Dragon Age’s Past, Present, and Future: Thoughts on Inquisition’s DLC

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Darth_Navster

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Edited By Darth_Navster

We’re now over a decade into downloadable content (DLC) becoming mainstream in gaming. What started off as a poor value with Oblivion’s horse armor has blossomed into a space where developers can take risks and tinker with new ideas within the context of an already successful game. One of my favorite aspects of this is that it gives me an excuse to revisit titles that I’ve enjoyed in the past. This is especially true for RPGs, where I lack the time for another full playthrough but am willing to play a few more hours of content. Since Dragon Age: Inquisition’s DLCs were put on sale recently, I decided to fire up my old save and see what BioWare had done with the game since its release in 2014. With the three DLC packs, BioWare comments on Dragon Age as a whole by examining the franchise’s past, present, and future. Here are my thoughts on them.

The Past: The Descent

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In many ways, any new Dragon Age content must grapple with the long shadow cast by Dragon Age: Origins. The first game in the series, Origins not only introduced us to the wonderful fantasy universe that is Thedas, but it also tied the franchise to the long-established framework of 90s PC RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. From the mage-fighter-rogue paradigm to the menu based dialog trees, Origins did little to advance the Western RPG. When the series went in a more action-oriented, Mass Effect inspired direction in Dragon Age II, the game was summarily dismissed for (among other sins) not feeling enough like its predecessor. Even Inquisition, a game that attempts to right many of Dragon Age II’s perceived wrongs, seems to be missing the specific rhythms and charms of its progenitor.

With The Descent, BioWare has seen fit to finally give us a story module that feels very much like Origins, for all its virtues and faults. The setup involves mysterious earthquakes in the Deep Roads that threatens the supply of lyrium of which the economy of Thedas relies. The Inquisitor intends to stop these earthquakes with the help of Legion of the Dead soldier Renn and Orzammar Shaper Valta. Renn proves to be the more memorable of the companions, as he is voiced with the distinct raspiness of David Hayter. Hearing him tell tales of his previous adventures never got old, even if I didn’t have much interest in the plot itself.

The world always needs more David Hayter
The world always needs more David Hayter

As the Deep Roads are in fact roads, or more accurately winding pathways, The Descent feels more constrained than the open environments typical of Inquisition. There’s typically only one way to proceed, and barring the inane collecting of gears to unlock optional rooms, there isn’t a whole lot of side content to experience. The straightforward structure works well, and makes the game feel much more like Origins than base-Inquisition did. You’ll be focused on getting through some tough combat encounters that necessitate pausing and strategizing, and you’ll be showered with loot when you win. The combat and linearity are great in that they kept me from getting bogged down in the busywork that plagued the main campaign. However, the excess of loot made for annoying inventory management, especially when most of what I had already equipped was far superior than the enemy drops. Inquisition’s lack of a minimap also proved to be an annoyance, as I frequently lost track of the way forward after scrapping with enemies, and pausing every five minutes to consult the map proved to be a momentum killer.

Ultimately, The Descent celebrates Dragon Age: Origins by embracing its strengths and weaknesses. The focus on a singular objective with tight combat encounters along the way gives the DLC a propulsive force that made Origins so beloved. However, by getting bogged down in far too much inventory management with useless loot, it also reminds us how Origins was often beholden to outdated RPG tropes that detracted from its good qualities. Still, it was refreshing to head underground again and pick away at the remnants of an ancient dwarven civilization. With some tweaks to the interface and mechanics, I could certainly see a future Dragon Age game taking on this throwback style to great effect.

