Shades of “Grey”

The Chantry teaches us…

Dragon Age: Origins is yet another new intellectual property start up coming from Bioware, an RPG giant of a developer whose credits include Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect. Bioware is an old company with old ties to other RPG companies of the days, including Black Isle Studios (Planescape: Torment, Fallout series, Icewind Dale) and the risen-from-the-ashes of the previous company, Obsidian Entertainment (Who were behind KotORII and NWN2). This mostly had to do with the fact that Black Isle Studios used to be the big brawn behind RPGs during the early 90s and served as Bioware’s early publisher. Besides that, Bioware has more than established a reputation for their modus operandi as an RPG company. They have also more than proved that they can cover new and different grounds behind shooter mechanics with Mass Effect. The question, however, is whether a fantasy RPG could be set in something other than a time of chivalry and goodness. This is where Dragon Age: Origins comes in.

A rather Blightful day

The story of Dragon Age: Origins takes place in a fictitious setting known as Ferelden. Whereas previous Bioware titles were directly drawn from the Forgotten Realms campaign from D&D’s famous Wizards of the Coast, Dragon Age is, in itself, a new creation. Yes, perhaps you have your Dwarves, your Elves, and your Orcs Darkspawn, but what fantasy setting doesn’t have such things these days? Perhaps the greatest part of its setting, however, is the play on the sleight of hand behind Ferelden’s heroes, the Grey Wardens. The Grey Wardens are an established organization that combats what is known as the Darkspawn horde. This horde spawns from the darkness of underground caverns every few hundred years or so and is led by an Archdemon, a dragon that apparently has been possessed by the soul of the Old Gods. And, like the best kind of evil, they cannot be reasoned with and their only goal appears to be to destroy everything and everyone.

Enter the present day of Ferelden, where political instability is a more pressing matter than a possible Darkspawn invasion. Your character (uniquely chosen from the game’s six different possible origins) is thrown into the mix as a Grey Warden recruit at the garrison of Ostagar, where the King’s Men and other allies have gathered to meet the Darkspawn. And, of course, shortly after you are finally admitted as a Grey Warden, all hell breaks loose when the battle comes and reinforcements under Teryn Loghain never advance, instead retreating from the battle and ensuring the doom of the king and of your mentor. You and your companion, another Grey Warden, are the only survivors of the onslaught, saved by a Witch of the Wilds, and are given cause to continue the good fight by seeking out allies for the great battle that is to come in the following days.

Cheery so far, aye? It gets better. You find with the king slain Loghain becomes the Regent of Ferelden, as the queen, who is also Loghain’s daughter, steps down from her position, all at the behest of “Ferelden needs a general in charge right now.” Of course, once your band of merry folk start helping people and gaining allies, it becomes known to Loghain, who eventually tries to have you killed by assassins. On top of this, he’s claimed the Grey Wardens enemies of Ferelden, proclaiming that it was the Grey Wardens that betrayed everyone at Ostagar and led to the king’s death. With such a powerful claim, you cannot truly bring forth a meeting of the nobles to discuss the Darkspawn invasion and Loghain’s betrayal until you have recruited enough allies under the Arl of Redcliffe, Eamon. Once with enough allies you find yourself arguing at the Landsmeet, where you try your case that Loghain is a betrayer and that the nobles should be focusing on fighting the Darkspawn invasion. A few days later, however, the bickering gains little ground and the Darkspawn invasion finally comes to the capital city of Ferelden, where the final battle takes place and the big bad is eventually defeated, driving back the horde and saving the day.

That is, of course, the short version. The very, very, very short version. What’s more is that even with a short version things are still quite confusing, as Bioware makes no qualms with establishing new terminology for a new setting. This rings true with the fact that Ferelden operates under a feudal system of government, with a ranking system not different at all from standards we know (Ser = Sir [as in knighthood], Bann = Baron, Arl = Earl, Teryn = Duke. However, the system of government is unique in the setting of what is known as the Landsmeet, a meeting of sorts of the nobles to discuss issues of Ferelden and to make or change laws. Unlike in our real world settings where nobility of the Medieval Age owed undying allegiance to the king and queen, in Ferelden it is the bulk of the nobles that make up the true bureaucratic power of Ferelden. In fact, because there are so many Banns within Ferelden, they encompass the most lands put together over any Arl or Teryn. Their collective group is even known as the Bannorn, and they are representative in a ways of the “poor” nobles (and, perhaps, are more respectful to the people of Ferelden instead of the nobility). This is further reinforced by the fact that Ferelden was founded only 60 years ago after freeing itself from Orlesian rule (Orlais is yet another kingdom in Dragon Age: Origins: the scope of which takes place on the continent of Thedas).

