Saturday, March 02, 2013

Dry Aged Dragon

Sooooo... Dragon Age 2, huh? What's up with it? I'll summarize my feelings in one pithy sentence, followed up by paragraphs of rambling: "Worse than Origins, but a lot better than I expected."

Most specifically, there were two aspects of the game that just about killed me: the combat and the environments. 99% of the fights in the game felt fairly mindless (to me playing on Normal difficulty). My companions ran on autopilot, I ran through a set of rotations, we killed bad guys, more bad guys dematerialized out of thin air, we killed them too, we were done. The silver lining: the remaining 1% of fights were awesome. The battles that end each Act, and a couple of other major encounters, were much more fun, challenging, and interesting than any fight in Origins.

As for the environments: I honestly didn't even start to notice any problems until after the end of Act 1. By the middle of Act 2, it was unbearable, and by Act 3, I wept in frustration whenever I entered the same dang cave for the hundredth time. Yes, the maps look absolutely gorgeous, but their beauty fades fast under repetition.

While it didn't affect my enjoyment on this playthrough, the lack of customization will pretty much ensure that I never replay the game. Like I noted before, I was "due" to play a human rogue anyways, so I would have created someone like my Hawke regardless. But, now that I feel like I have a definitive version of Hawke's story, I don't feel any compulsion to go through the story again; it would be another trip with the same character, instead of a fresh experience with a new character.  (My earlier complaints about the lack of customization for followers has grown more nuanced - more details below the spoiler warnings.)

With those major qualms aside, though, I think that DA2 meets the high bar set by Origins, and in a few cases arguably exceeds it. The highlight for me was the story: it's a much fresher and more innovative plot than Origins' main story, and spins out in an interesting, engaging way. The framing device is a bit of a gimmick, but a fun one that's rarely done in gaming. I think I liked the companions just as much as Origins'. Well, maybe "liked" isn't the perfect word to use here... I was deeply engaged with them, which often manifested in tense relationships and some very dramatic scenes. They're certainly memorable, though!

One minor mechanical follow-on to an earlier post: I had mentioned before how I liked the changes to crafting in DA2, but I must now admit that I didn't craft much of anything until right before the very final mission. When playing on Normal difficulty, the potions you find along the way will be adequate for healing through combat, so there's no reason to get more. The armor runes for companions are very useful, since companions don't upgrade their armor; in retrospect, I wish I had gotten the best-in-class armor runes as soon as they became available in Act 3, instead of waiting for the end-game. I did eventually buy and use a few Mythral's Favors, and could have made better use of Lifeward Potions than I did. Fundamentally, I think I'm just too reluctant to spend money on consumables inside an RPG: as long as I think there's a chance I could save my money for something more permanently beneficial, I'll always take it.


Here are some semi-mechanical notes on combat. First of all, how to build Merrill! Merrill was my romance interest, and I was tempted to have her along anyways for the potential of an all-girls party. I was shocked upon taking her when I realized that she didn't have access to the Heal spell, and, true enough, she can't heal anyone else in the party. Fortunately, though, combat in DA2 is quite different from the Origins version, and healing is absolutely not necessary in almost any fight (on Normal mode). Fighting tends to be about burning down your opponents' health more quickly than they damage yours, and Merrill can excel at both ends of that equation.

So: early on, Merrill will be a little weak. Build her like you would any other Mage, with a lot of Magic and a little Willpower. Once you get her up to about level 8 or so, though, grab a Maker's Sigh from the Black Emporium. Take her Willpower all the way down to the minimum 10, and instead dump everything into Magic and Constitution. I started off with about a 1:1 ratio here; as you play the game and level up, if she seems to be dying you can weigh a bit more into CON, otherwise focus on dumping into MAG. Skill-wise, you'll want to max out her personal tree (except for Stone's Throw), focusing first on Blood of the First and Wrath of the Elevhen. (Unlike Anders' two personal trees, which are mutually independent, Merrill's two trees support each other very well.)

What does this let you do? You'll constantly leave on Blood of the First and always cast from your health pool. This is very different from how I played my blood mage Kiriyon in Origins: in that game, I usually cast from my mana pool, and when it dropped too low, I would switch to Blood Magic to keep casting until my mana recovered. Merrill can totally ignore mana, though! Part of what this means is that you can constantly keep up 100% of reserved mana for spells that support Merrill and your whole party. In my case, I started with Blood of the First (BotF) and Wrath of the Elevhen (WotE), then added in Elemental Weapons.

As you continue to play, Merrill will gain abilities and items that further improve her utility with blood magic. She start off getting 2 mana points for each health point she spends; she gets another mana point if you maximize Friendship, and several items will give her a fraction more mana each. Never give her items that confer willpower, mana, or mana regeneration: instead, give her items that improve blood magic, increase health, and increase magic. She'll get a good-sized pool of health points that allow her to take some hits in combat, and more importantly, cast a lot of devastating spells without putting too big of a nick in her health.

The key to this build is WotE: set Merrill's tactics personality to Aggressive, and encourage her to stand near groups of enemies. The upgraded version of WotE will heal Merrill by 1% per enemy in an 8 meter radius every 4 seconds. That's 1% of HER health - so if she has 300 HP, and is standing near five weak enemies, this will give her 15 hit points; depending on her upgrades, this might translate into 60 mana points regenerated every four seconds! In practice, this means that she can cast spells as soon as they become available off of cooldown, without worrying about the cost.

I had to manually set up Merrill's tactics, since none of the pre-sets takes advantage of Blood of the First, but she runs herself quite intelligently once they're defined correctly. She always has her three sustains activated (BotF, WotE, and EW). In the unlikely event that she ever drops below 10% health, she will de-activate BotF and auto-chug a potion. Otherwise, her first priority is AOE on groups of enemies; Ensnare and Wounds of the Past are devastating, and let her defeat large groups of enemies practically single-handedly. Since maximizing Dalish Pariah, I've also added in lightning spells from the Primal tree and offensive spells from Spirit and Arcane. Honestly, that's mostly just so she has something to do while waiting for her Pariah spells to go off cooldown; they keep up her DPS wonderfully, but nothing can compare to the furious onslaught of this nervous elven maiden.