The Present: Jaws of Hakkon

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Early on in Inquisition’s story, the titular organization is formed with the player character at its helm. It’s made abundantly clear that an inquisition is called upon only in times of crisis to bring the world back in order, with the current incarnation being only the second one ever established. Jaws of Hakkon attempts to lay out the history of the original inquisition, and while it tells a compelling story the DLC feels a little overstuffed by hewing too close to the base game’s design philosophy. The premise begins with a recent discovery in the Frostback Basin shedding light on the previous Inquisitor’s ultimate fate, and sparking the interest of the current inquisition to discover its past. The investigation, however, hits a snag and the player must contend with the local politics of the Avvar tribes in the area before they can achieve their original goal. The eponymous Avvar tribe, the Jaws of Hakkon, in particular proves to be a major nuisance. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the history of the Jaws of Hakkon and their connection to the Avvar gods ties directly into the story of the previous Inquisitor.

There's a decent variety to the environments in Jaws of Hakkon
There's a decent variety to the environments in Jaws of Hakkon

Of the three DLCs, Jaws of Hakkon most openly celebrates Inquisition for what it is, and the Frostback Basin is specifically designed to give the player more of the base game. There are fade rifts to close, shards to collect, astrariums to solve, and a ton of fetch quests to complete. Although I didn’t mind doing most of these tasks, they eventually grew repetitive and I began questioning how I ever put in 70 hours into the base game doing much of the same. It all comes down to the fundamental issue of Inquisition; that the really compelling content is diluted by the grind that the game asks you to do. Granted, previous Dragon Age games had some grind in them and were better for it, but there’s a point where it all becomes too much. In Jaws of Hakkon, the underlying story of the old Inquisitor’s final days and how it connects to the Avvar tribes is quite fascinating. But when the fascinating parts only take 2 hours of a 10 hour experience, it ultimately feels less satisfying.

In the leadup to Inquisition’s release, it was clear that BioWare was taking cues from open-ended RPGs like Skyrim to make a more expansive Dragon Age. However, by going this route, BioWare downplayed its core strengths in creating compelling characters and unmatched world-building. Those elements are still present in Inquisition, but to a much lesser extent when compared to Dragon Age II and Origins. Jaws of Hakkon reflects on that, and in doing so shows the strengths and weaknesses of BioWare’s current approach. As it’s been nearly two years since I played Inquisition, Jaws of Hakkon was a welcome return to the base game’s core gameplay. But for anyone who plays this following (or during) the main story, the repetitive grind may be too much.

The Future: Trespasser

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The final DLC, Trespasser, is an excellent coda to Inquisition’s story and ends up being the strongest of the trio. Two years after the defeat of Corypheus, an Exalted Council is called to determine the fate of the Inquisition. Ferelden, fearing an army that answers to no one at its borders, wishes that the organization be disbanded. Orlais, still in gratitude of the Inquisition for saving its Empress, hopes to keep it around but under some form of supervision. Finally, there’s the Chantry, now represented by Leliana as the new Divine. Leliana remains sympathetic to her old cause and will follow the lead of the Inquisitor, thereby leaving the ultimate disposition of the Inquisition in the player’s hands. Things become complicated, however, with the appearance of a dead Qunari at the Orlesian Winter Palace where the Council is being held. The Inquisitor begins an investigation that leads them to a planned Qunari invasion plot and the setup for future Dragon Age games.

While Trespasser takes some obvious cues from Mass Effect 3’s well received Citadel DLC by indulging in character interactions and a looser writing style, it pushes forward in some interesting directions. Primary among them is the focus on the geopolitical ramifications of the main game’s events. Unlike Origins where you controlled a band of adventurers, or Dragon Age II where you could only influence the city-state of Kirkwall, by Inquisition’s end you’ve built up formidable influence in the world of Thedas. The story in Trespasser emphasizes the player’s major role in shaping the future and treats the responsibility with the full weight that it deserves. Decisions made here will have ramifications for future Dragon Age games, and so gives the DLC a certain gravitas that is lacking from the other two.

