Dragon Age: The Veilguard has more magic, color, and customizations

June 11, 2024
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One would think after spending a summer screaming about kissing bears in Baldur’s Gate or gods in Hades 2 that my primary concern for Dragon Age: The Veilguard — a game from a studio known for its robust character writing and romanceable companions — would be who I’m picking to smooch. But after three games spanning almost two decades, all I really wanted out of the next Dragon Age was a skin tone that matched mine and didn’t look like I’d never seen a bottle of moisturizer.

So I know there is a Maker who loves me when one of the very first features that game director Corinne Busche showed me was all the different skin tones in Veilguard’s character creator.

“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about skin tone,” she said. In the character creator, once you choose a race and customize your features — including the series-first ability to change your body size — you can check your work under different kinds of lighting. The character we made, a Black elf, seemed to glow in the bluish light of a nighttime scene, and under bright sunlight, I could see the richness of his color. 

“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about skin tone.”

“We want to make sure that skin tone is reflected authentically,” Busche said.

The second feature I saw — one that I insisted Busche show me, risking the precious little time I had with this hands-off demo at Summer Game Fest — was the hair options.

“We have dozens and dozens of hair types,” she said. “And they’re fully affected by physics.” The quality and variety of choices I saw delighted me. The rows of bouncy, luxurious-looking hair of all curl types and textures (and yes, the annoyingly ubiquitous “Killmonger cut” was among the options, what can you do?) brought the biggest smile to my face in the hour I spent with Busche and The Veilguard.

“A very important part of our philosophy is that no matter who you are, you’re able to realize yourself inside of this game,” Busche said, and I think they nailed it.

There was only so much I could see in the hour I had with the hands-off demo, but all of it was really heartening as a longtime Dragon Age fan. Minrathous, the city we explored in the demo, was dark and moody, with its blood mage cultists, yet awash with the color of magical signs like the neon lights of a major city.

To some, that colorfulness, combined with a reveal trailer that had a more stylized art direction, led to grumblings on social media that The Veilguard didn’t feel like a “real” Dragon Age game. Detractors complain that the new stylization looks too cartoonish and is too much a departure from the series that once featured Marilyn Manson’s “This Is the New Shit” in one of its blood-splattered trailers

Busche understood the criticisms and offered a two-pronged explanation. The first part was simply that Dragon Age, as a series, has always changed. “What we’ve seen over the years is an evolution of the visuals in the franchise,” Busche said. “Dragon Age has never really had an ownable visual identity.”

Busche explained that the team wanted to give players a game where locations were imbued with just as much personality as the characters. “That meant making contrast from the areas that are dark and decaying to the areas that are illuminated with magic,” Busche said. 

Another reason The Veilguard looks so different from other Dragon Age games is because the locations themselves are unlike anything the franchise has seen before. The first three Dragon Age games took place in the southern parts of the world, where magic and its users were brutally repressed. 

Meanwhile, for the locations in Veilguard, “This is a part of the world where magic has been embraced,” Busche said. “It is a society of mages and magic in this world is inherently colorful. So whether we’re seeing them use magic for everyday purposes like signage or using them as spells, that color really comes through.”

It’s been a long and possibly agonizing time coming for fans of the series who first got a glimpse of the new game back when it was announced at the 2018 Game Awards. In the intervening years, there were a few “proof of life” updates, including the news that the game had undergone a massive change of scope with BioWare scrapping plans to add live-service multiplayer elements to instead focus on a single-player-only experience.

But while that information was generally met with enthusiasm, optimism concerning the game’s future was imperiled by constant news of layoffs and high-profile departures. After decades with the studio, BioWare general manager Casey Hudson and Dragon Age executive producer Mark Darrah left the company in 2020. Creative director Matt Goldman left in 2021, 19-year BioWare veteran Mac Walters left in 2023, and in that same year, the studio announced the layoffs of over 50 people, including several long-serving BioWare employees.

Needless to say, Veilguard’s development has been beset by issues. And an hour of hands-off gameplay isn’t enough to completely dispel the lingering concerns that the game’s tortured development cycle has affected its quality. But I know the Dragon Age series, and based on the conversations I’ve had and the little I’ve seen, it feels like despite the turmoil, BioWare still got it right.

Final judgment will have to be reserved for when I can finally play the finished product when Veilguard launches in the fall of this year. But seeing all the character creator options, knowing that we’ll finally get a romanceable dwarf companion, and knowing that we’ll finally visit places like Weisshaupt and the necropolis of Nevarra — requests and locations that have dominated Dragon Age fandom discussions for decades — Veilguard feels like it’s on the right track. 

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