The Black Emporium: Why Dragon Age II is the Best in the Series

I would argue that in the case of the Mass Effect Trilogy, each game improved upon the last one in the series. Mass Effect 2 was a huge leap from the original, making the combat more fluid and simplifying many of the more obtuse RPG elements. Mass Effect 3 then took those changes and refined them, adding more options of customization in combat and removing some of the more tedious elements.

The Dragon Age series has always struggled on this front. Each game takes a criticized aspect from the previous game, fixes it, and creates a problem where there was none previously. Dragon Age: Origins had painfully slow combat and pacing. This was fixed in Dragon Age II, but then that game was brought down by repetitive map design. This was fixed in Dragon Age Inquisition, but then the game was brought down by shallow sidequests.

Each game remains excellent and well worth your time despite these issues, but I would posit that of the problems in each game, Dragon Age II‘s is the least offensive. Because the map designs are probably the worst thing about it, the game has great characters, meaningful sidequests, and an engaging underdog story that is easy to get behind. With this article, I’m kickstarting a series on upopular or unconventional gaming opinions, named in honor of this first article.

I want to examine each game through the lens of the games’ respective issues, noting how the particular game handles the aspect in question. I won’t really be discussing story or characters because every single game excels in these particular areas. I’ll go in chronological order, meaning the first issues I’ll address, Origins‘, will concern combat style and pacing. Some will argue that the painfully slow combat speed of Origins was fitting for the game that focused on more tactical combat, or that is was a holdover from other Bioware games such as Baldur’s Gate. However, there really is no denying that Origins is notably slow compared to its sequels. The other games still allowed for tactical combat without having a really slow, somewhat lifeless system. Combat as a mage essentially consists of watching your character poke at the air with a staff for several minutes until everything is dead. The animation speed and flare of other classes do not fare much better. Casting the Haste spell on a rogue is about the only time the combat seems to be running at an acceptable speed. The animation is very dull. This speed problem also kind of creep into the pacing of the game as certain sections, such as the Deep Roads or Circle of Magi, drag on far too long. There is little benefit to having these sections be as long as they are.

On the flipside, Dragon Age II and Inquisition both have much more fluid combat and pacing. Dragon Age II has flashy combos for each of the classes and although from a gameplay standpoint, very little actually changed, it is just so much more interesting to watch and play because you don’t have to see the same animation play out over and over during the course of combat.

Inquisition changes up the way the combos look to breathe a little bit more life into affairs because as flashy as the combos in Dragon Age II are, they would of course start to get repetitive after 20 hours of gameplay. It is worth noting, however, that Inquisition‘s combat is actually a little bit slower than DAII‘s. This is one of the reasons that DAII comes out on top for this particular issue. There is a lot of visual flair to everything that happens in combat, from the way Cone of Cold now, in one fluid motion, creates a wall of icicles, to the way backstab creates a smoke bomb that allows your character to apparently teleport behind your enemy; it’s all beautifully done. Inquisition‘s version of backstab just has the character in question rush behind the enemy and stab them. It’s not nearly as interesting to view as DAII‘s version. Cone of Cold doesn’t even exist in Inquisition presumably replaced by the ice mine that simply freezes enemies who step on it in fairly rudimentary fashion.

DAII also comes out on top when it comes to pacing. While none of Inquisition‘s main missions drag on the way that Origin‘s Deep Roads quest does, it’s the space between the missions that create the problem. The Power system in Inquisition is one of the worst things about it. Between every main mission, you are required to do an arbitrary number of sidequests. You are free to choose which sidequests to complete, but that does little to alleviate the issue. It perhaps would have been excusable if Inquisition’s sidequests were engaging, but as I’ll get to later on, they most definitely are not. Like the pacing of Mass Effect 2’s missions, those in DAII are relatively short and able to be completed quickly without sacrificing quality..

Map design and variety however, is where Dragon Age II fails tremendously. Taking place in only one city and the neighboring areas, you will visit the same areas over and over again. Honestly, this may not have been so bad if the game actually admitted that it was sending you to the same areas. Instead, every cave you go into has about 3 potential layouts and you’d often just get placed in a different part of it to to start off, in an attempt to disguise the fact that you were just in this cave two missions ago. This is extremely lazy and I’m not going to deny that. Inquisition and Origins are set in varying locales that were all fairly unique. Ultimately, I’d have to hand the victory in terms of map design over to Inquistion because while some of its expansive areas could be filled with fairly little, there was variety in the tone and atmosphere of the locales. Comparatively, Origins’ areas are all fairly dark and muted in tone—expansive and interesting to explore, to be sure, but all very dark. As Hawke quips in DAII, Kirkwall isn’t brown enough in comparison to Ferelden. Ultimately though, the maps are only as enjoyable as the gameplay and story that takes place in them. This is why I find that repetitive map design isn’t nearly as big of a flaw as repetitive gameplay or sidequests.

Finally, as for the sidequests, Origins and DAII both excel. Most locations in both games have several sidquests available that contain meaningful bits of story and dialogue. Many in Origins are relevant in future games, and many in DAII are immediately relevant in the following acts. One of the biggest strengths of DAII is that it takes place across the span of multiple years so some early decisions have consequences years later. No waiting for a sequel required. While the connections to past games are what make both Dragon Age and Mass Effect so good, Dragon Age tends to rely on past decisions less than Mass Effect. So it’s good to see some choices have consequences immediately in DAII while other choices play out in Inquisition. However, Inquisition  really struggles with its sidequests. Aside from sidequests related to party characters, they almost all result in fetch quests or something equally dull. The most egregious example of busywork is one sidquest where you have to escort a buffalo back to its owner. This isn’t meaningful in any significant way like in DAII or Origins, and it’s not the only sidquest of its kind. One sidquest has you go fetch a ring for someone. One has you read a note and then go find some treasure. One quest for one of your companions has you finding artifacts to strength the Veil in certain areas. This quest would seem significant given the role the Veil plays in the main story, but no, its just more searching for random items. There are no dialogue or moral decisions to be made in these qeusts. You fetch the buffalo, ring, treasure, etc. and you get rewarded. This is honestly the way almost every sidequest operates, almost MMO-like in their simplicity. Also, like previously mentioned, you can’t really skip them unless you’d rather just close veil tears instead because you need a certain amount of Power points to actually get to the good parts of the game. These sidequests are inexcusable when the past two games excelled in this manner.

Ultimately, no Dragon Age game is perfect. I won’t pretend that Dragon Age II was. I simply believe that its biggest problem is fairly inoffensive when compared to the biggest problems found elsewhere in the series. It’s worth reiterating though that despite these issue, each game excels in many other departments and are well worth your time. I’d just have to say that i enjoyed my time Dragon Age II the most.

 

Matt Cronn

Matt is a big proponent of games that tell deep stories. Mass Effect and Persona are of particular interest to him. #putyourloveglasseson

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