With this in mind you consider the fault behind bureaucracy, that a multitude of rulers is not a good thing. This is the driving force behind the act of inaction in the game’s storyline–the nobles are too busy bickering on who should be king that they forget there is a Darkspawn invasion upon the lands of Ferelden. Because of this, the character finds allies within Ferelden’s other inhabitants, who include the Circle of Magi (mages), Dwarves, Elves, and the Arl of Redcliffe. Deeper into the lore we still go, however, as each is not exactly as troperific as you would think.

For instance, the Circle of Magi have an interesting lore behind them. Religion in Ferelden is known behind a clergy organization known as the Chantry, who worships one god known as the Maker. The Chantry teaches that the Darkspawn exist out of the dark nature of man–that a group of mages who sought infinite power were eventually corrupted by demons and turned into the Darkspawn. Whether the story is true or not is irrelevant–the damage is true enough for the Chantry to have established what is called the Circle of Magi, an organization that resides in a tower on an island. This is not for protection of the mages, however. Instead the Chantry keeps track of the mages by locking them up in the tower, ensuring that if any are possessed by demons, their Templars can swiftly take care of the problem by killing them. In fact, the law of the land has it that any mage who isn’t with the Magi locked in the tower is to be hunted down and killed. And the threat is real enough–when mages use magic, they tap into another dimension known as the Fade, which apparently was created by the Maker as one of the first dimensions for spirits. If a mage is particularly weak-willed he can be possessed by demons and turned into abominations.

The Dwarves haven’t changed much from traditional Dwarves, other than the fact that they aren’t speaking with Scottish accents (I’m not even sure where that started up from) and they’re quite bloody. Unlike traditional Dwarves, which are usually all about honor, the Dwarves of Orzammar are bloody and brutish, even amongst the nobility. As tradition has it, Dwarves live underground. These Dwarves also have their own kingdom, separate from any from the lands of Thedas, and they owe allegiance to no one. However they are on the verge of collapse and extinction simply because the Darkspawn reside under the ground in between Blights. If you thought a Blight was bad, then imagine the hardship of the Dwarves, who have to fight the Darkspawn every day of every year. Their system of religion relies on making Paragons out of notable Dwarves who accomplished something great in their lifetime, which they then idolize and remember for their great deeds. Dwarves cannot become mages, which means they cannot dream when they sleep. However, the traditional stereotype of them being ferocious warriors and great smiths still rings true in Dragon Age. The difference, however, is that the Dwarves work on a Caste System in this order: Noble, Warrior, Smith, and the casteless (those without a caste–if a Dwarf goes to the surface, he forfeits his caste and is not allowed back into Orzammar).

The Elves are of a particularly heel-face-turn-around in Dragon Age. I think this may be the first game that makes the Elves out to be weak, brutish, and even enslaved. In fact, the people of Ferelden have dominated the Elves so greatly that the ones that do live in the cities usually can only get jobs working as servants. However, the back story is traditional in every sense of the trope; they once were noble tree-folk that worshiped nature. This trope still survives with what is known as the Dalish Elves, a clan of Elves that survives in the wild and recognizes itself as independent. They’re your typical woodland Elves, with bows, wearing little but furs, and also respect nature. The difference? They are far from friendly. They kill anyone who stumbles across their campsite to ensure their survival remains a secret.

The back story is certainly there. Bioware certainly has not skimped out on the details of trying to make a living, breathing world. In that they have certainly accomplished without a doubt. But more than that the story has a defining quality–it’s dark. It’s so damn dark that it’s a rarity to even fight a “happy” moment in this game. And while the story in this category certainly hasn’t suffered, the question still remains is whether or not it turns out well within the game for you to either nod your head and say, “Yeah, that makes sense,” or to shake it violently and say, “That’s just dumb.”

