10 May 2015

Post Thoughts: Dragon's Dogma + Dark Arisen

It's difficult to know where to begin with this Post Thoughts; I've been playing Dragon's Dogma and Dark Arisen on and off since 2012. It's a fantastic game and there's so much there, much like when trying to talk about an Elder Scrolls game, that I'm bound to mix things up, miss details out and worst of all not do the game justice. As always, spoilers ahead...

Scale is not something that this game shies away from - not only in the architecture but also for the enemies as well...


Unfortunately, Dragon's Dogma's/Dark Arisen's (or DD/DA) story suffers from all the usual problems with East to West translations (both literally and culturally): i.e. it's confusing and apparently ham-fisted. DD/DA don't try to explain themselves and when they do they aren't overly articulate about it. Luckily, like most Japanese games, gameplay is razor-sharp and this does compensate somewhat for the difference in storytelling taste between Japanese and more Western audiences.

The story itself is actually pretty simple, if you've read the wiki, and works well as a backdrop to the action. It's presented mostly through cutscenes that initiate at the appropriate time and there are always quest markers pointing you toward your next objective, even if you weren't exactly sure why you were doing what you were doing... or what the hell just happened in a cutscene and/or why other characters (or your own) acted the way they did.

I think the story has allusions to the eternal questions of free will and what it is to be human but these points mostly fall flat because they don't provide much, if any, context surrounding the subject as they quite rightly leave the audience to figure out their own answers. I often find that stories that try and ram the author's thoughts on such complex issues end up alienating a good portion of their audience.

The day/night cycle really adds a lot of atmosphere to the game and locations in which you might feel familiar and safe in daylight become troublesome and confusing at night...


Petrification can be a right pain in the... but look how detailed that statue is close-up!! Cool, huh? Almost lifelike...

The cast of characters in this game is quite spectacular but mostly filled by overtly saturated caricatures of the human race. e.g. If someone is sneaky, they're always sneaky and thus there's no depth to any NPC in the game. Since there are so many NPCs in the game I'm not really going to focus on any of them but I have to say I was impressed that they managed to do decently with the voice acting - especially considering they went for a sort of middle English twist to the language that could have easily become too convoluted, turning in on itself from sentence to sentence.

Your character, the Arisen, is mute and apparently gobsmacked by most of what's going on in the world during cutscenes... which is actually quite appropriate! I don't really miss the fact that the Arisen doesn't talk as I don't really think it would have added much, if anything, to the game experience and could have potentially detracted from a player identifying with their character had poor voice actor choices been made.

Whilst every NPC in the game has a unique name, the majority of people are unimportant. For the few that are important for quests and shop-keeping the majority are pretty forgettable with a few exceptions (for whom I shall now forget the names!) such as the female shopkeeper, the witch, the wizard and the spymaster. You'll know them when you meet them. There were a few characters that were truly annoying such as the guy who keeps fainting everywhere but other than that the designers have left the player to enjoy playing the game and world without forcing dialogue on players.

Speaking of dialogue... the pawns, in DD at least, never shut up. There are a few catchphrases that I actually started repeating to myself in the real world and sometimes I started to remix them a little. ("Treasure, perhaps... or the ruins of such?"). This was toned down somewhat in DA and I actually began to miss their utterances, much like the children who you might think would be well off out in the world on their own but whose absence in your life leaves an expectant hole.

The pawns are actually quite interesting characters, given that they learn from what you do in play and from what you command them to do... and you can also control their temperament and actions by speaking to them in the knowledge chairs but I'll get to that later on.


Battles can be epic and late-game areas will be very challenging to even experienced players who aren't keeping track of the progress of the fight...

What is quite nice is that the player's actions and choices throughout the game have both large and small consequences in the game world with characters and whole quests disappearing from the game if you chose one course over another. This isn't one of those wishy-washy "you can do everything, almost" games like Fallout 3/The Elder Scrolls where you can end up leader of every guild in the world (not that I'm saying they're bad games!).

