I fear I'll need to put Shadow of the Colossus on indefinite hold. It's a gorgeous game, with one of the most amazing, wide-open worlds I've ever seen, and I love the concept (a game with nothing but epic boss fights), but in practice, it has proven extremely frustrating. The boss fights are essentially puzzles, but they're puzzles that also require precise timing and aim to solve. I get very annoyed when I know exactly what I need to do, then fail in my repeated attempts to do that thing. The game scans as a strategic experience, but requires fine-tuned reflexes to progress, and the rewards so far just haven't been worth the irritation.
So instead I'm returning to the fertile ground of Dragon Age. This has been quite wonderful - after a very long period spent essentially retreading old ground (albeit with a different character and a very different tactical experience), I'm finally moving into new territory, experiencing for the first time the story's extension beyond the finale of Origins. I've been very impressed at what I've seen, and I think that largely has to do with my lowered expectations. While Origins was released to great praise, its DLC generally received middling reviews. There was a great deal of righteous grumbling over the day-one DLC that set a poor tone. Later entries generally received favorable reactions, but were often described as poor values for the price. (Which nicely sums up my own contemporary feelings about the Mass Effect: Omega DLC: a great game, but hard to justify at that price.)
Awakening, in particular, inspired a bit of a backlash: priced at $30, it was close to the cost of a new game, and may have been one of the more expensive expansions ever. So people compared it to other full games, and found it wanting: a shorter story than Origins, no romances. Where most people were expecting a full game and were disappointed, my reaction has been the opposite: I'd essentially gotten it "for free" in the Ultimate edition, and was expecting a slightly-longer version of other DLCs like Leliana's Song or Darkspawn Chronicles. Instead, I've been delighted to see that it's, well, actually more like a whole new game. There are a bunch of new companions, a major new quest line (with a lot of mystery in its arc), and a huge number of side-quests. Not to mention all the new art! Totally new environments, some cool effects (a marshy area that starts out gloomy, and becomes even darker later when rain starts to fall), very detailed character models (I like the darker-skinned look to Amaranthine citizens, which contrasts with the English pallor of much of Ferelden), and mostly new monsters.
Not to mention all the new systems, which I had first encountered in my anachronistic run at Witch Hunt but came to appreciate in Awakening. I touched on this a bit in my earlier post, but the new abilities and skills open up a lot of new options for your characters. If you wanted to, you could build a Rogue as a tank. Two new specializations are available for each class, and you'll get an extra specialization available to spend at level 22; the new specializations are intriguing without feeling unbalanced. For lore reasons, I was delighted to be able to make Kiriyon a Keeper, and thus connect with her Elven heritage.
One note on combat: I'd earlier noticed a more dynamic flow of combat in Witch Hunt. That's also the case in Awakening, but in addition to that style of combat (where you keep running forward through further rooms of enemies), there are also other types of fights where reinforcements arrive. This adds another interesting layer of strategy, especially for mage characters like myself. If I unload all my spells early, I can take down the first enemy before reinforcements arrive, which can help us avoid getting swarmed. However, if I use up all my magic early, I might not have as many Area-of-Effect spells available that could be used against groups of enemies later in the encounter. From a design perspective, I like it when enemies arrive to the battlefield organically (wolves running down from the hills, skeletons climbing up from the earth). However, there's also an unpleasant tendency to spawn enemies directly behind you, from an area you just cleared. I can accept some of this if the lore supports it (like Shrieks), but when it happens too much it begins to feel artificial. I think I now have a better understanding of where Dragon Age 2's system of "waves of enemies materializing" came from, and can now see the good instincts that prompted it, while also seeing the line they crossed that made it such a hated type of battle.
