If you have any interest in BioWare’s Dragon Age 2 (and I realize many don’t, after many missteps by both BioWare and EA in this franchise and others), you’ve likely heard the bad by now: entire levels are used over and over to an annoying degree, combat has changed (which will bring people down on either side of the issue–I enjoyed the changes), etc. This review is more in the line of NonCon’s review of Radiant Historia, then, covering aspects other reviews will miss or gloss over in an attempt to only discuss gameplay.
Originally I was going to write this with a frame review in mind, checking my own privilege and examining the game in such a way. As I played the game, that approach started becoming too unwieldy to attempt, however. This review will include spoilers.
To start, I will claim I enjoyed Dragon Age 2, but that does not mean I ignored the areas in which it has problems. There were also moments that made me incredibly happy (such as realizing all the four main love interests were available regardless of the sex I chose to play–a point I’ll address again later). Most of these issues are not ones I will cover in much depth, as they likely need their own posts; I did want to make people aware of them, however.
Trigger warnings for: poor handling of issues with regards to mental disabilities (including violence by and exercised against such people), monosexism as exhibited by players, and oppression of entire peoples; the discussion will also cover sexuality and race.
Allegra covered the whitewashing of the Champion of Kirkwall already. It remains in game, not just the demo. I can confirm that family members, including the uncle, change when you create a non-white Hawke. The reason the two siblings have black hair, for instance, is to allow for such diversity. The matter is not one of just swapping their skin color, but also changing their faces and hairstyles. I tried this two times, with a black Lady Hawke, and a Latin male Hawke. The results can be seen in some of the screenshots both above and below this paragraph.
The character creator itself is slightly better than in Origins. It is no longer the case that darker toned characters just look like tanned white people. The options are still not as robust as I would like, so it’s a step forward, but needs more work. The hair options are indicative of gaming as a whole (more directly, they’re weak), which deserves a post on its own. The specific facial features are also limiting (specifically in my mind are the options for eyes).
Kirkwall has people that are not white. The darker skin tones are actually used more often than they were in Origins, though rarely is the darkest used, from what I saw. The people are predominantly white, but as a city that is supposed to also be a accessible via sea, it has some more diversity than Fereldan and Denerim did. In the case of one of your companions, Isabela, it is difficult to say. She is darker in skin tone than most of your other companions, and her treatment by marketing is somewhat worrisome.
Isabela hails from Rivain, which, from talks with her, seems to reference the culture of the Sinti and/or Romani (the game doesn’t go into much detail, so it’s difficult to ascertain). This is the impression I received from both her character design and the references to a darker-skinned people who believed in seers (or hedge witches), which is a cultural stereotype of those two cultures–particularly in fantasy. In the first game, her model appears lighter skinned than in the sequel, but both the lighting in The Pearl, as well as the inaccurate skin tones of that character creator make it hard to clearly distinguish the intent behind her character.
Isabela was used in marketing the game. Both Bitch Magazine and Glamgeekgirl have handled the issue of her ads. In the former, we realize that while she is darker skinned in the game, the marketing lightens her skin considerably. Tied with Glamgirlgeek’s pointing out of the sexist German ad that uses her as an object to sell the game, it becomes increasingly obvious that her skin was lightened so that she would be ‘sexier’ to some notion of a ’target audience.’ This is not new in advertising, sadly, but it is disappointing that instead of focusing on advertising diversity, they downplayed that in both reducing Isabela’s character to a sex toy rather than as a sexually-assertive and confident woman and whitewashing her for ads.
There are four romance options in the base game, and The Exiled Prince DLC offers one more, albeit a chaste romance. Excepting the DLC character Sebastian, all romance options are open to either a male or female Hawke.