This is the new shit

Depending on your origin, you have either scratched your head at the decisions made within it or you are rather troubled at the choices you couldn’t have made for it. While each origin is unique to each other, some make less sense behind your white knight, Duncan Idaho, who comes to your rescue and recruits you to the Grey Wardens. You see, before Ostagar, Duncan is recruiting more Grey Wardens for the cause. At this point in the story you only know that the Grey Wardens combat the Darkspawn with great efficiency. So essentially you would figure your character would have to be quite renowned in combat or, at least, be a worthy enough recruit with potential. This rings true for some origins: the Human Noble origin must fight off attackers from his father’s estate, who was originally intended to be recruited by Duncan; the Dwarf Noble origin must kill Darkspawn in the Underdeep after he has been banished with nothing but his sword, eventually coming across Duncan; and the Dwarf Commoner fights a slew of noble warriors in an arena before Duncan. However, for the other three origins they make less sense. In the Dalish Elf origin, your Elf has been poisoned by some sort of force already, and that the only way to save him/her is to become a Grey Warden. In the City Elf origin, Duncan simply recruits you to get you out from being executed. And the Mage Origin has Duncan recruit you yet again to save your hide. In these three instances, you haven’t proved diddly squat to Duncan other than that you’re in a tight bind and you need someone to get you out. Because Duncan is a Grey Warden, and Grey Wardens have the right to recruit anyone under Ferelden law, he gets the characters out from sure death.

But before we go further on with the origins, we should touch first on what these Grey Wardens are all about. You see, I first thought the color designation in their titles alluded to their neutrality–in truth, the Grey Wardens pledge their allegiance to no one. However, I find out it’s really more tongue-in-cheek with the entire scope of the game. You see, to truly become a Grey Warden, you must undergo a ritual. The ritual is simple–drink Darkspawn blood. However, everyone knows that drinking Darkspawn blood will kill you because it’s poisonous in its own right. What isn’t known, however, is that some can actually survive, in which after they are marked with what is called the Taint. With the Taint Grey Wardens can “sense” when Darkspawn are nearby. Sometimes when they are dreaming they can also tap into the mind of other Darkspawn to see where they might be. However, there is permanent damage–the Taint eventually kills you regardless.

This comes to our interesting initiation ceremony, where two other recruits also undergo the ritual. As for effect, the first recruit obviously dies after drinking from the cup. The second one, however, refuses outright to partake in the ritual, claiming that he has a wife and children to think about. Duncan’s a nice guy though. Instead of saying, “Alright, you can leave then,” Duncan murders him. No reason why. He just does. I suppose this is to serve the fact that when it comes to your turn, you’re not given the option to refuse, or else Duncan will murder you as well. It’s railroading, but it’s cleverly disguised–obviously you wouldn’t choose to refuse, so your character drinks, and, of course, they survive.

What eventually follows is also another reason why the Grey Wardens undergo the ritual. As said earlier, in each Blight the Darkspawn are led by an Archdemon, who, as I said, is embodied within a dragon. You are not revealed until the end of the game the true reality behind the Archdemon and the Grey Wardens, however. Apparently slaying the Archdemon will do you no good if you’re a regular somebody–the Archdemon’s spirit will just quickly find a Darkspawn body as its host and continue fighting. And considering they’re a damn horde, it’d be pretty bloody impossible to kill the Archdemon, considering you’d have to kill every Darkspawn. This is where the Grey Wardens come in. You see, in essence, the Grey Wardens are Tainted with Darkspawn blood, making them, in part, Darkspawn in biology. Because of this, when a Grey Warden kills the Archdemon, the Archdemon’s spirit is automatically attracted to the body of a Grey Warden. However, the Grey Warden obviously already has a spirit, and so when the two collide they cancel each other out, effectively killing the Archdemon’s spirit as well as the Grey Warden’s, essentially meaning both of them die. Certainly gives a new meaning to “shades of gray”, eh?

The kick to it, however, is that there are only TWO Grey Wardens in all of Ferelden during this Blight–you and your companion known as Alistair. So when you figure this out, you can also pretty much figure out that you’re going to have to make a choice–either you or Alistair dies. The game throws a curve ball as well, however, with the party member known as Vala Mal Daran Morrigan, the witch that partly saved you two from Ostagar, although her mother, Flemmeth, did the heavy lifting. After retrieving your scrolls of Plot Direction treatise, Flemmeth sends her daughter into your company to help you. At the time it seemed questionable, but Flemmeth proclaims that the character will need all the help they can get. Morrigan herself is quite ambiguous and hates helping people, rather expecting your character to leave anyone in need of help to die. Alistair, on the other hand, is the comic relief of the party, and the two together churn out some very good dialogue. Anyways, back to the point. Morrigan eventually reveals to you, the night before the big battle, that she can save the both of you by getting her preggers. She explains this is possible because the child will carry on the genetic makeup of the Taint, and that the Archdemon’s spirit will still attempt to embody it as well. The catch to it, however, is that it will be without a spirit at the time of conception, so the Archdemon’s spirit will effectively be contained within the child. Oh, and she also plans on leaving forever once you’ve poked her as well.

