Dragon Age So Far: A Look Back

We recap the series to date and examine its strengths and weaknesses as an RPG.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

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.

Before Call of Duty Dog, there was Dragon Age Dog, and he was great.

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).

Dragon Age as it was originally envisioned: A reasonably crunch RPG with a focus on party tactics.

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, the Witch of the Wilds

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.

Flemeth likes to flit in and out out of Dragon Age. No one really knows what she or her daughter Morrigan really want.

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.

Pretty much everything to do with the Qunari in Dragon Age II was great.

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.

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Comments 14

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  • Avatar for metalangel #1 metalangel 4 years ago
    Try as I might, I just couldn't love Dragon Age: Origins as much as I wanted to. Instead of an epic adventure, it felt padded beyond belief. Each dungeon seemed to stretch on forever, each fight seemed to stretch on forever, and I just wasn't having as much fun as I'd hoped to.

    I think the turning point was the Werewolf bit (minor spoilers?). An extremely long wander around the forest until I even reach the ruins, and then the ruins themselves the world's most obvious "This door leads directly to the final encounter, but you can't open it until after" bit. When I started taking the only route around the ruins, and encountered yet more frigging skeletons, I'd had enough. I didn't care any more. I just wanted to get the game over with. What a shame.

    Incidentially, did anyone prefer Morrigan's original concept art look? I think it's much better than the one in the final game: Edited November 2014 by metalangel
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  • Avatar for WorstClassic #2 WorstClassic 4 years ago
    BioWare is one of the companies that have made a name for themselves by advocating and trying to "not repel women." So when we write about characters we should make descriptions vague enough that we don't contradict a player's choices, or assume a preference. e.g. Hawke isn't a "he".
    Also, I am continuing to push broHawke as the term for male Hawkes (also: broShep). Thank you.

    I could write the angriest screed about the Dragon Age series and its weird choices. But the biggest one is that DA:O isn't really a "dark fantasy" title (gentle reader, you can and should amend qualifiers like, "as I understand it." to all of my opinions as necessary to stave off an equally angry counter-tirade). "Dark Fantasy" is supposed to be a setting in which the evils arrayed against what we know (i.e. humanoids) are unknowable. Like what you'd imagine would result if Tolkien spent more time having a rivaly-bromance with Lovecraft instead of C.S.Lewis. DA2 is much more about the frailty of the main character and their inability to actually control a situation rapidly spiraling out of control. In DA:O, as much as the Warden clashes with unknown or unknowable evils, the Warden triumphs. Further, the Warden triumphs beyond any reasonable expectation (so much so that some people in DA2 talk about the Blight you thwart in DA:O being a hoax).
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  • Avatar for artrexdenthur #3 artrexdenthur 4 years ago
    @WorstClassic Interesting... Are there any examples of your definition of "Dark Fantasy"? And where does the origin of that (presumably original) definition lie? I'm genuinely curious.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #4 Kat.Bailey 4 years ago
    @WorstClassic I appreciate the sentiment, but I find it hilariously ironic to be lectured on Hawke or Shep's gender. Just saying.
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  • Avatar for darksoulsplayedme #5 darksoulsplayedme 4 years ago
    Pretty much completely agree with this entire article. I also share your concerns for Inquisition and have held off on buying the game until I get some honest reactions to the game. Great reading, keep up the work.
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  • Avatar for Namevah #6 Namevah 4 years ago
    @metalangel I also like Morrigan's original look, but with Origins being a generally ugly game, I assume they simply couldn't recreate that artwork.

    Dragon Age is a franchise I wish I could love, but have to settle with really liking. I enjoyed Origins enough that after I returned it to Blockbuster, I immediately went to the store and bought my own copy. Even so, the entirety of Orzammar/Deep Roads should be wiped out of existence, or at least my memories. It lasts too damn long and the environments are dull. I have similarly torn thoughts about DA2, but my criticisms match everyone's. I hope that Inquisition breaks that streak.

    By the way, are we sure that Hawke was sacked because of DA2's reception?Edited 2 times. Last edited November 2014 by Namevah
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  • Avatar for nickn #7 nickn 4 years ago
    I hope this game delivers. I loved Origins, stopped mudway through DA2.
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  • Avatar for orient #8 orient 4 years ago
    I played a good 25 hours of Origins and, having never played Baldur's Gate et al., I struggled with the combat (I played on PC for reference). That wasn't my main issue with the game, though: it just felt a bit bland, and the scope of the world didn't fit the epic narrative they were attempting to weave. The node-based world map felt small, and most of the exploration was confined to repetitive dungeons.

    I didn't hate it by any means; it's clearly a solid cRPG, but if it came out today in the wake of the recent resurgence in the genre, I'm not sure it'd receive such fanatical reviews.
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  • Avatar for WorstClassic #9 WorstClassic 4 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey I'm sorry if my comment was rude or overly lecture-y. It feels like every time I think I've made progress on "not being a jerk" I'm wrong or making another misstep.

