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Freeware Friday: Dragon Age: Journeys

Welcome to Freeware Friday, a weekly column showcasing excellent games that you can play free of charge!

Dragon Age: Origins
is out there amidst consumers, garnering both critical and commercial recognition for its dark atmosphere, excellent story, and entertaining combat. However, there's more to the Dragon Age series besides Origins. EA2D, makers of the excellent Mirror's Edge 2D, decided to take the 2D browser approach to the Dragon Age franchise. The end result is Dragon Age: Journeys, a spin-off game that manages to be good on its own while still providing you with bonuses in the main game itself. Those that love strategy and role-playing games should definitely try it out.

The story of Dragon Age: Journeys starts off in a very stereotypical manner. You are on your way to Orzammer with your father and guards, and you are ambushed by a glowing blue Hurlock that commands incredible magics. He kills your family and you are left to flee to the dwarven city to seek revenge and drive back the Darkspawn. It's all very tired, and the writing is not especially notable, so there is a little fatigue in trudging through the story elements. There is also little purpose to multiple dialogue options, as you will always be lead to the same conclusion. It's very linear, which is saddening but inescapable.

The visuals and sound are good, but seem to be a drop in quality from the Mirror's Edge 2D visuals. Animations are very stiff and the music is grating. However, the sounds are top-notch and the detail on the characters is excellent. Part of the reason behind the stiff animations may be the necessity of separate graphics for each piece of armor, where the previous games didn't have this limitation. The backgrounds are especially good, though, and despite the rather stiff movement, it's easy to enjoy all the detail that went into the environments.

Dragon Age: Journeys is broken up into two elements: exploring and combat. Exploring covers finding new gear and dialogue, where combat encompasses... well, combat. It's interesting to not that there are no skill or talents that improve any aspect of the exploration. This is a game that is solidly focused on the mechanics of combat, and it shows. It would have been nicer to have a little flexibility outside of combat, but as it is a browser game, it can be excused a bit.

Talking to characters gives you very little in the way of information or side-quests. Most of the game's characters have very little to say to you, with dialogue options boiling down to buying something, resting at an inn, asking someone to join your party, or quest dialogue. There's even a separate area within Orzammer, Dust Town, that has similar NPCs and similar lack of dialogue! It's a big disappointment that it doesn't live up to the expectations of the game that spawned it.

The exploration and movement itself is extremely stiff, but somehow works. You move through hexagonal spaces, running across items and effects. While exploring, you can pick up potions, armor, weapons, and other goodies, while effects include healing yourself, camping for the night, or eating mysterious mushrooms. Most treasures are guarded by monsters, though, which forces you into the combat part of the game. It's not bad, though, because combat is the most well-designed element present.

Anyone familiar with the gameplay behind King's Quest or Heroes of Might and Magic will become immediately familiar with the combat in Dragon Age: Journeys. Combat takes place on a hexagonal grid with random obstacles scattered around. Units can move around the grid and attack enemies, and enemies can do the same back. The turn order is determined by the initiative of the party members involved, with a highe rinitiative allowing the character to move before others. Beyond that, it's simply move next to an enemy and attack.

Positioning is everything in combat, with a few bonuses being applied to those that are positioned correctly compared to the enemy. The three most important positioning concepts are line of sight, flanking, and backstabbing. Line of sight determines where your mage can attack, and is blocked by obstacles (but not characters). Flanking is when a character attacks another within melee range that another melee fighter is next to. Flanking gives the attacker a significant damage and to-hit bonus. Finally is backstab, which is usually only available to rogues, but can be used form time to time by other classes. This is simply attacking the enemy while they are occupied with another character, dealing massive additional damage.

Talents are your skills, and are essential to survival in Dragon Age: Journeys. The skills of the mage are especially important, as they cover healing, damage, and buff spells. You should always have a mage in your party thanks to this versatility of magic. Skills include: toggle skills, which chew through a certain amount of points (mana or stamina) per turn; one-use skills, which often have great effects at a high cost; and passive skills, which give a bonus without requiring any sort of input whatsoever. Passive skills are especially important, as they can make you immune to flanking or dramatically increase your damage output.

Dragon Age: Journeys is unusual in that it is a full-featured RPG through the browser platform. While it may not be quite as good as its partner, it is definitely worth playing through at least once, and will provide you with several hours of entertainment through play-through. As said before, the combat is excellent, and will please any strategy or role-playing fan thanks to its equal focus on both elements. You can play Dragon Age: Journeys on the official site. If you have an EA Online account, it will even give you in-game bonuses!

For another look at freeware games, take a peek at Joystiq's Free Game Club weekly feature!


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