Dragon Age Replayed

Dragon Age 2

With Dragon Age: Inquisition coming out October 7 November 18 (and me never having  played Awakening, the first game’s expansion) I wanted to get a fresh save file, start to finish, with choices that fit my personal canon. (ed: Another change…save files won’t be importable, but you will be able to choose what protagonists did in the first two games through some sort of website. Glad I went through the trouble. Woo.) The experience went much as I’d thought it might.

Origins always feels justified. Even if the story is rooted in standard fantasy fare, its fiction is cohesive and interesting. For one, much of the story asks where the line should be drawn for mages. That’s a fair thing to ask of people who can throw balls of fire or summon demons, and ground is rarely retread where the asking is concerned. The Blight is a familiar sort of cataclysm given new paint, but  it avoids feeling formulaic. The stakes are dire, and putting Ferelden back together feels grand. Your companions are interesting, have their own opinions, and are marred only by a goofy friendship meter (which is mostly altered by throwing presents around). Some companion quests are not terribly engaging, but their results are generally worth it. Plodding through 4–6 combat encounters without ceremony isn’t always fun, but the connection I felt to most of my friends made it worth bearing. With the exception of Shale, who is hilarious, Origin’s DLC is mostly halfway decent. Not much has changed in 5 years. Being able to pick a backstory feels fantastic, even if it must have been a tremendous amount of work. Origins holds up tremendously well, and it feels like a labor of love.

Awakening, however, started a trend. The expansion still featured interesting set pieces and dungeons, and having a keep as your base of operations is cool, but it all began to feel…nebulous. Some of the combat changes were welcome (having potions that restored stamina), but the story clearly relied on material the designers were fond of and couldn’t find a place for in Origins. At least it feels that way. Even when Origins was handing out fetch quests and random encounters, it had a sense of place. The mage tower was only a loading screen away from Denerim, but enough time was spent with characters in these locations that they felt present.

And then.

DA2 features a handful of characters who are interesting by themselves thrown into a handful of situations that would be interesting as full-length games. The result is a fractured plot, companions who constantly pull your attention away from what feels like a story, and loads of bickering. This last bit, particularly. I honestly don’t remember the game as having such a constant amount of NPC-on-NPC antagonism, even with characters like Aveline, Carver, and Fenris, who are basically just wet blankets. Awkwardly, sliding your companions toward friendship in is much easier in Dragon Age 2 , but  their interactions with each other are much more obnoxious. When Alistaire ribbed Morrigan in Origins, it felt more cheeky than anything else. When Aveline calls Isabella a “whore,” there’s nothing but cringe.

 Dragon Age 1

Origins starts your character off with a personal calamity–framed for murder, kicked out of the circle for helping a blood mage, etc.–and then you get your lifespan halved by drinking darkspawn blood. Not exactly sunshine and rainbows. DA2 plops you in similarly dark circumstances, but Origins knows enough to stop harping on you about it. DA2 can’t go 30 seconds without reminding you how mean blood mages are, how the streets are filled with criminals, that the Qunari are jerks, that Aveline thinks Isabella is a slut, that the templars hate mages…it’s just laid on too thickly.

When confronted by renegade mages, Anders will lament how evil templars are and Fenris will hiss about how mean mages are. By comparison, Origins’ Alistair would probably remind you how bad swooping is and accuse them of being “sneaky…witch thieves!” Yet, somehow, DA2  is impossible to take seriously, while Origins can manage to be somber.

If any player could possibly have mistaken the game’s tone after meeting their sister/brother and then watching an ogre squish their heads 3 minutes later, they probably won’t care for NPC reminders of “The world is shit, guys!” The heavy-handed narrative is meant to convince you that the ending is justified, which certainly needs justifying, since it is exactly the same no matter how you play it. Side with the templars? Head mage goes ape, head templar goes ape, you kill both of them. Side with the mages? Same thing. Structurally, DA2 is like Telltale’s The Walking Dead; you have no real impact on the story, you’re just given choices as to how you react. This style falls short when the player is a hero who is recognized by foreign kings.

DLC : overpriced, under-written, obnoxious encounters. Not fun. Mark of the Assasin has promising moments, but it never really happens (aside from the fact that Tallis as a character makes no sense and elf Felicia Day is…uncomfortable to look at).

With this kind of progress, it’s depressing to think about Dragon Age: Inquisition, the next title in line for the series. It might have a multiplayer mode. Its designers have claimed that they are focusing on a “better player interaction, choices that matter, amazing visuals–a new level of immersion that can only be achieved with the hardware and software we have now.”

They’ve also mentioned, in passing, that it’s a return to the days of Baldur’s Gate, which seems a contradicting statement since BGII it had better player choices, dialog, and companion interactions than any of the Dragon Age games. Am I cherry picking quotes? Yes. But if the goal is to correct mistakes made in DA2 (which its designers readily admit were mistakes) and make players feel like they’re part of a responsive, living world, that was possible 14 years ago. And it still holds up, albeit with some help to run well on modern machines. Its combat is a mess of ADND mechanics, but it’s still better than DA2’s system. I’m currently blundering through BG2, so while I may be speaking from a point of nostalgia I don’t think I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses. For me, it’s the single clearest case of features and visual fidelity being trumped by awareness of the player.

Origins proved that dark fantasy doesn’t have to make sweeping gestures. If the player is attacked by 5 darkspawn, they can imagine what 5,000 can do. Emotional investment doesn’t require cursed artifacts or magical calamities or angst-soaked characters; all it takes is one dead man who believed in you. Let’s hope Inquisition remembers that.

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