Blightstopper: A Slightly-Too-Long Dragon Age Origins Retrospective

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ArbitraryWater

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THE WHEEL OF DUBIOUS RPGs GAIDEN

Hey, remember how this was the first BioWare game to be finished and published under the ownership of Electronic Arts? Well, it's good that didn't change anything about BioWare's development practices.
Hey, remember how this was the first BioWare game to be finished and published under the ownership of Electronic Arts? Well, it's good that didn't change anything about BioWare's development practices.

Don’t say that I don’t commit to the bit. Thanks to my popular streaming/blogging series “The Wheel of Dubious RPGs” I’ve taken what should’ve just been 2-3 two hour streams of Dragon Age II and turned it into an entire thing, starting with a full replay of Dragon Age Origins. For, how am I to scientifically judge the dubiosity of BioWare’s infamous “first*” flop before I decide where I land with its predecessor? This has led to a journey of ups and downs, of joy and sorrow, but most of all “Wow, The Fade is just as bad as I remembered it.” This is a tale of conflict, both within myself, and outwardly, with the game, and even more outwardly, with fan-fixes which keep the game from crashing. This is a tale of generic-ass fantasy, where the demon zombie orc monsters are literally called DARK SPAWN, but a lot of the writing and characterization is mostly on the level. This… is what happens when you try and go back to your nostalgic faves and accidentally decide to write an entire retrospective blog as a way of sorting out one’s feelings.

In all seriousness, this is something I’ve wanted to do for a while and the wheel just provided the perfect opportunity. Dragon Age Origins was a favorite of mine for years, but I’m pretty sure the last time I finished it was back in 2009, and the last time I played a significant amount (i.e. like a dozen-ish hours) was sometime around 2014. I’ve been vocal about my feelings on the decline of BioWare as a developer, but part of that has been an examination of how my own tastes have changed over time and how our collective standards for video game writing have risen since the mid-2000s. Certainly, I’ve been throwing around the “BioWare didn’t get worse, everyone else just got better” thesis for a while, but it’s one of those things where I was never quite sure how true it actually is. Honestly, after finishing the game, I’m still not sure how true it is, even if this experience (alongside being reminded of Mass Effect 3’s… inadequacies, thanks to Mass Alex) has helped clarify the way my views on writing and mechanics have shifted in the last decade.

Thedas, THEDragon Age Setting

It's worth remembering that this game was in some form of development for something like six years and they somehow decided to just keep the code name for their generic-ass fantasy world.
It's worth remembering that this game was in some form of development for something like six years and they somehow decided to just keep the code name for their generic-ass fantasy world.

Let me just get this out of the way before we talk about anything else: If there’s one, single thing that immediately stuck out to me as far, far worse than it was in my youthful memories, it’s the world of Dragon Age itself. This is one of those things that I think the sequels actually improved upon but as it stands in this game it’s the glum, unappealing no man’s land of high fantasy worldbuilding; an awkward middle-point between D&D’s Forgotten Realms and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s no getting around the giant sword throne-shaped hole in the wall; Dragon Age Origins is heavily inspired by Game of Thrones. Well, at least the books, because the TV series wasn’t happening yet nor had it subsequently ruined itself. All of the knights are called “Ser.” There’s a lot of murder in the name of ruthless politicking. The big innovation of Thedas mostly comes in applying that layer of grime and unpleasantness over a traditional fantasy world, with just a dash of medieval European equivalencies for good measure. That’s not to say there isn’t some interesting lore, but a lot of it is just that, lore.

When I think Dark, Gritty Fantasy, I think of Dragon Age and nothing else. What's even a Warhammer anyway?
When I think Dark, Gritty Fantasy, I think of Dragon Age and nothing else. What's even a Warhammer anyway?

Here’s the thing: for as much as Dragon Age wants you to know it’s set in a grim world where mages are basically walking demon conduits, Elves are second-class citizens, and you the player will have to make HARD CHOICES… it’s not as close to the edge as it thinks. Martin’s work is almost singular in its rawness (rape, murder, and moral compromises aplenty,) and it was the source material for the biggest prestige television show of the last decade. You can blame HBO for putting that out into mainstream popular culture, but Dragon Age is remarkably tame in this modern context. Forget Game of Thrones, we live in a world where The Witcher is now mainstream, and has a blood-and-boob-filled Netflix series of its own. For the most part the hardest DA:O goes is the hilariously copious amounts of blood spatter on everything and a handful of PG-13 sex scenes between two mannequins in their underwear.

The default expression of “serious themes” mostly comes in a nice heaping spoonful of “Fantastical Prejudice,” which is like real prejudice but more contrived and toothless. Elves are treated like garbage, Dwarves have an archaic caste system, and Magi are under the oppressive, controlling yoke of “Definitely not Christianity.” Anything to say about those systems other than that they’re bad, probably? Okay cool. It’s not “fun” enough to be a swashbuckling high fantasy adventure, but it never goes hard enough to actually justify a heavier tone. This is something the sequels actually course corrected a bit, but since I’m just talking about Dragon Age Origins here, I assume I’ll have something to say about that in a later write-up.