Merrill does great against large groups of weak enemies, like most of the trash fights you encounter in DA2. She also does well in boss fights: she doesn't regenerate much health against a single body, but she's also unlikely to be targeted, and so you don't need to worry much about her taking damage. She seems to be most at risk against assassins, who can deal a lot of damage and provide only one body to draw health from. If we're dealing with assassins, I'll generally have Selene prioritize them and try to burn down any near Merrill. If she gets swarmed by normal baddies, though, I leave her alone. Killing some of them would only diminish the free healing she receives. I do keep an eye on Merrill, and if she seems to be in trouble it's usually a simple matter of temporarily taking her off BotF and healing her; she automatically re-enables BotF when it comes off cooldown via her tactics.

So, yeah. Merrill is probably the most interesting and fun companion to fight alongside. She doesn't really fit very neatly into the typical Tank/Healer/DPS grouping of modern RPGs, and the farther I got into DA2 the more I understood that they weren't trying to emulate that classic division of party labor. She has a huge pool of resilient health that makes her a bit like a tank, and she naturally grabs some threat due to her big damage output; she can't heal anyone else, but she does sustain her own health; and her damage across all enemies is astonishing.

My other companions are comparatively tame. Aveline is my rock, my ever-reliable shield-maiden. She is a classic RPG warrior tank, using a sword-and-shield style to draw enemies' attention while absorbing their blows. She takes a long time to upgrade, and her best skills are spread across Guardian, Warmonger, Defender, and Sword and Shield. Once you upgrade her, though, she's a beast: immune to stun, knockdown, knockback, flanking, and critical hits, she can stand her ground against ANYTHING, even the toughest bosses in the game. I give her a good amount of CON and dump the rest into STR with a little WIL; I usually keep several sustains up on her, so she basically just has enough stamina to occasionally taunt enemies. But, yeah... she can just stand there, absorbing blow after blow after blow. There have been a handful of fights, against elite bosses, where she'll need to drink a potion or get healed by Anders, but that's rare; even the elite boss fight at the end of Legacy didn't require any healing for Aveline. There have been one or two fights where she ended up being the last one standing. She doesn't have any strong offensive abilities, and she doesn't have any critical hits to speak of, but she can stand toe-to-toe with the hardest hitters and wear them out.

So: I have two permanent companions in my party, Merrill who can crush large groups of enemies and is difficult to kill, and Aveline who is impossible to kill. Frankly, that frees up the third slot to whoever I darn well feel like. In practice this goes to any one of Isabella, Varric, or Anders. Fenris and I don't get along well, and I really don't like how he treats Merrill, so I usually leave him to sulk in his manor. Anders is also kind of a downer, but he's an excellent healer; I generally leave Panacea on him, along with other party-supporting sustains like Arcane Shield, and just have him support the other party members. Anders + Aveline is even more unstoppable than just Aveline alone. That combination tends to be most effective in big boss battles where Aveline can easily control threat; in larger fights against a dozen or more opponents, Anders can get swarmed and killed.

Personality-wise, Isabella is probably my favorite person to have in the third slot. I love her banters with Aveline, and she tends to have funny stuff to say in general. She isn't an optimal person to have for the party, since she's very redundant with Selene: they're both dual-wielding rogues, though Isabella is a bit more focused on stealth skills. I haven't taken any abilities in her Swashbuckler tree, but it looks like it's actually possible to build her as a kind of rogue tank, which is an interesting idea... I don't think she can take many hits, but she seems to have some great skills for controlling the flow of combat, like forcing enemies to attack her, stunning them, confusing them, and so on. It would be interesting to try, but, well, I already have the greatest tank in the world, and I get the feeling I would need to babysit Isabella more if I had her in that role. As it stands, she does fine in most fights... she does a ton of burst damage, and her tactics get her out of trouble if she's drawing too much attention.

Varric is also a fine companion to have along. I liked his personality more the later I got into the game; I really enjoyed his jokes when the situation turned more grim, and appreciated his general approach towards life and family responsibilities. In terms of combat, he does a great job as long as he doesn't draw attention to himself. I maxed out the Bianca tree (sans Archer's Lance) and Marksman. He does very effective AOE with Hail of Arrows, and even his regular non-ability shots do a lot of damage. Since Selene was a rogue with high CUN, I actually put almost 100% of Isabella's and Varric's attribute points into DEX, so they could quickly tear through low-end enemies with no problems.

Finally, Selene Hawke! My favorite type of character to play in a fantasy RPG is a stealth rogue, and I have to say, DA2 was probably the least satisfying game I've played in that regard. I've had a ton of fun in the past with other Bioware RPGs that allow stealthing, which can allow you to do all sorts of creative, entertaining things to avoid or change the fights you're in: sneak past the bad guys to find an item, or scout out an area for an ambush, or position yourself silently behind an enemy spellcaster so, once your big scary team bursts in through the door and grabs everyone's attention, you can silently sink a knife into their back. DA2 technically has a "Stealth" ability, but it's pretty much useless for my purposes: its only purpose is to drop threat and escape from combat. It only lasts a set period of time, so you can't use it while exploring. Even if you could, it wouldn't matter, since enemies just appear out of thin air; there's nothing to sneak around.

So, that was disappointing, but once I resigned myself to a more MMO style of fight, I eventually mostly enjoyed playing a rogue. I ended up re-speccing with a Maker's Sigh; I initially picked Shadow, but, as I said, stealth just isn't much fun in DA2. Instead, I re-specced as Assassin, which is extremely useful. I next focused on Dual Weapons, and sunk a few final points into Sabotage (just Miasmic Flask), Shadow, and Subterfuge. Even if the abilities in some of those trees weren't great, there are some very useful passives that are worth picking up.

