Sooo, it turns out that Nightmare mode really isn’t all that bad. It’s definitely harder than Normal, for sure, but my fears of constantly needing to reload saved games have not come to pass. I’m actually playing pretty similarly to before, including bringing along pretty flexible groups based on who I want to have present for particular quests, and saving the “A Team” for the most critical story missions.
I am slightly power-gaming, which probably helps. I’m playing as a Mage, and took the Knight-Enchanter specialization. After getting it, I bought the cheap respec amulet and focused entirely in Spirit and Knight-Enchanter. Man, that class is kind of ridiculous. After you get your passives, you earn Barrier based on the damage you do, so as long as you keep attacking you’re more or less unkillable. I’m able to keep up Barrier on my squishier teammates as well thanks to the Spirit tree. All three other mages have also picked up at least the basic Barrier + Upgrade, so if anyone is missing a barrier while my cooldown is unavailable, they can still put it up. With that, eight health potions has been plenty for just about every encounter. The main story quests and boss fights are actually even easier, thanks to the incredibly generous placing of supply crates.
I was a bit curious about how the difficulty level would affect my strategy for playing through: I was leaning a bit towards doing a more minimal plot-only game, but worried that this might leave me underpowered for the game. I really didn’t need to worry, though. I’m now ready to start the endgame, and have only “done” three areas in the game (Hinterlands, Crestwood, and about half of the Western Approach). I unlocked the Storm Coast just to pick up a companion and didn’t do any quests there. It’s pretty ridiculous just how huge this game is, how well-done so much of it is, and what a tiny fraction is actually required to complete if you want to play a shorter game.
This is my “Things went slightly wrong” playthrough, and the biggest change has been the “mages vs. templars” choice. I’ve been surprised (in a good way) by just how big a difference this makes. It isn’t just swapping out one enemy type for another: there are significantly different main-plot quests, taking place in unique locations, each revealing a different aspect of the main villain’s scheme, and changing how the world sees your organization. It’s much more long-lived than I would have thought, too… even now, I’m trying to wrap some stuff up before kicking off the endgame, which is on a completely different questline from before.
The thing I most appreciate, though, is how asymmetrical it is. You basically end up with one or two different people being the villain’s top lieutenant, but the dynamics are significantly different between the two, as are the rhythms of your encounters with them. I’m much more sympathetic towards Calpernia than I ever was towards Samson, and the beats of her storyline are fundamentally different. I’m used to games providing branching paths, and then rejoining to a single canon through-line, and it’s been great to see the echoing repercussions of this particular choice.
And, I also really like how they allow you to experience the two different arcs without necessarily requiring you to play as a fundamentally different character. The basic choice is, “Should we ask the mages or the templars to help us?”, not “Who do you like better, mages or templars?” At the end of each arc, you can determine the nature of your engagement with your chosen faction, either welcoming them freely into your group or binding them into your service. So, it’s possible to “choose” a faction you dislike, and then punish them upon completion. I wasn’t expecting that option during my first play-through, and I think stuff like this will make the game much more enjoyable to replay than it would otherwise.
Re-playing the game is EXTREMELY rewarding, since you can pick up on so many little things that you might miss on your initial play-through, but that become very significant after learning how things will end up. This is most obvious with the two “secret identity” party members, Blackwall and Solas. Blackwall has always been a bit reticent talking about the Grey Wardens. In my first game, I just kind of assumed “Oh, he’s maintaining the secrets of the organization.” In the second game, though, you can really pick up on how he just doesn’t know certain things, and will evade and change the subject. One particular thing that I remember, which stuck out at my in my first game, was when you ask him how to kill an archdemon. “Stick it with swords until he dies,” was the response. Now I, as the player, know that isn’t true, and Aztar, as the character, was a bit incredulous: “There must be more to it than that.” In retrospect, though, he probably just didn’t know any better. He knows that Grey Wardens always kill archdemons, but doesn’t actually know the secrets behind the Joining or the playing. He isn’t covering up, he genuinely doesn’t know.
Solas is much more subtle, but once you know he’s Fen’Harel, a lot of stuff takes on new meanings. After the Haven disaster, he talks about Corypheus getting this power and what he’s doing with it. Solas is explaining 90% of what happened, and only leaving out the part where he himself was the one who gave him the orb. (I do like how he says “I’m worried that people will blame elves for giving Corypheus this power”, when he knows that there’s only one very specific elf to blame.)
There are several times when he slips up. I took him to Halamshiral this time, and while chatting he mentioned how much he missed the intrigue of court. “Oh, that’s interesting,” I said. In this case and other times when he accidentally reveals too much, he always has a very handy alibi ready: he claims that he’s “seen it in the Fade,” which is a very effective evasion.
