Dragon Age 2 has received a pretty mixed reception. Some people love it and think it as good or better than its predecessor. Some recognize it as imperfect, but overall a worthy title. Many don't hate it, but find it nonetheless disappointing, bad in a general sense. Others still simply hate it and think it's terrible.
Myself, I haven't entirely figured out my own stance on the game. It's got its good points--I certainly appreciate its overall plot, and the attempts to further portray and develop the details of DA's world's culture and people rather than focus on yet another save-the-world scenario. On the other hand, the characters that Dragon Age 2 uses to push forward its story are, in light of the cast of DA1, surprisingly lacking in depth and personality. Few of DA2's characters can claim personalities of depth to rival even the lesser of Dragon Age 1's cast--DA2's Anders and Isabela, who have probably the most compelling depth that any of DA2's characters can offer, barely measure up to DA1's Shale and Morrigan in their character development, let alone the original's greater individuals like Leliana, Sten, Alistair, Zevran, or Wynne. So DA2 succeeds well enough in having a good premise and story, but the individuals who are supposed to bring that story and premise to the player and connect him/her with them are fairly lacking.
However, while most of the game I am somewhat ambivalent about, the finale to Dragon Age 2 is...well, it's garbage. It's rushed, it's trite, and it's infuriatingly disappointing. This game's ending is what pushes the scales of bad characters versus good story, which had been fairly evenly balanced, down on the negative side, and makes me dislike the game as a whole. While I've certainly seen worse last gasps from RPGs (I doubt anything's gonna sink lower than Valkyrie Profile 2 in that regard), the ending of DA2 and the events directly leading into it are just very poorly conceived and enacted in many regards. Here are what I think are the major flaws with the finale.
First of all, let's assume that the finale properly begins when Anders, in an act perfectly defining the term "dick move," blows up the Chantry and forces all-out violence between the Mages and Templars. This opening scene itself is a problem. Now, granted, the method of instigating the game's final conflict is sound--it makes sense that this is the act that makes peaceful resolution impossible and turns the city of Kirkwall into a war zone. The problem is the perpetrator, and how it's handled. Throughout the game to that point, Anders has struggled to control himself while Justice, a spirit from the Fade, inhabits him due to a between-games event where Anders took Justice into himself. In this act, however, Justice was tainted by Anders's great anger and hate for the unfair treatment of Mages by Dragon Age's society,* and thus Anders is often seen to struggle with himself against Justice's unyielding fury at all who would imprison, repress, harm, or stick out a tongue at mages. Anders has enough presence of mind to fear his new short temper, however, as shown in several instances during the game. There's even one side quest you can do for Anders earlier in the game, the Dissent quest, wherein Anders loses himself to Justice's influence and in his rage attacks the woman he'd been trying to save. Afterward, he is, of course, horrified by the fact that his wrath's directionless power caused him to turn against even that which he wanted to save.
Yet for all his knowledge of his condition, and for all his regret and terror at what can occur when he lets his anger, hasty decisions, and fanatical goals drive him to extremes, he STILL decides that blowing up a fucking church and in the process murdering the greatest voice of reasonable compromise in the city of Kirkwall is an acceptable idea. What was the point of having him learn that his extreme acts could endanger all he wished to protect earlier in the game if he's just going to ignore it?
There's a whole plethora of other reasons why Anders magically exploding the Chantry is a load of crap, too. Besides basically negating everything he knows and has learned about himself and any wisdom Hawke may have shared with him about it, it's also incredibly hypocritical for his character. All throughout the game, Anders is harsh in judging Mages who resort to the forbidden Blood Magic and pacts with demons in order to achieve their ends of resisting their Templar captors and pursuers, even in the case of Merrill, who, while shown not to have a realistic understanding of the risks of her dabbles in the dark arts, pretty clearly has far more restraint, self-control, and innocent good nature than Anders himself does. So after a whole game of Anders disapproving of Mages taking an approach of going to any immoral and dangerous length to remain free, how does Anders force the city to war on the issue of Mage rights? Why, by destroying a church containing a woman that encourages peaceful cooperation, through an act of magical terrorism, of course. Because THAT'S true to his character, right?
Someone at Bioware is a fucking idiot.
Other reasons for why this opening to the finale is stupid exist (such as the disparity between this building-destroying spell's size and power and that of all other examples of magic previously seen in either game, for example, or why Anders would be stupid enough to force open conflict when his side is at a severe disadvantage numerically and socially, and is unprepared for such a struggle), but they're smaller nitpicks, trivial compared to the problem of trying to reconcile Anders's character to this act.
