This article contains spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II. You've been warned!
It's easy to forget now, but Dragon Age: Origins was originally meant to be a return to BioWare's roots.
Though not exactly Baldur's Gate, it was definitely crunchier than Mass Effect, which had many RPG elements but was also a shooter (the sequel even more so). It had its flaws, and reviews of the world were mixed, but most seemed to agree that BioWare's new fantasy world was off to a good start. Then Dragon Age II showed up and all bets were off.
The drastic changes wrought in Dragon Age II has made it difficult in some ways for the series to establish an identity, as it's been sent boomeranging from heavy action to tactics and strategy. It's weathered its fair share of criticism over the years, but no one can accuse the series of playing it safe.
Since Dragon Age: Inquisition just around the corner, I thought it would be worthwhile to recap the series so far, its various successes and failures, and where it might go from here.
Dragon Age: Origins
Quite a bit more happened in Dragon Age: Origins than I remembered.
That shouldn't be a shock, but as I browsed Dragon Age Keep, I kept remembering decisions that had sat long forgotten in my memory. Oh right, I made Alistair the king. And there was the demon baby. And the heroic sacrifice.
It all felt pretty momentous at the time; but when Dragon Age II came around a couple years later, most of the decisions were swept under the rug, which I'll get to in a bit. These days, Dragon Age: Origins feels curiously isolated from the rest of the series, almost like a spinoff of sorts despite laying the groundwork for what was to come.
The setup goes something like this: Monsters called darkspawn have revived a demonic Archdemon, which now stands ready to destroy the world. The hero or heroine, whether they be human, elf, or dwarf, joins an organization called "The Grey Wardens" to stem the tide, defeat the Archdemon, and eventually crown a new king. Along the way, they deal with issues involving mages, elves, and werewolves, slowly building an army capable of combating the Archdemon.
Dragon Age: Origins' influences are all over the place, but one that jumps out immediately is A Song of Ice and Fire, better known to mainstream fans as Game of Thrones. While the similarities aren't exactly one for one, the notion of a group pledged to stop an oncoming monster invasion isn't so different from Game of Thrones' White Walkers, and Loghain's quest for the throne is certainly reminiscent for the ongoing battle for the Iron Throne. Of course, this is nothing new in the videogame space. Invariably, fantasy and sci-fi games borrow heavily from existing source material, whether they be Halo or Dragon Age.
Of course, Dragon Age also tries to vary things up a bit. As BioWare noted rather emphatically at the time, Dragon Age's elves aren't the typical immortal beings that we've come to know from Tolkien and elsewhere; rather, they're a beaten down race living in ghettos, with the Dalish being the more traditional nature-loving elves. Dwarves, meanwhile, are conniving politicians. And just to shake things up, Dragon Age even has female dwarves (sans beards, it should be added).
Looking back though, these are the three things that stand out to me the most about Dragon Age: Origins:
Magic: The relationship between the mages and the templars who guard them is one of the most important issues in Dragon Age, and it only grows with importance in Dragon Age II. Borrowing elements of Warhammer, most notably the notion of a chaos realm populated with demons who take over mages that experiment with blood magic or simply give themselves over to possession, it manages to stand out in a way that the elves and even the darkspawn did not. The question of whether mages should be free is dealt with repeated in Dragon Age, usually ending the mage becoming an abomination and having to be destroyed. Magic is not a fun thing to have in Dragon Age.
Morrigan: As the "Witch of the Wilds," Morrigan borders on cliché, but her unrepentant personality and chaotic nature makes her an interesting wildcard in Dragon Age. At the end of Origins, she conceives a being that is hinted to be something akin to Rosemary's Baby. I like her because she's less a person and more a force of nature, impacting the overall arc with unpredictable results. She's absent in Dragon Age II, but it looks she's back for Dragon Age: Inquisition. Whatever she's up to, it most likely isn't good, and that's just the way I like it.
The Deep Roads: Dragon Age's longest and most involved dungeon to date. I wrote the guide for Dragon Age: Origins for 1UP back in the day, and it took me almost a full day just to get through this area. It's kind of a nightmare, especially if you're under-leveled. Visting the Deep Roads also offers some insight into the nature of the darkspawn, and well... it's kind of gross. If you haven't played Dragon Age: Origins yet, I'll leave you to find it for yourself. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of tentacles involved.
