“I’m leaving with more questions than answers.”
This is one of the last lines uttered by the Inquisitor at the end of Bioware’s newest DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition, “The Descent”. Where last time’s DLC took us to the high cliffs of the Frostback Mountains, this time the Inquisitor and crew head deep, deep underground to Orzammar’s Deep Roads—the place where all the darkspawn hang out and where Grey Wardens go to die, if you remember from the first game. After playing through the I-don’t-know-how-long DLC (probably around four hours if you’re sticking to story missions) I, too, have more questions than answers, least of all being “why doesn’t Bioware know how to make good DLC anymore?”
Spoilers for the entire DLC under the cut.
At some point during the events of the main game—the DLC can be started after the player unlocks Skyhold—massive earthquakes start happening, causing turmoil to both the lyrium supply and trade, and to the dwarves that mine it. Lyrium being, for the uninitiated, a strange substance that gives mages strength concerning their magical ability, and is used to enchant weapons. Touching lyrium in its raw state (crystals) makes people go mad if exposed to it for long enough. However, dwarves are granted the ability to touch it as they can’t ever harness magic themselves. This is important to remember for later.
The Inquisitor is sent to check things out, and is met by a young Shaper (dwarf historian), Valta, who has an almost supernatural attunement to the vibrations in the stone. Following her lead, the group travels further down into the Deep Roads, clearing out the hoards of darkspawn in their path. While journeying and fighting, Valta reveals that these earthquakes are not only abnormal but that she believes they are also being caused by a mythological creature called a titan. Not much is known about the titans outside of that they are very old and very powerful, shaping the stone to their whims, but for a reason no one knows.
Eventually, the group goes further down into the Deep Roads than supposedly any other dwarf has been. In this uncharted, almost primitive area, they are assaulted by a group of strange creatures with lyrium directly woven into their armor: the Sha-Brytol. No records in dwarven history mention such creatures, and Valta begins to wonder which noble excluded such important facts from dwarven history—an important thing to consider since Valta’s own societal position was worsened because she refused to omit some embarrassing information about a noble from their history records. Surprisingly, the deeper into the Deep Roads, the more like the surface things became; through a vale of untapped lyrium, the group finds a turbulent underground sea, and even a lush, thriving civilization! However, no sign of the titan.
After taking in the green landscape of the settlement they end up in, the group decides that they cannot find the titan because they are already inside the titan—an idea proven by the source of the quakes: a lyrium “heart”. Fighting through more Sha-Brytol (who seek to protect the titan), the group finally attack the titan’s heart, and although it seems as though it’s destroyed, not all is as it seems. After being knocked out before the final battle, Valta arises, but this time with magic. A magic she claims isn’t actually magic. Furthermore, she claims that she suddenly understands so much more about who she is as a person and who/what the titan is. In her semi-possessed state, she decides to stay in the home of the Sha-Brytol, confident in her ability to protect herself. Which is… weird, but since the quakes have stopped, the inquisition has no further reason to stay there.
While it seems like “The Descent” offered players lots of information that can have terrifying implications, most of it isn’t new information, and the stuff that is new doesn’t really have an impact on anything. The information with the most impact is the confirmation that yes, lyrium is a living substance, and not just a stone. However, playing through Dragon Age 2 and the entirety of Inquisition already told us this without it being shown to us in a somewhat inelegant heart-veins metaphor. And while we know lyrium is alive, we still don’t know what that means. Is lyrium a parasite that can live in different states of matter? Is it some magical anomaly that found its way from the Fade to the land of the living? Who knows. I’m not even sure if Bioware knows. Furthermore, while “The Descent” featured the dwarves, who need of more worldbuilding, it featured parts of dwarf culture that the player already knew about. Players should already be aware that Orzammar’s caste system is fucked up, and that the nobility change history to suit their whims. This isn’t shocking information. And while those players who haven’t gone through Origins might not be so well-acquainted with the Legion of the Dead (a group of dwarves who disposed of their caste to fight in the Deep Roads and protect Orzammar until death), it seems kind of like a waste to focus partially on them when, instead, a new dwarven group could have been explored, or a mentioned-only-in-passing group (like the Silent Sisters) given further elaboration. But, I suppose the Legion was chosen to prevent any in-game introspection on the implications for dwarven culture since the Legion is already dead in Orzammar’s eyes. Seriously, the game doesn’t even try to think about this. At one point the inquisitor brings up the idea that the Sha-Brytol may, in fact, be the titan’s Legion of the Dead. To which Valta, the Shaper obsessed with historical accuracy and figuring out the truth, replies along the lines of “don’t say that” or “I don’t want to think about that.” This sort of laziness has no place in this DLC, and only hurts it more.
Another thing I took issue with is that there is barely a reason given to be fighting the Sha-Brytol at all. Yes, they attack and kill one of the party members, but the player is basically trampling on their sacred ground. Also, if history is to be believed, no one has even seen the Sha-Brytol for centuries, maybe even millennia; can you really blame them for attacking when they’re the ones being invaded? Invaded, even, without anyone trying to talk to them? Valta herself explains that the language they use, while not the dwarven she’s used to, is a dialect of it, and parts of it she can understand. Yet she doesn’t even try to talk to them. The group is essentially on the quest to destroy the Sha-Brytol’s god, and yet has the audacity to be mad at them for protecting it. I’m honestly baffled why we didn’t get an option to pursue a more diplomatic path. Listen, I didn’t sign up to play pilgrim or Christopher Columbus: I don’t need more imperialist undertones in my games, especially without options to do otherwise or be called out for your bullshit.
On a more mechanical level, while it was interesting to see these more organic portions of the Deep Roads, they’re still the Deep Roads which means maps are very dull, very long, and very dark. Most of the time, it was not a joy to travel through them. The quests themselves were mainly collect-a-thons, which should never be the bulk of your gameplay, especially not in an already short DLC. When they weren’t searching for collectibles, the quests were more like hoard modes than exploring things or figuring things out. I understand this may be some people’s cup of tea, but being thrown huge mobs of enemies with very limited potions isn’t my idea of fun. Especially when the mobs seem unbalanced in terms of difficulty. I play on casual, yet even with some of the strongest weapons and armor, in addition to various shields and barriers, I still can’t beat the final boss because it’s too damned hard. And not because of a lack of strategy on my end. It’s just a poorly designed DLC.
So, is “The Descent” worth your fifteen bucks? No, not at all. This should have been a ten dollar DLC at most. If you’re looking for world building, nice graphics, or fun gameplay, definitely get the “Jaws of Hakkon” DLC instead: you’ll find none of that here. I’m hoping that the next DLC will be better—it can’t get much worse. It’s OK to make people wait, Bioware. Give us quality, not quantity. Go back to what made the Dragon Age 2 DLCs so good: fun stories and worldbuilding/history that matters.
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