But that's just the BEGINNING! The Fail continues all through the game's finale!
Alright, so, the next part to this finale is the reaction to Anders's war-mongering. Meredith, the head of the Templars, and Orsino, the head of the Mages, are both understandably upset with this turn of events. Neither one wanted the innocent and decent Reverend Mother to die--Meredith owed her service and reverence as a member of the same religious order, and Orsino was a big fan of the woman's ability to restrain Meredith from just outright murdering any Mage she passed by in the hallway. Of all the people in the city of Kirkwall, these 2 have some of the greatest cause to be devastated and enraged by Anders's murderous idiocy. And hey, to some extent, they react predictably--Meredith declares that this act necessitates a city-wide racial cleansing of the Mages that have now been proven through Anders to be too dangerous and unpredictable to live (I suppose, given how little sense it makes for Anders to have done this, the "unpredictable" thing is kind of warranted), and both leaders are not happy with Anders.
But "not happy" is about as much as there is to it! Meredith is not known for having any restraint when it comes to taking down a Mage that she suspects is dangerous. Orsino's spent many long years trying to convince the city that Mages aren't inherently dangerous or unstable so long as you treat them with common decency, and give them some measure of freedom.** And now, after all that work, one rogue Mage has brought about a spectacle that destroys all credibility of Orsino's reassurances and speeches, vindicates the ignorant belief that corruption and destruction can come from even the most benign-seeming Mage, and forces a holy war that will probably end with the deaths of every Mage in the city including Orsino himself, and possibly many more Mage deaths across the world. So Meredith is violently paranoid, and Orsino's entire life just went down the drain. Do you know what they decide to do with him?
No, really. Rather than blow the guy up, as you'd expect Orsino to do out of fury and despair, or run him through, as you'd expect Meredith to do out of fury and the same fanatical devotion to duty that she's had from the moment the game first mentions her, they take off to rally their forces for the upcoming battle, letting the fate of Anders be decided by his friend, the main character, Hawke. Yeah...pretty out of character for Meredith there, at the very least. I mean, all this is decided after a quick battle with some individuals from the side that Hawke sides against, so if you have Hawke side with the Mages, Meredith isn't necessarily in a position to do anything about Anders, and I guess it's not unimaginable that Orsino wouldn't want personal retribution on Anders...I guess. But if you have Hawke side with the Templars, then it's Meredith and her forces that have the advantage after the skirmish, so she has ample opportunity to act in accordance with her character and take out this exceptionally dangerous Mage who just murdered a woman of God with extreme prejudice. But as I said, she, like Orsino, is fine with just leaving Hawke to decide what to do with Anders. I know she's got a lot to do, what with the whole sudden, bloody war running through the streets and all, but I feel like a violently paranoid religious fanatic whose divine boss has just been randomly exploded by an embodiment of everything she fears is conspiring against her would find the time to make one quick stab, or at least insist a little harder that she put him to death.
I'm also not entirely happy with the part of this scene where Hawke does decide whether Anders lives or dies. I mean, the scene's done fairly well overall, I suppose, but it's here that another party member, Sebastian, insists that Anders must die for what he's done, and will leave the party and swear revenge if Hawke does not choose to execute Anders. I mean, it's in character for Sebastian to do. And I suppose SOMEONE ought to be appropriately personally enraged with Anders for causing the situation. But this sequence ultimately makes the game incomplete without Sebastian, who you have to pay extra money to have. For the specifics of this, and why it makes me annoyed, see my last DA rant, Dragon Age 2's The Exiled Prince Downloadable Content.
So anyways, yeah, the immediate aftermath regarding Anders is poorly done in several regards. So let's continue on. Things progress pretty naturally for a bit, with Hawke and company proceeding through the combat in the streets between the Mages and Templars to the place of the final showdown between Meredith and her Templars, and Orsino and his Mages. Aside from the very random appearance of Carver or Bethany along the way if he or she joined the Grey Wardens, this part is fine. So let's skip to the next part, the Templar attack on the Mages' home. Meredith and Orsino have one final vocal confrontation, and the lines are drawn. And this is a terrific time to mention why this moment, and the face-off between these 2, is not nearly as dramatic or gripping as it should be.
