I loved the first Dragon Age. I avoided the second. When it was released, all I heard about it was that it was a rushed, overwrought, poorly developed mess.
Now I’ve played it.
And it is an incredibly rushed, somewhat overwrought, occasionally poorly developed mess. But, it’s a mess with heart. A mess with some great ideas. It’s a jumbled ride that simultaneously sheds RPG standard cliches and standbys and innovates, while being rushed out so quickly that half the ‘dungeons’ are the same repeats of the same exact drab terrain. It’s almost comic when you enter the same exact map of a warehouse or cave as you just did fifteen minutes earlier somewhere else in the world except some passages that were previously sealed are now open for you and some rooms that were accessible before are now blocked. Sometimes there is no pretense — you are just asked to go to the same exact portion of the world you just visited.
But, but, but. It does many interesting things. To wit, the premise —
Due to the events of the first Dragon Age (a monstrous darkspawn invasion (see: Lord of the Ring orcs) sweeping across fantasyland), the Hawke family flees their endangered home to their ancestral city of Kirkwall. Kirkwall lies in a part of the world called the Free Marches, a collection of city states largely untouched by the monster party rockin’ across the land. The entirety of DA 2 takes place inside Kirkwall and its environs. As the protagonist (simply called ‘Hawke’), you and your family arrive to the city penniless with the aim of improving your clan’s lot in life.
With the vast majority of RPGs, or honestly any kind of video game, focusing on saving the whole damn world, being the chosen one, whatever, the small scale was incredibly welcome and kind of novel. Your first major quest series is funding an expedition to a subterranean treasure trove (naturally full of monsters) with a host of greedy dwarves. The in-game timeline shifts between major story arcs by 3-5 years and while the scale of conflict increases, it never goes beyond Kirkwall. You’re not trying to save the world — you’re trying to stay alive, create wealth, and later stop your home city from eating itself.
But, like basically everything else in this fantastical imbroglio: Any good idea is coupled with some mystifying and sloppy implementation or major detraction. Kirkwall is uninspired beyond belief. The neighborhoods are literally named ‘Hightown’, ‘Lowtown’, ‘Darktown’, and ‘The Docks’. They’re almost entirely without distinguishing landmarks nor do they make cohesive sense as a place of residence and trade. Despite the fact that several years pass between chapters, nothing in the city changes. All of the major characters and random townspeople stay stationary, the merchants spout the same nonsense. The most egregious example — you kick a large foreign force out of the city in act II that had occupied half of ‘The Docks’. 3+ years later in act III, the area these guys were in is blocked off and empty and the docks are even more pointless.
Further examples of this game’s split personality:
The combat is honestly fun. It’s an improvement over the stuttery pace of the original, which was too married to older RPG combat systems. DA2 is fast, the abilities are interesting, and while it’s mildly silly that rogues are teleporting ninjas, the whole of it ties together to make difficult battles visceral and satisfying, while still strategic if you choose to micromanage your party’s tactics. The specializations you can customize for Hawke and companions change the way they play in noticeable ways and are not just a variation of +1 damage or -1 armor when you press X.
Again, the dark mirror — the combat is indeed fun but there is like 3 different types of enemies to actually engage in fisticuffs with. Melee guy (whether it be a bandit or a demon, they act the same), archer, wizard, and a handful of special demons with slight ability changes. OK, so like 5. I’ve killed enough bandits to depopulate a small country. They also just arrive in waves at random intervals, dropping in a poof of smoke (just kidding, no smoke, just pop-in). It was downright innovative when I played a downloadable chapter where enemy archers actually utilized high ground to shoot at my crew.
The good: the characters you can recruit to join your party are fairly well characterized, and rather than just choosing dialogue options that the character most wants to hear to gain their approval, DA2 rewards either befriending them or making them a ‘rival’ by constantly shitting on their dumb ideas. Like I did with Fenris, an elf once enslaved in a nation run by mages. Every time he went off on how mages should be imprisoned, killed whatever, I told him how wrong he was. Or if he was in my party while I helped some mages, he had some smartass comment or angry outburst ready. By the end of the game, he was maxed out on the ‘rival’ end of the buddy spectrum; he stuck around because he respected Hawke but he was angry all the time and it fed into his actions and the way some plot events play out. I want to call this feature out specifically because I have read that in DA3, this gets thrown out the window, and party member interactions regress to ‘tell them what they want to hear’.
The bad: Hmm, this part is actually kind of solid. My only complaint is that it is sort of fluff, and has little impact even when the lynchpin of the catastrophic third act involves one of your party members making a monumentally stupid decision that you cannot affect at all.
OK, maybe I’m a sap or have low standards*. Maybe I’m enabling large corporations to vomit out half-finished work while I willingly line up to hand out money. But I enjoyed it a great deal.
*It’s not true!