Jaws of Hakkon provides an interesting - if not essential - slice of extra Dragon Age lore, with an engaging new environment to explore.
I'm still playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, months after it came out. I only came to it over Christmas, but most evenings that I pick up a controller I find myself setting out from Skyhold yet again, venturing into some wilderness or other to see what I can find. The followers I bring with me have mostly fallen silent, their dialogue exhausted after nearly 200 hours of adventuring. This is fine - if I was asked to constantly quip while somebody else poked around, mopping up stray side-quests and flambéing any sheep foolish enough to wander by, I'd have got bored too.
But I haven't tired of the game, even though I'm still playing far beyond the point that most players feel the need to. Fans have complained that there are too many distractions on the game's world map, and you could make the point that BioWare has cluttered its own game unnecessarily. But I'm reminded of something Dragon Age: Inquisition creative director Mike Laidlaw told me a couple of weeks ago - that assuming you needed to collect every little thing in the game was a "miscalibration". You'll finish the main story with a surplus of power unless you have a real aversion to exploring - BioWare has simply populated its world with further activities for those who do want to engage with them.
All of this is worth noting as I am currently staring at a large thread on BioWare's forum branding Jaws of Hakkon as "more of the same", arguing that it just adds another area to explore with a map that quickly fills itself full of side-quests and collectibles. You could make this argument, but it feels unfair - there's far more to the DLC than the icons on its map, while its design feels as if BioWare has responded to some of the early Inquisition feedback.
Jaws of Hakkon adds a single new area, the Frostback Basin, but what an area it is. While other locations are largely focused around a single theme (that icy area, that desert area, that forest area, that rainy area...) this new location is a potpourri of ideas that builds on designs found elsewhere, such as spaces with lots of verticality, now expanded into multi-layered explorable environments with handy winch lifts. The Basin blends many different themes into a cohesive whole, with sections that see you exploring a dense, tangled forest floor, treetop Endor-style encampments, a coastal fishing village perched on towering cliffs, an ancient fortress, a spooky island filled with spirits and a swamp.
It is also the location with the most unified story, one that manages to weave together a tribal conflict, the expeditions of a university professor and the tale of what happened to the last Inquisitor, who roamed Thedas some 800 years hence. And while there are new shard collectibles and optional Astrarium puzzles, exploration is rewarded here far more often with new threads of lore, snippets of backstory or discoverable oddities that demand further exploration. Side-quests feel more closely knitted to the main thrust of your activities, and your understanding of the environment will evolve considerably over the course of your exploration.
But for a DLC that promises a lot of story, some of it can seem fairly mundane. Perhaps it's a casualty of the fact that this new adventure has to work whether you have finished the central narrative or not, and so its story stakes never feel like they can reach or outdo that of your main campaign. While fans of Dragon Age lore will love reading the reams of new history that the add-on provides - it's clear that BioWare's writers have worked on this in earnest - more casual players may struggle to care about yet another sorting out of yet another set of squabbling natives.
Thankfully, a lot of this is counterbalanced by a more relaxed script, peppered with humour and in-jokes for fans to smile at. Pleasingly, BioWare has brought back the full voice cast of all your followers' to record new dialogue, both during missions and for general party "banter". The new Viking-like tribe you befriend is well written and realised, as is the plucky professor you must help. But, best of all, fan-favourite side-character Scout Harding has been wisely promoted to a more prominent role (although she's still not romanceable).
It's impressive to see how well the new area fits into the main game, going beyond the expected smattering of new weapons, armour and materials by looping new missions into old quest chains, adding fresh War Table operations and providing new customisation options for Skyhold. There's also a major new ability for your Inquisitor, a Rift-powered shield bubble that blocks all incoming projectiles and which can itself be upgraded further.
Jaws of Hakkon is recommended for players already at level 20 and up, which is where the game's current soft level cap will have already started to slow your progress, and it is clear from the difficulty of enemies you face that this is designed to be a very late or post-game experience. The add-on's ending boss fights are a particular challenge, and force you to juggle confined spaces, spawning mobs and a debilitating status effect.
Returning to Skyhold after playing the DLC I feel like it was an adventure worth taking, if not one that has particularly changed my Dragon Age experience in any meaningful way. And I think that this is perhaps the biggest problem - and maybe what fans saying this is simply "more of the same" might really mean. Beyond the moaning about collectibles, there is a desire to see Inquisition's world and story moved on in a memorable way. It's difficult to do that with any content that could still be played and set pre-finale (and difficult to talk about why that is until you've played it), but here's hoping that whatever DLC BioWare is working on next serves up a more meaningful mouthful of story.