Why Corypheus is a Bad Villain


Apologies for the long wait on the follow up, but the holiday season is always a busy one. Before I start, I’ve seen a number of questions online about my article, mostly relating to why I didn’t mention Corypheus was a DLC character from Dragon Age 2. The reason is I never played Dragon Age 2, once I saw the boring map design and the cartoonish new look for the Darkspawn I knew I wasn’t interested. Then my “brother” died, but that had absolutely no emotional impact since we’d spoken once, and knew I wouldn’t be bothering with that game. I’ve since heard the story is pretty good, but I still hear so many complaints about the game I have very little motivation to go back and play it.

Having the main villain be a character from a DLC that probably very few people bought is a huge dick move. Way to go EA!

They should have just slapped the EA logo on a torso and named that the villain of Dragon Age: Inquisition. It would have been far more satisfying than Corypheus…

Why Corypheus is a Bad Villain

Dragon Age: Directed by JJ Abrams.

First of all, Corypheus dialogue. It’s bad. It’s just…so bad. It’s not just that he’s a generic evildoer, it’s that every line of dialogue he spews reveals nothing about his character or his motives. Every word is dedicated to making sure we know that Corypheus is evil. Even the responses to his dialogue are bad.

Corypheus: I knew you would come

Player Character: It ends here, Corypheus!

Corypheus: And so it shall!

-Dialogue at Final Fight of Dragon Age Inquisition… or possibly the dialogue from an episode of Adam West’s Batman.

It’s like this whole exchange was pulled from the Big Book O’ Cliches. It’s dry, unimaginative, and utterly anemic when it comes to generating any kind of excitement for that final battle.

Remember Saren’s dialogue from Mass Effect? Now that was good dialogue, especially the scene on Virmire where he reveals that his motives aren’t about personal power or his hatred of humanity, but preserving life. Even as indoctrinated as he was, his arguments made a certain amount of sense, he was basically the Anti-Shepard: they had the same goal (preventing the extinction of the galaxy) but different plans for achieving it. Saren didn’t fully realize the effects of his indoctrination until the very end, but up until that point he thought he was saving the galaxy. Saren wasn’t evil for the sake of being evil. He was simply a character that walked down a road paved with good intentions and ended up turning into a monster. That’s a good villain.

To bring up Origins again, while the Archdemon was the final boss in Dragon Age: Origins, the villain you interacted with the most was Loghain. Now Loghain was another good villain, because he had motives and reasons beyond just “I need to be an obstruction to the main character.” If you let Loghain live after the Landsmeet, you can question him on his reasons for abandoning the King at Ostagar.

“What would you have had me do instead? Sacrifice the entire army to save one man?”

And quite honestly, what kind of a self-important douche goes to battle in gold armor? King Cailan had it coming.
And quite honestly, what kind of a self-important douche goes to battle in gold armor? King Cailan had it coming.

Loghain did attempt to convince King Cailan, several times in fact,  to retreat to the rear rather than play warrior on the frontline. And Loghain was entirely correct in his assessment, Ostagar had been a trap, and to waste the rest of the army in order to save Cailan would have been a foolish and most likely futile endeavor. Even had they somehow won the battle, the Archdemon had yet to show itself, so the Fereldan army would have been severely weakened in the attempt with no real gains to show for it. More Darkspawn would have emerged from the deep roads eventually (and in fact you see hoards of them marching to the surface when you visit the Deep Roads) and the Fereldan army would no longer have the manpower to stand against it.

In fact Cailan’s plan is so stupid I don’t even know why Duncan agrees to risk his Grey Warden’s on the frontline, or even bring them to the battle at all. The only way this would have made sense is if Duncan had just been using the Fereldan army as bait, hoping to draw out the Archdemon or at least enough of the horde to convince the other nations of Thedas to help the Grey Wardens. Which is actually a really good possibility given the Grey Warden’s infamous pragmatism.

To get back on point though, Loghain and Saren were good villains. Their motives, personalities, and histories were all revealed through dialogue. That’s what good dialogue is supposed to do: characterize.

Corypheus’s dialogue just sits there and it’s only purpose is to reinforce him as an evil bad guy.

