In Dragon Age II, the Maker's Sigh is a potion that allows a player to redistribute any character's attribute points and abilities from scratch, a potion apparently so delicious that even Bioware seems to be drunk off it. (Must taste like DLC.) Have no doubts, Dragon Age II still feels like a Dragon Age title, with a player-driven story, epic battles against ogres and high dragons, and enough medieval inspiration to make Geoffrey of Monmouth blush. But this sequel has a distinct slant – a different story to tell – that turns the Dragon Age series on its side with an unusual confidence. It is a choice that is as boldly refreshing as it is oddly disappointing.
[image1]At its core, Dragon Age II strives to accomplish two things: action-based combat that is swift, immediate, and satisfying, and a complex rags-to-riches story where the line between good and evil is not as obvious as Grey Wardens and darkspawn. Both tasks have a high degree of difficulty coming from Dragon Age: Origins, which is centered around methodical group-based tactics and an easily likable epic about a humorous fellowship of underdog heroes uniting a kingdom and slaying the big, bad evil at the end. Dragon Age II should thus be commended for shooting high, but while it succeeds on the new combat system, it bites off more than it can chew on the storytelling.
The main plot is framed around an interrogation of a beardless dwarf by a steely-eyed, dark-haired woman in black Chantry clothing, and it is through the dwarf's narration that the account of the Champion is told. He begins the tale with Hawke, the protagonist, escorting his family through the mountains from Lothering as it is ravaged by the darkspawn in the original game mere days after the betrayal at The Battle of Ostagar. The kingdom of Fereldan is no longer safe in the coming Blight, prompting the family to escape in the hopes of catching a boat with other refugees to the port city of Kirkwall, where your family should find safety in the noble Amell estate. However, Hawke finds that the family's wealth and status in Kirkwall has been squandered, thus starting a decade-long journey where Hawke must rise from lowly refugee to heroic Champion.
The connection between this sequel and its predecessor is apparent but thin. Apart from a few cameos by party characters in the original and several references to the state of Fereldan as the years pass, the story in Dragon Age II is tangential to the events in the original title. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it is a lost opportunity given that Hawke is tied directly to Fereldan's past – a surprise given the numerous origin stories in the first title and the fact that the player has no choice but to play as a human.
Most mythical stories begin with a fall from heaven, an event that shatters the peaceful life of the protagonist who then tries to reclaim what was lost through the rest of the story. Here, the fall is clear – that's The Fifth Blight – but the state of heaven is not. We have little to no details on Hawke's life in Lothering or elsewhere, as a person whose sister Bethany and unnamed father are apostates, mages who have not been conscripted in the Circle of Magi, and is thereby constantly on the lookout for templars.
[image2]Not only does this constrain how much the player ultimately cares about Hawke's family, but it also hampers the theme, which if one exists, is about the fear and control of dangerous human potential, or in this case, magic. It is about the potential of apostates to become monstrous abominations through forbidden blood magic and the templars who must act on that fear by forcing mages from their families and into the Circle of Magi, where they learn to control their urges or be forced to become Tranquil, stripped of their magical powers and their emotions.
Unfortunately, this theme isn't placed at the forefront of the story until the third and final act; until then, it's a lingering backdrop to the more pressing issues of occupation, poverty, and racial discrimination (racial, as in dwarves, elves, humans, qunari, etc.). The game tries to carry the theme by tugging at the player's heartstrings, as Hawke is harboring his sister from the Circle of Magi. But there isn't enough tension in the relationship for the player to care, other than being told that Bethany is a sister and that Hawke cares. There's a disconnect between what the player feels and what the player character feels, as well as a disconnect between Hawke's ascension in the socioeconomic ladder in the first two acts and his intervention in the plight of mages against the oppressive templars in the third.
[Side note to EA: Do not create a nationally broadcast trailer that shows Hawke battling against a certain group of people. I had no idea what was going to happen at the end of the second act until I saw that blasted trailer.]
Without the aforementioned state of heaven or a heartfelt understanding of Hawke's family members through cut-scenes, there's only a general sense of remorse whenever something awful happens to them. Within the first thirty minutes of the game (so it's not that much of a spoiler), one of Hawke's siblings dies in battle, which is of course a tragedy to the family but hardly one to a player who just started the game. There's also another moment where one character can effectively leave the party for an entire act, about twenty hours of gameplay, and then returns in a cut-scene that can be essentially summed up by “Hey, what's up?”
