Dragon Age: Origins: Fade Section: The Examination: The Rant: COLONS
Yes, Dragon Age: Origins is a.. well, it’s not an old game per se, but it is definitely an artefact of an older generation of videogames – a generation ideologically detached from contemporary spectacle-fuelled AAA crumpets of rushed design, pervasive DLC, insane break-even margins and distrust of the player. Hah. To be fair, that’s not quite true, as DA:O has an insanely convoluted and overpopulated DLC model. But it is the feeling of the game I am referring to, the sense that this game is not about the spectacle or the instant gratification, but about the long-term payoff of an involved roleplaying campaign.
That said, the game does have a lot of glaring issues which become more and more obvious with each subsequent playthrough. A particularly troublesome section is the “Fade part of the Mage Circle questline”. That’s something that has widely been acknowledged as a severe misstep on the game’s designer’s part. It’s probably been discussed to death more than two years ago. Regardless, I’ve had the.. err.. ‘pleasure’.. of re-playing that bit again, after a really long hiatus on that particular subgenre of gaming, and after re-experiencing it, and setting my thoughts in order, I feel there’s still ample space for thorough ruminations on why exactly the Fade sections are so unlikable.
Which is a very convoluted way of saying that I played Dragon Age: Origins, and I want to talk about the Fade.
A large issue with the Fade is that it is a self-sufficient, fully realized dungeon with its own mechanics, distinctive style and notable length. And that’s amazing! Except that for some reason, the entire thing is placed as a section of another massive quest-dungeon (the Circle of Magi). This is one of the many decisions on Bioware’s part that I just can’t wrap my head around. It’s not as if the Circle of Magi dungeon/quest needs any more meat on its bones; there’s a full five levels of lengthy maps (tower floors), each having a variety of loot, mook-and-boss enemies, even various minor sidequests (such as Summoning Sciences, Watchguard Of The Reaching, Five Pages – Four Mages). It has an involved, full-fledged boss battle at the very end. And yet, despite all this, at a relatively random point on the fifth floor of the Circle of Magi, you suddenly are moved over to the Fade sub-quest. I say “subquest” because it is imported as one, but for all intents and purposes, the Fade is a full-fledged entity of it’s own – it features very peculiar, unique mechanics, visual appearance, it has whole 10 maps, 5 of them having bona-fide minor boss battles and one being a multistage (!) boss battle that’s pretty damn challenging for most character builds. If you are keeping track, then this supposed sub-plot seems actually larger than the larger quest it’s supposed to be a part of. And you are completely spot-on, because that’s exactly how it is.
In other words, this is completely stupid. Because the entry-point of the fade is placed so near the end of a large dungeon, the players are, well, unprepared for such a complete change of game-style. For the last hour or two, you’ve spent the time battling demons, mages, templars with your party, perfecting the modes of encounter; you’ve immersed yourself in the lore of DA:O’s magic, in the conflict between mages and templars that has come to a full-fledged confrontation; you’ve spent time discovering secrets of the tower, doing somewhat hidden extra activities that reveal a completely optional boss encounter; and you’ve looted the heck out of the place. And suddenly, via the magical powers of a cutscene, you’re now transported to this “world of dreams”, where you must battle dogs, darkspawn, ghosts, mages, templars, demons all on your own, where there is no loot, where you must find a way in a pretty confusing mess of sub-maps. It’s a complete 180deg turn in terms of gameplay. That’s not a bad thing on it’s own, but it definitely is a bad thing in the context of it’s location. The mental shifting-of-gears does not serve the game, because it, above all things, emphasizes pre-planning, foreknowledge and predictability. The game is fractionally linear as hell, all the encounters, progression, even loot in chests & on enemies is hand-placed and unchanging.
