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The Dragon Age Diaries #2: That’s Quite a Character

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The Iron Bull, who’s not quite what I expected a Qunari to be. (Image: BioWare)

Genre: Fantasy RPG

In my last post about the game, I talked a lot about my overall impressions of things like the look of the game and crafting — basically, some of the more technical aspects. What makes BioWare games for me, though, isn’t whether they’re pretty or what the mechanics are like (though those things do play a part), it’s that BioWare has proved over the years that they can not only tell me a story, but they can also make me care, and my character’s companions play a huge role in that respect. I’ll try not to spoil too much in this post, but it’s only fair to warn that some spoilers will follow.

When it comes to characters, I’m hard pressed to think of another studio that comes close to matching BioWare’s prowess. I enjoy a variety of games and have devoted plenty of hours to games like Civilization and Skyrim, but what always keeps me coming back to BioWare’s games is the intensity of the stories they tell and the way they make me care about the characters, oftentimes in ways that surprise me. This game is no exception, but there is one aspect of it that disappoints me, and it’s that my player character felt like a non-entity. Whereas my Shepard and my Hawke oozed personality, I didn’t feel much like my PC was a character in her own right. Whether this is a consequence of the lion’s share of attention being devoted to the NPCs, I couldn’t say, but it did temper things a bit. Then again, as the song says, you’ll never be better than Commander Shepard. Let’s tackle each NPC one at a time.

Blackwall – I didn’t see that one coming. I knew from the start that something was off about him, and I spent a fair bit of time speculating about what it might be, but I was still caught off guard. The end result is that I had very mixed feelings about him. He has honorable views and seems eager to right his past wrongs and do good things for the world, but it’s hard to reconcile this side of him with what’s exposed about his background. In that respect, I think he may well be one of the most well-done characters, because he’s one of the most challenging. BioWare likes themes of redemption and has used them in past games, but I thought the effect was most powerful here.

Cassandra – I liked her from the start because she felt unconventional. Brusque and often very blunt, she comes across as a bit off-putting — this is no charming lady looking to please the masses. Cassandra is tough, has definite opinions, and isn’t afraid to share them. When the game begins, she’s openly hostile toward your PC, and they start off with a pretty adversarial relationship. If your PC gets to know her, though, she turns out to have shades in abundance. There’s a particularly funny sub-plot involving her and Varric, with whom she also has an adversarial relationship, and I so loved watching it unfold. Cassandra also isn’t afraid to admit when she’s wrong, and she turns out to be very loyal and softer than expected. I was surprised by how much I came to like her in the end.

Cole – Because my PC was a rogue, I never once took Cole anywhere and only got to know him through conversations at my keep. He’s unnerving at times, but he really made me think. While running around Skyhold, my PC overheard lots of people complaining about strange goings-on in the keep, and later was able to confront Cole about them. I was thoroughly nonplussed when he responded with reasoned responses that made sense out of seemingly nonsensical events. This is characteristic of Cole, who, being a spirit, doesn’t see the world in quite the same way everyone else does. He provides a lot of insight into the world of the spirits, and he raises some interesting metaphysical questions. At a certain point, the player has a chance to make a pivotal decision about Cole’s nature. I’ve only seen how one of the two decisions plays out, and it had a lot of emotional resonance for me. Though my PC seemed to have made the right decision, it was disconcerting to see the changes it wrought in Cole.

Dorian – In order to understand my love for Dorian, you have to understand my love for sarcasm and snark, qualities that Dorian displays in abundance. He’s often irreverence personified. He made me laugh a lot, and I loved that he broke the mold of the typical Tevinter. He has a far more nuanced view of magic and its powers and ills than do most of his kinsmen, and he also has the capacity to see the flaws of his country, as well as recognizing how it could be better. Dorian is something of an idealist, and I enjoyed seeing a character who challenges the accepted wisdom of his society and who agitates for change, even if it does make him unpopular. I also found his sub-plot and personal quest heartbreaking. I clicked with him early and strongly, and he quickly became one of my PC’s closest friends and most loyal companions.

