Gaming on a Timer

Dragon Age II: Impressions Part 2

This is the second of a multi-part post regarding the game Dragon Age II. As with the last one, there are a few spoilers used to illustrate some of the points I make. You have been warned.

This is about 90% of all available
locations. Seriously.

Naming conventions and recycled areas aside, I felt that the biggest fault Dragon Age II succumbs to is the story, or rather, the story’s structure. DA II is structured into a three-act story, with each act being separated by a time skip mechanic that is ineptly handled at best. It is styled as a “story within a story”, as Hawke’s exploits are recounted by Varric, one of the early party members that’ll join you during Act 1. Again, while this gimmick has the potential to enrich the story experience, here it comes across as an afterthought, a shoehorned overlay to the already disjointed three acts that make up the game’s storyline.

The first act begins with Hawke, a refugee from the recently fallen Lothering (a “cameo” of sorts from the first game), fleeing towards Kirkwall, an overseas city-state to which all of the recently expatriated Fereldans (Ferelden being, again, a name drop from the previous game) hope to find refuge. A few misadventures later (during which Hawke either takes up work as a smuggler or mercenary), he is admitted to the city and sets up camp in the city’s slums.

The overarching goal for Act 1 then shifts to joining an expedition to the Deep Roads; a vast underground complex from where the previous game’s villains emerge from every few decades to wreak havoc on the surface, and where there are rumoured to be treasures of immense value. In effect, this involves Hawke running a multitude of errands for various interested parties, during which he assembles a group of NPC characters and is gradually introduced to the city of Kirkwall and the surrounding countryside.

The Qunari, major plot focus for Act 2.

This was also the part that felt padded out the most, as most of the quests involved some sort of “go to point A, kill individual B, return to quest giver C for reward” structure, which gets old soon. This feeling was intensified by the constant battles with hordes of enemies (annoying at best), though this part of the topic is reserved for a subsequent post. At the finale of this act, Hawke and co. manage to explore the Deep Roads, acquire through misadventure (which, kindly put, was not entirely unforeseen) the rumoured treasure, then returns to Kirkwall.

This is where there should have been a plot hook for the second act, information of some sort that sets the stage for the next set of adventures so that the player’s interest is kept. Instead, the game skips forward a few years, during which the gist of the story is that “Hawke got the treasure, moved up in society, lives a life of riches”; no character development, no connections whatsoever to the previous act’s exploits (save for a “mysterious artefact” that ties into the final act, and which is cryptic in implementation at best) and for the first time, the story flow comes to a screeching halt before Act 2 comes into play and tries to get things moving again.

The Templars, zealots to a fault.

Act 2 shifts focus to the Qunari, previously encountered during Act 1’s flurry of quests, a race presented as militaristic and disciplined to a fault. As tensions rise between them and the Kirkwall leadership, it falls to Hawke to investigate and attempt to smooth out relations between the two parties. Again, this is never elaborated upon: how did Hawke suddenly become so important as to be personally asked by the ruler of the city to be involved, other than the virtue of now being rich? A missed opportunity to flesh out the character at best, disjointed story segments by design at worst.

The majority of this act falls yet again into a formulaic pattern of (mostly) fetch quests, which is not helped when the entirety of the locales from the first act is recycled verbatim (see previous post for more thoughts on the subject). At the finale, the situation finally explodes (again, not so subtly hinted at from the onset), with the Qunari capturing and eventually killing the viscount of Kirkwall. Hawke defeats the Qunari, is dubbed “the Champion of Kirkwall” and, yet again, the act resolves itself with little in the way of loose story threads, therefore lacking once again cohesion and continuity with the final act.

Can’t decide if these are the good guys?
Neither can the game, apparently

The story then skips a few years ahead (again), to the final act which mainly concerns tensions between the Templar and Mage faction, with the former rising to power during the interim between the second and third acts, and the latter being oppressed by them. Here the focus shifts towards a more societal struggle and moves away from the black/white characterisation the previous acts’ adversaries followed, in favour of some surprisingly deep social commentary that mirrors real-world situations with admirable skill… at first.

The onset is promising enough, with several thought-provoking quests in which there is a considerable effort to not paint either side as right or wrong; this is the part I enjoyed the most and where, in my opinion, BioWare’s pedigree of intelligent story and dialogue shines through. This enjoyment does not quite make it to the end though, mainly because the finale makes such a fine mess of giving your choices weight.

To elaborate: At the very end of Act 3, you are given the choice to support either of the groups, which in turn affects how the finale is played out. In theory, this should give players pause for thought, as the effort that has gone into this act to show both factions as morally ambiguous would present the player with an interesting dilemma in choosing between supporting the Templars or Mages. In effect, however, little changes in the end sequences: regardless of choice, the leader of the Mages succumbs to temptation (thus invalidating any favourable actions of the faction during this act) and the Templar leader turns out to have been corrupted all along (therefore also destroying any redeeming qualities the faction may have had in the eyes of the viewer).

With this ham-fisted resolution (both leaders are dead by Hawke’s hand, regardless of his alliances), the coup de grace is dealt by the story writer here: a hugely inappropriate “to be continued” is dropped, with a (presumably obligatory) cameo from an Origins character, which I can only assume to be a weak attempt to tie both games to a third instalment in the series.

You’d think the game would have
more of these, considering the name.

In conclusion, the three acts have very little in the way of cohesion between them; it isn’t much of a stretch to say that they would have worked just as well (if not better) if they shifted focus entirely from Hawke to someone else and the story would suffer little for it, and while the final act shows some initial promise, it’s all destroyed with the ending, presumably designed so that Hawke is portrayed as a hero regardless of choice, which in turn undermines the “role” part of the Role Playing Game label.

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Follow-up posts will elaborate on my impressions on the combat philosophy BioWare seems to have followed in this instalment and give an opinion into the party members’ characterization.
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As a point of interest, I played as a male warrior Hawke that favoured Diplomatic/Helpful dialogue options, romanced Isabela (and defended her in a duel with the Qunari Arishok), sided with the mages in the finale, tried to complete as many side missions as possible and spared Anders after his betrayal.

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