December 2009 Archives

So I've decided to try something I'm calling "Idle Hands" in order to get me to a) blog a bit more than I have recently and b) put down some half-formed ideas that don't really have a home.  I have a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head that might be useful for an RPG campaign or some fiction, but which aren't really a whole idea so much as an element to be used later.  I'm going to post them here just so I have them written down.  Comments are welcome as always, of course.

The Isle of the Dead

Not far from the coast is a large island home to the Brotherhood of the Endless Slumber, an order of necromancers.  The island spends much of its time swathed in a cloak of fog, but even when hidden from view it is not difficult to find; the smell of decay which covers the island reaches miles offshore.  The island's infrequent visitors, mostly occasional trade vessels or those desperate for the necromancers' aid, rarely stay for long.

Every living person on the island, aside from a small enclave of belonging to the Gyrefell merchant house which runs the docks, is a member of the order, made up of both necromancers and mundane monks who serve in various capacities, assisting the necromancers with their rituals and research.  The island does not have a city per se; the docks and the Gyrefell enclave come closest, situated in a basin along the coast; the only other part of the island with any sort of habitation is the necromancers' abbey, two miles from the docks on a plateau.  There are barely more than 150 living people on the island, but that is but a sliver of its true population.

Outside the abbey and the merchant enclave, the rest of the island is populated with the undead, all of whom were once criminals and prisoners sent from the mainland to be sacrificed to anatomical study and necromantic research or ritual for their crimes.  Their animated corpses, most of which are simply skeletons now, toil in agricultural fields, mine the ores of the island's mountains, and perform other manual labor with unceasing effort.  After nearly two hundred years of executions and reanimations, there are thousands upon thousands of undead now walking the island; they are kept away from the merchant enclave as part of the necromancers' deal with the Gyrefells, but they can still be seen from the enclave's towers on one of the island's few clear days.

The Gyrefells built their enclave on the island fifty years ago, after convincing the necromancers that it would benefit them to have skilled craftsmen and a permanent dock on the island rather than simply deal with infrequent and unpredictable trade convoys.  Few members of the house volunteer to work on the enclave, and it is seen as a hardship post, given to those out of favor with the house's leaders or new journeymen.  Incense burners and fragrant herbs are a common sight (and smell) in the enclave, as the merchant try to keep the odor of death at bay.

Because of the undead, the Brotherhood produces plenty of raw goods for trade (most manufactured goods cannot be made by the clumsy hands of animated corpses), which they sell to the Gyrefells, in return purchasing manufactured goods and imported necessities for their necromancy.  Many nations refuse to purchase goods from the Isle of the Dead, so much of the island's bounty is laundered through the Gyrefells' other holdings, hiding their true origin.

While a number of religious orders and other organizations have threatened the island in the past, the island's poor terrain and the army of undead make any sort of invasion a difficult prospect at best.  Compared to many other necromantic orders, the Brotherhood is also fairly innocuous, keeping to itself and engaging in research and explorations of the Land of the Dead.  This has kept them safe from the outside world for two centuries.

Dragon Age: Origins

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Well, I haven't blogged in a while, and the biggest culprit for that has been Bioware's new fantasy RPG, Dragon Age: Origins.  Deirdre gave it to me a few weeks ago as an early Christmas present (and vice versa), and I have been playing the hell out of it.  I beat it for the first of what will probably be several times with 65 hours of play time, according to the in-game counter (not including saves and restores).

Initially, I had been very cool on the game; fantasy RPGs are not really my favorite genre, though I have fond memories of the Baldur's Gate series.  The marketing campaign, which seemed focused on the sex and violence rather than on a strong story, did not really do a good job of convincing me that the game was going to be my cup of tea either.  However, reviews were extremely positive for the most part, Bioware is one of the few developers still in my "I will buy anything from them" list, and Deirdre (who had followed the game much longer than I had) was pretty excited about it, so I was cautiously optimistic.

Does the game hold up to the hype?  Well, to say the game is flawless would be a mistake; there were parts of the game that were pretty frustrating for me, and the game's plot is not particularly original, but it is superbly written, drawing you into Ferelden and holding you there.  Dragon Age may be my favorite Bioware RPG now, and possibly close to my favorite RPG period, though I think it falls short of the Black Isle heyday.  If you are at all interested in fantasy RPGs, Dragon Age should be a must-buy, especially if you are willing to put up with some gameplay annoyances for the sake of a good (if not entirely innovative) story with strong characters and a beautifully crafted setting.

As usual, this will be a two-part review, with spoilers behind the cut.

