Dragon Age II: No soul, but all heart

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Yesterday I told you that Dragon Age II didn’t have a soul, and that was why I thought it would always be in the shadow of its predecessor, Origins. I’m not entirely sure how far I want to take this analogy, but even if Dragon Age II has no soul, it has plenty of heart.

After the jump, I let go and learn to love again

I’ve told you all how I feel about almost every pertinent aspect of Dragon Age II. I hope my affection for the masterpiece that was Dragon Age: Origins has also been apparent. I know I have spent more time dwelling on the bad than the good over the past two weeks, and to some extent I think that was for the benefit of the readers. If there is one thing I want to accomplish when I write (well, other than writing well) it’s being as critical as necessary so that consumers know what they are getting into. There are great, imaginative, important games that are deeply, fundamentally flawed. There are games without a bug to be found, gorgeous beyond compare, which hit every bullet point on a marketing checklist that play like watching paint dry.

Dragon Age II is a flawed game, with an innovative core held back by unnecessarily narrow design decisions. Dragon Age II is often full of changes made for the sake of doing something different, and Dragon Age II was undeniably rushed. But it has something; not the warmth and soul of its predecessor, not the legacy of old-school isometric Bioware RPGs. It has a style and presence that brings something different and important to the traditional fantasy RPG tropes.

Qunari are now fierce berserkers from the north, horns spiraling out of the sides of their stark white hair. Flemeth is a noble, cruel, beautiful witch who finally looks as imperious as she sounds. The paper-doll style avatars of Origins are replaced by character models with personality and some much needed flair in their animations. Combat is less of a slow, mushy, exercise in placement and more of a rapid, almost desperate race against overwhelming hordes — something that fits entirely with the game world.

The world and the story are only fractionally as large, involved, and detailed as Origins, but the focused design allows the player to grow with the world in a way that wasn’t possible with such a sprawling, epic adventure in Origins. Kirkwall becomes your city even if the game neglects to tailor it to you as player the way it could. The world does change with you; decisions you make don’t just affect the affection of your party or the resolution of a quest hub, they affect the fate and direction of an entire city over the course of a decade. Your personality, distilled into three often less than satisfying choices on a chat wheel, actually matters, and helps shape the champion you will become and the people you will lead.

Dragon Age II is full of fetch quests, copy-and-paste dungeons, and not enough variety in locations and enemies. It also has some of the most exciting, engaging, attractive combat of any party based RPG in years, exceptional voice-acting, and an idea of what it wants to be that it holds on to with a death grip, never letting go. It’s a game that takes time to like, more time to get annoyed with, and even more time to appreciate again. It’s worth it though. Dragon Age II is not the sequel it should have been, and it’s missing the spark that makes a game epic. Dragon Age II never stops trying though, never lets up on humor, wistfulness, and the combat that defines it. It tries its heart out, and I love the game for it.

(Click here for the previous Dragon Age II game diary.)