I also thought that the use of game mechanics were deployed pretty subtly and brilliantly. One thing you learn pretty early on is that Solas loves it when you ask him for information; you can interrogate pretty much any party member about anything, but Solas is unique in that asking him basically any question will result in a minor approval gain. That is, UNLESS you ask him a question that catches him out in a lie or prods too closely to his actual identity. Then you get a small approval loss. Now, in the context of the game, the words he’s saying are pretty persuasive - he always manages to recover and spin a convincing tale. But, for us as players, it provides this tiny meta-textual twinge, an almost subliminal sense that something isn’t quite right here.
One final thing about Solas: I was doing Cole’s personal quest, in which Solas advocates for him remaining true to his spirit past while Varric encourages him to evolve into his human present. I don’t remember the exact dialogue, but there’s an exchange where Solas, exasperated, says something like, “Pretending to be something different does not change one’s nature!” To which Varric replies, “Doesn’t it?” There’s a beat after this before Solas launches into his reply. If you listened to this in isolation, you might not even notice it, or might chalk it up to a programming error (a slightly too-long pause) or a line-reading error. However, once you know that “Solas” is just a fake identity created by Fen’Harel, this pause becomes much more significant: Solas is legitimately considering Varric’s words, not as they apply to Cole, but as they apply to Solas. By pretending to be someone else for so long, and acting like them for so long, is he fundamentally changing who he is?
Incidentally, Cole’s cryptic comments become MUCH more understandable and fascinating in a second play-through. I still don’t follow 100% of what he says, but he’s spot-on with a ton of his statements, many of which predict future events and revelations. One thing I particularly like about his speech pattern is that he almost never identifies who he’s talking about, just saying “he” or “she.” Once you know everything, though, you can almost immediately identify which proper noun those pronouns refer to, which adds a very nice tension: your in-game character has no idea what he’s babbling about, but you as the player can appreciate the very detailed foreshadowing you’re receiving.
To be a bit more specific: I think that about 60% of the time, I can figure out which characters he is referring to, which either lines up with stuff I’ve learned from the game or provides often-disturbing insight into them. 20% of the time I can’t figure out what he’s talking about; either I’m not thinking of it correctly, or he’s referring to events that haven’t occurred yet. The remaining 20% of the time, he’s giving away the twist endings to major Hollywood movies. So far I’ve spotted “The Sixth Sense,” “Citizen Kane,” “Memento,” and a few others.
Minor observation: I’m playing with a slightly strange world state in this game. It’s mostly based off of my main non-canon playthroughs, Seberin Brosca and Faria Hawke, but I manually fiddled with a few things to see how they affected the game (pretending that Seberin did not do the Dark Ritual, Hawke sided with the Templars, etc.). It’s been pretty interesting to get a better feel for what things do and do not affect the game. Contrary to my earlier theory, Dagna still shows up in Skyhold even if you didn’t support her petition to study at the circle: however, her dialogue is pretty different, and she talks about how nobody had supported her dreams, how she had to work her way up from the very bottom by cleaning up labs, etc.
I thought that I ran into a bug later in the game: in my weird hypothetical world state, Seberin romanced Morrigan, did not do the Ritual, then traveled through the mirror with her. Since the ritual was not performed, Loghain died, and there was no Old God Baby. And, after recruiting Morrigan from Halamshiral, she comes by herself, with no child in tow.
So far, so good. When talking with a romanced Morrigan, she has a lot of new dialogue about her warden lover, which was really fantastic to hear - she’s still definitely Morrigan, and so not flighty about their relationship (she seems kind of astonished that it happened at all, let alone lasted), but does bear a genuine, fierce affection towards Seberin. And then, I groaned when she started talking about Kieran. The Keep messed up! There wasn’t supposed to be a baby in this timeline!
But… then I gradually realized that, duh, it didn’t have to be THE baby. After all, Seberin and Morrigan did sleep together, and people can have babies even when archdemons are not involved. So a child called Kieran could be born in two different realities, with two starkly different destinies.
Anyways! I’m increasingly enjoying the labyrinthine network of quantum realities embodied by this game. I absolutely love how it isn’t just picking between mutually exclusive “A or B?” realities, but having this rich tapestry of small and large variations which themselves interact with one another to create further permutations of contingent universes. It’s taken a while to get to this point, but it feels like the same sort of elaborately mutable world that the Telltale Walking Dead games have created, only even broader and deeper in the range of choices and (often unintended) consequences.
I guess that’s it for now! Short post today, yay. I’m going to try and wrap up my companion side-quests before starting the end game, so that will actually take me a while longer. I’ll probably make a final post once I wrap things up.
I threw together yet another album. Since I’ve seen a lot of these cut-scenes before, I was much more trigger-happy on the Print Screen key, and as a result have captured a ridiculous number of screenshots. I am sorry.
Also, I’ve been forgetting to take advantage of Google’s scarily-accurate face-recognition software. I did this a ton back when I was making my earlier Dragon Age albums, but a more recent version of Picasa has made this feature less visible so I’d forgotten to do it for Inquisition. It’s back on now, though, and doing a fantastic job at automatically identifying the major NPCs across both playthroughs. Fun stuff!