Dragon Age II is an enjoyable and complex role-playing game, featuring expansive questing in a fantasy world tinged with political intrigue. During this lengthy adventure, you face gigantic dragons, villainous mages, and greedy slavers, all while exercising the power of choice to steer various story elements as you see fit. It's often terrific, even if it doesn't meet the standard set by Dragon Age: Origins. Several areas, such as inventory management and skill progression, have been stripped down in one way or another--a case of developer BioWare inexplicably fixing that which wasn't broken. The story, too, has seen a downward turn, failing to connect its various (albeit excellent) quests to a clear central goal. It's easy to see these and other blemishes because the game that spawned this sequel was so exceptional, and ultimately the superior game. And yet on its own terms, Dragon Age II is still a great experience, depicting a kingdom threatened not by invading monsters, but by the demons of fear and distrust.
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That Dragon Age II has made important changes over the original is obvious from the beginning. You might feel a slight twinge of disappointment when first creating your character. You no longer select a race; the game's story insists you play as a human and lets you choose only a gender and one of three classes (mage, rogue, warrior). You are also assigned a surname--Hawke--though you can select a first name. Hawke is fully voiced; in this way, Dragon Age II resembles developer BioWare's own Mass Effect--one of many changes to the series clearly inspired by that spacefaring RPG. If you enjoyed how the original Dragon Age looked to Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights for inspiration, playing a voiced protagonist may initially disappoint you. However, even RPG purists will likely embrace the change once the game is in full swing. Gone are your own character's blank looks during cutscenes, replaced by communicative facial animations and expressive voice acting that properly correspond with the dialogue options you choose.
The story has you escaping Lothering with your family during the early events of Dragon Age: Origins and arriving in the city of Kirkwall. From here, your vague primary goal is to make a name for yourself in the region over the ensuing years, rising from freeloading refugee to local champion. There's an odd lack of direction here. There is no overall sense of purpose, no main villain, and no opportunity to save the world from marauding darkspawn. While you do get a few chances to square off against such beasts, the stakes are never clear because there's no central plot to pull you through. As a result, the story is scattered--a series of missions and events without a center. The most heartfelt moments come from peripheral tangents and side quests focused on individual party members, where you explore loss, love, and betrayal. Nevertheless, there's a discouraging lack of epic-ness and focus, and no final prize to set your eyes on.
This is one game that lives up to its title.
The narrative's most extraordinary features aren't in the story proper, then, but in the element of choice. Dragon Age II is split into three chapters, and in each, you face difficult decisions that don't necessarily fit into standard definitions of good and bad. This is in part because of the world's politically charged climate. A family connection might make it initially easy to empathize with the plight of apostate mages, who long to free their brothers and sisters from the shackles of the Circle. After all, you meet the blank-faced, passionless former mages who have been made tranquil--that is, cut off from their connection to the dream world known as the Fade. And yet you also come face-to-face with the horrors of blood magic and the powerful influence the Fade's demons can wield on magic-wielders angry with the oppressive establishment. The stoic, horned Quanari race suffers from similar persecution, and they may earn your sympathy, considering that you and your family are also outsiders. And yet, single-minded devotion to their creed, known as the Qun, leads to shocking cruelties that you witness firsthand. There are some not-so-coincidental correlations to real-world religious and political conflict, which gives immediacy to these circumstances. However, the particulars--mages on leashes treated as pets, aristocratic houses involved in mind games and one-upmanship--are typical fantasy tropes. Expect to encounter themes and elements famously explored in other fantasy works, such as The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire, among many others.
In any case, you must choose how to respond to the game's events, using a dialogue wheel that clearly labels the attitude governing your response. (The red icon is the aggressive option, for example, while the green icon is the kind one.) Sometimes, your choices don't have gameplay consequences at all and amount to smoke and mirrors, giving the illusion of choice but nothing more. This is perfectly reasonable for the most part, given that such dialogue choices allow you to role-play, even when they carry no further weight. There are events that play out much the same way regardless of how you respond, however, which makes some of these illusions disappointingly transparent. Yet there are many more weighty decisions in this game than in its predecessor, and they affect your progress in some really fantastic ways--some of them subtle, some of them not. Should you encourage a confused adolescent with magical abilities to seek refuge with the Dalish elves, that character may write to you later, offering a quest that furthers his tale. Having a particular party member with you might let you steer the conversation in different directions than you otherwise might have. Plot threads are tied up in a number of ways, depending on what character you side with, if any, and potential future paths are then opened or closed. Even your initial choice of class influences certain aspects of your party composition.
The Qunari are a proud folk. Proud, and violent.
The characters that join you on your journey aren't as memorable as those of the original Dragon Age. Alistair and Morrigan, among others, had vivid personalities that made it easy to immediately identify with them. The sequel's ensemble cast doesn't make the same strong first impression, which works both for and against the game. On the bright side, Dragon Age II's party members rarely seem like single-minded caricatures. An escaped elven slave called Fenris despises his former master, who used the magical element called Lyrium to brand him with bodily markings with supernatural properties. Yet Fenris's softer side occasionally emerges, such as in a side quest in which a demon attempts to exploit his weaknesses. Each character--a self-centered lady pirate, a dwarf that enjoys weaving tall tales, and more--is similarly nuanced, and their story arcs develop over the course of the game, allowing you further chances to bond. The downside is that these characters are sometimes so subtle that they lack the lasting impact of their Dragon Age: Origins counterparts. The dwarf Varric is amusing, but Oghren made for a stronger dwarven presence in DA:O. Merrill's brogue and occasional social awkwardness make for some charming interactions, but she isn't as delightful as the original's Leliana. A few blasts from the past that you encounter not only establish emotional and thematic ties to the first game, but confirm how memorable its characters were in comparison.
Nevertheless, each party member--not to mention the game's other major and minor players--is exquisitely voiced and expertly written. When Fenris growls his displeasure, he's menacing enough to make you squirm. When a normally staid Aveline asks for romantic advice, the hesitation in her voice illuminates her discomfort. Their expressiveness is enhanced by improved facial animations, which aren't on the level of Mass Effect 2, but still adequately communicate kindness, aggressiveness, and grief. If you wish to further explore relationships with your fellow adventurers, you can offer them gifts, though this is one of several areas where Dragon Age II strips away some of the original's complexity with mixed results. Rather than freely giving gift items to your comrades based on what you understand of their personalities (as was done in DA:O), finding a pertinent item unlocks a quest in which you present the item to the only possible recipient. You can also inch closer to love by selecting dialogue options marked with a heart icon, which makes the whole process of romance less mysterious--and more game-ish--than in the original Dragon Age. The upside is that you are more likely to establish a romance in Dragon Age II, and thus experience how that romance might affect dialogue choices and quest resolutions.