This week marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Dragon Age II, one of my favorite and most-played games of the past couple years. Had you told me in 2011 that this game would become something special in my life, I can only imagine that I would have laughed, hard. For you see, after I played the game for the first time, I was not a fan. Nope, not a fan, at all. After enjoying several delightful playthroughs of BioWare’s rousing space opera, Mass Effect, and its medieval counterpart, Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II felt like a face punch. Reviewers’ descriptors like “dull,” “boring,” and “recycled” kept me away from the game initially, but on the cusp of the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I succumbed. Before becoming the inquisitor, I just had to find out for myself if BioWare could actually make a dull, boring, and recycled game.
At first, nothing about Dragon Age II was dull, boring, or recycled. After a quick setup thanks to a then-unfamiliar storyteller and stern seeker, I was thrust into Hawke’s story. A family on the run from the Darkspawn; unsettled dealings between the Templars and Mages; a city of promise – intrigue was high, and I felt invested in establishing Hawke’s reputation. All in all, the game’s first act was promising.
Dragon Age II’s second act was when things started to be…environmentally problematic. I noticed it some in the first act, but by the game’s second act, it was hard to ignore the same-ness of everything around Hawke. Granted, the game only took place in two areas – Kirkwall and the Free Marches (okay, three if you could both daytime Kirkwall and nighttime Kirkwall) – but eventually I couldn’t stop paying attention to how every cave, warehouse, underground passage, and even groups of enemies looked the same. Those words, “dull,” “boring,” and “recycled” infiltrated my mind with a vengeance and poisoned my playthrough. I stopped playing for a time and only went back to finish because I felt an untoward obligation to it once Dragon Age: Inquisition came out.
So as of about seven years ago, Dragon Age II was nowhere near my “favorite games” list, and I was sure I’d never visit Kirkwall again.
Only then…I did.
And by “only then,” I mean a few years later, in 2017. Around that time, I revisited the Mass Effect series for the first time in ages thanks to getting the then-new box set of the games. It was during my replay of Mass Effect, while winding through its many planetary sidequests, that I realized something: almost every findable space to explore, no matter the planet, looked the same. Like, exactly the same except for very minor differences in set dressing and accessibility. No matter the mine, science station, gang hideout, or abandoned ship, they all had nearly the same layouts. Frankly, I was embarrassed that in my initial Mass Effect-induced haze, I hadn’t noticed this lazy reuse of level designs before. And that’s when I started thinking about Dragon Age II.
Oh, how guilty I felt for all the terrible things I had said and thought about Hawke’s surroundings! It bothered me that I was so willing to forgive such an offense in Mass Effect and couldn’t extend the same to another game. (When, as we well know, re-using game assets is a common thing. Just ask Bethesda.) I consoled myself with the notion that at least Mass Effect gave one a whole galaxy to explore, rather than just a single city, so that could have been why I was willing to give Mass Effect a pass. But still, the remorse had set in, and I knew it would stay with me until I gave Dragon Age II another shot.
That shot came in late 2017 when, like with Mass Effect, I decided to play the Dragon Age series in full, only this time, I would pay attention to Dragon Age II differently. I was going to set aside my internal complaints about the game’s environments and really try to understand what it was that made Kirkwall a city on the edge. I opted to play as a male mage (new for me) and immerse myself in something I had ignored previously: the crux of the game itself – the war between the Templars and Mages.
And, it worked. With that mindset, playing Dragon Age II became much more enjoyable experience. Instead of focusing on the same-ness of everything around Hawke, I focused on Hawke. I focused on his role as the reluctant hero of Kirkwall and his role in the Templar/Mage (and Chantry and Qunari) battle. I focused on the relationships he formed, the people to whom he spoke, and the stories both hidden and hiding in plain sight. The game, it changed. And I changed, too.
As I honed into the plights of Hawke and his companions rather than the corridors and passages they were traversing, I realized that when I first played the game, I wanted it to be something it’s not. I wanted the game to be more like Mass Effect, filled with exploration and goodies to find and worlds to save. But in reality, Dragon Age II is a game is about being stuck. Hawke, his compatriots, and many others in Kirkwall are stuck there because of the Blight. Everyone has to do the best they can despite the circumstances. So no, there aren’t a bunch of places that anyone can go outside of Kirkwall; the Free Marches remain dangerous in their own right. There’s no need for Hawke to explore and collect and save, because Kirkwall is where he is most needed. And the story of Hawke, his companions, and Kirkwall might be one of the most compelling, with some of the best characters, in a BioWare game.
Looking back upon Dragon Age II’s rocky beginnings, I feel bad that I jumped on that negatively-fueled bandwagon, and I hope that forgiveness presents itself for my mistake. In recent years, replaying the Dragon Age games has proven to me that games sometimes do get a second chance to make a first impression. I look forward to playing Dragon Age II again and again, spending time with its characters, and once again taking up the mantle of a reluctant hero who’s trapped with the best intentions in a city on the edge.
All images, including lede, were taken by author during PS3 gameplay of Dragon Age II (© BioWare).