06 February 2016

First Impression(s): 'Dragon Age'

With the seventh generation of games finally coming to an end, I've happily been seeking out discounted games I missed to fill up my library. (i.e. Who can beat Deus Ex Human Revolution for $3.00?!) I dipped my toes in some JRPGs for the most part, like White Knight Chronicles and the Tales of Xillia duology, but my Mass Effect-loving heart told me to give Dragon Age a try since Bioware is phenomenal at writing original characters and lore.

I don't mind fantasy stories. In fact one benefit of fantasy to me is that one does not need to worry too much about addressing and staying consistent with scientific concepts beyond your league. So with dragons, elves, magic, and political intrigue what could possibly go wrong?

*sigh* (1)

When Fangirl was very young and hopeful, I learned from other people that I was very good at art. Everyone seemed to be encouraging me to be an artist, even if my heart told me otherwise. I don't hate art, but I would never want it to be my career because of my extremely perfectionist tendencies and hyper-aversion to the suffering artist archetype. The most important thing I realized from my years of private art lessons and incessant pressure from well-intentioned ignorant people was that no matter how talented or skilled you are in something, you must tolerate the hard and thankless work that makes you great. Since drawing is more of a pain in the ass than a pleasure, I turned my back on that career path. Rather than brood and be full of regret, I decided to continue being creative by improving my writing skills.

A similar thing can be said about the relationship between a consumer and a product. Just because the thing is well made and/or the producer is competent, that does not guarantee that the consumer will like the product. While some overreact and easily jump to assumptions on the internet, a significant number of gamers will proudly laugh off critics, reviews, and scores on major and amateur sites if the work fails to live up to a pinnacle standard of "objectivity". I'm guilty of it. I've ignored recommendations and walked away from movies, music, and other forms of entertainment because they or their premise failed to entertain and keep my interest. Sometimes I would exhaust my patience and compromise my biases to try to embrace a perspective contrary to my own when I should have sticked to my guns and faced the angry, torch-weilding crowd charging at me. I'm learning to pick my battles carefully to keep some of my thriving cynicism in check.

...which brings me to Dragon Age.

This franchise confuses me at best and infuriates me at worst, leaving me too torn and conflicted to declare if the games are interesting and enjoyable or convoluted and obtuse. My opinion changes with the wind, making my choice more difficult. I hate being unable to holistically articulate my opinions when every core of my being likes to perform a thorough analysis on something I see worth my time. Dragon Age is most certainly worth my time, given how much material, time, and effort Bioware threw into this series. Despite that love, not once have I ever been unable to understand why this franchise is so hard for me to embrace with open arms.

I can't decide if one essential detail is missing, if some parts are badly designed, or if a collection of problems combines to create a homunculus of awkwardness to make me feel this way. It seems I'm not necessarily alone, since a fellow blogger helped ground my optimism for Inquisition back in reality, but I have enough friends who keep encouraging me to not give up after struggling through any attempted playthrough. The core of my being tells me that I have to complete at least one game - be it Inquisition or Origins, since I'm avoiding II like the plague, but my lack of wonder and awe makes my intellectual side emerge from the sea of impatience and boredom. Since I tend to overthink things in general, I'm still not sure if my scrutiny is born of curiosity or intolerance.

Before any Dragon Age fans try to flay me alive for blaspheming the world the Maker... er, made, please note that while the franchise is a chore to endure there are some elements I find very promising. In both Inquisition and Origins I chose to play as a Dalish elf, and I find the idea of elves being beneath humans sociopolitically and culturally to be a mildly interesting twist to usual fantasy cliches. Even though I don't know every nook and cranny to the world of Thedas (mainly because I never completed more than ten hours of Origins per save file), I find myself sympathetic to the elves in general. Inquisition is doing something similar to the dwarves with the adorable Scout Harding and the hilarious Varric, the latter whom I quickly befriended because he's one of the more laid-back companions. The only human characters I found myself liking enough to talk to and not skip the hours of exposition are Alistair, Cassandra, and Morrigan, either due to great voice acting or fun character quirks. The stylishly snarky Vivienne can be hard to like, but she's slowly growing on me. Plot-wise, Inquisition held onto me far longer with much easier content to consume and more humorous party banter than Origins. For the first time, I actually care enough to want to stay on everyone's good side.

The concept art I've seen is as stellar as always, so I have no doubt the developers clocked in long hours of hard work and love. Sometimes the maps and locations in the games don't highlight the most breathtaking and beautiful qualities of the world, but with each installment the setting feels more organic and cosy in its own gritty, bloody, medieval way. Exploring is not as easy as in Skyrim, but the smaller and more maze-like maps have far more details and unique locales per in-game square yard. Having eloquent writing and charismatic voice actors add enough life to keep me optimistic that I'll become a fan someday.

