Dragon Age II is the Worst and Most Realistic Dragon Age

WTF is Dragon Age II?

Dragon Age II is the 2011 sequel to Dragon Age: Origins, an RPG set in the fantasy world of Thedas, where people keep getting attacked by demons. This particular instalment follows a character named Hawke, a refugee who flees to the city of Kirkwall during the demon attacks of Origins and, over the course of seven years, becomes the city’s Champion.

After the prologue, the action takes place in three distinct chapters and builds toward a confrontation between Kirkwall’s mages and the Templar knights who’ve been oppressing them. Along the way, Hawke (who can be male or female, depending on player choice) also has to deal with a foreign invasion, a serial killer, a dangerous treasure-hunting expedition, a haunted house, and a myriad of other problems in and around the city.

Like Origins, Dragon Age II is a party-based RPG, and Hawke can collect six companions to join in the adventure. Gameplay primarily involves combat, with some romance and character-driven side stories.

It’s also really unpopular, a total fucking downer, and a very different game from either Origins or Dragon Age: Inquisition. Probably because it feels too much like real life.

The part where it’s unpopular

Dragon Age II diverges greatly from Dragon Age: Origins. Despite shared lore and similarities in gameplay and design, it feels like a totally different genre. Origins is a sprawling adventure with a huge world to explore and dark secrets to uncover through branching narratives and player choice. It’s a story about heroes who make sacrifices to stop the apocalypse. Dragon Age II is a short, linear narrative that takes place in one small city and features unrelenting hardship from beginning to end. It’s about a regular person who loses everything and can’t stop the city from tearing itself apart.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s very different from what someone who’d just played Origins would be expecting. At a story level, the issue is less that Dragon Age II doesn’t make any sense on its own and more that it doesn’t make sense as a sequel, since it seems completely different from the other games in the series in terms of its overall vision and ethos.

At a gameplay level, there are also some pretty well-documented issues, like the way enemies spawn directly on top of your party (frustrating), multiple locations that recycle the same dungeon map (confusing), and an armour upgrade system that’s basically a riddle (pretty stable feature of the franchise).

The part where it’s depressing

Dragon Age II is a lot more pessimistic than Origins and Inquisition. Both of those games tell bittersweet stories about a hero who rises to defend Thedas from the apocalypse, and succeeds while making terrible sacrifices along the way. Dragon Age II tells the story of a hero who rises to defend Kirkwall from its own corruption, and largely fails while losing people to chance, circumstance, and evil. The emotional palette is disillusionment, betrayal, and tragedy, with hardly a breath in between.

All of Hawke’s companions also have depressing side-stories, many of which either always or sometimes lead to horrific outcomes. Like, Merrill, the elven blood mage who was rejected by her clan and might end up killing them all at the end, or Fenris, the former slave who wants revenge on his masters and might end up sold into slavery again. Even the character with the brightest story line, Aveline, starts the prologue by having to mercy-kill her husband.

The moment the game jumped the shark for me, personally, was when (spoilers) Hawke’s mother was murdered by a serial killer who Frankensteined her head onto a sex corpse. It’s the culmination of a very long side story in which Hawke tries to figure out who the serial killer is and, no matter which choices players make in the investigation, it always ends with Hawke’s mom’s head on an undead sex slave.

The main message conveyed by that plot line, and almost every plot line in Dragon Age II, is, “People do horrific things sometimes, and you can’t really stop them, and it sucks.”

It’s not wrong to make a game with that message, but it’s a downer.

The part where the approval system rocked

There are a few aspects of Dragon Age II that I liked, but the one that stands out the most is the approval system – i.e., the system by which party members decide whether they like Hawke, and the way those decisions play out in the story.

Most RPG approval systems involve a scale that runs from love to hate, where the player is penalized if the characters hate them and rewarded for being well-liked. That sets up a dynamic where players are motivated to try to guess the “right” thing to say to their companions in order to score points instead of roleplaying their characters authentically.

Dragon Age II tries to prevent that problem by using a scale that runs from “friend” to “rival” and penalizes players for staying in a neutral position, rather than for polarizing in either direction. Rival companions generally have pretty confrontational dialogue with Hawke and express disapproval for Hawke’s choices, but they don’t leave the party, and they still confer a bonus to Hawke in combat. They’re also still open to romance even though they find Hawke annoying, which means that players who want the kind of romance where the characters argue a lot and then kiss can actually have it.

The overall philosophy of the approval system is that people can respect each other even when they passionately disagree, being a good friend sometimes means telling someone that you disagree, and that relationships are stronger when you express your true feelings as opposed to telling people what you think they want to hear. That’s a big change from the “say whatever gets the most points” approval system, and I think it’s one that better captures the complexities of relationships.

In practice, the system isn’t perfect – the slider works best when companions are single-issue voters, and, presumably, in real life there would be some issues where it’s a deal-breaker to disagree – but it’s a good start, and it leads to more interesting stories.

The part where this one pantless woman kept getting called “whore”

Dragon Age II is more thoughtful about gender than Origins but doesn’t go as far as Inquisition.

Hawke can be either male or female, doesn’t look super sexualized as a woman, and doesn’t attract a bunch of weird, rapey comments. Merrill and Aveline also aren’t super sexualized, and neither is the female villain, Meredith.

On the flipside, Isabela, the pirate in Hawke’s party, wears a side-slit tunic as a dress, so you can always see her underwear. She’s not even at sea. She’s on land for six years and she never buys a pair of pants. And then Aveline repeatedly calls her “whore” in what seems like it’s meant to be a funny rivalry, but is actually a very hostile and unpleasant relationship.

Aveline also has a story line about how she faces discrimination (as a woman and an immigrant) after becoming captain of the guard, which is great… until she resolves it by having her husband tell everyone she’s doing a good job. Her husband is also one of the guards under her command, and she made advances on him while he was under her command, which is played as being cute and dorky, but is actually sexual harassment.

Basically, it’s still a mixed bag in terms of whether the game understands anything about gender, but the mix is a little different than it is in Origins. No one’s head gets pasted onto a generic naked body, but someone’s head does gets Frankesnteined onto a sex corpse.

The part where I couldn’t play it for a year

This might be an EA or Microsoft issue rather than a BioWare issue, but, when I was 85% of the way through my first play, the game spontaneously broke. I tried to troubleshoot for longer than I had actually played at that point, to no avail. And then, one day, after Windows and Origin both updated themselves, it spontaneously started working again.

In the process of trying to troubleshoot, I learned that this has been an on-again off-again problem with the first two Dragon Age games and there’s no solution that 100% works. The issue just cycles through the forums every few years, with people trying whatever worked last time and getting frustrated when it doesn’t work, now.

I super wish that Windows and Origin didn’t force me to update when I have a stable set-up going, but I guess whichever one of them broke the game also eventually fixed it?

The part where a poor Dragon Age game is still a Dragon Age game

I don’t have any pressing desire to replay this, but it was still a mostly okay RPG with sword fighting, sorcery, and somewhat memorable characters. I wish that it hadn’t taken me 1.5 plays to understand how the armour worked, and I wish the enemies wouldn’t spawn directly in front of my face, and I wish that every single thing that happened wasn’t such a total bummer, but there was still some fun around the edges.

Ultimately, I think the concept of having a protagonist with very limited ability to alter the course of a slow-motion train wreck is kind of interesting – and it certainly squares with similarly helpless struggles I’ve faced in real life – but it might be a little bit too realistic to have to gape in horror as civilization collapses.

Image: Dragon Age II promo; BioWare | November 29, 2019