In fact, most of the game’s choices are so “shades of gray” in nature that the game becomes one giant depressing adventure. Is there no good in Dragon Age? Even the Chantry religion is a far cry from “good” within this game. In fact, the game has a Fallout-esque ending (I don’t mean Fallout 3, I mean Fallout 1 and 2) that it tells you what became of the choices you made within the game for different parts of the story. I’ll save you the trouble of churning out three or four playthroughs–it all ends badly. Every. Single. Choice. There is no happy ending in Dragon Age. Even if you survive. Even if you make the heroic sacrifice. Somehow, some choice you made makes it turn out to be terrible. Werewolves kill the Elves. Elves kill the Werewolves. Dwarves kill each other. Civil War in Ferelden. The game makes such a big claim to walk along the shadow of darkness and go on with its moral ambiguity that it turns it into such a rather depressing story that Kurt Vonnegut would’ve probably have tried to commit suicide again after playing this game.

The origins of a hero

With the main gist of the ending out of the way, we come to the other parts of the game, such as the origins of your character as well as other sequences in the main story. Take, for instance, a few parts to the game. In the Dwarf part, you come at a time when the nobility is also having troubles deciding on whom to make king in recent light of the king’s death. Unlike true monarchies, the Dwarves “appoint” a king amongst the nobles. Usually the sons of the king continue on to be the king, but in this case the only surviving son of the king doesn’t have that much of a favorable light with the nobles. Despite this, both parties vying for the crown refuse to help the character until either of them is made king. What is perhaps most interesting is the fact that you HAVE to choose a side in this part of the game. In fact, I was so disappointed at the lack of a diplomacy action that I literally spent an hour talking to people around town and to each claimant to the throne that I was sure such an option existed. It doesn’t. You have to choose a side. And despite what side you may choose, in the end it involves the losing side to try and kill you and the new king at the meeting of the nobles.

After playing that part as a Human Noble, I wondered if perhaps things went differently in the Dwarf Noble origin. You see, as a Dwarf Noble, you are actually the son to the king of Orzammar. Depending on your dialogue choices you can also gain great favor with different factions within the origin–so much to the point that people are whispering that the king will name you as the successor. Eventually, however, you lead an expedition upon the Darkspawn and find that you are betrayed–your younger brother had your older brother killed and framed you for the job. When you push forth your other party members to say that you’ve been fighting Darkspawn the entire time, it is revealed that they too were paid off by your younger brother to claim that they witnessed you do the deed. This is perhaps a wall banger in itself, as one of your party members is a noble, whom you can honor in the Proving (an arena fight of honor that took place earlier in the origin) by giving him the glory of your win to him, as well as giving him a weapon that belonged to his family. If that isn’t enough to earn you the respect of that character, then what the hell is? And so the king has you exiled and eventually blah, blah, blah.

Anyways, you come back to Orzammar as part as the main storyline to gain recruits. As a Dwarf Noble, you are remembered for being implicated in the murder of your brother (at least the ruling council ruled as much, so it’s pretty much fact on the ears of everyone). There are some supporters to you still, however, if you helped out some people in the origins part of the game. And, what’s more, is that you have returned after having survived the Underpass with nothing but a sword, and there is now need for a new king. However, you cannot be considered because you are casteless. What’s worse is that you can even find evidence that PROVES your brother killed your brother and that your father never believed you to be your brother’s killer and yet you STILL cannot clear your name with this. Perhaps the biggest insult to injury is the matter, once again, of choice. You still have to choose a side. Just for kicks I chose my brother before making a save to come back to it if I didn’t like the choice. I didn’t. Once you meet with him there is no option to attempt to at least fight your brother, or even kill him. You essentially have two dialogue options: “I still don’t like you but I’ll work with you” and “You got the better of me, so that means you’re stronger.” Yeah, you can imagine I reloaded that save and chose the other guy. At least I got to kill my brother when they crowned the other guy king and he went berserk.

Still though. This is just but one example of frustration within an origin that later reflects a part of the storyline. Despite this, all storyline options along to the main quest have you choosing between two sides, and they certainly aren’t “right from wrong” sides, or “good from evil” sides. As I said earlier, whatever choice you make to choose sides, they end up bad regardless of what you may do. To me, as a player, this gives me a sense of uselessness once I beat the forty-hour game and get my terrible ending. It’s like all the hard work I did during the game was all for nothing but for Bioware to laugh in my face and say, “See, we could make a game that wasn’t all butterflies and rainbows.” That’s great and all, but all that does it not make me want to the play the game anymore.

