Dragon Age 2 remains BioWare’s most daring RPG
I love Dragon Age 2. I’m an old-school CRPG boy and naturally dug out how Origins went back to those classic isometric days, but the story was typical of fantasy, with a narrative structure that we have. seen in almost every RPG over the past few decades. The sequel was more and more daring and weird and, yes, very rough around the edges. It’s still a tragedy that BioWare hasn’t continued down this path, because there’s a spark there that just hasn’t been present in any of its games since.
The rest of the Dragon Ages are all centered around specific crises that engulf almost everything. Origins is all about ending the Last Blight and fulfilling the fate of the Gray Wardens, while the Inquisition is about strengthening your militant organization and closing the Breach. Dragon Age 2 is a biography. There are crises, of course, and darkspawns, and the conflict between the Chantry and the mages, but really it’s all about Hawke.
Hawke is BioWare’s most defined player character. There are still a lot of directions to take, but once you’re on your chosen path, it feels like you’re playing a tangible, flawed person rather than just a reflection of a bunch of arbitrary choices. They are closer to Geralt than to the Gray Guardian, the Inquisitor, or even Commander Shepard. This is underscored by the fact that whatever you do is actually relayed after the fact by Varric, the weirdly sexy literary giant of Dragon Age (and dwarf).
Varric is an excellent storyteller, although he is not trustworthy. He’s a bit unreliable, especially when it comes to his own exploits, which makes Dragon Age 2 look even more like an authentic bio. And through Varric, we see years of Hawke’s life, their changing status, the fortunes and misfortunes of their friends, and how they went from no one to a central player in Kirkwall’s fate. The progression of the characters, both in terms of Hawke and their companions, is unmatched in the work of BioWare.
Time is at the heart of Dragon Age 2, and its passage brings about significant changes. Some of your friends will find jobs, find new loves, and the city around you will rise and transform as you face all kinds of troubles, from mage uprisings to these intimidating qunari. As Hawke, you are involved in all of this, but the world does not revolve around you. This is perhaps what I love most about Dragon Age 2. You are important, yes, but you are often powerless. And because of that lack of control, the world and the characters within it get a lot more agency.
Anders is often seen as a low point. It was introduced in Awakening, the Origins expansion, and quickly became one of my favorites. In Dragon Age 2, it’s an angry mess that causes a lot of trouble. He’s not that likable, and whatever you do he’s going to screw it up. I was angry with him a lot, but it’s great! BioWare relies too much on lovely buddies with lots of banter, but in Dragon Age 2 it stokes the fires of rivalry and recognizes that friendships can be very complicated and very strained.
Like Anders, Aveline also feels like a character who makes her own path. She’s the first mate you have, but she has her own life. In Kirkwall, she joins the guards, and if you’re criminally persuaded, you’ll give a damn. I still vividly remember his exasperation every time I did something a little mean, and if anything was going to cause me to change my ways, it would be his disappointed look. And it worked, to some extent. I definitely ended up as a lovable thug instead of a serial killer just because I wanted her to like me. Although you can have a little kiss, she is not romantic, and instead you can help her seduce another guardian who she is adorable with. So she has a career and romance that is totally separate from the party, which sometimes leads to complications. And there is a bit of it in everyone. Your companions aren’t just waiting for you to call them, and they’re not submissive. In Inquisition, on the other hand, even the toughest and most opinionated characters, like Cassandra, feel like your employees.
Dragon Age 2 also has a much stronger sense of place than other games. Despite his extended period, he is actually a bit more focused, mainly interested in what is happening in Kirkwall. I wish more RPGs took place in cities, and Kirkwall ends up feeling a lot more like home than Skyhold or your depressing camp in Origins. Having said that, it is not an attractive city, and although many changes have taken place over the years, it remains physically largely the same. I was a little fed up at the end, I admit, but I would have been more than happy to spend more time there if there was a little more diversity.
This is really where Dragon Age 2 stumbles. There just aren’t enough separate locations for a game of this size. Dungeons, for example, are recycled frequently, so you’ll be making your way through the same caves a lot, with differences equivalent to the end you start at – that’s just not enough and a testament to the difficult development of the The flashy but not especially tactical combat only exacerbated the problem, making the adventurous part of the game a bit disappointing.
Not all the crappy dungeons and straightforward fights are what I remember when I think of Dragon Age 2, and time only makes it better in my opinion. We gave him a whopping 94 in our Dragon Age 2 review, which turned out to be quite controversial, but I definitely came down to Rich’s side here. For all of its flaws, it’s a singular BioWare RPG, and the stuff it nails is a lot more important to me than casting spells and hitting things with swords. It would have been much better to get rid of half of the encounters and use the extra resources to polish the rest. If Hawke’s violent adventures weren’t part of the story, I’d even be okay with getting rid of them, to be honest. It’s probably the influence of Disco Elysium, but I’m a lot more open to the idea of RPGs without any action these days.
While the rest of the series is an evolution of Baldur’s Gate’s CRPG style, Dragon Age 2 has just as much in common with Planescape Torment, and frankly, I don’t think there’s a better way to craft a compelling RPG. than to follow the example of Planescape. Epic and epic quests always have a certain appeal, but that’s rarely what people want to talk about when they finish an RPG. It’s the people we meet on these quests that end up lodging in our minds, and the character that we shaped in the end. Games like Planescape and Disco Elysium recognize this the most, and while Dragon Age 2 doesn’t do it all, it’s absolutely in the same vein.
So it’s a huge shame that it turned out to be the disappointing middle child. Inquisition has many memorable characters, greatly improved combat, and a world teeming with diverse locations, but it is also completely indebted to the design of trendy open-world games. Its scale is ambitious, but quite conservative when it comes to just about everything else. You are once again the most important person in the world, you can sleep with almost anyone you hire, and you aspire to everyone’s agency. It’s pure power fantasy, right down to that critical betrayal you’ll never even see if you don’t play the latest DLC. I’ve played this massive game twice, so I’m obviously a fan, but there are no surprises in it. It’s too sure.
I don’t think we’ll be seeing Dragon Age 2 again, at least from BioWare. After Anthem’s critical and commercial failure, and the less than warm welcome received by Mass Effect Andromeda, BioWare is likely shattering it at the prospect of yet another failure. I also don’t see EA letting it take bold risks. Since Inquisition was BioWare’s last victory, Dragon Age 4 is likely going to take it from there. Guess I’m just going to have to settle for cherishing the last interesting studio experience. I was thinking of starting a club, but I don’t think there are enough of us. If I’m wrong, make yourself known, and we can lament the dominance of massive open-world role-playing games together.