Review: Dragon Age II

Whatever we may say of Dragon Age II, has been said elsewhere.

The graphics and art style are excellent. The dungeon design is poor and lazy. The score is adequate. The voice acting is par for the course for BioWare. The combat system is fluid and fun.

But who cares about this? We may conveniently classify people into two camps, because that is how things work. There are those that enjoy Dragon Age II for what it is, a story set in the world of Thedas that is an excellent story. And then there are those that hate Dragon Age II not for what it does, but what it does not do: deliver Baldur’s Gate III.

Hiya, sis! Let's kill an ogre!
Hawke and Bethany, from the prologue.

Conveniently, this review will have no truck with either camp, because the conversation has moved well beyond any point where we might derive anything useful from continuing that debate. Instead, we will take the high road: literally and figuratively. We are going to discuss Dragon Age II as a narrative, as a story told through a medium, rather than commenting on the specifics of that medium itself. Imagine if, instead of criticizing a Picasso work based on his subject and technique, we criticized him for choosing oil and canvas. There are limits to oil and canvas, and it is certainly not sculpture… but it seems wrong to critique the medium and ignore the subject.

So, since the gaming medium has been thoroughly critiqued, let us turn to the narrative.

Many of the greatest works of literature are told as frame stories. For the less-educated among my readers, that means a “story within a story.” Yes, like that one anime you like so much. Yes, Shawn, like The Cantebury Tales, which, in addition to being a frame story, are generally excellent.

How many have you got, Hawke?
Varric often plays the funny man to Hawke's straight man, and the interplay works well.

The frame of Dragon Age II is especially well done: the player knows none of the characters, none of the story, nor any of the whos, whats, wheres or whys of the story. All that we know is that there is a beardless dwarf, he has been captured by a very angry Templar, and that he is being forced to relate the story of the Champion of Kirkwall.

What is Kirkwall? No clue; it is not in Ferelden or Orlais or the old Imperium, so it is conveniently outside the realm of the past game. Gone is the story of the Blight and the Grey Wardens. This is a much more human story, a story that abandons the heroic overtones of high fantasy and revels in the dirt and grit of low fantasy.

Who is this Champion (besides the player character)? Apparently, she or he is known to the dwarf, and has made Ms. Templar very, very upset. But the details… those are what gets filled in by the frame.

And that is where the player comes in. By and large, the supporting cast is much more fleshed out than the previous game. Alistair and Morrigan were the only two “developed” characters from Origins, besides the main character. But that character probably dies at the end of the previous game, and has a rather limited Grey Warden lifespan anyway. So who cares about dead meat?

No one, that is who. There are more interesting people to talk about!

Varric is by far and away the best-designed character to come out in a game this year. Isabella is a bit one-dimensional (which is ironic), but the developing relationship between Warrior or Rogue Hawke and his/her sister Bethany, an apostate mage, is rather touching in a way. Anders is… annoying, and there is literally no way to avoid sleeping with him except to piss him off.

The sleeper hit for me, however, was the DLC character, Sebastian Vael (I know, I know, DLC is evil, EA/BioWare/Bobby Kotick only wants money, and if they really had artistic integrity they would release a blockbuster game for free and feed themselves off of wishes and unicorn manes. Vael’s story has depth, pathos, and a truly interesting divergence in options… vengeance, or restoration.

"I will be played by Cillian Murphy in the movie."
Vael's story is an excellent addition to a solid narrative.

The upside of Dragon Age II, warts and all, is that it is a very character-driven story. It abandons the urgency and epic tone of defending the world from the evil fallen god and its Blight. It is more modern, more psychological, chronicling the fall and rebirth of the Hawke family in Kirkwall. It is low fantasy, not high fantasy. Its tone is dark, gritty, and real.

And the game has been somewhat simplified to match, so that it does not ever get in the way of the story. However, neither does it highlight it, and several poor design choices can often ruin immersion. These annoyances are glaring only in that they serve to really mar the best thing about the game, the story, which is, I think, the major reason it has received such varying reviews.

But, for all that, Dragon Age II delivers a hearty, meaty and satisfying story.


  1. Actually, most people hate Dragon Age II for being not Dragon Age II, but rather a sidequest, sold at $60, with only one dungeon in it.

    I think if this were a true sequel to Dragon Age, there wouldn’t be a problem. Virtually none of the complaints are along the lines of ‘it’s not Baldur’s Gate III!’ — neither was Dragon Age, but people didn’t queue up to give that game a 1 rating, did they?