The [GREY WARDENS] gotta stop [THE BLIGHT]

Meet my Dwarf Warden. His name is Broseph, because my RPG character naming conventions haven't changed one bit since I was 12
Meet my Dwarf Warden. His name is Broseph, because my RPG character naming conventions haven't changed one bit since I was 12

Thankfully, I think most of the actual moment-to-moment writing in Dragon Age still holds its own, regardless of my newfound antipathy towards the setting. I could go off about the flimsy framing story that holds the entire thing together, but it’s a framing story. The Grey Wardens having to unite the squabbling factions of Ferelden against The Blight and The Darkspawn is about as paper-thin as Commander Shepard needing to assemble a crack suicide team of scallywags to go against The Collectors, or Revan needing to find four star maps in order to track down the secret Star Forge. There’s definitely a larger critique to be made about “The BioWare Formula,” and the way BioWare has leaned upon the same structure and basic power fantasy tropes for most of its RPGs since KotOR, but I feel like that’s an entire write-up unto itself and beyond my scope right now. I will readily criticize this game for having milquetoast, noncommittal politics despite occasional attempts at bringing in “serious” topics, but you’ll have to forgive me for not going into that stuff harder. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with unapologetic, indulgent power fantasy every once in a while, and for better or worse Dragon Age aims to be an unapologetic power fantasy. Themes may be for eighth grade book reports, but being the coolest, most specialest person and holding the fate of the world in your hands is for the eighth-grader in all of us.

Like, you couldn't go for a more cliche opening than the first few hours of Ostagar. Do yourself a favor, accept that King Calian was an idiot, and just accept that your main character is the chosen one.
Like, you couldn't go for a more cliche opening than the first few hours of Ostagar. Do yourself a favor, accept that King Calian was an idiot, and just accept that your main character is the chosen one.

The real meat of Bioware writing has always been the smaller, self-contained storytelling vignettes; the more crucial part of the formula than the frame story itself. The Grey Wardens need allies to stand with them against the blight, and most of them would be more than happy to stand with you as long as you solved this teensy, civilization-shattering problem they’re dealing with atm. Arl Eamon is sick, the Dwarves are in the middle of a succession crisis, the Mage tower has a minor demon kerfuffle, and the Dalish Elves are at odds with some Wurrwulves. Like a lot of Bioware’s games from the era (and now, TBH) a lot of these conflicts can be reduced down to a binary of “meaningful choices” between two diametrically opposed viewpoints. Do you save the mage circle from the demons, or do you purge the entire thing “just in case?” Do you defile the sacred ashes of Lady Not-Jesus just to appease some insane dragon cultists, or do you not do that? Some of these plots are definitely only one step above Knights of the Old Republic’s “Save the Dog versus Kill the Dog” level of extremity, but I don’t want to avoid giving credit where credit is due. Some of the quests are messier than that, like the Dalish/Werewolf beef, which doesn’t really paint anyone in a fantastic light and can be solved in a couple of different ways. That’s the sequence that surprised me the most, because it’s the one I remembered the least, and of the four “main” quests, it’s the best.

It’s just a pity that the best questline in the game, The Landsmeet, is the penultimate one (for reasons I’ll get into later.) After gathering all of your allies, it’s finally time to confront Teryn Loghain and make a play to put Alistair on the throne. While it’s still a mostly linear succession of dungeon crawls and dialogue sequences, there are a lot of different ways this can play out, and it’s the one part where the Game of Thrones-lite politicking actually works. For my part, I executed Loghain and his mustache-twirling goons, then forced a reluctant Alistair and Anora to marry for the good of the kingdom (he whined about it to me afterward). The actual final sequence of the game, where you finally confront the Darkspawn horde, is just an extended combat thing, which is fine, but it mostly feels like an obligation to fight the big demonic zombie dragon once you’ve figured out everything else.

Before I post any more screenshots I need to address this game's art style. Namely, the fact that instead of having an art style, it has a negative void where any sort of art direction SHOULD exist. Like, holy shit, I'm not too picky about visuals but I'm genuinely a little floored by how bad this game looks despite its graphics being technically competent for something from 2009. Sorry, couldn't find a great place to shove that into any of the paragraphs, so you're getting it here.
Before I post any more screenshots I need to address this game's art style. Namely, the fact that instead of having an art style, it has a negative void where any sort of art direction SHOULD exist. Like, holy shit, I'm not too picky about visuals but I'm genuinely a little floored by how bad this game looks despite its graphics being technically competent for something from 2009. Sorry, couldn't find a great place to shove that into any of the paragraphs, so you're getting it here.