Moreover, the Fade is introduced at a point where the player is prepared for the end. They have spent a good amount time already, the design of the levels themselves gets tighter and more focused, signifying that “this is it, the boss encounter and the big payoff is right around the corner”. Instead, we get something that’s dull, repetitive, bland, and takes twice as long to slog through. This is literally the worst sort of filler imaginable – it is unnecessary, bloated, poorly positioned, and aggravating. It would have been better if it was an optional quest, perhaps (though probably not, as there are many other issues – re: rest of the damn article), but no – it is mandatory. It’s a mandatory part of the Circle of Magi quest, which in itself is mandatory for the main questline. And it’s that knowledge – the fact that you must play this section if you choose to re-play the game again – that really hurts. I can’t count the number of playthroughs abandoned because of the foreknowledge that the dreaded Fade experience is inevitable.
To put it short, the gameplay elements of the Fade are a complete mess. In some aspects, they go directly against the meat and bones of the game (the party-specific design, for example), in some aspects, it needlessly reiterates overfamiliar components (such as enemy selection), and it completely obliterates a core feature of the game (lack of any loot entirely). What little innovation it brings to the table (the fadeshifting mechanic) is a gimmicky, artificial construct that’s relegated to serve as mere plot-door opener. Literally.
So, the party-specific design. Namely, the inexplicable non-existence of it during most of the Fade section. Dragon Age: Origins is a very, very party-based game. You are really not meant to solo any parts of it – yes, people have done so, with clever character builds on the highest difficulties, but that’s not indicative of the regular experience in any way. The game itself simply is a 4-person affair. It’s not even that you have the main character and three AI-controlled companions, no. While you can delegate party-member control to AI-pattern agents, there is literally nothing to distinguish your main character from anyone else. Mechanically, there is no difference whatsoever. And yet, during the Fade, you are left alone with your main character. There are no assistants, not even temporary ones (the kind that are offered in many other situations where a full party would be unavailable – such as Ostagar, for instance). Is your main character a supporting healer-mage? Tough luck. Are you a squishy rogue specialized for pickpocketing, poisoncrafting, lockpicking and conversation? Sucks to be you, bro. Are you a melee specialist that’s critically vulnerable to specific magic-based enemies? Hah, you fool. It’s not even that this separation makes any inherent sense in terms of in-game fiction. Supposedly, your companions are trapped in nightmares (since the Fade is the place all sentients beings go when they are asleep), just as you are, but you are clever enough to see the artificial nature of the place. So.. why aren’t the others clever enough? You certainly don’t have anything more “special” than they do. Depending on your build, you could have way less willpower, intelligence, cunning. You could be a dwarf who’s slightly resistant to magic, or you could be an elf – inherently attuned to magic – or just a human. You could be a mage, but so could some of your companions be. You could be a non-mage too. The Fade doesn’t care (even when in the lore it is established that mages are the ones that can traverse the Fade knowingly). There’s literally nothing that could have prevented an encounter-scenario where you each defeat your personal nightmares, and then meet up to deal with this Fade thing. But no, it’s not like that. For the entirety of the Fade’s 9 levels, you are alone, and your party companions only come into play at the final boss-encounter. This is a design that actively punishes players for designing party-oriented characters. In other words, this is a design that actively counters the core design methodology of the entire damn game.
And because of this sudden disappearance of your party, it seems, Bioware decided to remove another thing: loot. Really. They just up-and-got-rid-of all loot. You don’t get health potions. You don’t get lyrium potions. You don’t get ingredients, armour, weapons, anything. There’s almost nothing to look forward to throughout the Fade, in other words, as you know you won’t find anything better. The entire concept upon which successful gaming greats like Diablo are based – the action/feedback loop – is absent here. To be fair, there is some sort of an incentive in place – a spread of “shrines” that grant you permanent bonuses to you character’s stats (strength, dexterity, etc.). Now, keep in mind that this is unique throughout the game – permanent stat bonuses are very rare outside of enchantment on equipment -, thus the Fade provides an incentive of going through everything there is. Just.. keep that in mind, this point will be very significant to a later argument. Either way, what we have is a complete removal of the common [kill stuff, get loot] mechanic replaced with a patchwork solution that has no relevance on the combat encounters you are supposed to clear in any way. All that matters there is that you go to place X in each map. That’s it.
