On Bitterblack Isle, there's always something nasty lurking in the darkness. Perhaps it's a ferocious wolf that snarls and charges, forcing you to run to safety or block its substantial weight. Maybe it's a two-story-tall ogre, once restrained by impossibly strong chains, now on the loose and hungry for entrails. Or it might be the chilly grasp of death itself, the grim reaper floating menacingly toward you and threatening eternal sleep.
This island dungeon harbors many fears, and is the main new attraction in Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, a rerelease of one of 2012's best role-playing games, with new content added to tempt the faithful back to the city of Gran Soren and beyond. Strangely, Bitterblack Isle isn't available to you any other way, though it would seem to be a prime candidate for release as a downloadable add-on. In any case, if you're a Dragon's Dogma veteran, seeing this new content means buying a new version of the game for $40, though the extensive dungeon is no small morsel, which makes it an intriguing proposition for returning adventurers. What a pity, then, that much of the new content gets in its own way, sometimes making it difficult to enjoy the story's hushed mystery and the undeniable thrills of felling a gargantuan winged cockatrice.
If you're new to Dragon's Dogma, however, be prepared for a journey unlike any other. The core game is a flawed beauty, an almost-classic that merges the open-air qualities of Western role-playing games with the harsh delights and frustrations of Capcom's own Monster Hunter series. The setting is the fantasy land of Gransys, which is flush with soft greens, browns, and grays; it's a weary place, burdened by the colossal creatures that roam its plains. Dragon's Dogma looks initially bland, but the soft consistent hues allow ornate towers to cut a powerful silhouette against the swaying trees. An additional disc allows you to install higher-resolution textures to your hard drive (as well as an optional Japanese voice track), which makes Gransys look sharper than before, though not dramatically so.
As described in the original review, Dragon's Dogma comes with its fair share of frustrations, though the wonders overshadow the weaknesses. Most of the standout moments come by way of astounding encounters with cyclopes, griffons, chimeras, and the like, with many such monstrosities looking like various creature parts were grafted together to create fearsome, never-before-seen breeds. If you choose a melee-combat class, you can leap onto these roaring beasts and climb all over them if you desire, stabbing them in the head until they throw you to the ground in a fit of disgust. Or you might summon an icy eruption and fling your foe toward the heavens, if magic is more your style.
Whichever path you follow, these battles are a constant thrill, with monsters rearing up and flailing about as you might imagine they should, presuming you have ever imagined what the progeny of a wolf and a jumbo chicken would look like. You're joined in these endeavors by three helpers--pawns, as they're called--that express unreserved wonder at their surroundings when not setting goblins on fire. "Perhaps we'll find aught of use," one might say as you scavenge for curatives--and a bunch of other times, too. "Attack when it reels!" another calls out in the midst of battle, reminding you of what you already knew. Having the company of pawns is like babysitting curious children, though like curious children, they often do what they wish, even when it isn't the wisest option. They have a way of getting trampled by ogres even when they acknowledge aloud that it's best to attack from behind, and if they're in the midst of casting spells, they probably won't respond to your manual command to regroup.
Dark Arisen's new area, Bitterblack Isle, offers many of the main game's same delights, but it also tips the scales too far toward the "frustrating" end, especially in the final third of your sojourn. You reach Bitterblack Isle by speaking to a shimmering maiden who appears on the docks at Cassardis at nightfall. Her name is Olra, and she is still piecing together her memories of how she came to the dark, dreary island she transports you to. As you make your way through the dungeon's dank passages, a melancholy tale of love and loss forms, related by the groans of an unseen visitor and the etchings that you piece together on a monolithic memorial.
The cheerlessness carries over into exploration. Bitterblack Isle's biggest battles occur in spacious arenas and gardens, though much of the time, you are trudging through narrow corridors, holding your breath lest some flaming lizard reveal itself. Developer Capcom recommends that you be at least level 50 when you enter, and for the first two stages of the dungeon, that seems about right. There are moments that have you uttering profanities during these hours, though, such as at the first appearance of your pursuer, Death, who sometimes appears in a brief, terrifying moment of near-blackness. This dark lord is likely to mercilessly annihilate you along with any pawns nearby before you realize you're meant to do scant amounts of damage, then run before you succumb to his will.