The Good:

  • As usual with Bioware RPGs, the writing in this game is excellent, even if the story and characters are not entirely original.  Shamus Young has posted a good article on this subject on the Escapist (here's his note on his blog about it), and I agree with most of his points, but Dragon Age feels like it steps beyond the writing in Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic to me.  There's a few specific cases I'll note later, but in general, characters have much deeper and complex motivations and your actions have more consequences.  NPC banter is great to listen to and even more than Mass Effect, I'm disappointed I can only bring a few characters with me in any one place.
  • As in Mass Effect, the background material for the game is extensive and the world building in the game is well-done.  One minor issue is that the Codex now gets some quest-specific entries instead of just optional background material; if you don't read some of the Codex entries, you can miss out on fairly important or at least helpful game information.  The various cultures seem fairly well thought out and most seem like more than just usual fantasy tropes or historical analogues, though there's a fair share of those too.  Ferelden is clearly a sort of "not-Britain" and Orlais "not-France," but elves are not exactly nature-loving, immortally wise tree-huggers and dwarven culture, while bearing some surface similarities to Tolkien-esque tropes, is quite different under the surface.
  • If you like romance subplots, but inwardly groan when you think back to some of Bioware's previous attempts, especially for female PCs, Dragon Age will probably be a pleasant surprise.  There's a wide range of possibilities, and the "good guy" romance option is not nearly as angst-ridden as say, Carth in KotOR or Kaidan in Mass Effect.  Unlike in Mass Effect, where I wasn't really that interested in any of the love interests, the romance subplot in Dragon Age actually made a difference to how I played the game, including a few key choices I had to make.
  • Dragon Age's tutorial-style origin stories are a great evolution of Mass Effect's "your origin affects the game" idea.  While in Mass Effect that simply changed a few NPC lines of dialogue and gave you a new mission or two, in Dragon Age it changes the entire way you play the first hour or so of the game, and touches almost every part of how some NPCs interact with you.  Many of the subplots in the various parts of the game are much more meaningful if you have played through the origin story related to them.  This adds a lot to replay value, even if it largely only affects the dialogue and not necessarily the main thrust of the story.
  • Dragon Age uses the "few major locations on a world map" style of Fallout and KotOR rather than the "few major locations with a bunch of shallow optional stuff in between" of Mass Effect, which seems to make for a much stronger game.  I don't think I ever found myself searching for subplots as in Mass Effect; even though there's plenty of quests to do not specifically related to the main plot, most of them take place in areas you will have to visit anyway.
  • Dragon Age does a good job of making you and your companions feel like some serious badasses.  From time to time -- especially on the boss battles -- your characters will pull of some really awesome finishing moves, and the cinematics that punctuate the major victories in the game are pretty jawdropping.
  • Dragon Age uses a Fallout-style ending sequence where the long-term repercussions of your actions are described after the game is over.  These are widely varied -- considerably more than the original Fallout, I think -- and change based both on your actions during the various quests and on your decisions around the endgame (mostly in dialogues).
  • The tactics system is pretty neat, and I was able to come up with some decent settings for my characters that let me get a bit more hands off than I was in say, Baldur's Gate.  Some characters I could reliably not worry about, but mages especially still needed a fair bit of tweaking in order to ensure that they were being used properly.  Still, it was annoying to have to sacrifice other skills for tactics slots (though generally only on non-warrior characters) when you could simply micromanage everything if you wanted to.  Making people sacrifice abilities in game to compensate for the interface is rarely a design feature people appreciate.
  • The game seems very modable, with Bioware having released the toolkit, and there's already wide variety of mods available to change everything from allowing you to respecialize characters to one that lets you make custom equipment to one that removes helmets from view (as in Mass Effect) with varying success.  Hopefully this means the game will have a good deal of longevity and we might even see some fan-made campaigns.
  • As is usual for Bioware, the soundtrack for Dragon Age is quite good; thankfully, it is in the line of their previous work for Baldur's Gate and not the Marilyn Manson in the trailers.  I don't think it's quite as good as the Mass Effect soundtrack, but there's some tracks from it that are sticking with me, and it's entered my rotation of good fantasy soundtracks. 
The Bad

