Dragon Age: Origins (spoiler review)

Unfortunately, my save files for the Isle of the Maker in NWN: Hordes of the Underdark were corrupted, so you'll have to wait a while for the next installment of that review. A colleague mentioned that Dragon Age: Origins was his favourite game of all time, so I decided to play that instead. It took me 85 hours for my first playthrough of the core game (without any expansions). My opinion (and many spoilers) are below.

Unlike the tired old opening chapters of NWN & NWN2, DA:O has 6 different beginnings depending on the origin of the player character. I was a male city elf rogue, so I started in the alienage (elven ghetto) of the capital city, Denerim.
My nice wedding clothes, spattered in blood
I was arrested by the city guard for murdering Vaughan Kendells, the son of the Arl. Commander Duncan invoked the Right of Conscription to recruit me as a Grey Warden, so I left with him to travel to Ostagar. This is where I met Alistair, a good-natured templar who had also been conscripted by Duncan. Alistair took me and two other recruits into the Korcari Wilds on our first mission. I was very impressed with the camera controls in this section of the game. The mouse wheel enables the player to switch between first-person and isometric viewpoints: the former being ideal for wilderness exploration, while the latter is preferable for melee combat.
The Grey Wardens meet Morrigan
During the battle of Ostagar, Alistair & I were sent to the Tower of Ishal to light a beacon. This turned out to be nowhere near as easy as it sounds, since we ended up fighting darkspawn every step of the way. At the top of the tower, we had a tough showdown with an ogre. All our efforts were wasted in the end, since Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir ignored the signal and retreated, leaving King Cailan and all of the Grey Wardens to be slaughtered. That is, except for Alistair and myself, who were rescued by Flemeth, the Witch of the Wilds. I was very impressed by this dark turn in the story. It was a great way to get the player engaged and motivated to further the plot.
The first but definitely not the last time I would wake up in Morrigan's bed...
Flemeth gave us the ancient treaties that we had first travelled to the Korcari Wilds to obtain. These documents were proof that the Dalish elves, the dwarves of Orzammar, and the Circle of Magi had all promised to aid the Wardens to fight the darkspawn. However, the last blight was 400 years ago, so they might need a little reminding. Flemeth sent her daughter Morrigan to accompany us on our quest.
Alistair, Sten, my character, and Morrigan
Our next stop was the village of Lothering, packed with refugees from the blight and likely to be the next target of the darkspawn horde. I recruited two more companions here: a Qunari warrior called Sten and an Orlesian bard named Leliana. Unlike bards in NWN, there are no semi-spellcasters in DA:O (with the slight exception of the arcane warrior). There was no real need for a second rogue in the party, although as I later discovered it is advantageous to recruit as many party members as you can, even though you can only have 4 active at any given time.
We meet Zathrian the Keeper
Lothering is quite typical of the locations that you visit in the game, in that there are a bunch of side-quests available from the chantry board as well as other NPCs. After this first location, the map opened up and the elves, dwarves and magi could be visited in any order. Alistair also recommended visiting his hometown of Redcliffe, since they might be convinced to stand up to Teyrn Loghain. I chose to visit the Brecilian Forest (not the Brazilian Forest...) next, where the Dalish elves were having trouble with werewolves. You have to decide whether to trust a talking tree or a crazy old hermit, since both promise to aid you in finding the werewolves' lair. Unfortunately the werewolves are hidden inside a ruin that is guarded by a nasty dragon, which I was unable to defeat at my current level. I decided to try the other locations first.
I talk to the trees, that's why they put me away
There were assassins camped outside Orzammar, so there was no way I was getting in there. Carroll, an annoying templar at Lake Calenhad Docks, refused to let me enter the Circle Tower. I doubted it would be wise to return to Denerim with Loghain on the throne. That left Redcliffe as my only viable option. I had already heard in Lothering that the Arl of Redcliffe was ill, but what I didn't know was that the village was plagued by zombies. Every night, undead swarmed out of the castle. The villagers feared that tonight could be their last. After assisting in preparing the defenses, I stood with Redcliffe to fight off wave after wave of undead. We lived to see the dawn and Bann Teagan came up with a plan to sneak inside the castle via a secret passage.
Jowan the blood mage, in prison where he belongs
After fighting our way through a castle filled with undead, we discovered that the arl's son Connor was the source of the trouble. His mother Isolde had hired an apostate, Jowan, to tutor Connor in magic. However, Jowan had been sent by Loghain to poison the arl. When his father fell ill, Connor made a deal with a demon to keep him alive. It was possible to free Connor from the demon, but only by entering the Fade. Opting against using blood magic, I decided to travel to the Circle of Magi to seek their help.