Trespasser showcases some of the best vistas in Inquisition
Trespasser showcases some of the best vistas in Inquisition

The other part of Trespasser, the Qunari conspiracy investigation, takes cues from Mass Effect 2’sArrival DLC as it teases Dragon Age’s future. Once again, the central role of the Inquisitor in securing the Southern Continent comes to the fore, and the player must make decisions on how best to deal with the impending threat. The story also delves into the cliffhanger finale of the base game by addressing the motivations behind Solas’s betrayal and what he plans for the future, thereby raising the stakes and making any decisions all the more difficult.

Of the three DLCs, this is the most briskly paced one and demonstrates how compelling a Dragon Age game focused on story and characters can be. In addition to foreshadowing the future of the Dragon Age narrative, I hope that Trespasser also hints at a less-bloated sequel, with more bespoke quest design and less repetitive filler tasks. Trespasser ultimately succeeds in its aim to get the player excited for where the story goes next, but the ultimate payoff for the DLC won’t come until we see what the next project looks like. Considering it on its own, Trespasser is well worth checking out if only be reminded of what makes this series so great.

Final Thoughts

Despite my mixed feelings about Inquisition at its release, I’m glad that I got to revisit it. The three DLCs helped to contextualize the past, present, and future of Dragon Age, and shows that BioWare still understands the underlying principles that make the series so beloved. After playing The Descent, Jaws of Hakkon, and Trespasser I have renewed hope in the franchise and can’t wait to see where it goes next. Rest easy Inquisitor, you had a good run.

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wsowen02

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#1  Edited By wsowen02

Interesting thoughts. I adored Inquisition when it initially released and still defend it to this day. But when you look at BioWare's stated ambitions pre-release, it is obvious they fell short of many of those ambitions (many of them have since been realized by Witcher 3). That said, I still think Thedas is the best realized fantasy world in video games and DA has some of my absolute favorite fictional characters across any medium. I hope Dragon Age IV: Tevinter, or whatever it ends up being, manages to learn from Inquisition's successes and failures (and The Witcher's). I know I'll be there.

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@wsowen02: I definitely agree that Thedas is one of the most interesting fantasy settings in video games. I mean, what other universe actually reckons with the danger that mages would be to common folk?

And yeah, I'm still on board for DA IV, and given how experimental BioWare has been with the franchise, I doubt they'll be too precious about keeping some of things that didn't work too well this go around.

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#3  Edited By sandalinbohemia

This is an interesting take on these DLCs, and I enjoyed reading this. I personally quite enjoyed Jaws of Hakkon, since it seemed to me more puzzle based than the main game, and I am always in favor of being introduced to new lore. However, you are completely right to say that it embraced the vastity of the fetch-quest-ridden open world maps of the main game, which could get tedious at times.

Just wondering, what is your opinion on the idea that the 'actual' ending of the game was put in DLC, thus making it less accessible to players who might not want to buy DLC, or cannot play Trespasser since it was not released for last gen consoles?

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@sandalinbohemia: I actually didn't know that the DLC for Inquisition wasn't available for the 360 or PS3, and that is pretty lame. But as for whether the 'actual' ending should have been part of the main package, I'm ok with how they did it. This isn't new for BioWare. They put the bridge between Mass Effect 2 and 3 in the Arrival DLC, but if you never played it Mass Effect 3 does a decent job of bringing you up to speed. Given the precedence of each new Dragon Age having a unique protagonist, I have to imagine that Trespasser's events won't be must-play to start Dragon Age IV (or whatever it's called).

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@darth_navster: @sandalinbohemia: In my defence I just watched some Let's Plays of the DLCs, I didn't miss playing Inquisition that much compared to Origins when Awakening, Witch Hunt etc. came out.

Good post, I hope Dragon Age IV can bring me back to liking the games as much as I originally did with Origins, Solas' plans should provide a great story at least. I've read and watched practically all of the outside of video games media content that's been made in the meantime since Origins to now. Thedas is indeed a brilliantly crafted world.

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Inquisition really hit that itch I'd had for years, the offline mmorpg, I know that's technically stupid but you know what I mean.