Consider another twist to the game. Alistair is actually a claimant to the throne of Ferelden because he’s the bastard son of the king before the king that just died in the game (making Alistair the half-brother to the king at Ostagar). This later plays in the matter when a Landsmeet is being called. Apparently the nutter Loghain locked up his daughter in an estate so she couldn’t make an appearance because she’s been questioning his motives. After rescuing her, you can persuade her either to support Alistair as a claimant to a throne, even agreeing to the two to get married to seal the deal, or to support dethroning her father from his position. Eventually the Landsmeet comes to play and you are able to make your case of an argument against Loghain.

This is perhaps one of the most frustrating parts to the game. Loghain, up until this point, had always seemed like a bloodthirsty tyrant who let the king die just so he could claim power of Ferelden. The case he makes at the Landsmeet, however, is that he left the king to die to protect Ferelden from the Orlesians. Loghain fought in the war for independency against the Orlesians, so he has an understandable hate for the Orlesians. However, this raises the question of why then banish the Grey Wardens? Why try and kill the main character? He goes to further defend his position on selling Elves to slavers because “they filled the coffers for the campaign” and continues to pretend that the Darkspawn invasion is fictitious.

At this point you want to stab him in the face. I mean, this guy is an idiot. There is no HINT to the Orlesians planning an invasion–even less that the Orlesians give a damn about Ferelden anymore. What is a reality is that the Darkspawn have sacked settlements and that the very man that could’ve turned that around and saved innocents ABANDONED the king and left him for dead. And, what’s worse, if your character makes these points plainly, the Landsmeet nobles STILL find in favor Loghain. Excuse the language, but what the fuck? What sense does that make, if any at all? He admits to dereliction of duty, to usurping the throne, to dealing with slavery, to poisoning an arl, and to ignoring the Darkspawn invasion. It’s like picking Rain Man to be a leader of a nation.

What’s worse is if you do choose to push forth the idea that Alistair should be king. This is the only way to actually “win” the Landsmeet argument, because, as we all know, the nobles are predictable, and would rather have a bigger idiot on the throne simply because he is the only living claimant through blood. If this claim is made, Loghain will challenge it, to which you can either fight one-on-one with him, or with his personal guard, depending on dialogue choices. After the fight Loghain concedes and yields his position, to which he is about to be taken to be arrested. However, Alistair is not content with that option–he wants Loghain dead for what he has done. Of course the queen protests, considering it’s her father and all, but Alistair insists that it’s the only way he’ll agree to become king. However, another option is given, one that involves a compromise–that Loghain should go through the ritual to join the Grey Wardens. If he dies, it is by his own will, but if he survives he lives in the service of the Grey Wardens to atone for what he has done. Everyone agrees to this–except Alistair. Yet again he is determined to ensure that Loghain dies, one way or another, and says that even giving him the option to become a Grey Warden is an insult on what they stand for.

Yet again the game throws at you choice. There’s no persuasion option here yet again–you cannot talk down Alistair to let Loghain live. Even if you are a Female Human Noble and have a romantic option with Alistair, if you refuse to him to execute Loghain, he will leave. Forever. Instead the queen takes his place and Loghain (obviously) survives the ritual and becomes a Grey Warden. Of course I’m not too caught up on this one. Despite what your character’s outlook may be, the facts are quite clear for Loghain–he’s a loony. He believes in a fictitious army is going to invade Ferelden, while the real threat the imaginary one. His actions get the king killed. He nearly has his own daughter killed. He advocates slavery. He even tried to kill you. He poisoned an arl. Why in the hell should you let the man that has caused the events in the game to go from bad to worse to even live? Because his daughter doesn’t want to see the butcher of Ferelden live? Screw. That. No, I’m with Alistair on this one. Bitch has got to die.

These are the sorts of “twists” you find within the main storyline, in the origins, and even to little rinky-dinky side quests. There is a “choice” to be made, and the choice always resolves in someone dying. There is no diplomacy in Dragon Age, so it’s a wonder why there are even dialogue options in the first place if the matter of choice isn’t, in fact, what it’s supposed to be in theory. In the end the inevitability of fate wins out against your character and calamity still befalls you in the end.