See, it's like this. This game's final conflict, the great showdown, the battle that everything has been leading up to, is between Mage and Templar. Orsino represents the Mages, Meredith represents the Templars. You even see them facing each other in an artsy fashion on the title screen. It's the game's big thing. So why, why exactly, is it that, in a game that spans a Prologue and 3 Acts, the first time we EVER see Meredith or Orsino is at the very end of Act 2? Yes, that's right, the individuals who embody their faction, the personal representations of the game's main conflict, the heads of the social unrest around which this entire game revolves, are FIRST SEEN in the LAST THIRD of the game! How much dramatic tension can there really be from conflict between 2 individuals who you have barely begun to know? These are the major leaders, the most plot-important NPCs in the game! The whole game's plot revolves around the factions they lead! Why in the world would they be rushed in at the last minute!?
Oh, sure, the game does MENTION them occasionally from early on. Meredith's name and policies do come up in conversation enough for the player to have a grasp of what her schtick is, and Orsino is, well, barely mentioned in any significant capacity, but not totally unknown. But hearing some rudimentary information second-hand about a character is not an adequate way of familiarizing a player with a character so fundamentally important to the game's ultimate conflict. Meredith and Orsino should have shown up earlier in the game, had their significance to Dragon Age 2's events SHOWN, not whispered, and in that process, there should have been far more interaction between them and Hawke, because as of this finale, the player has very little personal understanding of these 2, no real connection with them and scanty knowledge of their backgrounds, personalities, and motivations. It's just...it's like only finding out what candidates are running for president 10 minutes before you have to vote for one. The most you can glean from what little time you have to familiarize yourself with them is elementary at best.
So yeah, anyways, we finally get to the final battle. You have a moment to prepare, whichever side you choose, during which you can have Hawke talk to his/her party members one last time for some of those finale-speeches that party members always do in RPGs. These aren't really anything particularly special, certainly nothing as moving or epic as the ones in Dragon Age 1 were, but I don't really know how that could be improved--such speeches work well at the end of a long journey, and don't apply as well to an unexpected situation such as this one--so I can't really count that against the game. Then the fight starts.
Here's the next part of the finale that is stupid! No matter who you side with, you're going to have to fight and kill Orsino. If you sided with the Mages, he'll be so overwhelmed by the battle's cost in lives that he'll go to extreme measures, and have to be put down by Hawke and company. This can be dumb in and of itself, since it's quite possible to have Hawke mount such a very strong defense against the enemy Templars that you don't see any Mage casualties actually happen, and either way it's questionable, as Orsino will lose it pretty quickly. I mean, it'll be like 5 minutes of fighting a handful of Templars, then Orsino will panic. If you sided with the Templars, the situation is slightly less stupid, as Orsino would actually have a good reason to lose his cool with Hawke and company carving their way to him.
However, the real problem with this scene is that it happens at all. What I mean is, Orsino is resorting to extremely forbidden, ethically intolerable magics. Apparently he knew this serial killer mage from earlier in the game, and uses his abominable research to combine himself with a crapload of dead bodies to make a hideous, uncontrollable freak. Now, what little we've seen of Orsino in this game just doesn't add up with this. The guy criticizes Meredith repeatedly for her being completely paranoid, for her seeing forbidden, dangerous magic everywhere she looks. He stands for the idea that Mages are not inherently dangerous or prone to corruption. And now out of NOWHERE he announces that he's well-versed in some of the most heinous, irresponsibly dangerous magic seen in the series so far, and then immediately employs it.
Even if you can argue that it's not completely unbelievable to his character that he would be involved with unholy patchwork necromancy pioneered by a serial killer--I could see possibly arguing that it's important to the narrative to show even the most seemingly trustworthy of Mages not incorruptible when pushed into a corner, although that's only sidestepping the out of character issue, not actually addressing it--the scenario is still stupid for being unbelievable. Are we really supposed to buy the idea that the most prominent Mage in the city, who is publicly outspoken about Mage rights, and consistently argues with his Templar keepers, was able to, while under the watch of a paranoid religious tyrant, sufficiently research and practice an almost entirely unknown form of forbidden magic in total secret? I realize that the game shows a lot of Mages being able to learn forbidden magic without the Templars catching on, but this guy is the most well-known, influential, and politically powerful Mage in the city. You can't tell me Meredith wouldn't be watching him like a hawk!
Oh, yeah, speaking of Meredith. So, after beating Orsino, you'll have to fight Meredith, the final boss of the game, whether you're allied with her or against her. This is a more believable scenario than having to fight Orsino no matter what, because Meredith's obviously so nuts at this point that she sees enemies everywhere, even in allies. The problem, though, is WHY Meredith is crazy. While the little information the game's given the player over its course about Meredith has always implied that she's pretty paranoid, she only got really crazy recently, and the reason for that is now revealed. It is--GASP--the red Lyrium Idol's fault! Yes, the Lyrium Idol, that made Bartrand go crazy earlier in the game, was purchased by Meredith and forged into a sword for her, and that has made her insane and obscenely powerful!
