Sunday, August 16, 2015

Down Down to Goblin-Town

Shadowrun Hong Kong comes out on Thursday, which gives me a little spare time to explore other gaming options. I decided this would be the perfect chance to check out The Descent: it's an expansion DLC for Inquisition, so I figured I could enjoy a relatively short experience that built on a franchise I already enjoyed.

It ended up being a lot of fun. Maybe even shorter than I expected, but nicely focused: there's a central compelling threat to resolve, gorgeous new areas to travel through, and some good meaty combat.


The environment may have been the highlight for me. I'm one of the few people who enjoyed the Deep Roads back in Origins, and this version is even better: huge vistas, towering use of vertical space, terrific dwarven artifacts. Ever since the Vinmark Chasm, BioWare has achieved mastery of crafting underground caverns that feel airy: you can accept the light and the occasional trees while still feeling like you're buried deep below the earth.

The expansion also adds a new miniature version of the War Table specifically for the Deep Roads, and there are quite a few operations to undertake. Which was great, if for no other reason than finally giving me some way to spend the vast quantity of useless Power I had accumulated. What's especially cool, though, is seeing the handiwork of the Inquisition alongside that of the ancient dwarves. You'll walk down a crumbling stone tunnel, standing in the shadow of an enormous paragon statue that could never be built today; and also see a walkway made of freshly-hewn boards bridging the chasm, forming a latticed scaffolding up the statue. The old and the new are completely different with their own visual styles, and each makes sense, carrying out its unique purpose.

I thought a lot about the Jaws of Hakkon while playing the Descent and the various ways in which one is better than the other. A lot of people complained about the shard quests in Hakkon, which were a part of the base game that many people didn't enjoy. The Descent doesn't have nearly as much exploration as Hakkon, and much less area as a whole to explore. There aren't any shards as such, but there are ancient gears to collect, which serve a similar purpose. But for the most part there's just a single path to follow, with an occasional branch or loop, and you can easily get everything you need by following along without spending a lot of time exploring. This could be good or bad depending on your perspective, but personally I'm a fan of tighter, more curated experiences.

Well, I am when it comes to exploration, at least. Unfortunately, the plot runs on rails in much the same way that the map does. I wasn't expecting any big branching choices like In Hushed Whispers or Champions of the Just, but I was hoping for at least a few smaller meaningful choices to make like there were in Hakkon: how to handle certain situations, whether to show mercy or sternness, etc. Instead, you're basically just along for the ride. Your reactions are essentially limited to "Tell me more!" and "Please tell me more!" I'm pretty sure I won't replay this DLC on any of my other Inquisitors, since it would basically just be a repeat of this game.

That even extends to the choice of companions. One of my favorite aspects of Hakkon - heck, possibly my favorite overall - was all of the new companion banter they added. In The Descent, I brought along Team YOLO - Sera, Bull, and Dorian - hoping to hear some more of that lovely sassy banter. Nope. Dorian had a few brief quippy asides, but nothing significant. Bull and Sera each got one line at the very beginning, and didn't give a single peep throughout the rest of the game. I dunno... maybe I should have brought other folks along, it would make sense for Varric to be a bit more impressed at what we found. But given the total lack of participation from Sera and Bull, I'm not optimistic that anyone gets much to do, certainly nothing like the companion quests we got in Mark of the Assassin.

One nice thing about the dialogue, though, was that it acknowledged my inquisitor's dwarf heritage. Aztar grew up on the surface and isn't super-familiar with dwarf culture, but she was able to recognize some of the dwarf runes encountered, which was a small but very appreciated touch. I know that some players were bummed when their Elf inquisitors at the Temple of Mythal were like "Dur what's a Mythal?", and it seems like the studio is being a bit more studious in how it presents ancient lore to different backgrounds.


Speaking of lore - we get some really nice lore bombs in here. We learn about the Titans, and the nature of lyrium, and witness a dwarf casting magic. That could have huge implications for future games, even for gameplay - who knows, maybe in DA4 it will be canonically legal to roll a dwarf mage.

Before starting the Descent, I'd assumed that it would cover some of the plots foreshadowed by Inquisition: Kal-Sharok, the Warden's attempts to cure the Calling, the corruption of lyrium by the blight. None of these are directly addressed, but the more I think about it, that does make sense. It would be a bummer to lock crucial plot developments behind $15 DLCs, so DA4 would be a much better place to resolve those. I increasingly feel like the ideal purpose of DLC is not to tie up old plot lines, but to lay the groundwork for new ones. In retrospect, Legacy was a kind of perfect DLC: it was a fun and interesting story in its own right, while also laying the groundwork for Inquisition. I think that's probably what's at play in The Descent, more so than in Hakkon.

And finally, a random note: I almost burst out laughing when I was attacked by machine-gun-wielding dwarves for the first time. It was a total flashback to playing Might & Magic VI and seeing sci-fi weaponry buried deep within my fantasy RPG. "What! Is! Happening! Here!"


The combat in Descent is really nice. The very final boss fight was a little underwhelming for me, but a lot of the boss fights leading up to it were very fun, with some unique mechanics that kept me from just sticking to a standard boring tank-and-spank approach.

You also feel like you're rewarded pretty well for your work. In this case, that mostly takes the form of items and money. I think I got enough XP to level up everyone once; I earned a small amount of Power, but not enough for another perk. But pretty much everyone got some new gear. There are several great pieces: a shield with a chance to cast Walking Fortress, heal-on-kill rings and staves, cooldown amulets, high-level unique helmets, etc. There are also a lot of Tier 4 schematics; I haven't crafted any yet, but was happy to see that they also added a shop that sells Tier 4 materials (dragon bone, webbing, etc.)

Soooooo, should you buy The Descent? If you love Dragon Age and have the money, sure. If you're at all cost-conscious, you might want to hold off. There's great stuff in there, but no answers to immediately pressing questions. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, but there's much less content than in Jaws of Hakkon, and the content that is there has much less replay value.

While playing the game and writing this post, I found myself frequently thinking of an awesome recent talk by Anthony Burch titled Plot is Dumb, Character is Cool: Writing for DLC. He mostly uses the Borderlands franchise as an example, but I found myself constantly thinking of Dragon Age while watching it, and thought of that video a lot while playing The Descent. I had a great time with this expansion, but would have enjoyed it even more if it had let me spend more meaningful time with the people from Inquisition who I already loved.

Oh! Almost forgot - here's the requisite album of screenshots, filled with spoilers for your pleasure.

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