It's unfortunately plagued by the modern day video game trope of having far too many repetitive side quests and collectables, watering down the experience somewhat, but still it was gorgeous, and a lot of that stuff could be ignored.

Interesting read about the parallels to Mass effect, I often forget how fundamentally similar these games are, maybe it's time to go back finish up DA:I

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#7  Edited By UlquioKani

Interesting write up. Enjoyed comparisons to the other games in the series.

I blame Skyrim (to a certain extent) for the bloated feeling and faults of Inquisition. And as much as I loved the Witcher 3, I hope Bioware realize that they need to stick to their strengths rather than ape what another studio is doing. I loved a lot of things about Inquisition and do like the game overall but I still maintain that it is my least favourite of the series due to its faults. I actually recently played the DLC as well (at least The Descent and Jaws Of Hakkon) and I'm not as hopeful as you are about their future. There were interesting aspects to both but the combat had clearly run out of steam by that point for me, not helped by the grind. I should try out Trespasser at some point in the future.

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ll_Exile_ll

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@sandalinbohemia: I actually didn't know that the DLC for Inquisition wasn't available for the 360 or PS3, and that is pretty lame. But as for whether the 'actual' ending should have been part of the main package, I'm ok with how they did it. This isn't new for BioWare. They put the bridge between Mass Effect 2 and 3 in the Arrival DLC, but if you never played it Mass Effect 3 does a decent job of bringing you up to speed. Given the precedence of each new Dragon Age having a unique protagonist, I have to imagine that Trespasser's events won't be must-play to start Dragon Age IV (or whatever it's called).

It's hard to say it's the "actual ending." The plot of Inquisition revolved around the breach and Corypheus, and both of those plots were completely wrapped up in the main game. Trespasser addressed the main game's post credit twist cliffhanger, but the main game had a clear conclusion. Just because it takes place after the ending doesn't mean it's the "real" ending. It's just the next thing that happens in that universe.

I am of the opinion that DLC with important story implications is a good thing, it makes that content worthwhile. I grow far more frustrated with DLC that feels superfluous and pointless than DLC with series significant narrative development. I agree that games that sell their ending as DLC are an issue (such as Asura's Wrath), but when a game has a clear conclusion and then has DLC that takes place after the ending, I see that as a good thing.

If someone plays Dragon Age IV without having played Trespasser and is lost, that's their problem. If it's okay to expect someone to have played a previous game in the series to get the complete experience in a sequel, it's okay to expect them to have played DLC as well. I don't see how it's any different just because it's DLC and not a standalone game.

No one gets up in arms that Captain America Civil War expects the viewer to have knowledge of at least a half dozen previous films, and no one should get upset if a fourth game in a series expects the player to have knowledge of the previous games and DLC.

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@ll_exile_ll: The difference is that if you don't play them, they don't happen, or at least they don't happen the same way. I never played Arrival, and that meant that they never specified how/why Shepard ended up on Earth in the dialogue in that ME3 intro. Shepard was just grounded and brought to court for some unspecified reason off-camera while some other schmucks blew up the relay from the DLC. And before anything can be established, the reapers just show up and distract everyone away from that topic. Movies aren't Schroedinger's cat stuff like that.

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ll_Exile_ll

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#10  Edited By ll_Exile_ll

@redhotchilimist said:

@ll_exile_ll: The difference is that if you don't play them, they don't happen, or at least they don't happen the same way. I never played Arrival, and that meant that they never specified how/why Shepard ended up on Earth in the dialogue in that ME3 intro. Shepard was just grounded and brought to court for some unspecified reason off-camera while some other schmucks blew up the relay from the DLC. And before anything can be established, the reapers just show up and distract everyone away from that topic. Movies aren't Schroedinger's cat stuff like that.

Firstly, that only applies to the very few games that utilize save imports.