How does the Idol do that? Why was it made? Who made it? Is it malicious, or just inanimate rock? Who knows? Maybe Bioware. Certainly not we, the gamers, because if Bioware does have any concrete ideas about the nature of this plot contrivance of theirs, they're sure as hell not interested in sharing them. This object contributes in a major way to the events of the game and the final conflict that the game's meant to lead up to, and all we know about it is that it glows red and people become assholes by touching it. It's basically Bioware saying, "A wizard did it. A rock wizard."
Ugh. So anyway, final battle happens, it's all epic and over the top and everything that a final battle is, and of course, to emphasize how epic it is, all of Hawke's friends are allowed to fight--those not in the party will be computer-controlled allies on the field of battle. Decent. And much with Dragon Age 1's final battle, other NPCs start to show up as the battle goes on. Cullen, a Templar who recognizes that Meredith's brain is buggier than Fallout: New Vegas on its release day, assists Hawke, and Donnic, one of the city's law officers, may also come to Hawke's aid, provided that you had him and Aveline hook up and Aveline's still with you at that point. These are fine, they make sense, NPCs who have a stake in Hawke's victory and/or feel a personal connection to 1 of Hawke's party. But others who can join in the battle are Zevran and Nathaniel.
Zevran and Nathaniel are party members from Dragon Age 1, Zevran in the main game and Nathaniel in the bland Awakening expansion. In DA2, Zevran is seen briefly during a side quest, as is Nathaniel. While you can assist each of them during these sidequests, their presence in the game and connection to Hawke and the city of Kirkwall are, frankly, completely inconsequential. Nathaniel I guess I could see having some slight stake in the battle if Carver or Bethany is a Grey Warden and thus his comrade, but that's a slight stretch. And Zevran really just doesn't have any reason to be there. Seems like they were just grasping at straws for someone else to throw into the final battle.
So, finally, Hawke's bunch defeats Meredith, and the game is over. And that's where the finale really gets annoying. See, poor writing's a bitch, and all the stuff that didn't make sense was frustrating, but few things are a kick to a gamer's nuts quite like an unsatisfying, sloppy, half-assed ending, and Bioware really did their most to do their very least here. There is just practically goddamn nothing. The story's narrator, Varric, ends his tale that he's telling to his interrogator, the player is informed a little of the global repercussions of this final battle, but all important specifics just aren't there. Basically, this is the gist of it, paraphrased less than I would have liked:
Varric: And that's about it. No one knows where Hawke's been for ages now. None of his/her companions have stayed with him/her, except (Insert Romantic Interest's Name Here). Also, I don't feel like relating what any of Hawke's companions are up to now.
Interrogator: So you've taken up days of my time spinning this yarn about Hawke just so you could tell me exactly dick about what I really needed to know, which was, y'know, what happened to Hawke and where he/she is now.
Varric: Yeah, pretty much. I know you probably could have been dealing with this whole religious and social revolution that's been going on as a result of Hawke's actions, but I apparently have got nothing. You'll just have to be satisfied with a conclusion that isn't in any way conclusive. That's just how it goes when the writers get to the end and realize they have no goddamn clue what they wanted to do and are just sick of the whole thing.
Interrogator: Please go away.
Varric: You betcha!
(Exit Varric. Enter Leliana, for some reason)
Interrogator: Yeah, so, that was extremely disappointing.
Leliana: Oh, WAS IT? Or is not knowing what happened to Hawke, combined with the disappearance of Dragon Age 1's hero which has been very barely referenced until now, ACTUALLY a way of AWESOMELY implying that there's more to come, something on the horizon so epic that both Hawke and DA1's hero have perhaps secretly left to team up against it maybe?
Interrogator: No...I'm pretty sure it's just extremely disappoin--
Leliana: ROLL END CREDITS!
Yeah, rather than give any conclusion whatsoever to this damn game, Bioware just puts a couple more carrots in front of our noses. None of the major issues of the game are settled, what ended up happening to pretty much all the important characters is never addressed, and the most you even learn of the protagonist's fate is shadowy, utterly shameless sequel bait.