The downside to this is that - and I'm presuming this was a "lost in translation" moment - the game does not always do a good job of making clear just exactly what choices will result in. There are decisions whose consequences should be kept secret or obscured until after you choose but sometimes there are quite clear choices where the consequences are known but you're not quite sure what to do to achieve the desired result. This is sort of a theme throughout the game and its interfaces, for example: the new game + selection. It's not clearly apparent from the warning text whether you're wiping your characters and starting a new game (which you can also choose to do) or just keeping the characters and restarting the story.

Similarly, managing your pawn's inclinations and tendencies is also obfuscated somewhat and the "knowledge chair" doesn't repeat all the questions every time you sit in it - meaning that if you mess your pawn up the first time, you can't just sit back down and undo the damage.

For some types of players this sort of thing is a net positive as it allows good replayability and mastery of the game as the reward for thorough experimentation. Other, less patient or time-sensitive players will not enjoy this aspect. The developers have seemingly been aware of these potential shortcomings and limitations on the audience for the game as they have improved several aspects in the retooled Dark Arisen.

It's best not to travel alone in the world of Gransys...

There are some perks for having owned the original and then purchasing DA, some armours and outfits - which can be purchased at the Black Cat anyway for new players - and an "eternal ferrystone" (the item that allows unlimted fast travel) that does not destroy itself as the normal ferrystones do when used. Unfortunately, players who do not have a DD vanilla save will not receive this eternal ferrystone - which I think is a bit of a shame as it's incredibly useful. Even if it was a late-game quest reward for players of DA rather than given at the beginning for players of both versions of the game. The cost of purchasing ferrystones in DA is also significantly reduced which means that even at late game, most fresh DA players will be able to move about the macro world at will. 

Regardless of this, early in the game you're going to want to travel and explore the land in order to understand where things are, what enemies you'll face and also to level up your skills and attributes. The class system in this game is deceptively simple whilst being quite complex underneath and, in my opinion, it's one of the most well-rounded gameplay experiences I can think of in my gaming life to date. There are six main classes for the player and the pawns and three additional cross-class options for the player. Each class is fun to play in its own way and each fits into the puzzle of what makes up a good adventuring group.

Speaking of which, the "player plus three AI companions" was an exciting decision for the developers to put into this game for me. I love adventuring with a party but don't have the friends, nor always the inclination, to pull it off. This is a nice middle ground that allows you to use the pawns of your friends (and strangers) without having to worry about synching game times with other actual humans. It works very well and I enjoy customising my pawn to send out to help other people. It also cuts out potential rifts and arguments with your cohorts as the AI will always want to accomplish the goals and tasks that you prefer to do at that point in time.

Directing the pawns is fairly simple – you have four (in reality three) commands at your disposal on the D-pad: ‘Come’, ‘Go’ and ‘Help’. ‘Come’ is relatively straight forward: it calls your pawns to your side from whatever they are currently engaged in and is useful to bring them around obstacles and tricky path-finding areas when moving around the world though pawns will warp to your location if they are too far away from your character – which is a nice touch. This command is also useful to bring pawns out of danger of the dangerous attacks that large adversaries can launch at your party.

‘Go’ is to send your pawns forward to stand before you in an attack or seek out foes that are further from your position. ‘Help’ is assigned to both left and right directions on the D-pad and, unfortunately, it feels like an unfinished feature in both games largely due to the fact that there’s no difference in the outcome if you use either left or right directions; your pawns will either heal you, cure your ailment/condition/debilitation or buff you with enchantments. The pawns themselves decide what the action will be and, aside from having pawns with only certain types of spells in their repertoire, you are at the mercy of the pawn’s character and knowledge – which is notoriously tricky to get just how you want it (potions notwithstanding!). There are many players that say that the left and right d-pad commands will result in different effects on the learning and behaviour of your pawn but I cannot state with any certainty that this is fact.