But, man oh man, what I wouldn't give for a wider or taller quickbar. It isn't too bad for my rogues or warriors; even at nearly level 30, they can fit on all their abilities and craft skills, and still have a good number of slots left over. My spell casters, though, have been full for a long time now, and any time I learn a new spell, I need to figure out what old spell I'll get rid of. (Yeah, I know that technically they're all still available from the Abilities window, but in practice, if I don't see it in my quickbar, I don't remember that it exists.) I think there's a mod for an extended quickbar, but I haven't bothered installing it yet.
Oh! Speaking of mods - for a while, it really bummed me that the No Helmet Rulebook didn't work in Awakening, and I was rudely reminded of the fact that all mage caps exist somewhere on a continuum between hideous and comical. Fortunately, I found an old post that explained how to make this mod (or any other Origins mod) work in Awakening, and after a quick trip to my text editor, I had it working again. Another mod I had some belated trouble with was JB3 Textures - they looked great, for the most part, but I noticed that in some of the new Awakening maps (notably Amaranthine and the Blackmarsh) the ground texture was completely black. After some more forum-hunting, I found that this could be resolved by removing some of the JB3 files (specifically the ones ending in _pam), and after that, the default textures showed right back up. Once again, I'm pretty impressed at how… modular DA's mods are, so they can support this kind of tweaking when something goes wrong.
Okay, I think I'm finally ready to start talking about plot now!
MINI SPOILERS (for Awakening, Mega for Origin)
It took me a while to realize that Awakening wasn't just another DLC. The first mission throws you right into combat almost immediately, and while there are other NPCs, it's a very action-oriented affair. The new companions seemed interesting and well-designed, but at first glance they don't appear much more fleshed-out than the couple I had briefly traveled with during Witch Hunt.
The complexity of the game started to dawn on me after I had rescued the keep from the invaders. I really, REALLY like what they did with the story here: Bioware has managed to pull off the rare feat of letting you make a character one of the most powerful and influential people in the world… and then remain in that status. Even the incredible Baldur's Gate series, which let you raise a character up to near godlike status, would start each new expansion by kicking you out of the place where you had become famous and making you start over again (socially, if not in skill).
In contrast, your role at the start of Awakening is clear: you are the hero of Ferelden, a close confidante of the monarch, famous enough that people either recognize you on sight, or else don't believe you when you claim your identity. Not only that, but you're entering a unique situation: in my game, Queen Anora has given me ownership of Arl Howe's ancestral lands. (Of course, the details of this will play out differently depending on your own choices; at least one bit of dialog early in my game referred to 'The King', which made me worried that the game wouldn't recognize that I had put Anora alone on the throne, but fortunately that was an isolated mistake. Also, apparently if you create a new Warden just for the expansion, you have a new origin: an Orlesian. It would be interesting to re-play as that sometime to see how it affects others' reaction to you.) This makes you essentially of an equal status with a Fereldan Arl, with all that implies: you own the lands, and are responsible for making major decisions: how to allocate your limited number of soldiers, whether to invest personal gold in upgrading your keep's defenses, and, coolest of all, navigating the intrigues of your court. I suppose that some players might be bored at the prospect of focusing on making merchants happy, keeping open supply lines, and other high-level objectives; but personally, I'm delighted to have an RPG that does this, and it's some of the most fun I've had in a while. (It isn't entirely unprecedented, even for Bioware - there are some nice parallels between the de'Arnise keep in Baldur's Gate 2 with your experiences as an Arl in Awakening).
This situation also has some interesting, resonant implications for the politics and history of Thedas. The Grey Wardens have historically eschewed any political position in Ferelden, largely because of the disastrous experiences of Sophia Dryden at Warden's Peak. However, as we have heard before, that isn't an intrinsic obligation of Wardens generally; for example, the heart of the Grey Warden order in Weisshaupt (!!) is obsessively involved with power struggles in the Anderfels. So this is a big opportunity for you, and, if you do well, it could have significant implications on how the order is perceived in the future, and what kind of influence it can wield.
Let's talk about companions!
stealing from George R. R. Martin. That said, as soon as I had a choice for another mage in my party, I dropped Anders without too much worry (though I'd already gotten his Affection up to nearly 100, and did enjoy my later talks with him).
