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[CRPGs] A year ago...

Phantom Grunweasel

Situation Normal Oll Korrect
Validated User
Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age: Origins took, depending on who you ask, something like seven or eight years to make. Dragon Age 2 was made in just one year. Unsurprisingly, it’s seen as a profound disappointment by many – a rushed mess and, in hindsight, a sign of things to come for Bioware. But the game also has its passionate defenders, who see it as a flawed but remarkable gem, with storytelling and ideas that ultimately outweigh its problems. Needless to say, I was curious to play a game with such a weirdly mixed reputation.

So what kind of a name is Dragon Age: Origins anyway? Besides one so painfully generic it might as well have been called Fantasy: RPG. An age is roughly a century in the Dragon Age setting and the Chantry decides at the start of each new age what to call it. So, really, calling the series Dragon Age is like calling a series Twentieth Century. It frees things up. No game in the series has to be about the same character or the same conflict but instead it can adopt an anthology format, skipping around through time and space within the Dragon Age era to tell a new and different story with each new installment, even as the schemes of long-lived and powerful characters like Flemeth and the demons weave through the entire thing.

I’m drawn to this anthology approach. I like its creative freedom and sense of possibility. There’s also the fact that, although the darkspawn work terrifically as a force-of-nature extinction-level threat to humanity and grim reminder of the hubris of the Tevinter Imperium, they’re by design not very interesting in themselves and nor would an entire series about fighting them. So I liked the fact that Bioware seems to be sticking to its guns on the ending of the first game: darkspawn are still around (some of them achieving independent thought, as per Awakening) but the Fifth Blight is over.

So, free to go anywhere they liked, the writers behind Dragon Age 2 chose an intriguing premise, one that I instantly liked. A game that takes place over seven years in the same location, a city-state to the north of Ferelden. A game where you’re not a rootless freebooting adventurer or the foretold hero of legend, but a refugee trying to protect your family while climbing the social ladder in your new home, where you watch the consequences of your decisions play out over years, where your friends and your city change based on the choices you made. And a story that’s told, noir-style, in flashback by one of your companions.

It’s a great premise, but the problems with the execution (and the clear signs of the time pressure the game was made under) begin right away. Perhaps it’s acceptable that the game only offers you three choices: mage, warrior, or rogue, plus gender. We don’t get the range of six origin stories that the original game offered, but this is understandable, given the tighter focus that the sequel takes on. What’s less justifiable is how rushed the introduction is. We’re funneled through canyons filled with darkspawn, characters getting killed off long before we’ve got any chance to know them or any sense of what your pre-refugee lives. It doesn’t set things up with nearly the same patience as the previous game.

Part of the problem is the setting. Like a lot of things about DA2, Kirkwall is a great idea. The City of Chains, a place both literally and figuratively haunted by the madness and cruelty of the sorcerous empire that built it, a place where gigantic, menacing statues loom ominously overhead at every turn (a fact that comes into play in an entertainingly unsubtle way at the climax of the game), a place whose every aspect was engineered to proclaim the power of the archmagi who lived there and break the spirits of their innumerable slaves. Navigating it should feel like stepping into one of the dark, brooding cities from the weird fantasy fiction of Gene Wolf or Clark Ashton Smith.

But in the first place, it’s too damn small. It consists of just a handful of relatively compact locations, plus a couple of areas outside – cliffside trails, a mountain – all of which you’ll be revisiting again and again and again. Even generic location layouts like warehouses and alleyways are reused again and again and again, until it feels like one of those low-budget 1960s sci-fi shows where the only outdoor shooting location available is the same small quarry, which some days is the palace of Space Lion King Abazu and other days a cliff-face above the Howling Desert. Kirkwall just can’t feel like the Gothic metropolis it needs to be – it’s too cramped and monotone.

It might not be so bad if another major promise was delivered – if Kirkwall evolved over time and in accordance with your decisions. This would help it feel like a living city and give more impact to the passage of time. But it remains disappointingly static – except for the departure of the Qunari and the erection of a statue to your character in the same area.

