Here’s a summary of what I’ve done in Dragon Age so far. Note: when I say “city” or “dungeon” in the following, I don’t mean a literal city or dungeon, but rather a relatively free-form inhabited area (with other traditional associated trappings, e.g. shopping) versus a relatively linear combat-focused area.

  • I decided to play as a female elf mage, so I went through the mage opening story. Which started off with a quite small dungeon, then had some city exploration, a micro side-storyish dungeon, and finally ended with another (more normal size for a start of a game) dungeon. (Which, incidentally, had me feeling a lot more conflicted than almost any other quest in recent memory, but that’s a topic for another blog post.)
  • Then on to the first area. Again, some city exploration, a dungeon, a brief interlude, and another dungeon.
  • At this point, the plot opened up, and I apparently had a choice of four tasks ahead of me. One of which seemed like it should be done last, but I wasn’t so sure about the other three. I didn’t have a choice, yet, though: the next area was chosen for me. Which had city exploration, but the only dungeon was a micro side-story dungeon. That exploration did serve to push me along one of the possible four tasks (pushing a layer onto its stack of intrigue), so I went in that direction next. And was, incidentally, quite happy with the pacing at this point: the cities had been interesting, the dungeons hadn’t overstayed their welcome.
  • A city, where I got a third layer pushed onto that task’s stack of intrigue. This was followed by a battle that’s longer than normal but not intricate enough to qualify as a dungeon, and then a real dungeon, with a bit of a twist at the end. (And a reappearance of the same conflicting feelings from the first dungeon.) Which was where I started to wonder a bit: my tentative hypothesis had been that the new layer here was a twist on the layer I’d heard about in the previous location, but no, it’s a separate problem. So the result is that I’ve popped the new layer of intrigue back off the stack, but the intrigue level is still where it was when I entered the city. (In other words, I hadn’t actually made any progress at all!)
  • But I did have a next direction to go in. Which wasn’t a place I would have gone to otherwise at this point, but it was an interesting enough city to be in. Relatively rich in side quests, so I did one sequence of micro-dungeons (that, I suppose, added up to a smallish dungeon), plus another dungeon. (And accumulated lots of other side quests; this game likes throwing side quests at you, but they seem quite small on average.) I didn’t get any closer to resolving the quest that I was in the middle of, but did get told the next place to go.
  • So I went there. Which was a micro-city, existing only to front a dungeon. Which I entered, and made it through the ruined temple. But the item I’m looking for wasn’t at the end of the ruined temple: instead, there were caverns. So I went into them (through one of two routes, thinking that surely I’ll come back soon along the other route?), wandered for quite a bit, and by now had slaughtered four or five times the number of people that apparently lived in the micro-city outside the dungeon. Finally, I made it to an opponent whom I talk to before killing. But even this isn’t where the item is: instead, there’s a passage out to the mountaintop. Which is, admittedly, a reasonably suitable location for a major plot item, so surely it will be waiting for me there, possibly after another boss battle? Well, no: there was a dragon there, but no item. I tried (and failed) to fight the dragon once, it seemed quite tough (probably significantly tougher than anything I’d seen so far), but also optional. Whether or not I fight the dragon, I’ll have to go into the next area, which I discovered upon stepping into it was called “The Gauntlet”: apparently neither the lengthy dungeon leading up to this nor the quite difficult dragon qualified as a gauntlet, I have something even more, um, enjoyable waiting for me?

That’s where I am so far. I’ve done something like eight dungeons worth of content, six of which are on the main plot line. I may be close to finishing the first major non-introductory quest but, well, I’ve thought that before, and I’ve been wrong. I may be close to finishing this dungeon but, well, I’ve thought that before, and I’ve been wrong. I started playing yesterday when Miranda started getting ready for bed, I gave up for the night at least half an hour later than was wise given when my alarm clock was going to wake me up the next day. (In retrospect, of course, I should have stopped earlier, but nobody wants to stop playing in the middle of a dungeon, and surely the game wouldn’t make me slog through another half hour of this stuff, would it?)

The game has a limited inventory system, and despite my buying every backpack that was for sale, I’ve had to throw away decent-sized chunks of my inventory on three separate occasions in this one dungeon alone. The game is being generous enough with money that I don’t feel like my progress is being actively hindered by losing that potential item sale income, but it does manage to take any joy I would have out of accumulating items in the dungeon. (I haven’t quite gotten to where I head the other direction when I see a chest, but I’m pretty close.)

I still have three major plot quests ahead of me; maybe this one is unusual, but I don’t yet have any reason to believe that is the case. And, for that matter, I don’t have reason to believe that further quests won’t pop up: indeed, it seems quite likely that there will be an endgame segment that I don’t know about, though one of the quests I do know about has the vague potential of being the endgame segment. So I think the best case estimate is that I’m a third of the way through the game, but being only a fourth of the way through the game is probably more likely, and even that could easily be optimistic.

I’m sure there are people for whom this sort of pacing is wonderful. Right now, though, the game’s main accomplishment (despite its considerable virtues in other areas) is making me grateful for another one of BioWare’s teams: Mass Effect 2 was designed to be playable in chunks that are an hour long or even shorter, and that was a much better fit for me. In fact, to my surprise, I’m wishing that Dragon Age were more like Persona 3: that game rather overstayed its welcome, and had a fair bit of padding right from the very beginning, but its rhythm was admirably consistent. I wasn’t always excited about the dungeon crawling, but I knew how long each dungeon crawling segment was going to take; the plot progression was somewhat roundabout, but was roundabout in a known fashion; and while I played it for longer in total than I would have preferred, after the first couple of sessions I never had to worry about whether or not I’d be able to save the game at a good stopping point by the time I wanted to go to bed.

Quite an accomplishment, really: it’s a rare game that can make me look fondly back at JRPG pacing.

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