Wynne joins the party
It turned out that Connor was not the only one having problems with demons. In fact, the entire Circle Tower had been overrun by abominations. The templars were just about ready to nuke it from orbit, but I convinced them to let me inside to see if I could sort it out. Since Morrigan is an apostate, it obviously isn't smart to bring her with you to the Circle Tower. This is one of many times that it helps to have other companions in reserve. In any case, the circle mage Wynne is one of the few survivors and she offers to accompany you.
Sloth is a nasty sonofabitch
We fought our way to the top of the tower, only to be hypnotised by Sloth. I ended up in the Fade, a surreal realm of dreams and nightmares. This was one of my favourite sections of the game, as I puzzled my way through the dreamscape, defeating demons and acquiring a wide variety of powers along the way. I also had to enter the nightmares of each of my companions and liberate them from Sloth's control. We fought the Sloth demon at the centre of his web, escaping the Fade and waking from slumber. Back in the physical world, we obtained the Litany of Andralla to guard our minds against psychic powers. Like the quest in Redcliffe, this storyline ends with an important choice: whether to try and rescue the remaining magi, or kill 'em all and let the Maker sort 'em out. Since I'd come that far, I decided to try and rescue First Enchanter Irving from the blood magi. The final showdown with Uldred took me many attempts, even with Wynne's healing abilities and Sten's role as tank. Afterwards, I helped Irving argue with Knight-Commander Greagoir that the Circle of Magi was back under control. Wynne offered to join the party on our quest, but I felt she would be better off staying at the Circle Tower. This was the wrong choice, as I would later discover: just as Leliana or Zevran can act as a reserve rogue, a "backup mage" can ultimately be very useful in the final showdown against the blight.
Isolde, Connor & Teagan
With the promise of assistance from the Circle of Magi, both against the blight and to rescue Connor from demonic possession, I headed back to Redcliffe. This segment of the game was quite anti-climactic, since I was hoping to be able to return to the Fade and use all of the powers I had acquired in the Circle Tower. However, my character was not a mage, so Morrigan was given the task of entering the Fade in my stead. As tempted as she was by the Desire demon's offer, she opted to vanquish the demon and free Connor from his contract. Quite out of character for Morrigan, I know! This was still not the end of the Redcliffe storyline. Although Connor had been saved. Arl Eamon Guerrin was still comatose. If I wanted Redcliffe's assistance against Loghain and the blight, I would need to find the mythical Urn of Andraste (basically the Holy Grail). The only clue I had was from a dead paladin in Lothering (one of the Knights who say "Ni"?). A note found on his body pointed to the home of Brother Genitivi, in Denerim.
The Desire Demon in the Fade
In addition to the assassins outside Orzammar, the Antivan Crows had been hired to track me down. We were ambushed en route to Denerim, but the fight wasn't too difficult. The sole survivor, an elf named Zevran Arainai, offered to change sides and work for me instead. I was sorely tempted to kill him, but my character was considering training as an assassin, so I decided that he might be useful.
Zevran the Antivan assassin
Now that I had proven that I was high enough level to defeat the assassins that Loghain was sending after me, I decided to try my luck in Orzammar. Sure enough, once I had killed both the bounty hunters and the diplomat, the dwarves were happy to welcome me inside. Finally, the Grey Wardens were getting the respect that they deserved! Of course it wouldn't be that easy. Two factions vied for the throne: Lord Harrowmont and Prince Bhelen. The dwarves refused to march against the blight until the matter of succession was resolved. First, Lord Harrowmont wanted me to prove myself by fighting in the gladiator pits. Prince Bhelen had documents that proved that Harrowmont had bribed both Lord Helmi and Lady Dace by promising them the same land. Who to support? The clincher for me actually came with a side quest to retrieve a tome that had been stolen from the Shaperate. This task led me first to the thief in Dust Town, who had already sold it to Fixer Gredin. Where should I find the fixer and his buddies, but hanging out with Harrowmont's men in the fighting pits. I still spoke to the blackmailed fighters, but Baizyl Harrowmont admitted to his Romeo & Juliet romance with Revelka Aeducan. Gwiddon told me that Harrowmont intended to concede the throne to Bhelen all along. Given everything else that I had learned, that seemed quite possible! This taste of dwarven politics wasn't quite Game of Thrones, but it impressed me nevertheless.