Another problem is that Kirkwall just doesn’t have much of a distinct culture. It has heaps of history, as detailed above, but that’s not the same thing. By the end of the game, I still didn’t feel like I really understood much about how Kirkwall’s citizens viewed themselves vis-à-vis the other Free March cities and the rest of Thedas and how those places in turn viewed them. I knew that like Ferelden, Kirkwall had been occupied by Orlais – but unlike Ferelden, everyone in Kirkwall seemed pretty chill about letting Orlesians trade and own property in their city, and even kept using the Orlesian title for their ruler instead of inventing their own. Was this because of an inherently pragmatic attitude? Because, despite the history, Kirkwall still had a sneaking regard for Orlesian culture and deep down still viewed it as aspirational? Because Orlais was now an ally against some mutual rival? Whatever the answer, it would have helped a lot in fleshing out this place.

In retrospect, one of the first game’s accomplishments was making Ferelden, seemingly a fairly standard fantasy kingdom, feel like a real, complicated place. It had its macho, male-dominated, dog and drinking-oriented aristocratic culture gradually giving way to something more courtly under the influence of its neighbour and recent occupier, Orlais. It defined itself against Orlais but also against the barbarian tribes to its south. Perhaps most significantly, as important as it seemed to everyone who lived there, it was clear that most outsiders would view it as a muddy backwater. Kirkwall just doesn’t have the same world-building behind it.

The gameplay has been made even more streamlined and action-oriented than Origins. Choosing gear is mainly a matter of comparing numbers and a whole category of items is labelled, with admirable frankness, as ‘Junk’. The quirks and asymmetrical bits of Origins’ gameplay – the way that mages could build up unique combos through combining oil and fire-based attacks, for instance – are gone. Now, each class can dole out its own unique status-effect which other classes can exploit. Warriors choose just between two-handed weapons and sword-and-shield; rogues between bows and dual-wielding. Like a lot of the rest of the game, the focus is very, very narrow.

I feel a little hypocritical complaining about this kind of thing. Fact is, I’m no kind of number-crunching whizz-kid. I still don’t understand Pillars of Eternity 2’s penetration mechanics, and I don’t care to either. I figure out how to play old-school CRPGs mostly through trial-and-error and mule-headed stubbornness rather than actually analysing and understanding what’s going on mechanically. So perhaps I have no business carping out about the simplification of RPGs. But I actually do regret it, mostly because there’s just less of a range of interesting possibilities to explore and character types to try – and trying different character types is one of the understated pleasures of CRPGs.

Of course, DA2 keeps the Specialisations – sort of prestige classes that your character can take at certain levels. In Origins, these were very loosely linked to the story, in that you had to find someone willing to train you in them before you could take them. DA2 dispenses with even that. Now you can just take when you reach the appropriate level, with no in-game justification at all. However, the level schemes are made a little more complex than those of Origins. You now have many more branching options, allowing you to customize your character in ways that make up a little bit for the lack of choice.

In fact, I found combat in itself enjoyable. Having played the first game as a mage, I made my Hawke a big berserker bruiser and there was something deeply satisfying about charging into a horde of enemies and sending them scattering in all directions with a sweep of my double-handed sword. On the other hand, combat in DA2 is one of the many deeply, deeply repetitive areas of the game. Almost every fight goes down in the same way: a wave of weak enemies attacks; as you deal with them, more and stronger enemies appear, and so on and so on until it’s all done. There’s little use of the environment, traps, ambushes, tactics, or unique and interesting enemies and rarely much story justification for why every single random street gang or cult has endless numbers of warm bodies at its disposal. Even boss fights tend to follow the same basic pattern: boss fights you for a while, then makes itself invulnerable while hordes of weaker enemies rush you before it becomes vulnerable for a short while again.

To make matters worse, DA2 is very, very combat-heavy. I was never a big fan of puzzles in RPGs but I came to miss them: at least they break up the tedium of fighting endless wave after wave of suicidal baddies. Instead, you could rely on almost every subquest consisting of one thing: going to the location conveniently marked on your map, murdering everything you see, having a brief exchange, then returning to quest-giver for reward. Even odder are the ‘return missing thing’ subquests, which hardly even qualify as content at all.

