Version tested: Xbox 360
Gransys, the green and not-so-pleasant land through which players hacked and thwacked in last year's grand fantasy adventure, Dragon's Dogma, displayed a certain anonymity despite its rugged handsomeness. It had to do with environmental cliché: those blanketed meadows, weathered cliffs and sinister forests stretch across all fantasy fiction from Middle-earth to Westeros, a tradition that Capcom's game all too eagerly followed. After 60 years of landscaped tributes to Tolkien's imagination in books, film and video games, there are few hills and valleys you could scatter with orcs that wouldn't feel wearyingly over-familiar.
Bitterblack Isle is a cove that leads to a cavernous underground network of halls, runnels and spiral stairways and the heart of Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen - Capcom's part-expansion, part nip-and-tuck of 2012's blueprint. It isn't a cliché in the same way, but it is nevertheless familiar.
It's in the ghostly messages that sound out when you walk past the smoke-gripped corpses that punctuate its hallways, offering mortal warnings of what lies ahead - or of what, for that particular cadaver, lies behind. It's in the rangy skeletons that lunge at you with cricking knees and the hollowed knights (seemingly quickened by their demise) who hop and jab with rapiers. It's in the curious helpers you meet along these mossy, cobbled pathways, who speak in off-kilter regional English accents and who will happily sell you useful herbs and armour, yet never quite convince you of their trustworthiness.
It's in the fake treasure chests, whose lids you flip open with wide-eyed expectation only to be gobbled up by the jack-in-a-box freak coiled inside. It's in the testy dragons with their scorched nostrils and flicking tails who show up when they smell the bodies you've left in your wake, and who stomp around these crumbling halls with all the swagger and bolshiness of a hunter that knows it vastly out-powers its prey. It's in the structural cleverness of Bitterblack Isle's grand architectural puzzle, which fits together with the elegance of a giant contraption, short cuts unlocking as you press deeper and find the keys to its secrets.
What is immediately and increasingly apparent is that the team has spent an awful lot of time swiping about in Dark Souls... Dark Arisen certainly lacks novelty, even though its dedication to this influence moves it closer to greatness
Yes, what is immediately and increasingly apparent is that the team that made Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen has spent an awful lot of time swiping about in Hidetaka Miyazaki's Dark Souls. It's not that this game lacks authenticity - it has enough of its own tricks and inventions. But Dark Arisen certainly lacks novelty, even though its dedication to this influence moves it closer to greatness.
You travel to Bitterblack Isle by boat, piloted by the amnesiac weirdo Olra, whom you find waiting any night on a pier in the sea town of Cassardis. (Dark Arisen is being sold not as downloadable content but as a budget-priced standalone game which includes the entirety of the debut release, albeit with a vast array of new equipment - including an Eternal Ferrystone that allows you to fast-travel about the world - as well as new foes and a gentle redesign of some of the menus. The meat of the expansion is available whenever you're ready. For old hands, who can carry their previous save across, this may be immediately. But newcomers will need to clamber up to level 45 before their adventurer is strong enough to stand up to Bitterblack's substantially challenging, devilish monsters.)
You and your accompanying pawn - the AI-controlled fighter with whom you've shared the adventure so far - land on the shore and leave Olra to her (absence of) memories, heading through the ancient double doors into the mesmerising contraption that lies under the isle's surface. Its zones, which have wonderfully dour names such as Garden of Ignominy and Shrine of Futile Truths, are lit with care, throwing dramatic shadows and leading the eye through the architecture. The new enemies - Elder Ogres, flaming Pyre Saurians and Necrophagous beasts which are drawn to the scent of decomposing flesh - add a new sense of peril. A giant, spectral Grim Reaper even shows up at random moments, forcing your team to race for the nearest exit in a design seemingly borrowed from Derek Yu's Spelunky.
Many of the original game's mild problems remain. You can't lock on to a particular enemy, so fights with groups of aggressors lack precision. Likewise, your character's animations don't have the weight and purpose of those in Dark Souls, and their speed encourages you to mash buttons rather than settle into the rhythms of attack and defence. While the menu navigation has been tweaked, what it actually requires is a wholesale redesign (especially as you will spend a considerable amount of time managing your inventory).
But where Dragon's Dogma's original locations were wide and sprawling, Bitterblack Isle is a deep and compact area, full of off-shoots and tucked secrets. And it feels all the more exciting for it.
The game's greatest novelty, its pawn system, shines in these murky depths. Alongside your own personal pawn, you can hire up to two other warriors from the esoteric "rift" dimension. Fighting alongside three AI companions is endlessly thrilling. They may lack the doe-eyed gracefulness of BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth, but they're far more useful, being less inclined to smell the flowers than to climb atop a warty ogre and furiously jab at its temple. They call out when they need rescuing and will look after the team with attentive healing.
It's the pawns' presence that distinguishes this adventure from Dark Souls' lonelier journey. While their chatter grates at times (the voice actors have been pitch-shifted to match the size of the pawn, and as a result short characters sound like a helium-drunk Julie Andrews, tall ones like a groggy Andre the Giant), you do develop a particular affinity with these characters and will always rush to their aid should they require it - and not just because of their practical use to you.
Many of the items you'll collect in Bitterblack Isle are randomly placed, lending the game a Rogue-like flavour, and if you find any of the Isle's cursed gear you'll need to return to the shoreline where Olra can lift the 'curse' for you, revealing the item's identity and making it useable. As well as high-level weapons and armour, you might find new augments to add further skills to both your main character and pawn. This ensures the continued strategic development of your build, even if you've already put scores of hours into the game.
Dark Arisen is indisputably in Dark Souls' thrall. But this tribute is both thoughtful and creative, building upon Miyazaki's work with some individuality rather than merely mimicking its - arguably unrepeatable - wonders. Dragon's Dogma is yet to find its true identity, but this expansion is evidence of one of Capcom's more capable remaining internal teams - as well as of a series that clearly has long-term ambitions which seem likely to blossom in time.
8 / 10