“Come to Bitterblack Isle,” they said. “It’s lovely in the spring,” they said.
You know what they didn’t say? “Bring your own coffin and shovel.” Now that would have been sound advice for anyone attempting to tackle Capcom’s expansion pack without ample preparation.
Released almost a year ago in May of 2012, Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma has been described as either the “Western Monster Hunter” or the “Japanese Skyrim” depending on which publication you read and, while in some ways it could – at a push – be accurately summed up with those monikers, the truth is that it’s very much its own beast, and one that is perfectly capable of standing proudly beside either of those RPG mammoths, or even bang in the middle, straddling whole landmasses like a slightly over-confident Titan.
For those who may have missed it first time around, Dragon’s Dogma is a semi-hardcore fantasy RPG with an onus on questing, exploration and hitting massive monsters with massive swords. It’s an open-world, party-based affair, wherein your character (globally referred to as the Arisen ever since a dragon ripped the heart from their chest and they came back to life) travels in the company of up to three “Pawns”, servile, joyless warriors plucked from a trans-dimensional Rift to serve the Arisen to the death. The “main Pawn” is created by you and will always remain at your side but, brilliantly, the other two are “borrowed” from the universes of other players.
The game-world, known as Gransys, is a dangerous place, and one where the ill-equipped and unprepared die on the road in random ambushes by stinking goblins, before they have even tasted the glory of battling a full-grown ogre, ferocious Chimera or swooping Griffin. It’s a game-world where food rots in your pack if you don’t eat it, where you grind potions from picked flowers, where you can spend half an hour just walking to your objective and not get bored. While the main game’s storyline deals with the pesky Salvation cult attempting to usurp the throne of Gransys, and the Arisen’s battle with the dragon who stole their heart, the Dark Arisen expansion pack takes an entirely separate route.
You launch the new content by returning to the fishing village of Cassardis under the cover of night and meeting a strange, rambling woman named Olra at the dock. She’ll spin a yarn about Bitterblack Isle, where a terrible evil has awoken that only the Arisen can vanquish, before asking for your help to end the horror. Be forewarned: this is not a quest for the faint of heart or low of level. If you’re under level 40, you needn’t bother; optimally, you should really be approaching Bitterblack Isle having first finished the game – or at the very least with a level 40 character and a pair of secondary Pawns scaled way beyond that.
The bulk of the questing on Bitterblack Isle takes place in the subterranean bowels of the island, a place with more than a passing resemblance to Lordran, the uninviting world of From Software’s sadistic 2011 masterpiece Dark Souls. Familiarity resides in the deep shadows that cloy at the edges of the screen, in the whispering susurrations that stir centuries of dust from dirt-caked flagstones, and in the souls of the slain, trapped forever in their own rotting corpses who can only call out feeble warnings to those who would follow in their footsteps. Make no mistake, Bitterblack Isle is a dark place, far from civilisation and the holds of Godly men. This is not Dragon’s Dogma as you knew it, even if you did spend more time than necessary trudging through that ancient, ogre-infested quarry, or taking in the crumbling majesty of Bluemoon Tower .
Enemies are tougher here, your common or garden wolves and goblins given a boost in lethality and sprinkled around the place as mere side orders to the new abominations on the menu. Elder Ogres are huge and deadly, more frantic in their attacks than their younger brethren and far more stacked in the hit-points department. Killing five of them (five!) will clear up one of the side quests on the Bitterblack jobs board and net you a hefty reward. The second new monster stalking the shadow-haunted halls, the Necrophaegus Beast, is drawn to the scent of death, so the more monsters you kill and the more you stand around battlefields picking fluff out of your navel, the more likely you are to see one – and if you’ve just finished a decent scrap and aren’t fully healed / buffed when it turns up (as I wasn’t the first time it took me by surprise), you’re probably going to die. And finally, you’ll occasionally have to fight Death himself.
Periodically as you traverse the sepulchral gloom of the island’s underbelly you’ll be set upon by the towering, scythe-wielding spectre of the Grim Reaper. He’s an absolute nightmare comparable to the Ur-Dragon in the main game, who can one-shot you or your Pawns without warning. Thankfully, the damage you do to Death is cumulative, so cut and run tactics are not only advisable, they’re the only sensible way to fight him. As I crept through the grim, torch-lit halls of Bitterblack Isle, always aware that Death could appear at any moment – even during a battle with another adversary – I was reminded of Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis. It was the same creeping, over-your-shoulder fear, but here dialled right up so that I felt genuinely on edge.
