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More Interesting Traveling Compaions Don’t Exist

February 5, 2010

     Say what you will about J-RPGs, but Western RPGs also tend to have their own clichés that they rehash incessantly.  However, in both cases, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, should they be handled correctly.  Dragon Age: Origins, the latest series from star RPG developer Bioware, is chalk full of derivative material.  You get to pick your origin as one of six people: a human noble, a Dalish elf, a city elf, a dwarven noble, a dwarven commoner, or a mage, either human or elf.  Through various circumstances unique to each origin, you get selected to join the Grey Wardens, a select order of soldiers dedicated to fighting off the Blight and the Darkspawn, bestial creatures that destroy, slaughter, and pillage wherever they go.  However, shortly after being inducted into this order, the king of Ferelden, the land the game takes place in, is betrayed during his confrontation with the Darkspawn by his own father-in-law, Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir.  He and all of the Grey Wardens but yourself and another named Alistair are killed in the battle, and the Darkspawn are now free to invade Ferelden.  You and Alistair, along with many other companions you meet along the way, including Morrigan, Leliana, Sten, Oghren, Zevran, Wynne, and your faithful Mabari hound, must gather an army to replace the one lost at the battle and unite Ferelden to stop the Blight before it swallows everything in its path.  Sound familiar?  It should, as the concept of a dark horde of monsters (orcs, undead, etc.) is quite common.

     However, the plot is interesting with its own little twists and turns, like the betrayal of Loghain, that you won’t be rolling your eyes at every trite little plot mechanism.  Even better about the game is its cast of characters, especially those you get in your party.  Each of the eight party members (minus your dog, plus add-on character Shale) is an extremely well-fleshed out individual, with their own motivations, likes, dislikes, and quirks that you discover as you get to know them.  By giving them gifts suited to their individual character, you can get them to like you even more and tell you more of their intriguing pasts.  The characters are all rather humorous (especially everyone’s bisexual assassin, Zevran) yet very lovable.  I would venture to say that the quality of these characters makes this possibly the best playable cast in any video game I’ve ever played.  It would be nice if you could see them interact more with each other, but that’s just one minor gripe.

     The gameplay itself is very similar to other Bioware games, involving MMORPG-like realtime fighting with lots of pausing to give your party members directions on who to stab, who to zap, or who to heal.  This can get at times frustrating, since it stops the normal flow of the battle at regular intervals, but it’ll grow on you.  In between battles, you roam around areas to chitchat with locals or crawl through dungeons and whatnot to make it to your next objective.  Travel is largely done on a click-to-move world map, which is sadly rather small.  Each of the locations is really well-developed, so it would have been nice to travel to a few more villages.  You get to customize your own character’s skills within certain parameters, based on which class you picked between warrior, mage, and rogue, and you also get to customize his/her physical features.  That aspect of the game is not as good as I would have liked, as your character tends to end up looking somewhat like a generic NPC no matter what you do.

     However, the graphics on the whole are quite good.  Each of the other main characters looks absolutely great, and the locations are beautifully designed and not at all grainy or ill-defined.  The soundtrack is more than a few steps up from generic epic fantasy music, with a lot of it very reminiscent of some parts from the Lord of the Rings.  The voice acting is also absolutely superb, especially with all of the main characters, including Claudia Black of Farscape fame as Morrigan, Steve Valentine as Alistair, Steven Jay Blum as Oghren, and Mark Hildreth as Sten.  I was particularly surprised by Hildreth’s very nuanced performance, as he was pretty bad as Heero Yuy in Mobile Suit Gundam Wing.  So yes, I’ve listed a few problems, like choppy fighting, not very many places to visit, and clichéd plot elements.  However, this is an extremely good game with a great cast and some really exciting plot developments, especially those that involve moral choices.  It’s one of the most fun Western RPGs I’ve ever played, despite all its problems.  This game is a must-have for anyone who enjoys Bioware games or Western RPGs in general.

Story: 9.3      Gameplay: 8.9      Presentation: 9.5      Soundtrack: 9.3      Acting: 9.5      Overall: 9.5

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