In the flow of combat, I nearly always let my companions run on tactical autopilot. I would frequently pause and give orders to Selene. This may have been more out of habit than anything else; as I keep saying, combat is easy enough that it doesn't really require much deep thinking. It makes me feel more like I'm playing the kind of game I want to be playing, though. My general MO in most fights is something like the following:
  1. Before the fight, I almost always have Lacerate enabled. I used to have Precision, but I got annoyed at this tree and refused to grab the other modes for an upgrade, and in any case, my Attack is so high that I don't benefit much from Precision anymore. 
  2. I may or may not have Timmy (my Mabarri hound) summoned. I usually only bring him out if I think it will be a mildly challenging fight.
  3. If there's a cluster of enemies such that I can hit 2+ of them with a single Miasmic Flask, kick that out at them immediately. There's usually enough hesitation at the start of a fight that this will hit before they can move, so I typically target the ground for maximum coverage rather than target the enemy for accuracy.
  4. If there are a large number of weak enemies, but they're somewhat scattered, I'll usually run directly into the fray. This will usually cause them to converge, so when I deploy the Flask, I can often stun 5+ of them at once.
  5. If there is a Boss-level or higher creature, I'll generally focus my attentions on bringing it down. Merrill and my third companion will usually do a fine job taking care of any weaker trash. I'll usually work my way down from most dangerous enemy to least dangerous; this often means just going in descending health order, but also means prioritizing spellcasters first, then assassins, then snipers, then everyone else.
  6. If the enemy is a Boss or higher, I'll open with Mark of Death. It tends to be unnecessary on Lieutenant and weaker.
  7. Backstab. The damage is nice, but more importantly, it places me behind the enemy. If Aveline has grabbed threat, that means I'm probably safe for the rest of my work. Even if not, the enemy might take some time to turn back to me. As a nice perk, it seems like, if Backstab activates while an enemy is doing an attack, that attack misses you, so the timing can work out well early in a fight when they're trying to land their powerful opening blow.
  8. Assassinate. This can one-shot most sub-boss enemies, and takes a major chunk out of bosses. In some cases, particularly spellcasters, it does much more damage than you might suspect, probably because the size of their health bar doesn't accurately reflect how much health they have.
  9. Twin Fangs. This is one of the last activated abilities I picked up; it's not quite as deadly as Assassinate, but still does a ton of damage, and is great to fill out the cooldown. Interestingly, if I omit this ability, I'll never run out of stamina. It isn't very expensive, but is just enough to make me negative for the rotation.
  10. Pinpoint Strikes. This is probably my bread-and-butter skill. With upgrades, I can keep it up for most of a fight (20 second duration on a 40 second cooldown). While it's active, EVERY time I hit someone it counts as a critical hit. I hit people very quickly. My critical hit multiplier hovers around 300%. So, yeah. While I'm in this mode, I can kill weak enemies in just one or two blows. As a nice perk, I'm regenerating stamina with each blow I land and each enemy I kill, so when my high-stamina abilities come off cooldown, I'll be ready to use them again.
  11. It took me a while to figure out how Unforgiving Chain worked: there's a circle to the left of an enemy's health bar that shows you've targeted it, and each time you hit them, another piece is added to the circle. Once it is filled in, you've reached the max 20% critical hit chance bonus. One thing I didn't realize at first is that the chain carries over from one enemy to the next. So, once I hit this part of my rotation, I actually like to focus on the WEAKEST enemies. I'll build up my chain while jumping from enemy to enemy, rapidly replenishing my stamina while clearing the field. (And, if I have Pinpoint Strikes active, I don't even need the bonus to critical hit chance; it just sets me up for the next ability.)
  12. Once I have a full circle, I'll wrap up the enemy I'm currently engaging, then use Explosive Strike on the highest-health enemy near me. I don't want to waste the strike on someone who I would have killed soon anyways. I can usually build up a chain, then use the Strike, then build the chain back up to full again before Pinpoint Strikes finally wears off. This way, I can carry my critical hit chance forward, leaving me at around 100%.
  13. From here on out, I'll generally use each ability as it comes back off cooldown. Backstab is the quickest ability, and it's also very handy since it doesn't just do damage, but also lets me move around and reposition myself, particularly near large enemies. Mark of Death and Assassinate share a cooldown duration, so I'll usually be able to use those two in succession again if I'm facing a boss. If I'm using Twin Fangs, I may eventually need to chug a stamina draught after the third or so iteration through the rotation, but for shorter fights or those against weaker enemies, I can keep on going almost indefinitely.
  14. ... that's pretty much it. Stealth should be useful for dropping threat, but I find that I very rarely need it; by the time I take someone's attention, it's usually better to finish them off than to escape. I kept meaning to try poisons, but never got around to it.
Moving on from mechanics... let's talk about art!

I'd gushed before about how nice the game looks, a sentiment with which I still agree. I'd forgotten to comment on how much the art direction has changed, though. One of the first big impressions the game made on me was the re-imagining of the Qunari. In Origins, they looked like another race of humans: taller, with different coloring, but still fully humanoid. In DA2, they have been radically changed. They're still bipeds, but now have impressive, impassive faces, featuring large horns in the back of their heads that sweep upward and back, a little like an ox. It's a very different look, and a very cool one. I feel like the alienness of their  features finally matches the alienness of their culture, as expressed by Sten in Origins. They're just as confusing and frustrating and admirable as Sten was in the earlier game. The Arishok, in particular, might be my favorite character model of the game. Not the prettiest, but the most impressive. I think it's the best animation of hair that I've seen in any Bioware game. Also, his gestures were fierce and proud, and his rock-solid faith in the Qun perfectly expressed in every deliberate movement he made.

One minor, even petty, complaint: I don't think the fingers on most character models look that great. I was particularly bummed by Merrill's, which look sort of weird and streaky. It might be that they're getting articulated enough to start crossing into uncanny valley territory... the hands in DA:O were kind of like weird elongated mitts, but since people generally wore gauntlets it wasn't too noticeable. Hands are much more expressive in DA2, so maybe I pay more attention to them now and notice the failings. They do seem to be improving, though... Tallis's fingers in Mark of the Assassin were some of the best I've seen.

Now let's discuss the music!

I loved it! It's a different sound from Origins. No choral elements, like there were in several of the major Origins themes. There's an element that sometimes sounds faintly middle-eastern. On the whole the music sounds slightly edgier and more sinister, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The game makes terrific use of the main Dragon Age themes as well. In particular, during the street battles near the end of Act 2, there's a terrific rendition of the Dragon Age theme that I'd love to find a recording of.