You’ll encounter allies as well as enemies – though these are in far shorter supply and far less certain in their roles. You’re never quite sure what exactly has occurred on this island, and everyone has an evil streak running just below the surface. Even Olra, a friendly face, is questionable thanks to her dodgy memory and ability to lift curses. Interestingly, Olra is very much like Diablo’s Deckard Cain, able to remove the shroud from a Cursed item and reveal its properties. It’s essentially like using a Scroll of Identify to bring out the magic in the mundane. You’ll even find a dodgy NPC who can add a fourth upgrade star to your equipment, which is very handy when navigating the hollow depths of Bitterblack Isle.
Despite a handful of interesting and morally ambiguous NPCs, the writing is no better than it was in Dragon’s Dogma, and you’ll still find yourself beset by the same manhandled approximation of Olde Englishe and the teeth-shatteringly annoying overuse (and occasional misuse) of the words “ill” and “aught”. In actual fact, although far more than a mere slice of DLC (Dark Arisen will add around 15 – 20 hours of gameplay), the expansion doesn’t introduce many changes or enhancements to the base formula. Combat feels slightly tighter (but that may be absence making my heart grow fonder), and the menus are certainly a little more fluid, though still pretty clumpy and slow to navigate. In regards to progressing your character further, you get a handful of secret augments for all 9 player classes that reward you for various feats.
There’s also a lot more loot, and if you import a character from Dragon’s Dogma you’ll receive a load of new outfits including Ser Julien’s armour and Madeline’s travel gear. The biggest freebie, however, comes in the form of the eternal ferrystone. This little beauty doesn’t do away with the long treks completely, but it makes getting back to Gran Soren to hand in quests much easier. You’re also now able to choose whether to travel to the capital or to Cassardis, and if used in conjunction with a Portcrystal left in a distant portion of the map, the eternal ferrystone makes traversing the expansive kingdom of Gransys much less of a chore. I for one enjoy the tension of emerging from a dungeon only to find that night has fallen outside, I’ve got not no curatives left and I now have the full length of the map to walk. That said, merely possessing the eternal ferrystone has made my life in Gransys so much easier.
There have been no graphical overhauls, but Dark Arisen does ship with a texture pack on a second disc that sharpens up the aesthetics and goes some way to fixing a lot of the visual bugs that plagued the main game. There’s still an issue with waiting for NPCs to pop into existence, and clipping issues abound (especially when you’re dangling from a Griffin’s tail 100 feet above an idyllic country meadow), but on the whole Dark Arisen performs better than its parent game – although, to be fair, that’s not much of an achievement.
Throughout your adventures on Bitterblack Isle there’s a definite sense that you’re running some kind of gauntlet, a test of skill, courage and – occasionally – endurance. The enemies come at you thick and fast and, while the first few areas are filled with the usual blade-fodder you’d find while wandering Gransys’ backroads, later on you’ll find yourself repeatedly thrust into a world of hurt. You can, thankfully, find a few broken Riftstones to repair – and you’ll need them. I lost my main Pawn so often due to his sheer bloody-minded determination to head-butt the Grim Reaper that without the Riftstones as respawn (re-Pawn?) points, I’d have been snookered.
The best thing about Dark Arisen is that it offers new experiences, rather than merely new quests in similar-looking environs. Bitterblack Isle feels brand new, it feels exciting, and it feels bloody dangerous. Even high level characters will sense the ever-present fingers of despair as they descend into the suffocating gloom, and read the message writ large across the crumbling walls that this is no place for the soft.
VERDICT: Capcom have surpassed themselves with Dark Arisen, producing an expansion that feels focused and centred, rather than merely adding a load of new loot and kill quests scattered around well-trodden locales. Bitterblack Isle is the perfect place to send the swaggering Arisens who have already emerged victorious from their battle with the Dragon and have faced everything Gransys has to offer and come away acting a little too big for their boots. It’s not insurmountable, however, and while it’s not as monumentally punishing (or as refined) as Dark Soul’s Lordran, Bitterblack will offer a genuine challenge to those who seek one.
An abundance of new loot and enemies, minor but effective tweaks to the menus and combat, the inclusion of the texture pack (and, oddly, the option to play the game using the original Japanese soundtrack and voice-overs) and the eternal ferrystone (perhaps worth the asking price alone on occasion) combine to make Dark Arisen the definitive Dragon’s Dogma package. Consider also that it ships with the full game included and at a reduced price, and it’s even worth buying new if you own the original. If you’ve finished the game and are ready for something to really test your monster-slaying mettle, stock up on your Greenwarish, pack a couple of extra bottles of lantern oil, hire some of the meanest Pawns you can find and catch a boatride to Bitterblack Isle. Just don’t come crying to me when Death himself hands you your lilly-white arse in a doggy-bag.
BRILLIANT. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.