All of this is disappointing only because the story dreams of putting the player in complicated situations where there is no clear answer to the issue between mages and templars. Most members in Hawke's party have a strong stance on the issue, and it's up to the player to make the final decision, though whatever that is doesn't matter much as far the ending is concerned. Nor does disagreeing with your party members.
[image3]As a replacement of the approval/disapproval system from Dragon Age: Origins, the more casual friendship/rivalry system limits the chances that a follower will leave because they disapprove of your actions; in fact, a rivalry boosts a party member's stats as much as a friendship. All that means is that the player is rewarded for being favored or unfavored by a character and nothing in between. On that note, it's a bit misleading; a party member who disapproves of a decision may leave the party permanently at a particular juncture, though they might not leave immediately on the spot.
It also doesn't help that some party members don't have meaningful journeys throughout the game and turn into quest-givers more than characters with room for personal growth. Moreover, no party member has as forceful or as memorable of a personality as Alistair, Morrigan, or Sten from the original game, which may again be a conscious decision by the writers to make the story more human and complex. The unfortunate outcome, though, is that the payoff doesn't match the potential, and Dragon Age II feels flatter by comparison. There aren't even any epilogues telling what happens to each character after the finale, or any romances that end with sex scenes that actually show skin. Why is this rated “M” again?
This much negative analysis, though, needs to be tempered. One major improvement is the replacement of neutral responses with sarcastic ones. Though the dialogue between party members steers closer to the more dramatic “mage vs. templar” issue, the humor found in the original title is now a part of the protagonist, if the player so chooses. Even with the problems in the storytelling, the character development and player-driven choices are enough to see the plot to the end. It can be a short ride if all the player does is get through the main story, but being ever the completionist, I clocked in about 50 hours in a single playthrough.
Much of the motivation to continue the game, however, stems from the new action-packed combat system. No longer do characters stroll over to an enemy and whack away in a stationary circle, waiting for attacks to finish on a queue. Warriors and rogues can unleash a furious flurry of swipes and push back an enemy with sheer physical force, while mages spew magical energy blasts as if they're wielding some kind of wooden lightsaber with flourishes that would make Gandalf proud. Activating an ability is immediate and usually devastating to an opponent, especially if it leaves a opponent disoriented, staggered, or stunned and open to a cross-class team combo. Overall, it paints a better picture of what an actual fight with swords and magic would probably look like, while still having the ability to pause the game and assign attacks and tactics using the familiar radial menu.
[image4]Complementing this are improved skill trees, with succinct skills and descriptions as well as specializations that are already unlocked. Runecrafting, potion-making, and poison-coating have been made simpler thanks to resource gathering, where any roots or material veins the player finds are turned into permanent sources rather than one-time items. Followers don't need to have their basic armor improved manually (though that means they can't run around all semi-nude), and the Maker's Sigh allows the player to easily respec any of them. Graphics have been improved in the animations and environments, with the exception of some plastic-like hair. Completionists will also appreciate the sheer quantity of follower missions and side quests; not soon after reaching Kirkwall proper, the player will be swimming in quests.
Several technical flaws, however, hamper exploration tremendously, the most severe of which are occasional game-freezing glitches and recycled dungeons. Not only is the player limited to day and night versions of Kirkwall and a few areas along the city's outskirts, but nearly every dungeon is repeated about three or more times over the course of the game. The only difference between each iteration is that some passages are blocked and some are not. Couple this with the inability to teleport freely from one point to another, and the sometimes 15-second loading times can make exploration feel unnecessarily labored. Getting from the top of the Sundermount back down to the map selection screen takes about four minutes of boredom. It just makes a cramped experience feel even more so.
In their reimagining of Dragon Age II, Bioware has transferred one too many points from storytelling and exploration to combat. That doesn't mean this sequel is beyond playable or even average; Dragon Age fans will likely have the heart to finish it without too many complaints despite its flaws, but even they will feel unsettled at times. Nonetheless, Dragon Age II carries enough from its triumphant predecessor that it doesn't tarnish the Dragon Age name too much, though it creates one of those weird moments in life where people realize just how much they can let slide for the sake of enjoying an experience. Much like a threesome. Uh, never mind.