Sidequests in general were a mixed bag. I found some, such as the one featuring the blood mage serial killer or the magistrate’s son, to be genuinely chilling and creepy in their ability to get under my skin. Unfortunately, however, quite a lot of them blurred together for me – so many of them involve rounding up apostate mages or similar that I lost track. Then there were the absolute pits, like the mindlessly repetitive gang-busting subquests where you just trail around a district waiting for a mob of bandits to attack you.

The other way of varying things, with dialogue and significant choices, was confusing to me. Mostly, Hawke can only respond with three options: caring, flippant, or stern. Trouble is, the actual content of his response is mostly the same, it’s just about his attitude as he does it. Every now and then, we are actually offered a significant choice in dialogue but the options we’re given are so terse and cryptic that I rarely felt that I knew exactly what I was getting when I selected any of them. In Merill’s end-game quest, for instance, the difference between the dialogue options “It was a demon” and “I’ll take responsibility” means an entire elven clan attacking you en masse, but I don’t feel like I was given remotely enough context to understand why this would be the case.

Choices in general feel underwhelming. When you get right down to it, there’s only one choice in the game that matters very much: templars or mages? Compare with the wide range of tough choices you have to make in Origins, choices like idealistic and naïve young king vs intelligent, pragmatic schemer? Sacrifice a woman using blood magic to save a child from possession? Carry out a forbidden rite in the hopes of saving your own life and the life of a brother in arms? These are much more nuanced, layered decisions to make than ‘Which faction do you like better: the crypto-fascist control freaks or the ticking nuclear timebombs?’ And even then, by the end of the game, it doesn’t really feel like even that matters all that much: I had to kill the leaders of both factions, after all, and the game seemed fairly intent on steering the same course regardless of what my Hawke said or did.

I guess I’m partly less interested in the choice because the mage vs. templar thing struck me as one of the least interesting conflicts from the first game. After all, in the medieval period on which the games are based, the average person didn’t have all that much freedom, as we would understand it (freedom to move around, freedom to marry who they liked and practice the religion of their choice), in the first place, and this is presented as being more or less the case in Thedas. No doubt it sucks to be born a mage (the game hints that sexual abuse by Templars is part of the package, at least in the Kirkwall Circle) but I found the idea that the injustice of the situation inspires this international revolutionary movement a little bit much (how many mages even are there?). I found the Qunari-Chantry situation a much more interesting and thematically rich conflict but the game blocks you from genuinely choosing sides there – the best you can do is express an opinion from the sidelines.

I also found the ending quite weak, and was particularly disappointed that it ended on what amounted to a sequel hook (apparently, originally intended as the lead-in to an Awakening-type post-game DLC) instead of anything more conclusive. A few threads, such as the red lyrium idol and the serial killer storyline, suddenly came together in an abrupt, arbitrary way. And even parts of the final confrontation recycled material – Hawke has to fight through the burning city just like in the climax of Act 2.

Companions are one of DA2’s bright lights, on the other hand. With a couple of exceptions, I found myself enjoying the free-wheeling banter and exchanges between them a great deal and all in all, I liked them much more than the Origins crew. Aveline’s loyalty quest, which involves an absurd exercise in matchmaking, even went some way towards selling me on character, who I’d previously found as dull as a squeezed dishcloth. On the other hand, I didn’t care for Anders in Awakening, liked the new humorless revolutionary version even less, and took a certain undeniable pleasure in executing him after he blew up the Chantry. But for the most part, I really liked the companions.

I loved what DA2 was trying to do. Telling a more personal story, one without the crutch of apocalyptic, world-ending stakes, a story that unfolded over a period of years and was about a city as much as its protagonist – that was a great idea. But there’s no denying that it should have had far more time and resources devoted to it.


