Dragon Age II, A Ten Year Reunion
A while back I wrote a ten year anniversary piece for Dragon Age: Origins. Not just because it was another anniversary piece to churn out, but rather so I could have another excuse to replay one of my favorite games of all time. I was pleased to learn that the game has largely held up well, aside from some of the hilariously stiff character animations. Now Dragon Age II has turned ten, so I’ve taken it upon myself to once again revisit the world of Thedas. Let’s see how this installment has withstood the test of time.
Dragon Age II deviated from the previous game in a number of ways. This becomes apparent right from the very beginning. In Origins, you have six different introductory chapters you can start with, depending on which class, race, and job you choose. Yes, they eventually all end up at the same point, making the rest of the game play pretty similarly to one another. But there’s still that initial feeling of satisfaction when you pick one of six wildly different backgrounds for your character.
That is not the case with Dragon Age II, however. This time around the game focuses on the Hawke family, with you being the eldest of three siblings (although one of them gets picked off immediately). You still get to decide which job you have; mage, rogue, or warrior, but you’ll only get to play as a human with one background. Your Hawke character is on the run from the fifth Blight in Ferelden, when you arrive at the shores of Kirkwall looking to reconnect with an uncle who lives there. He informs you that the family fortune is gone and the only way for a refugee to be admitted into the city is to enter into indentured servitude. Seeing no other option, Hawke agrees to join up with either a mercenary group or a smuggler in order to gain entry into Kirkwall.
The rest of the game is broken up into three acts, which is another departure from the Origins layout. The first act has Hawke and his/her companions trying to raise enough money for an expedition to the Deep Roads. Act Two has Hawke trying to calm unrest within the town in a number of ways, with the main focus being on the Qunari threat. Then in Act Three everything comes to a head with the war between the mages and templars.
Each act is broken up by cutscenes of one of your companions, the dwarf Varric, who is the one regaling the tale to an interrogator named Cassandra. It’s a completely different feel than that found in Origins, and is something fans were divided on. Personally, I enjoyed the way Dragon Age II decided to tell its story, as it feels truly different than most other RPGs in that regard.
While it is a bit disappointing that you don’t have as much control over your main character’s background as in Origins, I do appreciate having a more streamlined narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I adored the storylines in Origins and found the writing was fantastic, but there are some advantages to having a smaller scaled story. For starters, you’re able to connect with Hawke a lot more than the non-speaking protagonists featured in Origins. There’s a huge focus on Hawke’s family, with some surprises that have a real emotional impact because you’ve gotten so familiar with them.
This is the case with Hawke’s companions as well. You had plenty of private conversations with your companions in Origins, but Dragon Age II took the dynamic between you and your teammates even further. The romancing options are still present, which has become a BioWare staple. However, instead of just being able to being able to romance or get your crew to like you, there’s a whole system devoted to building either a friendship or rivalry with them. Both of these come with perks, varying dialogue options, and different companion quests. This is one area that can alter the game enough to warrant multiple playthroughs, which I have done myself.
Having a more contained story also means that there are more quests directly involving your companions. This results in each character being more fully fleshed out. I ended up caring about what happened with their character arcs much more as a result of this. I genuinely wanted to help Aveline successfully court her love interest. I was eager to help Fenris exact revenge upon his former master and slaver. Helping Varric after a major betrayal felt personal. The relationships forged with my companions felt more intimate and important than ever before. To me, the companions are the strongest part of Dragon Age II.
The combat is another area that got reworked and greatly improved upon. Each character still has their own set of combat tactics you can customize, just like before. However, the AI is much more intelligent in Dragon Age II. The combat overall is much faster and smoother as well, making the fights much more enjoyable all around. My biggest gripe with it is that the enemies always spawn in waves, often times right behind you or your weakest team member. This can make the fights start feeling tedious after a while, especially in later levels when the amount of enemy waves increase during each confrontation.
Aside from the combat, the visuals were also greatly improved. Textures and lighting were greatly enhanced, as well as the amount of detail in the environments. The character animations are the most noticeably improved, with their faces and bodies moving more realistically. Although, the hair styles still look like they’re made out of wood. At least their hands don’t look like permanent back scratchers anymore though!
This brings to my absolute biggest issue with Dragon Age II: the level designs. Being contained in a smaller setting, Dragon Age II allows you to visit less locations. You’ll have a few different areas of Kirkwall you can explore, some coastal areas, some mountain paths, and a forest trail. Normally I wouldn’t care as long as the environments were interesting. The problem is that they aren’t at all.
You can tell that this is the area where the developers had to cut corners the most. There are essentially only a handful of maps that are lazily altered for everything. The biggest layout changes are within the different districts within the city of Kirkwall, but everything else is the same thing over and over. There’s only one map for each setting: coastal, mountain, cave, mansion, warehouse, thiag, and underground.
That might sound like a lot, but it really isn’t, especially when you consider that these maps are suppose to represent different locations most of the time. Any time you have to inspect a warehouse, it’s the exact same one. You might have to explore a few different caves, but it’s the same map with a doorway blocked off here and there by a very unconvincing rock slab. You’ll have a mission on the coastline, but the only deviation to the map from the last time you visited it might be a wooden cart blocking a path you were able to walk through the previous time. The level design reeks of laziness, which puts a huge damper on the sense of excitement in the game.
If you focus more on the story though, Dragon Age II is still a really good time. Even though you’re not saving the world from a Blight, what happens in the game ties-in perfectly with the events from Origins and sets-up what’s to come in Inquisition even better. Its themes of prejudice and civil unrest are well realized and give the player some deep conundrums to ponder. This is a game where almost none of your decisions are black and white, but rather firmly in the morally gray area.
Dragon Age II is a game that was largely divisive among fans upon its release. It’s not surprising when you consider how much BioWare did differently with this installment. However, if you look past the rushed and severely limited level designs, you’ll find a game that’s very strong on its own merits. The story is compelling and complex in many ways, and introduces new important aspects to lore of Thedas, like red lyrium and the lyrium idol. The combat is a lot faster and more fluid, with AI that doesn’t just stand around getting hit or getting stuck in doorways all the time. The relationships you can develop with your companions is strong and keeps you invested in their character arcs. Dragon Age II is a largely misunderstood game in my opinion and is still very much worth your time even today. Hopefully Dragon Age 4 can recapture some of the magic with riveting characters, complex problems, and less fetch quests than in Inquisition.