I’ve played Dragon Age II once all the way through, and I’m nearly done with my second run.
The game has some serious—some would say (and have) fatal—flaws.
1) The recycled environments are disappointing at first, and gradually move on to being completely distracting. I understand that taking the time to develop fresh environments for some of these quests would have lengthened development time, and the cost-to-benefit ratio was probably deemed too marginal to do so. Still, when every mansion and cave looks exactly the same, it really yanks a fella out of the story.
2) The new inventory system is for the birds. For me, micro-managing my companions’ armor and weapons was a big draw in the first game, and here the process has been simplified to the point where it feels utterly arbitrary.
3) Why do potions now require a cool down period? WHY??
4) The in-game trigger to access doors and chests and obtain loot from fallen enemies is ridiculously touchy, so much so that finding the icon that signifies you can access these things involves making your character do the hokey-pokey for a minute or two before you see the icon letting you know that, yes, you can now get your shit.
5) The Friend/Rival system seemed really arbitrary in some cases, making appealing to any given companion character’s interests in those situations a guessing game. I had this problem with Mass Effect II’s Paragon/Renegade system as well, for what it’s worth. Sometimes you say something you think will give you some brownie points with Companion X only to see a nice little +5 Rivalry.
6) There’s a disconcerting disconnect between your character’s appearance and actions versus the reactions you get from NPCs. As an example, my mage saved a Templar from a particularly nasty Abomination using all the wicked magic at my disposal, only to have the Templar turn and remark that we need to keep an eye on mages because “they aren’t like you and me.”
7) Some of the mini-quests involving collecting items from dead baddies and turning those objects into random folks for cash reward is pretty pointless and ultimately a waste of time.
8) The final moments of the game do not provide an entirely satisfactory resolution to your time spent as Hawke. After nearly thirty hours questing and killing in Hawke’s boots, I wanted a bit more from the closing coda.
Having said all that…I loved this game. Not as much as I loved Dragon Age: Origins, perhaps, but that game has a really special place in my heart; not since Final Fantasy VII have I had so much invested in a game as I did in Origins. Still, while Dragon Age II is a definite departure in several critical ways, I found it a rich and satisfying experience. The more arcade-style combat was a hoot (particularly if you play as a mage), and while the gameplay is distinctly more like a JRPG (oddly, it reminded me a great deal of Final Fantasy VIII and X) and far less open-world than Origins, the story and world were compelling enough that I never felt it was an inferior beast to its predecessor.
Now, if you want a *really* SPOILER-filled look at the things I enjoyed most about Dragon Age II, feel free to proceed. Be warned: 1) if you have any intention of playing any of the Dragon Age series but have yet to do so, don’t read any further; and 2) this is more of a reaaally long essay than a review, so if you really couldn’t care less about those sorts of things, feel free to be on your way.
Still here? Then damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
“Anders, what have you done?”
In a game with its fair share of jaw dropping moments, those words lead into the single most shattering event in the Dragon Age series to date. Over the course of three games (and, yes, I include Awakening in there because it really does feel more like a legitimate sequel to Dragon Age: Origins than a normal expansion pack), there have been some truly shocking twists. None, however, come anywhere close to Anders’ actions in the “third act” of Dragon Age II, in my opinion.
As first introduced in Dragon Age: Origins-Awakening (or, as I like to call it, “Dragon Age: Loot Party”), Anders was written as a guy just looking for any ol’ reason to launch into a full-blown diatribe about the oppression of mages and the tyranny of the templars who watch over them at the behest of the Chantry.
In Awakening, behind his bad one-liners and creepy, lifeless eyes (…black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes…), there’s always that part of Anders that seethes with resentment at being trapped in a world he never made. When we first meet the character, he proclaims his innocence for the murders of the templars whose bodies litter the floor behind him (“I didn’t do it,” are the first words out of his mouth), but then he giggles mischievously on recounting how one of them made the funniest gurgling sound when they died at the hands of the Darkspawn.
Still, in Awakening, Anders was more than happy to avoid confrontation with the templars. He was content to hide out and keep his distance as much as possible. So what happened between Awakening and Dragon Age II to turn him into such a sour-puss and a “revolutionary”?