Elsewhere, enemies are relentless with status effects: you are blinded, drenched, and poisoned so frequently that you might well run out of the items you need to cure yourself. There is plenty of moaning and groaning involved in this process, often when facing another randomly appearing enemy: an ogre that goes into a frenetic rampage when you have whittled his health bar down far enough to make him truly angry. But in the first two-thirds of the game, the obese fiend's appearances aren't insurmountable, and besides, there's always the chance he'll just fall off a bridge and into the chasm beneath.
At this stage, Dark Arisen does a fine job of building terror as you round each bend, only to release it in a life-or-death encounter with a mammoth eyeball and the tentacles that protect it. It's an incredible thrill to leap onto that beast's eyelid and slash away at the unprotected cornea; you can sense the thing's pain at having its tender anatomy violated. You could also come upon rampaging dark wolves, which snarl and pounce, practically inviting you to grasp their fur and bash at them with your sword, with you praying that your healer stays out of the creatures' way, and inevitably pouting when she doesn't.
While Dark Arisen has a smart handle on how to induce tension, it fumbles greatly when it comes to offering a proper challenge. There is an insane shift in difficulty that occurs when you head into the final lap. Here, Bitterblack Isle turns ugly, even if you are playing 10 or 15 levels beyond the suggested level. Multiple giant beasts clog up tiny rooms, giving you no chance to maneuver, and turning battles into desperate attempts to keep your pawns alive by resurrecting them over and over. Multiple sorcerers catch you up in whirlwinds that destroy you the moment you enter the arena. A single archer can send you flying clear across a room and into a small crowd of mages. There's no sense of balance or momentum. The game goes from being sometimes frustrating but normally fair, to breaking the idea of a difficulty curve entirely.
You might try spending large sums of rift crystals to summon overleveled pawns, which can alleviate some of the frustration, but rift crystals are used as a currency in Dark Arisen in a variety of ways, such as to rebuild broken riftstones. You also spend rift crystals to have Olra cleanse the new cursed items you collect and reveal them to be powerful accessories, weapons, or armor pieces. It's a treat to discover that one of these Bitterblack items is a potent staff that amplifies your sorcerer pawn's magical abilities. But with all these rift crystals being used for purposes other than to purchase pawns, you might run too low to resummon an expensive pawn, and thus be tempted to buy more from the in-game downloadable content store--for real money, of course.
Dark Arisen may very well expect you to grind levels to compensate for the lack of balance, but the pace-breaking nature of this tonal shift is outrageous--and if you are approaching the content with a higher-level character, you might then find the early areas too toothless to be gratifying. Thankfully, revisiting other areas of the dungeon reveals secrets you probably missed, refreshes treasure chests with new loot, and pits you against creatures that didn't dog you the first time through. Suddenly, there isn't just a cyclops running after you, but two demon wolves too. But the grind becomes wearisome once you've trod the same hallways enough times, making you long for Gransys' verdant fields.
A consumable item at least makes it easy to get back to Bitterblack Isle's entrance, and Olra is happy to whisk you away to Cassardis. From there, you can easily teleport to Gran Soren and other portcrystals using an eternal ferrystone. How wonderful that you no longer need to trample through the same fields over and over again, though portcrystals aren't so common that you can just jump around Gransys willy-nilly. And when you feel ready to face the frights of Bitterblack Isle once more, you can quickly do so using the same ferrystone.
The dungeon's nonsensical plunge into unfairness comes as a shock, even in a game built on vague rules and fluctuations of challenge. And yet even this new region is so eerily beautiful, its hallways and courtyards so intricately constructed, that you might overcome the irritations and grind to the conclusion (or, heaven forbid, drop the difficulty level), if just to greet the ghoulish final boss and see an end to the ethereal story. There's a pervading sadness to Bitterblack Isle that makes its best battles feel all the more ferocious. If you're a newcomer, however, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen has plenty of beasts for you to conquer before you need worry about the demons wandering the isle's halls. If that's you, you should stop the reading and get to the slaying.