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 2: The Sith Lords

Overview

Knights of the Old Republic was made by Bioware, but KotOR 2 was made by Obsidian. I have enjoyed games by both companies. I was a bit nervous about KotOR 2, however, because I wasn’t impressed with KotOR 1 and I had read that KotOR 2 has many bugs due to a less than ideal release schedule. I picked the game up during a Steam sale and used the Sith Lords Restored Content Mod, which purports to restore much of the content cut from the game and to fix most of the game-breaking bugs.

kotor2loadscreen

Characters:  9

As with its predecessor, KotOR 2 has very good characters. You play as the Exile (named Meetra Surik in later Star Wars Legends novels. I will refer to the character as Meetra). The Exile has been traveling the Outer Rim since she was removed from the Jedi Order, her punishment for following Revan against the Mandalorians. The Exile was the only Jedi to return to the Council for judgment. As the game progresses, you pick up a number of companions, each is memorable, and a couple even start as adversaries. The characters have distinct motivations, and your interactions in relation to their motivations increases or decreases your influence, which dictates how much about themselves they reveal. The NPCs are also interesting. When you find the Jedi Masters that exiled you, each has a distinct personality that makes them memorable. The NPCs help make the game-world feel fleshed out.

Story:  8

The story of KotOR 2 is much more complex than KotOR 1. Where the first game was a straight-forward Star Wars story of good versus evil with a very good twist, KotOR 2 is a meditation on war, consequences, autonomy, power, meaning and hope. It is a far darker game, and this darkness comes from the ideas it explores. The titular Sith Lords also represent ideas, from Sion who is the Lord of Pain to Nihilus, the Lord of Hunger. KotOR 2 lives in the grey areas of the Star Wars mythos. It outright rejects the idea that the Sith are evil and the Jedi are good. Instead, the Jedi are flawed humans with immense powers whose philosophy didn’t help them when they faced near annihilation. The Sith are also humans, but they are ruled by desires that have taken over all other impulses. Much like C.S. Lewis’s description of damnation, the Sith Lords are humans who have given themselves over to an idea to such a degree that they have ceased being human and are now a living expression of that idea.

As part of this exploration of the grey, the Exile awakens on Peragus Station, an Outer Rim mining station. She doesn’t remember how she got there, but after exploration she finds only two living beings on the station: Atton, a rogue, and Kreia, a Force user. Hostile droids roam the station, and dead bodies of station workers fill the halls. As you investigate the station and try to find a way off, a Republic cruiser arrives at the station, and Kreia warns of the Sith Lord on the ship. This opening is extremely creepy and unnerving, and it strongly sets the tone of the game through the music and visuals.

Eventually you learn that the Jedi have vanished. Many people think you are the last Jedi. With the Jedi gone, the Republic is on the verge of collapse due to the cost of the Jedi Civil War. The Republic has also committed to restoring the planet Telos, one of the first planets to be devastated by Revan. Telos has become a symbol of the Republic’s ability to restore peace and heal the galaxy from the war. Unknown interests have placed a large bounty for any Jedi, so you have bounty hunters hounding you. Also on the hunt are HK-50 droids that are being produced from an unknown location. Their mission is to kill you. And through all this, Revan, once Sith Lord now hero of the Republic has vanished. With a new Sith menace striking quietly from the shadows, the Exile and her team are the only ones who can stand against the new threat, and your decisions in the game determine if the Jedi Order will be restored or if it will die out, and the Republic along with it.

Vision: 8

What was it trying to do?

I think it was trying to continue the story of KotOR while adding new depth and philosophical analysis to the Star Wars mythos.

Was it successful in doing it?

Yes . . . though with caveats. The game was full of bugs, and while the mod fixes many game-breaking bugs, there are still quite a few issues with pathfinding, team warping/response, and random background changes during dialog scenes. These bugs are distracting and take away from the story. Additionally, sometimes the plot and motivation are not clear unless you take certain dialog options. While I don’t think there is anything drastic here, these small issues add up over the course of the game.

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

This is a great story with a lot of critique of the dualism present in some Star Wars stories. So, yes, I would love to see this story adapted into the New Canon in some way.

