My EXTENSIVE Dragon Age II thoughts. Spoilers, obviously.

If you’ve been following me for a while now, you know that my love for Dragon Age: Origins knows no bounds. The same goes for pretty much all of its spin-off material, such as the books Stolen Throne and The Calling. I waited in line for hours at PAX for a chance to play the Dragon Age II demo, and never once did I regret the time I spent in that line when I could have been playing everything else in the expo hall, or roaming the Secret Level, or going to see panels like Acquisitions, Inc.

Even once I finally received my Signature Edition copy of the game and settled in throughout the first act of three, I felt nothing but love for the game in spite of small observations–they weren’t really severe enough to call complaints–regarding things I felt could have been done differently. The further into the narrative I explored, though, the more and more I felt ill-at-ease with one thing or another in the game.

Don’t get me wrong. Dragon Age II is a fantastic game, even in spite of my concerns. It just wasn’t the game I’d come to expect.

For one thing, I remember two promises from early into the advertising for this game:

  1. An epic narrative spanning a decade
  2. The chance to expand our experience beyond Ferelden to the whole of Thedas.

Bioware successfully met half of each claim, but then fell short on the other.

Let’s start with that decade-long narrative. Dragon Age II begins as the Hawkes are fleeing Lothering during the Blight. After completing the Ferelden portion of the introduction, the game skips ahead an unstated amount of time to Hawke’s arrival in Kirkwall and the beginning of a year working off the debt that was incurred gaining the family passage into the city when so many other Ferelden refugees are left in the cold. After skipping again to the end of this year of indentured servitude, together with the time it must have taken to get to Kirkwall, we can guess that up to a year an a half has passed since the first scenes until the true beginning of Act 1 of the game.

I won’t go into too much detail on the actual events of each act at this point as the specific plot isn’t relevant, but if you look at the achievements/trophies for the game one of them is for completing “a full year in Kirkwall without any party member being knocked unconscious” implying that each act spans one year of the narrative. That, in and of itself, leaves me feeling cheated regarding the decade-long narrative promised in the game. The game is only three acts, remember? So in reality, we’re only getting a three year game, not a ten year game as was advertised. Can we say “scale the epic back by about 60%”?

Next comes my disappointment with the physical scale of the game. In Origins the locations we have to explore span Ferelden, from the bitter Korcari Wilds in the South to the warmer coastlines of the Waking Sea. In the sequel, however? We’re given a single city and its outskirts–oh, I’m sorry, we’re given a city by day, the same city by night, or the outskirts. That’s not exactly the whole of Thedas. It’s not even a small portion of Thedas–just one small, independent city-state of the Free Marches. Physically, the epicness of the game is reduced even futher, and that left me very sadface.

True, we don’t have a Blight to quell, or treaties to enforce, or any of the urgency of Origins’ plot, but that doesn’t mean that we have to spend nearly the entire game running errands for random townsfolk. While some of these quests do later relate to significant plot details–especially the one regarding the women going missing from Kirkwall, which I felt was probably one of the best subplots in the entire game–most of them consist of nothing more than delivering random items found while cave diving and the like to their misplaced owners. Tim over at Ctrl+Alt+Del wasn’t exaggerating in the slightest with this comic. At least in the first act running all these random errands made sense in the context of the story: you have to gather the gold needed to become a partner in the Deep Roads expedition Varric’s brother is leading, and these odd jobs are a means to that end. It just makes no sense later in the game for many of these quests to be present, though.

Now then, I’m not nearly has hot over what I perceived as injustices and insults in the game’s final act as I was on Saturday night. My initial, raw reactions that I tweeted that night and the next day:

1. Well, that was a let down. I enjoyed *playing* the game. I have next to no desire to replay it though.
2. Even with various quests here & there that were engaging, the story as a whole did nothing for me.
3. My first impression rating for the game was an 8 or 8.5… After finishing it, though, it’s a 7 at BEST.
4. (In response to a reply I received stating the poster found the game “incredibly underwhelming”): Agreed. Being the 2nd part of a trilogy is one thing. But Empire Strikes Back this ain’t.
5. the locations are dull and repetitive; the mechanics of gameplay are fine. Overall, though?
6. just a plea for the franchise to stay fresh in our minds until they can complete the “real” next installment.
7. being the second of a trilogy is one thing, but you have to actually contribute to the over-arcing story, not just pass the time

I think #4, my final response before going to bed for the night Saturday, is the most efficient assessment I can make for the game overall. I don’t think anyone, anywhere, doubted that there would be a third game. Unlike Empire, though, DA2 falls flat on its face as an individual installment in the larger story. I have a feeling (or at least, I’m hoping) that by the time the final installment is released, whether through DLC and expansions or through the next game itself, we’ll have more context for the events of DA2 that lessens the blow of this particular shortcoming. As of now, however, there just isn’t enough content to justify the game as its own entity.

But wait, you said that in spite of everything, it’s a fantastic game. It sure as hell doesn’t sound like it from what you’ve said so far!

Just because I have complaints about the game–even ones as potentially damning as the ones above–that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. While the locations can be dull and repetitive, the mechanics are smooth and battles are fun. With the exceptions of random system freezes in Act 1, I didn’t experience any of the random bugs I’ve heard about online.

Probably foremost in the pluses for the game is the development of the characters and their relationships, even though I didn’t like how some of that development would later become relevant to the final plot. In my game specifically, I played a femHawke rogue, and was incredibly close to younger sister and apostate mage Bethany. Considering my sympathies for the difficulties that mages faced, my Hawke eventually hooked up with Anders, and their relationship continued through the rest of my game–through and beyond his ultimate acts against the Chantry. On the one hand, I despise Bioware for what they did to Anders in this game.

Honestly, the fact that my character was so closely intwined with Anders and other mage sympathies is probably why the ending of the game left such a bad taste in my mouth. But at the same time, it illustrated what was probably the one shining triumph for the game: even though what I felt when I finished the game sickened me, I nonetheless felt at the end of the game. I hated–no, despised–what the story made me do in order to be true to the character I’d built. The feeling of despair in the epilogue when it’s revealed that not just the Circles in northern Thedas rebelled, but all fourteen Circles followed suit, crushed me, because by association that means all the good I’d done in Ferelden in the last game may as well have been erased by the actions of Hawke, Orsino, and Meredith. I may not like what I felt in the game, but I did feel, and in the end, maybe that’s what matters.

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