It’s 3:14 AM. I just finished Dragon Age II. I’m exhausted, exhilarated, and I still don’t know if I made the right decision in letting my former best friend and closest ally walk away from being responsible for committing a heinous act that has directly precipitated a bloody conflict. I had spent the better part of the game trying to circumvent a particularly nasty clash of ideologies, playing both sides but ultimately siding with family and friends despite the game’s repeated attempts through its plot to convince me otherwise. So begins the last part of my look at Bioware’s latest and most divisive title since Jade Empire, and for those of you who haven’t played I’m keeping this spoiler-free so that I can have a last shot at convincing you to play this outstanding game.
Prior to the end-of-game events that I can’t help but view as ultimately tragic and as a failure of compromise, I saw and did a lot over the course of my forty-odd hours with the game. My Hawke killed a High Dragon and at least fifty of her dragonlings in an epic battle that must have lasted thirty minutes. He had an ill-advised but irresistible one night stand with Isabela, the almost parodic piratess. He helped an angry, hateful elf get over himself and pissed off a prince-in-exile who was mighty handy with a bow. I owned a mine, smuggled, and investigated a haunted house. He fought against filthy slavers at every opportunity and tried to be a good man, even if sometimes that didn’t pan out. Hawke also had a strained, awkward romance with a Dalish blood mage that never seemed quite meant to be, and by the end of the game I deeply regretted not pursuing Aveline’s affections.
He killed lots and lots of men, dwarves, elves, and Qunari and I’m not quite sure that at least half of them had to die to achieve our goals. But it seems that, as in real life, some of our battles are predestined, not selected. The events of the last part of the game left me wondering how much I could have actually changed through different choices and paths through the game and how variable the outcomes actually are. I know many will complete game multiple times to see every possibility, but I find that wondering what might have been is more interesting- and possibly less disappointing.
The final act ended with a boss fight that would have made Ray Harryhausen proud. Although it was definitely a cool, over-the-top finale, I found myself all through the third act wishing that there wouldn’t be a boss fight of any kind at the end. I had hoped that it would all end in discussion and debate with Hawke making decisions that would cement the future of Kirkwall and its inhabitants. But it seems some video game traditions aren’t quite ready to be upturned. Likewise, the last act relied far too heavily on the old “fight through hordes of foes” endgame trope, just as the game’s predecessor had. In a game where politics, intrigue, characterization, and dialogue are more compelling than swordplay, it gets to the point where the fighting just becomes pointlessly grueling.
Despite rolling my eyes at having to slaughter another fifty or so bad guys, the last half of the game mostly did not disappoint despite uneven pacing. Some events felt rushed and strangely incomplete, while 11th-hour busywork quests bogged down the horse race to the end and I have to admit that I left three quests, including two collection ones, unfinished. Sorry kidnapped lady, the fate of the city is at hand and suddenly your plight isn’t a big deal. Regardless, I think the third act had some truly amazing sequences culminating in decisions that make the concept of “moralty choices” in other games look about as deep as Rebecca Black choosing where to sit in the car.
For me the defining moment of this entire game was at the end when it was time to make a critical choice that I wasn’t sure that my longtime friend Aveline would side with. A paragon of the Lawful Good archetype and staunch law-woman, she had been with me and disapproved many times of actions we took. But when it came down to the most important decision in the game, she unconditionally pledged her support. It felt like more than just a function of where her friendship/rivalry slider was at, which is certainly the mechanical man-behind-the-curtain. It was emotional, resonant, and meaningful in ways that few video games can achieve. I welled up, a little.
Some of the story beats in latter half of the game I thought were just devastating. One in particular found Hawke implicated in wrongdoing against his will (at least in my game), and the excellent voice acting conveyed this heart-wrenching sense of betrayal and emptiness. I found myself carefully considering each major decision- even when the game was literally throwing them at me in every other spoken sentence. There were only one or two times where my selected response resulted in Hawke doing or saying something I didn’t intend- a definite improvement over the Mass Effect games’ sometimes inaccurate precise.
There were some silly moments too, as that old specter of blood magic (the Thedas equivalent of WMDs, in a sense) reared its head one too many times. Worse, the worn-out trope of the surprise bodily transfiguration of the villain was deployed once too often. I’m no longer shocked or surprised when a character explodes into a mass of malevolent tentacles or turns into a demon. I don’t think anyone is at this point.
I was disappointed as well to find that Flemeth, who made such a grand entrance at the beginning of the game, never returned. Unless there was something that I missed in my playthrough, she’s never heard from again except in a couple of passing remarks. It could be that Bioware has larger plans for her in an overarching story, but for the purposes of Dragon Age II she really just sets events into motion. So if her made-over appearance bugged you, it shouldn’t affect the remainder of the game.
Fleeting Flemeth aside, I was pleased to see some old friends from the first game return, including a pair of characters that appear to be the series’ analog to C3PO and R2D2. There is one late game cameo in particular that I thought was just awesome and totally unexpected. I’d be willing to bet that we’ll see a DLC mini-chapter based on this character’s appearance in the game. It could be a good one.
There are plenty of loose threads aside beyond whatever happened to the Witch of the Wilds (or her grandchild, for that matter). The purpose behind the Chantry Seeker’s interrogation of Varric is never made clear, and the framing narrative is left anemically untended in the end. My ending, at least, was too much of one of those “and then the hero left” kind of things and there is a mention that one of the characters stayed on with Hawke but there wasn’t really a reason as far as I could tell. One of the returning Origins characters is hinted at moving on to big things in Orlais, but at the end it’s unclear what direction that might take. And then there’s the whole issue of what the events at Kirkwall mean for the rest of Thedas. There are two ways the story can go, and I can not imagine how the writers of the third game could possibly craft a game that incorporates both sweeping outcomes. I hope it’s not one of those situations that bedevils series television, where the writers have written themselves into a corner.
Reflecting on the game as it passes from currency, it’s hard to miss the things that are wrong with it but almost every negative point seems to go right back to the game being rushed and not nearly as labored-over as its predecessor or other past Bioware titles have felt. All the lore, all the atmosphere, and all the great writing is there no doubt but perfunctory elements like the canned dungeons, some lazily cliched resolutions, and some abbreviated story threads reflect a shorter development schedule. As for the streamlining and mechanical changes, I think it’s a near-total success although it cuts it all very close to “too much” in some functional areas.
Ultimately, my response to Dragon Age II is an emotional one. This game made me feel, and when I’m feeling I’m not so worried about the flurry of numbers that Hawke is beating out of a Shade, tactical views, who’s wearing what armor, and whether or not injuries have specific descriptions. Characters, story, and narrative rule the day, and to this end it is truly an epic of both events and relationships, although often on unexpected scales. The things that truly make a Bioware title great are absolutely present in this game and I think there is definitely an argument that could be made that this is the company’s most resonant, sophisticated, and best-written game to date.