I actually think the single best thing overarching all of Dragon Age Origins’ writing is the way it integrates all of the titular “origins” into the story and into your personal role-playing options, full stop. Some of the story beats are fun, some of the character writing is good, but for my money the best part is your suite of roleplaying options as a player. It’s something I remember being good then, but even now it manages to be impressive. Each of the six character origins is remarked upon in little ways throughout the game but is directly tied into one of the larger sequences you have to go to as part of the main quest. It’s, admittedly, the kind of reactivity that boils down to a handful of contextual lines of dialogue and certain NPCs treating you differently, but it’s consistent enough that the illusion works. I went with the Dwarf Commoner origin, which meant that a large chunk of NPCs in Orzammar treated me like garbage, but also gave my character a built-in motivation to side with the reformist Prince Bhelen (who had taken my character’s sister as his concubine) over the traditionalist Lord Harrowmont. On the other hand, if you were to go with the Dwarf Noble background, your origin would detail the way Bhelen (your brother) is a ruthless tyrannical shitheel, which would give that conflict a very different context. As the last BioWare game before they moved entirely to voiced protagonists, there’s a lot of space for you to express your version of the lone Grey Warden, and the origins bring in a lot of built-in roleplaying fodder to help that. Tell all the human lords that they stink, that their Chantry is dumb, and that you’re gonna help them anyway because you need their dumb asses to fight demon orcs. It’s very good and I appreciate it.

Morrigan Disapproves

"BioWare games ranked by the quality of their supporting casts" An entirely scientific tier list

I think the other pillar of a BioWare RPG, alongside the vignetted story structure, is the idea that you the player will bring along a host of interesting and likeable characters on your fun adventures. Among the various BioWare casts, I think Dragon Age Origins fits pretty firmly in the middle of the pack (as seen in the extremely scientific tier list I cobbled together in 5 minutes.) I think everyone is at least okay, helped by some quality voice performances and what I’d consider to be the gold standard of incidental party banter. However, I’d hesitate to call anyone truly loveable. Alistair is just as much of a whiny goober as I remembered (even if you can resolve his personal quest in a way to make him *less* of a whiny goober), but that’s also half the point of his character. Morrigan is fun because she’s a mean bitch, but her sarcasm and judgemental nature applies to pretty much everything the main character does, thus the title of this section. Oh right, did I mention this is a game where everyone has an affection meter? Because this is definitely a game from an era where you tell characters what they want to hear and give them presents so they’ll like you more and potentially get “rewarded” with a sex scene. I’m sure glad I bypassed most of it with the built-in cheat DLC (Feastday Gifts and Pranks) that lets you put everyone’s love meter as high as possible to get those free stat boosts. For the record, I didn’t romance anyone this time around, partially because I have visual novels and hardcore strategy sims if I want to be tricked into liking fictional characters and partially because I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the four romantic options. Beyond the two mentioned above, Leliana’s dominant personality traits are “French” and “Religious” whereas Zevran reminds me a little too much of Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots to take seriously.

Shale is an entirely different character from HK-47 because her quirky speech pattern is calling you
Shale is an entirely different character from HK-47 because her quirky speech pattern is calling you "it" instead of "meatbag"

As for the rest of the cast, they’re all… mostly fine. Well, Oghren is pretty damn one note, and if not for the part where it’s Steve Blum doing his best “constantly drunk” voice I think I’d have written him off entirely. Shale is great, but half of that is because she’s a slightly different take on the “glibly sociopathic” archetype started with HK-47 (also, hey, remember how Shale was totally the “buy this game new or else you have to pay for them” character? Remember how that was a trend?) Wynne is a cool grandma and the best healer by far, but she left my party when I defiled the ashes of The Virgin Mary Jesus Andraste. And then there’s the ostensible “villain” of the game (because a faceless horde of monsters doesn’t really cut it) in Loghain Mac Tir… who you can recruit if you’re into punishing the guy who directly or indirectly caused half of the story’s conflicts by forcing him to hang out with you. I didn’t do that this time around, and while there’s definitely some merit to sparing him once you know what his deal is, it doesn’t really help that he’s portrayed as a paranoid, power-mongering thug for 80% of the game’s runtime. Finally, there’s also the Mabari Warhound, who is both very much a good boy and also not worth bringing in one of your four precious deployment slots when you have literally anyone else. I almost forgot about Sten, but he sure does exist and sure is basically just a Klingon.

Dungeons and Dragon Age

You'd better believe most of my time in combat was spent in this overhead tactical view. It's basically an infinity engine if you squint hard enough.
You'd better believe most of my time in combat was spent in this overhead tactical view. It's basically an infinity engine if you squint hard enough.

Okay, so I’ve somehow managed to get this far without getting to the part where you play it, which is weird because I think the actual gameplay parts of Dragon Age are its best and worst aspects. Forget whatever kerfuffles I might have with the “good” to “somewhat hackish” writing and cast of mildly to moderately likeable characters, let’s talk about my wheelhouse, which is of course the dark realm of dice rolls and mechanical analysis. While it’s not without flaws, I think the basic real-time with pause combat of Dragon Age remains solid, aided by one of the better AI scripting systems to help cut down on micromanagement. I played the entire game on “Hard,” which I felt offered a decent challenge and forced me to use many of the tools at my disposal… right up until high levels trivialized all but the most involved fights. Like almost all games with RTwP combat, it can turn into a chaotic mess sometimes, especially in regards to visual clarity. However, it’s more rigid and wooden than other games of its kind, especially when it comes to the way certain abilities take forever to come out, or the overabundance of bad canned animations. Despite that, when everything clicks together it’s still a tactical time, and I think I like it more now than I did then.