Actions and attacks can be performed freely, even outside of battle... though you should be careful when doing this around NPCs as doing so removes any positive feelings for your arisen and might cause the guards to become hostile - not to mention kill the NPC!

Heading back to the class system, every player will have their own favourite play style but for me the speed and agility of the Strider, Warrior and Assassin are most fun to play, though playing as a wizard or magic archer is probably the most powerful choice in the base game. Switching class is free once they are bought with a small amount of experience points (and once you meet a minimum level requirement) which means that you can tailor your character's abilities based on what you think you will or want to face, though this process is only possible at an inn and a limited number of other places in the world. The classes are well thought-out and the character levelling system is designed in such a way that you can play however you want and end up with a serviceable character and main pawn. However, there is also a lot of scope for min/maxing and this makes it important to not only choose the right order to experience the classes but also to maximise the lethality of your character.

Character level is independent from class level and this reflects in the overall stats and ability of a character. These stats, e.g. strength, increase upon gaining a level but to different extents depending on the level being gained (a look at the DD wikiwill help understand this) and the class that is currently being utilised when gaining the level.

DD utilises class level rewards named “augments” that are unlocked as you gain levels within each specific class (which also unlock new skills or spells specific to that class). These augments are not class specific and are passive – meaning that it benefits the player to play and experiment in all classes in order to maximise the effectiveness of their character. Not all of these augments are useful for every class (e.g. a reduction in casting time is not helpful for a warrior) but there are some augments gained from playing each class that will have universal potential for increasing the effectiveness of a character. DA also introduced secret augments that can be found during play.

Characters’ stats are also affected by their very physical make-up: height, weight, muscle etc. that are defined at character creation all affect the type of things that your character will be good (or at least better) at. Longer legs and lighter weight/muscle mean faster running and climbing speed but also the ability to carry less weight in the form of items in the inventory.

All of these systems combined form a deep, interweaving subsystem within the game that is, unfortunately, poorly described and communicated but which, when understood, provides a very creative and complex gameplay experience.

Adding to this, Dark Arisen has even more systems that it brings to the table. One such system is the cursed items. These are unknown "things" (they look like bubbly grapes in the inventory) that you can pick up from chests and defeated enemies. They actual item is "underneath" the grape curse and its properties (such as weight) are obscured and do not have an effect on the character carrying them. To remove the curse and discover what the item is, you need to take it to the NPC at the start of Bitterblack Isle.

Grand Soren - 'tis a peaceful, idyllic place or so it seems...

A very important mechanic to note is that death is impermanent (with one exception) in DD and DA. When NPCs are killed or knocked unconscious on an escort quest they will respawn at some point in the future. The exact time varies between characters but on average an in-game week will see you be able to find the person again. Some players suggest consecutive "resting" at an inn to speed this wait up but I quite like the opportunity to go off and explore for a while. This mechanic is welcome in a game where losing access to an NPC can cause you to be unable to sleep in an inn, sell items and, more importantly, finish and access quests! I actually prefer this solution to Bethesda's work-around whereby all plot-important NPCs are unable to be killed; only be knocked unconscious. Sometimes this is referred to as "plot armour".

Speaking of the NPC deaths, I should take the time to mention the quest system. There are literally a metric ton of quests in this game - though most of them are not the "go here and do that" sort. Some are very poorly explained and others do not even properly update your log when you complete a portion of their multi-stage segments.

The primary quests are given by interacting with important NPCs, such as the chamberlain, queen, spymaster, etc. Secondary quests are given by interacting with normal NPCs such as shopkeepers and/or overheard from people ranting or conversing in the streets (especially in Gran Soren). These quests are the typical type of "find X for Y" or "investigate location X and report to Y". The last type of quest is the notice board quests. These are split into escort quests and "kill X of Y".

The "kill X of Y" quests should always be taken immediately when you see them as they can sit in your quest log and gradually get completed through normal game play. There's no time limit to them and you can't really "fail them" even when the game throws up such worrying notices as "if you pass beyond this point, all current questlines will be abandoned", which it does a few times during the game story progression. This is referring to the primary and secondary quests types.