Iron Bull – I didn’t really know what to expect with his character. He’s very different from Sten in Dragon Age Origins, and he’s different from what one might expect of a Qunari. Sensing a theme here? If there’s one thing BioWare really seems to enjoy, it’s building up their mythology and then creating characters who break that mythology apart. Bull is a funny character and some of his banter with other companions was priceless. There’s one in particular in which he and another companion are discussing which material they’d use to make a weapon and the other character is surprised to hear that Bull would choose ore with a pinkish hue. Bull responds to this by growling in a very menacing voice, “It’s pretty.” This has become quite the catch-phrase in our house, and it had me howling the first time I heard it. In general, Bull is like that. He has a ton of personality, loves a good fight, but also has a pretty philosophical mind. He may well be my favorite.

Sera – Sera didn’t get much play with me because she’s another rogue. Still, the conversations with her at Skyhold (I didn’t recruit her until a little later in the game and so didn’t have her in Haven) were interesting because they’re morally complex. Though she comes across as not quite in her right mind, having several conversations with her helps the player to get a better feel for what’s going on in her head, even if it’s rather hard to follow at times. On the surface, Sera seems like a good guy, a Robin Hood figure who’s trying to stick it to the big guy that stuck it to the little guy. However, her view is very narrow and she doesn’t seem to recognize the thorny complexities of her actions and those of the other members of Red Jenny. Is she really doing good for the little guy or is she more focused on her own profit? Do the people she goes after deserve the punishment she metes out? No one does shades of gray like BioWare, and Sera is an extremely gray character.

Solas – Like Sera, Solas breaks the typical Dragon Age elf mold, which I found extremely interesting. Previous to this, elves were either Dalish or living in oppression in the cities, either in alienages or as slave labor to abusive nobles. There are some minor variations, but not many. Neither Sera nor Solas has much respect for the Dalish and their way of life, which I found interesting. I don’t recall previous elf characters treating the Dalish with such open disdain, and Sera’s and Solas’s views added some new facets to the elves of Thedas. Solas, though, has little else in common with Sera. He’s a scholar, a history buff, and something of a dreamer who prefers spending time in the Fade. Most interesting of all, he has a very different view of spirits and demons than is typical in Dragon Age. Yes, there have been characters in past games — Wynne and Anders in particular — who tried to bring some nuance to the whole spirit/demon issue, but I found Solas far more effective at getting the point across. Conversations with him are thought-provoking and often turn the whole mythology that’s been built up on its head, and he ends up shattering some of the Dalish elves’ most precious beliefs.

Varric – No question about it, if you’ve played Dragon Age II, Varric may well be a sentimental favorite. My Hawke really took to him, so I was happy to see him again in this game. He’s the same old Varric, still up to his old tricks, but he seems a bit more aloof in this game, not with the other NPCs but with the Inquisitor. Though my Inquisitor built a good relationships with Varric, I didn’t feel the connection between him and her that I felt between her and Hawke. Still, Varric adds a lot of humor to the game, and it’s always fun to listen to how he interacts with the other NPCs. He’s also responsible for one of the funniest, most entertaining cut-scenes in the game, in which he brings the PC along to a card game he’s organized. Almost all the other NPCs are there, including your advisers Josephine and Cullen, who don’t adventure with the PC. I laughed so hard I cried at this scene. It was pure BioWare gold and it was typical of Varric and his penchant for trying to keep the hero from feeling a little *too* heroic.

Vivienne – She’s the character about whom I know the least. I did appreciate how her side quest played out quite differently from what I expected, but she still felt like an enigma to me. It is interesting that she supports the Circle and wants to return to the old structure since most of what the Dragon Age universe has dealt players is a heaping serving of how awful life for mages is and how oppressed they are. It’s hard to get a solid feel for whether Vivienne supports the structure because she truly believes it’s safer, or because it works to her advantage. She makes good points, but she also seems incapable of seeing that not every mage was fortunate enough to have the kind of experience she had. It’s obvious there’s a lot going on in her head and she’s not about to share it all with anyone, and that kept my PC on her guard around Vivienne.

The game ends in a rather open-ended matter. The main plot arc is resolved, but there are many strings left dangling, strings that make me quite certain a sequel to the game will follow, possibly with many companions making a repeat appearance. After all the ways in which this game blew all of my convictions about the Dragon Age universe out of the water, I eagerly await a follow-up. Bar none, I feel it’s the strongest Dragon Age game to date. I wasn’t sure I liked Dragon Age’s universe all that much, but this game made me rethink that position. The more the franchise grows and matures, the better it gets.

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