The Fade spirit identifying itself as Justice is portrayed in Awakening as a pure soul with a driving interest in seeing wrongs righted and vengeance meted out to those who deserve it. Yet, he’s far from an angry or volatile creature. He seems open to reason and genuinely compassionate. Witness, for example, how sensitive he is to the plight of Kristoff’s widow when he realizes his occupation of her dead husband’s body has caused her pain.
Yet, there’s a curious and fascinating preview of things to come in a side-conversation between Anders and Justice in Awakening. Justice asks Anders why, for all his complaining about the oppression of mages by templars and Chantry, the runaway sorcerer hasn’t done more to help his people and strike a blow against his oppressors. Anders replies that it would be “hard” and he likes doing things the easy way.
Yet, in Dragon Age II, we find Anders radically transformed by his union with Justice, and, as Anders points out, the merging has infected Justice as well. The two beings now share not simply one body, but a mind and philosophy that combine the views and emotions of both. Anders is imbued with Justice’s unwavering dedication to doing what is right, whatever the personal cost, and Anders has contaminated Justice with a lifetime of frustration and suppressed rage.
The result is a man driven by both an uncompromising moral code and a self-righteous fury. As he himself says, “I can no longer tell the difference between justice…and vengeance.”
For some insight, let’s hear from Anders himself, shall we?
“To stay in the mortal realm, he (Justice) needs a host, a body to inhabit for a lifetime, not a corpse which will rot out from beneath him. If I gave him that, he would give me all he had, all he was. Together, we could remake Thedas into a world where justice rules, not fear…a world with no Circle. No templars. A world where every mage can learn to use their gifts and still return home at night. Where no mother ever need hide her child… or lose him to the fear of his neighbors. Where magic is recognized as a gift of the Maker, not the curse it has become.
It’s almost too much to imagine. The Circle, the templars, they’ve shaped my life. I was no more than twelve when they came for me. My mother wept when they fixed the chains to my wrists, but my father was glad to see me gone. He had been afraid, ever since the fire in the barn. Not just afraid of what I could do, but afraid of me, afraid my magic was punishment for whatever petty sins he imagined the Maker sat in judgment upon.
I always knew I wouldn’t submit. I could never be what they wanted from me — compliant, obedient, guilty. But before Justice, I was alone. I never thought beyond my own escape: Where would I hide? How long before they found me?
Now, even that thought repulses me. Why should so many others live with what I will not? Why must the Circle of Magi stand? Just because it always has, just because those who read Andraste’s words twisted them to mean that mages must be prisoners? Why has there never been a revolution?” – Anders’ Short Story
In Awakening, one of Ander’s defining characteristics is to shrug off even the slightest whiff of a suggestion that the Chantry’s fears about the domination of mages by evil spirits from the Fade may be justified. He won’t even entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Chantry and the templars have a point, and mages are a force to be feared. Rather, he looks to the Tevinter Imperium with some admiration, despite the fact that it’s well established that the Imperium trades in slavery and uses magic to bend men to their rule.
This presents an interesting blindspot in Ander’s morality – it’s a crime against humanity to “enslave” mages because they are, ultimately, just men and women who deserve the same rights as every other citizen of Thedas, and yet he dares to hold up the Tevinter Imperium, a governance that rewards only power and enslaves the powerless, as a preferable alternative.
Interestingly, Fenris, Dragon Age II’s resident warrior elf, was a slave of an Imperium magister and represents Ander’s polar opposite—someone so beaten down and abused by mages that he bristles at the merest hint that you are sympathetic to their plight. This gives us two characters who have escaped oppression and are left broken and bitter from their experiences. The difference between them is that Fenris views the entire situation in terms of self, while Anders has become more socially motivated. Sebastian, our oh-so-tight-assed noble companion, warns us to watch out for Anders because he will always put his own needs first. Fenris is content to take revenge against the man who enslaved him, while Anders seeks vengeance on the entire system itself, regardless of the price he will pay.