Itemization and inventory management is not one of Dragon Age's strong suits. Generally speaking there are a handful of good unique items you're going to stick to and the rest gets sold off.
Itemization and inventory management is not one of Dragon Age's strong suits. Generally speaking there are a handful of good unique items you're going to stick to and the rest gets sold off.

For as much as Dragon Age is a throwback to the D&D based Infinity Engine games, it also draws a lot of influence from MMOs for its class and combat design. It’s not quite the rigid Tank-DPS-Support “holy trinity” but it’s darn close sometimes. Neverwinter Nights' abundance of classes and prestige classes this is not, and you’re more or less deciding upon a character’s role by the kind of weapon you give them. Sword and Shield warriors exist to draw aggro and take hits, while going two handed or two weapon fighting involves hitting things hard and hitting things a lot respectively. The two real layers of customization come in your perfunctory secondary skill choices (i.e. maxing out the main character’s persuasion skill and dumping all the crafting stuff on companions) and unlockable subclasses, some of which you can find the manuals for sale, some of which need to be taught to you, and some of which are hidden in the most obtuse places imaginable. In Dragon Age’s streamlined, stripped down class system, Rogues are in an awkward spot. They’re also the only class who can disarm traps and pick locks, but Origins’ approach to locked chests and traps in dungeons feels like something shoved in entirely because it was expected. 90% of the game’s chests contain vendor trash, and I can only think of a few encounters based around traps. Beyond that ability, and a handful of extra secondary skill points, they’re not all that different from Warriors other than their subclasses. This is where the 4 character limit for the party really starts to chafe, especially in light of more recent games like Pathfinder Kingmaker and Pillars of Eternity II, which offer greater levels of complexity but more options on party composition.

Now, here’s the real actual caveat to all of this, and it’s that (just like in D&D) mages are broken and also the most interesting class in terms of build options by a mile. While my Dual Wielding Dwarfman certainly put out a stupid amount of damage as a heavily-armored cuisinart, that’s basically all he was able to do. For that matter, it’s something that one of the other numerous DPS party members can also do almost as well (No seriously, between Oghren, Sten, Shale, Zevran, and Pupper, you have like five different options for melee damage dealers.) Mages might be ostensibly designed around being the glass cannon “powerful but vulnerable” class, but in actuality they’re kind of capable of everything. If you want a tank wizard who can sort of be this game’s half-assed attempt at a sword mage/gish character, there are builds involving the Blood Mage and Arcane Warrior subclasses. If you want to dump heals and buffs forever, Wynne is basically already specced in that direction, but with a handful of skill points she can also drop plenty of damage and crowd control with offensive spells. You only get two mage NPCs, and you might as well bring them both if you can help it, since all mages need to keep their capabilities up is a quick swig of a lyrium potion. Crowd Control forever. Destroy everything. Heal the world. (I didn’t end up doing this, mostly because it turns out Wynne will leave your party if you decide to taint sacred relics, and rather than reload my save I decided to stick with my decision. Excuse me lady, I’m just trying to get mine.) Really, I’d unequivocally recommend you also make the main character a mage if not for the fact that the Magi origin is the most boring one of the six.

Lost in the Fade

When you see this man, run away. Nothing but boredom awaits.
When you see this man, run away. Nothing but boredom awaits.

The true one and forever eternal sin of Dragon Age Origins is the way it pads its length out to achieve a “CRPG-sized” hour count. I might’ve gotten older and my attention span might be a flaming mess, especially in these unprecedented times, but I am still not opposed to a lengthy, dense RPG. I’m saying that even by the standards of these sorts of games, Dragon Age drags on for an age (or in my case, somewhere around 45 hours doing almost everything but the most trivial fetch quests.) Almost every single sequence lasts at least an hour longer than it needs to, thanks to an endless abundance of trash mob fights (the combat is good, but it sure doesn’t want to be sometimes,) back and forth quest objectives, expository dialogue, and some truly boring dungeon design. For all the things I think Dragon Age does well, dungeons aren’t one of them. When you’re recovering all your health between every encounter and the only penalty for being downed in combat is an easily-removable injury debuff, resource management isn’t an issue, which means all but the most meaningful encounters feel like chaff. Moreover, I’d struggle to name a visually distinct, mechanically interesting dungeon layout, so you’d better believe I’m going to have some things to say when we get to the Dragon Age game that is nothing but visually repetitive dungeon layouts. This lackadaisical pace is something that starts as early as the opening Ostagar portion, and by the time I reached hour 30 I had to stream myself playing to drag myself over the finish line.

