THE WHEEL OF DUBIOUS RPGs GAIDEN
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
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.