The enemy variety.. Well, you could argue that there is some variety. After all, you do go up against demons, mages, darkspawn, templars, ogres… See the problem yet? Yeah, precisely – those are all rehashed enemies from the “regular” game. You are supposedly in an entirely different dream realm, but everyone you encounter is a literal copy of enemies found throughout the rest of the game. Enemies you’re probably sick and tired of already. Enemies that aren’t even given the benefit of a cheap re-skin to make them different in any way. They have the exact same AI, the exact same abilities and stats.. It’s pitiful. It completely undermines the mechanical differences that the Dream-space would seemingly allow; it’s such a wasted opportunity for something truly new and unseen – but no, we get the same old stale breadcrumbs. In terms of combat, there is nothing to look forward to – it’s all the same, except with way less options since you don’t have the benefit of four characters anymore.
The one truly new thing – the fadeshifting mechanic – is a severe disappointment as well. It allows you to transform into four different forms – a golem, a lich, a mouse and a flaming mummy. Great, right? … Not really, alas. The key issue is that these forms have marginal benefit during combat. The process of transforming takes up quite a bit of time, which is not optimal during combat itself, and when you do take up a new form, it is severely limited in terms of abilities. In mouse form, you cannot fight at all; the other three forms have roughly 2 or 3 skills, and that’s it. To compare, your average warrior (by far the least skill-dependent class of the lot) would have about 2-3 sustained abilities and twice as much active abilities. If you are a mage or a rogue, well, the loss in utility is just so much greater. So if these forms are relatively irrelevant during combat, what are they for? Simply put, they are the keys to arbitrary doors. Throughout the entire Fade, your progress is restricted by artificial obstacles custom-picked to be countered by one of the four forms. There are areas you can only access via a “mouse hole”. There are “spirit doors” that only a lich can activate. There are “massive doors” that only the golem form can break. There are “instakill flames” that only the mummy can cross over. These features do not really have a foundation in the overall gameplay, they are merely arbitrarily placed obstacles with a binary solution set: if you have the key-form, you pass, if not, sucks to be you. These forms, in other words, are purely there to enforce backtracking, so that you cannot rush through the Fade even if you know what you are doing.
Oh god, the backtracking. If there is one word to describe the Fade section the best, it’s “backtracking”. The Fade has 9 maps to “clear” before you can properly take on the final boss. But you cannot just go to each of the 9 maps and clear it, then move on to the next. Because of the artificially placed obstacles that you need forms to clear, you are forced to turn back at some point and go to another map. This is how it works – at the start, you really have no forms to speak of. You unlock the mouse form in one of the maps. Then you go back to the start level, because in that map you need a different form to even get to the local mini-boss. From the start level, you go through some other map, and hope that you can, with your mouse form, unlock a new form. There’s no way of knowing which maps have which forms, unless you have played the entire thing before and remember the layouts. Once you get another form, you again have to turn back, and find the third, and fourth form. Then, you have to go, with your new forms, through the 5 mini-boss maps and clear them. Then, you get access to the companion dream segments, which you need to fill out so that they can assist you in the final battle. This already is frustrating, daft and repetitive. But, that’s hardly all. Remember how I mentioned that the only rewards in the Fade are stat boosts? Well, here’s the kicker – they are spread across all the maps, and they all are behind these arbitrary form-locked obstacles. So, really, once you get all four forms, you really have to go through all the main maps and all their secret corners to see if they might have a stat boost. Yes, I suppose you don’t “have” to do it, but these increases are really significant and unique. It’s basically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The actual design of these maps doesn’t really help matters at all. They have severely long-winded, disjointed, fractured and illogical layouts that do have a clear progression route from start to finish. Problem being, that progression route does not account for the obstacles, nor for the side-passages in which you’d be likely to find those stat shrines.
