Today is Dragon Age 2’s tenth anniversary, and I have always thought of it as a game built around the Qunari – a large, horned race of invaders who occupy the city until the valuable book stolen from them is returned. Though the game is ostensibly about the Mages vs the Templars, much of the tension throughout Act 1 and especially Act 2 is driven by the Qunari’s presence in Kirkwall. Over time, we see citizens converting to the way of the Qun, high-ranking nobles getting murdered as animosity rises, and the Qunari taking up permanent residence in a fenced-off pit; a throbbing boil on Kirkwall’s arse.
While the big conflict rages quietly in the background, the Qunari and their leader, the Arishok, keep everyone in Kirkwall on edge. This is a masterclass in rising actions, with the temperature nudged up to boiling point by so little – yet so often – that when everything bubbles over, it’s both unexpected and perfectly timed. After all this, you head to a duel with the Arishok himself, and despite Dragon Age 2’s tight storytelling thus far, it all dissolves into one of the silliest boss battles ever.
When the Arishok challenges you to this duel, it is a sign of great respect. On paper, it’s the perfect ending to Act 2; all of that tension distilled down to a clash of swords. The Arishok fighting to assert his peoples’ dominance, Hawke defending Kirkwall as its last, best hope. Hawke becomes a proxy for the people here, willing to step up when the highest ranking Kirkwall officials have shied away from confrontation, letting the problem fester. The Arishok, meanwhile, represents the blood of imperialism coursing through the veins of the Qunari. “We will take your land because we are stronger than you,” the Arishok seems to say.
It maintains Dragon Age 2’s ideological themes while gamifying them into a battle of two health bars. Whichever health bar drops first is the failed ideology. It’s war in a 20 foot space.
Dragon Age 2 even had an entire trailer – titled ‘Destiny’ to offer extra gravitas – built around this epic battle, a trailer that showed a CGI showdown between Hawke and the Arishok, underpinning this moment as the crux of Dragon Age 2 in a single fight.
Unfortunately, this match of wits and swords and beliefs falls apart once the player is in control. The Arishok is quite a powerful foe, and that means many players – myself included – cheese this fight a little. There are two columns in the middle of the arena, put there presumably to offer some variety over a big open square, and to offer cover. The issue with these is that everyone simply runs around these columns in a long figure eight pattern, randomly slashing at the Arishok as we dash past, occasionally using special abilities for more damage. Running around the Arishok himself in a big loop also works, but practically nobody fights him face to face the way the story wants you to.
Once the fight is over, the narrative takes control again, and Hawke is treated as an honorable hero who conquered the mighty Arishok. Hawke stood their ground and took on the full might of the Qunari face to face, rather than running around in a weird circle occasionally swinging their sword randomly. That is maybe my favourite part of all this carnage; the scenes immediately before and immediately afterwards are treated with such reverence. Despite the game’s often cheeky sense of humour, it asks you, please, to play this part straight – and absolutely nobody listens.
There are some caveats to this. Dragon Age 2 is a choice-based game, and it’s possible that things don’t exactly go down like this. The whole reason the Qunari are there is because they’re chasing Isabela, your companion and the ultimate video game crush. She is the one that stole the book in the first place. Isabela will flee shortly before this battle, but if you have gained her respect, she will return. Provided she does that, you can simply hand her over to the Qunari, who leave peacefully. Let’s be honest though, nobody ever does that.
It’s more likely that you’ve neglected your companions and Isabela simply doesn’t return at all. If this is the case – or if the Arishok does not respect you – you will fight multiple Qunari soldiers at once, including the Arishok, rather than this head to head duel. You can also refuse the duel and get this outcome, but all of these just turn this silly cheese fest of mayhem into a standard battlefield encounter, so let’s not bother remembering that bit. Dragon Age – hell, video games in general – have enough of all that already.
With Dragon Age 4 somewhere out there on the horizon, I’m one of the few Dragon Age fans hoping its Minrathous setting borrows most heavily from Dragon Age 2. Still, as much as I love the Arishok’s duel, I’d rather have something a bit more serious as the apex of the Hitchcockian tension being built this time around. Either that, or lean into the silly and make me fist fight a Ferelden Frostback inside a Tevinter boxing ring.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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