Ten years ago, BioWare was at the top of its game. After years of crafting fantastic RPGs in licensed IPs like Star Wars and AD&D, they were just diving into their own brands. The first Mass Effect was in the rearview window, its soon-to-be folloup a few months out. And in the middle, they released the opening of their own developed fantasy universe.
And it was amazing. Dragon Age is the kind of in-depth fantasy RPG we Tolkien nerds dream about. Built in reliable patterns and concepts of the past (with influences ranging from Tolkien himself, to George RR Martin, to Robert Jordan). An impressively complex and original world. An adapted combat system from Dungeons & Dragons. And a host of memorable characters across an interweaving, choice-based narrative.
BioWare perfected many of these elements, and it’s what the studio ultimately became known for. And while there are plenty of beloved titles from this once-loved master of RPGs, there’s nothing that gets it right with more passion and nuance than Dragon Age: Origins.
And it was a remarkable experience. Even with familiar trappings at the outset: your hero rises from nothing to become the slayer of the Archdemon as part of an ancient order. Even then, there’s originality to bear. The origin stories of the game’s subname speak to different starting points for your character, each of which let you experience variations on the racial and political machinations of this world. Each of which would go on to inform later parts of the gaming experience in turn.
Origins was lauded at the time, and with good reason. Alistair and Morrigan have rightly become fan favorites among the BioWare pantheon. There’s enormous replayability, and almost overwhelming complexity to the branching of decisions (in turn affecting other decisions) It has all the signs of a developer at the top of its game.
Best of all, it has an in-depth, complex combat system at its core, one of my personal favorites. Built off the template of party and turn-based gaming from the Baldur’s Gate series. Updated and improvised, with mana, stamina, cooldowns, status effects, skill trees, and stats all beautifully built into an elegant system of intense and strategic combat.
I’ve spent well over 500 hours with this game, across at least a dozen playthroughs, including the game’s excellent expansion Awakenings, as well as the majority of the impressive DLC. To say it has been an exhilarating time sink is an understatement. Few other games have gripped me in the same way; few could ever compare to the love and devotion and memorable experiences I’ve had in Ferelden. The critical story decisions; the character romances; the intense combat challenges. And unraveling the dense lore in this corner of Thedas.
November marks the ten-year anniversary of its release. And both developer and series are in a very different state.
Dragon Age itself was revised across two sequels of varying success, the latter more than the former. Both have moved further away from CRPG status, the core of what made Origins so spectacular. Building more toward a console-friendly market, and the pressures of open-world gaming, it diminished into something almost unrecognizable, to the point that practically everything which made the first game so special has been excised.
BioWare has similarly struggled, under the bear-hug of parent company EA, the loss of major creative voices at the company, and a shifting market that hasn’t always been friendly toward the classic role-playing experience.
But with all of that being said, with all that’s changed and been lost, it’s still worth taking a moment and remembering. For me, Dragon Age was something of a life-changing experience. It remains my all-time favorite game, unlikely ever to be bested. It stands as the pinnacle of what once made BioWare so great, and a reminder that in the gaming industry, they were once the truest of masters in the this genre.
So even though a lot has changed, I’m still glad for what’s already come. Ten years later, Dragon Age: Origins stands as a pillar of achievement, and one of the highest benchmarks ever laid in RPG gaming.