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Late to the Plate Reviews: Dragon Age II

Ahh. Fresh on the heels of my BioWare Bender post comes my first Late to the Plate review, which happens to cover Dragon Age II.

Boy oh boy, was I excited to get on this one. Within a week of beating Dragon Age: Origins, I interrupted myself playing Bioshock to play Watch_Dogs… which I interrupted to play Dragon Age II. Brace yourselves; sarcasm AND SPOILERS are coming. In the words of Theresa (ala Fable COME ON GUYS), “And so our story begins:”

The Blight is running rampant through Ferelden. Your character, a child of the Hawke family, serves under the esteemed (and severely disliked by Loghain Mac Tir) King Cailan Theirin at Ostagar. As all hell breaks loose under the unheeded signals at the Tower of Ishal, Hawke’s army breaks rank and the soldiers begin to flee the lands, leaving their lives (and King) behind.

Soooooo here’s where we are- fleeing with our mother and twin siblings, running like maniacs through the desolate wastelands surrounding Ferelden. After meeting up with a doomed Templar and his (obnoxiously boring, personality like a piece of paper) wife, you make your way to Kirkwall, a city that will ultimately hate your damned Ferelden guts. An unfamiliar face (but familiar voice) interrupts your journey– a particular Dragon Woman that goes by the name of Asha’bellanar, or *cough* Flemeth. She looks nothing like her former incarnate, but she’s still awesome. You need to do her a favor, whose reasoning is never entirely explained to you (sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself), and in return for your promise to do random said-thing, she’ll make sure you get to Kirkwall safely.

Oh, I forgot to mention: in essence, you are dropped into the midst of a story that’s already over– the entire game is a retelling of your story, from the point of view of a future/past companion, Varric Tethras. So you know how your story ends before you even start; you know you’re alive, because the Seekers of Truth are hunting you, interrogating your X-Men: Days of Future Past-style friend a better part of a decade into the future. You know you become the mighty Champion of Kirkwall, because that’s the only way they really refer to you.

Anyway, back to our story. In this city, you’ll spend the first year of your life in indentured servitude, thanks to your awesome Uncle Skeevy Guy selling you out to get you in the gates. You’ll work for one of two groups- the Smugglers or Mercenaries- being their little errand boy. (Your allegiance makes zero story difference, by the way.) After a few quests, you get a cutscene that a year has gone by, and you, like a good little slave, have done your job. And ooooh gurl, you gettin’ famous!

Unfortunately, your servitude to this shithole never ends- the entire game takes place in Kirkwall, save walking outside a few times to dungeons and caves that share the exact same map every time. This is one of many marks that mar the pretty surface of this game.

You keep trucking, doing idle quests and making quasi-responsible choices; the system in place here is similar to that of Mass Effect, where you’ve got a Paragon/Cheeky/Renegade-style wheel that narrows your choices to that of being a total gimp, or a huge asshole, sometimes all within the same choice. The reason I say quasi-responsible? This game is like playing the Game of Thrones- everything is always screwed, no matter what choice you make.

At the onset of your adventure, you’re not entirely sure what your purpose is in the narrative. Hell, well into the final Act, you’re not entirely sure what your purpose is. You get really famous for pissing various people off, either choosing to side with the citizens of the Free Marches (read: Kirkwall and the surrounding areas), or the Qunari that have set up shop in their city; the Templars, who persecute Mages like cockroaches, or the Mages who, after severe treatment, retaliate with Blood Magic, resulting in most of them becoming abominations. “When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die; there is no middle ground.”

By the end of your story, you’ll have chosen which sides you believe to be right, setting into motion the events of a game that doesn’t happen in the one you’re playing. That’s right- Dragon Age II is not a complete story within itself. Some people are cool with that- I personally am not such a fan. Let me explain: if you give me a ‘middle game,’ it should at least begin/conclude its own full story, all within a greater arc that continues into another game.

A good example of a middle game: Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood.
A bad example of a middle game: Final Fantasy XIII-2.

AC:Brotherhood has an entire story to itself, all while connecting the previous and following titles. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a disjointed trainwreck of a game that doesn’t even finish its own story, leaving a “To Be Continued…” screen at the not-even-an-ending end. I know that the ending was supposed to be DLC, but it never happened that way, which left Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII to not only tell its own story, but to try and tie up loose ends left by the disaster between the first and third titles. I feel that it did a good job.

But back to Kirkwall! The game itself never fully explains why the Seekers of Truth are looking for you; what actually happened to you; why you did any of the things you did… it really was just a vehicle for your choice on the Magi vs. Templar. The entire adventure was bland and erratic; I wasn’t even sure why I was doing anything! “Hey, go here! Do this! Here’s a reward!” I zoned out on dozens upon dozens of quests, as the sense of mystery was gone. There is very little foreshadowing or building in the story, as everything is either explained up front, or not explained at all. You end up not caring or being invested in what is happening to those around you, save the few crucial moments that your narrative builds to.

That leads me into companions. In Dragon Age:Origins, I was quite invested in the majority of my companions– their stories were well-fleshed, and they seemed like real people, with real lives, that I could directly affect. If you read my BioWare bender post, you know that I moped for hours after making some decisions regarding Alistair and other companions. In Dragon Age II, your companions can come and go, depending on your choices, but you don’t ever truly care about most of them. Even when romancing a companion, their quests do little to further your stance on them (please don’t get me started on how FRUITLESS Merrill’s quests are. I spent so much of the fucking game doing useless things!) They’re just there– they buy into you ridiculously easily, they fall in love with you without you even trying, they act like you have a relationship that you’ve never even experienced, because the game skips ahead 1-to-3 years at a time. Some of them stand on one side of the line or the other– Anders, Fenris, and Aveline in particular are fierce about their beliefs– but in the end, it matters very little. Anders does set into motion some craaaaaaazy shit at the end, though, that finally fleshes him out as a character.

And if you were hoping to see your old beloved characters, you’re hoping too hard. Alistair showed up for like one minute and three sentences. That’s the extent.

Overall, where does Dragon Age II stand with me?

Three out of Seven on the Skull*N*Bones scale. I almost feel guilty giving it such a rating; I didn’t hate it, but at the same time, it did not deliver on its own. Honestly, it could have been an add-on to Origins– one hell of a massive add-on, but it did little to further the overall storyline, or complete one within itself, so an add-on it becomes. I felt little connection to my own character or those around her, spare a few moments that made a difference. Kirkwall was a bland setting, made even worse by the use of recycled maps and pointless locations. But it is still a Dragon Age title, and in that right, I still like it.

Oh, sequels, you lot are tricksy business.