I generally liked the three-act structure, which gave some meaningful arcs and dramatic mid-game developments. Story-wise, I would have liked them to be a bit more connected with one another... something major happens at the end of each one that sort of plays into later developments, but I kept waiting for a big grand scheme to unveil that showed a closer link between all of them, which never materialized. The best part of this structure, though, was how it let the game very convincingly show your character's rise to fame and power. I noted before how games like Baldur's Gate seem forced to regularly re-set your character to a nobody by forcing them into new locations and circumstances. Here, they're able to track the progress of your rising star, and all the little touches - incidental conversations, everyone joyously shouting out "HAWKE!" when you step into the Hanged Man, the changing attitudes of nobility towards you - add up to give a fantastic sensation that you are actually enjoying the rewards during the course of the game, instead of imagining that you rest on your laurels after the end of the game.

Up next: a description of the events I experienced. I'd like to note that I've continued to deliberately steer clear of any spoilers or descriptions of different ways the plot can end; as such, I'm not sure how much of this is contingent on the decisions I've made, and how much would have occurred regardless.


I loved the way the companions from Dragon Age: Origins were gradually introduced into the story, and then sent along their way. I think it was smart for the designers to back-load this element; since they had no presence in the start of the game (other than a brief mention of "the red-haired Sister back in Lothering"), I had gotten used to the idea that they wouldn't play a part in my story, and so it was a very pleasant surprise when they started to trickle in. I remember during the street battles of the Act 2 finale, I had paused the game when encountering a group of allies battling Qunari, and casually moused over them to see... Grey Wardens?! Alistair?!?! Surely not my Alistair, this must be another man with the same name. And yet, it was not. The ensuing conversation was terrific: very short, but Alistair was exactly like I would expect him, mixing humor and duty. Selene: "You're doing something more important than saving this city from the Qunari?" Alistair: "I know, right? You wouldn't think it was possible!" I felt equal parts exasperation and mischief when seeing Zevran again, and loved Isabela's interaction with him at the end. All told, I think that every companion from Origins has now had a cameo, large or small, in either the Origins DLC or in DA2, except for Sten. I wonder, with some unease, if perhaps he is one of the Sten that I killed myself in Act 2.

As noted in my earlier post, Selene is a somewhat complicated woman. I initially viewed her as a sort of reformed thief, a rogue who had decided to leave her old life behind and help build a better life: first for her and her family, but eventually for all of her adopted home city. She is hardly a paladin of good, though... she's willing to make uneasy decisions if she thinks it will lead to a greater good, and she has a particularly soft spot towards her friends that can lead her to overlook actions that she might otherwise oppose. I was surprised, and frankly a bit devastated (in a good way) to see that the chinks in Selene's morality that she had opened up to her friends would eventually lead to some truly monstrous and horrifying outcomes. By the end of the game, I felt as though I had to view the tale of Selene Hawke as a tragedy: a woman who operated with the best of intentions, and ended up setting the world on fire.

The first part of Dragon Age 2 follows a familiar trajectory: as a refugee, you start with no money, no status, and very few friends, and must work hard in order to get ahead. Your stature gradually rises, and by Act 2 you are comfortably settled in Kirkwall, with a wide net of social acquaintances, means, and opportunities. The story begins to take a darker turn near the end of Act 2. The long-simmering tensions between the Qunari and the city, which have been secretly fanned by factions within the Chantry, spill over into a mini-war. Blood is spilled, the Qunari retaliate, and fighting breaks out in the streets.

I generally followed the Diplomatic/Good path, and kept hoping to find a way to resolve the conflict as peacefully as possible before it spun further out of control. However, I was also intensely loyal to my friends, even the companions who might not be as loyal to myself. And so, once I learned exactly how Isabella was involved in the Qunari's presence, I decided to back her up: I told her she could keep the book, and then was sadly surprised when she departed unceremoniously with it. With mounting dread, I raced back to the keep, trying to think of what I could possibly do to appease the Arishok. But it was too late: the Viscount's decapitated corpse flopped to the ground as his head bounced down the royal red carpet.

At that point, I knew it was too late for diplomacy. Really, it had probably been too late once the Viscount's son was murdered, but after this egregious act there was no going back. My heart warmed a little once Isabela made her dramatic re-entry. It seemed like, at last, I did have a diplomatic solution in my grasp, but by this point I felt unwilling to take it. I was willing to surrender the book to end further war, but I was not willing to let them punish Isabela, however much she might deserve it. And so, I fought the Arishok in single-handed combat.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, the boss battles in DA2 are awesome: they're infinitely more interesting than most combat in DA2, and probably even better than the boss fights in Origins. While the Rock Wraith at the end of Act 1 was mostly frustrating, the Arishok battle really made me sit up and take notice. It was really hard - I think I fought about eight times, and on half of those efforts I'd gotten him down to about five percent of his health before succumbing. But each time I died, I'd learned something new, and was better prepared on my next try.

Being a melee rogue fighter, it was very hard to go toe-to-toe with him, but impossible to damage him at a distance. I eventually realized that the key to beating him was to see when he was about to charge me, and then step out of the way. This is a common mechanic in a lot of fighting games (think something like God of War), but I don't think I've encountered it in an RPG previously. It made me really appreciate what good combat in this engine could look like. I don't know if this particular fight was necessarily particularly tactical, but it was complex and interesting and challenging, which is what I look for.

By side-stepping his charge, I could always land a few blows while he recovered. Backstab was also surprisingly useful: by timing it correctly, I could actually avoid certain of his blows if it activated while he was mid-swing. My main hitters like Mark of Death and Assassinate took off large chunks of his health, but he (like a couple of tough enemies in DA2) actually has access to health potions, and so could occasionally replenish some losses.

