Originally released in 2013 as an update to Dragon’s Dogma, this expansion stands tall as a relatively focused and uncomplicated action game. In a year that’s given us the sublime audiovisual wonderment of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn, Dark Arisen—even in a remastered package—is a humbler, uglier attempt to convey the experience of a so-called open-world environment, where a plethora of quests and gameplay whims vie throughout for the player’s attention. Beneath this unremarkable surface, though, is a simple appreciation for how monsters like dragons and chimeras drive human beings to incredible feats of strength and endurance.
After you create your playable character in Dark Arisen, you’re thrust into a battle that has a dragon attacking the coastal town of Cassardis. Victory will not be possible here, as the dragon, which speaks in a strange tongue, rips out the heart of your hero. But your protagonist somehow lives, and sets off on a mission to find the dragon and stop its streak of terror across the land.
Even in its remastered form, this expansion stands tall as a relatively focused and uncomplicated action experience.
This premise, almost inexplicable in its absurdity, feeds into a relentless sense of adventure at the cost of human complexity. Though loaded with plenty of townspeople and potential allies, the game doesn’t take comradery or righteousness all that seriously. Your party members, who can be anything from fighters to sorcerers, are literally called “pawns” and can be swapped out at designated points like objects. Pawns not only have varying skills, but also different types of knowledge, such as insights into how to kill violent creatures, which they’ll spout out throughout your journey. Their traits, similar to those of the hero, don’t matter outside of how they help get a job done.
One might call director Hideaki Itsuno’s approach to RPG parties inhuman or regressive. But where Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn try to tie their open-world playgrounds to a dignified sense of heroism, Dark Arisen unpretentiously desires to be nothing more than a spectacle of action waiting to erupt at any moment. The game’s thrilling kineticism is most evident in unexpected encounters with giant beasts that you can climb so as to land deadly blows to their weak points. Yet even a mundane-sounding quest like catching a thief can turn into an enjoyable display of agility, as responsive controls and highly interactive environments allow the player to feel a dogged determination while sprinting or climbing various structures.
Capcom shoots pacing in the foot a bit with an illogical system where running outside of the game’s two (yes, only two) towns drains the player’s stamina, but jumping and general hacking have no effect. This design choice is especially irritating since the limited means of fast travel makes running everywhere an ever-present temptation. But the long journey comes with the reward of distinct special techniques that can be chained to devastating effect, whether solo or in collaboration with pawns. There’s nothing like the multifaceted excitement of hearing an ally yell out a strategy as you and another friend tag-team a spear-carrying lizard, all while a ferocious chimera readies a spell to put your party to sleep. Dark Arisen, evocative of the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic and energy of fantasy flicks like Jason and the Argonauts and Excalibur, offers up action that trumps the promises of freedom and never-ending content of so many of its open-world cousins.