Gameplay: 8

As mentioned above, there are a lot of bugs. While nothing broke the game, there was one bug that I feared would. While dealing with the Red Eclipse assault on the Ebon Hawk, when the mission ended, the game would load the next map, and my character would die. On the third attempt, I made sure I had maximum health before initiating the final dialogue for the mission, and this fixed the problem.

There isn’t much change in basic gameplay from KotOR 1. There are a few new Force powers, new Feats, and new Influence mechanics. I also liked that my ratings on different skills sometimes offered different dialogue options . . . and these weren’t always better choices. Sometimes they might annoy the other character. But while the gameplay hadn’t changed much, there was something about the game that was more fun than KotOR 1. Maybe I understood the combat better; maybe Obsidian tweaked it a bit. Either way, I enjoyed it more.

The level design was much improved in this game. I think the only places that I didn’t enjoy the level design were revisiting levels from the first game, and that was only Dantooine and Korriban. All other planets in KotOR 2 were new, which I appreciated. They felt like real spaces, and I could often get a feel for where things were without constantly referring to the map.

Also, there are a few places where you get to play as NPCs or as one of your companions. One mission had you play a re-programmed protocol droid, one was a solo mission for HK-47, there were frequent instances of playing solo as Mira, and in one section you get to choose a team to rescue the Exile. These missions broke kept me on my toes and forced me to use characters that I hadn’t specifically used. They forced me to branch out a bit, and I appreciated this.

And the music definitely fit the game. While Jeremy Soule’s music in KotOR 1 was good, Mark Griskey’s score for this game was atmospheric, dark, brooding, and always seemed to fit the situation.

Personal Enjoyment: 8

I struggled to quantify this category. Up until the end of the game, KotOR 2 was a solid 9. The ending, however, is sudden and lackluster. A third game was definitely being set up, but that has, sadly, never come to fruition. (Although, the Revan novel builds off some of the ideas that were setting up the sequel, though doesn’t go in the direction that Obsidian was initially planning.) When I finished the game, I didn’t have that feeling of satisfaction that comes from finishing a great game. While I enjoyed most of my time playing the game, the ending definitely doesn’t feel worth it. I was very glad that I was reading Revan alongside KotOR. It provides a type of epilogue. But more on that later.

In general, I think KotOR 2 is a conceptually stronger game than KotOR 1. The improvements made to level design and the new Feats and Force Powers are great, and I love the philosophical questions and the story in this game. There are a few places where KotOR 2 could have improved on gameplay over the first game, and the bugs that are still present even with the mod are highly distracting. And again, that ending is just not satisfying. Overall, even with these flaws, I still prefer Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords over its predecessor. If you liked the gameplay of the first game and want to wrestle with some deeper questions about the Force, the Jedi, war and mass destruction, hope, and redemption, I recommend checking out this game . . . with the Content Restoration Mod, of course.

Final Rating: 8.2/10

RPGs

RPG books.I could blame our internet provider; I could blame the cold I’ve been fighting. But the real reason I have been lax in posting for the last couple of weeks is that I’ve become obsessed with gaming. I don’t mean video games, per se, but tabletop role playing games. I’ve always been intrigued by role playing games but usually from a distance. I love console and computer RPGs, however. The table-top versions seemed interesting but required things like preparation, forethought, and social skills. It is much easier to sit at my laptop and play Baldur’s Gate or Final Fantasy.

I think Role Playing Public Radio finally did me in. It is a NSFW podcast that deals with the ins and outs of gaming and they even provide downloads of actual play recordings. And that’s what ultimately addicted me. I became fascinated by the interactive narrative potential of RPGs. I’ve mentioned before my interest in how technology is causing storytelling to change. I’m starting to suspect that I have a lot to learn—as a storyteller—from RPGs. To that end, I have picked up rule books for both The Star Wars Role Playing Game (Second Edition) and The World of Darkness. I am writing a game scenario using some research I have done for a novel I’ve been writing. It has been time consuming, but it is a lot of fun. I’m hoping to get a few people to play the game once I get things written. I’d even like to write up some Doctor Who scenarios.

Any gamers out there? What are your favorite systems and titles?