Dragon Age: Origins is a bona fide gem. While it launched way back in 2009, it holds up remarkably well today. I replayed Origins via Game Pass a couple of weeks ago and, aside from a couple of dodgy checkpoints, it was as smooth as Zevran after a few bottles of wine – that’s pretty damn smooth.
While we all have our favourite Origins companion – mine is Morrigan – and know what happened with the Blight, I rarely see anyone discussing what I think is one of the best quests in the entire Dragon Age series. I mean, Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts from Inquisition is number one, but Broken Circle from Origins isn’t far behind – specifically The Fade: Lost in Dreams.
The Fade: Lost in Dreams kicks off towards the end of the Circle of Magi main quest, which is one of four core parts of Origins’ pre-Landsmeet narrative. Essentially, Templars seal off the Circle Tower after blood mages allow abominations and demons from The Fade to run rampant across its higher levels. This is spearheaded by Uldred, a higher-up among First Enchanter Irving’s most trusted advisors who betrays his pals because he’s a right bastard. Shortly before you meet Uldred, however, you’re captured by a powerful sloth demon. It’s worth noting that if you choose the mage origin, you’ll already have met a different, more benevolent sloth demon earlier in the story. This second one is far more sinister, attempting to imprison you and all three of your companions in his domain for all eternity. Not fun.
I didn’t have a particularly sound recollection of this quest when I played it a couple of weeks ago, so it was pretty much as if I was going through it for the first time. If your memory of it is a little hazy too, here’s the gist: you meet Niall, a young mage who Sloth managed to snag a little while before you bump into him. Niall has given up hope, although gradually regains it as you learn how to transform into a rat, a person on fire, a golem, and a spirit, all to solve various environmental puzzles based on special abilities held by each individual form.
There are five main areas to explore here, all of which form a circle around a central plane. This is where Sloth resides, but you can only get there if you successfully dispatch his underlings on each of the five islands. There are also additional vertices you unlock as a result of killing adjacent bosses. Travelling to these allows you to regroup with your companions, most of whom have been convinced that this is normal and they’re happy here. Morrigan doesn’t buy it for a second, which is just one of a million reasons as to why she’s the best.
It’s a bit frustrating at the beginning, having to traipse around these islands almost aimlessly. Once you pick up a few abilities, though, and learn how to manipulate everything from spirit doors to walls of fire, it quickly becomes one of the most fascinating puzzle structures in video games. Not only are you given a unique, temporary tool by learning how to shapeshift in The Fade, but the entire map begins to feel more full, more alive. There may be a finite number of mouse holes, but it’s the fact you learn that this hole goes to that one over there, which has a spirit door leading back to that room, which in turn has a Fade portal that gets me all the way back to Niall, who is intensely confused to see an enormous golem appearing as if out of thin air and going, “Alright Niall, what’s up?”
It goes beyond versatility in route planning and puzzle design, too. I played as a mage this time around, which made this whole quest immensely difficult – had I been a warrior or archer it might have been more manageable, but it felt as if I was a glass cannon who constantly ran out of cannonballs. Fortunately, being able to transform into a golem allowed me to knock people’s heads in as if it was nobody’s business, to the point where I was pretty disappointed when I realized I couldn’t keep this ability outside of The Fade. I didn’t miss being a mouse, but having biceps bigger than boulders – and made out of even tougher stone – was pretty great.
The resolution of this quest is fine. It’s a boss fight, which you’d probably expect – you can take on Sloth yourself or save your companions so they venture to the island with you. But what’s special about this whole section of Origins is the grid you travel on, and the way puzzles aren’t even visible until you get a certain ability. It’s the hunting, the problem-solving, the flitting between here and there to cover as much ground as possible in pursuit of Sloth’s malevolent generals. The Fade: Lost in Dreams takes a long time to complete, and I’d understand if some people reckon it could do with shaving 30 minutes off somewhere along the way. For me, though, this quest is one of the best missions BioWare ever designed, which is really saying something. Only Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts beats it, as well as potentially a couple of Wrex’s quests from the Mass Effect trilogy. Morrigan vs Wrex… now that’s a tough one. I’ll have to get back to you.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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