It eventually occurred to me that, while I was a melee fighter, so was the Arishok. Getting out of range from him will remove any possible attacks, except for the rush, which has a fairly long cooldown and can be dodged. Stealth wasn't always very helpful in dropping out of combat - he seemed to still follow me around - but I can generally move faster than him, so when I got in trouble I could disengage, run across the room, chug a potion, and rejoin the fray. I tried to avoid kiting, because kiting is lame, but this also gave me a good opportunity to cool down my heaviest-hitting attacks. And keeping out of range protected me from an absolutely nasty move that the Arishok seems to do when he's low on health, where he actually impales you on a sword and lifts you up over his head while you struggle and bleed out.

At long last, I defeated him, and claimed the mantle Champion of Kirkwall. Interestingly, I feel like this puts you at about the point where my first character was at the end of Origins. You have been hailed as the land's savior, and become famous all over. However, in DA2, the story keeps on going. Your personal situation has never been better, but Kirkwall has rarely been in more dire straits. The long-simmering tension between the Circle mages and Knight-Commander Meredith (a mysterious figure who you finally meet while retaking the keep in the Act 2 finale) has finally erupted over. What to do?

Selene was no mage, but the people she cared about most, Bethany and Merrill, are, and so she has consistently stood on the side of mages. I actually really appreciated how nuanced this conflict was. It isn't as if there's just one side that's "mages" and another that's "templars": there's a great deal of dissent and conflict within each side. This is often illustrated quite well in the relationship between Anders and Merrill. Both are apostate mages, and I would have expected them to present a common front. However, Anders seems to oppose Merrill nearly as strongly as Fenris does. Anders is extremely sensitive to the charges of blood magic that are unfairly applied to all apostate mages, and he hates that someone like Merrill is actually reinforcing those stereotypes: not only does she openly consort with demons, but she shows no regret over it and claims that it's perfectly safe so long as she's careful.  If I can be forgiven for making a bad analogy, it seems a tiny bit like what the relationship might be like between a mainstream Republican and a Tea Partier. They are nominally on the same "side", and their opponents paint them with the same brush, but the Republican may be particularly irritated at statements made by the Tea Partier that he thinks may be used to impugn all Republicans. So, despite her consistent support for the plight of mages, Selene periodically tussled with Anders when he feared she was going too far in supporting Merrill and other blood mages.

From the very beginning, Selene cast in her lot with First Enchanter Orisino and against Meredith. I am curious if it would actually have been possible to plot a middle course between the two, and I kind of wish now that I had tried, but at the time I felt like I had a good understanding of the situation. Meredith was exploiting the power vacuum left by the Viscount's death, using her unsurpassed position to prevent any rivals from taking the throne and carrying out her vindictive campaign against the cowed mages. Only by removing her, I thought, could we break the impasse and place a more reasonable leader back into power. I may have even entertained the notion that that leader might even be myself, the Champion of Kirkwall, though I would have been happy to see any moderate in that position.

Again, though, the situation proved to be more complex than just mages-versus-templars. A brewing conspiracy of certain mages and sympathetic Templars was secretly working to bring down Meredith. At one point, they captured Bethany to try and blackmail me into supporting them. I informed them that I would have done so anyway, whereupon one of the dissident mages, a strident young woman I had rescued in an earlier act, revealed that she was not interested in showing any restraint at all and attacked all of us. Unlike earlier games, where it seems like any choice you make becomes justified after the fact, in this game I often felt like past decisions were coming back to haunt and punish me. I was a savior of mages, but that was not an unalloyed good thing: sometimes I rescued innocents, and other times I unleashed powerful and terrible demons upon the world.

This seems like an appropriate place to segue into my relationship with Merrill. I'd flirted with both Isabela and Merrill from early on, and consummated the relationship with Isabela fairly quickly. I think her relationship works somewhat similarly to Morrigan's in Origins: she sees it as a casual connection with no deeper meaning, and if you agree, it stays that way; if you want to, though, you can press for a closer relationship and advance it further. In Origins, I'd made the mistake of leading on Morrigan; this time around, I was pretty sure I wanted to end up with Merrill, so I let Isabela go.

I constantly affirmed Merrill's desires and ambitions, even when they were setting off warning bells and my other companions started expressing their concern. In the world of Dragon Age, dealing with a demon seems to always end poorly, and everything about her efforts with the mirror seemed likely to be leading into a trap. Still, I did everything she asked of me, helping her acquire the tools she needed to repair the mirror and learn its secrets. Along the way, she moved into the mansion, and I was delighted to see her get a new outfit! I'd known that companions could pick their own clothes to wear, but I was expecting a more subtle change. Her new pariah look is marvelous. Anyways. I generally really liked how the romance progressed, but I was unhappy with how it was represented in-game at the end: Merrill is at your house, but she just always stands next to the balcony. It's impossible to interact with her. Even her dialog is overly canned; she only says, "I think maybe Sandal is watching me." There's a lot more variety to be found from looking out the window! I really missed how relationships worked in Origins... sure, you're just in a camp, but you can still show affection for your partner in a way you can't here.

Everything came to a head late in Act 3, when Merrill wanted to make a final trip back to Sundermount to question the demon who had first set her on this path. It went... incredibly poorly. Mind-bogglingly poorly. Horrifyingly poorly. The Keeper had allowed the demon to possess her, specifically to save Merrill from her fate, then forced us to fight her to destroy the demon. We defeated it... and, as the Keeper thanked us for abolishing the demon, I reminded Merrill that the Keeper had just told us that we would need to kill her to end it. (In the immortal words of Ash: "It's a trick. Get an axe.") And so, Merrill killed the person who was second-most-important in her world, weeping over the body of her mentor and the closest she'd had to a mother.

The quest went from bad to worse. Hunters from her camp confronted us as we left the cave, demanding to know what we had done. Merrill had long been ostracized from the group and held up as a warning, but what we had done exceeded even their worst fears. I was unwilling to blame Merrill for what had happened, and so we fought them. We killed Merrill's friends and family. Then, after descending the mountain, the remainder of her tribe attacked us. We killed them. We wiped out an entire clan of elves, people who Merrill had thought she'd spend her life nurturing. All along, Merrill, disconsolate and aghast, kept muttering to herself in shock: "This has to be a dream. This cannot be happening. I must wake up. I must wake up!" But it was no dream. Blow by blow, soul by soul, we had annihilated everything that had been good about Merrill's past, becoming arguably the greatest monsters in the entire game.