The escort quests are actually quite hard and it is advised to not do these until you have explored a lot of the world map, put down port crystals in good intermediate locations and also levelled up a fair way. This might mean that you'll miss a few of these quests (as I believe they can expire) but this is more preferable than having that NPC disappearing for a week of in-game time as noted above.

There are a few different notice boards in the game which provide access to different quests. This means that you have to travel to each one to see which quests are available at a given time. While I can't remember, off-hand, the whereabouts of them all these are the main ones: The inn in Cassardis, the alehouse in Gran Soren, the watchkeep where you fight a hydra and the island cove entrance in DA.

The enemy design in the game is generally of a high quality and ranges from simple stand and fight tactics to having to deal with multiple enemy 'states' or aspects before their core health can be whittled away...

The good thing about being able to restart the game after "finishing" it is that you can retry all the quests and this is exactly what happened to me the first time I played through as I "hurried" along near the beginning of the game in order to not let the trophy go "off" and inadvertently missed out on a good portion of primary and secondary quests.

Weapons and armour are very important to many RPGs and DD/DA are no exception. There is a plethora of items to collect, find and farm to get that all-important loot drop. Once an item is obtained then that is also not the end of the story - not only can they be improved by combining materials from felled enemies (along with a good chunk of money) but they can also become "dragonforged" through defeating dragons. In DD, dragonforged is the best you can do for each piece of armour or weapon. However, in DA, already dragonforged items can be further improved up to three times by Barroch using materials that drop from the new, harder and more punishing enemies that exist on Bitterblack Isle.

While the gameplay in the expansion area is identical to that in the main game, the level design and aesthetic is very different. Not only are the areas more beautiful and draw the player's eye to interesting or important features with lighting and view lines but each area has much more of a vertical component to it allowing secrets or paths to be placed in plain sight but that require exploration to discover. There is also quite a lot of reuse of area art and rooms in Bitterblack Isle but that is explained via the in-game story and it also contributes to the mystery surrounding the area.

The party system itself has a lot of synergies that work well between different classes. Most importantly the way that players or pawns can imbue their allies with magicked elements - providing a way to damage resistant foes (e.g. with fire or ice damage), remove ailments (such as blindness) and heal the party.

The magic system is actually quite nuanced with multiple levels of spell potency, casting time and the ability to lock-on or free aim. The most powerful spells require more time to incant, thus requiring your team to divert enemies' attention from the casters as they do so, but also can do massive damage and disrupt or turn a battle in your favour. Allowing two fighting professions to also perform certain types of magic was also a great touch - allowing players who do like to get into the thick of things but who also want the ability to mess with magic a way to play the game as they would wish.

Finally, the screenshot mechanic is by far one of the most welcome additions to gaming that I've ever encountered. The ability to rotate and elevate around the point of focus and zoom in and out mean that many cinematic, interesting, funny and memorable experiences can be retained for all to share.

Technical issues/bugs:

The chimera is a great example of unique enemy design: chop the snake off to stop its poison spitting and gorging on your team; kill the goat to silence the magic casting; fell the lion to stop its pouncing. You can do this in any order however, I always feel sorry when I hear the pained bleating and useless flailing when I leave the goat for last...

I’m playing on the PS3 version of the games and I never really had any issues at all outside of the screenshot feature. It would sometimes not like being in certain orientations and would roll around (or freak out) and not take pictures at all.

I also had one crash in all my hours gaming across both versions of the game that probably resulted from a memory leak or something as things were not being recorded. The situation was that I was fighting a golem and taking a load of screenshots of the event – especially because I was using bolide a lot. Performance started to decrease and then the AI for the golem just stopped, mid stride, and I wasn’t able to damage it any further. Eventually the game crashed and I was really worried for my save file. However, the game started up again perfectly fine, though the screenshots and my progress had not been recorded for a while before the fight in question.