If you wanted to run around the Underdark for roughly 5-6 hours, but without any of the cool, fun things that make the Underdark a memorable location in D&D, then the Deep Roads are for you!
If you wanted to run around the Underdark for roughly 5-6 hours, but without any of the cool, fun things that make the Underdark a memorable location in D&D, then the Deep Roads are for you!

Admittedly, half of this complaint has something to do with two particularly infamous sequences, both of which have me seriously questioning if I would ever want to play this game again in an unmodified form. The Fade portion of the Mage Tower is the worse of the two. It’s a 3 hour solo dungeon crawl (this was me following a guide, too) with a bunch of terrible trash mob fights, and some conceptually interesting puzzle solving that goes on for too long through a bunch of visually monotonous environments. For as much as my opinions on this game have shifted in spots, my hatred of this part remains the same, and it remains just as bad as I remembered it being in 2009. On the other hand, the Deep Roads portion of the game is way worse than I remembered; just one long monotonous four-level dungeon with nothing in-between. When the equivalent dungeon crawls in the Brecillian Forest or Frostback Mountains take half as long, it sticks out. If you want to know why it took me so long to finish this game, it’s partially because doing both of these sequences back-to-back sapped a lot of my enthusiasm. Luckily, the back half of my experience was a smoother one, and I guess it’s fortunate that I unintentionally saved the best for last?

Awakening: Tales of the Amaranthine Coast

This is where it all turns around y'all.
This is where it all turns around y'all.

In the last minute swerve that no one saw coming, I think Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening is better than the main game. Most of Dragon Age’s other DLC comes from an awkward period from when developers didn’t quite know what to do with bite-sized additional content, and it shows. Shale is basically part of the main game, while Warden’s Keep and Return to Ostagar mostly exist as extended side missions with overpowered items and skills as the reward. I didn’t replay the smaller modules, which are either trivial story stuff (Leliana’s Song, Witch Hunt) or “Challenge Map” dungeons (Darkspawn Chronicles, A Tale of Orzammar, Golems of Angmarak.) However, Awakening is a fully-fledged, Throne of Bhaal style post-game expansion that brings all of the high-level ridiculousness you’d expect with the added bonus of actually fixing a lot of my problems with Origins’ full campaign… namely, not overstaying its welcome. In fact, I think parts of it might be too slight for their own good. For something I played once a decade ago and barely remembered, this might be the Shyamalan-esque twist this entire write up has needed.

It's a pity you don't see more of this asshole, because he leaves an impression and the story implications for helping him are pretty significant. Does any of that carry over to the later Dragon Age games? No? hm.
It's a pity you don't see more of this asshole, because he leaves an impression and the story implications for helping him are pretty significant. Does any of that carry over to the later Dragon Age games? No? hm.

But seriously, Awakening at least partially addresses many of the problems mentioned above. It adds a bunch of fun quality-of-life improvements to mechanics, such as the addition of stamina potions and runecrafting, alongside a bunch of ridiculous overpowered high-level skills that I wish were retroactively included in the main game. It manages almost as much with its smaller cast of characters in 15 hours than Origins did in 45. It has dungeons that don’t go on forever, a fade sequence that isn’t hot trash, and a more contained, focused plot about cleaning up the aftermath of the giant army of doom and reestablishing the Grey Wardens as a presence in Ferelden. If I have any specific problems with it beyond feeling like I bulldozed through all of the conten, it’s that Awakening is a lot buggier than the main game. Several quests ended up breaking and I permanently lost my main character’s equipment at one point, so I’d seriously recommend installing some fixes if one were to take part. Nonetheless, I’d put Awakening on a level slightly below something like Tyranny, as far as solid examples of what the genre is capable of when it isn’t so concerned with its own hour count.

The Legacy of the Blight

My feelings on this game might be complicated, but my feelings for Alistair arent: He's a dingus
My feelings on this game might be complicated, but my feelings for Alistair arent: He's a dingus

So… where does this leave me? Torn, unsurprisingly. If you’re wondering how I feel about Dragon Age Origins, I’ve gone back and forth on it multiple times just in the process of writing this. This isn’t a Might and Magic VII situation, where I remembered large chunks of the game well enough to make the act of replaying it feel less like reexperiencing the game and more like rote repetition of memorized steps. I had forgotten many of Dragon Age’s specifics, and I think as a whole the game is both better (playing) and worse (written) than my vague memories suggested. I guess I’ll put it this way: if one were to play this game for the first time today, my first suggestion would be to install a “skip the fade” mod and my second suggestion might be to play a different CRPG first. We’re here, it’s 2020, I might as well acknowledge the presence of other video games.