I hate racist eggs.
On the other hand, the usual awkward aspects of Bioware writing and storytelling is plastered on every other wall you pass. I've been more hesitant to romance anyone than I reasonably should due to the infamously questionable presentation of certain encounters in Origins. Sometimes I forget important information because the games bombard you with seventy quests that may or may not help gaining experience points or advancing the plot. While it's lessened somewhat, Inquisition still makes the world, lore, and politics of Thedas so impenetrable that I need to consult the wiki or the in-game codex every hour or so. I've done it enough that I learned of many major spoilers, to which I have no regrets but one. Both games - and I assume Dragon Age II as well - have MMO-based combat that makes my skin crawl. Still having not beaten a single game, I can't judge if the individual narratives are good on their own. Between the two I'm closer to beating Inquisition, but due to the lack of DLC support for the PS3 - especially with "Trespasser" painfully illustrating that Bioware and EA did not learn their lesson from Mass Effect 3 - I'm dreading the ending... and my playable character being a female elf.

Sometimes I hate my brain.

At the time of writing this my mind is set on thinking Dragon Age houses a combined, unavoidable clusterfuck of small problems with the narrative, characters, and gameplay that prevent me from calling it great. Graphics and performance are a mixed bag, but every Bioware game contains enough uncanny valley hiccups that documenting every instance in every game would result in a multi-volume encyclopedia that'd make a hardcopy version of Wikipedia sweat bullets. I can say for certain that after dealing with Mass Effect 2 and 3 making my poor PS3 sputter and screech every time it tried to load something larger than an eyeball, Inquisition has dethroned Sonic 06 in having the longest and worst loading times I have ever seen. (2)

They never fixed this glitch. NEVER.
From what I experienced in Mass Effect, seeing thousands of storytelling cliches and tropes being spun on their heads or clinically dissected with precision both pacified my embarrassment in liking melodrama and granted me the stepping stone I needed to like science fiction when Star Trek and Star Wars failed. I can't guarantee that I'll love the genre, but I feel more confident in giving it a chance because Bioware broke down enough ideas and content that often makes science fiction too niche for the general public. If you bought them as a threat from day one (which I didn't), the trilogy's main overall plot with the Reapers failed spectacularly ever since EA demanded the leaked ending to be re-written. The skeleton is brittle and frail. However, the flesh - including the world and characters thrive and are full of color. Individual stories within the games stand well on their own without the need for a race of space Cthulhus.

Points to the qunari, however, for
some creativity.
Maybe Mass Effect had the benefit of creating races that liberally conform to the generic "hot all-female race" or "space Romans" before traveling new territory in designs and behaviors. I say this because Dragon Age tries to pull a few threads out of usual cloth of fantasy races and creatures, but it's not enough to prevent someone from calling the new product a knock-off. Dwarves are still underground and mountainous dwellers; elves prefer life in nature than in the city (with some notable exceptions); and humans reign supreme because why not? Generally speaking elves tend to have bows, dwarves axes, and humans swords. Most types of enemies seem unusual for once - since many originate from the mythology and lore of Dragon Age that tries to be unique - but fire-breathing dragons are still abound... sort of... for some reason. (None of the games really do anything with them  plot-wise aside from some more codex-based exposition.)

The bright side about Origins at least is that it gives unique backstories for you player character depending on what race you choose. I always completed them, since they're short and easy enough to follow that they do get me excited for the game. Then the moment I meet the main characters and go through the first dungeon I wanted to bang my head against the wall. Alistair tries so hard to make me smile, but his goofy lovable cuteness can't stop me from not giving a shit about Loghain's villian-ness, the Grey Wardens, the combat and the dialogue systems. And that's before we meet Lelianna (who is such a dull Liara T'soni clone that it takes Inquisition and her becoming a coldhearted spy to make her even remotely interesting to talk to), juggle five main story quests that you can do in any order but not really, and groan because every decision you make seems to make Morrigan hate you.

If I grew up a PC gamer, I might be able to stand this.
I will admit my limit with PC/computer gaming as opposed to console gaming begins and ends with The Sims, so understand why MMO-based combat is awkward, repetitive, tedious, and boring for me. It's almost as confusing as 2-D platformers and RPGs compared to their 3D counterparts I grew up with, but at least some of those games try to simplify button placement and menu systems. To this day only one game has the worst inventory system ever, but while keeping track of items is much easier in Dragon Age Origins, the game still has some of the most convoluted menu organization I've seen. Two main "menus" can be accessed depending if you want to access the map, your armor, and your journal by pressing select on the PS3 while one of the trigger buttons leads you to traps and poisons, healing, party set-up, and tactics. This kind of placement doesn't make a ton of sense to me.

I get putting combat-related items on a trigger button due to how it doesn't break combat flow too much, but why place the party change option there? The game offers a chance for you to make shortcuts in the quick menu, but it limits what kind of shortcuts you can make. I know I'm nitpicking, but the game only confused me at first; now that I have become accustomed to Inquisition's one simplified menu using the start button (thank the superior being(s) for that fix), I will come to hate Origin's primitive model.

