Considering that I only just re-completed Dragon Age: Origins, it feels a little strange to already be writing about my retake on Dragon Age II. But thanks to a little scheduling magic that I was able to take advantage of at the end of last month, I managed to get all the way from beginning to end with a brand new Hawke. Granted, DAII is a shorter game overall, but I still feel very accomplished. And I didn’t have to put off laundry or grocery shopping or showers/food/sleep to get it done. Ha!
Now then, let’s go back to 2013.
In 2013, I played Dragon Age II for the first time, and in short, I only had an okay time with it. Things started out alright at first. While my memory is a little foggy, I’m pretty sure that I played as a female warrior. Not that my Hawke mattered, because I eventually couldn’t get past how small and recycled the game’s primary setting was. While the town of Kirkwall, and the Free Marches by extension, had distinct areas, every “dungeon” — be it a warehouse or an underground tunnel or cave or a mansion — was exactly the same. Sure, maybe you entered it through a different door, but once inside, you were traversing the same areas over and over and over again. This smallness in the game’s environment bothered me; it bothered me to the point that I just couldn’t enjoy the game. Though I finished it and didn’t think it was a terrible game overall, I didn’t connect with it in the same manner than I had with Dragon Age: Origins.
Then again, I also don’t think that I bonded with Dragon Age: Origins that first time round either. So maybe I had subconsciously set myself up for failure then? I’m not sure.
One other issue I had back then was that our aging Xbox 360, on which I was playing the game, couldn’t read my DA:O save file, so I ended up with the default “Hero of Fereldan” backstory. That didn’t help matters.
But this time, as with Dragon Age: Origins, I was determined to do things differently. I was going to pick a brand new, and different, Hawke, and see that characters’ story through to the end with the game’s companions. I was going to set aside my internal complaints about DAII’s environments and really try to understand what it was that made Kirkwall tick.
So, the first thing to do was to create a new Hawke. In keeping with what I had done in DA:O, I again chose to play as a mage, only a male mage this time. Knowing that much of DAII’s story revolves around conflict between the mages and the templars, I decided that he was going to be pro-mage in all his decisions. I also decided that I would skew him towards being gruff and grumpy in most conversations. And as I had set him up with a “we mages stick together” mentality, I knew that if I completed a romance, it would be with either Anders or Merrill.
With that, it was onto adventuring in Kirkwall. Here’s the quickest rundown I could manage (because the game is rather packed with choices) of how things went:
- During the prologue, sided with the mercenaries over the smugglers.
- In Act I:
- Saved mages from the Templars
- Returned Saemus to the viscount
- Saved miners from the Bone Pit (though didn’t actually defeat the Dragon there until later in the game)
- Sent Feynriel to the Circle
- Hawke’s brother, Carter, died in the Deep Roads
- In Act II:
- Didn’t kill the rogue mage Gascard
- Went against that sneaky Petrice (and the Chantry, really)
- Feynriel left the Circle for the Tevinter Imperium
- Didn’t help Isabella find the artifact – she permanently left the group
- Killed the Arishock (and holy shit, what a battle that was!)
- In Act II:
- Handed over mage conspirators to Orsino
- Gave the Gem of Keroshek back to Gamlen
- Allowed the young, goofy mage Emile to go free
- Insisted that Templar-recruit-gone-awry Keran rejoin the Templars
- Supported Anders’ choice to destroy the Chantry and sided with the mages
As you can see, not all my choices were necessarily within my Hawke’s own prejudices. Towards the end of the game, I had him soften a bit, though he still supported the mages (though not blood mages) as best he could.
Speaking of which, he did end up with Anders. And the two of them were so toats adorbs together! It was especially endearing when Hawke pledged to stay with Anders forever and ever. Now, I did try to warm him up to Merrill, but folks, I’ll be honest, I didn’t get to know her much the first time I played the game, and this second time round, I remembered why. I just…don’t…like her that much. I feel a little terrible saying that, because I know that plenty of the game’s fans find her perfectly charming. Though I became more invested in her personal story this time around, I found her generally irksome and uninteresting. Maybe if I give the game a go again, I’ll try better to let Merrill in.