I'd avoided any spoilers about Awakening, but accidentally stumbled across brief mentions of some of the companions. This actually made me kind of happy; it was too bad to miss the surprise, but on the plus side, I was able to prioritizing visiting the places where I was likely to meet them. This let me acquire them relatively early (although still not early - this is a VERY long game!), which (a) let me have them in my party for longer and for more events, and (b) gave me more guidance over how to level them. (For some reason, which I don't really understand, the game seems to automatically assign all stat points when you acquire a new character, and also assigns many, but not all, skill and ability points. Its decisions tend to be very poor in general, and borderline catastrophic if you intend to use a character in a specialized role like a tank or a healer.)
Lanaya the First or my dear Shianni. Velanna is less serene, less smooth, more agitated, somehow sharper-looking (in the sense of pointy, not [just] intelligence). Her personality matches her looks: she's prickly, and one of the more difficult members to get along with, since she'll respond negatively to any attempts at flattery. It pays off, though, and once you start gaining more insights into her past, she becomes one of the most interesting companions.
One thing that I did not love about Sigrun was her initial build. I badly wanted to make her my main Rogue, but the primary purpose of a rogue is to detect traps and pick locks, and she sucked at both of those things. Thank goodness for the Manual of Focus! I hadn't thought to buy one in advance, so I suffered through the chasm with her before returning to the Keep to pick one up (and finally springing on one for Kiriyon as well, just so she could shift her Skills away from the Herbalism and Tactics she'd burned them on in DA:O and into the infinitely more relevant mana- and health-boosting skills from Awakening). Sigrun's makeover was more extreme: I loved the dual-wielding thing, so kept all those abilities, but reapportioned to give her the crucial Device Mastery skills. I also gave her a much-needed revamp of attributes. Seriously, why is the AI SO BAD at allocating this stuff? I've never gotten a high-level character with sensible allocation of attribute points. She had an absurd amount dumped into Strength and almost nothing in Cunning; granted, that fits her persona well, but made her almost useless as a rogue. I dialed back her Strength to 25 (I wish now that I'd brought it back even further, but at the time I was thinking she might wear Medium armor), gave a chunk to Willpower, and divided most of the rest between Cunning and Dexterity. Amusingly, since I hadn't yet unlocked the Legionnaire ability, she wasn't able to reclaim that specialization, but I quite like how she turned out with Assassin, Duelist, and Bard. By the end of the game she was equipped in a set of Trickster armor (wanted to give her Blackblade, but apparently there's a bug that keeps the final two pieces of armor from dropping) and dual-wielding some insanely powerful daggers.
Oh, yeah, let's talk about tactics a little…
Anders and Velanna were pure healers, used almost exactly like Wynne in my main Origins campaign. They would toss in an Arcane Bolt if Heal, Regeneration, and Rejuvenate were all on cooldown. Justice was my tank, and besides the standard Threaten/Taunt skills, he also made full use of Grievous Insult; I was interested in Aura of the Stalwart Defender, but acquired it late and didn't put it in his main rotation. Nathaniel was an archer who I mostly built like Leliana. He suffered from the same archer AI problems as she had; when enemies got close, he would endlessly switch weapon sets until I took control and manually moved him away. I also gave him Bard and Ranger. Bard is a very useful specialization since it cheaply gives mana and stamina regen to your party. His Summon Bear helped my tanking a little until I recruited Justice; after I had Justice, he switched over to Summon Spider, which wasn't super-effective but seemed to help a little with damage. Finally, Kiriyon had a vast array of deadly spells at her disposal, and she tended to focus on debuffing damage-over-time spells, while occasionally pitching in with healing when Velanna was getting overworked. I found the Sleep/Waking Nightmare combo a little less useful in this game than in Origins. However, I fell into ecstatic love with the Keeper tree. I generally avoid AOE spells since most of them (with the notable exception of Sleep) have friendly-fire. The Keeper tree (ha!), though, lets you do AOE centered on your caster that only affects enemies. And it can REALLY hurt them; I found that a single blast of Thornblades could instantly kill a whole swarm of weak enemies; Nature's Vengeance could finish off all enemies lower than Elite. This proved particularly useful for bosses with summons, since Kiriyon could get in close, root into place, then clear the field so the rest of the party could concentrate on the Big Bad. Kiriyon also discovered the awesome power of the Mana Clash spell, which she learned near the end of her time in Origins but never put into use until late in Awakening. There are some insanely powerful spellcasting bosses in Awakening who can be one-shot killed with Mana Clash. Kiriyon now holds my damage record with over 5000 points of damage in a single casting.