Ander’s destruction of the Chantry and the murder of everyone within it are intended to be the shot heard around the world, the straw that breaks the camel’s back and forces the silent war into the open. “There can be no compromise,” he announces. Someone will win, and someone will lose.
At least, in his mind.
The truth is, of course, that everyone loses in the world he has just created. For all his rather-insipid proclamations that it will be worth the conflict if, a hundred years down the road, a mage and human can love one another without fear of templars or the Chantry, the sad reality is there had already been a war between mages and ‘normal’ humans, and it ended in the very compromised system that Anders is trying to destroy. No matter what his motives, Anders actions are the work of an idealist with no true sense of the consequences of his actions, so real sense of the world beyond his own experience of it.
Regardless of whether his motives were understandable, his methods are undeniably abhorrent. The game casts it in an even harsher light by making the player the unwitting accomplice in Anders’ act of mass murder. First, we’re sent off to get the ingredients for Anders’ mystical bomb (under the delusion that Anders is, in fact, creating a magical ritual that will rid him of his mystical possession by the Fade spirit, Justice), and then we get tasked with distracting the Grand Cleric in the Chantry while Anders plants his bomb. Granted, you can refuse Anders in both these tasks, but without the foreknowledge of what he plans to do, why would you? Only the second task reeks of anything suspicious, but by then the die is cast.
In my case, and I’m sure in the minds of many other players, I still held out hope that if Justice could be removed or rendered inert, the smart-ass (and benign) mage I met in Awakenings would find his way back to the surface. This hope sure as hell blinded me to the obvious. It’s a devastating act of betrayal in the game, particularly if you’ve taken Anders’ side and been supportive of his views. If you’ve made a friend of Anders over the course of the game, his actions are both a stab in the back and in the heart.
Is Anders a hero? Particularly when viewed against Fenris, who is content to simply free himself of his burden and let thousands of other slaves rot away under the Imperium’s rule? What about Merrill, the young elf who turns to blood magic in her effort to restore the ancient mirror that she feels will provide her people with a bridge to their lost culture? Anders calls her selfish when the team learns that the Keeper has willingly taken the mirror’s demonic presence into herself to keep Merrill safe, and he’s not wrong—in the end, Merrill’s obsession results in the death of not just the Keeper but the entire clan. Surely her motives were noble, though, were they not? Far more noble than Fenris’.
In the world of Dragon Age, we see time and time again that the road to ruin is often paved with such noble intentions. This goes all the way back to the beginning of Origins, with Loghain’s betrayal of King Cailan in the deluded belief that Cailan would ultimately lead Ferelden back into Orleasean occupation. Loghain believes Cailan will destroy the land Loghain swore to protect at any cost. Ultimately, Loghain’s actions cost Ferelden not only its King but thousands of lives due to civil war and the Blight. And, of course, in Origins, we are given the chance to take Loghain’s motives into consideration when passing judgment on him at the Landsmeet.
Funny thing? If you play the Return to Ostagar expansion pack, you find out that Loghain’s paranoia wasn’t entirely unfounded—Cailan was, in fact, up to some behind the scenes dealing with the Orleaseans. In fact, it appears that Cailan had every intention of leaving his wife, Loghain’s daughter, and marrying an Orleasean noble to help solidify the peace between their nations. For a guy who watched the Orleaseans plunder and crush his country under foot for a hundred years, its understandably a bitter pill to swallow.
The key difference in that situation is that, up until that point, Loghain has been the undisputed villain of the game—the man who betrayed the Throne and framed the Grey Wardens for the deed. Even if we do understand his motives, it’s easy to sentence Loghain to death because his crime was one against not just the country but against us, personally. Now, contrast this with Anders’ journey.
The game’s creators have become a bit more savvy in the years between developing Origins’ story and the story in Dragon Age II. This time, they essentially had us running around and working side-by-side with one of the villains. They made him a companion and, if we so choose, a trusted ally and maybe even a lover. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, but when the moment came to execute Anders, I found myself taking every conversation and battle I had with him by my side into account…and I spared him.
