Dragon Age 2: Dragon age deja vu
Once upon a time, I was a Bioware fan. Not so much anymore but there was a time when every game Bioware put out I would play it and love it. I even preordered Dragon Age Inquisition (which I will freely admit was something of a mistake.) Back then I deeply enjoyed Dragon Age 2 even though the internet would tell me not to. Dragon Age 2 is considered to be the black sheep of the series. I still like it. Replaying it (my fifth time to be honest) has made me see some deep flaws however I just can’t help but enjoy it. I hope I can explain this to you: my dear readers.
Dragon Age 2 takes place during (and after) the events of Dragon Age Origins. The Hawke family are fleeing the encroaching blight after Lothering. They arrive as refugees at the ironically oppressive city of Kirkwall in the Free Marches. Player character Hawke (first name being player choice) then starts a new life for himself and his family. There he gets involved in politics and gradually builds power and influence: becoming the Campaign of Kirkwall. This might sound rather dull but the game adds a rather bit of intrigue woven throughout. The story is told by the unreliable narrator Varric Tethras (I will get to him later) as an explanation for some terrible event Hawke is supposedly linked to.
Dragon Age 2 wastes no time putting Varric’s questionable tale to task with some very well timed and delivered humour. Bioware were able to take advantage of gameplay to merge the narrative for some great scenes of impossible skill and prowess. Having Varric as a narrator also makes sense for the story to skip over certain periods of time ( I will get into that later)as he is being interrogated . It allows for better flow and follows the basic question of storytelling (Is this the most interesting period of your character’s life?).
A scale for scope:
Dragon Age Origins was very wide in scope, a continent spanning epic that took us to different societies and allowed us to meet interesting cultures. You could choose from three races with interesting back stories. Dragon Age 2 is much smaller in scale, limiting itself to a single city and the outskirts of Kirkwall. Unlike the very typical save the world narrative Origins, 2 has a three act structure with two threats. First being a uprising with Qunari and the second being with a Mage rebellion. The former is enclosed to Kirkwall and the third only becomes worldwide after the final boss fight. Reviewers were/are polarized with this approach with some loving it and others hating it. I personally find this reduction refreshing. It allows for a more unique narrative then the world saving plot of the predecessor. Bioware is able to wave the growing tensions between Mages an nd Templers into each act well and on a gradual background escalation. Origins’s story was compelling but not the most unique. Dragon Age’s story is distinctive and is well told.
That rebel mage though:
The voice acting is damn near perfect, asides from a few flat lines (that are few and far between). The performances deliver characters that are rich compelling. Varric is the loveable and charming rouge who always enjoys telling a good story. Taking his characterization into account makes his actions in the game all the more interesting as we are not entirely sure how honest he really is. Varric is a fine example of comedic relief, namely that his jokes make me laugh and make me want to keep him around. This is what I loved about Bioware: great characterisation that made the total 45 hours (spent) flow by unnoticed.
However I would like to bring special mention to the main villain. Knight-Commander Meredith Stannard is the type of villain I like in fiction. The antagonist who becomes the way they are by thinking they are doing the right thing. Her fall to the dark side (nicely built up with escalation of force) is made all the more tragic by her motive. Her need to protect the citizens from the mages (fuelled by her own hate) transforms her into her worst enemy. Meredith is a memorable character in a cast of memorable characters.
About ludonarrative dissonance:
There is a seemingly small but never the less rather distracting between setting and story. I played as a Blood Mage in a city where that sort of magic is considered very taboo. More so in Dragon Age 2 then Origins as the final conflict revolves around Blood magic and how mages are getting forced into using it. For Hawke to simply cast Blood magic without any consequence (even in front Knight-Commander bloody Meredith) is rather...notable. It makes the world feel just a little bit unreactive and flat.
One of the most notable changes in terms of the combat is the lack of a top down view. Unlike it’s predecessor which allows you to zoom out and strategise, all you are left with is a pause button. In fact strategy as a whole is less of a priority. You can only give weapons, rings, amulets and belts but no armour to your companions. The gameplay has turned into a light strategy brawler RPG. This is what many rightly consider to be something of a downgrade from Origins. With the exception of a few encounters (Arcane horrors and a few bosses) there is not much challenge to be had except on nightmare difficulty. There are fewer skills that can be learned and there are not as many (if any) combination of spells. The game has become: When compared to Origins; is much less complex.
The combat feels a very satisfying. More than Origins in fact, due to better animations and audio visual feedback. Staffs butts are slammed onto the flaw with a satisfying thud and swords smash with an enjoyable clang. Another improvement would be the skill tree while having less also streamlines some of the unnecessary spells and improving others. My favourite change is the haste spell. Haste was a toggleable aura spell that no one used and was unremarkable in action. Now Haste is a single use spell that not only gives a visual increase in speed but it feels like the limbs of your party are racing against each other. Not only is the spell useful but it also enjoyable to experience while fighting.
Kirkwall is made up of a verity of small, semi open world maps that have two states: day and night. The only thing that changes is the fact that certain quests are only available during the day/night. Shops are closed after dark. The city also becomes dangerous at night, with criminals lurking to ambush unlucky fools. I must say, it is good to go back to a small map. Because unlike a number modern massive open worlds Dragon Age 2 has good pacing; Kirkwall does not feel tedious to traverse nor does it ever feel artificial. Bioware’s took advantage of limited space to make a city is fun to explore and visit.
Every reviewer and their dog/cat (don’t want to assume) has pointed out this flaw, even I have acknowledged it but sweet mother of the holy one is it obvious here. The transparent reuse of environments is damn near parodic. If I had a dollar for every supposedly new cave I entered and found it to be the same bloody cave I would be rich. If I had two dollars for every time I entered a “new” dark ally and ended up in the same dark alley I would be twice as wealthy. The assist reuse is Dragon Age’s most egregious flaw and hurts what is otherwise an immersive RPG.
Graphics and art style:
The art style is what one would expect from a Dragon Age game from the mid 2000s.A very realistic (for the time) look with a mostly gray/ brown colour scheme with some red thrown in to lighten everything up . The graphics are also what one would expect from the time; rather low res (could not put settings on high for reasons I will get into later) but serviceable and understandable.
Here is where things get...interesting. (Please keep in mind that what I am pointing out is very likely to be an old game on a system that does not support it well.) Whenever I tried to place the graphics onto high or very high (got the high texture pack) textures flickered in and out of existence. Fire was most notable as it danced in and out of sight like hyperactive shadows.
AI sometimes broke with characters simply not attacking or moving for unknown reasons. But most distracting was the audio glitches, sometimes for a split second the sound cuts out. It is like the voice actors were recording on bad mics or on inconsistent internet speed. It’s very confusing as I have never encountered (at least from what I remember) this particular problem before. I suspect it’s due a lack of support on Origin that most of these problems are happening.
Dragon Age 2: the black sheep of the series. A mediocre title being compared to the wonderment of Origins. A perfectly fine game on its own if I am honest. The story is well told and the characters are compelling and very memorable. The environment reuse is horrible and deserves all the condemning it gets. But hours just melt away, three whole hours went by without me noticing. I would want to start playing just to spend time with Anders, Merril, Varric and the rest. Dragon Age 2 is flawed but endlessly compelling.
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