My biggest fear about Dragon Age: Absolution from Netflix was that it’s the big debut of Dragon Age: Dreadwolf‘s new institution in Tevinter. When I finally get to play Deadwolf, I want to discover the surprises for myself, not recognize them as revelations already wrung out for a Netflix spin-off. My fears were all for naught, as it turns out Absolution is in such a damn hurry to tell its own story that it doesn’t have time to spoil anything else.
Dragon Age: Absolution revolves around a cobbled together group of thieves hired by the Inquisition – enjoy your 10 second Cassandra and background Leliana cameo here as it’s the only one you’ll get – to get a magical artifact called the Circulum Infinitus to steal. It is held by the Tevinter Chantry and a magister eager to use it. The Circulum Infinitus is powered by blood magic, you see, which is reason enough to send these otherwise disposable characters on a heist to grab it.
In case you don’t pick up on the vibe, Absolution is definitely not an accessible entry point into Dragon Age, regardless of the vague counter-noises BioWare or Netflix have made.
In the first few minutes we are introduced to our rogue elf (in the manner of daggers and the ‘used to be a Tevinter slave’) protagonist Miriam, who proves herself a cutthroat badass by sabotaging her own recruited henchmen as a distraction for a raid. . A minute after that, we meet the boss of her current crew who is trembling at her methods.
Less than a minute later That is the arrival of her ex-girlfriend Sapphira, who broke up with her to join the Inquisition. Of course they also have beef. We meet “the rest of the team”, have a disagreement and then go heart to heart because Hira cheated Miri about the purpose of their mission for *checks notes* a few hours, tops. We get 60 seconds of literal voiceover about Tevinter culture during the editing journey to their destination, the town of Nessum.
The running time so far is 11 minutes.
Friends, I appreciate a good “in medias res,” but this feels like I accidentally walked into the first episode of a second season. You know that déjà not vu phenomenon where you realize everyone is subtly repeating events you should have seen? Except this it is. This is episode one. I feel totally in the deep end despite knowing my dragon age. Probably too many Dragon Age.
And I know why it happens.
We met six characters. There are still two main characters that are central to the plot that we won’t meet until episode two. The total running time of the season is 138 minutes. (Netflix quotes them as 30-minute episodes, but they clock in at 23 each.) Dragon Age: Absolution just doesn’t have enough time for the entire cast. It barely has enough time to follow its central plot, let alone three romantic relationships and a handful of flashbacks in less time than Robert Pattinson spent on screen as Batman this year.
What’s happening in Tevinter
This is where the spoiler-lite part begins. You have been warned.
After the first intro episode, Dragon Age: Absolution revolves around a single day and night heist at the Imperial Divine’s holiday palace in Nessum. Of course, the young magister determined to use the Circulum to bring someone back to life is also Miri’s former master Rezaren. What unfolds is mostly a traditional heist plan: a distraction, a few vault crackers, a fouled escape route, stumbled defenses, an improbable betrayal, an interrogation, and so on. Aside from the blazing fast pace, it’s fun, classic smash and grab action.
Absolution takes on its role as a spin-off peppered with references to Dragon Age: Inquisition with mentions of the Hinterlands, the Herald of Andraste, and Magister Amelia Pavus, who is believed to be an ancestor of Dorian’s. Hira eventually calls a contact at The Hanged Man bar in Kirkwall, but no, it’s not a Varric cameo, sorry. It makes time for some punchy battle choreography and colorful magical battles with rage and pride demons that are easily recognizable from the many battles in the games.
But Dragon Age is a series primarily driven by its emotionally charged characters, which is why the sheer number Absolution tries to pack into its season is such a crime. Each of them had the ability to become a new fan favorite, but the pace reduces even the best of them to bullet points. Qwydion is a comedic qunari, Lacklon and Roland are together (spoiler alert) in what fandom will refer to as “grumpy x sunshine”, and Fairbanks is your standard smooth-talking, lock-picking villain who is himself a Dragon Age: Inquisition call side quest back (opens in new tab).
The later installments of Absolution devolve into the pretty gritty, morally gray Dragon Age stories that earned the games my loyalty. The revelations about Miri’s relationships with both Hira and Rezaren are, on paper, the harrowing – pun, nerds – stuff of powerful Dragon Age quests. And he doesn’t shy away from getting blood on the hands of his heroes. Forced to split time with the full cast, those revelations, their emotional appeal, and all the monologues just can’t build enough inertia to really punch me in the gut.
I don’t know anything about Netflix’s production pipeline at all, but it feels like Absolution was pitched with a great outline for a 12-episode animated season and then cut in half. I’ve seen some ensemble cast wonders with 12 episodes, but six? I won’t say it can’t, just that Absolution didn’t.
Come for the Codex entry
By the end, Absolution feels like a Dragon Age checklist: it has three romances, demon battles, two cameos, blood magic, bans, an irreverent qunari, a badass lady Knight Commander, racism against elves, and desperate mages turned blood magic.
Have you ever tried to make very, very vibrant cookie frosting by drizzling more and more food coloring into it until it loses all structural integrity, becomes gritty and just plain flavours like dye? Absolution is that: a corny Dragon Age slurry. I’ll still eat it and say “thank you” because I’m not proud of baked goods or BioWare, but this is far from the best batch.
Dragon Age: Absolution’s contribution to the series will likely be a series of bullet points in trivia sections in a handful of Dragon Age Fandom wiki pages. It’s a real shame. Not least because Dragon Age spin-offs have historically been great. There are several novels, many comics, and a collection of short stories that all range from pretty good to excellent.
Absolution itself won’t really take up space in my long-term memory. What I care about most is what it is power say about the game I’ve been waiting to play for almost a decade. Does the raid focus mean that the mind of Project Joplin lives on in Dreadwolf? Does that very last reveal scene hearken to a returning side dish villain? What specifics did I miss that the fandom’s lore scholars will use to fuel their prediction machines for how many months are left until Dreadwolf arrives? Can I have Miriam’s cool dagger stuff?
Watch Absolution. Earn your right to play the probable Dragon Age: Dreadwolf sidequest that references the events and points to the screen and says “oh yeah, it’s them.” But after you do that, go pick up a copy of the short story collection Tevinter nights (opens in new tab) instead of. It’s a much better starter for Dreadwolf than Absolution.