BioWare has a flair for the epic. The studio that has carved out a hardcore following thanks to Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars inspired RPGs has become synonymous with epic role playing experiences in recent years. 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins, an original intellectual property that feels deeply rooted in lore akin to BioWare’s classic Baldur’s Gate, was a solid RPG that combined accessibility, complex gameplay, and BioWare’s gift for storytelling.
The sound foundation that Origins set should have allowed Dragon Age II to build on that freedom and immersion. Unfortunately, while Dragon Age II is a good game, it is not as taut as Origins. (Possible spoilers after the jump)I find it difficult to review Dragon Age II, without thinking of how excellent Origins was. While I want to sing praises of the excellent story of Hawke’s ascension from a refugee of the Fereldan Blight to the Champion of Kirkwall, I can’t help but think how the Grey Warden’s quest to defend Ferelden from the Blight seemed so much more weighty. Or how I love the combat and pacing of Dragon Age II, but found it hectic in contrast to the orchestra of combat in Origins. That while Kirkwall is an expansive area to explore, it is not nearly the same as traversing the many different areas of Ferelden.
If there’s anything that Dragon Age II succeeds at where Origins did not, is that it expands greatly on the struggles of nations and the people in the Dragon Age world. While Origins had a primary focus of ending the Fifth Blight by defeating the Archdemon, Dragon Age II has a much more grey focus. This isn’t to say that Dragon Age II doesn’t make its intentions perfectly clear, but what it does do is throw Hawke in the middle of political turmoil. There’s the tipping war between an army of Qunari who are stuck in the city of Kirkwall as they do nothing but brood on the shortcomings and feebleness of its people, the anti-Ferelden sentiments held by many Kirkwall residents, and the always popular struggle between Mages and the Templars that are sworn to police them.
Where the Grey Warden was guiding the course of a nation, the Champion is the last line between order and chaos.
One of my favorite things to always point out in a BioWare title is the great companion characters that accompany the main character, offering their opinions and advice in situations that they feel strong for or against. Dragon Age II is no exception, building on the recent strength of companions in Origins and the Mass Effect series. Anders, the wise cracking, cat-loving mage on the run from Awakening returns but is much darker and more conflicted in his existence. Another returning character, Merril is the former First of the same Dalish clan that the Grey Warden worked with, but this time around she too has begun travelling a darker path away from that of her Dalish clan. The rest of the party consists of Varric, the long-winded Dwarf crossbowman who tells the Champion’s story; Isabela, an openly sexual pirate who is far more involved that she lets on; Fenris, a brooding escaped slave with mysterious Lyrium inserted straight into his body; Aveline, a former Ferelden soldier turned Kirkwall guard who accompanies Hawke from the beginning; and Hawke’s siblings the mage Bethany or the soldier Carver. Also included via the Exiled Prince DLC is the Templar archer and Starkhaven Prince Sebastian.
The companions of Hawke this time are much more temperamental than that of the stoic Sten, aloof Morrigan, sarcastic Alistair, slutty(?) Zevran, drunk Oghren, curious Leliana, experienced Wynne and pigeon-assassin Shale. They bicker and taunt one another in conversation, letting it be no surprise that they disapprove of each other’s actions. Fenris hates mages, Sebastian will almost always stand with the Templars and even the Merril and Anders don’t see eye to eye. The contrast in opinions between the Champion’s closest friends leads to complexity as to where whom the Champion should side with when push comes to shove. It is a great mechanic that really effects the outcome of the final act.
Unfortunately, due to alterations in skill assignment, companions are much more restricted in their functions. As dictated by story events and skill availability, only Anders is able to be a competent healer and Aveline is by far the best tank. These roles can be altered if Hawke is a warrior or a mage, but for any rogue player or somebody who opts to be a damage dealing warrior or mage, two of the three companion slots are typically filled with Anders and Aveline. Creation magic is unavailable to Merril, and because Fenris specializes in two handed weapons, he will never get the same sword and shield skills that Aveline has. Carver and Bethany are exceptions to these roles, but they are only available during a portion of the game.
In the end, Dragon Age II is a fine game by itself, but is unable to escape the shadow of Origins. The streamlined skill tree is limiting rather than making things simpler, re-exploring areas and recycled maps make time between story and battles tedious and the new equipment mechanic of allowing only Hawke to equip any new armor found is frustrating. While I appreciate the idea of leveling up a character’s armor of choice, make wearing said armor an option rather than a forced mechanic.
Dragon Age II is a classic example of sequel syndrome, where a title fails to match the magic and awe of its original. Shortcomings aside, Dragon Age II is an excellent game that has some excellent moments and is fun throughout. And just like Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age II concludes with a glimpse of something much larger to occur.
8.5/10 Great game and solid story is hampered by lazy level design and restrictive character progression.