Whatever we may say of Dragon Age II, has been said elsewhere.
The graphics and art style are excellent. The dungeon design is poor and lazy. The score is adequate. The voice acting is par for the course for BioWare. The combat system is fluid and fun.
But who cares about this? We may conveniently classify people into two camps, because that is how things work. There are those that enjoy Dragon Age II for what it is, a story set in the world of Thedas that is an excellent story. And then there are those that hate Dragon Age II not for what it does, but what it does not do: deliver Baldur’s Gate III.
Conveniently, this review will have no truck with either camp, because the conversation has moved well beyond any point where we might derive anything useful from continuing that debate. Instead, we will take the high road: literally and figuratively. We are going to discuss Dragon Age II as a narrative, as a story told through a medium, rather than commenting on the specifics of that medium itself. Imagine if, instead of criticizing a Picasso work based on his subject and technique, we criticized him for choosing oil and canvas. There are limits to oil and canvas, and it is certainly not sculpture… but it seems wrong to critique the medium and ignore the subject.
So, since the gaming medium has been thoroughly critiqued, let us turn to the narrative.
Many of the greatest works of literature are told as frame stories. For the less-educated among my readers, that means a “story within a story.” Yes, like that one anime you like so much. Yes, Shawn, like The Cantebury Tales, which, in addition to being a frame story, are generally excellent.
The frame of Dragon Age II is especially well done: the player knows none of the characters, none of the story, nor any of the whos, whats, wheres or whys of the story. All that we know is that there is a beardless dwarf, he has been captured by a very angry Templar, and that he is being forced to relate the story of the Champion of Kirkwall.
What is Kirkwall? No clue; it is not in Ferelden or Orlais or the old Imperium, so it is conveniently outside the realm of the past game. Gone is the story of the Blight and the Grey Wardens. This is a much more human story, a story that abandons the heroic overtones of high fantasy and revels in the dirt and grit of low fantasy.
Who is this Champion (besides the player character)? Apparently, she or he is known to the dwarf, and has made Ms. Templar very, very upset. But the details… those are what gets filled in by the frame.
And that is where the player comes in. By and large, the supporting cast is much more fleshed out than the previous game. Alistair and Morrigan were the only two “developed” characters from Origins, besides the main character. But that character probably dies at the end of the previous game, and has a rather limited Grey Warden lifespan anyway. So who cares about dead meat?
No one, that is who. There are more interesting people to talk about!
Varric is by far and away the best-designed character to come out in a game this year. Isabella is a bit one-dimensional (which is ironic), but the developing relationship between Warrior or Rogue Hawke and his/her sister Bethany, an apostate mage, is rather touching in a way. Anders is… annoying, and there is literally no way to avoid sleeping with him except to piss him off.
The sleeper hit for me, however, was the DLC character, Sebastian Vael (I know, I know, DLC is evil, EA/BioWare/Bobby Kotick only wants money, and if they really had artistic integrity they would release a blockbuster game for free and feed themselves off of wishes and unicorn manes. Vael’s story has depth, pathos, and a truly interesting divergence in options… vengeance, or restoration.
The upside of Dragon Age II, warts and all, is that it is a very character-driven story. It abandons the urgency and epic tone of defending the world from the evil fallen god and its Blight. It is more modern, more psychological, chronicling the fall and rebirth of the Hawke family in Kirkwall. It is low fantasy, not high fantasy. Its tone is dark, gritty, and real.
And the game has been somewhat simplified to match, so that it does not ever get in the way of the story. However, neither does it highlight it, and several poor design choices can often ruin immersion. These annoyances are glaring only in that they serve to really mar the best thing about the game, the story, which is, I think, the major reason it has received such varying reviews.
But, for all that, Dragon Age II delivers a hearty, meaty and satisfying story.