Saturday, July 1, 2017

Dragon Age 2 (Part 2): Positively Dickensian

Anytime you make Merrill cry, somewhere
a unicorn dies alone.
My favorite thing about DA2 while experiencing the game's storyline was its immediacy and intimacy. When you're playing, the focus is less on where the next battle is, and more often simply on your Hawke's attempts  to survive on a seven-year character journey that's positively Dickensian—arriving as a penniless refugee fleeing the darkspawn attacks in Lothering and rising through the years to become an actual political power in Kirkwall.

That Lothering beginning is an especially clever way to tie Dragon Age II immediately to Dragon Age: Origins, as Lothering was a key location in the plot early on, and it was where we met DAO companions Leliana and Sten. Lothering was later utterly obliterated shortly after our time there—overrun by darkspawn. (I still remember how shocked I was when I could no longer go back to Lothering in DAO... it hit me like a punch to the gut, because the town no longer existed. It had been utterly obliterated. That cute kid you talked to? Likely dead. The sweet villager who helped you find your way? Dead.)

The fact that Hawke's story and DA2 plays out in a single city and its surrounding areas (well, mostly—we do get to run off to the coast or up a nearby mountain) can mean that the action at times feels slightly claustrophobic, but it also becomes home for us, and for our Hawke protagonist, in a way that isn't always possible in gaming, even in RPGs. Somehow, the longer you play, Kirkwall becomes home, and your companions become friends, lovers, and family. Hawke has a home complete with relatives and servants (lovable returning characters Bodahn and Sandal) that it's easy to become attached to. She even has a faithful Mabari war hound just as in DAO (thanks to the free Black Emporium DLC), and as each year passes, her friendships or rivalries become richer or more heated, all the time building up for a final confrontation in which all must choose sides, and in which more than a few hearts may break (or stop beating altogether).

Relationships, rivalries and romances add richness to DA2. Here,
my female Hawke is making a terrible life choice with Anders
At times, Hawke can be a cipher—a potentially Randian hero/ine who's also dangerously close to serving as a pretty classic Mary Sue. But for me, at least, she's also more than that. As a small player who only becomes a medium one (at least in my three playthroughs to date), she's real and believable. And she embodies the timeline of most people who become pulled into great events simply by proximity, even against their will. Hawke isn't seeking celebrity. She isn't out for renown. My Hawke, at least, simply stepped in where she had to, where she witnessed injustice or bullying and couldn't let it stand. For this reason, I loved the way, storywise, Hawke was slowly drawn into a moral and political struggle she wanted no part of. It felt both timely and believable, especially in today's turbulent world.

Ultimately, the action in Dragon Age II is more intimate and set on a somewhat smaller scale, but this means that it can frequently also burn hotter and more fiercely. The stakes often feel higher because you're so often simply fighting for Hawke or her loved ones, fighting for them to eat, live, love, and carve a space in the world. Above the fray, meanwhile, and year after year, the stakes grow ever higher, as Templar Knight-Commander Meredith's imbalanced obsession with oppressing the (already imprisoned) Circle Mages and mage apostates continues to mount, even as the mages' elegant and secretive Grand Enchanter Orsino tries to calm her fears... and fails.

Hello, Old Friends...

Familiar faces from DAO abound in DA2—beyond Bodahn and Sandal, we meet our old friend Cullen, the naive Templar survivor from DAO who is now the Kirkwall second-in-command (and, it must be noted, who is palpably hotter than he was in the last game, even if he still looks sleepless and haunted). We also reunite early on with the mysterious hedge witch Flemeth (once again voiced by the incomparable Kate Mulgrew), who looks like she went to a spa after the last game because she looks fabulous, right down to her awesome new hair-horns. Seriously. Look at them. They're fantastic.

Flemeth, is that you?
We also meet our old friend and former DAO companion Alistair (if he survived, that is—although whether he's King, a Grey Warden, or a sodden drunk will depend on the choices you made in DAO), as well as glimpsing the world's sweetest and deadliest bard, Leliana just around the edges. Providing another callback to DAO, the Chantry is once again a major player, and we get a much bigger glimpse of Qunari culture with the presence of a shipwrecked Arishok and his troops (as always, I found myself crushing more than a little on the Arishok, just as I'd done on Sten in DAO and The Iron Bull in DAI, so, um, evidently I have a serious weakness for Qunari men).

Rivalries and Respawns

Does Dragon Age II have flaws? Sure, on a minor level. The Kirkwall setting can get a little confining, and the night quests throughout the city's seedier areas can get really tiresome, simply because you'll have to fight an endlessly respawning series of slavers and thieves. But the story! the characters! I have to forgive that stuff when they give me the chance to know people like Isabela, Fenris, Merrill and Anders. It's all ultimately pretty thrilling and beautifully paced. Inevitably, events and passions come to a head in DA2 in a way that feels inevitable, however tragic they may ultimately end up. The characters are so nuanced and well-written that they act believably according to their natures, and those actions lead to love, kindness and illumination, as well as to devastating loss on all sides. If you don't navigate a very delicate tightrope for darling Merrill, for instance, as gentle and sweet as she is, her loyalty mission can become the game's biggest tragedy, a bloodbath that upset me so much I had to turn the game off.

In addition, the DA2 dialogue wheel is also something of a step down from the huge array of stacked conversation options and directions of DAO, and that means your dialogue responses can certainly be simpler when it comes to some conversations. However, there are still plenty of times when the dialogue is genuinely complex and beautiful nevertheless, and those conversations involve companions and characters who I could argue are actually more mature, complicated and unique than those in DAO (something I also felt was true in DAI). Best of all? If you choose to play her as a bit of a wisecracker, Hawke is frequently hilarious ("I have an excellent sense of dramatic timing. And good hair."). 

Game over, man! Game over!
The complex, funny and heartfelt dialogues and banters are where the characters really shine. For instance, at a key point, Isabela turns to confront Anders, who is pontificating about mage rights (as he tends to do), and rather than responding with her usual wisecracks, she says, "Has it occurred to you that maybe there's no justice in the world? Other than that voice you keep in your head?" This actually silences him, and it's a genuinely poignant moment.

Their conversation continues in a later banter between the two:

Anders: There is justice in the world.
Isabela: Is there? You want to free the mages. Let's say you do, but to get there, you kill a bunch of innocent people. What about them? Don't they then deserve justice?
Anders: Yes.
Isabela: And then what? Where does it end? It's like a bar brawl. People are continuously pulled into the fray, and nobody remembers why it started. Justice is an idea. It makes sense in a world of ideas, but not in our world.

Like the best tales, Dragon Age II is well worth savoring, and it culminates in a shocking and genuinely jaw-dropping dramatic moment that had me thinking for days. Whether or not what happened was justice? It's a question that will continue to be debated online for years to come.

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