by Rio Liang
Let me preface this review by saying I didn’t care much for that middle part of the “Star Wars” trilogy, “The Empire Strikes Back.” Making a self-contained “story” out of a “middle” has never jibed with my narrative sensibilities. (Better, in my opinion, to break up the “middle” into the end of the first and beginning of the final parts). “Dragon Age II” is a bridge story, a sequel that acts as a set-up for yet another story, though whether the finale to this story is to come in the form of “Dragon Age III” or downloadable content (DLC, or supplemental/add-on content) for “Dragon Age II” is yet to be seen. In fact, though I mention trilogies, I’m not even sure of the intended length of the entire “Dragon Age” story arc, which is narratively disorienting, making it all the more frustrating.
The story unfolds in a “framed narrative,” in which the Homeric Varric, a companion to the currently M.I.A. “Champion of Kirkwall” (the main playable character, Hawke), recounts the events leading up to the chaos currently overtaking the world of Thedas. The story is compelling in drawing parallels to the real world battle between regulation and liberty. In the very rich “Dragon Age” mythos (set up so well in “Dragon Age: Origins”), the use of magic has always posed a problem, with competing factions debating magic’s role as either serving or enslaving man. The mages of Kirkwall are consigned to the fittingly named “Gallows” of the once slave capital. The idea of slavery in fact is a running theme throughout the game, and the player’s decisions regarding apostates (rogue mages) strongly affect the outcome of the story.
Still, though I referenced Homer earlier, “Dragon Age II” falls short of epic, especially in comparison to its predecessor, “DA:O” (which I consider one of the best RPGs of the previous decade). It’s a game sprinkled throughout with perhaps an even amount of highs and lows. The dialogue can be quite sparkling at times, especially with the pirate Isabela, who delivers some of the funniest lines in the game. (One of her gems: “An apostate prostitute? An apostitute!”). There are great sub-stories throughout; one in particular involves a self-immolating Qunari mage (a “Saarebas), whose design–with threaded lips, and leashed like a collared dog, accentuating so terribly beautifully his enslavement–is “burned” in my memory. But other more inferior storylines take away from the impact of these notable ones; take for example the almost ridiculous (think “Bride of Frankenstein”) and not so compelling sub-plot concerning Hawke’s mother. The individual storylines of party members are also a mixed bag, with some leading to surprising climaxes (namely the mage Anders’s story), and others to fizzling conclusions. Related to this is another weakness of the game, which is the over-delay of important revelations. We are left still wondering who the much-hyped Flemeth is, with nary a bit of new information to tide us over till the next “Dragon Age.” Is there a connection between the lyrium idol and Flemeth? And what is up with the eluvians referenced in both this game and the “DA:O” DLC, “Witch Hunt?” By this point, we need to at least get some of the answers–even half an answer would be great. Otherwise, it ends up coming across as if the writers don’t know the answers either. Writing a story arc in installments is a bit like courting someone; dragging it out without at least a kiss by a certain point only leads to courtship limbo. Narrative limbo is equally annoying.
Most disappointing of all is the ending (during the lead-up to which I felt like I was playing a Japanese RPG, in which the final bosses ridiculously transform into absurdly super-powered beings; with “DA:O” there was an elegant simplicity to having the last boss be a dragon–no flash, no ridiculousness). It feels unfinished, with hints that the writers just ran out of time. I understand, and appreciate, how lack of resources is always a problem in the creation of a product with massive scope such as this game. However, I would rather a game be released later and be of higher quality than have it be a rush job. (An unfortunate result is “recyclage.” Not just of dungeon layouts, and the music score, which here is largely culled from the “DA:O” soundtrack, but also of characters. Here, Anders and Isabela, secondary characters from “DA:O,” are brought back as top billers. I understand budgetary, time, and other resource constraints, but it does feel a bit contrived that a lot of “DA:O” cast members, like the templar Cullen, Zevran, even Leliana, happen to have just converged at Kirkwall all at the same time).
I do commend Bioware though on expending writing resources on being more equal opportunity when it comes to the romance options. I was one of the many gaymers who griped about “DA:O’s” limitations in terms of presenting minorities with more immersive opportunities, which you can read about in my review of that game. (As supplementary reading by the way, may I suggest a letter the superb David Gaider, head writer for “Dragon Age,” had written, in which he so eloquently blasts a homophobic gamer, and expounds on that so so under-served demographic, “The Straight Male Gamer” and the concept of privilege of the majority). Allowing for diversity in the gaming world is always welcome, and I like that I was finally able to customize a character with Asian features, which I recall not being able to do in “DA:O.” (In fact I was able to fulfill a lifelong dream here of finally being a red-headed Asian; I’ve always wanted to be ginger! Note: This by the way, lest I inadvertently offend, is a somewhat vague “Doctor Who” reference).
With all this said, I’ll still replay the game. (I am in fact currently doing another playthrough. In my first, I was a polite male warrior who stood with the mages; now I’m a wisecracking blood mage who might perhaps stand against his own kind). “Dragon Age: Origins” was a game that got better with each new playthrough, allowing a richer understanding of the bigger story through the different options of perspectives and each diverging decision. I do strongly hope subsequent replays will fare well for “Dragon Age II,” because I’m in the middle of this now, and the only way forward is for me to see the story through to its end.