To fight an army

So I believe I have delved quite deeply into the aspect of the story to Dragon Age. Now we move on to the factor of gameplay. Dragon Age is an RPG; you have your inventory screen with your options to trade out equipment for your character, like in most traditional Western RPGs. You also have your dialogue options between communications for NPCs, as well as your outputs for either a “good” or “evil” character. Included in this aspect of the genre are also your recruitable party members, who mostly have unique backgrounds that you can delve into side quests on, as well as romance options between some of them too. The combat to Dragon Age, however, is what I like to call Neverwinter Nights: Combat Devolved.

Neverwinter Nights, for those that don’t know, worked on a pseudo D&D rule set to fighting. In traditional pen-and-paper D&D, you take turns at a leisurely pace. In Neverwinter Nights, everything happened in real time. However, you still had the complexity of combat, such as having a party member cast a spell on someone, or perhaps having a character flank an enemy, or switching out for a different weapon type. Doing this all at once proved to be difficult without the use of the pause button. This sort of combat comes back to Dragon Age–you will find yourself frequently pausing the game in combat in order to accomplish much of anything.

However, unlike Neverwinter Nights, combat has devolved to a simpler style of hack-n’-slash. This is further reinforced with the choice between only three classes in Dragon Age–a Warrior, a Rogue, or a Mage. Warriors and Rogues both work on “response” skills. This is more akin to MMO combat, where you need one previous mechanic to work before you can fire off a higher skill. Except in Dragon Age it works more like a combo system, so if you’ve ever played Age of Conan, then you might feel familiar with the settings. Mages work differently–they just need magic to cast their stuff. Warriors and Rogues, on the other hand, rely on the replacement to mana, which is stamina.

Of course the trouble to this is the balance itself in Dragon Age. The game has a similar “level of experience” factor in Mass Effect, which is that “enemies level up with you.” If anyone remembers, this was particularly annoying in Oblivion, where you would be LV16, but so would every mudcrab and rat, eventually turning any regular old battle into an epic one. This was partly averted in Mass Effect by making the enemies weaker and with a cover system. Of course in Dragon Age it’s a little different, because to do damage you need to be toe-to-toe with your enemy, giving him equal opportunity to hurt you just as much. To top it all off, however, is that the game assumes that you have a Mage character in your party at all times during the game, because without one, the game because atrociously difficult.

You see, Mages in Dragon Age are the most powerful class in the game. In their later skills, they push out some serious damage-dealing area-of-effect stuff. And, in Dragon Age, you will be frequently fighting groups of enemies that are much bigger than your own. In truth your Warriors turn out to be meat shields–simple distractions for the enemy while the Mage does the real work. Even the Rogue is, in part, useless because most of its great damage-dealing attacks require it to be flanking the enemy (which, for a party member, is difficult enough). Even perhaps worse is the fact that the party members you can recruit are, mostly, Warriors. The other aspect is that party members can and will leave your party depending on decisions you make during the course of the game. In truth if you want the game to be any sorts of easy you will find that a party with two Mages is the best course of action, with either a mix up of two Warriors or a Rogue and a Warrior. With two Mages you at least can then have one dedicated healer and one dedicated caster.

However this brings into light the AI of your party. In virtually just about any other game, the AI has always been automated, while some games give you the opportunity for your characters to choose a type of “fighting” while in combat. In Dragon Age it’s the complete opposite–you must painstakingly choose the very careful actions of what your party members will do, otherwise they’ll just use their main hand weapon and start attacking whatever is closest to them. This part of the game is called tactics, which brings up a Tactics Menu for you to choose the different roles for your party members. There are some automatically scripted choices you can choose, but if survival is the nature of the game, then you must choose each choice manually. And just try and think of any script action an AI might take in a course of a fight: If X sees Y, then does Z. That’s essentially the generally equation behind tactics. It would be brilliant if you weren’t limited an amount of tactic slots, however. You may eventually find your characters being able to do less and less as they gain more skills because they have too few tactic slots in order to be told what to do. In fact, the worst part of character progression is that Tactics is a levelable skill a character can choose as an attribute–in reality it is a die-hard must if you want to survive in the later stages of the game.

By far the combat in Dragon Age has a very steep learning curve, first throwing you off a cliff and then chucking the manual at you. And there is no “getting the hang of it” to be had in Dragon Age–you either get it or you don’t. This turns out for Dragon Age to be terrible in design–gamers shouldn’t have to box around with trivial settings just so you can actually win just as equally trivial fights in the game. What the AI does in combat is a job for the developers to decide in part, not for the players to design in full on their own.

Are we there yet?

