Dragon Age Legends designer Soren Johnson is a weird fellow. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let me tell you about Electronic Arts’ Facebook tie-in for their Dragon Age games. At GDC, I said Dragon Age Legends was being promoted as “a Facebook game for people who hate Facebook games”. Johnson patiently corrected me that it was supposed to be “a Facebook game for people who like games”. His version is much more correct. Dragon Age Legends is clearly a Facebook game. It’s also an actual game.

After the jump, yeah, yeah, but does it suck, or what?

The short answer is “no”. This is actually a pretty cool tactical combat system, although maybe my perspective has been colored by trying to play Pokemon Black. I’ve never been able to bear with a Pokemon game long enough to find out whether the combat gets to be anything but simplistic and kid-proof. But I’ve stuck it out with Dragon Age Legends to see the combat model come into its own. I can safely say that, like the combat in Dragon Age proper, here’s a tactical battle system I’d love to see in an actual game.

But the obvious caveat is that it’s built for Facebook. It’s got its share of microtransactions and spam nags, but they’re easily enough ignored. The basic resource is time, so if you just wait long enough, like real life, eventually everything will happen. The castle building stuff is mainly a way to optimize how quickly you make consumable inventory items, which are actually crucial to how often you can fight. I particularly hate the tie-in to other EA games. Since I’ve registered with all of EA’s cloying social networking initiatives (i.e. entered my code in Xbox Live so I can actually play the multiplayer), I’ve got all this inappropriate and overpowered Mass Effect gear that’s making Legends’ already anemic loot chase even more inconsequential. Hey, look, I’m dressed us Arthur Asimov from Dead Space, so now I can sell everything I find!

But Dragon Age Legends’ chief value is as a Facebook-based SRPG timewaster in which your party members are the people on your friends list. And, frankly, this is a great idea, especially given that the combat model is about three times better than what you’d find in the average JRPG (and ten times better than Pokemon Black). Once Dragon Age Legends get challenging — for me, that started to happen around level 5 — it turns into a tactical puzzle where the tools are stealth, stunning, agility, defense vs. attack ratings, ranged and melee weapons, bombs, mana, tanking, positioning, a little resource management, resistance ratings, critical hits and fumbles, and more, all presented with a clear interface and slick stylish 2D graphics that are far better than anything in Dragon Age II that isn’t on a loading screen.

If you’ll indulge me, here’s how a fairly simple battle unfolded. I was facing a single wave of enemies (the tougher fights involve multiple waves), so I brought along my friend Thierry Nguyen’s low level rogue. The third party memeber was a stock character, since Dragon Age Legends gives you a few similarly leveled cohorts if you don’t have any friends on Facebook. When a character fights, he goes on a cooldown timer for several hours before you can use him again. So I was saving my big guns, the dudes who’ve been playing Dragon Age Legends as much as I have, for more challenging battles.

We’re facing a wolf, a bowman, a genlock, and a hurlock shaman. We pretty quickly take out the wolf and bowman. The generic AI warrior I’ve brought along uses his shield bash to stun the genlock for four turns, which aren’t really turns so much as pips on the player sequence along the bottom of the screen. Counting those pips is an important part of the tactical puzzle. So the genlock will technically only miss his next attack, and not really four turns. Oh, in case you’re not up on your Dragon Age fauna, a genlock is like a gorilla. Basically, a melee unit with lots of hit points.

So now we’re dealing with the shaman. As I’ve progressed farther into the game, magic users are turning out to be a force to contend with. In fact, it’s a pleasant surprise to discover touches like how a melee attack against someone in the same row does more damage than a melee attack to an adjacent row. For a Facebook game, more stuff matters than you’d think.

Now that we’ve isolated down this hurlock shaman, it’s killing time. Early on, I used a fire bomb to do a little damage and drain his mana. Bad guys will use bombs as well (I wonder if they’ll start using potions down the line, which might get dire). So this hurlock shaman is drained of mana and locked down behind a stunned genlock. For reasons of the agility stat, Thierry’s rogue — the character’s name is Stabbington — gets two attacks in a row. These might be his last attacks, since he’s down to half a heart from three hearts. Hit points are measured in half-heart increments, so Thierry’s down from six hit points to one hit point. If he dies, well…he misses out on the cash reward he’d otherwise get for being in my battle. Sorry, Thierry. Make this shot count.

He fires and gets a critical hit. He fires again and gets a second critical hit! Two in a row! When you get a critical hit, the player’s war cry pops up along with the picture from his Facebook profile. Unfortunately, it seems like Thierry hasn’t customized his war cry, which makes the moment a lot less dramatic. He might be disinvited from further battles until he comes up with a cleverer war cry. I’ve been varying mine. This being a Facebook game, my current war cry is sort of a nag. Sorry, but I figure it’s Facebook. You’re used to it.

So for everyone playing Dragon Age Legends, be sure to press the far left button labeled “View your character”. Then press the “Edit” button next to war cry. Now type in something that will amuse, entertain, or edify me when we’re in battle. Don’t be like Thierry. Which brings me to my opening comment about Soren Johnson being a weird guy. Here’s his war cry:

And by the way, like Dragon Age proper, the character development is driven by a nice set of skill trees for each of the classes. My summoner mage just hit level 7 and can now summon something called a bronto. Whatever this thing is (my familiarity with Dragon Age fauna doesn’t go much farther than genlocks), it’s huge, it’s powerful, it drools, and there’s no safer place to be than standing behind it. So if you play Dragon Age Legends, and you bring me into a battle, let me show you my bronto. I can also summon a wolf, a spider, a bear, and a killer deer. Seriously. Invite me along. Give me a few mana potions, and I’m a regular animal party! It’ll more than make up for whatever weird war cry I’m using on any given day.

3 stars