I will admit his generic plan fits rather well this is generic character and generic appearance.
I think its pretty clear this is the bad guy, Bioware, you don’t have to keep reminding us.

The only point at which Corypheus comes close to actually becoming a character, and not a scooby-doo villain, is during an optional quest to visit the Temple of Dumat. There you can hear Corypheus’s thoughts, and he reminisces about his experiences invading the Golden City and gives some insights into his character. Yet even these are too short and too few to really reveal anything interesting about Corypheus. Of all the problems Inquisition has, this one is the problem that confuses me the most, because it’s not like Corypheus couldn’t have been a good villain. In fact, he could have been a great villain.

Think about this man for a moment and the world he came from. He went into the fade thinking he was one of the most powerful people in the world, and he strode into the Golden City to claim its power, and then he watched as it turned black around him. The city began twisting and warping around him, swallowing him up in darkness and corrupting him. His body twisted and deformed beyond recognition, probably in constant pain. There were so many different motivations and personalities that could have emerged from such a traumatic event. Even though 99% of his dialogue is trash, there was one line that really stood out.

“I’ve seen the throne of the gods…and it was empty.”

That was a good line, because it revealed something about him, that even though the Tevinter Imperium didn’t believe in the Maker, Corypheus was still expecting to find something. For a spiritual person, I can imagine no greater horror than visiting the home of your god and finding it empty. For Corypheus, watching the power that should have been his, turn on him and twist him into something less than human must have been equally traumatic. His old gods didn’t come to his rescue, and he was cast out as if he were nothing more than a rat invading a giant’s palace.

So did Corypheus want to be a god because he was afraid people would lose hope, as he did, when they found out there was no Maker?;

Or did he believe his corruption really was the Maker’s punishment, and attempt to assault heaven to destroy the Maker’s world?;

Or did he simply want to return because the emptiness that he found drove him mad?

We’ll never know, because all he could think to say was “I will be a god!” at every opportunity.

You know maybe if you shut up once in a while, you could actually do something right for a change.
You know maybe if you shut up once in a while you could actually do something right for a change.

Of course his stupid cliched dialogue is nothing compared to his biggest problem: he’s terrible. He literally fails in everything he ever does.

  • Went to the Golden City and fucked it up.
  • Managed to kidnap the divine in the middle of the most heavily fortified place in Thedas…and then forgot to lock the door. 
  • Manages to drop his god-orb just as his anchor is about to spawn, then stares at it like a confused kitten as it rolls away.
  • Attacks a tiny little mountain hamlet with a huge army and a dragon… and somehow loses.
  • Tries to corrupt the Grey Wardens, fails and loses his immensely power Fear Demon ally in the process.
  • Marches into the Arbor Wilds where his army is immediately annihilated and he fails to drink water from a pond.
  • Finally reopens the rift, laughs maniacally, and then promptly falls over dead.

In order for a villain to feel like a threat, they have to at least succeed once. They have to feel like an actual obstacle to the protagonist’s progress, otherwise they’re just some minor character who doesn’t serve the story.

My character was always acting so angry when he talked to Corypheus, and I never understood why. Okay he blew up the conclave and the divine… but why is my character taking that so personally? Corypheus’s attack on Haven results in the death of a bunch of nameless soldiers and a couple of minor characters, okay, but we never see our character bond with any of them so why are you taking it so hard? I didn’t even know there was a bartender in Haven until my second playthrough, was her death really that traumatic?

We needed a Battle of Hoth, or Ostagar, or Virmire. We needed a section where Corypheus stands triumphant, where everything seems lost, to really make Corypheus a good villain. When I saw the burning ruins of Eden Prime I knew Saren was a threat, but when I had to sacrifice a member of my crew on Virmire, that made it personal. Stopping the Darkspawn was important, but making Loghain pay for his betrayal and getting my friend Duncan killed was the real motivator.

The closest Corypheus gets to his moment of triumph is at Haven, but then he starts monologuing while you casually walk over to a catapult and bury him under a mountain. That kind of undermines the whole thing. 

Corypheus never felt threatening because he never won, the whole game is Corypheus going from failure to increasingly crippling failure. Wil E. Coyote was more successful. It’s nothing short of a miracle that Corypheus didn’t get himself killed in one of his botched plans.