    That doesn't excuse not trying to be better though.

    I also confess don't understand what's ironic about the nitpicks.
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  • Avatar for WorstClassic #10 WorstClassic 4 years ago
    @artrexdenthur I wouldn't presume that my imprecise, descriptions of Dark Fantasy are definitive (have you ever heard a descriptive format quite so "High School" as "Z is what you'd get if X and Y had a baby"?)

    At time of writing (201411110048CST), the wikipedia article on "Dark Fantasy" says that, "A strict definition for dark fantasy is difficult to pin down." But that it incorporates elements of horror. I was first clued into it when I was trying to figure out the big tone-shift from DA:O to DA2. I found a blog article somewhere that I've since forgotten, which compared the two games as "Dark Fantasies" by a less juvenile definition. So I'm afraid I also have to decline any credit for originality here.

    I think that this is also represented in a few other games. Demon/Dark Souls seem like they both execute on this (but I've never finished them). Of course, genre distinctions are (ostensibly) not to diminish art, they're to help you analyze art by the juxtaposition. We could, if we really wanted, call KotOR a Dark Fantasy game and ask ourselves how it fails or succeeds in meeting the expectations that definition puts forward. What is this "Force" up to anyway? Why do so many people seem to trust in its benevolence?

    I'm not even trying to say DA:O fails as Dark Fantasy. There's a lot of body-horror going on in DA:O, and lots of ((un-)sexy?) violence. But playing so many games, I'm really used to the idea that I have agency. Horror (and I am being reductive here) is when that illusion of agency (or its, pardon my French, puissance) is challenged or shattered.
    DA2 does that. DA:O does not.
    DA2 doubled down on the "Dark Fantasy" label.
    DA:O was a BioWare Hero's Journey set in a gritty (maybe even dark) fantasy world.

    At the risk of running overlong:
    Don't mistake me, I still like DA:O. I also like DA2 (even if I'm way worse at its systems). But I feel that the marketing (or maybe just dev talking point) choice to talk about the series as "Dark Fantasy" and a Baldur's Gate (2) gameplay revival, are the apertures through which the most interesting critiques of Dragon Age are to be seen.Edited November 2014 by WorstClassic
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  • Avatar for WorstClassic #11 WorstClassic 4 years ago
    @Namevah The Deep Roads segment is actually one of those places where I believe DA:O is trying to have its mechanics make you feel the story. Doubly so if you bump up the combat difficulty.

    It's a big, threatening place where almost every encounter can end with failure. It's meant to evoke the dread players of old D&D modules would experience when they realized that they were short on resources in a place that hated them. A place riddled with traps, (insert "eviL" humanoid of choice), and somewhere on the far end of all of that, a glimmer of hope for survival and victory.

    It's no secret that the old guard of BioWare has old school D&D burned into their souls, and that they've sacrificed untold hours on the old Gold Box games. I don't know if they succeeded. I'm very certain they tried.

    Re: Hawke
    Re-using Hawke as the PC would clash a bit with the idea that the star of Dragon Age isn't any mortal character, but Thedas itself. It need not be a desire to make a clean break from the rushed product of DA2. In fact, I find that unlikey, because a lot of DA2's continuity fan-service comes in the form of Dragon Age: Origins Awakening characters. And... Well, of all of the Dragon Age games I've played? The Awakening expansion is the only one that managed to shatter my suspension of disbelief.

    I'm really glad Kat didn't touch on it.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #12 VotesForCows 4 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Thanks for this, it was interesting. I'm hoping to play Inquisition, but I haven't played Origins or 2. Good to get a bit of background.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #13 hal9k 4 years ago
    Great analysis. I actually have to credit Dragon Age with getting me into A Song of Ice and Fire. I was never a big fantasy reader (I'd read a little Tolkien and King's Dark Tower books if they count, but that's it). However, I found the game's setting really interesting when it first came out, and I read an article somewhere saying (as Kat did) that it was heavily influenced by Martin's work. So I picked up Game of Thrones and blew through the 4 books out at the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas of '09. Then I got to feel cool for being into something before my friends, and I got to act like a smarmy jerk before every big plot twist in the show. Thanks, Dragon Age!

    Sorry to get off-topic, but incidentally, that experience opened the door to some great recent fantasy series for me. Naming the first title in each series, I've enjoyed Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, and Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings. I'm currently reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is also great so far. Does anyone have other suggestions?Edited November 2014 by hal9k
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  • Avatar for metalangel #14 metalangel 4 years ago
    @Namevah Morrigan just looked old, and gaunt. Her face was given too much definition and so her supposed backstory of relative isolation didn't seem to match this older looking woman compared to the younger one in the concept art.

    Orzimmar's exploration/conversation bits were great but the Deep Roads... ugh. I felt like I spent the whole game in ruins fighting skeletons, regardless of which quest I was supposedly on.
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