Dragon Age: Origins (PC)

Overview

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.

Dragon Age Origins cover

Story:  8

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.

Characters:  10

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.

Gameplay: 8

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

Star Wars Legends: Knights of the Old Republic

Overview

Knights of the Old Republic was the first Star Wars CRPG. (Or should it be XBRPG since it was first released on the Xbox?) Released in 2003, the game has become very highly regarded among fans. I recently played through the game for the first time, although I was already familiar with parts of the story, so the big twist wasn’t a surprise. There will be spoilers in this review since the game is over a decade old and no longer (at the moment) in official Star Wars canon.

Knights of the Old Republic box art

Characters:  9

In general, Bioware tends to create good characters. And while I didn’t spend a lot of time pursuing character quests, I did take time to talk to the characters between missions. Each has an interesting back story and each has a distinct personality. I kept getting into arguments with Carth, but over time it was apparent that Carth’s outlook came from a place of personal betrayal. I enjoyed helping Carth reunite with his son, even though it was a bittersweet reunion. I applaud Bioware for putting this much detail into character interactions. I think the only issue I have with characterization is Bastilla. I don’t feel like we got enough to make her sudden turn to the Dark Side believable. The turn seemed more plot-driven than character driven. On some level, we needed her to be a Revan counterpart in the present, for her to personally experience the path Revan walked. She needed to see how evil can come from good depending on the choices made. Maybe different dialogue would have made her turn more believable, but I just didn’t see enough darkness in her.

And of course, HK-47 as a bloodthirsty but well-spoken droid is a ton of fun.

But I can’t discuss character without addressing Revan. Bioware pulled this off quite well. Since the major reveal is that you play as Darth Revan post-mind-wipe, much of Revan’s backstory has to be vague. We need just enough details to see who he was before, but not so much that the backstory alters the player experience. The game takes you through locations in Revan’s past and gives ideas about some of his past actions, but leaves you to fill in the motivations. Revan can truly be whoever you want him or her to be, and the story still works. Creating a story that is so dependent on a character that has this much flexibility (or lack of characterization) is an interesting challenge and achievement.

Story:  9

Possibly more so than with characters, KotOR really shines when it comes to the story. This should be no surprise as it is a Bioware game. On the one hand, you play a new Jedi searching for pieces of a star map to lead you to the Star Forge, a mysterious object that Revan and Malak used to lead the Sith Empire to war with the Jedi. But in addition to this McGuffin quest, you are on a journey of self-discovery. You are putting together pieces of your character’s past. You just don’t realize that at the time.

This story also greatly expands the lore of Star Wars by showing what happened after Exar Kun and Ulic qel Droma’s defeat in The Sith War comics. In those comics, Ulic became the leader of the Mandalorian army. Without his leadership, and with the subsequent defeat of Mandalore, a new Mandalore rose and led his army against the Republic. This new leader had great success where Ulic and the previous Mandalore failed. The Jedi tried to stay out of the war, but the Republic was suffering defeat after defeat. Eventually, a group of Jedi led by Revan and Malak violated the Jedi Council’s wishes, and went to war alongside the Republic. They defeated the Mandalorians, but Revan and Malak vanished into the Outer Rim. They returned later as Lords of the Sith and went to war against the Jedi. The game opens shortly after a major Republic victory in which Revan was defeated. Yes, all that was just the backstory. In addition to the immediate history, we learn more ancient history of the galaxy: ancient Tatooine from Tusken mythology and the rise and downfall of the Eternal Empire of the Rakatan, both of which were later expanded on in the Dawn of the Jedi comics.

In the end, KotOR is a story about identity and redemption that takes place on an epic, galactic scale. It expands the Star Wars lore into some compelling new areas that later writers were able to explore.

Vision: 8

What was it trying to do?

KotOR was an attempt to create in game form a Star Wars experience with all the epic conflict and twists of the movies.

Was it successful in doing it?

For the most part, yes. As far as story and characters are concerned, I would say yes.

Would I like to see elements of this added to the New Canon?

