Danger! Danger! This contains a few minor, character-specific spoilers - but nothing to do with DA's main plot.
My first few hours with Bioware's latest had more worried I wasn't going to be entertained. Sure, I was having fun, but my party, the people I was travelling with, were pretty dry. Facetious holy warrior Alistair had a nice line in comic deflections, but arch sorceress Morrigan seemed a textbook line in sneery, sultry know-it-alls (though I'm sure there are many stings to be found in her self-confident tale) and, while the dog was sort of cute, it wasn't exactly chatty. As for wide-eyed, pseudo-French bard Leilana - well, my cat could read those lines better than her. Sigh. Could I really make it through a couple of dozen hours with these ciphers, these stereotypes, these appalling cod-Euro accents? (Though, seriously, I like Alistair a lot). Then I met Shale, the golem - almost immediately the game's bright, dazzling star.
Bioware tend to revisit a lot of themes and structures in their games (if this was snappier and funnier, it'd have been worth a post. It's really not, but it gets the point across). That very much extends to its party members - for instance, Alistair isn't KOTOR's drippy Carth in as much he's someone you can bear to have a conversation with, but he's still the first guy you recruit, the one with the heart of gold and the key love interest if you're playing a woman. (I'm not, but because of him wish I was - I'd much rather flirt against his cheery put-downs than Morrigan's snide oh-I'm-bit-naughty-me line. Even more ideally, Alistair and Morrigan would get it on, as their constant, comedy bickering very much evokes sexual tension. JUST DO IT. You know you want each other). He's Carth.
Shale is HK-47 through-and-through, and, I suspect, very self-consciously so on Bioware's part. As KOTOR's psycho-C3PO was, Shale is the guy who doesn't quite fit the tone of the game, because he doesn't take anything seriously. He's its Rosencratz & Guildenstein, its Deadpool - creeping as close as the broadly po-faced dark fantasy comes to breaking the fourth wall. Which is why he's the most welcome presence in the game. He's also cheerfully homicidal, as was HK-47, and killed his master, as did HK-47. Maybe it's lazy, but it's hard to disagree with someone who ritually suggests solving moral dilemmas by stomping everyone involved into paste. Plus, he's pathologically afraid of birds.
When Shale first spoke, after I'd completed a quest to earn the magic rod and codeword necessary to wake him from a long, petrified slumber in the centre of a human village, I sighed before he even finished his sentence. Another clipped English voice, reedy and weak, not the big, booming, stony golem-voice I'd expected. What is it with this game and its thin voices? Oh, wait. Wait wait wait. A few words in, the shock of his non-golemnity overcome, I listened to what he said and how he said it, and I realised what he was. He was, well, camp.
Is that an insulting way of putting it? It's not intended as such, certainly. He's prissy, he's concerned that his gemstones (a neat way of applying weapon and armour upgrades) don't complement each other and he regards the rest of the party as really rather grubby. Of course, he's immensely likeable about it, off in his own little world rather than frowning about Darkspawn. He's also beguiling childlike - there's a great conversation between him and Leilana about shoes, him having essentially never heard of them before but loving the idea, and nervously suggesting what colour he'd prefer. He's the NPC I'd choose to have a romance with, but it rather seems he's not equipped for it.
Evidently, he's a parody of/homage to the sort of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy figure that's become a mainstay of popular culture, and maybe there'd be some discomfort about Bioware playing to broad stereotypes - except for the fact he's clearly the best, most likeable and enthusiastically written character in the game. His abilities are splendid, too - lobbing boulders, a pair of Hellboy fists, or turning into a frozen obelisk that mega-buffs the rest of the party. You absolutely have to include him in your party - except, to bring up the big problem I foreshadowed earlier, you probably can't.
There's a wider issue here, which we'll probably get into it a post of its own.
Shale is only available to people who paid for the Collector's Edition of DA, around £10 more than the standard. Edit! I'm a fool, as some non-fools have observed - I had presumed he was the same as the Warden's Keep DLC, as the store pages are careful to only mention him in regard to the collector's edition. Shale is available with all retail copies of DA - but you have to enter a code to download him. Pray ignore the following two paragraphs, but I leave them there for guilty posterity's sake. I would say I'm puzzled as to why he has to be downloaded rather than simply included - is the idea indeed that we're lured into thinking the forthcoming other DLC will be similarly excellent? Hmm... Is he included with standard Steam/D2D copies too, anyone know?
I believe you can also pay for the DLC upgrade if you like. On the hand, his splendidness and how totally integrated he is with the core game is a rare triumph for DLC, something that so often sloppily sticks unnecessary bits on the side. On the other hand, that's because he is quite clearly not DLC. He's so core to the game, to its writing, to its world, to its other characters, that there's no way he was designed as an add-on. I hate to tin-foil hat it, but he very much seems to have been created, removed and re-added, rather than created and added after the event.
But that's me getting all Crazy Cynical Boy -who knows what Bioware planned or how they did it? All I know is that the game is a lesser thing without him, and I'm uncomfortable that it takes an extra £10 to bring him into things. If he's a sign of things to come, of Bioware coming up with really slick, clever, enthusiastic DLC, I'm all for it. But their Mass Effect stuff didn't set a great precedent for that. Perhaps Shale's a seachange. Is he worth the extra tenner? Erm. Ah. Yes. He's comfortably one of the best things about the game, and I've been enjoying it much more since he joined my party. But you shouldn't have to pay for him. I'd imagine his writers would feel the same way, as they'd want such a grand creation to be seen by as many as possible. God knows this vast, preening man-mountain would think so too.