I am simultaneously awed by and slightly disappointed with Dragon Age II.
Awed by the art of the game, by the improved combat system, by the quest flow. Awed by how much work obviously went into it. Awed by the decision to focus away from the Gray Wardens who were the stars of the previous game and instead focus on a ten year period of time and unfold a story over that ten year period. Awed by some really excellent in places voice acting and dialogue options, and by a dialogue system that actually creates a voice for your character based on the kind of dialogue you choose over time. (For instance, my first Hawke almost always choice the diplomatic route and so his tone was far less sarcastic than my second playthrough.) This is a superlative game. This is a game that is superior than its predecessor in almost every single way from gameplay to storytelling.
The original, however, does not have so unrelentingly grim and painful a theme as does its sequel. In Dragon Age: Origins, you play a hero in a time of crisis who stands up against both disastrous unnatural entities bent on destroying all life while also taking action against those who attempt to use the crisis to ascend to power. While it’s a bleak and horrific threat you face, the game itself has a tone of optimism in the face of the disaster and in the end the triumph that comes feels wholly complete and justified. Furthermore, choices you make really feel as though they had a positive impact on the world.
In Dragon Age II, it’s very hard to feel like you’ve made a positive impact on the world around you. The story is bleak, uncompromising in its depiction of the venality of men and how suffering breeds more suffering. It explores themes like the desire for security vs. the descent into paranoia, how much repression a people can stand and how much must tip them past the breaking point, freedom vs the dangers freedom presents. Despite being a very well told story, it does tend to make the choices you present to the world seem almost unimportant. Hawke, the protagonist (superbly voiced as both a male and a female) doesn’t so much save the world as at best postpone destruction and endure betrayal. It’s certainly a theme we’ve seen time and again in literature, the endless Sisyphean struggle against forces that can never truly be opposed, but this is the first time I can remember playing a video fame where the hero him or herself seems doomed to at best bail water out of the sinking ship that is Kirkwall. (It’s very telling that at one point Anders, one of your companions in the game, remarks that he sees himself as eternally pushing a rock up a hill.)
Please please please remember that thing I said before about spoilers. PLEASE. If you do not want them do not read any further.
The problem with telling such a story in a game is the exhaustion it can cause. On the one hand, by about level 7 or so you start to feel ridiculously potent in terms of gameplay. Mooks blow up when you look at them, and even powerful foes are no real match for a well constructed party. But then in cutscenes and plot development, you meet nothing but setback after setback and some particularly odd tropes develop. I can count at least four times in the game where you or someone in your party is asked to kill someone they either love or once loved to ‘put them out of their misery‘ and it starts to seem forced. Aveline, Varric, Anders and Merril all kill or take part in the death of someone dear to them, at the least. Worse than this, however, is the gut wrenching quest that forces your character to be completely ineffectual at the hunting down of a blood mage, leading up to a scene where you’re completely unable to save said blood mage’s last victim, someone who is extremely close to your Hawke and has been a solid presence in the game up to this point. (Yes, I said there would be spoilers, but I’m not a complete jerk.) Quite frankly, I almost stopped playing the game entirely at this point. It was only my recognition of how effectively they’d made me care about this character, and how devastating her loss really felt to Hawke in the narrative, that managed to keep me engaged, because the death itself felt gratuitous and arbitrary (as life often is) and I am still not sure I like a narrative device in my gaming that prevents me from somehow finding a way to make that horrible note not happen.
This is my difficulty with Dragon Age II: It doesn’t feel like a game. You play a game. You make choices, and those choices have an effect. So far, on my second playthrough it feels like some choices have an effect (the big “Who will you choose” moment of the game in Act III) and some choices don’t (everything you do during the quest I just described does not seem to matter at all) and I find that disquieting.
The story itself is the tale of young Hawke, a refugee from Lothering (a town destroyed in the first DA game) who over the course of ten years rises from desperate refugee in the slums of Kirkwall to eventually the Champion of the city and one of the four most powerful people in it (the other three being the Grand Cleric Elthina, Templar Knight-Commander Meredith, and First Enchanter Orsino) In essence, the story isn’t so much about Hawke in the typical sense, really. It’s more about him or her in the sense that a hurricane would be about you while its winds buffet you, or a pack of sharks would be about you while attacking you. Hawke must navigate the treachery, poverty, and crime of the first arrival in Kirkwall, gather enough resources to go on the typical dungeon delve (which is quickly and brutally subverted by the plot) and upon returing finds that a new prominence has been thrust upon his or her shoulders. From this, events rapidly spiral out of control as tensions between the mages and the templars, the qunari and the Chantry and even between native Kirkwall citizens and refugees from Ferelden’s Blight all come boiling to the surface.
The narrative device is interesting. The game takes place as a story told by your friend Varric Tethras, a loquacious dwarf rogue, to a mysterious Seeker of the Chantry, the medieval religion of the setting meant to feel like a kind of dark fantasy Catholic Church. For the most part it works, but at times the story seems to go on rails and I think the narrative frame is partly to blame. You know that this all ended with bad shit happening, and there’s no way out of that feeling as you go forward. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit Varric’s an excellent choice for narrator, and that the occasional flourishes he adds (there’s a scene where he describes his own actions in so overblown a way that it immediately and amusingly falls apart on him) make it a compelling device for the most part. Varric is fun, and the story unfolds well.