What do I mean? Origins was a throwback to a style of game that was more or less dead and buried in 2009, a quaint novelty in a world where it’s biggest direct competition from that year was (Wheel of Dubious RPGs contender) Drakensang: The Dark Eye and Spiderweb Software’s Avernum 6. No shade on Germany or Jeff Vogel, but I wouldn’t call either of those titles mainstream. If this game were to have come out three years ago instead of almost eleven, I don’t think it’d compare entirely favorably to the recent wave of stuff from the “CRPG Renaissance.” You might find Pillars of Eternity’s mechanics occasionally unwieldy and its writing verbose and morose, but it does the Baldur’s Gate throwback thing better, and its sequel still has one of my favorite class systems in a class-based RPG. Hell, Larian Studios, the same company responsible for the 2009 eurojank clunker Divinity II: Ego Draconis, is now high profile enough to be working on a video game called Baldur’s Gate III. Even if you didn’t want to go back to the supposed golden age of the late 90s, you are not starved for choice if you want a mechanically dense, well written RPG, nor do you need a decent computer to do so. If you want to play Baldur’s Gate on your Switch, you can, but Divinity Original Sin II works just fine with a controller, Pathfinder Kingmaker is getting a console port with official turn-based support, Wasteland 3 is likely going to launch on Game Pass day one, and even something as quirky and out there as Disco Elysium is eventually coming to everything. You might not like any one of those games, but the abundance of choice is, well, abundant.

The dark, crushing realization of this replay wasn’t that Dragon Age Origins is a bad game, because it isn’t. It’s the realization that it’s a far less special game removed from the context of when it came out; its myriad shortcomings are more obvious in the light of what has come since and its strengths aren’t quite as strong. That’s not something I’d say about Baldur's Gate II, or even Mass Effect 2, even if time has worn away at both. Did I enjoy myself? Yes? Yes. Do I see myself playing Dragon Age Origins again any time soon? No? No. But hey, Awakening was a pleasant surprise, so you bet I’m going to get good and mad about how dirty the future will be for my boy Anders.

Kirkwall awaits

I guess now the question is “if this is where you land on the Dragon Age game you remember loving, then where the heck are you going to land on the others?” I have great news: you won’t have to wait too long to find out. I might take a short break, but rest assured that Dragon Age II will be played this year. Look forward to it.

NOTHING BUT WINNING FROM HERE FAM
NOTHING BUT WINNING FROM HERE FAM

Also… fuck it, might end up playing Inquisition too. No promises though.

In case you were wondering, a summation of my choices:

Saved the Mage’s Circle

Sided with Bhelen over Harrowmont

Destroyed the Anvil of the Void

Managed to save Connor with the help of the Circle

Defiled the Urn of Sacred Ashes so I could get the cool Reaver subclass

Convinced Zathrian to stop being so angry and end the curse on the Werewolves

Forced Alistar and Anora to marry and rule jointly after executing Loghain

Performed the ritual with Morrigan so that no one would die after killing the Archdemon

Defended Amaranthine and let Vigil’s Keep be destroyed

Made a deal with The Architect

*: Just going to say again that I’ve been beating the “Jade Empire is secretly one of the worst Bioware RPGs” drum since 2013 and I’m going to stick by it.

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Efesell

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#1  Edited By Efesell

What kinda person doesn't like Alistair, honestly.

Origins is a game that I think is much like the original Mass Effect where the majority of its value now is in the world building it set up. I think as far as games I would rather play again it loses out handily to both of its sequels.

As an aside Origins doesn't feel old enough to me to be "nostalgic" so that's kind of a weird thought.

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rorie

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#2 rorie  Staff

Jade Empire is really bad. No secret on that. I remember beating the end boss without getting hit on the easiest difficulty just by jumping over his head forever.

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BladeOfCreation

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Hell yes, I've been waiting for this write up! Keep up the great work, duder!

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ArbitraryWater

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@efesell said:

What kinda person doesn't like Alistair, honestly.

Origins is a game that I think is much like the original Mass Effect where the majority of its value now is in the world building it set up. I think as far as games I would rather play again it loses out handily to both of its sequels.

As an aside Origins doesn't feel old enough to me to be "nostalgic" so that's kind of a weird thought.

Alistair is a dweeb, which is sometimes endearing and sometimes less so. I spent the back half of the game wishing I had "hardened" him by resolving his personal quest differently, since he apparently gets more serious if you do so.

It's been ages since I played Mass Effect 1, and I do wonder if I'd feel similarly about that game as I did with this. I guess the main difference is that I was always a "Mass Effect 2 > 1" kind of person, because the characters in ME 2 are actual characters and not just vectors to explain their species' culture to you.

I know the feeling of not thinking Dragon Age is that old, but consider that it's been longer from Dragon Age Origins to now (11 years) than it was from Baldur's Gate II to Dragon Age Origins (9 years.) Sure, you can probably dig up my posts about it from 2009 on this very forum if you wanted to, but I think doing so would either turn me into a skeleton or die of embarrassment.

@rorie said:

Jade Empire is really bad. No secret on that. I remember beating the end boss without getting hit on the easiest difficulty just by jumping over his head forever.

Everything about the way Jade Empire plays is bad. The part where you can stun-lock every human enemy in the game, including the final boss, with the Storm Dragon stance is something I still think about whenever the topic of bad action combat in RPGs comes up. I think the other thing about it that likely comes off worse fifteen years later is the idea that a bunch of white Canadian dudes decided to mash up a bunch of south-east Asian cultural and mythological touchstones to make the world for their Wuxia RPG. I'm sure that would fly just fine now.

