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‘Dragon’s Dogma’ and the Curse of Bitterblack Isle

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Dragon's Dogma

Since time immemorial, boss battles have been a vital part of video games. A challenging adversary at the heart of a dungeon or the end of a section became the staple of most game genres, with RPGs and other story-driven titles leading the charge. Throughout the years, gamers got to experience a pantheon of memorable boss battles, but few games were as ingenious as Dragon’s Dogma.

From the mind of Hideaki Itsuno (known mostly for Devil May Cry 2, 3, and 4), Dragon’s Dogma is a fast paced action RPG highly praised for its dynamic combat and overly criticized for a poor world design, washed-out graphics, and loose storyline. The project was something Itsuno wanted to work on for years, but the technology necessary to fully realize his vision didn’t exist until the seventh generation of consoles came around.

Unaware newcomers will be welcomed to a limited fauna as well as chimeras, cyclops, and griffins, which provide great a challenge early on. These encounters are awfully common around the world of Gransys and become potentially terrifying as the main objective presented in the beginning of the Arisen’s journey is fulfilled. As the dragon falls, the scenery changes and all sorts of nefarious fiends prowl the vast plains and thick forests of this cursed world, from hell hounds and gargoyles to the stronger gorechimeras. Dragon’s Dogma‘s post-game is refreshing when compared to other RPGs, but it’s not the only thing the title has to offer.

Developed and published by Capcom, the game comes with an expanded version dubbed Dark Arisen. This version (released for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in 2013 and later in 2016 for Microsoft Windows) includes the DLCs available for the original release as well as a new area, the mysterious and alluring Bitterblack Isle. These ruins, a place forgotten by time, are where Dragon’s Dogma‘s mechanics and designs truly shine as the claustrophobic hallways and expansive courtyards are inhabited by dangerous enemies.

Dragon's Dogma

Cursed halls

Located near the shores of Southern Gransys, Bitterblack Isle is a massive dungeon comprising several floors. Newcomers may first perceive it as an unworthy short DLC-like adventure, but it doesn’t take long until the scope of the place becomes clearer.

The ruins consist mostly of a grid of narrow corridors and vast courtyards. While designs are often repeated, they all have subtle differences that make each floor unique and easily recognizable. The isle’s inner halls present the sort of asset limitations and creativity lacking in Gransys’s overworld, where bigger areas feel linear most of the time.

It’s dangerous to go alone

The architecture and loot are not the main attractions to be found in Bitterblack Isle, however. The extra scenario puts an added focus on Dragon’s Dogma‘s combat by throwing players at increasingly dangerous enemies. The earlier levels may seem easy enough, but it doesn’t take too long until there’s a gap between player skill and the character stats recommended to advance.

Instead of scaling to the character’s stats, sections of the isle are optimized for certain level ranges with lower floors becoming deadlier the weaker the Arisen is. In some cases, the blow of a seemingly ordinary foe or the regular attack of a mage can nearly kill an unprepared player. It’s a place meant for multiple visits throughout the course of the Arisen’s journey or a continuous run once they feel strong enough.

Dragon's Dogma

An eliminator and an elder ogre ready for supper.

Bitterblack Isle becomes available from the start of the game, but visiting it then is a risk as its halls are crawling with elder ogres, garms, eliminators, and other such fiends. Elder ogres and garms, in particular, are attracted to the stench of death and decay, so the more enemies defeated in a determined area, the higher the chances an eerie rift will let out one of the former or a pack of the latter.

These encounters can easily be described as mini-boss battles and they’re far more common than cyclops and chimeras across Gransys. On top of that, specific rooms house actual bosses such as the Gazer, the Dark Bishop, and the Living Armor, all of which amount to memorable fights where the game’s dynamic combat shines even brighter.

Until Death do us part

All these possible boss encounters only become scarier at the sight of a towering cloaked figure bearing an enormous scythe and a ghostly lantern. The Death lurking around Bitterblack isle is an accurate depiction of out own Grim Reaper, albeit creepier.

On the Arisen’s first trek through the ruins, Death appears at specific points and provides a tricky challenge that will most likely result in the temporary loss of pawns. With several health bars, this foe can put its enemies to sleep and land a killing blow with its scythe. Its abilities are also effective against the isle’s inhabitants, being a viable and dangerous strategy against tough enemies.

Defeating Death requires careful prevention and multiple encounters. Despite the greater dangers, accomplishing such a task becomes easier after the final boss of Bitterblack Isle is defeated as Death will appear more often.

Dark Arisen

Bitterblack Isle tells a sad story that sheds some light on the affairs of Arisen and pawns. What transpired before the player character arrived raises questions regarding the role of humans and myrmidons and just how much different those born from the rift are from mortals. The end of the base game is confusing enough to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, but the storyline in the isle helps explain it.

Needless to say, the last boss is directly tied to the events. The demon Daimon gives further meaning to the story and, on top of that, provides one of the best boss battles in the entire game. His speed demands quick thinking as his skills can overwhelm those too slow or squishy to sustain his blows. It can be a difficult or entertaining fight depending on the character stats, gear, and the player’s skill.

Dragon's Dogma

Daimon in his first form.

Defeating Daimon for the first time concludes Dark Arisen, but much like the base game holds a surprise after the credits: Bitterblack Isle becomes more interesting. There’s no drastic change in scenery, but the upper levels of the labyrinth will be home to foes often found deeper within. Additional mini-bosses such as gorechimeras and drakes will also make an appearance and, as mentioned, Death may spawn at random. Finally, in great Final Fantasy fashion, Daimon makes a comeback with a second phase, delivering a more challenging fight with greater rewards.

With the video game industry leaning toward generic titles with predictable plots and enemy encounters, the way Dragon’s Dogma handles its battles is refreshing—although it’s nearly five years old by now. Be it the fearsome creatures roaming Gransys or the occult dangers of Bitterblack Isle, Dark Arisen is a title for RPG fans and those looking for memorable boss battles should experience it at least once.

Born and raised in Northeastern Brazil, Gabriel didn't grow up with video games as many of his colleagues did. However, his dedication and love for the industry make up for his late start in the gaming world.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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