Dragon Age: Origins is a game by the renowned RPG developer Bioware. The game takes place in the kingdom of Ferelden, and follows the last two Grey Wardens as they attempt to form an alliance against the Darkspawn. As of this post, I have put over 104 hours into Dragon Age: Origins, most of which was devoted to three different playthroughs of the main quest.
This review contains spoilers for the game.
On an overall plot level, DA:O didn’t impress me much. Ferelden is a world of humans, dwarves, elves, ogres, dragons, and Darkspawn (which are not orcs but can be read as orcs). While these have become commonplace in post-Tolkien fantasy and so aren’t unusual, I struggled to get in to the game because I’ve seen these tropes time and time again. The true test, though, is what the developers do with these tropes. In this story, the Darkspawn are undead minions of Arch-demons (the resurrected old gods who take the form of dragons). For reasons not currently known, the Darkspawn want to destroy the races of Ferelden. Normally they lurk underground in the Deep Roads, but if they come across an Arch-demon, they gather their forces and invade the surface, an event that is called The Blight. An order of warriors, the Grey Wardens, was founded centuries ago to fight the Darkspawn and lead the races of the world against the Blights. The Grey Wardens are formed from volunteers, however, and their numbers wane between Blights. So, this is your typical good versus evil. The Grey Wardens are fascinating. You are introduced to them through Duncan, who recruits you after tragedy befalls your character. (You have seven different character origins you can choose: noble human, mage elf or human, noble dwarf, lower caste dwarf, servant elf, and forest elf. Each character origin has a different inciting event.) But in addition to this overarching narrative as you attempt to gain support for the Blight, you become embroiled in the politics of Ferelden as Teyrn Loghain orchestrates the deaths of the king and all the Grey Wardens except you and Alistair. His motivations are rooted deep in his personal history in fighting for Ferelden’s freedom from the Orleasian Empire. So, despite some played-out, heroic fantasy tropes, the journey is worth it as Bioware fleshes out a world that is deeper than what it looks at first glance. More on this world below.
World Building: 8
So, the heroic fantasy tropes were a bit off-putting at first. But as stated above, delving deeper into this world propelled it above my initial impression. In Ferelden, elves are outcasts and were once an enslaved people. They have largely lost touch with their old ways, and are working to recover their heritage. However, there is a distinct division in elf society between city elves and forest elves. The city elves are technically free, but tend to be segregated and treated poorly. This was an interesting twist on how elves are typically portrayed in heroic fantasy. But the world building I found most interesting was that of the mages. In this world, magic puts mages in touch with the Fade, the spirit realm where demons exist. If a mage is weak, he or she could become a vessel for a demon, which—depending on the demon—can lead to great acts of evil. Mages are born with the ability to use magic, just as people are born with the ability to use the Force in Star Wars. In an attempt to keep the mage population under control and useful to the kingdom, the Circle of Magi (the governing body of mages) is controlled by the Templars, a division of The Chantry. Thus, magic is controlled by the church. All mages must be sent to the Temple. A sample of their blood is taken and stored for tracking purposes in case they escape. After studying their trade, a mage undergoes a test called The Harrowing, in which he or she enters the Fade. If they survive and return without being possessed by a demon, they become a full mage. Otherwise, they die. If, after study, they don’t show the required control and aptitude for magic, they are made Tranquil through a process that severs their connection to the Fade and strips away their emotions. It is thought that without these things, Tranquil are undesirable to demons.
All of these elements (and many more I have not mentioned) elevated DA:O above the heroic fantasy crowd. While the Darkspawn themselves never felt like anything but a generic evil to me, the history, politics, and human machinations gave new flavor to this old formula.
Without a doubt, the characters make this game. Over the course of the game you can team up with ten playable characters (1 is available via DLC and 1 is referred to as a secret character, and is available late in the game). Each character has a distinct personality and responds positively or negatively to your actions, dialog choices, and gifts. As characters grow to like you more, they unlock bonuses, but if they dislike you, they may leave the party. It’s a fascinating mechanic, and definitely builds and fleshes out mechanics started in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. But as much fun as role-playing the relationships can be, what is more fun is the banter. As you walk through forests, ruins, and cities, the characters talk to one another. It’s fun to listen to Alistair beg Wynne to mend his socks, to Leliana criticize Alistair’s cooking, to Morrigan’s cynical comments to Leliana, and so much more. I frequently stopped my journey to the next location just to listen to the banter. You genuinely build a comradery with these characters, and I long for more stories with them. Knowing that future games don’t feature these characters in leading roles is a disappointment. But, if future games have characters this strong, I’m sure I’ll cope.
It took me a while to figure out how much fun this game could be. I came from a jRPG background. More specifically, I came from a Final Fantasy background. I was used to grinding and maxing out characters, and that was how I approached DA:O. This approach was wrong. This game rewards building a cohesive party rather than maxing out individual characters. There is a level cap of 25 (I think), and so it is not possible to max out a character with all available skills for their class. Once I figured out that strategy was necessary (and once I discovered the Arcane Warrior specialization), this game became a ton of fun. Mage builds offered me the most enjoyment because of their sheer power. In most other games I tend to focus on a type of ranger build (stealth + basic combat focusing on long range + item crafting). In this game, I prefer to let the other characters focus on combat and stealthing while I break out the heavy area-of-attack spells to direct the enemies where I want them. And when I learned some spells combine and enhance one another . . . yeah, I may never go back to a non-mage build in DA:O. Creating a cohesive party is the key to succeeding in this game, and it is so much fun. Beyond that, the level design is great in ruins and buildings. The forest designs don’t quite work for me, and the fields/roads are also underwhelming. But these are all vast improvements over KotOR, which was the previously played Bioware game. While this game doesn’t offer you the level of freedom of an Elder Scrolls game, Dragon Age: Origins gives you plenty to do and quests have satisfying variety. You can play as selfish or as selfless as you want, and your choices will carry over into future games, as I understand it. I look forward to playing the DLC as well as Dragon Age II and Inquisition to see how the world develops.
Personal Enjoyment: 8
I spent over 104 hours (so far) in this game. Not bad for a game that, initially, didn’t impress me. But, after delving in and out over a few months, I hit a streak around Orzammar (the dwarf kingdom) that kept me going non-stop. Suddenly, everything came together for me, and I was hooked. I felt like cheering as Alistair gave his speech to the assembled army against the Blight. I loved the moment where I lead my team through the gates of Denerim as crowds of soldiers cheered. I (ahem) cried as I made the choice to sacrifice myself in the fight against the Arch-demon, allowing Alistair to live and be king. And then I played through the game two more times in a year-and-a-half. I think that is high praise. So, why not a ten? There are still moments where the game lags for me. There are places where I have to force myself to play through them (specifically, the Dalish quests). And again, I really wish there was more on the Darkspawn. I want to know more about why they do what they do. Everything else is so well thought-out, the Darkspawn seem a bit lacking in comparison. But, there are two more games and a lot of DLC missions. These could have the additional depth that I want.
Overall, though, I wouldn’t spend over 100 hours in a game if I didn’t enjoy it. I admit, my first playthrough I got to a point where I just wanted to get to the end of the game, but the last few hours were so good that they prompted me to immediately start a new class build so I could play the game again. The journey was worth it, and I expect I will play through this game more times in years to come. I can’t wait to continue seeing how this franchise develops.
Final Rating: 8.4/10