You know who was a threat though? That could have really raised the stakes of the game’s story?

Pictured: A far more interesting and capable Villain.
You rang?

The Fear Demon Should Have Been the Villain

Had I been writing the story I would have kept Corypheus, but in the end revealed him to be a mere pawn of the Fear Demon. In fact the title “Elder One” is a far more appropriate title for the Fear Demon than it is Corypheus. Corypheus is what, a thousand years old or so?

Fear is timeless. 

Fear is the most basic and primal emotions, present in every single animal on the planet. For complex animals like humans, we can experience so many different types of fear, ranging far beyond the basic fear of death. Fear of crowds; arachnophobes; children afraid of the dark; people with anxiety disorders.

The Fear Demon would feed on them all, and this demon is probably as old as time itself. It has gorged itself on fear for countless millennia. Then Corypheus rips open the fade and the Fear Demon can begin manifesting itself in the mortal world, taunting the world with nightmares and twisted creatures, bending people to its will by exploiting their deepest fears. Fighting Fear itself would have been a battle worthy of the Inquisition. You see, while no one’s motivation for Corypheus was really believable (I mean did they really think he’d be a good god?), people siding with fear would be totally believable. People surrender to fear all the time, and to be spared living your worst nightmares every night, I could easily see people doing anything Fear wanted.

No it's okay, I'll leave. You can have the planet.
No it’s okay, I’ll leave. You can have the planet.

Then the inquisition could actually act like an inquisition, rooting out those who have surrendered to fear. The Inquisition in the game acted like a straight up military or kingdom, but an inquisition is in theory an organization whose primary role is investigative. You never saw the Spanish Inquisition march to war, but you did see people disappear into their dungeons and arrest people on the testimony of people they tortured.

Of course the most interesting aspect of having the Fear Demon as the villain would have been that we were no longer just fighting armies and demons…we’d be fighting an idea, and ideas never truly die. Even if we drove fear back into the fade, it would still be there waiting and feeding. Growing strong until the day it could emerge back into Thedas once again…

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27 thoughts on “Why Corypheus is a Bad Villain”

  1. “The reason is I never played Dragon Age 2, once I saw the boring map design and the cartoonish new look for the Darkspawn I knew I wasn’t interested. Then my “brother” died, but that had absolutely no emotional impact since we’d spoken once, and knew I wouldn’t be bothering with that game. I’ve since heard the story is pretty good, but I still hear so many complaints about the game I have very little motivation to go back and play it.”

    Honestly, IMHO DAII has a far better story than Inquisition. I never would have thought I’d say that, but after finishing Inquisition I don’t see how to avoid that.
    And if you want to judge how/why Corypheus doesn’t work that well in DAI, it helps a lot, to know about his first appearance. Especially when realizing that the boss fight in Legacy was much much better and more interesting than the fight in Inquisition. It was also really challenging. The fight in Inquisition is like Hawke kicked all the fight out of him and that’s all that’s left…
    Dragon Age II has some awesome characters and fantastic banter. If the copied maps (this is the bad thing about the game) don’t kill the fun for you, there’s a lot of great stuff left. Certainly more than in DAI, there’s no collecting shards to stretch the game time, that’s for sure. I can’t tell you how much I miss Isabela after playing DAI.

    1. Dragon Age II had it’s faults revolving mostly around small and recycled maps, but it had an amazing story with great characters. I think a lot of the hate for DAII was overblown and all the moaning led Bioware to focus more on padding the content of Inquisition, instead of actually making a great game.

      Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Inquisition, but I was let down.

  2. I find your idea for the Fear Demon being a main villain interesting. One thing I did like about this game is that the concept of faith was presented subtly but strongly – faith in all its forms, whether it’s as a giver of hope, a tool for manipulation, or a catalyst for fanaticism. It seems like the natural enemy of faith would be doubt and fear. Having to face a true manifestation of that could be interesting. The only problem I have with that idea is that in many ways, fear is also our friend. It ensures survival, it tells us when something is wrong – many times, it protects us. In the Dragon Age universe the Fear demon could easily pose as an enemy, but I’d wonder what sort of motivation it would have other than to simply exist. What could cause it to become a huge, monstrous force that consumes everything in its path? Something to think about, for sure.