Incidentally, I'd just like to note, here, that sequel bait endings don't HAVE to be a bad thing. Mass Effect 2 has a sequel bait ending, in that, having dealt with the threat of the Collectors, Shepard must now turn back to the coming invasion of the Reapers, which are shown to be drawing uncomfortably close to the galaxy. This is okay, because the game's focus, beating the Collectors as an extension of the Reapers and assembling a team and alliances that will be able to stand against the Reapers when that battle comes, has been taken care of, concluded very well. DA2 just opens up new cans of worms for its main focus of Mage vs. Templar in its ending, and drops the personal conclusions for the important characters of the game altogether.
Even if your ending is nothing but sequel bait, it can STILL be done better. Take Knights of the Old Republic 2 (whose sequel bait was unfortunately never to be resolved with another game). Yes, almost the entirety of the ending to the game is focused on the fact that the main character, The Exile, is now going to take steps to deal with the upcoming threat of the Sith, which KotOR1's protagonist, Revan, has already left to take on.*** For starters, immediately after the final battle, the player DOES get a chance in KotOR2 to hear some sort of conclusion for the places and people of importance to the game, as Darth Traya relates glimpses of their futures to The Exile. You don't exactly see all of it, but at least they're mentioned. More importantly, though, the sequel bait didn't just come out of NOWHERE. Many are the times in KotOR2 that, through conversations and plot events, the idea of a looming threat of the Sith is mentioned, and Revan's disappearance linked with this (forgive the phrasing, but it works) phantom menace. So when KotOR2's ending focuses on The Exile taking steps to prepare in one way or another for the Sith, it's something that makes sense, and puts a lot of the game into a different, but appropriate, perspective, one of preparation of another warrior to deal with the true threat that has been the underlying evil at the edge of everything in the game. It's RELEVANT. Significant! Poignant, even. It's intellectually sound and, while an obvious hook and lead-in for future adventures, there is some satisfaction to be had in it.***
With Dragon Age 2, as I said, it's just out of the goddamn blue. There are maybe a couple very vague, seemingly unimportant references made to DA1's hero's disappearance made during DA2's events, certainly no true suggestion made with words, course of plot, or atmosphere of game events that would imply great significance to the DA1 hero's absence, either to the world stage or to DA2's setting, events, and characters.
So there you have it. The finale starts with a poorly-conceived plot event that doesn't fit with the personality of the character perpetrating it, the finale is nonsensical or stupid throughout its course, the writing for it is a clearly sloppy hack job at several key points, it focuses on characters that have barely even been encountered until that point (yet manages to unrealistically mangle what little you DO know about one of those characters), and perhaps worst of all, the ending itself is practically nonexistent, offering no actual conclusion, no reference to or acknowledgment of any of the game's events and player's decisions, just absolutely goddamn NOTHING but transparent, desperate, poorly executed sequel-bait that only the most shallow and easily led of morons could possibly feel excited about. If I ever make a list of the worst RPG endings of all time--an idea that had not occurred to me until this very moment but, thanks to Dragon Age 2, seems extremely plausible--you can bet your ass DA2's will place highly on the list. This game's ending is just absolutely worthless, and the finale events leading up to it are utter bullshit. Shame on Bioware for this atrocity against storytelling.
* This, by the way, is the worst example of a company interpreting its own character that I've seen since...well, earlier this year, when I watched Lufia 2's remake utterly destroy the character of Guy...but despite the lack of time between these, Anders's character in Dragon Age 2 is built off the foundations of very poor writing. In Dragon Age 1's Awakening expansion, Anders was a witty, enjoyable, and generally cheerful guy who easily got caught up in the wonder of being free from the Circle's overbearing rules. He was a free spirit who perpetually refused to be shackled. It's not that he didn't bear the desire for Mages to be freed from the captivity that the Circle inflicted on them, and it's not that he wasn't capable of darker emotions...but the idea that he was secretly harboring such an intense, burning loathing for the world's unfairness that he could twist a spirit of Justice into a spirit of vengeful wrath is absurd. The jump from comical free spirit who laments and resists the world's injustice to brooding freedom fighter who can only just barely contain his blind fury is unreasonable even when Bioware tries to explain it away with "A wizard did it. A ghost wizard," and their explanation of the specifics of this magical exchange just make it less plausible.
** Of course, Anders is a COMPLETELY free Mage who has many acquaintances and friends that respect him, so he'd basically be a model example of how Orsino stresses a Mage should be treated. And this model of a healthy Mage blew up a church to cause a religious racial war. Again, great job on thinking things through with this plan, Anders. Thanks for the confused message, Bioware.
*** I think there's more to this ending that's going to be unearthed in a fan-created restoration project for the game that I'm keeping an eye on, but this will still be the focus of it, just done better thanks to the presence of content that was intended to be there from the start.