I really liked Dragon Age II. I liked the way they streamlined the combat, I liked that Hawke had a voice, and the dialogue wheel won me over pretty quickly. I could forgive the way they recycled dungeons because they seemed to have learned not to make them so monotonously huge, in the way that had destroyed Origins‘ replay value. Right up to the final battle, I was sure the game was head and shoulders better than its predecessor.
Then the game ended. There was like a three-minute cutscene, Cassandra says something cryptic, and it fades to black. There’s no denouement, no epilogue, the credits don’t even have music. It’s like they just stopped making it.
I got to thinking about this after I came across Kirk Hamilton’s reflections on the game in Kotaku. Because I’ve learned not to pay much attention to what people say about games on the Internet, I’d largely missed the backlash against the game while I was playing it.
While I understand some of the other complaints about DA II, but I think they’re overblown. But for all the work the team did to overhaul the gameplay, the best element of Origins — its story — is where the sequel fell down.
The most interesting point I came across in the article was actually another article, this one by Kris Ligman, who argued that DA II‘s biggest problem was the fact that it was being made as a sequel to Origins, even though the creative team were trying to tell a completely different story:
Strip away the pretenses of a AAA studio and the worst of its hamfisted tie-ins to the first game (spoiler: Flemeth doesn’t actually factor into the plot and the eluvian has nothing to do with Morrigan) and you have what is possibly some of the most compelling characterization this side of a good book.
That got me thinking that maybe more of the game’s problems link back to the title than I’d realized. When you see a game called Dragon Age II, you (reasonably) expect it to be a follow-on to the original, not a mostly unconnected story set in a different part of the same world. If they’d called it Dragon Age: Legends (a name they really shouldn’t have wasted on that Facebook game), it would have been a much more accurate signal of what the game actually was.
At the same time, it wasn’t just the tie-ins to the first game that were hamfisted. The eluvian managed to be a major element of Merrill’s character development without ever really doing anything; we learn more about the things in two hours of the Witch Hunt DLC than we do in 30 hours of DA II. Even new elements that the game introduces, like the mysterious lyrium idol, never becomes more than a MacGuffin.
In the end, the game was a great character study with a half-baked plot — which would have been less of a problem if the game’s entire narrative wasn’t framed around the idea that its plot was literally the most important series of events in the entire world.
It also got me thinking that I spent most of the game wishing for a proper sequel to Origins, something that actually explained what was going on with Flemeth and the eluvian. Instead, DA II actually made me less interested in these stories, as their near total lack of development gave me the impression that the writers didn’t know where any of that stuff was going, anyway. I’m still hopeful that Dragon Age III will change my mind, though.
And, weirdly, I still feel more attached to the Warden than I ever did to Hawke. Considering the whole point of DA II was to tell the story of Hawke’s rise to power, using the framed narrative and ten-year time span to show the effect of your choices within the game, that seems like a serious failing. And I think the problem is that the game couldn’t really follow through. Whereas in Origins, the Warden could decide the fates of three different races, plus the mages, in DA II Hawke can barely influence the fate of the mages. Regardless of the choices you make, the game seems to roll forward with a sense of inevitability that serves an interesting narrative choice, but kind of puts the lie to the idea that Hawke is all that important. It also makes the game feel a bit pointless, as whatever you try to accomplish in Kirkwall, it ends with you and your companions disappearing into the wilderness.
I think DA II‘s biggest problem might be that it over-promised. The game had a lot of the right ideas, but couldn’t quite execute them well, which makes me think it could really have benefited from another few months in development. Here’s hoping the team picks up on that when they’re building DA III.