Absolutely. I would like to see anything from the Old Republic era make its way to the new canon. The ancient conflict between the Jedi and Sith are more fully explored in this era, and there really isn’t anything here that would conflict with the current movies and novels. That may change in time, but for now it can stay firmly in head-canon. In fact, Revan came very close to being canon via The Clone Wars. He was cut at the last minute, but character designs had been made. I guess there’s always hope for him to be reference in Rebels.

Gameplay: 6

Okay, here’s where things get a bit more critical. I’m somewhere between a casual and serious gamer. I’m not going to dock this game for graphics just because I don’t think graphics are necessarily a huge thing when it comes to story and gameplay. They can enhance, but it is how you use what you have. If they get in the way, then it is an issue, but I don’t really think they graphics affected the game one way or another. However, KotOR was initially an Xbox release. I know graphics at the time were capable of better. That was the era of Final Fantasy X and XII (I was more of a Playstation 2 guy at the time). The graphics of those games hold up better; KotOR does not. It looks old, which is why some fans are recreating the game with the Unreal 4 engine.

But again, I’m leaving graphics out of the gameplay rating. For me KotOR suffers on two fronts: level design and combat. The level design is incredibly dull. Taris was probably the worst, and I constantly had to look at the map because everything looked the same. Kashyyk and Manan were better, but the uninteresting design actually made me not want to do side quests because I just wanted to get on to the next planet or next area. When things didn’t improve for me after Dantooine, I just decided to do a story run, not a completion run. When the level design breaks immersion or makes you want to skip things, there is a problem.

The second issue I had with the game was combat. I don’t mind turn-based menus. I grew up with Final Fantasy, after all, but the combat in this game just didn’t interest me. It got better after I got a lightsaber and figured out where to spend my attribute points. But there isn’t really much variety here. Part of the problem is I started playing The Old Republic first, which has a bit of variety with special moves. Even though there isn’t much to that system, the animations are interesting. And the later Bioware title Dragon Age: Origin was complex enough for me to have to monitor all my teammates even though they had tactical conditions set up. I guess I can say those later Bioware games improved on what was started in KotOR (or the earlier Forgotten Realms games), but an elegant battle system hadn’t emerged here yet.

Also, different character builds just didn’t seem effective. Most of the team characters can do stealth, tank, science, etc. better. As a result, making your character anything other than a fighter seemed pointless. Unfortunately, I figured this out late in the game and didn’t want to start with a new character build. So, I started allocating points differently. Then I discovered the level cap! So while the game story allows you freedom to create a character background in your head, the game mechanics are a bit more restrictive.

Oh, and one final thing. The menus are not very elegant. I think I stopped reading data pads early in the game because the text window for the contents was too small.

Personal Enjoyment: 6

Yeah, this was going to be low after the previous category.

It is hard to experience something out of its time. Take classic Doctor Who, for example. Anyone coming to the show having watched new Who can’t experience the show the same way original viewers did. They can’t experience the surprise of Steven and Vicki stumbling into another Time Lord’s TARDIS for the first time in The Time Meddler. We can’t know what it was like to see the Time Lords show up in all their mystical power in The War Games. New Doctor Who has firmly placed a lens of interpretation that changes how fans experience that old show.

Similarly, I can’t experience Knights of the Old Republic as it was at the time. I can’t remove conceptions of gameplay, level design, and mechanics from my experience of the game. I can try to give the game as fair a trial as possible, emphasizing character, story, and vision, but personal experience is still part of the review process, and this game was disappointing to me. Maybe the mystique created by the passion of the fans made my expectations too high. Sometimes art resonates with us better at some points of our lives than others, and maybe I played the game at the wrong time. I wanted to like the game, and I may well play it again one day, but for now, I come away disappointed.

But my experience is not everyone’s experience. And I really like my current rating system because I try to give more weight to artistic craft than personal enjoyment. Knights of the Old Republic takes a hit on enjoyment and gameplay, but the achievements with story and character make up for negatives.

Final Rating: 7.6/10