Dragon's Dogma finally comes to PC three years after the game first hit Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and arguably Capcom needs to deliver more than a straightforward port to justify such a late release. Previously, we've seen high some high profile Japanese titles poorly converted over to PC, with resolutions capped below 720p and frame-rates limited to 30fps - an experience well below the standard expected for a PC release. Thankfully, none of these issues are present with Dragon Dogma: Dark Arisen and Capcom delivers a largely excellent conversion that fits the bill as a full-on HD remaster.
Rather than seeing a straightforward port, Capcom has taken the time improve much of the game's texture work, along with reducing the aggressiveness of the level of detail (LOD) set-up, resulting in a more refined presentation that manages to hold up in 2016. Of course, resolution plays a large part in providing a substantial leap in graphical quality over the 720p console releases, and on PC making the jump to native 1080p and higher with decent quality anti-aliasing delivers a substantial increase in sharpness and clarity across the game's medieval-styled visuals. In this case, choosing the FXAA3 HQ option provides excellent coverage and doesn't smooth over texture details. By comparison, the 720p last-gen console versions appear rather murky by comparison and this isn't helped by the use of a low quality post-process AA solution that introduces visible blurring over the artwork.
The PC version is a substantial step up in this area, and the boost in resolution helps to bring out as much detail as possible from the revised assets. Rather than simply roll out the console artwork here, higher resolution textures and normal maps are deployed across characters and the environment throughout the game. This adds more intricate details to clothing and brickwork, along with more incidental objects that are scattered across the landscape.
Geometry details are generally left untouched, but that's not to say that environment complexity isn't also improved. Upping the distance scaling setting to maximum results in far less aggressive LOD streaming on PC, leading to high quality assets displayed much further out, adding more in the way of detail and refinement to the scenery. This also avoids objects appearing on screen with a dithered fade, as seen on the console versions. Effects work is also improved on PC, but not to the same standard as with the core texture work. HDR and bloom are rendered in higher precision on PC, and shadow quality is considerably better too. However, motion blur, depth of field, and alpha-transparency resolution remains the same as on the PS3.
From an artistic perspective, Dragon's Dogma stood out on consoles due to its use of an ultra-wide aspect ratio approaching that of a 2.35:1 movie. This added a more cinematic presentation to the game in addition to allowing for the engine to render fewer pixels while still maintaining a 1:1 pixel-mapped 720p image for the gameplay area (black bars appeared at the top and bottom of the screen).
For the PC release, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio gets switched to a full screen 16:9 presentation. The black bars occupying the top and bottom of the screen on consoles are removed and view opens up, revealing more of the scene. It's a change for the better, and we actually see characters sitting within the frame without there being any 'dead space' created by the newly expanded view. This suggests to us that the game may have originally been designed with 16:9 in mind, and that perhaps the introduction of a wider aspect ratio on console was introduced with performance considerations in mind, rather than as a purely artistic decision.
What about 21:9 screens? Well the official line by Capcom is that these monitors are not supported in the PC version of Dragon's Dogma due to the UI elements being in a fixed position on screen. It's a bit of a cop-out as the use of a wider than 16:9 aspect ratio was one of the factors that defined the look of the game on console, and it's not possible to replicate this on PC on a display perfectly suited for this task.
On the whole we're looking at a solid upgrade over the console releases, but what does it take to run the game maxed out while hitting a solid 60fps? Bearing in mind the last-gen nature of the visuals - even with the upgrades in place - achieving a locked 60fps at maximum settings at native 1080p should be possible on budget PC hardware, such as our budget system kitted out with an Core i3 4130 and an overclocked GTX 750 Ti - a set-up that often matches PS4 performance in a great many multi-platform titles.
In quieter scenes and smaller combat encounters we get a locked level of performance at the desired frame-rate, but this isn't sustained in more detailed areas of the game, or when there are lots of alpha transparencies on screen. Here we appear to be hitting GPU limits, where even walking into a sparely populated town causes significant drops in performance. Lowering shadow quality, distance scaling, and anisotropic filtering down one notch gives us a 10fps boost in effects-heavy scenes, though this isn't enough for it to consistently sustain a solid 60fps.
The Core i3 isn't being heavily taxed during these moments so we swap out the GPU for something a little meatier. The GTX 960 is a decent step-up, and comfortable eliminates the massive performance drops we see on the GTX 750 Ti while running at maximum settings. Frame-rates are stable where it counts: alpha-heavy scenes during combat and cut-scenes have no impact on performance, so gameplay and motion remain consistency smooth and responsive. However, a permanently locked 60fps isn't quite possible at all times, though metrics stay north of 55fps with only a few frame dips appearing on occasion.
However, the experience is much better compared to the GTX 750 Ti, and basically comes close enough to a solid 60fps that the core gameplay is unaffected. Cut-scenes also appear mostly smooth too, with just occasional judder. Curiously, moving up to a GTX 970 doesn't provide much of an improvement with v-sync enabled, with dips in performance occurring in the same scenes as the GTX 960 - we may well be hitting CPU limits there, requiring a quad-core i5 to get the job done. Reducing distance scaling (and in turn, CPU draw call requirement) eliminates these blips and gives us the 60fps lock we desire.
Dragon's Dogma - the Digital Foundry verdict
Coming from sub-30fps gameplay across last-gen consoles, the PC version of Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is a breath of fresh air - especially when played at 60fps. The combination of increased fluidity and crisper controls make for a far more enjoyable experience that suits the action-heavy nature of the game. Combat scenes play out more smoothly, while cut-scenes no longer stutter when there is a lot happening on-screen.
Hitting 60fps is more difficult than expected for what is essentially a HD remaster of a last-gen title, and those on budget set-ups will have to bear this in mind. But even so, the experience using our budget PC set-up is light years beyond the sub-30fps gameplay on consoles. However, we'd recommend at least a GTX 960 if sustaining 60fps is a priority.
Overall, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen works well as a full HD remaster, boasting most of the qualities one would expect from such a release. Alongside the inclusion of all the game's DLC content and the Dark Arisen expansion, enhanced visuals and the ability to run the game at 60fps (or higher), this offers up a worthy upgrade to fans of the original console releases.
It also gives us a glimpse of how a PS4/Xbox One remaster could turn out when running on budget PC hardware. While there are no plans we're aware of to go down this route, Dragon's Dogma's core fanbase resides on consoles, and having a true 1080p60 remaster on current-gen hardware would be welcome based on the quality of this PC release.