My first 25 hours with Dragon Age: Origins were a miserable affair. What began as an interesting, if rather derivative, work of dark fantasy quickly turned into an uphill battle against horrid controls and seemingly insurmountable odds. It is thus a testament to the work of BioWare that my next 75 hours were some of the most engaging and fun I’ve had with an RPG in years.
The story of Dragon Age will be familiar to anyone who has even the slightest bit of knowledge of anything fantasy related. An evil horde of orc-like creatures called the Darkspawn has risen (as they do every millennium or so, naturally) and seek the destruction of everything in their path. It is your job as a last remaining Grey Warden to stem the tide of darkness and bring order back to the land. Calling the story derivative doesn’t really do it any justice, however. Most of today’s best movies and television shows are just revisiting old material. No, the important thing about Dragon Age’s story is that it is told well and the background given to the world is certainly on par with the deep histories developed by Blizzard. Important plot details and various intricacies of the world are stored in a handy codex for easy viewing. Better still, you don’t have to read through this mountain of material to understand the overall narrative. Dragon Age may tell a simple story, but it is fleshed out quite nicely. The voice acting is also superb, which certainly helps to immerse you in the setting.
The Origins subtitle stands for DA’s most unique feature (other than underwear sex, but we’re getting there). After creating your character, you take part in a short origin story giving your avatar place and purpose in the world. These tales range from elves living in poverty under human rule to noble dwarves fighting the Darkspawn that knock on the door to their underground kingdom. I did find that these stories shaped the way I (and thus my character) interacted with the world, which is probably the highest praise I can give. My elf rogue had little time for the plights of humanity, having suffered far too long under the oppression of the round-ears. My human mage, on the other hand, was a kind and gentle soul looking for his place in a world that feared his immense power.
The origin story also serves as the tutorial, which is where the problems start. Dragon Age starts out fairly easy. Combat takes place in real time, though you can pause to properly analyze the battlefield at any point. I had little trouble assigning targets, selecting skills, and developing tactics (quite similar to the gambit system in Final Fantasy XII). Soon after this opening tutorial, however, Dragon Age takes the training wheels off. I had just come to terms with controlling my party and exploring the environment and I was tasked with a battle against nearly ten Darkspawn. Needless to say, my four-man party quickly fell.
This is where BioWare drops the ball. The tutorial just doesn’t teach the game mechanics properly. It’s like asking a six-year old to swim the English Chanel after just taking off their water wings. The difficulty of the encounters ramps up quickly, and each one is scripted in such a way that you are constantly on tilt, trying to find your footing as new situations encumber your party. One minute you’re effectively handling a dozen zombies, and then a door flings open and in walks a wizard capable of sending your team on an express trip to hell.
These problems are compounded by two key issues. Firstly, the tactics system mentioned earlier simply doesn’t work. No matter how many times I tinkered with the settings, I was never able to get my party working properly. My warriors are supposed to take pressure off the mages by using certain skills, but even when this is set as their highest priority tactic they still take it is a mere suggestion. This leads to a fine mage-like paste on the ground after a giant ogre realizes where the fireball came from and barrels into my front lines. After fooling with the system for hours, I just settled on pausing and assigning targets and skills for each of my characters. PC players will have an easier time than console gamers given our ability to rotate and zoom the camera on the battlefield, but it still feels like I’m playing the game incorrectly. Why include the tactics system if the bloody thing won’t work?
The second problem is the game’s balance, or lack thereof. With only three classes to choose from, you’d think BioWare could even out the playing field, but they have done just the opposite. Warriors are simply used to soak damage and keep your mages and rogues alive. Rogues can do wicked amounts of damage to a single target if properly positioned for a backstab (they’re not ripping off D&D, are they?). But all of this pales in comparison to the mages. A single mage can effectively wipe out an entire room of enemies with one or two skills. Combine this with their ability to immobilize huge groups easily and we are talking about the fantasy equivalent of a tactical nuclear strike.
