Written by Matthew Councill
Edited by Richard Rabil, Jr.
Dragon Age II (2011), follow up to Dragon Age: Origins (2009), picks up where the first game left off: right after the fifth Blight has been destroyed. You take up the role of Ferelden refugees who flee to a city called Kirkwall. Through various quests and adventures, you have the opportunity to rise as the champion of the city in the face of its political and economic strife.
While DA:O was a world-spanning quest to destroy evil, the sequel is confined to Kirkwall and its surrounding vicinity. The graphics take a noticeable step up from the previous game, and there are combat, story, and controller enhancements throughout. This article, however, focuses primarily on the game’s dialogue. For a more in-depth review of the gameplay, check out this review by IGN.
Dragon Age 2 (DA2) is driven almost completely by its characters. The story is told through them; they are the reason you get immersed. This is not to say, of course, that the world and gameplay that shapes the characters is somehow lacking. The complete Dragon Age world is enormous (though DA2 is restricted to a small part of it), and the combat mechanics are multifaceted and compelling. But the character development takes the focus for the sequel and is arguably on par with the gameplay. In this review, I’ll focus specifically on the voice acting, believability of the dialogue, and depth of the interactive conversations. Combined, these aspects contributed to an immersive, character-driven gaming experience.
Much like its predecessor, DA2’s dialogue throws you into a medieval setting. The language has a British flair common in Western fantasy stories (like when the protagonist uses “Sirrah” as a term of respect to other characters). Voice acting is prevalent throughout the game via cut scenes, branching conversation, and in-game banter. Even the player-character is voiced—a change from the previous game’s silent protagonist. As a sort of audio backdrop to the game, the Dwarf rogue, Varric Tethras, is not only playable as one of your party members, but serves as the game’s narrator.
Conversation scenes drive much of the story and are presented similarly to Mass Effect 2. Close-ups of both the main character and the NPC involved in the conversation are displayed, with the camera panning around them.
The Mass Effect 2 dialogue wheel is there, but with a few tweaks. In its center is a sphere that displays a different image depending on which option is selected. The color of an image and the actual image correspond to different type of choices: a blue-green color enshrouds images representing diplomatic or helpful options, purple denotes humorous or charming options, while aggressive or direct options are displayed in red. There are also other types of choices such as flirtatious options, symbolized by a heart or a series of arrows. This system is used extensively throughout the game to create the sense that you’re building your own unique version of the story.
However, while your dialogue options imply that you can drastically change the story, you can only do so in a few instances. To be honest, the only reason I noticed this is because of how extensive the Mass Effect games are. Mass Effect offers many opportunities to change the outcome of situations. If one has played both series of games, it’s impossible to abstain from drawing comparisons between their dialogue systems. Yet the fact is, in DA2, most of your conversation choices determine whether an NPC gains rivalry points or friendship points towards you. In other words, everyone in your party can either become a rival or a friend, or land somewhere in between, as they react to your dialogue options based on their alignment with the PC.
Such reactions to your dialogue choices, though seemingly trivial, are one reason that dialogue in the Dragon Age games is so addicting. How you talk to NPCs impacts the way they perceive you, and this makes you care more about your dialogue selections. Although some of the ratings are based on actions, most of the opportunities to get friendship/rivalry points come from the dialogue options.
Rivalry versus friendship does not mean good versus evil in DA2. For example, in my playthrough, the character Fenris sat down with my hero and discussed a battle over a bottle of slaver’s wine. In another instance, Isabela had a similar conversation with me over beers in a tavern. Both were very similar events, but Fenris had a high rivalry score with me, while Isabela was almost maxed in friendship. I found this an interesting change from the “approval” system in DA:O, where characters either like or dislike you for your choices. In that system, you sometimes needed to think harder about your answers so as not to offend your favorite characters. In DA2, this isn’t as much of a concern. You have more freedom to be yourself—a boon given the variety of backgrounds and tendencies of your companions. Indeed, the DA2 system seems more fitting, since there was never a way to make everyone happy with each of your decisions in DA:O, which could get a little too punishing. Now, some characters are meant to be rivals or friends of whichever alignment the character chooses. This system also works well with some of the political issues dealt with in DA2.
Furthermore, one of the small but powerful achievements of dialogue in DA2 is the banter that goes on between your party members as you walk around town or venture out on quests. These aren’t trivial comments; they change based on events that transpire and how much the characters like each other. For instance, when I had Merrill, an elf who tends to dabble in blood magic, in my party with Fenris, a warrior elf who hates all mages, they would bicker incessantly about the morality of magic. When I replaced Fenris with Varric, Varric would affectionately refer to Merrill as “Daisy.”
Little touches like these made the diaogue for me. I often found myself waiting outside a door that I knew would bring up a loading screen, just to hear my characters finish their conversation. In fact, I wished I could weigh in, for the conversations tended to address the way the characters were coping with questions of morality. Merrill , for example, is attracted to blood magic, a dangerous practice regarded as evil by most people. There were multiple times when a choice Merrill made regarding blood magic would come up in the game banter. Sometimes she would defend her actions as if she was convincing herself she was in the right, while other times, she would talk about persecution from her people for such choices. Such banter gave the characters a realism and depth they wouldn’t have otherwise.
DA2 was a joy to play, and the writing helped brings its world to life. This is indeed a game driven by characters, and a break from the epic world-saving adventure where the onset of evil can distract attention from the complex, multifaceted characters who are fighting it. In my opinion, BioWare has gone in a bold direction and pulled off another masterpiece through its skillful implementation of dialogue in a setting where characters and your connection to them matters.
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