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The Seesawing Fortunes of Dragon Age / 17th of December 2014


At the time of writing this I’ve managed to clock just over a hundred hours of Bioware’s latest instalment in the Dragon Age series, Dragon Age: Inquisition. And after defending the assault on Haven, attending the Royal Ball at the Winter Palace, and unravelling the mystery of the Grey Wardens sudden disappearance, there’s a question I keep inadvertently asking myself, has Inquisition managed to do the impossible and make Dragon Age II better?

But before I attempt to make that case, I think it’s necessary to make a few things crystal clear. Firstly, until recently I’d personally considered Dragon Age II to be one of the worst triple-A games of its generation. Hawke was just about the dullest character ever conceived by Bioware, I hated Kirkwall and it’s limited scope, the bland design, and the criminal re-use of assets both within the city and the surrounding area, and that’s not even taking into account the game’s many glitches (one of which relegated me to the role of spectator for the game’s climactic battle). All in all I wasn’t a fan, and although Origins - the first game in the series - wasn’t to my taste, I could at least appreciate how well it was made.





So if my feelings toward Dragon Age II were so unfavourable, why now am I coming around to the idea that it may not have been such a blot on Bioware’s impressive CV? What I think it boils down to is the self-contained storyline, one that wasn’t particularly impressive when playing through first hand, but when viewed in the wider context of the Dragon Age world, and once its implications became clear from playing Inquisition, it’s both a massive turning point and an excellent chapter in the history of Thedas.

The thing we so often hear from both fans, and those still on the fence when it comes to Dragon Age, is that they wish it could be more akin to Mass Effect but with a fantasy setting. Personally I’m not inclined to think this would be a good thing for the series. The Mass Effect trilogy was effectively one large storyline broken into three games, one which revolved around Shepard and the ‘end of the world as we know it’ threat posed by the Reapers. It’s pretty straightforward, but it worked well and Mass Effect was one of the very best series’ of the previous generation. 





But Dragon Age’s own trilogy is drastically different, and it’s this and the complexities that come with it that I’ve come to appreciate. Admittedly Origins itself wasn’t too dissimilar to the Reapers in terms of a ‘big bad something’ that threatened the world. However Dragon Age II began a new story with a new protagonist, as Bioware clearly wanted to tell a more complex story, one consisting of a delicate balance of opposing powers, warring factions, and filled with political intrigue, all of which is contained within a convincingly well-crafted social and political framework.

As we now know the events of Dragon Age II, and more specifically the Mage rebellion instigated by Anders, had thrown the whole world into a state of chaos. It’s this one event that take place in one city within Dragon Age’s vast world that acts as the catalyst. Triggering the civil war, the peace summit, and ultimately the events you’ll witness first-hand during Inquisition’s prologue. It is in fact the series ‘I am your father’ moment, but the limited scale of Dragon Age II prevented us from seeing that until Inquisition.





This schism in the natural order, or that balance between Templars and Mages has been broken, and the fallout becomes ever present throughout Inquisition. From your very first foray into the Hinterlands you’ll be caught between the two opposing factions, you’ll soon be forced to align yourself with one side or the other in order to bolster the Inquisition’s forces, and its effects can even be seen on a personal level in conversations with your companions and fellow leaders of the Inquisition. So as Mass Effect’s trilogy started with a wealth of narrative options and got progressively narrower with each game, Dragon Age’s has expanded telling more stories, carrying more sub-plots and getting more and more complex with every hour you spend within its world.

All of this is achieved by Bioware’s decision to create separate protagonists for each game in the series. Something that allows you to view your own actions in a previous game from a different perspective. For example my Hawke aided Anders in his attempts to free Mages from the circle, and was most definitely opposed to the current status quo within Kirkwall, while my character in Inquisition is more in-line with the likes of Vivienne and her politics. In Mass Effect you could switch from paragon to renegade from game to game yes, but it was always limited by being Shepard’s decisions that led him to any specific moment. With Inquisition I’m effectively trying to undo the changes made by Hawke and Anders that were the focus of the previous game, and that’s something the Mass Effect series could never have done.






I’m not trying to convince you that Dragon Age II was retro-actively a great game, more that it was a story that was necessary for Bioware to tell, and was one that serves to greatly enrich the Dragon Age world. Undoubtedly it could have been made to a higher standard, and its many limitations are all the more obvious when compared to Inquisition, but it was still a chapter in the Dragon Age story that had to be played out. Maybe a better way to tell it would have been as some form of episodic DLC, or as an expansion stripped down to the main storyline alone. But had that been the case then I’m sure we would have missed out on getting to know some excellent supporting characters and many other seemingly minor details that can only be included with a full release. Without Dragon Age II, the series could have become a fantasy Mass Effect and maybe that wouldn’t have been a bad thing, but personally I rather like the world Bioware have crafted, especially now that I can see the bigger picture, and for that I have to give credit to Dragon Age II.   

 
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