    As for Corypheus, I couldn’t believe just how much of a cheese ball he is. My personal favorite is when he and the Divine spirit are arguing in the Fade; the spirit turns his own words against him in a sort of teasing remark, and his reply is an “uuurggh!” of rage. Like, he wasn’t clever enough to think of a rebuttal so he just kind of stamps his foot. It made him a villain that everyone derides as being arrogant, foolish, and clumsy. Instead, we should have feared Corypheus. He should’ve been someone we fully believed capable of turning our closest friends against us, of causing us to doubt ourselves and our cause, and of being two steps ahead of us at any time. Good villains – evil as they might be – should always be ones we respect, in my opinion.

    Instead,

    Corypheus: “Uuurghh!”

  3. Very well written.

    I finished the game 10 minutes ago and couldnt believe it was actually over. The ending was so generic I was absolutely sure something was still bound to happen, the true evil would show itself after the “victory”. Well, it wasnt easy for me to accept that this plain plot was actually all there was to it. It could have been so much more. In the end the story didnt bring any emotions.

    Your points are precise, it was just what I needed after finishing.

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading it. I wrote it specifically because I felt like it was something I would have liked to have read after finishing, but all I could find was reviews praising it, so I had to write it myself.

  4. Part of the problem is that gameplay required to get to the ending isn’t that great, either. It is World of Warcraft circa 2004, except that you are required to control four party members (PC player here) with poor controls, there are less abilities, a small number of interesting enemy *types* (to be fair, those enemy types are very cool, the Terror Bros, towershield bros, assassin bros are all excellent), the levels, while visually stunning, aren’t that interesting to navigate (compare them to Dark Souls or Metroid Prime) and the abilities are all combat based (I can’t level up speech, no out of combat spells such as levitate, etc…).

    I mean, I didn’t find the plot of Dues Ex: Human Revolution to be especially compelling after the midpoint, but the gameplay and level design were done really well. I still play DooM, which lacks a structured story, because the gameplay was superb.

    Heck, I still play Skyrim from time to time, despite the poor writing throughout the game. Also, I know Bioware talked about Skyrim alot, but they really missed what made Skyrim good: random stuff you encountered causing unique and interesting situations (eg: Bandits attacking a giant who is then also attacked by a dragon, or random dude who wants to go fisticuffs and happens to be blazed on skooma), and a large and active mod scene on the PC.

    1. Don’t mean to defend Inquisition here, but you can “level up” speech, by using Inquisition perks at the war table. Every now and then there will be extra dialog options you wouldn’t get without.

  5. I agree with your entire article, but you’re horribly wrong on Loghain and Cailan. The deafeat was LOGHAINS fault. The humans would have won, and even WITHOUT the killing of the Archdeamon, Ferelden would have had bot ha king, and an army, and a GREAT VICTORY against the darkspawn. I think that was quite obvious, from the Ostagar cutscene.
    But on all other points, you are wright. Except on one.
    The greatest problem of Inquisition isn’t Corypheus, it’s the Inquisition ITSELF. The are NO obvious ties of it to the chantry, it’s soldiers origins aren’t explained, it’s authority comes from nowhere, and you are picked as their leader in like the first 15 minutes of the game. REALLY? I know you have “the mark,” and can close rifts, but by my understanding of the world (any world, not just THEDAS) you would have been thrown in a dungeon, and taken out simply to close the rifts. And when you calim Skyhold, and Cassandra sais, “the inquistion needs a leader, and it’s THE ONE WHO HAS BEEN LEADING IT ALL THIS TIME,” i actually freaking facepalmed.

    1. Fair enough, it’s actually been a couple years since I replayed it last, so yeah Loghain might still be a total dick. I was just throwing it out there.

      Yeah, the inquisition is definitely a huge hole in its own story. Very little explanation as to how its formed, and it seems like its fully formed right from the start. It also didn’t act much like an inquisition, more like its own kingdom, which just seemed weird.

      And yeah, that line would have been the worst in the game if not for the “This ends here!” line from the final battle.

