Many western RPG developers dabble with creating fantasy RPGs, but few have mastered the genre the way BioWare has. Many have tried to emulate what the developer started with the original Baldur’s Gate, and few have been able to duplicate it. I’d even say BioWare out BioWare’d themselves when they created Dragon Age: Origins, one of the, if not the, most popular fantasy RPG game of last generation.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim released roughly two years later, and it appeared to eclipse everything Dragon Age had achieved. It didn’t help that that same year, Dragon Age II released to lukewarm reception at best. BioWare changed the game’s playstyle from turn-based, classic RPG to action-RPG. That probably wouldn’t have been so bad if it didn’t also limit the player-character’s race to human only. At that point, it wasn’t too different from a JRPG.
Despite the differences in gameplay between Origins and Dragon Age II and the rise of Skyrim popularity, Dragon Age still has something over Skyrim, just as it does many other fantasy RPGs that try to take its place: engrossing narrative.
I tried to play The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Skyrim, but I never lasted after a few hours. There was barely a story holding the game together. I grew frustrated that there was so little direction in the games, that everything was up to me and what I wanted to do. On the one hand, there is something wonderful in that kind of freedom. On the other, I need a goal other than “go over here when you feel like it.”
I talked to The Elder Scroll-loving friends about my frustration, and their responses were not helpful. One friend said, “I know, isn’t it just wonderful?” Another said, “Well you see, you make your own story as you go. Like a friend became a master thief, and he robbed the clothes from everyone in Skryim so he could have various naked towns.” While the latter story is funny, and it’s one I tell people often because, quite frankly, it’s genius, it’s not my mode of gameplay.
RPGs are about a story, the choices individual players make to get through the story, and the deep characterization. Skyrim has the latter two in spades but is severely lacking in story. Dragon Age has all three elements. Well, Dragon Age II has the first two and little bit of the third, but that’s not important right now.
Many other fantasy RPGs have revolved their games around these three core elements, but they’re always lacking in one form or another. Maybe the story is good, but the characterization is weak or the choices don’t matter (or are nonexistent). Maybe there is deep characterization, but the story is weak.
What Dragon Age II lost in terms of deep narrative, Dragon Age Inquisition brought back in full. From the little teasers we’ve seen of Dragon Age 4 and hope to see in upcoming trailers, it appears to follow suit. If it does, it would top the fantasy RPG genre once again.
Make no mistake, BioWare desperately needs Dragon Age to come out on top once again. After Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem, BioWare can’t afford any more projects that fall flat. Not to mention, fantasy RPG fans could use another western RPG with a riveting narrative right now. We can’t let JRPGs carry us forever, no matter how fun and fantastic they are.