Furthering that notion, I was simply awful to Isabella. Holy crow, was Hawke ever the biggest ass to her! But the first time I played, I practically doted over Isabella, what with her silky voice and big, heaving…requests. But this time around, Hawke didn’t put up with any of her pirate nonsense. (Ahem. In the Fade: “I like big boats, and I cannot lie.” That just about did me in.) And because of it, she left. For good. I kind of thought she might return later in the game, though I don’t know why. I’m sure she’s out there, somewhere, sailing the vast seas.
So what of my biggest gripe with the game originally – the small, predictable environments? Eh, they didn’t really bother as much this time around. I mean, they still kinda did, and I remain especially annoyed that all the warehouses looked exactly alike — I got past the similar looking underground passages, but oooh….those damn warehouses! — but I didn’t spend as much time internally complaining about revisiting the same spots. Instead, I spent my mental energies focused on Hawke, his reluctant role as “hero,” and the plights of mage vs. Templar and Kirkwall vs. its Chantry. And in that regards, I reversed my view of Dragon Age II.
With my first playthrough, I wanted Dragon Age II to be something it wasn’t – an open sandbox of exploration. (Frankly, Dragon Age: Origins wasn’t even that, but I digress.) But DAII is about being stuck. Hawke and his compatriots, and seemingly many others in Kirkwall, are stuck there because of the Blight. Everyone has to do the best the can considering the circumstances. So no, there aren’t a bunch of places that anyone can go outside of Kirkwall; the Free Marches remain dangerous in their own right. DAII doesn’t want you to explore, and Hawke doesn’t need to, Kirkwall has a heap of trouble all its own.
So what did BioWare do instead of creating an open-world game? They created an incredible story. One that was tightly woven but was still massive in scope and ramifications. If there’s any issue with this, it’s that Hawke’s importance to the Dragon Age universe isn’t revealed as all that important until the game’s later stages. (And even then, Hawke still feels like an outsider, namely because he is.) So yes, the player is forced to revisit the same spots in Kirkwall repeatedly, but each encounter reveals some bit of intrigue, solves a part of a mystery, or brings Hawke one step closer to understanding Kirkwall’s problems. The game’s story is so closely knit, it’s easy overlook how one small stitch can affect the end tapestry. If you don’t pay attention, then yes, everything will unravel into a fuckall of boring quests and uneventful interactions. DAII demands a bit more from players. And this is probably why the game was somewhat derided — and I was among the detractors — when it first came out. I’m very happy now to change my tune.
In much the same vein as examining Mass Effect 1 and 2, I find myself at a crossroads with Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II. DA:O will always own a large portion of my heart as “the first,” but much like with ME1 vs. ME2, DAII is the better game in terms of mechanics, leveling, graphics, and combat. Oh, how I tired of watching my mage in DA:O perform the same move over and over. Hawke was spectacularly showy with his staff! (His…his magic…staff…you…just nevermind.) I’m also glad that I took time to get to know my DAII companions, which I didn’t really do the first time, outside of Isabella and Varric. Conversations remained a little stilted, but they played out much more naturally. And I was never truly able to predict how someone might react to something Hawke said. I tended to keep Hawke on the pissy/sarcastic side of the conversation wheel, and I didn’t care too much about gaining “friendship” or “rival” points. I felt more prone to “do right” by characters, even if that meant dishing out some tough love. Of all my companions, I found the best of Hawke’s conversations occurred between him and Fenris, the former slave of Tevinter magister who really disliked mages. In the end, the two came to amenable terms but not before Fenris, rightly for himself, left Hawke’s side to briefly join the Templars. It was one of those moments where I realized just how much thought on BioWare’s part went into giving DAII’s companions their own unique personalities, strengths, and flaws. Sure, the same attention was paid in DA:O, but in DAII, everything felt more potent.
After I completed DAII, I turned right around a created a new character, like I usually do. She’s a blond-haired, green-eyed rogue, and she’s gonna be the sweetest rogue around. I look forward to revisiting the game some day. For now, however, it’s time to move on. I pulled our Xbox One copy of Dragon Age: Inquisition off the shelf, but then wondered if I might be able to locate a game of the year edition. Because, well…I don’t have DLC for either DA:O or DAII, and I remembered hearing good things about Inqusition’s DLC. So I went on a little hunt, and sure enough, I found a digital download of Inquisition GOTY for a very nice price. And I’ve already started my new adventures in Haven, this time with a female Qunari mage. I know that DA:I is not without its issues, but I’m quite excited to revisit it. Something about that open world is just calling…