  6. I think DA:I is quite bad to be honest. Corypheus is a phony who just talks the entire game and doesn’t deal a single significant blow to you. He doesn’t feel scary at all and the entire game hes losing more and more and its hard for me to imagine him as a powerful being at all. Combine that with the horrible controls and the game leaves me with much more to be desired.,.

    Honestly i loved DA2 despite the massive hate against it, the gameplay was much better and the skills and story were way more fun and if they;’d remake DA2 with huge world like this here it would be much better instead.. I think the story of dA:I is too short and if you just rush the main quests you can do it too quick because you’re not even forced to fight all the dragons and do all teh cool side stuff.. and you should be. If you have so much content might as well force people to go around..

  7. I also think Loghain’s justification that he retreated for the common good is just an excuse he used for propaghanda. Fact is, he actively tried to frame the wardens, allied himself with a sadistic power-mad noble, sold citizens (elves) into slavery, poisoned the only real threat to his controlling the throne (I assume that he thought Alistair died at ostagar because honestly a bastard son of the former king should have been near the top of his list of potential rivals for the throne to dispatch. In fact Zevran being hired to take out Alistair and secondarily any Grey Wardens would have made more sense than him being hired specifically for your character) but I digress.

    I did like DA:I but reading your articles I absolutely agree on a lot of your criticism. As some of your other commenters (granted they were responses to your other DAI articles) pointed out most likely DA:I was never envisioned to be the end of the series (unlike Me3 where one of the things that stung so bad about the ending was that it was the final act of the series – it could never be redeemed). And the game does leave a lot of room for expansion – like I want to know more about these seekers (the introduction of cassandra in DA:II doesn’t really give you a full explanation and the conspriacy she hints at in the birth of the order, templars etc is enticing) or what tie in will Solas has as the dread wolf and just exactly what is flemeth – andraste, mythal, abomination – all three?

    Like I did when Me3 came out, after playing the 3rd game in the DA series, I’m going back and replaying it all in order back to back (because the time in between game releases means I forget details) to see the progression better. I’m almost done wtih my replay of DA:2 (which I was so disappointed with when it first came out – it felt so rushed – like it was just trying to ride the coat tails of DA:O) and I must say I’ve got a new perspective on it. The gameplay may not be anything stunning but the characters are remarkably well-developed – maybe the best developed in the series.

    But back to Corypheous – I disagree with you in that I actually think he made a decent big bad in and of himself and that there really was no need to go looking for something bigger. Corypheous had a lot of possibilities for character exploration (especially within the dragon age mythical universe) but I do agree with you that instead all we got was a 2 dimensional villain. (I get the sense that between him and the architect – what the darkspawn actually are is a greater mystery that could be more throughly explored – including their connection to the fade). You have to remember that fear was a demon and that as a demon he was essentially a reflection of the world of humanoids and not really anything more. Some of the codexes (I can’t remember if the codex was in DA:I) pretty much said the spirits of the fade (and the fade) were the creator’s first children and all they could do was reflect not create so the creator cast them out (and into the fade), presumbly because they were boring, where they roamed the dreams of people mimicing the emotions, thoughts, and places in their dreams trying to get back into the creator’s good graces. A demon would have to meld with a person (as an abomination) to really affect anything in the real world. Maybe if they had designed Corypheous to look like Fear instead – that would satisfy your need (you seem to like fear’s character design quite a bit)? (BTW – I’m severly paraphrasing the jist of the codexes – I also realize that puts cole at odds with dragon age’s “natural laws”).

    One thing I wondered – DA:I, you are sitting here in an already established nation state amassing supporters and an army and the nation state has no problems with that? Basically you are setting up a rival government (with judicial powers) that supercedes the theological power structure and is steadily amassing forces which rival the secular power within an already established nation and the King (or queen or both depending on your world-state) is cool with it. That doesn’t make sense. I mean I get why the chantry is allowing it because the explosion pretty much gutted it so it lacked the power required to really quell the inquisition – but hello Ferelden – you only expelled foreign occupation 40 years ago and you are allowing a rival power (with very close ties to your former occupiers) to flourish right under your nose. Seems the politics of such an endeavor would be a lot more perilous (instead in my playthrough with Alistair as King – he was just like “hey all – how is it going – where is the cheese and hey can I get you to do me a teensy weensy little favor at your war table” not “why the hell do you think you can barge into my nation and just start willy nilly setting up your own government”).