Hell yes, I've been waiting for this write up! Keep up the great work, duder!

Thanks for reading! I appreciate it!

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SethMode

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#5  Edited By SethMode

This was a lot of fun to read. Dragon Age: Origins is a game I played A LOT when it came out (several times) and the 360 version was what inexplicably got my wife into more modern gaming, and fantasy bullshit stuff. Both of us have considered going back to it, but for me, I doubt I ever will because for one: I'm not sure it will hold up that well to me; and for two: I played it so many times that so many parts are just seared into my memory. Who knows as far as my wife...I doubt it though.

Parts from this that struck me as things I didn't like then and would DESPISE now:

1) the sex scenes.

2) the Fade.

3) the Deep Roads.

One random thing...there was a bug on I think both the 360 and PS3 versions where you could return an early game quest item to...Alistair, I think? I think it was the contracts/scrolls/whatever? And if chose the first option instead of any other, it would basically give you the EXP but not complete the quest. For follow up playthroughs, despite the more than clunky controls, it was kind of a lifesaver for just farting around and seeing what actual impact decisions made. Obviously cheat engine is a thing for PC, but in this it did help me to stupidly get all of the achievements for 360.

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SethMode

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I know the feeling of not thinking Dragon Age is that old, but consider that it's been longer from Dragon Age Origins to now (11 years) than it was from Baldur's Gate II to Dragon Age Origins (9 years.) Sure, you can probably dig up my posts about it from 2009 on this very forum if you wanted to, but I think doing so would either turn me into a skeleton or die of embarrassment.

That 11 year difference really hits home for me. My wife (then partner) started dating in April 2009, so this game was early in our relationship and definitely carries with it a degree of personal nostalgia for reasons mentioned in my previous post.

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Efesell

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@arbitrarywater: It may just be a personal thing, like I don't know at what point I'll ever think of a 360 era game as "nostalgic" despite how many years pass.

Probably eventually? But also maybe not, I don't really feel that way about anything that I've played as an adult.

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TheRealTurk

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On the "BioWare didn't get worse, everyone else got better" thing, my take on it is that BioWare didn't necessarily get worse, but they did start to chase other developers in search of a larger audience and got away from what they were good at.

  • Back in the day, BioWare was really good at the mechanically dense CRPGs like Baldur's Gate. They also more or less had that genre to themselves. Or at least they were so much better than everyone else that no other developer really factored into the equation.
    • The problem is that the CRPG is a pretty narrow genre, so as the company grew, they tried to go in a more mainstream "action RPG" direction.
  • But the ARPG genre is much more crowded and filled with developers who really knew what they were doing, while BioWare didn't have experience in that area. That's how you end up with something like Jade Empire. (A game I will defend to the death by the way, cultural appropriation and all. It's an interesting concept but one that needed a more experienced ARPG developer behind it)
    • The real problem is that BioWare never really got much better at making ARPGs, or at least, they failed to keep pace with improvements in the genre. I'd argue they topped out somewhere around ME2/3 but even then the gameplay rarely got above "good, not great."
  • In the meantime, other developers like Obsidian and Larian filled the niche BioWare used to occupy with games like Pillars or Divinity. Now it feels like BioWare is kind of "homeless" from a genre perspective. They don't really make good ARPGs, but other developers have sort stolen their thunder in the CRPG space.

I think one of the reasons DA:O resonated as it did is that at the time, it was BioWare kind of going back to its roots a bit. They were clearly more comfortable designing that kind of game from a mechanical perspective and not needing to move a million miles an hour so action could happen helped the story and the characters. Games like Pillars or Divinity hadn't come along yet either, so if you were hungry for a CRPG experience, this was kind of it.

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ArbitraryWater

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@sethmode: I actually played the 360 version of Dragon Age because I didn't have a powerful enough computer at the time. This replay was definitely a moment where I wondered how the hell I managed to do that, given just how much space on the hotbar was devoted to different abilities and items. Radial menus...? Was that it? In any case, the console versions of Origins sold well above expectations, which is why BioWare opted to make the next game focused around consoles. The rest, they say, is history.

I can definitely understand the "parts of this game are seared into my mind" point, which is basically what happened when I replayed Might and Magic VII last year and realized how much of that game I remembered in frighteningly specific detail (it's also why I don't think I'll ever replay the non-Master Quest version of Ocarina of Time.) Thankfully, Dragon Age was never that for me, even if I more-or-less remembered the beats of Ostagar verbatim from the number of attempted playthroughs over the years.

@efesell: There are definitely a few games from that 360/PS3 era that make me go "That's not old! YOU'RE OLD, OLD MAN" before I look into the mirror and realize that I am the old man. I'm definitely a little weird about this stuff, because at the same time I was playing hot and relevant video games in 2009 like Assassin's Creed II and Dragon Age, I was also starting to blog about old games that were themselves a decade old at that point. Time is weird, and the last few months have just made it weirder.