  • The difficulty curve for Dragon Age has been described as a "sawtooth"; you will cut a swath through a horde of ravening darkspawn for a while, and then you will get into a boss battle or a "puzzle battle" (where the battle becomes a thousand times easier if you can figure out the one tactic that works best) that ends in a gory end for your entire party, resulting in some reloading to figure out how to win.  This was definitely my experience; I'm not particularly fond of boss battles in general, but there's a few that were incredibly frustrating to the point where I needed to take a break.
  • Compounding the last issue is that the computer does not do a very good job of leveling up your companions when they join your party.  As is usual in many games, being specialized is far more powerful than being a generalist in Dragon Age, but pre-leveled characters generalize, making them much weaker than they could be.  If you get your "main companions" early on, this isn't as big an issue, but it can be annoying.  Morrigan, for instance, has the Shapeshifter specialization to start with, which is considerably less useful than the other three specializations, an issue when you can only pick up two mages to choose from in the game at all.  I am using a mod that allows you to respecialize characters and I highly recommend that for people playing on the PC.
  • Magic, and particularly some of the spell combinations, seems really overpowered.  Fights that are nearly impossible without spells like Cone of Cold or Crushing Prison suddenly become far easier with them.  Prior to the last rebalancing patch, it was possible to completely lock down some of the bosses with repeated uses of stunning/paralyzing spells for the entire duration of the fights. I have heard of some people playing without mages at all, but I'm a bit surprised that's viable.
  • Equipment overload is not as bad as in Mass Effect, but it is still a bit annoying that I am funding my world-saving quest by selling scavenged armor, and juggling my inventory was a serious pain during a few of the longer quest periods, such as in the forest ruin or the Deep Roads.  It isn't as bad as Mass Effect because it's much clearer what is generally better to use, but it's still a bit of a pain.  I really hope RPGs move away from this kind of loot mechanic in the future.  As an important tip, whenever backpacks are available at a shop, buy them as soon as possible.  The ten extra inventory slots will pay you back in pretty short order.
  • Only being able to take three companions was a bit frustrating.  You generally need to take a tank (usually a sword and shield fighter), having a rogue to disable traps and open chests is a good idea (if not absolutely necessary), and you're probably going to want at least one mage for healing and/or crowd control with area-of-effect spells (and two is even better).  There's only two mages and two rogues in the game, and the rest are all basically fighters.  That really limits the options for a well-rounded party, especially when you want to bring certain party members with you on quests of special relevance to them.  Even just being able to have one more person would have made the game far easier to manage, and a wider variety of companions would have been welcome too.  As it is, I settled on the team of Alistair (a sword and shield fighter), Leiliana (a bowfighting rogue), Morrigan (a combat-oriented mage), and myself (a support/combat mage) very early on and rarely deviated; when I had to get rid of my rogue or one of my mages, it was pretty painful.  That really limits not only your strategies but also the banter and character subplots you can be involved with, which was really disappointing.  If you aren't a mage, you have even fewer choices, it seems.
  • If you don't have much in the way of healing magic (and sometimes even if you do), many of the tough battles can boil down to bringing as many healing/mana potions as you can and chugging them like crazy.  Personally, I'd prefer fewer battles where this was the rule.
  • There's a fair bit of annoying mook fights, necessitating that you fight through waves of darkspawn, or cultists, or some other generally-annoying-but-not-that-tough guys to get to the main set-piece battles.  Some of these are genuinely tough, simply because of the number of enemies you have to fight (many of which are archers or mages, which can be really a pain).  This can cause some serious slowdowns in the game's pacing, and doesn't do great things for the verisimilitude since for the most part they are just guys standing around waiting to fight you, with no other real reason to be there.  This is, unfortunately, a staple of a lot of RPGs (Mass Effect's final stages are another example), but there needs to be some more thought applied to the level design to avoid this kind of annoyance.
  • The blood effects are a bit extreme.  It's not a giant complaint, but it's a little weird to see a cut scene where you're talking with someone calmly while you're covered head-to-toe in blood spatter.  The game wouldn't really lose much if this was toned down (or even turned off, as you can do).
Appendix: Downloadable Content

I got the "Digital Deluxe" edition of Dragon Age, which comes with some extra downloadable content.  Every purchased copy of Dragon Age comes with The Stone Prisoner, but the Digital Deluxe version from Steam comes with a few extra bits (some armor and some other items) as well as Warden's Keep.  The Digital Deluxe edition also comes with a set of wallpapers and the entire Dragon Age soundtrack.

The Stone Prisoner was originally intended to be included with the base game but was pushed out when they thought they didn't have enough time to finish it before release.  It is an excellent bonus to the game, as Shale, the golem companion you can get in the town it adds, is very tightly integrated into the rest of the game, especially the dwarven kingdom area.  Shale has nearly as much dialogue and character interaction scripted as the other companions, and is definitely a useful addition to your team.  The new areas this DLC adds will probably add another couple hours of gameplay as well.  I'd say it was well worth getting, but if you have a legitimate copy it should be free for you anyway, so there's no reason not to pick it up.  If you buy Dragon Age used, however, you will have to purchase it separately; I don't know if it is worth $15 if you do (you're probably better off just buying a new copy from Steam or something instead, since I doubt you'll get Dragon Age for less than 25 dollars used for a while).

Warden's Keep is much more self-contained than The Stone Prisoner; it adds a single new area for the game, which is basically a dungeon that will take you an hour or two to complete.  It also adds a number of very good items (the best sword in the game and some very good armor for the level you happen to get it at), as well as a "party chest," something that really should have been included in the game to start at your camp, and not at a static location (there is in fact a mod to do just that already, so the DLC is not necessary for that).  Seven dollars is a pretty reasonable price for what you get.  I'm not sure I like the way that Bioware is trying to get you to buy the content for this one (see the Penny Arcade on the topic) but because it was already included in my version it didn't really affect me.  I do hope that future DLC is much more like The Stone Prisoner, however, and integrates into the rest of the game rather than just being a bit awkwardly bolted on.  I'm not holding my breath though, since that's a lot more work (which is reflected in The Stone Prisoner's significantly higher price tag).

The extra items in the Digital Deluxe edition are handy, but not necessarily all that.  There are items in the game that you can find or purchase from merchants that are easily almost as good (though I admit the Blood Dragon Armor does look pretty badass).  Don't feel like they are must-haves.

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This page is an archive of entries from December 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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