After suffering at the hands of the strangest marketing campaign for many a year, Bioware’s forthcoming RPG Dragon Age takes a big step in the right direction with the free Journeys. Serving up a hefty slice of prequel action, this free, official flash game contains content that would have been premium quality back in the 80s and 90s. Despite being an evident marketing exercise, designed to draw you into the Dragon Age world and convince you to shell out for the full game, it’s clearly been a labour of love for the EA2D development team. You can find it online here, entirely for free.
This isn’t a cheap cash-in on the flegling franchise. It’s actually a fully formed game, although I’m not sure how lengthy it is having only played through the opening. The mechanics on display aren’t those of a marketing gimmick, though, but of a considered and strategic roleplaying experience. Dragon Age was hailed at the start of its development as “the RPG PC gamers have been waiting for”, and Journeys has a suitably retro feel with its hex-layout, turn-based combat and 2D, top-down exploration. It’s quite reminiscent of the original Fallout, transposed to a traditional fantasy environment.
Most remarkable is how vastly different this is to the marketing dirge that EA have been spewing for the last six months. Trailer after embarassing trailer has attempted to market Dragon Age to the Grand Theft Auto crowd, set to anachronistic Marilyn Manson music and featuring sexual content that must even embarass the 14 year olds it’s presumably targeting. It’s been a horridly confused campaign, almost schizophrenic in its uncertainty as to the game’s identity and potential audience. What began as a hardcore return to Bioware’s early PC days was gradually morphed into a supposed mainstream hit full of blood and nudity, culminating in the infamous E3 demonstration that showed off the ‘romance’ side of the game being a bizarre exchange of sex-for-books. It was unsavoury show of dubious morality from a developer that had always prided itself on character development and ethical quandaries, leading many to worry that EA’s buyout a couple of years back had resulted in a tacky change of attitude.
Throughout the campaign EA and Bioware resolutely ignored the game’s most natural audience, the one that will take up the game and champion it through Twitter and Facebook and blogs, spreading it out to the mainstream in a grassroot fashion: the gamers that love in-depth RPGs full of stats and strategy and quests and XP points. While they were shunned, EA’s efforts instead went into trying to market a game to the mainstream that lacks the expected production values and glitz of a mainstream title. Each trailer and announcement provoked more disquiet amongst the previously loyal PC RPGers. Broadening your customer base is important, of course, but not at the expense of your guaranteeed fanbase.
And now we have Dragon Age: Journeys, the first proper glimpse into the world of Dragon Age and the kind of tone we should expect from the full game. Thankfully it suggests that the awful marketing was indeed just that: marketing fluff, unrepresentative of the game itself. Even in its free Flash form Journeys is a sophisticated game, offering traditional levelling, stats and skills, inventories, dialogue trees, quests – it has features that many full price RPGs have lacked in recent times. If it were released outside of the Dragon Age brand it would be hailed as something truly special. As it is, though, a certain air of suspicion remains: is this really what the game is going to be like? Or is it going to be the embarassingly immature product that EA have been shouting about so uncouthly for months?
We’ll find out soon as the game is out in November. Journeys is particularly compelling for its ability to sync with the full game, unlocking unique items and powers based on your achievements. Everything about Journeys screams conviction and care, qualities which we can only hope carry over into the full game. If that proves to be the case, Dragon Age: Origins will go down in history as one of the most miscalculated marketing campaigns in gaming history.
Unless, that is, it sells shedloads of copies. In which case you can quite confidently ignore most of this article.