@therealturk: I don't disagree with any of your bullet points (other than the one on Jade Empire, but I digress) and think you've more-or-less expressed what I'm trying to get at when I vaguely gesture that "BioWare didn't get worse, everyone else got better." BioWare's shift towards chasing a big mainstream audience ended up biting them in the ass when every big AAA open world game begun to incorporate RPG elements into their mechanics and storytelling. I feel like the standards for video game writing have increased pretty dramatically over the last decade (whether or not most games writing is good is a different question) and BioWare has been rightfully criticized for never quite going beyond the structure and tropes they popularized with Knights of the Old Republic.

I think Dragon Age Origins being a throwback to their CRPG roots was probably why it endeared itself to me for so long, which is basically what I was trying to grapple with in that last section. If nothing else, it's made me want to finally get around to a Baldur's Gate II replay at some point.

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Genessee

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I think I am one of the few people on earth who find Deep Roads and The Fade just fine.

And I am VERY hard on my dungeon quality ratings.

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@arbitrarywater As I recall in regards to the BioWare formula, I think David Gaider when he still worked for BioWare served as a key figure in perpetuating the Gather all the allies to beat the big bad trope. In Schreier’s coverage of Anthem’s rocky development, there was some excerpts from Gaider where he talked about how he wanted the story to basically beat the same drum again, but he shut down there. I’m certain he wasn’t the only one, a lot of key developers have left since after Origins was finished (like Brent Knowles)due to the new directions BioWare’s games were taking. Just thought it was interesting as I agree that the formula felt a bit stale for me too, another reason why I still prefer the second KOTOR over the first game.

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#12  Edited By ArbitraryWater

@genessee: Top 5 dungeons go (these are literally the first 5 dungeons that came to mind as being "good" and do not reflect any sort of rigorous scientific evaluation)

  1. That part in World of Xeen where the entire dungeon is one big elaborate crossword puzzle
  2. The Temple of Elemental Evil once you get to the actual temple part
  3. The 6th Stratum of Etrian Odyssey IV: Hall of Darkness
  4. Shattered Hand in Icewind Dale 1
  5. Uh, The Planar Sphere in Baldur's Gate II

@thechris:I think I remember reading that at some point (I think it was the Jason Schreier article on Anthem, right?) and that adherence always struck me as a little misguided. I feel like the very non-Bioware formula part of Dragon Age II is its most appealing aspect, even if the execution is messier and more uneven (or, at least I remember it being that way. We'll see how it treats me now) and he was still lead writer on that one.

In any case, he's out of BioWare now and whatever small-scale "Tevinter Heist" version of Dragon Age IV he was working on got scrapped because Anthem was actively on fire. As I kinda mentioned in the blog, there's nothing inherently wrong with the "gotta go to these 4 different locations to get the McGuffins needed to fight the bad guy," but definitely by the time Inquisition and Andromeda came out it turned into a massive crutch and it's kind of hard not to look back on the older stuff in that context.

I think I might get into the other half of that, the specific way that BioWare writes their characters, in the hypothetical Dragon Age II blog. Having played it for a few hours and realized I'll probably burn out if I keep going right now, that might be a "later this year" sort of thing

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TheChris

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#13  Edited By TheChris

@arbitrarywater: Yes, I name dropped the Schreier article in my own post xD

I liked Dragon Age 2’s characters, and I loved playing a smarmy Hawke all throughout the game but I prefer the racial choices of Origins. I‘m big on customization in RPGs, which is why Original Sin 2 is now one of my favorite RPGs. Origins is thus overall the game that still has the most replay value to me, especially due to the combat which in Dragon Age 2 is absolutely terrible if you’ve just come off playing games like Original Sin. DA2 is very much a console game chasing Mass Effect’s coattails with some good ideas, the story just never really seemed like it knew what it wanted to be though.

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noobsauce

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I will defend Jafe Empire till the day I die. I still think a martial arts RPG is a great idea the world needs more of.

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I actually like Jade Empire quite a bit but it's still a fuckin' mess.

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#16  Edited By ValorianEndymion

I have to agree about how bad Deep Roads was, when I played this was the last part before the ending, and it was not fun, I too had to make huge effort to push to the end. And I don't think because it was bad because it had combat, but because combat there wasn't engaging at all, enemies felt having millions of hp (not in literal sense, but I remember the distinct feeling in the last part of the game where you face hordes of enemies which unlike every other monster so far had way less hp), rewards aren't worth and the few moments where something interesting happens where, simple too few.

About the Fade, I completely forget about it, I even had to check a wiki to remember it. It had some cool scenes, but yeah it was too long.

Talking about the visuals, as someone which love a good character generation tool, for the time, the one which Origins had been quite good, even the light during the process was better that in Inquisition, where you do the whole thing with a weird green light (until they patch it, I think), which often forced you to restart since it mostly like you pick the wrong color.

However, if I remember right, the body model was not good at all. And you there were no sliders for it, something which extended even on Inquisition, where my elf had this weird body which looked thinner than his head.

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