Gaming on a Timer

Dragon Age II: Impressions Part 4

This is the fourth and final part on a series of opinion pieces on BioWare’s latest action-RPG title, Dragon Age II. In this post I focus on what is arguably the game’s most polished aspect: characterization, interaction between characters and the cohesion between said elements. As this is a more story-centric article, there are a number of spoilers; you have been warned.

NPC animations during dialogue
are a major improvement from DA:O.

Coming into this title, one would expect (according to BioWare’s earlier track record) a series of characters fleshed out in a competent, if formulaic manner. Unexpectedly, however, whereas the game comes across as lacking in most aspects (or at least, severely diminished), characterization seem to be the one thing they “got right”. This is partly due to the writers’ apparent efforts to reinforce verisimilitude, by fleshing out the characters’ interactions (mostly between party members, which is known as “party banter”) and finally tearing away from the cookie cutter templates they use for their previous games.

The dialogue wheel, apparently
“inspired” by Mass Effect.

Starting with Hawke, there has been a huge improvement from BioWare’s earlier Mass Effect series (which also attempts at characterization give the main protagonist a clearly defined character as opposed to the “tabula rasa” approach of the Origins one); Hawke was, for starters, given an accent – sounding British though I’m by no means an expert – and this works wonders for the game, as it gives the character a much less bland and monotonous voice (something Mass Effect failed at, for the most part). Hawke also comes with a small prologue chapter, giving the game the much-needed foundations on which the character’s development is built upon.

The conversations also appear to be polished for the most part, as they now feel less like scripted sequences of binary, good/ evil choices and more like actual, emotionally invested dialogues. The animations used during said dialogues help on this subject as well, perpetuating the much-needed illusion of speaking to actual characters instead of merely sifting through conversation trees to get to the end as fast as possible. This, again, enhances the feeling of verisimilitude in the game, ending up as the saving grace for an otherwise mediocre entry to the series.

Anders introduced, one of the
better characterized companions.

Where the game truly shines, though, is on the amount of polish and detail given to the party members. Each comes with a hugely detailed back story, told either via the aforementioned party banter, the companion-specific quests becoming available during each chapter and the conversations between Hawke and them. Work seems to have gone into diverging from the usual templates BioWare was known to be using for most of its’ published works; while they are still present as a concept (the soft-spoken healer, the grim but determined warrior, the innocent girl with no outside world experiences to name a few), there seems to be a genuine effort to break loose of these stereotypes: the healer has a rebellious attitude which ends up in a (not-entirely unexpected) plot twist in the finale, the warrior is ultimately, emotionally stunted and the innocent girl’s determination and sheer persistence does not (refreshingly) end with her losing her innocence and turning into a “forged by hardships” heroine.

A minor complaint: Hawke’s sibling
is absent for much of the game.

Special merit goes to the characters’ integration in the game’s story; whereas in other games companions feel like extraneous additions to the story and world, here they have been involved to a much higher degree to the main plot. It is perhaps for this reason that I felt I was invested in my companions in a far more consistent manner than other recent games. From a personal perspective, Anders and Aveline appear to be the best-developed characters, the former a tormented mage playing host to a warped spirit of Justice that ends up murdering one of the game’s major political forces in order to spark a war that forces the issue of societal discrimination to the forefront, while the latter is a honour-bound guardsman that climbs the ranks during the game’s story arcs, ending as the guard captain left to deal with the finale’s anarchy and unrest on the streets of Kirkwall.

A minor mention needs to be made, as well, to the voice acting of the game’s cast; while the majority of the actors share distinct British accents, it ultimately works towards consistency and verisimilitude, as it reinforces the notion that the game takes place in a singular locale, rather than spanning across several – making it feel consistent and persistently believable.

Here I’d like to thank the reader for persevering through a series of posts that detail a personal analysis of my time with Dragon Age II. While it was by no means a bad game, it was crippled by the developer due to overuse (and in some places, abuse) of combat, recycling levels and inconsistent story structures.

On the flip side, it offered a much deeper view of character interactions and integration to the game world, a highly polished combat system and a believable world (working despite, rather than because of the story structure).

Summing it up, my impression of Dragon Age II was that of a game that attempted to counteract the flaws of the previous title in the series, which it did achieve to some extent; sadly this was balanced out by a series of new design flaws that (in hazarding a guess) stem from the game’s unusually short development time.

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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