The party faces off against Jarvia & the Carta
I was less impressed when I was told that the only way to secure the throne would be to venture into the Deep Roads and find the Paragon Branka, who had left two years ago to search for the mythical  Anvil of the Void. At this stage, I was still having trouble supplying myself with enough health poultice (and elfroot) to spend much time away from the nearest merchant. The obvious solution to that would be to return to the Brecilian Forest and face the dragon. I now had a number of items that boosted fire resistance. A key element of my strategy was the force field spell that Morrigan had recently learned. Since spells generate threat (ie. aggro), eventually the dragon charged at Morrigan. She simply raised her force field and hoped the rest of the party could finish off the dragon before the time ran out.
The Lady of the Forest
After slaying the dragon and fighting my way through a bunch of undead, I had an interesting discussion with the Lady of the Forest. Zathrian the Keeper was the one responsible for the werewolf curse. He created Witherfang out of vengeance, centuries ago. The werewolves I have been fighting are the distant descendants of the humans who originally incurred his wrath. When I confronted Zathrian, he refused to back down. Either I killed all of the werewolves, or I sided with them and fought Zathrian. After exhausting all other options, I chose to smack some sense into the elven leader. Ultimately, he agreed to lift the curse, which resulted in his death. All of the humans and elves were cured of their lycanthropy and I was finally able to secure a promise of aid from Zathrian's successor, his apprentice Lanaya.
Rescuing Brother Genitivi
After stocking up on hundreds of elfroot, my next stop was Denerim. I took a brief detour to The Pearl, a brothel near the docks, to meet a friend of Zevran and learn the duelist specialization. There were some dodgy goings on at Brother Genitivi's house, but I managed to find out that he had gone to the village of Haven, in the Frostback Mountains. The village was full of cultists and I ended up killing almost everyone in order to rescue Genitivi and make my way to the temple at the top of the mountain. I had to navigate a gauntlet of puzzles to prove that I was worthy of taking a pinch of ashes from the sacred urn. When I told Genitivi what I had discovered, he vowed to tell the whole world, which sounded like a terrible idea. There was actually the option to kill him to keep the ashes secret, but I figured if I did that I would hardly be any better than the cultists. I returned to Redcliffe for a third time and cured the Arl.
Alistair & The Warden strut their stuff in the gauntlet
I took the opportunity to finish off a few side quests before heading into the Deep Roads. I had given Morrigan a tome that I had found in the Circle Tower, which once belonged to her mother. Morrigan asked me to return to the Korcari Wilds, kill Flemeth, and obtain her spellbook. However, I was happy when Flemeth offered me a better deal: I could take the spellbook if I allowed her to leave, promising I would never see her again. Alistair and I both owed Flemeth our lives, so I decided that lying to Morrigan was a price I was willing to pay.
When Flemeth offers you a deal, you take it
Sten mentioned that he had lost his sword somewhere near Lake Calenhad. Without it, he would never be able to return to the Beresaad. This quest took us back to Orzammar and then to Redcliffe. Dwyn the mercenary must have sensed that I would have happily killed him, since he handed over Sten's sword without a fuss. Finally, we headed to the Dragon Age equivalent of the Underdark, but not before picking up another party member: Branca's estranged husband, Oghren.
Oghren, a dwarven berserker and high-functioning alcoholic
We proceeded through Caridin's Cross to Ortan Thaig, fighting darkspawn all the way. The corrupted spider queen was a real pain to take down and I was glad that I had taken the time to level up before I attempted this portion of the game. The Dead Trenches were very atmospheric, particularly the broodmother. Some will say that these more horrific aspects of the game are simply gratuitous, but I disagree. This is some seriously fucked up shit and it is certainly not for everyone, but it isn't grimdark for its own sake. Ultimately, many people will either love or hate this game, based primarily on their reaction to the Deep Roads.
Like the other story quests, this one ends with a key decision: whether to side with Paragon Branka and use anvil, or side with Paragon Caridin and destroy it. This question boils down to whether the ends justify the means. The anvil is undoubtedly evil, but an army of golems would be incredibly useful in defeating the blight. Initially, I was inclined to take the pragmatic option, which both Morrigan and Oghren supported. However, I could see that there was no way the dwarves could be trusted not to abuse its immense power. Branka fought us to the death and it was an incredibly tough battle. Afterwards, Caridin forged a crown for the new dwarven king, then I destroyed the anvil.
