Pinpointing a game’s flaws can be difficult. Sometimes, it’s a gameplay mechanic that just doesn’t click with the player, or it can even be a general, indescribable feeling that evokes a collective shrug from a fan base. Dragon Age II doesn’t suffer from this same problem. Picking out one of its many flaws is like playing darts with the bullseye being the size of the whole board. No matter where you look, you’re bound to find something wrong. The only hard part is deciding where to start sifting through the mess. My dartboard tells me to begin with the central hub area of the game, Kirkwall. Here we go.  


Kirkwall, also known as the City of Chains, lives up to its name. The place feels like a prison, binding you to one place for most of your adventure. Only rarely do you venture outside the city’s walls, and the places you do visit are reused just as often. You don’t notice it at first, but around the halfway point in the Dragon Age II, it becomes pretty obvious that you’ve pretty much seen it all. The word ‘laziness’ comes to mind, as if Bioware was content with just recycling the same locations over and over again. It’s hard to pull off ‘epic storytelling’ when everything feels so cramped and isolating (if I have to hear about The Wounded Coast or Sundermount again, so help me).

Bioware attempts to hide this repetition with an interesting narrative framework. The story is being told through the eyes and mouth of an unreliable narrator. Varric, who is one the several vibrant characters who serve as companions through your quest, is being interrogated for answers regarding your actions through the game. An intriguing sense of mystery shrouds the world, but I wish the story itself was a little more impactful and focused. The entire second act feels like a random tangent that doesn’t feed into the main story in a meaningful way at all. The always solid writing and voice work of a Bioware title is present here, but the standout moments that you might find in a Mass Effect title are few and far between.

In fact, everything just feels pulled back from Origins, right from the get go. You can only chose between one of three classes, and of those three classes you can only be a Human. The whole ‘origin’ story from the original is gone, which kind of sets the tone for the rest of the game.  At first, some choices give off the impression that there are divergences in how the narrative will pay off, but the ultimate conclusion proves that nothing really mattered all along. Character customization is also extremely limited, as you can’t even switch out companion gear outside of select occasions. For an RPG, there isn’t a whole lot of role-playing going on.

The whole game part isn’t that great either. Origins flirted with strategic gameplay by including a third-person tactical view of the battlefield that allowed you to issue commands and take control of your companions. Dragon Age II says “nah” to most of that nonsense and focuses on button mashing. You can blow through most of the fights by spamming the most powerful attacks at your disposal and waiting for the timers to cool down. The only instances I experienced death were when the enemies popped out of thin air and dropped down right on top of me. The draw distance and low res textures on the console versions hamstring the otherwise decent character models and environmental work and make fights frantic and frustrating. And, this isn’t really a gameplay flaw, but why are everyone’s tits and muscles so big? It’s like every character is an oversized action figure.

Dragon Age II sets its sights lower than its predecessor, which is a strange way to follow up one of the biggest RPGs of the last gen. With ambitions set so high the first time around, it’s hard not to feel let down by this follow-up. For a franchise that made such a huge splash right out of the gate, it feels like a giant step back. As a spin-off title, it would be serviceable, but as a full-fledged sequel, it falls short. It’s sad, because there is a good game scratching under the rubble of what Dragon Age II ultimately became. Its compelling central conflict and complicated characters are buried under sloppy story-telling and rushed development. Hopefully, Inquisition sets the record straight before this franchise burns for good.

 

I guess it's better than going to prison out of 10

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