Zoe’s RPG Corner: Dragon Age II

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Dragon Age II is a single-player 3rd person RPG with a terrible title and some weirdass placement within the Dragon Age franchise that really seems to interest people because of whiny male love interests and I am going to offed people about.

History and Development

So after Dragon Age: Origins, there’s honestly no reason for another Dragon Age title.  I’m not using this to now bitch about how there shouldn’t be another one because I’m really glad there is one.  What I am saying is that Origins wraps up the story of the Warden PC really well and by the end you’re like “Okay, there we are, great, solid work team, go me.”

And then Dragon Age II came out.

But they did exactly the right thing.  They didn’t try to drag you through another game as the Warden.  Instead, they took their world and they made a whole new game with a whole new protagonist where the choices you made in Origins affect little details (who rules the kingdom of Fereldan, some toss off lines about who the Warden was, and like, I dunno, there’s some other stuff) but not the overall story.

Apparently during this game, though, the lead Bioware designer who’d worked there for ten years bailed and said some weird angsty things about it – why do people say anything when that happens, I will never understand that – which kind of put a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.  Later he took it back but he did so badly so it was sort of just uncomfortable all around.  And actually that’s a really good metaphor for Dragon Age II.

I don’t have a cool story for this one.  I played it because I played the first one.  I do have a great memory of starting it at my friend’s workplace while he was working and repeatedly looking up at him at the desk and whispering “Oh my god” in reverent tones.  The beginning of this game is super boss.

Though it admittedly goes…a little downhill.  But we’ll get to that.

Character Creation

Okay literally there is the coolest character creation system in this game and I’m all about it.  At the opening of your game, after you’ve imported your save from Dragon Age: Origins, all you chose is the class you want to play.  It’s the same mage/rogue/warrior from the first game, with no race choice because the PC of Dragon Age II, known as Hawke, is human and that is unchanging.

You play through the whole tutorial as the default character model.  This has to do with the way the story is structured (more on that later) and the suddenly after the tutorial the whole thing is questioned and then you’re allowed into the character creation screen.  Then you basically restart the game as a crummy, bad at your job level one player character and go through it all again, but this time the “right” way.

The physical aspects are pretty solid.  There’s not like, a lot of interesting, exciting things happening in it in terms of creation, but they got way better at skin tones sometime between this game and the first game.  So like, being brown is way better and more human looking.  But you know, not that brown.

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This is basically the darkest skin tone there is and that’s…unfortunate.

Story

The story of this game is totally cool and awesome and fantastic and mindblowingly interesting, and also fucking terrible.  I’ll explain.

The reason that the tutorial is questioned and character creation is done the way it is is because Dragon Age II is told as a story within a story.  The game’s “present” is actually a dwarven companion of Hawke’s – an NPC in your party – named Varric telling the story of Hawke to Cassandra, a woman from the church.  The meat of the game takes place in the past.  Varric is probably lying about most of it.  Often, the game will stop and redo something because Varric just goes totally off the rails and Cassandra calls him on it.  It’s one of the coolest framing devices I’ve ever seen.  Varric as an unreliable narrator makes it far more interesting than if he was just telling the truth as it happened.  So yeah, no one knows if anything in Dragon Age II is actually real.  But we buy it, because Varric’s a great storyteller.

The problem, though, is the story he’s telling.  It’s about Hawke, a refugee from Ferelden who leaves during the events of the first game and goes north to the city of Kirkwall.  The story spans a whole decade.  In that ten years, Hawke solves all sorts of problems in Kirkwall.  It’s a three act story that’s sort of  tied together by a conflict between the mages and Templars.

I work in theater.  Recently, I got a text from another theater friend that just read “I hate three act plays”.  And it’s mostly true.  Quite apart from the horrible idea that is anything with two intermissions, there’s always one act that just feels totally pointless in any three act play.  It works in movies – screenwriters will tell you that most work on a three act system – because in a film everything is highly structured and tells a continuous story.  Also, and this is super important, the end of act two is a TOTAL DOWNER.  My screenwriter friend calls it the “all is lost” moment, where everything is taken from the hero, the villian is clearly going to win, and basically everything’s just crap.

But the second act of Dragon Age II doesn’t have that.  Every act is a small game in of itself so every act ends with a boss fight.  Which you clearly win.  So it doesn’t work because then you’re standing in the metaphorical lobby with your bake sale cookie and your badly mixed Cape Cod and the lights start flickering and you just don’t want to go back in.  You’re just like, “Oh my god, there’s more, I don’t want to, I’m tired and I want to go home and what else can even happen in this game?  Do I care?  I’m trying really hard to care but it’s not working.”