Or maybe not. You see, the mage is the easiest character to “break” in Dragon Age. You have a mind-boggling number of skills to choose from, and no real way of knowing their effectiveness unless you give them the old “college try”. I ended up completely ruining my first party because I focused on damage dealing spells with my main character instead of the pivotal crowd control ones. I effectively gimped my whole party without even realizing it. I would die on nearly every battle as I had no way of dealing with the large mobs BioWare seemed to spawn out of thin air. After nearly throwing my laptop across the room in disgust, I set aside Dragon Age for nearly a month.
I made a return trip to Ferelden after reading up on some message boards about how to create the perfect party. This min-max approach to the game produced results. I found the most powerful spell in the game, which turned my entire experience with DA around. One spell allowed me to complete the game with relative ease. When I wasn’t worried about constantly dying because of overwhelming odds, I actually found the game quite enjoyable. I had to stay on my toes, however, particularly towards the very end where the number of enemies on screen began to resemble the evacuation of an anthill.
But even when you have the game figured out, DA can still screw you. Enemy mages are just as dangerous as player controlled ones; maybe even more so because they don’t seem to care about the friendly fire damage from area of effect spells. One mage could kill my whole party with a well placed fireball, which will really infuriate you off when you haven’t saved in nearly an hour. There were also points when the enemies would literally spawn behind my party from a room I had just previously explored. Seeing as how I keep my mages in the back line, you can see how this could quickly become a problem.
For all my complaints, however, this is a very fun and rewarding game. You can’t help but smile when all of your skills and planning pay off as your party quickly dispatches a large number of enemies. That being said, when the wheels come off the bus it’s almost impossible to get back on the road. You can easily lose control of the situation if you don’t properly assign attacks and heal wounded party members. It is a high risk, high reward type of game, which can certainly get the blood flowing. You can feel like a genius one minute and then a complete dunce the next. The game is never boring, that’s for sure. Character progression is also of great importance. Each skill you gain really makes your party feel stronger. Finding the best combinations of active and passive skills can make the whole game much easier. You can easily win or lose a battle based on the skills you have chosen. This element brings great satisfaction or utter hopelessness based on your decisions before combat even begins.
Of course combat isn’t the only part of Dragon Age. The world created by BioWare is certainly interesting. The amount of history here rivals a high school textbook, and it’s all cleverly hidden in the environment. If you’re neurotic like me, you’ll probably spend hours running around trying to find every codex entry (thank God they give you experience for this freakin’ scavenger hunt).
The characters are also wonderful. Maybe I’ve just been saturated with kooky JRPG characters, but I found the citizens of Ferelden to be fairly engaging and full of mystery. I selected party members based on personality, which is a first for me. You can also build relationships with them by talking in camp about their personal problems or by giving them gifts. Get their affection toward you high enough, and you can possibly have a crack at them in the sack in what is probably the most awkward sex scene ever in a video game. Watching two computer models roll over each other in their underwear is just demeaning for all involved.
I immediately fired up a second character after completion, and found that the world was even deeper than I originally thought. The way the origin stories weave multiple characters (some who will treat you completely differently based on your race) and events together is remarkable. There are also plenty of decisions to make during your quest to unite the land against the Darkspawn, and many of these have direct impact on the final battle. Part of the reason I have three completed characters is because I simply wanted to see all the possible outcomes of my actions. I actually regretted saving one character from my first game after I played through the city elf origin story. How was I supposed to know what sort of man he really was?
When I finally figured out the proper way to play DA, I found a deeply rewarding and fun experience. I can’t help but feel, however, that a more robust tutorial would have helped. Asking players to juggle multiple characters, skills, positions, enemy placements, and environmental effects is just ridiculous without proper direction. Once I figured out how to play, though, I did find the game a bit too easy, and had to up the difficulty, and even that wasn’t enough to stop my perfected party. Combat is basically a puzzle that, once solved, really doesn’t provide any challenge unless the game decides to play dirty (stupid mages…). Dragon Age does allow for some experimentation, but it will brutalize you for mistakes in battle. BioWare has crafted a truly remarkable game, but don’t be surprised if you have to pour over an FAQ to find the right combination for your party.