I do worry a bit with the use of a single game save file since it might be possible for this to become corrupted if the game is saving and there’s interruption to the power supply for whatever reason. I think that, for a game that encourages so many hours (I’m over 150 hrs played) to be put into it, it doesn’t make sense to not have a backup. In fact, I have backed up my save data to PC (via USB storage) especially when I updated to Dark Arisen! This also limits the possibility of having multiple arisens and pawns which has resulted in many players resorting to multiple accounts and save-swapping.


I'm not really dead... I'm just resting - I'm feeling much better, really!

In many ways it’s incredible that DD and DA were possible at all. The fact that the game world is bespoke, not randomly generated and very large, how late in the lifecycle of the current generation it was released*, a unique online system that doesn’t penalise players who don’t want it and how deep an experience that actually works well and isn’t riddled with exploits and bugs all seem incredible when compared with other releases on every platform.

In light of this I can excuse the poor dialogue and story and the incredulous “acting” of your main character and the developers for not implementing an expandable backend which resulted in the release of Dark Arisen as a full title instead of an expansion/DLC. Dragon’s Dogma (and even more so, Dark Arisen) is an excellent game of rich exploration – not just of the game world but of its systems as well.

Backseat Designing:

Different classes and abilities can best deal with different enemies...

This is an almost perfect game, in my opinion, but there are still some tweaks I’d make outside the usability and transparency of the game interface and mechanics. The first is that I would allow multiple characters per account but keep the same pawn across the whole of them. This would, I imagine, deal with the issue that I think the developers were trying to address because of the game’s sharing of pawns between the community where this system might become overloaded or convoluted through people having multiple pawns they were sharing.

I would also make it so that the pawn’s level and equipment is constant between the various main characters of an account so that new playthroughs as a different character would be rewarded as you could bring along your high level pawn – as you can currently from your friends list. In the same way you could also share equipment between characters by equipping it on your pawn or “gifting” it to your other characters through your pawn.

The developers did include ways to actually change your character’s appearance but this doesn’t really sit well with me because you have to discard your character if you truly want to start from scratch and not just change the way they look and sound.

Deciding to only give the eternal ferrystone to players of the original game was also a mistake (as I mentioned above) and I would have this as a reward at the start of the game for transitioning players but one at late game (with a quest) for new players.

I would also improve the pawn command system – changing one ‘help’ button to cause buffs and enchantments and the other to cause healing of conditions/debilitations and health. I think that it would greatly enable the player to take control of certain unfortunate instances in battles that would otherwise result in death or complete rout because the pawns were not aiding you in the required manner – e.g. you’re fighting foes that are weak to fire and ice and yet your pawns refuse to re-buff your weapons with those enchantments, instead suddenly deciding to switch to dark or light enchantments. Perhaps quickly pressing twice on the direction would result in them changing behaviour i.e. switching which spell or ability they had been using and telling the AI that they were doing something that you did not want.

The inclusion of the ability to take screenshots cannot be understated and, although it was improved ever so slightly in Dark Arisen, I would like to further improve it by allowing 360 degree movement along with lateral and vertical positioning so that you could really frame your shots like you would with a camera. Personally, I hope this feature is really taken note of by other development houses and implemented on newly released games for PC and the next gen Xbox and Playstation as it really adds a lot of value to myself and many other gamers in being able to share our gaming experiences with our friends and peers. While the XBO and PS4 can take screenshots and videos, there is no ability to "frame" shots as you can in DA or as I would like above.

The Ur-Dragon is one of the late-game grinding bosses and is tough enough to fight when in offline mode. In online mode, it becomes a multi-generation, simultaneous experience shared by players all over the world...

*Publishers are (apparently) very reluctant to release new IP except at or near new hardware releases. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for me but, hey!

1 comment:

Duoae said...

I know that Shadow of Mordor has an even better screenshot mechanic but that's the only game I'm aware of that has such a detailed system...