I can't claim innocence, either. Selene had received plenty of warnings along the way; Anders in particular knows a lot about the risks of demons and blood magic. Even Varric had some very pointed words to say: "So. You and Daisy, huh? She's a sweet girl, but I gotta warn you, there's a whole lot of crazy in that little package." I laughed these off, confident that, so long as I saw it through to the end and didn't waver in my support of Merrill, true love would solve all of our problems, she would fix her mirror, and become the hero to her people that she had always wanted to be. Well. Sometimes, things don't turn out the way we would have liked.

Quicker run-downs for my other companions:

Aveline's courtship was absolutely adorable. I figured out pretty early on what she was up to, and the more groan-inducing it became, the more I loved it. "What? Bronze is strong, and yet attractive to the eye. How could I possibly be more clear?" I think she was my third or fourth companion to max affection; she isn't as involved in the mage question as Fenris, and we generally agreed on the big issues like looking after the citizens of Kirkwall. I was actually a bit pleasantly surprised by exactly how her Friendship/Rivalry went, actually. I had initially assumed that she was just a traditional Lawful Good type, who would obey authority and chase down evil. In fact, Aveline has a very strong reformist streak in her. While she's part of the hierarchy of law, and reports up the chain of command to her superiors, she's particularly sensitive to issues of corruption in authority. So, to maximize friendship, it isn't enough to simply show respect for leadership and the law: you need to support doing what's right, which may or may not be what's legal.

My single favorite relationship in the game, though, is probably the one between Aveline and Isabela. Particularly in the cut-scenes they have. Isabela is absolutely the antithesis of everything Aveline admires: Aveline is filled with anger at almost everything Isabela does, and Isabela could not care less about what Aveline thinks of her. The most powerful, barbed insults bounce off Isabela, and she leaves Aveline sputtering at the casual quips she tosses back her way. As I noted before, I brought those two along on Mark of the Assassin particularly to hear more banters between them, and I wasn't disappointed. I love how their relationship continues to deepen after Aveline's marriage, too. It's great stuff.

As for Isabela herself: I really liked her. She's fun and tempestuous and humorous and bold. Once I started romancing Merrill, I stopped flirting with Isabela, and was amused/shocked to overhear some later banters where it became clear that Merrill was completely aware of our previous history together. By this point, though, she was fiercely, serenely devoted to Selene. Heh... I'm trying to remember now exactly what this banter was. Maybe it was between her and Anders? Or maybe it was with Varric? Anyways, someone asked Merrill why she wasn't jealous about Hawke sleeping with Isabela, and she said something like, "Oh. Well, that's because it's Isabela. It seems like everyone sleeps with her."

But, yes, Isabela: I stayed loyal to her even after the incident with the Arishok. After the end of Act 2, she had left the city, so she isn't initially selectable for the party, but she eventually comes back around the beginning of Act 3, and I re-recruited her from the Hanged Man again. Selene had a generally positive influence on her, something Isabela bitterly complained about: life was so much simpler when she never had to worry about doing the right thing. Later, I continued keeping her back when she rendezvoused with the man who had been hunting her. Once again, I betrayed my larger principles of right and wrong for my smaller devotion to an individual: I cut a deal with a slaver to leave Isabela alone, and finally get her the ship she so badly wanted. Fortunately, she agreed to stick around in Kirkwall until the current troubles were over.

Early on, Varric was one of my least favorite companions; by the end, he was one of the best, mostly because of his good humor. He does have a pretty intense arc later in the game, though, when Bertrand finally returns to Kirkwall. It seems that there's still a fragment of the idol in his old house, which causes all sorts of super-creepy hauntings and makes him even more possessed. Here, I was able to convince Varric to stay his hand: lock up his brother and not give in to the rage. I also talked him out of keeping the idol fragment. I'm very glad on both counts; it seems like committing fratricide or becoming possessed would have irrevocably changed the dwarf I've come to enjoy.

Fenris was the one companion whose friendship I had not maxed by the end, and he spent most of the game floating around deep in the Rivalry range. I never sought to antagonize him, and always tried to support his personal quests when I could, but his undying hatred of all mages made friendship virtually impossible. I eventually stopped including him in my party at all, after some particularly hurtful things he said to Merrill. For all that, though, I wish I could have brought him around to my perspective. I found him very compelling as a character.

In the end game, Fenris sided with the Knight-Commander against me, leading to a particularly compelling scene where he led a squadron of templars against me. That was... pretty hard to do. It's certainly not unknown for party members to turn on you in an RPG; trying to make Viconia and Keldorn coexist in the same party is a recipe for disaster. And I guess you can do something similar in Origins if you decide to corrupt the Urn. Still, while I wasn't too surprised, I was still sad. There was an elegiac air about the whole thing. Fenris wasn't furious; he was calm, completely secure in what he was doing, perhaps feeling a regret that things had turned out this way, just as I was. His actual death came fairly abruptly: he falls in combat like any other enemy, without a unique cut scene. So it goes.

Finally, Anders. Ah, I'm so mad at Anders! Late in the game, you get his final companion quest. He wants you to distract the Grand Cleric while he does something in the Chantry. Once again, all my alarm bells go off. No matter how I pressed him, he refused to say what he was up to, but it was clearly something so awful that he would never tell me. I refused him, thinking that this might open up another opportunity, but nope: he just coldly says that he now understands how little our friendship means. (Though, since he was maxed, it doesn't actually drop.) I reloaded and put off the quest for as long as I could, finishing everything else but the end of the main plot and the DLCs, hoping that something would give me some insight into his plans or a way to bring him around. No such luck. Finally, with a bad feeling in my stomach, I went ahead. I talked with the Grand Cleric, asking for her blessing as always, and gently asking if she could intervene in the conflict. I actually liked the Cleric... most people in the game are irritated that she refuses to take sides, but I saw that as a sign of her reasonableness, a quality that's entirely lacking in this city full of brinksmanship. Anders arrived, acting innocent, and it seemed that whatever he had planned was done. I had assumed that he meant to assassinate the Grand Cleric or members of the Chantry, and was left wondering what he had done instead. With no imminent catastrophe looming, I uneasily let it lie, and proceeded with the DLCs.