Secondly, isn't that better? Rather than it simply being something you missed, the story accounts for the fact that you didn't play it. In your playthrough you didn't miss out on any story because it didn't happen the way it would have if you'd played it.

That's beside the point though. I just can't get behind the idea that a sequel should be afraid of players not having experienced previous content. A good sequel should assume its audience is familiar with past events and only go as far as quick refresher dialogue that takes up as little time as possible and avoids being too expository.

It's the reader/viewer/player's responsibility to know what happened in previous stories, and it's only their fault if they choose to engage with an ongoing narrative without being familiar with previous content.

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aktivity

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@ll_exile_ll: It's only better if it's well written to take into account that the player didn't buy the DLC. The mentioned example isn't a good case, Bioware has generally been kinda bad at that lately with all the novels and comics feeding into their games. I would argue that it's also the writers responsibility that an ongoing narrative works well outside of "optional" content.

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@aktivity: @ll_exile_ll: I can see both sides of this. On one hand you have players who don't keep up with DLC who may be confused, and one the other you have the superfans who want as much story relevant content as possible. Being a BioWare fanboy, I'm more sympathetic with the latter than the former, but perhaps a recap video in the sequel (like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has) can satisfy casual fans.

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@darth_navster: While I mostly agree with what's been stated so far, for me the sympathy for the 'casual' is easier to understand if you look at another franchise you're less invested in. As an example, I have friends that are way into Halo lore, but playing Halo 4 and 5 without having read some of their novels left me completely lost. Star Wars games with extensive extended universe tie-ins are another case like that. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that you need to have some kind of lore codex or "previously on..." section to catch up new and returning players. Especially so for story content that happened in another form of media. Just because I'm a huge Mass Effect nerd doesn't make me also a comic book fan, for instance.

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@freedom4556:

@aktivity said:

@ll_exile_ll: It's only better if it's well written to take into account that the player didn't buy the DLC. The mentioned example isn't a good case, Bioware has generally been kinda bad at that lately with all the novels and comics feeding into their games. I would argue that it's also the writers responsibility that an ongoing narrative works well outside of "optional" content.

@aktivity: @ll_exile_ll: I can see both sides of this. On one hand you have players who don't keep up with DLC who may be confused, and one the other you have the superfans who want as much story relevant content as possible. Being a BioWare fanboy, I'm more sympathetic with the latter than the former, but perhaps a recap video in the sequel (like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has) can satisfy casual fans.

I was mostly talking about stuff within the same medium. I agree it's not really great practice to put a bunch of story relevant developments in a medium other than the main source of narrative. The way 343 handled that with assuming players had read a bunch of the books was a bad way to go about things. Winks and nods or minor references to stuff that happened in other mediums is good as far I'm concerned, but they shouldn't be essential to understanding a core narrative.

My main point, however, was simply that expecting players to be familiar with events of previous DLC is no more over the line than expecting players to be familiar with previous games. Anyone that has played the previous games has access to the DLC and it's not like telling someone to go hunt down a comic book to understand the next game in the series. You're just asking players to play more of a game.

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I only really tried the first DLC and abandoned it when my progress was halted by an enemy stuck in a wall. What you wrote about Trespasser sounds interesting except for one thing - Leliana is not who I chose to head the Chantry. Did they really retcon player's decisions within DLC of the same game, or was that just who you chose?

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#16  Edited By Darth_Navster

@veektarius: You know, I completely forgot that installing Leliana as the Divine was a player choice. I clearly went that route, but I'm sure Trespasser would be different if you decided differently. BioWare is not in the habit of unnecessarily retconning player decisions, so I imagine someone else would be the Divine in your case.

EDIT: According to the Dragon Age wiki, that is in fact the case. Leliana appears as herself or as the Divine, depending on your choice.

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@darth_navster: Good to know. BioWare absolutely has been in the habit of retconning player decisions between DA games, but not within them.

