Dragon Age is perhaps most notable for being a party-based fantasy RPG that does not feature the Dungeons and Dragons license. Instead, much in the vein of Mass Effect and Jade Empire, BioWare has chosen to craft their own unique fantasy world and populate it with a rich world and a deep history. While for some studios the idea of creating a unique IP could be considered risky, BioWare appears to have succeeded.
BioWare also has a tradition of releasing expansion packs to support their main products upon release. These have ranged from the mediocre Tales of the Sword Coast (Baldur’s Gate expansion), to the stunning Throne of Bhaal (Baldur’s Gate 2) and of course the consistently solid expansion packs to the original Neverwinter Nights game. BioWare has already released 3 modules of extra content to Dragon Age: Origins, making me was curious to see if this content was a full-fledged experience, or more of a short expansion to an already reasonably epic game (see Return to Ostagar).
Awakening takes place a short time after the events of the previous game and presents you with the opportunity to carry on the adventures of your character from the first game, or to bring in an entirely new character. The new character doesn’t have a true “origin story,” but they did include an oh-so-brief back-story of being dispatched from Orlais to join the Grey Wardens here. I chose to start the game with the new character, simply to try playing the game in a slightly different style from the last one. If you were adventurous enough to transport your character from the first game, just be prepared to be a bit disappointed. Awakening will present those players with a hefty dose of retcon and a character that has been stripped of most of his truly powerful equipment earned so carefully in Origins.
Awakening begins immediately with your character, the newly appointed Warden Commander of Vigil Keep, previous home to the traitorous Arl Howe from the previous game, to a Vigil Keep under siege from the hordes of the Darkspawn forces. These forces appear to be led by an intelligent, speaking Darkspawn that will send your party into a sprawling adventure that covers approximately 15 hours of content with side quests included.
Awakening introduces you to a concept that BioWare has featured in their games since Baldur’s Gate 2, that of controlling and ruling a keep. As the Warden Commander, you will hold court, make decisions on where to send your patrolling troops, which upgrades to make to your tower, as well as how best to deal with an unruly populace and a potential coup-d’état. All of this will occur, while leading a party of potential Grey Wardens on a series of quests to fight the evil that seems to besiege the entire region.
While being essentially a basic expansion pack of content, Awakenings does manage to introduce a few new elements into the game play. For starters, nearly all of your weapons skills contain new rows of abilities, many of these being truly powerful and when used properly potentially game changing. My favorite new ability was Massacre, a warrior ability that allows you to do a spinning attack capable of outright killing weaker enemies that are surrounding you. Additionally you will find a host of new specialties that you can unlock for your characters, although I personally didn’t really find any way to unlock them for my fighter along the way. Having said that, many of the companions you greet will already possess these new specialties, for example the Shadow, which turned out to be a deadly addition for the rogue class characters.
Awakening also introduces you to a host of colorful new companion characters, as well as one returning character. Perhaps because of the shorter length of Awakening, you will find just one short companion quest for most of your new companion characters and zero options for romance. You will find a host of cameos and reminders of your adventures in the first Dragon Age game, but these are more fan play and not really all that important. I will hazard a guess that the majority of you who play Awakening will be disappointed with your returning companion.
"Much of the rest of Awakening is as expected…"
Much of the rest of Awakening is as expected: a new land, new locations, and a handful of new monsters to fight. Much of this will be very familiar to those (like I) who played through Origins and all of its related side quests. While Awakening does feature a number of main quests and side quests, many of them are simply Chanter Board quests or fetch quests to help craft items or help merchants.
This brings me to a discussion of the new rune crafting skill set. The addition of rune crafting was an interesting choice and about as much fun as crafting potions and poisons was in the first game. One annoyance is that unlike potions, the number of runes you find or buy is very limited and mostly amounts to your basic +1 to this or that element rune. They did add the ability to add runes to your armor this time around, but it wasn’t very fleshed out, and I didn’t spend much time with it. Largely I feared having to backtrack to Vigil Keep (the main game hub) every time I wanted to add runes to my weapons or armor. Perhaps the ability to enchant items and add and remove runes would have been a nice addition as well.
I found the difficulty on the normal level to be far more forgiving this time around. Origins had some of the most ridiculously difficult encounters I have faced in an RPG in years, something that Awakening seems to save mostly for boss battles. This is not to suggest that Awakening is easy, but perhaps it is a combination of me knowing how to play better and the AI being a bit more restrained. Then again perhaps I just played the game better this time around than I did in Origins. My one major complaint is the number of enemies that have that overwhelm ability, where they knock you down, jump on top of you, and start doing massive damage. This seemed to happen with about four different types of enemies, especially with the Children creatures that seemed to achieve this in nearly every encounter. This can be overcome, but it can get annoying after a while.
Awakening is an expansion pack to an epic role playing game that spanned over sixty hours of play between the main quests and side quests. The only thing that kept me from considering Awakening an equally epic game is that they simply kept the content far too short for the story they were attempting to tell. There were certainly some epic battles and moments, but when the final battle was over, and the static ending screen appeared, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit let down. I think a few more months and perhaps a beefing up of the Keep governing concept and your party interactions would have helped. By the time I located the last new companion to add to my party, the game wouldn’t even allow me to go through with her Grey Warden Joining Ceremony, something that also seemed far less interesting this time around when compared to the original Joining I underwent in Origins.
Still, when distilled down to its core, I did enjoy Awakening a little bit more than I did Origins. I found the focus in the story to be very strong, and I always felt like what I was doing was important or building towards some goal. Perhaps Origins would have benefitted from a bit more focus and less needless map screen marching, which still makes an appearance here but is far less annoying. I would love to describe and discuss the ending and my observations about the importance of the decisions you make within the game, but that would add far too many spoilers to a simple review (expect an upcoming blog discussion). Overall Awakening is an expensive but fun extension to a quality game and easily recommended to fans of the series.