This post contains spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins.
I have possibly the worst excuse ever for waiting until this past November to finally play through Dragon Age: Origins. Despite grinding through every Mass Effect as soon as possible after release, I’d left the first part of BioWare’s newer fantasy series on my gaming back burner because… I had a little tooth ache the first time I tried to play it, back in 2011. The mental associations you make with root canal are strange.
Thankfully, I’m pleased to say, the recent hype surrounding the release of third entry Dragon Age: Inquisition forced my hand, and so I returned to the first game and Ferelden, to continue the adventures of Kallian the Grey Warden, in her struggles to unite the races of Thedas against The Fifth Blight. After catching up on early story events (wait a minute, is Duncan voiced by Master Splinter!?), I neared the end of the ‘Urn of Sacred Ashes’ quest-line, where I had been tasked with healing the local Arl by using a (surprisingly important!) plot MacGuffin. It was here that enemy encounters ramped up in intensity, and it became clear that I hadn’t really understood the game’s battle mechanics in my early hours of play.
With a strong adherence to its old-school CRPG ancestry (chiefly, BioWare’s classic Baldur’s Gate titles), many players will quickly find the first Dragon Age unforgiving even at the default difficulty, with combat requiring you to pay real attention to enemy placement and plan accordingly. Particular emphasis is placed on a tactical camera, especially in the original PC release, where pausing battle to issue individual orders and set up cross-class combos (such as petrifying and shattering an enemy) becomes essential to victory. And for those who wish to dig a little deeper into its systems (or to simply automate proceedings), companions can even utilise conditional IF -> THEN -> ELSE-style AI tactics, allowing them to better take care of their health or buff party members when appropriate.
Assigning and understanding combat roles is absolutely essential in Origins; failing to outfit your band of four adventurers with a ‘tank’ such as Alistair (to soak up damage) or to prioritise taking out enemy archers (whose barrage of arrows can deal significant damage over time) will probably lead your party to the “Your Journey Ends…” game over screen in no time. Of course, there’s a massive upside to all this: finding success in more difficult encounters – such as facing off against a group of corrupted mage Abominations, or taking on one of the legendary High Dragons – becomes hugely satisfying as a result, and some of my favourite memories with the game come from re-evaluating combat scenarios which previously seemed hopeless, only to discover a hole in enemy defences. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the time I was escaping from a keep, low on vital health poultices, only to approach an entire squad of bandits guarding the exit in the next room over. I managed to avoid confrontation completely by placing my mage, Wynne, behind a door, where she was able to freeze the guards one by one, as they stood around confused but unaware of my presence.
But while deep character customisation and involved combat systems rule the underlying mechanics of the first Dragon Age, it is ultimately a BioWare production, and thus its heart and soul belongs to the characters and story. And make no mistake; despite borrowing its fair share of fantasy archetypes, Origins has some exceptional characters who would have no problem standing side-by-side with the crew of any Mass Effect or the mercenaries of the Ebon Hawk.
Whether it’s the sarcastic (yet charmingly naive) ex-Templar Alistair, the pragmatic and mysterious ‘witch’ Morrigan, or the gleefully offensive war golem Shale, there’s no shortage of companions to talk with, learn from, and (potentially) romance. But perhaps more impressive than these standard BioWare interactions is another way you can develop these characters: it’s actually possible to ‘harden’ some of their personalities, altering their outlook on their self-worth, the world around them and the difficult choices the Grey Warden must frequently make.
In fact, Origins on the whole is defined by your decisions, perhaps more so than any other BioWare game. With no obvious ‘Paragon’ or ‘Renegade’ options highlighted in conversation, I had to work much harder in most conflicts to ensure the ideal outcome, and even then that often required settling for a ‘best of the worst’ solution. From the minute to the massive, your choices affect the rest of your play-through: Do you re-unite two elven lovers, or push them further apart? Do you accept a financial bribe during a quest, or pass it on to the more needy? Who will become king of the dwarven city of Orzammar? More vitally, who will sit upon the now-vacant throne of Ferelden? And how will you ultimately defeat the Archdemon and save Ferelden?
Amazingly, some of those judgements are only now bearing fruit in my world state in Dragon Age: Inquisition (AKA Dragon Age: Part Three), and even if it’s just a new side-quest or a few unique sentences in the codex, I look forward to seeing how the rest of the Hero of Ferelden’s decisions affect my final story. Of course, if I intended to experience another epic BioWare trilogy in full, I wanted to do it right, and so Dragon Age II was up next…