Back to the topic of useless skills: I like the idea of crafting, but after two full (and long!) play-throughs of the game, I have yet to actually do any significant crafting. The tradeoff simply isn't worth it for me: stuff like Combat Training is just too valuable to sacrifice; Rogues get more skills to play with, but they also need to invest more in things like Traps and Stealing. In retrospect, what I should have done is selected some characters who I didn't plan on making a key part of my party, and then dumped their skill points into crafting. From what I can tell, some very high-level items are only craftable; for example, I never got a Master Lyrium Potion, and throughout the entire game I only found three Armor runes. I do hope that future games give you avenues to craft without directly sacrificing your character's tactical usefulness; it looks like a good system, and I'd like to experience more of it.
There's a ton more to cover, so I'll just hop around randomly and make observations.
Returning to the Fade ruled! As I've previously noted, the Fade is one of my favorite parts of the original game. I just love the cool look and surreal design of the place; every once in a while I remind myself to just stop and take a careful look around, and I'm never disappointed; there's always something bizarre and delightful hidden in plain sight. And, from a gameplay perspective, it's awesome to once again have access to Essence fountains to permanently boost stats.
I LOVED the political aspects of your rule. Making tough calls about desertion, and managing treacherous banns, and deciding how to allocate your limited number of solders made for painful trade-offs. More so than in Origins, I felt like there wasn't a "perfect" path that would lead to the "best" outcome, so I had to weigh different values and decide what was most important. (Mercy is great, but is it worth the risk of weakening your army? Should you honor the obligations of your office impartially, or reward those who have supported you and punish those who did not?) I would have really enjoyed having a couple more of these situations, but everything it presented was very well-done.
The game also presents the dynamic world very well. I felt like a lot of Origins was about exploring the lore: you gradually learn about the composition of the world, and how it works; who lives where and how they feel about each other. Awakening starts shaking things up a bit, challenging what you've already learned about the Darkspawn. It's cool to have a mythos established to the point where you can make meaningful and interesting changes within that mythos. (In contrast, the Elder Scrolls games actually have an extremely complex and well-thought-out mythology, but it's highly static. Each game has the same Daedric princes and gods, and they act similarly throughout the centuries over which Elder Scrolls games take place. Similarly, Khajit always act like Khajit, and Nords always act like Nords, and so on. That isn't necessarily bad, but I strongly prefer the world of Dragon Age, where entire nations' characters can seem to shift over time, much as they do in our world.)
Conversations in the game were awesome. The banters were very well-written, and really showed off the differences in personalities between the companions; interactions between Sigrun and Velanna were particularly wonderful, and I also enjoyed the tense relationship between the prickly Velanna and the implacable Justice. You couldn't just chat with companions in the hall the same way you could chat with companions in camp, which initially bothered me, but I now feel is OK - it becomes very obvious now when a companion actually has something new to say, so you don't start conversations just to immediately end them. One thing that seems new in this game, and that I really enjoyed, was environmental conversations. For example, if you have Velanna in your party in the Vigil's Keep courtyard, you can click on the statue of Andraste, which touches off an intriguing conversation about her surprising admiration for the prophet. I returned to the Wending Wood late in the game, to hunt down the final missing silk and sylvanwood; I then noticed a tree that was newly clickable, and hadn't been before, and this time touched off a great discussion with Sigrun about the wonderful smells of the surface. It's totally moments like that which make me love those games so much. Story, and character, and reflection. It keeps me going.