The story ends with the defeat of the Archdemon, but not without some tremendous sacrifice. Ultimately, Dragon Age: Origins leaves behind quite a few dangling plot threads, with the assumption at the time being that they would be picked up by Dragon Age II at a later date. As it turned out, however, that was not the case.
Dragon Age II
In 2010, I traveled to EA Redwood City to see Dragon Age II, which was already under fire for being "dumbed down" in comparison to Origins. Lead designer Mike Laidlaw took me through some of the early stages and showed me the tactics, stressing again and again that it was an RPG and not an action game as some were purporting. And you know what? Mechanically speaking, Dragon Age II wasn't a terrible RPG. Though definitely more action-oriented, it still featured multiple skill trees, a decent range of equipment, and crafting. It was certainly deeper than Mass Effect 2. More importantly, it was a much better fit for consoles, which was not something that could be said for Dragon Age: Origins. Actually, as it turned out, Dragon Age II's combat was really the least of its worries.
Set in the city of Kirkwall, Dragon Age II introduces Hawke—the Dragon Age equivalent to Mass Effect's Shepard, who replaces the mute Grey Warden from the first game. His story takes place over the course of nearly a decade, culminating in what could best be described as Magical 9/11—a disaster that shakes the world to its core. It's actually not a bad premise for an RPG, and the concept of a story that takes place over the course of many years has been done well elsewhere, most notably in Dragon Quest V. But the execution... well, the execution isn't so great.
One of the unintentional consequences of confining much of the story to one city is that it makes the world feel almost claustrophobic, especially in comparison to the wide-ranging adventure of Dragon Age: Origins. The feeling is exacerbated by large number of recycled assets that pop up throughout each act. After a while, Kirkwall's basements start to feel really familiar.
Where it really falls apart, though, is in the final act. It's here that BioWare seems to simply run out of time, which I've been told in private is exactly what happened. With Mass Effect 3 looming the final year, BioWare likely felt the pressure to get the Dragon Age II out the door as soon as possible, and the final product suffered for it.
When Act 3 begins, Hawke has just finished dealing with the city's rather sticky racial tensions, but has yet to diffuse the escalating tensions between the Mages and the Templar who guard them. The handful of quests that ensue are pretty clearly meant to setup a choice between the Mages and the Templar; but when the big moment comes, it... doesn't matter in the least which side you choose. It doesn't even affect which boss you fight in the end. From what I can gather, BioWare was trying to make a statement about both sides being beyond redemption, but it mostly comes off as haphazard and unfinished.
As Dragon Age II ends, the Mages and Templar are at war with one another and the world is changed forever. Or so it seems. It ends on a cliffhanger, seemingly suggesting that Dragon Age: Inquisition will revolve around the magical conflict setting the countryside aflame. But based on what's been revealed thus far, that doesn't really seem to be the case. Even Hawke has been replaced as a key protagonist.
I suppose I understand why. After the backlash surrounding Dragon Age II, BioWare probably wants to make a clean break. But Dragon Age II wasn't all bad, especially through Act II, and it definitely had some really interesting ideas that simply weren't executed that well. Given another year or two in the oven, it might have been something really special. Such is the tyranny of release schedules.
With Dragon Age: Inqusition, BioWare is once again thinking big by introducing full-on open-world exploration, and they've had three years or more to make good on their vision. It'll be another reboot of sorts for a series full of them. Looking back, it's funny to think of Dragon Age: Origins being a throwback, since the latter games are the embodiment of BioWare's internal struggle over their desire to make RPGs while appealing to a broad audience of action lovers.
As you can probably tell, I've had mixed feelings about Dragon Age over the years. I appreciate its attempts to weave an epic fantasy world in the realm of gaming, but its efforts frequently come off as disjointed as the series pivots from one focus to the next. Its lack of a real identity often makes it hard to see where BioWare is trying to take it. And yet, the world is just compelling enough that I want to keep coming back.
We'll see whether Dragon Age: Inquisition can elevate the series beyond where it sits right now. It certainly has potential. For now though, it remains BioWare's red-headed stepchild.