I have only experienced one romance as yet, that with Anders, the Grey Warden mage, as a male Hawke and it pleased me. He references a previous same-sex relationship, and while approaching him with flirting in mind, he will stop you and ask if it bothers you that he’s been in a previous relationship as such. This serves as a buffer to any who might complain they ‘accidentally’ fell into a relationship with him, as well as providing context for his character. Anders appeared in the expansion for Origins, and many have argued he never showed an interest in men in the previous game (as if that is in indication of one’s interests).
The fan reaction has been mixed. I have seen people of all sexualities claim this is ‘unrealistic.’ There is the claim that it is ‘lazy,’ but as BioWare has clearly stated, they will not have a same-sex only option. For someone who does call himself gay, this was a compromise I was willing to accept, as it opened up the majority of the the romances to everyone. Much of the debate has derailed into monosexist trains of thought, claiming that it’s impossible for that many people who happen to travel together to be bisexual, or at least open to such. Personally, I do not find it so odd at all, especially as this ignores that both Aveline and Sebastian are clearly shown as heterosexual.
In the case of two of the characters, Merrill and Fenris, their sexualities seem to not be as clear-cut. Anders and Isabela both have clear histories that indicate they are bisexual, but the two elves don’t discuss their past romances or sex lives much at all. Therefore, their sexuality is a bit more subjective in how you play and interpret it. I do not wish to indicate this erases them as bisexual characters, but that this aspect of their lives is not as clearly indicated within the context of a single playthrough of the game.
There is a brothel again this time, and the options do not include the same trans* issues the first game had. There is a range of options, with effeminate men, women who are assertive, women who are bored, men who are gruff, and such. Some of these fall into the stereotypes of the butch male dwarf and effete male elf.
Author’s Edit: Something that occurred to me after this published. I was disappointed when I discovered that stripping my male Hawke of his armor merely placed him in pin-striped pants without a top. Doing the same with Lady Hawke put her in panties and a bra. While much guffawing was done over the awkwardness of the undergarments in Origins, this approach to it seemed a slap in the face.
Oppression & Xenophobia
As in Origins, there is slavery, there is the oppression of the elves who live in the ghettos known as the Alienage, the subjugation of mages, and a mixture of xenophobia mixed with intolerance of other religions as exhibited toward the Qunari. These all exist in varying degrees, and the first thing I noticed were the discussions Anders and Fenris had regarding how the oppression of mages was similar to how elves were treated: both stem from the Andrastian religion. It seems to broach intersectionality and fighting against a dominant culture, while showing how minorities can be ignorant of how divisive such a culture can be, further empowering oppression.
Fenris’s own story is that of a former slave whose tattoos were seared into his flesh with lyrium by his former master. His story line does a lot to confront his own feelings, which have placed an understandable hatred for his Danarius, the Tevinter mage who owned and mutilated him. Hawke has the ability to guide him through a process where he forges a new life and/or to directly confront the injustices done to him. Of course, in this game, confrontation means killing Danarius.
The city of Kirkwall has a history of slavery, and while that is addressed in the codices, it seems to only serve as a backdrop in which one can comment on it, or notice how the refugees from Fereldan are treated with disdain. Hawke has a few options to help her fellow refugees when she improves her own status, but it’s not really seen in any measurable effect (in my playthrough of the game so far). In fact, convincing miners to continue going back to a mine so that you can eventually fight the high dragon that will be there results in them all being slaughtered.
The Alienage is not as well explored as in Origins, though issues of interracial relationships are broached a bit more, albeit through one side quest where the question of where a person of mixed races can find acceptance. When elves and humans mate, the child always ends up as human. That oppression is not really addressed, instead the game focuses on the subjugation of mages (which reads to me as a parallel to the criminalization of homosexuality in various cultures and decades, but I have a whole post in mind about that as well).
The option does exist to completely eradicate Merrill’s entire Dalish village, which somewhat bothered me, but the quest in which it takes place is complicated with the aforementioned issue of intersectionality, and an ignorance or distrust of certain means (in this case, blood magic, which does not have to equate with being evil, though it does seem that way quite often). The other option is to accept responsibility for Merrill’s actions, and thus be banned from visiting her clan again. The situation requires a more thorough examination than I can provide as of now.