One very minor complaint: I wish NPCs wouldn't say "sir" when addressing a female Warden. I noticed this near the end of Origins, and it happens a lot in Awakening. I now think that it might be supported by the fiction: they might be saying "Ser", which could be a non-gender-specific title. And actually, from peeking at the wiki, it does like like there are some female Sers out there. It doesn't sound right, though, particularly after I got used to Shepard being referred to as Ma'am in Mass Effect. Regardless, Kiriyon is not a knight, she is a mage, and the proper form of address (particularly in Awakening) should be "lady".
Now, for the ending! It's time for some
Boy oh boy, did I love the dynamic of the Amaranthine mission, when you need to decide who to bring with you and who to leave behind. It combined some of the elements of the rescue mission in DA:O with the suicide mission of ME2. I shamelessly brought along my most skilled teammates, who also happened to be my favorite characters: Sigrun (I would have brought her anyways, but I couldn't say "no" after she requested to come, anyways), Velanna, and Justice. I liked how Anders reacts favorably to being left behind… his comment is something like, "Awwww, I don't get to come along on the suicide mission?"
At Amaranthine, I decided to press on and clear the town, despite EVERYONE encouraging me to return to the Keep. I'd made all the investments I could in the Keep - paid for wall repair from my own pocket, found granite for new fortifications, kept the mad dwarf in bomb supplies, secured iron weapons and silverite mail for my soldiers - and I was optimistic that they'd hold without me. I was actually kind of expecting for the game to switch back to that party for the attack, similarly to the Battle of Denerim in DA:O's climax. That didn't happen, and I actually had a mini-heart-attack late in the game when I checked my Codex and saw that the companions' entries had all been updated: Oghren died defending Vigil's Keep, Nathaniel reclaimed Howe's honor by sacrificing his life defending their Keep, Anders was swarmed by darkspawn and overwhelmed while trying to defend the Keep… gulp!
During the actual battle of Amaranthine, though, I had a blast and stuck to my self-imposed goal of keeping all allies alive. This is a very intense battle that's simultaneously long-running and fast-paced: you come across groups of guards engaged with darkspawn, and whenever you clear one group, you can usually see another set of threatened guards just up ahead, with only occasional pauses to catch your breath. Kiriyon and Velanna worked overtime casting Heal, Regneration, and Lifeward on all the distant blue-circled guards; Kiriyon was able to occasionally contribute directly to a fight, usually either via a Sleep / Waking Nightmare combo on a group of enemies, or something like Crushing Prison to incapacitate an Emissary. I'm almost certain that I didn't lose a single guard in the entire fight.
Once again, I was giddily embarrassed at the enormous affection that the little animated computer people show. Running out of Amaranthine towards my next goal, while they clapped and cheered, was simultaneously corny and awesome.
The fight against the dragon in the Boneyard was AWESOME. The mechanics weren't too frustrating, and it was an incredibly powerful single opponent. Sigrun acquitted herself excellently in this fight; I typically just let her AI run itself, but in big boss battles like this one, I check to make sure that she is in backstab position. Justice is a threat-acquiring machine, so Velanna was able to keep him healthy single-handedly while Sigrun and Kiriyon burned down the dragon. Sigrun's Mark of Death helped soften it up a little, and otherwise she rotated through a set of Duelist abilities, filling in with backstabs whenever her stamina dropped low or was waiting for a cool down. Kiriyon kept up the debuffs of Vulnerability Hex, Misdirection Hex, and Death Hex, along with the DoTs of Crushing Prison and Curse of Mortality. Otherwise, she used ranged damage spells (Arcane Bolt, targeted Fireballs, Improved Drain, Bloody Grasp). The animation for killing the dragon is awesome. (Yeah, it's the same as in Origins, but so what? It's still awesome!)
