Fantasy is one of the few literary genres in which you expect to be greeted by a detailed map when you crack open a new book. These fixtures serve a variety of purposes, both functional and atmospheric. They tout the breadth of the world erected to house its characters’ exploits (hawking the author’s wheres, as it were) and reinforce the fiction by lending a veneer of historical authenticity. The map’s artist inevitably sprinkles the page with runic script meant to tickle readers’ imagination. And, perhaps most importantly, they enable readers to plot the movements of the book’s characters as they trek across vast continents and varying terrain.
Dragon Age II has its own map, of course, which is split into three different screens – a daytime view of the city of Kirkwall, a nighttime equivalent, and a sliver of the Free Marches just outside the city. This claustrophobic setting is the game’s most glaring weakness: you can’t have an epic adventure in a single city any more than a child will be content to endlessly explore his own back garden.
Dragon Age II opens with hero Hawke (a female warrior, in our playthrough) and a small contingent of family and other refugees fleeing their home village of Lothering, which has been sacked and burned by marauding Darkspawn. This fairly straightforward tutorial stage funnels you down a narrow mountain path and prompts you to practice using your special abilities to dispatch the Hurlocks – shambling, hissing Skeletor lookalikes – that queue up to fling themselves on to Hawke’s blade edge. The scenic backdrop to these early encounters, your first vision of the gameworld, is an expanse of featureless brown. Not exactly a dramatic first impression.
The lack of visual imagination persists throughout the experience, an unforgivable fault for a fantasy title with such a broad canvas on which to paint. It’s hard to imagine what DAII’s concept artwork might’ve looked like, as there’s none of the architectural or natural grandeur that oozes from games such as Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow. It’s a problem compounded by the amount of time you’ll spend in Kirkwall. Starting a new fantasy RPG only to spend most of your time in a beige, boxy castle town is like getting socks for Christmas. DAII’s codex is intricately detailed and nicely written, and it’s a shame to see the world-building of a talented team of writers sabotaged by tired art direction.Visual problems extend to a character level, too. Your party’s escape from Lothering is followed by a tragedy that, jarringly, seems to elicit no emotion from Hawke whatsoever, as the waxen, seemingly Botox-numbed facial expression gracing her character model keeps her from ever feeling emotionally three-dimensional. Then the game sends you across the sea to Kirkwall, a sprawling city that historically served as a port for slaves destined to spend the rest of their pitiful lives toiling away at dull jobs with no hope of ever escaping – a painfully ironic backstory.
In order to earn enough money to join an expedition to the Deep Roads – the Dragon Age franchise’s shoulder-shrug in the direction of Tolkien’s Moria – you’ll bounce around the various corners of Kirkwall performing the usual litany of fantasy quests. You’ll save lost children. You’ll recover goods that residents have inexplicably misplaced in nearby caves. You’ll assist the city guard in slapping down mercenary aggressors stirring up trouble along the Wounded Coast. You’ll help the owner of a mine exterminate his pesky dragon infestation so his employees can return to safe working conditions.
The tasks are drowsily familiar, yet mostly competent in their framing and execution. BioWare’s shrewd revamping of the first Dragon Age’s clunky dialogue system – conversations now feature the Mass Effect franchise’s dialogue wheel – makes your choices feel both more seamless and resolute. Icons embedded in the wheel signify whether a given response is noble, comedic, evil, conciliatory or flirtatious. Not having to scan labyrinthine dialogue prompts will save you hours, though it’s hard to feel suave in your attempts to seduce a party member when you’re selecting prompts such as “You’re so romantic,” or “I can’t let you go,” next to a faintly shimmery heart icon. The script itself is wildly uneven, with moments of wit offset by cringeworthy lines.
While no PC enthusiast would be caught dead uttering a gracious word about the RPG combat experience on a console, DAII’s combat in its console version feels tight and responsive. Instead of selecting an enemy and watching your character lazily flail her sword at measured intervals, there’s a more taut hack-and-slash immediacy to the game. Each button press – whether you’re using a simple primary attack or an ancillary special move you’ve acquired through level upgrades – feels consequential. You can also pivot between party members with the press of a shoulder button, and assign them tactics in the same manner as FFXII’s gambit system, the system’s subtleties comprising a welcome improvement on the original’s.
After nearly two dozen hours spent completing quests in Kirkwall’s various precincts, we were anxious for the Deep Roads expedition, which would surely serve as a bridge to a fresh new city or locale. Imagine our horror, then, when an all-too brief Deep Roads interlude spat us unceremoniously back out into Kirkwall to spend the remaining 25 hours settling a dispute between the ruling heads of the city’s templars and mages, leaving our wanderlust to smoulder unfulfilled. Instead of the road going ever on, over rock and under tree, our path reached an early dead-end in Kirkwall, where we remained like a child in an embattled marriage trying to convince our bickering parents to play nicely.