players new to the franchise will want to opt for the physical bundle, which includes both an install disc for the Dark Arisen portions of the game and another to launch into the original Dragon's Dogma. At the discounted price of $40, early adopters will find plenty of reasons to repurchase the game (aside from the fact that all previous DLC is now included) in the form of bonuses like 100,000 Rift Crystals, unlimited Ferrystones, and the Gransys Armor Pack.

Dark Arisen is littered with noticeable changes throughout, from the lessened Ferrystone costs to new Portcrystals that offer different options for transportation throughout the world. These will continue to open up after completing a portion of the campaign and include locations such as the Shadow Fort and Witchwood for easier fast travel. Those itching to tear into the new content will want to return to the starting town to take a ferry to Bitterblack Isle, where new areas and new monsters await, including Death itself.

Though I couldn't wait to tear into Bitterblack Isle, I found myself marveling over improvements such as the optional texture pack install, which lessened graphical anomalies and reduced the game's once frustrating loading times. Additionally, menus felt much more streamlined and quicker to navigate, which was certainly appreciated. There are far fewer screens to sift through in order to accomplish anything. Saving is quick and painless, and making quick edits to equipment and other options feels like much less of a slog after the expansion's facelift.

Often, there's so much going on within Gransys – directing pawns, evading death, and completing quests – that you need to be able to get in and get out of an area quickly, whether that means changing out a piece of equipment and exiting a menu to get back to the carnage, or expediting fast traveling to a new area. With the improvements retrofitted onto the original Dragon's Dogma, I was grateful for even the smallest tune-ups. Additionally, item appraisals and the optional Japanese voiceover track are welcome surprises.

Bitterblack Isle is where the party's at though, with ancient evils and 25 new enemies waiting to slaughter you and all your willing pawns. They range from minor annoyances to freakishly huge abominations like the Prisoner Cyclops, a towering beast with spiked armor that damages you as you attempt to grab and hold on. They're nothing particularly exciting, but offer considerable challenge even for higher-level players, thanks to to the specific methods needed to take them down.

Minor threats like Pyro-Saurians (Saurians from the original game, but with fire damage) can be defeated with some common sense strategies like water and ice magic with melee to complete the combo, but larger enemies like Eliminators will test your mettle. These hulking, bull-like behemoths swing enormous hammers, able to knock your character out in one hit.

The Strigoi are no picnic either, filling the "obnoxious flying monster" quota quite nicely, latching onto the player and pawns until you're able to shake them free. Amidst frustrating Living Armor showdowns and various other assaults are the occasional Gazers, which are undoubtedly the coolest monsters you'll see in Dark Arisen (given that Death is basically what we all envision the Grim Reaper to be).

These beasties offer up a formidable tag team of lasers shot from enormous purple eyeballs coupled with tentacles thrust up from the ground around you and your pawns. And beware of the Garm, who typically arrive on the scene after you've dispatched several pesky enemies. The canine-like species is especially irritating after a long struggle, and will appear randomly to ensure you have even fewer moments of "safety" than anticipated.

Aside from the cavalcade of new monsters to slay, there's an exciting new amount of loot to collect as well. Plenty of it is cursed, and must be returned to Bitterblack Isle companion Olra to be identified before use. Collecting pieces of this special armor set is one of the most rewarding aspects of Dark Arisen, especially once it's been completed. It becomes particularly useful when showdowns with Death are added into the fold. Taking cues from Resident Evil 3's Nemesis, the shadowy apparition stalks you and your pawns throughout Bitterblack Isle, often dealing out mortal blows left and right with its signature scythe.

Smart players will regroup with their pawns and deal out small bits of damage here and there to eventually bag a final victory over Death, as that damage accumulates throughout the game. Just like in Tartarus of Persona 3, it's best to make a run for it and come back when you're ready. Still, Death's appearances add some delectable tension to what could have otherwise been routine jaunts through the catacombs of the island, and these showdowns became my favorite part of Dark Arisen, if only for the eventual payoff of bringing the Grim Reaper itself to its knees.

Dark Arisen is rife with plenty of new areas to explore, noticeable improvements to the interface and overall aesthetic, pawn augmentations and ways to beat Death, quite literally. You could simply classify it as a very large add-on, but you'd be better served calling it a souped-up re-release. It's an intriguing love letter to fans of the genre that should, with any luck, reach a greater audience this time around. If you didn't bite before, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is easily the best introduction to the land of Gransys.

As Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is an expansion and re-release of the original game, we have not provided a star rating for this review.

Brittany Vincent is a freelance entertainment writer who wields a BFG made of killer ambition. Find her work at a multitude of digital and print publications like GameSpot, Complex, Maximum PC, Japanator, and more. You can follow her on Twitter at @MolotovCupcake. Hope you like Chiller.