The hardest choice of the entire game was probably the Architect's proposal: help him bring free will and sentience to the Darkspawn, in the hopes of ending the cycle of blights. What made this choice so difficult for me was not knowing the outcome. If, say, I was dealing with my noble duties, I generally had a fair idea of what my choice's consequences would be (conscripting a thief into the army would antagonize merchants but boost my military and reputation, for example). With this one, though, everything would depend on how the Darkspawn, as a whole, would act in the future. Would they establish a separate society and live by themselves? Would they be content to do so underground, or would they seek to coexist on the surface? Would they continue to abduct women to transform into broodmothers? Perhaps most pressingly: would the darkspawn who turned sentient but remained "evil" be more effective than the mindless darkspawn of old? My greatest hope would be that I would help create a new race, one that could eventually live alongside elves and dwarves and men; my greatest fear was that I would transform the world's greatest menace into an even more potent menace, one with the intelligence and brutality and sheer numbers to kill all other life.
I think that Seberin would have taken the Architect's side. Seberin was extremely curious, always wanted to see every side of an issue, and enjoyed creating little pockets of chaos so long as they didn't clearly threaten the good. Kiriyon, though, is primarily devoted to the prevention of suffering. Although the promise of a world free from Blights is compelling, she couldn't stand the thought that her failure to act might bring about a far worse future, one with constant war rather than period blights. And while blights are awful, every one has eventually been defeated; who knows what enlightened darkspawn might accomplish?
I'm still conflicted, even days after making the choice. There are weird resonances with the events of the most recent Doctor Who episode I watched (Daleks in Manhattan), as well as the crucial choices regarding the Geth in Mass Effect 2 and 3. Did Kiriyon save the world? Or did she commit genocide? I usually eventually convince myself that I made the right choice, but this one still haunts me.
The fight itself was interesting; he knocked out Kiriyon's mana before she could use Mana Clash on him, so it ended up being a more physical fight than I expected. He fell relatively easily. The Mother herself was a fairly challenging fight; due to her position, she's impossible to flank. I stayed rooted with "One with Nature" near the Mother for nearly the entire fight, and was able to take out the tentacles and the shockingly large army of childer that arrives halfway through the battle, while Justice and Sigrun focused on fighting the Mother.
The aftermath was very cool. I was delighted to see that the battle-ending animation showed Kiriyon blasting the final boss with her magical powers, rather than incongruously picking up a bladed weapon as at the end of Origins. Afterwards, there weren't the same awesome cut-scenes that I got at the end of Origins, but the slideshow type thing went on for even longer than Origins' did, which was cool and gave a great way to show off the ramifications of your actions. (I think that the ME3 team borrowed this for their Extended Cut.) I was relieved to read that, contrary to the entries in the Codex, all of my companions did survive the attack on Vigil's Keep, and even became heroes in the process. The rest of the stories played out to my satisfaction. I was particularly delighted to read that Amaranthine had suffered less than expected in the initial assault, which retroactively justified my decision to stay. It was a little dispiriting to read that the blights continued, but so be it. Last but not least, I was particularly happy to read the bit about Kiriyon and Leliana reuniting and adventuring. I know she couldn't be in this expansion, but it means a lot to me for the game to continue to honor that relationship.
END MEGA SPOILERS
I had initially planned to wait until I'd finished all of Origins DLC before writing up this post, but Awakening proved to be massive enough that it justifies this entry on its own. I've also collated the requisite gallery of screenshots from this playthrough; as usual, these are filled to the brim with spoilers and should not be viewed by anyone who wishes to remain surprised, or who has better things to do with their time than look through an overlong, uncurated dump of another person's experiences playing a video game.
Next up will be the Golems of Amgarrak, which I hear is quite difficult. I'll probably stop there and recap that and Witch Hunt. And after that - dare I say it - I might, just might, start playing Dragon Age II.