Emo hair power!
Validated User
The Mage rebellion building up makes sense in the volatile combination of what they are. They're well educated, depending on where they are can have privileged access to royalty and military, they're the lynchpin of the Chantry's military power, they can produce enormous amounts of wealth and they're well organized and can communicate over long distances. But they're also effectively imprisoned, routinely abused, under constant threat of annihilation and the Chantry turns some of them into mindless slaves it exploits for material gain, often for spurious reasons.

The game kind of bungled the presentation on that though. Inquisition presents it better, in that it's not a justice vs injustice or freedom vs security conflict but primarily a 'who holds the power in the situation' conflict with a lot of things falling apart when both the Templars and Mages realized the Chantry is a paper tiger with no power over them. But that isn't surprising, 2's rushed nature means a lot of it's themes are deeply muddled and because the Inquisition DLC never happened it doesn't even get a proper ending to them. Inquisition had a longer development and got a chance to stake it's themes clearly on power, organisations and the myths that surround both.

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Choo Choo

Likes Rocks
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I love Dragon Age 2 for what it tries to be. Bioware usually does these epic yet formulaic save the world stories - and for the first time in a long time they tried to tell a story that was more personal in scope, that focused on the people and the politics more than some giant omnicidal monster. It's painful how rushed, how wasted that idea is, especially since Bioware seems to have learned the wrong lessons from the reception - instead of learning "rushing and crazy crunch time is bad" they learned "that kind of story is bad" and it's heartbreaking.


Registered User
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I thought DA2 peaked at the conclusion of the second act and turned into a mess in the third act. That said, it’s probably my favorite of all the Dragon Age games - I love the voice of female Snarky Hawke, the story structure made me feel more invested in what was happening than in the other games’ plot lines, and I strongly believe DA2 had the best intra-party banter of any CRPG.


Emo hair power!
Validated User
I thought DA2 peaked at the conclusion of the second act and turned into a mess in the third act. That said, it’s probably my favorite of all the Dragon Age games - I love the voice of female Snarky Hawke, the story structure made me feel more invested in what was happening than in the other games’ plot lines, and I strongly believe DA2 had the best intra-party banter of any CRPG.
I think DA2 had overall the best interplay between companions of any game i've seen. You can see spots in other games that are as good, like Cassandra-Varric in Inquisition and Alistair-Morrigan in Origins, but in no other game does the entire cast have a general high level of interplay that can cast interesting lights on different characters. Because Origins and Inquisition make the vast majority of their cast optional they really can't do that. It's especially to the detriment of Inquisition because a lot of characters who should figure into War Room scenes, like Blackwall or Darien or Vivienne, don't and the characters have little direct interaction with each other.

Andromeda got a little closer than usual, because your crew have a lot of little scenes together on the ship.


Phantom Grunweasel

Situation Normal Oll Korrect
Validated User
Playing Divinity: Original Sin at the moment but for those who, like me, enjoying reading behind-the-scenes stuff and analysis of these games almost as much as actually playing them, I thought I'd index links to all the interesting stuff that's popped up over the course of the thread, for your reading enjoyment:


Notes on the Arcanum Soundtrack

I've always really liked Arcanum's unusual and evocative string quartet soundtrack, so it's a treat to read the composer's personal notes on the process of writing it.

The Mass Effect Trilogy

Shamus Young's Very Long Dissertation On Where the Series Went Wrong

I don't agree with all of this, in fact I think we might even have diametrically opposite ideas about what makes for a good game and a good story, but I read the entire thing and there's worthwhile insights in there. He also wrote one for Andromeda if you want even more


An Oral History of Morrowind

Pillars of Eternity and the Infinity Engine (and Fallout) Games in General

Beneath a Starless Sky

The prose is a bit much at times, but this is an absolutely vast collection of interviews and research on these games, designed to allow you to dip in and out as you please. For me, one of the highlights is an interview with David Gaider. Did you know that Baldur's Gate 2 was originally supposed to have a Days of Future Past-type final act where Irenicus conquers the world and you have to travel back in time to stop him? It's true!

Josh Sawyer's Post-Mortem on Pillars 2
Interesting stuff. He's frank about the fact that the game's sales were disappointing, and discusses what he thinks the issues were in a refreshingly direct and sensible way.
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