The Qunari’s design has changed so that they are now horned and have a more light-purple/chalky hue to their skin. As they were the only race in Origins who seemed to be non-white by default, this has been a concern of mine for a while. They seem loosely based on the old Ottoman Empire, especially in both their cultural and religious clashes with the rest of Andrastian Thedas (which reads as Christianity). Qunari society is clearly sexist, they devalue individualism (their names are merely their station in life, such as Sten), and they believe in honor given through roles and fulfillment of such.
The second act of the game is dealing with the political tensions of their continued stay in Kirkwall. This can eventually result in one of four ways of dealing with the tension. If Isabela returns the book she stole from them (which she may not do, as she may run off with it), you can either give her up to them and let them leave with her as their prisoner (you later find out she escapes anyway), or fight them for Isabela’s honor. Isabela scoffs at this and demands fighting for her own honor, which the Arishok, the Qunari leader, says is unacceptable, as she is not seen as worthy. If the book is not returned, one has to either duel the Arishok one on one, in accordance to his view of honor, or bring in your entire party to fight.
The entire situation could clearly use a lot more explication and exploration for someone better versed in the such cultural conflicts, especially as it covers both religious and cultural issues. I feel it should be noted the Qunari are constantly portrayed as more technologically advanced than the rest of Thedas, but more adamant about their opposition to magic. A mixed bag from my, admittedly limited, standpoint.
The game has a number of persons who are violently insane. Outside of Sandal, who returns from Origins, I did not really find any other instances of people with mental health issues portrayed in anything that could be considered a positive light (and Sandal is up for debate–I cannot speak to it closely).
At one point Hawke is asked to apprehend a criminal hiding in the outskirts of Kirkwall. Going there will reveal the criminal is a man who is a serial killer of elven girls. Talking to him reveals a man who hears voices, considered them demons, was told they were not by mages, and refuses to believe he is anything but plagued by demons (which should sound familiar in our own ways of communicating about issues concerning sanity). The way to deal with him is to either kill him (he begs to be killed) or return him to the authorities. There is no option for actually helping him, beyond hiding him away so his politically engaged father can continue his career, or outright killing him. His begging to be killed speaks to larger issues of our society not willing to make room that allows many other options.
Toward the end of the second act, Hawke’s mother is abducted by a serial killer whom the player has been tracking since the first act. He has been recreating his wife, and animated her using blood magic. Hawke’s mother has the face of the man’s deceased wife. Again, the only way to deal with him is to kill him.
Again, during the same act, Varric has a personal quest that involves finding his brother, who abandoned Varric and Hawke to die in the Deep Roads. He has gone violently crazy as well, though his is the result of an item he picked up in the Deep Roads. Quite honestly, the ‘item of power makes person lose sanity’ trope is tired and as it usually results in violence from both the person who has the item, as well as to stop the violence, it is really growing problematic.
The same item is then given to Meredith, the game’s end antagonist. Her reasoning for ending up as the antagonist is perfectly reasonable in the game’s plot–as a Templar of the Chantry, she wishes to provide security at the cost of mages’ freedom. Instead of continuing that thread, she has bought the item that Varric’s brother had, forged it into a sword, and she is actually insane, which is apparently what informs her decisions. It is a Chekov’s gun that never needed to be in place, and it casts her in a final villainous light not because of her actions (which, again, could be done without resorting to her having to be insane), but because of the supposed illness that has now affected her. It was a poorly implemented plot decision that undercut both the story, as well as being ignorant toward actual issues with mental disabilities.
These are just the issues I have seen in my first playthrough, which lasted fifty-eight hours. Naturally, I could have missed some issues due to not seeing them, as well as being ignorant due to my own privileges. Therefore, I’d like to ask of others to speak up about other issues they have seen handled positively, negatively, or perhaps in an ambivalent manner.