Well. After returning to Kirkwall from the Count's mad castle and reading First Enchanter Orsino's letter, I decided to put together my ultimate party for the endgame. Aveline and Merrill were a given. I decided to give Anders the precious third slot. Varric and Isabela are better company, but Anders had proven invaluable in my fight against the High Dragon, and I figured that his spirit-healing services could come in handy here as well. We ran into Orsino and Meredith on the streets... and everything went wrong.

As usual, they were at each others' throats, with Meredith announcing that she was dispatching Templars to hunt through the Circle Tower in search of blood mages, and Orsino angrily asking what she would do when she couldn't find any. Also as usual, both of them called on me to make a decision. I side with the mages, but I tried to steer a middle path, seeking to de-escalate tensions. Now, not only they were riled up, but Anders as well. At the suggestion that the Grand Cleric might help mediate, he darkly announced that she had squandered all her opportunities to rectify the injustices against mages. And so he finally reveals and completes his plot back from his companion quest: essentially a magical bomb that he has placed within the Chantry, the holiest site in Kirkwall, and the home of the one woman who could possibly have forced the two factions to reconcile. It explodes in a horrifying, sickening blast, killing not only the Cleric but all the Sisters and Brothers in the building, at least dozens and most likely hundreds of people. Anders has, with a single act, become the worst terrorist in the history of Thedas.

And I had enabled him.

I now felt much like I image Merrill had felt: like I was sleepwalking through hell, or trapped inside a waking nightmare. My adopted city was in flames. One of my closest friends had committed murder most foul, and damned countless innocents in service of his noble yet ultimately selfish crusade. Surely this could not be happening. Surely not.

I had no good answer for Meredith's rage, and battled the templars she left behind when she marched to the Circle, ready to enforce the Right of Annulment and put every last man, woman, and child to the sword. We fought them back. I had a terrible decision to make: what to do about Anders? Throughout the game, I had consistently tried to pursue the diplomatic path, and hold out the hope of redemption to even terrible people. But this was a bridge too far. I could forgive Anders' betrayal of me, but not his murder of innocents, and certainly not his precipitation of a war that could not only destroy Kirkwall, but perhaps engulf all of Thedas. He clasped himself, rocking slightly back and forth, quietly muttering justifications to himself. I was sorry. I had to do it, though. Let there be no doubt that I opposed his actions, that I had not known the horrors he would unleash upon the world.

My party was falling apart. I had slain Anders with my own hand, and I think the spirit of Justice still abode enough for him to calmly accept this as his rightful fate. Fenris had finally had enough of my mage-loving ways and left with Meredith. I quickly checked in with my remaining companions, and found that they all still stood with me. I suspect that Aveline would also have left with Meredith in ordinary circumstances, were it not for the profound trust we had built up together; as it was, she not only stood by my side, but also instructed the city guard to focus on protecting the city's hapless citizens, and not to support Meredith's crusade. Varric was sick and tired of templars and mages fighting one another, but would support me in this. Isabela complained again about how I was influencing her to care too much. Merrill, of course, completely supported me and my actions. And so, our smaller and weaker party raced to the Gallows, hoping to prevent an even worse slaughter than the one I had precipitated.

There was one silver lining: at long last I was reunited with Bethany, who had grown into a woman during her six years in the Circle, accumulating an impressive 45 ability points to spend. I hadn't anticipated getting her back, and decided to make her a replacement for the departed Anders; she had been my healer back at the beginning, and now I filled her out as a healing and support mage, giving her the accessories I had planned to place on Anders. The upcoming fights with me, Aveline, Merrill, and Bethany were all a breeze, which I suspect was partly due to our party composition but also because of the extra experience and superior gear I had acquired from Legacy and Mark of the Assassin.

Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. We stopped the initial assault on the Tower, but Orsino, driven to the end of desperation, rants about how he has been wrong in rejecting the research of his fellow mages, and commits an act of blood magic. I've grown fairly used to the sight of blood magic, but it's a bit sickening to see this great man embrace something that he himself has fought against for his entire career. All the deceased corpses in the area converge upon Orsino, merging into a gigantic, putrefying, disgusting whole: a Harvester. Yep, the final boss from Golems of Amgarrak is now the guy I thought would help save Kirkwall.

This fight was easier than the fight and the end of Golems was. There are templars in the fight, but they aren't too challenging. Like the earlier Harvester fight, this one detaches its head, and it also re-attaches near the end. Gross. Cool. We finally killed him. And kept on killing. Cutting a bloody swathe through mages and templars alike, we sought to escape the tower to face Meredith. Along the way, we saw the culmination of the conspiracy: a circle of templars, circle mages, apostates, and blood mages, all worshiping together, eventually summoning a Desire Demon that swept through us. We faced multiple Pride Demons in the courtyards. The mages seemed intent upon confirming everyone's worst fears about them, and in the process making a mockery of my decision to defend them.

At long last, we met Meredith in the large courtyard in front of the Gallows. Here at last, the earlier plot threads from the beginning of the game started to merge together. It turns out that Meredith was the mysterious buyer who had purchased the idol from Bartrand. She fashioned it into a sword, and it fashioned her into a tool of evil. It whispered to her, filling her mind with a hatred of mages, fanning the flames of her pride and vanity, pushing her towards the precipice of war. And now, at the end, everyone could see she was falling apart.

I was very impressed with Cullen here. I had never particularly liked him in Origins, and disapproved of his growing fanaticism in DA2. I can understand why, given his exposure to Uldred's treachery in Ferelden, but his blanket condemnation of mages had always seemed unfair. So, it was a surprise and a relief to see him stand up to Meredith: he might agree with her aims, but he is unwilling to sanction the methods she will take to achieve them. He sees that she is destroying Kirkwall, intentionally or not. It was very gratifying to have him join our side.