Perhaps the biggest criticism I have against Dragon Age is within its length. I know there are plenty of people who use the terrible arguments of “enjoy what you have” or “just be happy they did this much,” but Dragon Age is a long ass game. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy games that have great playability in time constrictions. But, just like a four hour movie, you can only keep your attention fixed to one thing for so long at a time. In Dragon Age, instead of going to 10 or 11 places and spending an hour at each, you go to 4 different locations and spend 4 hours at each. And the best way to captivate the attention of the audience is to ensure that the story continues to move to different scenes and settings, rather than stay in place for hours at a time before anything new happens.

For instance, I bring up, once again, the Dwarf part of the game. There has always been a fatal flaw behind a setting that takes place underground. For one, there is no sky under the ground (obviously), so there is also no sense of time. It’s also dark, dank, and, in this case, there’s also an endless horde of Darkspawn. There’s also not much change of scenery either–you got your rocks and then you’ve got some more rocks. They’re also all brown rocks. In short, it’s boring. Mind-numbingly boring. It reminds me of Turbine’s expansion to Lord of the Rings Online, Mines of Moria. Turbine expected the players to progress through ten levels in the mines of Moria (and if any of you haven’t played the game, then just imagine the Moria sequence from the movie-). The only trouble is that people (including myself) quickly got bored at the drab of the setting. You don’t want to be in a cave at hours of a time.

In the Dwarf part, however, the game has you in there for over four hours. FOUR HOURS! I wanted to kick a puppy after that part of the game! The sequence goes a little like this: enter the city, choose a side for a king, prove that you support that side by doing some detective work on a side quest, further prove you support that side by fighting in an arena against competitors, finally meet the side you’re backing, only to have him tell you that you need to find someone, go deeper into the caves, fight Darkspawn, fight more Darkspawn, fight even MORE Darkspawn, find Darkspawn mother, kill Darkspawn mother, find person, kill more things, and THEN come back to the city to name a king (shortly afterward there is more killing). It’s a long, drawn-out process to the game that quickly becomes boring. Why? Because it’s unavoidable. This is essentially why I hate this part of the game the most–you are railroaded to endure this four hour borefest no matter what you try and do.

The other parts to the game are no better. About halfway through I found myself, for the first time playing an RPG, wondering when it was going to end. Even after the big bad was killed I groaned that I was STILL playing the game. Unlike in Oblivion, where you find yourself completing the main quest just so you can continue to play the game freely and do side quests, you will find that in Dragon Age, doing side quests prolongs the long road of being bored out of your skull. On this factor alone brings down the replayability scale down greatly, which is a shame considering the number of origins you can play in this game. Sometimes less is more.

Yet another eye-rolling part of the game is the options behind romances. Ever since Mass Effect, Bioware has been adding romance options for your character to undertake. They offer a sort of sense that your character is not just some faceless hero in the game, but is also real enough for party members to be interested in and possibly even be romantically involved with. However, just like the scope of the game, the romances are equally as disappointing. You have four romance options in Dragon Age, and only three of them make some sort of sense. The fourth one I’m talking about involves an Elf Assassin that was hired to kill you. When he fails at it, he then tries to join your party, at which point you are faced with the oh-so difficult choice of either killing an assassin who was just trying to kill you or to let him into your party and then let him have another stab at the job (of course this doesn’t happen if you recruit him, but I choose the most likely action my character would take, which is kill the dude who was just trying to kill you).

Your other three choices include Alistair, Morrigan, and Leliana. You know already a bit about Alistair and Morrigan and how stupid they are. Leliana you recruit after she witnesses you kill some people in a bar and you tell her that you’re going to stop the Darkspawn invasion. She’s with the Chantry and she says the Maker visited in her dreams and told her to help you. So essentially you have Mr. Stupid, Ms. Apathetic, and Ms. Loony as your romance choices (Morrigan and Alistair are for opposite sex characters only). As my first character was a man, I had the option between Morrigan and Leliana. In nature, my character was good and was generally cautious of Morrigan (but also, in part, did not like her apathetic attitude–in part because neither did I). Leliana seems a bit more stable, sans the whole “the Maker touched me in my dreams” part (which you eventually find out was a lie she made up just so she could join your party). If you pursue her background options you find out that she was once an Orlesian Bard. That doesn’t sound too bad until you find out Orlesian Bards are state-sanctioned subterfuge assassins. So she’s essentially lied about her past so far and why she joined you, but then you’re supposed to also trust her, a trained liar. Yeah, no.