In essence, Kirkwall always feels like a city on the brink of disaster, and that’s very compelling. It can also be somewhat tiring. Even Hawke says at one point “Can I go just a week without meeting an insane mage?” You reel from disaster to disaster, and it’s hard to see how your choices make things better for anyone: you choose to help some young mages escape without killing a templar who wants to let the matter be solved peacefully, and they get caught anyway and eventually get involved in a plot to kidnap your sister. What was the point? Would slaughtering them all have been the better choice? And when you find yourself obsessively going back many, many saves to try and make a different decision and prevent someone your character would care about only to find that there is absolutely no way you can save said person, it becomes galling and you feel powerless. It’s a tough balancing act in terms of the narrative, and it is one I’m still not sure works as well as it could. Sometimes it felt like we were on rails to a disaster, and I spoiled the game for my wife before we’d even finished it by guessing Anders’ not terribly sophisticated plan as soon as he made his supposedly innocent request in Act III. Seriously, Anders, you telegraphed the hell out of that. If the game hadn’t forced me to stand there like an idiot I would have stabbed you in the chest and saved a whole lot of misery.
I should make sure to say this was my second playthrough, as I stopped and rerolled half way through Act III just because I didn’t like the Dragon Age: Origins save I’d imported and went to a different one. I’ll probably play it again a few times too, as a mage and a rogue (yes, of course I played warrior first) to see how I like how things unfold.
Again, gameplay is improved from DA:O, although I’d mug a kitten for some sort of target lock mechanism. While I found the powers and abilities of my party members fun and intuitive when I chose to manually control them the tactics option is so much more robust this time that I really didn’t have to, I could focus on my Hawke (Peregrine Hawke, male warrior and total bastard) and let them take care of themselves 9 times out of 10. I do believe that my wife Julianna pegged the one thing that I found annoying about the combat system on her playthough when she mentioned that cooldowns seem very long even with various abilities aimed at reducing or resetting them. In the end, I often eschewed with a healer in favor of two combat mages who could mitigate damage via shields and/or two rogues to deal out insanely high single target damage while I and the mage kept the endless waves of spawning adds busy by the time tested method of killing them. I don’t like the idea that healing is so much less useful this time out, hut it really seemed to be the case even on hard fights like the High Dragon, the Pride Demons or the end bosses.
Inventory is fine except for your companions. If they all have this ‘companion armor’ that they don’t change except for story based visual changes and upgrades that function link enchants, why not go whole hog and give Hawke the same system? Or make it so the companions ALL have weapons like Varric? It felt a bit like they couldn’t decide which way to go here. I lamented the loss of flavor text, also.
Voice acting is for the most part amazing. The Arishok really sounded sincere and conveyed the character’s slide into frustration, Merril is a treasure, Isabela has a surprising amount of depth for a character initially portrayed as T&A, and I can’t say enough good things about Varric. Varric ended up in every single party combination I created just to see what he would say next. I even found I liked the more nuanced dialogue and performance of Knight-Captain Cullen (one of the recurring characters from DA:O) as he did a very good job making me believe he was a Templar because he honestly believed it was necessary, but that he felt conflicted over the situation as it developed.
As for the characters themselves, Merril, Anders, Isabela, Varric and Bethany made up my most often chosen companions. Aveline and Fenris both duplicated my own role too much, and while I actually liked Aveline and did all of her quests, I found Fenris extremely annoying. Anders I liked until Act III, where I stopped using him. Bethany you lose half way through the transition between Act I and II and don’t get back until the end of Act III, so for most of the game it was either me, Anders, Merril and Varric or me, Isabela, Merril and Varric. I didn’t bother downloading Sebastian. I found myself liking Isabela much more than I expected I would, loving the hell out Varric and Merril, and tolerating Anders until I ended up hating him due to the story. I actually found the companions much better this time than in DA:O and loved that my mabari was now a summoned pet, meaning that I could have a full four person party and still have my faithful hound.
In the end, if I were asked to describe the game succinctly (too late!) I’d say it was a disquieting masterwork with a lot of discordant notes that can at times overshadow the brilliant symphony it’s performing for you. I’d rate it a 9 out of 10 if I were using a number system (which I just did) but if I’d been able to save that person I’d have rated it a 10. Yeah, that’s a subjective thing, but you gotta understand it was really nauseating for me to get all that way only to arrive too late no matter what options I chose. Possibly a great narrative moment (even heroes don’t always win) but disorienting when playing a game and trying to do exactly that.
Is it worth the money? Absofuckinglutely. It manages to honor its predecessor while making improvements, it avoids the pitfalls of trying to be something it isn’t, and for the most part it’s damn fun to play.
Also, I have learned that Sandal the Dwarf Enchanter can kill anything, and frankly, next time there’s a world shaking crisis, I’m leaving it up to him.