Version tested: Xbox 360
Let's talk a little about meaning. Meaning's important. Take the word "chronicles", for example. What does that suggest to you? An ongoing saga, perhaps. A record of some event so epic that it can only be told one piece at a time. Majestic myths, tales too big to be constrained between Once Upon a Time and Happily Ever After. What it doesn't suggest is something you can finish off in about an hour.
That, needless to say, is what we get with the latest Dragon Age downloadable. As with the similarly short-lived Return to Ostagar, let me make it perfectly clear that I'm not about to fall into the trap of equating length with quality. If this was the finest hour of gaming ever produced, or even just up to the quality of its parent game, then the low price (400 Microsoft or BioWare Points, or £3.99) would be perfectly justified. But it's not. It's yet another linear hack and slash journey through familiar environments that stumbles to a halt before it even gets up to speed.
The twist is that this is a standalone outing which casts you as a Hurlock Vanguard working for the very same Archdemon you spent many hours working to defeat in the game proper. Set during the climactic battle for Denerim, the episode sees you advance through the city, killing everyone in your path and occasionally performing rudimentary "quests" that involve nothing more taxing than smashing gates, pulling two levers or, you know, killing everyone in your path.
As such there's no levelling or XP to tinker with, and the sparse loot on offer is just enough to kit out your Hurlock once with maybe a spare sword left over. Not that you'll need the leftovers, since your companions are mindless monsters, most of which can't use armour, weapons or even potions in some cases. Rather than recruiting these beastly brothers in arms, you enthral them using the only new ability of note. Select a random creature, cast the enthral power on it and it joins your team. When you've had enough, you can kill it and choose another.
Keeping creatures alive is recommended though, since their approval rating grows based on your leadership in battle. Get stuck in alongside your squad, build up a body count, and they'll be more loyal, unlocking status-boosting effects along the way. Squad members are easily replaced, but you'll need to start building that loyalty all over again, and the campaign just isn't long enough for that to be viable more than once or twice.
On a purely conceptual level, the idea of a Dragon Age monster squad is appealing, and the initial stages of the DLC make agreeably twisted use of it. Rampaging through the market district with a trio of drooling monsters, murdering innocent characters willy-nilly, is basically what many people wanted Overlord to be: a bloodthirsty evil simulator.
But that's as far as the ideas stretch, and once it becomes clear that there'll be no more bright ideas to come, what's left is a deathly grind that once again manages to completely miss everything that made the full game so damnably addictive. There's no dialogue, no interaction and no room for sophisticated combat tactics. Just keep killing until you get an on-screen prompt telling you to go somewhere else and kill some more. Seeing a masterful story factory like BioWare put its name to something so thin is downright depressing.
More depressing is what the developers have in store for their heroes. As you progress through the handful of areas that make up Denerim, you'll encounter the characters whose company you enjoyed previously. Zevram. Wynne. Sten. All the gang. Then you'll kill them. You may not start blubbering like a fanboy mourning Aeris, but there's still something that feels a little crass and wrong in the way these fantastic characters are reduced to mute loot drops, wheeled out to be slaughtered. It's as if BioWare has become a petulant child, smashing its favourite toys. Cathartic, perhaps, but ultimately pointless and rather sad.
There are numerous technical problems as well, something that is fast becoming a recurring theme of DLC for role-playing games. At least one of the three new Achievements seems to be glitched ("Ogre Keeper", since you ask) and the gameplay itself is plagued by constant stuttering pauses and a weird bug where you'll be hacking away at a character model that is frozen in place. Suddenly it unfreezes and all the damage you inflicted happens at once. It's nothing that will break your game, but given that this mission is simply an exercise in recycling existing assets from a game already patched several times, it's hard to forgive such unpolished hiccups.
It's not even as if all this creaky mayhem is in service of a particularly lofty goal. You're simply replaying the final stage of the game as the bad guys, with a finale that finds you defending the Archdemon rather than slaying it, for no particular reason. The promised "alternate history" which assumes your character died while joining the Grey Wardens never materialises. The existing characters, when killed, provide a short biography buried in the codex that explains how they came to be in Denerim without your influence, but that's slim pickings even for the most devout fan of in-game fiction.
So, another Dragon Age episode, another hour that just offers the bare minimum of gaming, another shrug of disappointment. Of course, there's a very boring practical reason for this: new stories need writers, voice actors and animators, all of which cost time and money. A quick loot grind through an existing map? That's a far more economical prospect. They can't all be Awakenings, of course, but it's becoming increasingly clear that only the very naive will still be holding out for lovingly crafted bite-sized stories in future instalments. For a narrative powerhouse like BioWare, that seems like a terrible waste.
4 / 10