  2. Hyperbole that does the game a disservice. Gamers are finicky nerds that indulge too often in unironic overstatement.

  3. Blaming the intended audience for the poor reception of media is literally the height of arrogance. The ENTIRE POINT of releasing entertainment media is to entertain the target audience. If the target audience doesn’t like it, then the media has failed. The target audience isn’t somehow ‘responsible’ for that failure. It is the job, quite literally, of the developers to know their audience. So, blaming it on a huge mass of those target gamers being ‘finicky nerds’is absolutely ridiculous, and the sort of lazy conclusion you should be ashamed of presenting as an actual apologia, Lane.

    In any case, my point is that the complaints are not the sort of complaints that would really be addressed by a ‘Baldur’s Gate III’ game. The complaints would be address by Dragon Age II–that is, a game that is a loyal sequel to Dragon Age Origins.

    I don’t get the impression that many people feel this is a sequel loyal to the gameplay and style of the original. As you have, yourself, said elsewhere–this game would not be nearly so badly received had it simply been called [the Western equivalent of] Dragon Age Gaiden, and (I must add) sold at a lower price.

  4. I argue that a sizable number of the target audience did like it. At least, I think I’m in the target audience and I liked it. Lots of reviewers, who I assume also play video games, liked it. And, anecdotally, a lot of the gamers I know really enjoyed it.

    I also disagree that the entire point of a video game is simple entertainment. I think that there’s also artistic merit to contend with, and I argue that DA2 is dripping with artistic merit from a storyteller and writer’s standpoint. But that loses a lot of people who want the simple good/bad fight the evil Dark Lord type of story. It’s just not what’s going on here.

    Contrast two recent fantasy novels (both of which I think are tops): Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear and Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes. Rothfuss writes epic fantasy. His story contains a Big Evil Dude, a plucky Chosen One type hero with superhuman skills, and a generation-spanning conflict being played out among more or less very interesting characters. It also uses a frame story to great effect, and Rothfuss, when he gets out of his way, has very strong prose.

    Abercrombie, on the other hand, is more of a writer’s writer. His books have no blacks, whites or shades of gray. Just lots and lots of blood red and shit brown. His prose is coarse and vulgar, like his characters. His pacing is tight, his narrative voice is spot-on… but while his stories are fantasy stories, they’re very, very human. The end result? A fantasy novel that reads like nihilistic torture porn.

    DA2 is much more Abercrombie and less Rothfuss. It abandons the myth-making of the original game to focus on a personal story, and that rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

    And I think a lot of gamers are unreflective on the entertainment they consume. They don’t know literary theory and don’t give a damn about it, they just want to be entertained. And they were not by DA2, which was ambitious in its artistry. And that’s OK; I think that they have a valid point that the game is not their style of story, but to give it a 1 or a low rating because “I didn’t like the story and there’s no isometric camera and some side quests reuse the same map” is ignoring the good things about the game to focus on what they want to bitch about. Hence, finicky nerds, who have some vague idea of what they want in a game (scratch the ol’ nostalgia bone, something familiar but with enough new to it, a bit of a challenge here and there, and some familiar tropes so that nothing gets too freaky).

    Now, you do raise an interesting ethical point: was BioWare obligated to make a “loyal sequel” to DA:O, or should we grant them artistic license to take the series in a different direction? I argue the latter; consistency to a tried and true formula is good for a while, but eventually it gets stale (Square, for instance). I’d rather have a spottier record but see some ambition in narrative design.

    But then again, we’ve established that my main reason for playing these games is to experience the story. I rarely turn the difficulty above normal, and most times leave it to casual, on BioWare games. Why? The game is pathetically easy at that level. No one ever dies, and I never feel like a battle will unmake me… but there’s a point to challenges in games, and there’s times when I am playing for the experience that I want the challenge and the system streamlined and tuned down a bit.

    I also won’t argue with you that $60 is too expensive for a game, any game, and it should have been sold for half that. But, there is little I can do about that. And I’m sure that BioWare or another company will make a true sequel or a spiritual successor, but to judge this game so harshly based on what it is not, rather than what it is, seems unfair to the game, to BioWare, and to the players.

    There’s a lot this game does wrong. I hate the reused cave level map. It’s boring. But it pops up maybe one in every ten missions, and some of the sidequests I skip entirely because I find them morally objectionable (or at least Lane Hawke does). I find the camera angles a little frustrating at times, but it’s not permanent. And the enemies that spawn out of nowhere make me groan every time it happens.

    But that doesn’t ruin the overall experience, and it certainly doesn’t happen enough to detract from the story, which was the point of this post: it’s a good, good story. It’s some of the finest game narrative I’ve seen, and I’d hate to think that people are soured on experiencing that because of objectively minor complaints like the lack of an isometric camera.

  5. Not all players dislike the game, just those with self-respect, oh, and Lane’s Bader’s Gate loving straw men also!