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@darth_navster: Good to know. BioWare absolutely has been in the habit of retconning player decisions between DA games, but not within them.

Have they? I can't think of a major decision that BioWare retconned in between Dragon Age games. Hell, it was awesome to see my version of Hawke appear in Inquisition on PS4 even though I played DA II on the 360!

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Yeah, I skipped out the Descent and Jaws of Hakkon but Trespasser is really great. Totally worth with $15 bucks for it.

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Trespasser was great. Probably the best dlc I've ever played. The final section where you go meet Solas while listening to a fantastic soundtrack and got exposed to a bunch of lore related to Thedas and the Elves is one of the best moments I had in a videogame. After such a disappointing ending in the main game, I'm really looking forward to what they do with this franchise.

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I didn't like Inquisition as much as the other games. It took me almost 2 years to finish the game and I have still not played the Trespasser or Jaws of Haakon DLC. I wanted to do everything but in the end I realized I was never going to finish it if I kept looking for every shard and such. I did do most of the side stuff though.

My biggest problem with the game is the lack of story and dialogue. 80% of the time is spend doing things where there is little to no story. What story and character progression there is is mostly good but the amount of actual dialogue where you have choice is limited to the main story and a few major side quests which only take up a small portion of the game. Most of my time was spent just running around the world and fighting and doing fetch quests. I understand that they wanted to make the game bigger since DA2 was so small but it felt more like an Elder Scrolls game than Dragon Age. I could also compare it to SWTOR where your class missions are great but all the side quests are kind of bland for the most part. Except in SWTOR even the side stuff let you choose what to say, in DAI most side stuff didn't have a proper dialoge wheel.

I fnished Origins 6 times in a year, DA2 3 times on 6 months. Inquisition once in 2 years and I can't see myself going back. I tried to start another character but it is just too tedious. and most of the game there is no option to play differently. in previous games every playthrough felt different. but since 80% of the game is tedious fetch quests it playes mostly the same.

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@bakumatsu: I agree, that meeting with Solas was fantastic. It mirrored the final bit of Origins' Witch Hunt DLC, but did it in a way that felt way more satisfying to fans of Dragon Age lore. I can't wait to see where the story goes next!

@dagas: As a big fan of both Origins and DAII I can definitely see where you're coming from. Bioware is not Bethesda, and I don't come to them for wide-open sandbox worlds, I come to them for well written stories in which I have some measure of agency. There was enough in Inquisition that I don't regret my playthrough but like you I don't see myself replaying the game like I did with its predecessors. Still, the DLCs for the most part are worth checking out, and Trespasser in particular is great if you're a fan of how BioWare used to make their games.

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Just picked this game up cheap as it's a game that passed me by at the time. I am really enjoying it though... Although now I know the cliffhanger ending, Doh!

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Dragon Age is my favorite series, happy to read anything on it. Inquisition was a little repetitive - I was hoping the side quests would be more involved/better overall. But I did put something like 200 hours into it, even as hollow & repetitive as it can be at times. I'll probably do a fourth playthrough when DA4 gets close to releasing.

Anyway, I loved the "Trespasser" DLC, it's right up there as one of my favorites (along with Minerva's Den & ME 3's Citadel). Cassandra talking over the credits...so cute. Anyone know what accent she has?

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@darkpredatoruk: Don't worry too much about the ending. Like a lot of BioWare's previous games, the endings are usually not as good as the journey to get there.

@ethanielrain: Cassandra is just the best. She's Nevarran, which I believe is the DA equivalent of a Belgium, Switzerland, or Luxembourg, so maybe that's the type of accent they were going for?

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I had bookmarked this blog post with the idea of reading up on it when I finally got around to finishing up the DLC, and I did it this weekend. I really appreciated your thoughts on theses packs and agree with your assessment of the game and series at large.

I think it will be interesting to see where they go for a DA4, and how much weight any previous decisions carry going forward.

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