Morrigan, on the other hand, is a witch of the wilds–a mage on the run from the Templars. She was raised by a woman named Flemmeth, yet another witch of the wilds. Flemmeth isn’t her mother biologically, but only through parenting. Either way, Morrigan is about the most morally ambiguous character in the game (indeed, she’s even used on the cover art to reflect that she partly represents what the game is all about–bad choices). All attempts to romance Morrigan are met with hostility and are constantly shot down. Even if you help her retrieve literature that reveals the fact that Flemmeth only kept her around so that she could eventually take over Morrigan’s body, even after you help her kill Flemmeth…she still turns you down. If you do manage, however, to get through to her, she’ll largely play down her feelings, expressing how she does not like the emotions she has for you, and decrees that the both of you should pretend nothing ever happened. And, of course, coupled with the ending, turns out for her to be a terrible choice as well. “Oh, all you wanted out of me was a demon-spawn child with the soul of an Old God? And then you’re going to run away from me forever after I knock you up? Baby, you’re the girl I’ve always been looking for.” Double no.

Perhaps the biggest eyebrow-raising experience in the entire game I encountered was how romances even work. In Mass Effect romances worked clearly only through dialogue–in Dragon Age you have to shower the person you are trying to romance with gifts. Eventually once you give them gifts that relate to their back story in some way, they warm up to you. With this character, as I said, I chose Leliana. Except you don’t really “choose.” If the party member feels a specific way to your character, then it is automatically assumed by the other party members that you two are hitting it off. At this point in the game, however, I had already romanced Leliana, so it was pretty much set-in-stone that we were doing the horizontal hokey-pokey at camp. However, when I came across a gift, I, by chance, gave it to Morrigan, because it looked like something she might like. As soon as I did her rating boosted up like 40 points and enacted a dialogue scene between the character and her that brought up a childhood memory. She even *gasp* thanked my character for giving a gift to her. I say cool, whatever. Except moments later a dialogue option between Leliana and I happens (she was also in my party at the time), where she suddenly starts talking about how she knows what’s happening between Morrigan and I and that she won’t have her feelings played around with.

At this point I’m think, what the hell are you smoking, woman? There is nothing going on with us. But there is no such dialogue option for my confusion. Instead I either have to break off my romance with her or tell her that I’m going to break it off with Morrigan. What ev. A second later a dialogue scene enacts with my character and Morrigan, who essentially says the same thing as Leliana did. I’m doubly confused now. I haven’t even TOUCHED Morrigan. Why are these characters assuming that I have things going on between the both of them? And the answer to that question is simply because the game works on a tragic system of gifts–once a specific gift is given to a character, that character sees your character in a romantic light. Because I gave Morrigan a gift that reminded her of her past, the game automatically assumed I was then trying to romance Morrigan as well as Leliana. It was a rather confusing moment.

Either way, the romance options are equally as a downer as the scope of the game. Your two female choices are sketchy at best, and one of the male choices has you suspend your willing belief that you wouldn’t think a hired assassin wouldn’t try and kill you later on. This leaves you with Alistair, who is still dumber than a bag of rocks, but is perhaps the only kind-hearted character in the game. That’s great and all if you’re a woman or if you roll that way, but Alistair only has a romance option with women. Us guys get stuck with a trained liar running from her past or witch-girl whose only interested in achieving ultimate cosmic power. Even for the women I can’t imagine they like the idea of having Alistair bone Morrigan just so he can survive, and if you choose Loghain over Alistair he’ll still leave the party. The game furthers its “shades of gray” tongue-in-cheek nonsense by ensuring that even your romance options are less than thrilling. Oh goody, just what I wanted–a game to let me down in all efforts and aspects of the storyline choices.

Join in the fight for Ferelden, but high tail and run when it goes to pot

Dragon Age is an okay game. You will find it is enjoyable the first time through. Heck, you may even want to at least complete the origins just to see the different openings to the game. But, in truth, it is a far cry from an enjoyable experience. Yes, the back story may be in depth and the dialogue itself may be impressive, it still falls short from the choices you get to make in the game, or I should rather say the lack of choices you wanted to make but aren’t able to, all at the behest of the theme of the game to firmly say that it has dark overtones in every aspect. Is that creative? Yes. Is it enjoyable? No. I myself couldn’t stomach a third playthrough of Dragon Age after being disappointed by a second ending with different choices, and yet they still ended up in the same result as my first playthrough–a total disappointment. But perhaps in itself Dragon Age does set the bar for a fantasy setting that is extremely dark and morally ambiguous, it’s just that I’m not sure if I want to play any more of it, considering it’s not that much of an enjoyable experience.

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About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

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