Another issue I have is pacing. Perhaps each Mass Effect installment lasting for about 30 hours on average compared to 60 to 100+ for a Dragon Age game might be skewing my perceptions of how fast or slow I progress. Or maybe the dialogue is more lengthy and drawn out than usual, because Dragon Age loves to leave the plot by the doorstep for over an hour sometimes to let you talk to companions and earn even more info for the million-article-long codex. As much as I want to know some of my party members, their character development seems to only happen when you gain their respect and talk to them on your downtime like a... therapist...


*sips pomegranate tea*

Moving along...

I know I keep referencing Mass Effect too much, given it having a different style and genre than Dragon Age, but I can't help but compare them because of the developer and publisher that have their names on their box art. It's not necessarily fair to not judge Dragon Age on its own merits, but I can't find much convincing evidence to justify my discomfort and confusion within the game itself. All I know is that the games demand you to sink hours upon hours into a rich world of politics, war, myths, demons, racism, and magic... and somehow Bioware made so many little essential things boring.

Even with my gut stubbornly committed to its first reaction, I decided to put Origins aside and give Inquisition a chance. The plot might not make as much sense on a deeper, subtextual level, but if the gameplay, dialogue, and companion approval systems have improved, that might motivate me to go back and try again from the beginning.

*sees 30 hour save file*

Whelp. I didn't expect that.

Morri! Don't give me that smug look! DX
I'm not crying uncle yet, but this game knocked me to the ground and I can't get back up. For some reason I find myself sinking hours upon hours into this game, even when my PS3 crashes once every six hours or so. Just what the hell is it about this game that has kept me hooked for days on end? The ending won't be satisfactory, I'll never be able to play "Tresspasser", and the plot continues to be ditched for ten hours sometimes! And for some stupid reason, my rational self has not convinced me to stop playing.

Were the MMO aspects improved? Is it because I need to level grind extensively before I can complete main story missions? Is it because I have nine companions to deal with along with the hundreds of other side content that keep me busy? Does it tickle my fancy because the goal of building the Inquisition reminds me of Mass Effect 2 and the character moments of Mass Effect 3? Is it because of Freddie Prinze Jr? Is the dialogue wheel making me feel more willing to talk to oddballs like Cole or is it the better-then-ever voice acting and - possibly - writing? How come the party banter is hilarious in this game when Origins had similar levels of snark? Why hasn't the war table feature - with some fetch quests taking an entire day to complete - made me throw my console out the window? Why is Cole such an ugly cute scarecrow that I want to hug? Why is Vivienne's passive-aggresive snark and bitchiness so physically painful but hilarious and endearing?

And why is there so much singing in this game?!

...Yes, I like this game. For the two weeks of playing only it I'm actually enjoying Inquisition. A little... or a lot... I dunno. I'm laughing and smiling. I have a feeling that at some point I'll cry over my companions or threaten death upon villains. For once I have emotionally invested. I actually care. And I care enough that the future games might be in trouble based on a) who one of the big bads of the series might actually be, b) how said big bad intrigued me as much as the Illusive Man did in Mass Effect, c) how easily the big bad being made overly sympathetic will make the character more of a hypocritical, melodramatic bitch, and d) how Bioware as of late has had trouble making satisfying endings to their base games prior to DLCs... TWICE.

Which is why I'm still hesitant. I'm not sure if it's due to the game still being fresh to me, or if I'm actually enjoying Dragon Age Inquisition. The plot is still incomprehensibly dull, the MMO combat still feels one-note, and the approval system still requires me to look up a wiki and make charts to earn positive-to-high respect from everyone. Being a perfectionist doesn't help, but at least I'm more open to the cast to have that hyper-paranoid motivation.

Like in my long, frustrating relationship with my artistic abilities, I still need time and more playthroughs before I can see the worth of Dragon Age. Sometimes subjecting one's self to the blunt force in thorough examination is the only way to form a definitive opinion value of something.

I guess things are looking up for now... so long I mind the pitfalls full of venomous arrows, high dragons, darkspawn, and red lyrium.

On second thought I should probably start another run in case my first playthrough pisses me off too much. Good lord, I see that character go completely off the rails and make Ryoji from Persona 3 look like a macho badass.

Damn it, now I think I hate wolves too.
... If I beat this game and watch the required DLC content, I think I might have another blogging meltdown. For better or worse.


(1) Hey, don't get me wrong, I adore Thirty Seconds to Mars. They're one of the few bands from my childhood that are just as good as I remembered. But this... I thought fanfiction was bad with inserting lyrics and songs to franchises that make no thematic sense. What were you thinking, Bioware?

(2) Either my nearly four-year-old baby is ill or the game is that large and strenuous. Considering it's optimized for the PS4 and Xbone, I guess that's what happens when you buy the DLC-abandoned and inferior version.

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