As of not that long ago, I finished yet another playthrough of Dragon Age II. And as I was loading all my notes into the Dragon Age Keep, I realized that this particular game has become something of a yearly staple, more so than any of the other BioWare games I know and enjoy. I have to admit it surprises me to no end, especially since I was so very mean to DAII initially on this very blog. I stand by those words, which I’m re-sharing here, because I do still believe that DAII has some of the laziest, dull, and most recycled environments ever created. But with time comes understanding, and I now understand, or at least tolerate the reasoning as to why that is. I made my amends and moved on, to which my high number of recent replays can attest. It’s the story and characters that compel me to revisit to Kirkwall time and again.
The following post originally appeared on Recollections of Play on March, 19, 2014.
When Dragon Age II was released in late 2011, three words kept me away from it: dull, boring, and lazy. These are not three things one wants associated with many things in general, let along an action/adventure/fantasy video game. And especially one that had sprung forth from the loins of the excellent and supremely fun Dragon Age: Origins. But review after review, at least those that I only skimmed because of spoilers, seemed to contain some sort of play on these words. Now, when DAII came out, it wasn’t like I was bored. I was looking forward to it, but I had plenty of games on my plate and I was on the heels of finishing a second DA:O playthrough. Still, it didn’t seem possible that Bioware would make a dull, boring, and/or lazy game. I mean, that’d be like Pixar making a shitty movie! P’shaw! Never in a million years would they think of rehashing a shiny classic like, oh, I don’t know…Cars, or something, and…making that into a terrible…um…sequ…
It’s not like a put a ton of stock into game reviews, but when all of them seem to contain the same ideas, well…they kinda stick. And because of that association, I put DAII on the backburner for awhile. It wasn’t until I saw the trailer for Dragon Age: Inquisition at E3 2013 that I thought “huh, maybe I should pick up DAII now.” Shortly thereafter, I found myself a used copy in good working order, and when time permitted, I went adventuring.
***A few random spoilers ahead!***
In Dragon Age II you took on the role of Hawke, a human (the only choice) male or female, whom you could outfit as a mage, warrior, or rogue. After completing whatever level of character customization you wanted in terms of looks, your backstory was determined, either by default or through a previous Dragon Age: Origins save file. (Sadly, our new Xbox 360 had trouble reading my old DA:O save file, so I ended up with the default “Hero of Ferelden” backstory – was a Grey Warden, survived the Blight, helped make Alistair king.) Once all that was said and done, the game got on with itself. The story of DAII was essentially one very long flashback of how Hawke incited a war between the Templars and the Mages. The narrator of said story was Varric, one of Hawke’s companions throughout the game, who had been captured by a member of the Seekers (a Templar branch) named Cassandra who wanted Hawke’s help. Like a good Shakespearean play, the story was divided into three acts, each of which included scenes between Varric and Cassandra. One year passed between the prologue and first act, three years passed between the first and second acts, and the second and third acts happened consecutively.
There was a lot to the DAII’s story – it was far more complex than the simpler good vs. evil setup of DA:O – but basically, with each act, Hawke progressed towards becoming the Champion of Kirkwall, making good friends and lesser friends along the way and fighting off any number of enemies (though no Darkspawn here.) The crux of Hawke’s story rested on her involvement with the Mages and the Templars as each struggled for power in Kirkwall. Throughout the game, players took on a number of different companions and utilized them in teams of three during battles and other scenarios. Relationships could be made, enhanced, and broken with each of them, and a few of the team members could be romanced as well. The player’s choices affected Hawke’s story in a few different ways, but the end results all had Kirkwall “saved” and the Seekers questioning their next move.
On paper, none of this seemed dull, lazy, and/or boring. And the game wasn’t, at first. I quickly fell head over heels for the chronicle of Hawke – she had such a complex narrative and I was vastly intrigued by Varric’s storytelling and the Seeker’s actions. It was great being thrust into the history of Hawke’s family, her dealings with the Templars and Mages, and her attempts to bring unity to a divided city. And so long as I was doing things to help Hawke’s story along, I was happy. I had plenty of fun playing through the main story of the first act, which ended with a harrowing yet exciting time in the Deep Roads, and I picked up all the side quests I could before moving on.
Things did not go…as well…during the second act. I became highly annoyed by environmental repetition. Oh, I noticed it a little during the first act. The entire game took place in three stages: daytime Kirkwall, nighttime Kirkwall, and the Free Marches (mountainous roads on the outskirts of Kirkwall). Traveling between the three in the first act was…well…a bit monotonous, but it wasn’t out-and-out boring. Things still seemed new and exploratory. But by the second act, particularly near the end of it, traveling to the same dungeon and the same mountain pass and the same courtyard had me on edge. Lazy. In that one word did my soul outpour, and I got it. Those reviews. Lazy was the perfect word to describe the environmental design of the game. Over and over, I passed the same crates, the same patches of moss, the same bridges…and eventually, the same groups of enemies over and over and FUCKING OVER AGAIN! By the end of the second act, I truly could have cared less about Mages, Templars, or the fact that I had locked my Hawke into a relationship with the sultry Isabella (at least that was something different!) Thankfully, what saved me was Grand Theft Auto V. Because damn if I didn’t need, nay require!, a break from Kirkwall.
I avoided DAII for the rest of 2013. And every time I passed the game, those evil, evil words jumped back into my skull. Dull. Boring. Lazy. But the combat system was pretty good, right? Sure, it got a little chaotic at times, and sometimes it was hard to tell just how readily prepared Hawke was to battle high-level enemies, but it was a sight better than the clunky combat system of DA:O. And those characters, right? I really enjoyed playing through the game’s many friendship sidequests and trying to figure out how to piss off the least number of people (or maybe just the right number of people) to get things done. And then, that story. How I loved it! I hated the fact that I had just left in the midst of Hawke’s endgame. I just had to go back to it. Had to! Plus, I couldn’t just leave the thing unfinished before Dragon Age: Inquisition, now could I?
No, I couldn’t. So once I finished GTA V (and a few other games), I pulled up my boot straps and marched right back into the devastatingly boring Kirkwall with all its sameness. I ignored the environments and enjoyable sidequests and dove into the festering conflict between the Mages and the Templars. I pleased many and angered more with the choices I made to reach the end.
And then, it was over. Hawke won, her party disbanded, and the stage was set for I-don’t-even-know-what (but hopefully some pretty awesome) in the next game.
All in all, DAII wasn’t a bad game at all, and I do recommend it to those who liked Dragon Age: Origins. Bioware did a pretty good job linking the first and second games, so I imagine the same will be true with the third. But yes, I found parts of it to be dull, boring, and lazy. It was a good follow-up to DA:O, and it improved upon that game in story and even in characters (without the help of yum-yum-gimme-some Alistair), but the constraints of Kirkwall were insufferable. It’s a place I don’t feel at all compelled to visit again. I sure wouldn’t mind listening to and hanging out with Varric some more though – a good companion he was.