And it also didn’t help matters much, from a meta-gaming perspective, that I had Anders as my party’s healer either, although there are potions that would have quickly let me reassign points to Merrill for that role.
Which brings me to the next really interesting thing about the game—the narrative structure. The biggest complaint I’ve seen so far, with the exception of the admittedly damning use of recycled environments, is that the way the story unfolds doesn’t work. Some folks think Act One is too long and that the quests and missions are disjointed, and, as a result, Act Three suffers from a lack of emotional investment in what happens.
Of course, I disagree.
I think the brilliance of the story this time around is that Act One throws a heap of seemingly random events your way to build both background and understanding. It’s a cumulative effect—imagine 100 sheets of thin, almost clear film, with each containing only 1% of red pigmentation. Alone, the color is barely noticeable to the naked eye, but stack these sheets one on top of the other and by the time the final sheet is laid out, you have something that appears entirely red when seen from above.
Nearly every major quest deals in some way or another with the plight of people in Kirkwall as they deal with the central themes of the piece (I’m talking *story* quests, not the little goofy loot grabs where you pick up a pair of pants and deliver them to the guy who lost ‘em). Every story element has to do with authority and oppression. Heck, the city of Kirkwall used to be a former slave port and it’s nicknamed The City of Chains, for cryin’ out loud! The only way you can gain entrance into Kirkwall at the beginning of the game is to sell yourself into indentured servitude. The Fereldens labor in the mines where, that’s right, SLAVES used to work.
The game goes even further with the notion of how authority can be used and abused with the big bad in the game. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the templars, is the unquestioned true authority in Kirkwall, and in the end she is corrupted by not just her obsession that mages are a threat but by a giant slab of lyrium—the very source of the templars’ power over mages and the source of the Chantry’s control over the templars.
It’s all so very symbolic, when you get down to it—being literally and figuratively a case of absolute power corrupting absolutely. She has gone unchecked and her corruption has been allowed to flourish…just like what happened with the mage lords of the Tevinter Imperium…hmm.
Still, it’s easy to miss how many subplots and story beats deal with oppression and freedom because sometimes these ideas come in the guise of a willing submission to a faith or belief, or rebellion against same. Consider:
1) The Qunari represent a willing submission to the authority of the faith, and conversely a peace found in accepting their role in life, even if that role is as a rebel. Conversely, the Arishok ultimately stages an uprising and intends to kill anyone who doesn’t accept the Qun.
2) The Dalish covet their culture, and reject the authority of man, but Merrill is made a pariah for wishing to pursue forbidden aspects of that culture.
3) Some mages find comfort in their lives in the Circle. They are protected from the demons that would exploit them. Some templars want to see the mages treated more justly, and help them escape from the Circle. Both groups are constrained by convention and struggle to find peace within it, or else rebel against it.
4) Fereldens escape the Blight only to find themselves at the mercy of a city that doesn’t want them and merchants who will exploit their desperation. These “dog lords” are treated as a “blight” of their own on the city of Kirkwall.
Which brings me to the biggest draw in terms of the story, and that’s the illusion of freedom versus the reality of tyranny.
Now, some folks be complainin’ that this new game doesn’t afford the freedom to choose your own destiny in quite the same fashion as the first game, or rather that it limits our ability to create a character that’s uniquely ours. This is, of course, utter balderdash. Even taking into consideration how much freedom Origins gave you to create your own Grey Warden, the choices were still finite, and the responses you got from NPCs were still predetermined. The illusion of player control was just subtler.
Some of that is lost in Dragon Age II, but in exchange we’re presented a story that deals head on with choice versus destiny. Flemeth even states as much explicitly at the start of the game when she says she can never decide if something is chance or destiny.
Every single character in the game affects someone else’s “destiny” and the story concerns how each character responds to that control. Some seek to exploit a situation not of their making and other seek to seize the moment and create their own personal fortunes (Isabella and Varric is a perfect examples). Some seek to maintain control, or even gain more control, over the lives of others. Some decisions are made for the greater good, despite the cost to human life and liberty in the short-term.