Paragon Caridin
I had now secured the aid of the magi, the elves and the dwarves (including the Legion of the Dead). It was finally time to head to Denerim for the Landsmeet. Up until now, the game had been quite forgiving in terms of the decisions I made, but I completely failed the Landsmeet on my first time through. It all started when Queen Anora's handmaiden arrived with the news that her majesty was being held captive by the new Arl of Denerim, Rendon Howe. For the second time, I invaded the Arl's estate on a rescue mission, and this one didn't end any better than the first (way back in the prologue). Alistair & I ended up imprisoned in Fort Drakon.
Queen Anora, trouble with a capital T
Morrigan had given me her ring, so she knew exactly where I was. She and Zevran set off to rescue me. However, since I was playing a rogue myself, there was no reason to stay put. I picked the lock to my cell, then Alistair and I overpowered the guard. We found disguises for ourselves, which got us as far as the front door before we were asked for a password. I didn't have any ranks in pickpocket, so I wasn't able to steal the password, but I just changed out of my disguise and then killed the guard who had it. Morrigan and Zevran met us at the door and we made our escape.
Another fine mess you've gotten me into...
I was royally pissed at Anora's betrayal, so I really didn't want to speak with her. However, it soon became clear that I needed her vote. She asked me to investigate what was going on in the alienage, which I was happy to do. Elves had been coming down with a mysterious illness, then placed in quarantine by healers from the Tevinter Imperium. It turned out that "quarantine" was a front for a slavery racket, backed by Loghain himself. We fought and killed the Tevinter slavers, but too late to save many of the elves, including Valendrian the elder, who had already been shipped off to slavery in Tevinter. With the help of Ser Otto the blind templar, I found that the real cause of the plague was demonic (of course).
Freeing my father from slavery
Before attending the Landsmeet, I spoke to Anora and Alistair and brokered an arranged marriage. Sometimes the best compromise pleases absolutely nobody involved. Ser Cauthrien met me at the entrance of the royal palace, but I was able to convince her to back down without a fight. I needed to save my strength for the main event. After winning the vote, I challenged Loghain to a duel. Fortunately for me, he didn't use any healing salves, which gave me an advantage. I also used concentrated deathroot extract to boost my chance to stun. When he yielded, I accepted his surrender, but Alistair could not allow him to go unpunished. Alistair put Loghain to the sword, completely ruining his chances of marrying Anora. However, we had already won the vote, so Alistair had her thrown in the dungeon until he could decide what to do with her. Finally, FINALLY, it was time to march to war.
Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, with his daughter Anora in the background
First we headed to Redcliffe, but too late we discovered that the attack there was only a feint. The main darkspawn army was marching on Denerim. Furthermore, Riordan finally informed Alistair and I that, in order to slay the archdemon, a Grey Warden had to die. However, Morrigan offered an alternative: if she fell pregnant with my baby, the soul of the elder god would pass to the unborn child. This had been Flemeth's plan all along. Afterwards, Morrigan would leave and I would never see her again. Nevertheless, this is the option that I chose.
An offer I couldn't refuse
By the time we arrived in Denerim, the city was overrun. We took back the city gates, then split our forces. Myself, Alistair, Sten & Morrigan headed to the alienage, while Oghren & Zevran stayed behind to lead the defense of the gates. This is where a couple more companions, like Leliana, Wynne, or even the dog, would have been handy. The Dalish and the city elves joined forces to defend the alienage and we killed one of the generals, but I foolishly skipped the marketplace and went straight for the palace. That meant that the archdemon would be able to call on the surviving general for reinforcements. Atop Fort Drakon, both my character and Morrigan were felled by attacks from the demon. It seemed like all was lost, but then Alistair discovered the ballista. When Sten dropped the archdemon to zero hit points, my character appeared out of nowhere to deliver the killing blow.
I appreciated the opportunity to talk to my companions (except for Morrigan) one last time. I told Alistair that I would be leaving to try and find her, but I suppose that depends which DLC I play next. Zevran offered to travel with me, which I accepted. Oghren opted to remain in Denerim as a surface dwarf, while Sten was finally able to return home.

DA:O isn't my favourite game of all time, but it is certainly in my top 10 and better than any of the NWN or NWN2 series. It can't quite top The Witcher trilogy, Planescape: Torment, nor BG2: Shadows of Amn, but that is extremely fine company in terms of CRPGs. I'll certainly be playing through the expansion and some of the DLC, as well as the sequels eventually. What impressed me most were the companions, particularly Alistair. When I first met him, I thought he would be a typical, uptight paladin, but I was pleasantly surprised by the humour and depth of his character. The banter between Zevran, Sten and Morrigan was very enjoyable as well. The companion AI was also very good (MUCH better than NWN), as well as being highly customisable. Definitely recommended, but not without some caveats - particularly with regard to the Deep Roads.

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