Just over a year ago, I started playing Dragon Age: Origins. Over the course of a year, I finally managed to complete it, which you can hear my thoughts on here. I found myself hooked to the game, but in short bursts, hence why it took so long to actually complete. Once I completed the game, I began the sequel and was skeptical as to how Dragon Age II would fare against the absolute beast of a game that was Origins.
A week and a half, 80 hours of playtime later, and I was finished with the base game and both DLC’s, and I was thoroughly satisfied.
Long before playing Dragon Age II, I’d heard of it’s disappointment from fans, and how it is generally regarded as the weakest in the series, some even straight up calling it a bad game, so I came in having my doubts. One thing that I was told, however - which I think is important to note when addressing Dragon Age II with a critical eye - is that the game had a rushed development thanks to the small window that Bioware were given to actually finish the game. And make no mistake, you can see it in the final product; some textures look god awful, especially the Elves, which is especially noticeable when characters from Origins make an appearance and you can really see the difference. The story at times feels awkward and duct-taped together with the three act system, and the reuse of environments can make the second and third acts of the game feel incredibly stale at times, as you wander through the same identical cavern for the 10th time.
But is the game bad? Absolutely not. In fact there are ways in which it personally supersedes Origins, most notably the characters (and the ways you can interact with them), and the combat system. In fact it feels that until the third act, the main story takes a backseat while your relationships with your companions begin to bloom, and your relationships with these characters will shape the important moments that occur in the final act.
Combat in Dragon Age II was immediately a noticeable change for me, and one that was done for the better. Combat is a lot more fluid and fast paced: you attack faster, move faster, and feel like you’re dealing more damage when in combat. Combat in Origins was mostly very static. Mages would mostly turret in the far corner of the room and moving them was so much of a hassle that it wasn’t worth it, Warriors often did the same thing just in the center of combat, and Rogue’s main issue arose from trying to attack a moving target, usually one that was advancing on your mage. In DAII, Warriors have a lot of freedom to their movement, with many of their attack abilities having wide movement integrated into them or knockdown effects to enemies around them to free them if they are surrounded. Mages can attack much faster and the increased in-combat movement speed allows them to really be a mobile powerhouse on the battlefield. Rogues will leap through the air to intercept targets that are just moving out of reach and can successfully continue to attack targets that try to get away if they remain close enough. To balance this, enemies come in much greater numbers, sometimes even coming in several waves. Some players found this a source of critique but I personally enjoyed it; it matched the hectic pace of combat and it played on the unreliable narration of the story in a believable and fun way.
Narration is also Dragon Age II’s strong point, even if the story itself isn't necessarily. The story is being retold to a third party, the (then) mysterious Cassandra Pentaghast, from the perspective of Dwarven companion Varric, a friend and party member of playable character Hawke and a proficient storyteller of verbose and hyperbolic proportions. Such a narrator leads to some pretty wild scenarios that the player takes part in, even some that Cassandra herself will question Varric on regarding their validity. Varric’s storytelling nature is brought up frequently but very organically, so it doesn’t feel forced as a means of narration and genuinely makes for a really interesting method of delivering a story. They also lead to some pretty good comedic moments, such as when Varric insists that he single-handedly wiped out a mansion full of bandits as you take control of his character with the addition of a massive damage buff, ability cooldown reduction, and the power to make people explode when you shoot them. Or the beginning of the game, when Varric tells an exaggerated version of Hawke’s escape from Lothering that pairs up as a nice tutorial to the game's mechanics. One of your siblings, either Bethany or Carver, will be in this section depending on your class. If you’re a non-mage, you will be joined by Bethany, who will have mammoth sized breasts that are subsequently (and noticeably) absent when Varric is cut short and begins to tell the ‘real’ story of how they escaped.
This leans greatly on the game's other great strength; the characters. As the story is not as grand as what Origins had on display, it was important that the game made the internal conflicts between characters engaging enough to carry itself, and thankfully, it does just that. The voice actors/actresses for the main cast do a superb job, and every character feels intricately fleshed out and interacting with them, as well as watching them interact with each other, is absolutely the highlight of the game. Some smaller characters from Origins make a return as fully fledged companions, such as Merril (temporary Companion in the Dalish Origin), Isabela (pirate captain found in The Pearl in Denerim) and Anders (possible companion in Awakening). Each character is expanded greatly, and will even make reference to The Warden from Origins if they ever crossed paths. Some fans argue that returning characters were changed too much from what they were in Origins and should have just been new characters, but these changes are all explored and given adequate explanation. Even Anders, who faces the most criticism when it comes to the ruining of a character, behaves in a way that can be understood, even if not necessarily agreed with, and such mannerisms of his behaviour even have their groundwork laid out in party conversations you can hear in Awakening between himself, Justice and Nathaniel.
The characters are also given greater agency thanks to the changes to the approval system, which in turn makes it easier to make your character act how you want them to without the risk of having members of your party leave you because you call them out on their bullshit. Instead of just gaining or losing approval with characters, you instead have friendship and rivalry points. Actions you take and things you say will either gain friendship points, or rivalry points, and your total will sit on a scale that has 100 total points in both directions. Having high or maxed rivalry with someone will not mean that they leave in a strop, and in some cases they may actually try to change the part of their behaviour you find disagreeable if you can convince them of reason. One perfect example of this is Merril, a Dalish Blood Mage with a penchant for dangerous artifacts who I found myself frequently gaining rivalry with due to my character's disdain towards Blood Magic and meddling with unknown forces. On a rivalry path, Merril may begin to see error in her ways and try to change, whereas a friendship path with her will encourage her use of Blood Magic and meddling with the dark and dangerous forces that come with it. This system gives players the ability to be more concrete with how they speak to their companions and the actions they take, as you won’t be penalised for rubbing a companion the wrong way, and in fact, you tend to get punished more if you’re inconsistent with your actions, as certain events in Act 2 and Act 3 can cause some interesting results from your companions if you haven’t reached a certain point threshold in either direction with them.
As Hawke themselves, who is fully voiced, can have their personality tailored to how you want, this feature works wonderfully. You can either be ‘Green’, which is considered friendly, optimistic, or helpful; Purple, which is humorous, sarcastic, or neutral; or Red, which is considered direct, aggressive, and violent. The one you choose most consistently will actually affect parts of the story, as sometimes an action can only be successfully done if you are a certain ‘personality’; for example, sometimes only a ‘Red’ Hawke can successfully intimidate a character to get what they want. As you don’t have to necessarily worry too much about companion reactions, this feature works beautifully in making Hawke really feel like your character.
If there’s one thing that the story does well, it’s showing you the effect you’ve had through your choices over the years. Each Act takes place several years apart, and the ability to see how your decisions have shaped the city of Kirkwall, as well as watching your companions grow, makes for rather ingenious worldbuilding. The party dialogue of your companions when they barely know each other in Act 1, versus the way they speak in Act 3 after nearly a decade of being together is rather poignant, especially with pairings like Aveline and Isabela.
Dragon Age II took what was good about Origins and did its best to make them even better in the small window it had. If given more time, I don’t doubt that DAII would be hailed as the best in the series. The story isn’t as ‘epic’, but it doesn’t need to be when you’re so heavily invested in Hawke and their companions. The exceptional voice acting for the player character and downright hilarity of some of the voice lines (Purple Hawke is the best Hawke and I will fight you) makes it incredibly easy to get lost in your character, even more so than Origins. I don’t care about the blight, all Isla Hawke wants is gay pirate booty and for everyone to stop killing each other for just five minutes.