The final battle against Meredith was fun and challenging. Like many of the other boss battles in the end-game, it also included other companion NPCs who weren't in my party; Isabela was often shoulder-to-shoulder with Selene as we backstabbed the heck out of Meredith, and Varric calmly laid down death from the sidelines with Bianca. (One of my favorite post-combat banters from Varric: "Ohhhhhh... Dear Varric, please learn how to parry. Sincerely, your innards.") By this point, most of the templars had abandoned Meredith. She didn't stand alone, though: somehow tuning into the power of the idol, she started to animate the enormous statues that surrounded the Gallows courtyard, and so they stomped down, giant metallic automatons that spun and thrust and jabbed. It was... well, a little bit like Robotech or Neon Genesis. Weird, but cool.

Overall, the battle wasn't as tough as the final fights in Legacy or Mark of the Assassin, but still a rousing bout. Meredith grows more fully possessed as the battle continues. I never did entirely figure out exactly what was going on; I'm curious if this is something that will be explored more fully in the sequels, or is explained in other media, or if I just missed something here. I'm pretty sure that it isn't a run-of-the-mill demon possession from the Fade. Based on the "thaig" where we found it, it seems like there's some other evil afoot in the world, probably even more ancient than the darkspawn and with a separate set of characteristics. Based on what I saw in the Deep Roads, where rocks were bound together by some sort of energy and turned into warriors, this power can also possess the unliving such as the Gallows statues, even as a demon can possess a living or dead body.

In the end, Meredith called upon Andraste to give her strength, and then... died. It looked like she kind of exploded and melted all at once, leaving behind a sinister-looking mound of vaguely human size. I'm not sure exactly what happened here, but I like to think that Andraste herself intervened and put an end to Meredith's blasphemy. Selene and her surviving companions stared down Cullen and the remaining Templars, then marched out of the city.

That's the end of the story, pretty much. Varric recaps the rest: Hawke and her companions fled to the hills outside of Kirkwall, escaping the army of templars that were dispatched to restore order to the city. Following Kirkwall's example, Circles all around Thedas rose up against the chantry, plunging the land into chaos. As Varric tells Cassandra, one by one the companions fell away from the Champion. "Except for Merrill, of course." He has no idea where she is now. In the end, it seems that the reason Cassandra was searching so hard for Selene was because of the pull she thinks Selene has with mages: if anyone can hope to calm down their rebellion, it will be her. "In that case, Seeker, I really wish I could help you."

The epilogue is awesome: Cassandra walks out of the interrogation room, and finds: Leliana! Oh, my love! Leliana is now also in full Seeker regalia, a far cry from the robes of a Chantry sister or the supple leather armor of a bard that I would have expected. They only exchange a few lines, which I find highly intriguing. Cassandra: "The Champion has disappeared. Just like the Warden." Leliana: "That is no coincidence." What could that mean? We may find out later, but in my case, Kiriyon and Leliana left Ferelden to journey together. I'm intrigued by the idea that Leliana might be acting as a sort of double agent, and that Kiriyon and Selene have joined forces to... do what, exactly? Try to end the war? Strike a blow at the Tevinter Imperium? The Orlesian Empire? The Qunari? The mind boggles.

So, that was that! Frankly, the game ended on a much more depressing note than I expected, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. First of all, I'm not sure how much of that depression is due to how I played the game, and I will be fully impressed if, by making different choices, I could have avoided the slaughter and brought things to a peaceful conclusion. Secondly, I think it's good for franchises to have high and low points. The Empire Strikes Back is the favorite of many fans because of the dark notes it hits, and the despair at the end of The Two Towers (the book) really heightens the drama of the third volume. I'm less happy than I would have been if the game ended with crowds of happy Kirkwall citizens cheering me and asking me to become the Viscount... but this is a much more interesting ending, and very different from the RPGs I'm used to.

It'll be interesting to see how my decisions in these games carry forward into DA3. Without really intending it, I've created a world in which mages have shrugged off their shackles and are posing a grave potential danger to the world: first Kiriyon secured independence for the Ferelden Circle, and now Selene has directly lifted the yoke off the mages of Kirkwall and incited rebellions across all of Thedas. I'll be curious to see if this significantly impacts the conditions under which Dragon Age 3 takes place.


It's also fun to anticipate where the series can go even farther out from DA3. DA has set up this interesting system where you can import from one game to the next, but not import a character. I think that potentially frees up the franchise to be an unusually long-running one. In other ongoing RPGs, especially those from Bioware, having a particular character forces the developers to deal with an eventual cap in progress. I loved taking characters through the entire epic sweep of the Baldur's Gate tetralogy, and there really is nowhere else that they could have progressed after growing in power until they had practically become gods. Mass Effect was particularly engaging because it followed the singular career of Shepard, and it will be interesting to see how well Bioware can sustain it when they try to put a new protagonist at the center of its universe, since her story ended so decisively at the end of ME3.

With Dragon Age, though, each character can have his or her own complete arc within a single game. Each game is thus self-contained (modulo DLC) and could serve as an entry point to someone new to the franchise; and yet, by honoring the actions a player took in previous games, with another character, there's a grand incentive to keep playing and see what happens next in Thedas. Frankly, I could see the franchise continuing for a dozen or more installments, and still remaining fresh and innovative. And I don't think it will necessarily lead to insanely complicated variations, either, as over time the multi-branched storylines could converge into a sort of new canon. I was initially irritated in Act 3 when I heard someone refer to Ferelden's king; I realized, though, that seven years had passed since Hawke left Lothering, and in that time, plenty of things could have happened to change the world that Kiriyon had left behind at the end of her game. I like it when a game honors my choices, and I'm also fine with seeing those tributaries eventually flow back into a new stream.

Well, that's it for me! According to my post-game save, I spent 64 hours 39 minutes in the world of Dragon Age 2. That includes time spent with the DLCs, paused, lining up screen shots, or fiddling around inside menus, but it doesn't include time lost to reloads, so the actual length is probably a tad longer. It wasn't my favorite Dragon Age game, but it had a really interesting, dark storyline, and the DLC did some really great stuff with combat and gameplay. Definitely worth seven bucks.

I have one final gameplay album. I had initially planned to not take any screenshots, so this starts close to the end of Act 2, and only switches into crazy overload mode near the very end of the game. Be warned, traveler: here there be spoilers.

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