    1. It’s been a while since I played Origins, but I still felt Loghain at least had believable motives. Obviously he was still the bad guy, I’m just saying I could see where he was coming from. And Corypheus totally could have been a good villain, Bioware just ended up wasting him completely. And your explanation of the Fade demons and spirits just makes me angrier that Bioware totally wasted such a grand opportunity for an amazing villain. I think I latched onto the Fear Demon because he wasn’t really well explained in the game, so he was a blank slate that I could project my ideal villain onto. Corpyheus was driven into the ground by Bioware’s poor characterization.

  8. Well, Ea games tends to continue the story of a new game within a franchise from the ending of the dlc from the previous game, which i still consider it a dick move. Story wise i did enjoy Da2, Dao was way better but 2 was still enjoyable. Now, getting to the inquisition…several points i would point out: To much filler missions, tends to get boring after a while of gameplay, to little class specializations, and the plot always seemed to me as they would do it with the intention to undermine Dao and Da2 main character’s, don’t know how to put it exacly but to put it blunt it would be something like: “The inquisitor is the shit, all the rest are worthless.”

  9. I agree with your points on Corypheus. He was pretty bland for a main bad guy. Not to mention, after the scene with Hawke talking about how he/she killed Corypheus, I was left dumbfounded. Having not played any DLC for DA2, I had no idea who Corypheus was, let alone that he had battled my Hawke at some point. I definitely think it’s a bad move on EA’s part to make the main villain for a new game a character from previous DLC.

    *Spoilers for those who haven’t beaten DA:I*
    That being said, I would argue that Solas is the actual villain in DA:I – and a pretty good one at that. He lies to you throughout the entire game, potentially even lying to someone he loves (if you romance him). Solas gave Corypheus the power he wields. Solas KNOWS he gave Corypheus that power. It eats him up inside (as seen at the end of the game). Not to mention, he’s the Dread Wolf – something brought up multiple times in the past when talking to elves – a creature that is feared. He’s a very complex bad guy, showing a range of emotions after realizing what he’s done. So, while Corypheus is the “main villain” in that you’re fighting him throughout the game, he’s not exactly the mastermind, in my opinion. Solas is.

  10. “It’s nothing short of a miracle that Corypheus didn’t get himself killed in one of his botched plans.”

    He did. Twice, no less! Once at the Conclave, and once in the Arbor Wilds. Literally the start of the game is him getting himself killed in one of his botched plans. The only reason he’s any sort of a threat at all is because he has that resurrection trick.

    And I agree on who the real villain of the game should have been. It would have made the choice at the end of that arc far more significant. As it stands it just feels rushed, like two separate villain characters were mashed together into Corypheus. The big nebulous enemy (Archdemon, Reapers) that you beat on until it falls over as the final hurdle of the game, and the more personal villain that fights the player on a personal level rather than a plot level (Loghain, Saren). The two don’t really mix, and to be honest, Corypheus doesn’t measure up to any of the villains mentioned above. You know who he reminds me of? Arl Howe. Someone who gets maybe one or two minor victories, thinks he’s a far bigger threat than he actually is as a result, and then is unceremoniously killed.

  11. I think, you’re missing the point of Corypheus. I agree they could have done a way better job! (Seriously, they should have played on his spiritual aspect and his lost faith. I realize they probably didn’t because it would have been offensive… but they have a BDSM relationship in this. Come an EA). But Corypheus wasn’t the main villain. He was just a puppet for…

    *SPOILER*
    Solas. Solas is the true instigator of this whole game. He’s the one who gave Corypheus the Orb in the assumption that the other would fail (He assumed Corypheus would die in unlocking it). But that failure on his part causes Solas to join up with the Inquisition. He manipulates the Inquisition and Corypheus both. That’s the reason Corypheus fails so terribly through the game.
    And in the end because Corypheus looses, the real antagonist gains a huge amount of power and becomes a worse threat than the ancient Tevinter.

    But that’s my own opinion, and I could be wrong.

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