Ultimately, the player’s decisions affect not just their own path but the lives of everyone around them. Hawke becomes a central figure in the story because through many seemingly small decisions throughout the game, the character shapes how much control or influence other people have on their own destinies and those of the people around them. Again, it’s cumulative.
Game developers BioWare are known for making games that force the player to make some incredibly difficult moral decisions (Mass Effect II’s big question about whether or not to cure the genophage springs to mind—yikes!). You can follow your gut, and try to do the right thing, but sometimes this doesn’t reward you with a beneficial outcome. The stakes are much higher in Dragon Age II for some of the decisions you make, and those decisions are made all the more challenging by the fact that the writers of the game have provided some legitimacy to every view point.
I’ve read some critiques that the game makes it difficult to side with the mages in the conflict between them and the templars, based on the evidence that at some point or another every mage turns out to be involved in something shady or resort to Blood Magic, the series’ own form of black magic. I believe the balance is there, nonetheless.
It’s true that most of the mages you encounter do rebel against authority or attempt to seize power for themselves. It’s also true, however, that mages are victims of a conspiracy to lobotomize them from their dreams and emotions, and are confined to a frickin’ former prison if they want to live; mages who attempt to free themselves of the circle are branded malificar and are hunted down and killed—regardless of the mages motives for leaving.
We do encounter some templars sympathetic to their plight, and this stems from the fact that the mages *deserve* some sympathy. They did not choose to pursue magic, or to be particularly susceptible to demonic influence because of their nature. These are people born into a condition that makes them extremely powerful, and they must live their entire lives either confined or hunted because of it. A few times, mages are referred to in impersonal terms as “weapons,” but they are people first—victims of their own nature. I’d suggest that if you don’t get a chill down your spine when you see the army of templars under Meredith’s command brutally hacking their way through mages in the Keep, you are made of colder stuff than I, McDuff.
I’d argue that making so many mages in the game dangerous only balances things a little better and makes the players’ decisions more difficult. In Origins, siding with the mages is more or less presented as the right thing to do. Dragon Age makes the decision much more difficult, and therefore more interesting. We learn in Origins, for example, that mages can be possessed by demons from the Fade and that makes them dangerous, but it isn’t until Dragon Age II that we learn such possessions don’t usually come from conscious deals made with the demons so much as an inherent vulnerability in mages because of their connection to the Fade. In dreams, mages are open to influence and even a noble mage can be taken over in a moment of weakness if they let their guard down. This makes the templars’ and Chantry’s fears far more understandable. They have good reason to fear what would happen if mages went unchecked and unwatched.
When Anders sparks the war between mages and templars and puts the Chantry in the middle, he does so because he thinks this system is broken and it leads to abuses on both sides. He believes that more mages turn to Blood Magic and become Abominations because of their oppression then they would if they were given the same freedoms as everyone else. Of course, this belief has some evidence that denies its validity, namely the Teventer Imperium.
At some point, the series will take us to the Imperium and we will see their crimes first hand. We will also see, I have no doubt, some evidence that gives some weight to their own positions regarding magic and authority. That’s the most rewarding aspect of the entire series, after all—it forces us to take sides when both sides have some legitimacy to their views. It leaves you second-guessing, and sometimes feeling a little dirty.
Even if Anders had good intentions, his actions are horrific. Depending on how you play the game, the player may find themselves in the same boat, forced to take actions that are deplorable and cruel in the interim in the hope that some greater good will come of it. Or you can simply look out for yourself, and let the chips fall where they may. Either path takes you head-first into the maelstrom, where Hawke must confront a new world where war has erupted and lives can be ruined in the blink of an eye.
Of course, beyond even this, there is…something brewing. For all the chaos unleashed in Dragon Age II, what really may be the most important story point is that while Thedas is now at war with itself, something else waits in the wings to exploit the situation. Something very old…and very dangerous.
So, yeah, there’s a lot to love in Dragon Age II. It’s gorgeous to look at (although not quite the kaleidoscope of Technicolor grotesqueries that Awakening was), the action can be super awesome, and there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in the dialogue (“Did he…arl your eamon?”). Mix all that together, and you have an experience that transcends the game’s shortcomings to become something really special.