Gameplay

The redemption of this game’s crummy story, though, is its fantastic combat system.  While the Dragon Age: Origins combat can be slow and clunky and jerky, the Dragon Age II combat is smooth, fluid, dynamic, and a damn good time.  You just feel like the biggest goddamn badass playing this game because it doesn’t matter what class you have, what weapon you use, it feels like you are so goddamn cool.  They gave mages a big knife on the ends of their staves which is awesome.  In Dragon Age: Origins, mages would be like, shooting magic bolts at people hitting them with swords and it looked really dumb.  In Dragon Age II, mages apparently went “Hold on a second, I have a big fucking chunk of wood in my hands.  Let me beat you in the face with it.”

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Say hello to my little friend.

The skills have been streamlined into trees which is nice because often you can avoid skills you don’t want.  Also they cut probably a third to a half of the spells which makes it way easier to find your way through leveling up.  Way more understandable.  And easy.  I’m a big fan of streamlined skills and shit because I’ve played  too many games where I’m like “WHERE AM I, WHAT AM I PLAYING, I AM HAVING AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS.”

It’s just a nice, easy, simple style and that’s really the saving grace of this game.  If it was a crap story and complex mechanics, I would not be happy, but it really is a joy to play.  Like, I rarely enjoy combat in games (weird, I know) but it’s a lot of fun in this one.

The Good

Let’s talk about girls for a minute.  Because the women of Dragon Age II make this game.  There’s Avaline, a square jawed, broad shouldered police officer (basically) who’s bad at flirting.  Then there’s Merril, a tiny, big eyed elf girl who engages in blood magic  but who is basically made of sunshine and rainbows regardless (and is also voiced by Eve Myles of Torchwood).  And then there is Isabella, sarcastic, sexy pirate captain, one of Dragon Age’s few women of color, and also queen of my heart.  She is amazing and I adore her.  They are all amazing.  And well written.  And make this game so much better.

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Girl power.

The dialogue in this game is also really good.  They have an actually voiced protagonist for this game which lends an extra element to enjoy, though sometimes your character says things that you didn’t quite  mean.  But the writing here is fantastic.  I mean, “I like big boats and I cannot lie” is an actual line in this game.  They wrote it and somehow no one cut it and I can’t figure out how that happened.

As stated above, the combat is good, solid, and a lot of fun.  It doesn’t exactly feel realistic, but this is a video game where magic exists.  If I wanted realism, I’d go outside and actually hit people with a stick.  I’d rather be able to leap across a room to punch a horned giant in the mouth.

Oh yeah and also rivalry romance is a thing and wow is that a ton of fun, but that’s personal.

The Bad

Let’s talk about boys because wow….

Sorry, millions of (mostly female) fans who are going to disagree with me, but the boys are not great.  There’s a lot of love for both Fenris, the broody elf, and Anders, the broody mage, but I’m not really feeling it?  Both of them are romance options and it’s a lot of “fixing men” BS happening in there.  Like, yeah, tragic pasts and whatever, but like, as someone really deep into video game feminism, I’m uncomfortable with it.  They’re fun and whatever, but I like doing this on the rivalry romance end of things rather than the friendship one so instead of going “Oh, you poor baby, I’m sorry you’re so broken, let me fix you” you get to go “Yeah, cry me a fucking river, woman up, we’ve got shit to do, let’s make out.”

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“Oh pity me, pity me, I am going to make SUCH BAD FUCKING CHOICES.”  Thanks Anders.  You twat.

Oh, except Varric.  Varric is fine.  We like Varric.  We’ll keep him.

The Ugly

Oh, story, why must you disappoint me like this?  So much potential, but such weak execution.  I believed in you, and you let me down.

I mean, not enough for me not to play it like, eight times.  The game is only like twenty hours long, it’s not a big deal.

From here…?

You know, for all I feel like this review heaped a lot of criticism on this game, I really enjoy it?  I mean, I love to hate things I love, so maybe that’s part of it, but I honestly enjoy Dragon Age 2 a ton.  It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s got good dialogue and good characters.  Regardless of the problems I have with the boys, giving Fenris shit and then kissing him on the mouth was way fun.  I’m going to play it a million more times, I just know it.  It’s been likened to an intermission, and it is.  Its structure is a little weak, but it’s still a fun game.  Just don’t expect too much.

It’s also pretty cheap.  Pick it up, give it a play.  It’s short too, so it won’t suck up your life.

Next Month: Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Ahahahaha, it’s so pretty and also like wow what is even happening?

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