I should remark that backtracking on it’s own is not inherently a bad thing. For instance, consider the Metroid Prime games – those are so incredibly focused on backtracking. The crucial difference is that in Metroid games, that backtracking unlocks new passages, whole new levels, and crucially, new abilities that dramatically alter the entire gameplay of exploration and combat. In DA:O, not so much. The new abilities gained are truly useful only for bypassing these obstacles, and what is unlocked is hardly anything new at all – it’s just more of the same old dull stuff, virtually indistinguishable from the old. And once you are in that “backtracking for the stat boosts” phase, there’s nothing new at all. Well, unless you count one room with the shrine, maybe 1-2 enemies, made from the same identikit setpieces, as new. I sure don’t.
The Visual Blandness
This brings us to the final, in my opinion the most condemning issue of them all. The Fade is just plain boring, ugly, bland and unremarkable. If this was not the case – if this was a visually stunning, rich, diverse place, then problems such as stale enemies and insane backtracking could be justified. It’s not as if the lore would deny the possibility or spectacle. Not at all – the Fade, according to the game’s extensive codex, is a completely alternate realm of spirits and dreams. It has almost no relation to the real world, except in that the souls of living beings end up there; it is also the place where human and elf minds go when asleep, and in the Fade, their dreams are manifested as the local reality. It is also the domain of magic and spirits/demons, demons which often seek out whatever connections to the real world they can find, in a bid to make their own crossing to the real world. It is the plane from which mages get their magic powers. In short, it is a bloody cool place to be in from the sound of things. And yet, it’s.. just not.
Visually, it’s dull and dreary. There’s no contrast, no real colour to anything. It’s all the same shade of piss-yellow, and there’s a prevalent desaturation-and-distortion-on-edges filter that was supposed to (I guess) evoke a ‘dreamy’ feel. Except it doesn’t. If anything, it looks like very runny mustard sauce being smeared on the camera lens. The setpieces and level kits are hardly better. It’s either a random distorted brown-ish hillside, or a fairly generic colourless brown-ish room. Oh, and let’s not forget a generic colourless brown-ish hallway. There’s nothing interesting about any of those pieces, and there’s just so much iteration of the few segments that are available.
The Fade is also supposed to have an unusual skyline. According to the lore, there is a whole floating mystical city – the “Black City” – in which the first darkspawn were created due to the hubris of ancient magisters. Or something. It’s all terribly cheesy, but a floating supermassive cityscape would have made for one kick-ass skyscape, right?
And finally, there’s the plain problem of everything being practically indistinguishable, interchangeable. There’s no sense of difference in any of the 10 Fade maps, you could randomly pick any two of the images I’ve placed throughout this post, and claim “it’s part of the same level”. And purely by the looks of them, you’d have no way of telling whether it is true or false. This is a problem largely present throughout the game – a lot of it looks very “samey”, but I feel that in the Fade, in this supposedly off-kilter place that really has to pull off visual uniqueness to work, it’s doubly aggravating as a flaw.
To go back to the beginning of this article, it is often said that the Fade is one of the worst aspects of Dragon Age: Origins. And, rightly so. It really is just as bad as you’ve heard it described. Not due to any single glaring flaw – because so many games and their levels could be pointed out having a glaring flaw or two – it’s due to the Fade having so many flaws that complement and exacerbate each other. It’s not a single point of failure, a single problem, it’s a compound of many factors – of which I’ve only mentioned the few most notable ones – that work together to create a truly terrible experience for the player. The Fade is horribly bad to slog through the first time, because on top of everything, you will have no idea how to do it optimally. The second time, it is tolerably, but incredibly boring due to there not being any change in any aspect of it. The third time, and onwards, it’s insufferable – a repetition of bad, dull, bland on incredible levels. It is the ultimate example of what “filler” is and why games do not need it in the slightest. Oh, and just to rub it in, once you do finish the Fade, and the mage circle, you get the “best” way to solve another quest. Which involves you going back into the Fade again, as a matter of fact. So, yes, in a way, you suffer through this idiotic segment to gain access to more of the same. Oh goody.
~X2-Eliah probably won’t bother playing any more of DA:O after this. The Fade is just so bad, it leaves a lasting dullness that nothing else in the game can cure.