Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins

I tried to like Dragon Age: Origins. I really did. Hailed as Baldur's Gate II's spiritual successor, Dragon Age: Origins is a role-playing game that prides itself on being gritty, dark, and bloody. But it is a design choice that served only to alienate me over time, sadly derailing my interest in this new, complex, and vivid fantasy world.

The Bloodbath

In an inexplicable effort to make a game that would gain the attentions of both RPG lovers and dirty frat boys, Bioware worked on creating what would become this behemoth. Unlike most of their games, they decided to emphasize the blood, sex, and violence above all. But, at the same time, they devoted their customary care toward making a living, breathing world with detailed complexity, along with similar themes carried over from every Bioware game.

The result is confused. Throughout the game, it is clear that the world is dark and gory. After battle, your character always looks like he strolled through a bloody butcher's shop. Every quest you go on involves trying to end some atrocity and often creating a situation just as shitty. Enemies are as grotesque as they are brutal, and you consequently have every interest in putting them down. Long story short, this game creates an immense crapsack world and has you interact with it in ways that make you wonder if you should have even bothered in the first place.

On the bright side, though, some of this design decision results in compelling moral choices that actually have consequences. In video games, it is often rare to see what happens after you complete a quest; what happens after I place that person on a throne or save that guy from death? But Dragon Age has a number of quests that do make you stop and think, "What should I do?" Given Bioware's history of creating simple black and white decisions, seeing questions that actually made me consider what to do for fear of the ramifications was refreshing and helped me get into the game, if only for a short while.

The problem was the fact that Dragon Age could not seem to decide what it wanted to do with the setting, plot, and characters. Many of your companions are relatively jovial and polite, willing to join you on your epic and dangerous quest on the drop of a hat. This had the unintended consequence of confusing me every time one of them opened their mouth. For, in a world where death and despair is everywhere, a snarky comment that made me laugh or smile caused me to question the entire tone of the game. Rescuing one companion from an endlessly recurring nightmare caused him to give me a winking nudge and to tell me not to tell the others, in much the same way Gimli says to Aragorn of Lord of the Rings, "Don't tell the elf!". Events like this elicited an ever-present feeling that I was playing a typical Bioware game with pretensions of something darker than it was capable of. Most of my travel time in the desolate regions involved my comrades taking comedic potshots at each other as they stepped through the sites of massacres.

I understand that comedy is needed for such a game, but Dragon Age approaches the different facets of its world and characters in a way that felt disjointed and made it difficult to become all that interested in the game's setting. The fact that the game's setting wasn't particularly gripping to begin with only exacerbated the problem.

Dungeons and Dragons Lite

Unfortunately, the gameplay, while initially interesting, quickly became mundane and predictable. Like with the setting, Dragon Age tries too hard to be accessible to RPG novitiates. There are many skills and spells, but it is clear that only some are useful. Even if you want to use the others, you quickly realize that you don't have the power/stamina to use them all. Unlike the tactical strategerie of Baldur's Gate II, Dragon Age took that premise and dumbed it down so that all you have to do is march into battle and tap a button now and then. Interactivity is further limited by the fact that you only control one person at a time, with everyone else on autopilot. This caused the game to feel much more like an MMO than it should, involving little interaction or thought to defeat a monster, and thus chipping away at my resolve to play the game.

That is not to say that the game was too easy. I encountered a number of fights where I had to jump from one companion to the other in order to tell them to chug a potion before they got brutally murdered. But that was all that I had to do to win, and that didn't really endear me to the idea of tactical adjustments. Sadly, this game failed to do what Baldur's Gate II accomplished so many years ago. It failed to make me interested in each battle, preparing for every scenario, and contemplating the prime use and flexibility of every spell/skill in my hands.


Though this is a negative review, I would point out that part of what Dragon Age: Origins aspires to do is admirable. The world is immensely detailed, the characters interesting, and feel of it occasionally seems to hint at some immense depth within it. But the sad fact is that the world of Dragon Age is warped, brutal, and dark in a way that is often predictable and uninteresting. While the characters help make you intrigued in their complexities and personalities, they do so in a way that jars with the rest of the game's world.

This game does deserve points for spending a great deal of time and effort on the effects of religion on the world of Dragon Age. Nowhere else have I seen a fictional temple/faith that seems so reminiscent of the story of Joan of Arc, actually prompting me to look into her life to compare similarities and differences between the two. Religion is predominant, but yet it is also relegated to the backstage, like much of Dragon Age's complex world-building. Too much of the game's world I learned through reading the optional 'codex'; the game itself went through often simplistic events and motions that would have engendered more interest if involved more skilfully with the world itself.

Thus it is that, through two awkward and unworkable dichotomies (dark environment vs cheery companions; complex backstory vs barely related simplistic events), Dragon Age: Origins undermines itself. The obsession with the brown and dark red color scheme along with too much blood and gore simply were final nails in the coffin.

6/10 – An impressively large world-building exercise that fails to hold interest in story or gameplay for very long.


  1. I actually found the humor a nice fit, and the dark drudgery of the game enthralling. Afterward, however, I realized it was my fatalist attitude that made it more gallows-humor than awkward comments. And after a month away from the game I almost feel a PTSD reaction when I think about playing DA again. - Good call.

  2. It was hard for me to convey my feelings on the discordance between characters and events versus the setting and overall feeling. I would say the main thing was that this game was not The Witcher.

    If you haven't played The Witcher, you should. It had a similar dark setting, but everything about the characters and events fit perfectly into the overall atmosphere of the game. Not to mention the game itself had oodles more complexity than the gameplay of Dragon Age.

    But, with Dragon Age, it was difficult to take seriously as it attempted to blend lighthearted high fantasy with an intensely dark low fantasy. Examples would include the fact that all of your companions but one (Morrigan) are cheery, optimistic people with nary a fault. Even the stoic Sten makes one laugh; something that one would presume would not happen given that the guy murdered a bunch of people and you free him from certain death to serve under you.

    Further examples would include the quests: one includes going into a dark forest where hundreds of elves have been murdered... to find a madman trying to keep his acorn from a rhyming old tree. Events like this made me wonder what the heck I was playing; Bioware evidently had problems keeping the quests, characters, and setting all within one genre.

    Anyways, I wax eloquent but hopefully I've explained my position better. You definitely should check out The Witcher if you haven't, by the way. The game would fit right up your alley and is a similar dark masterpiece to Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.