This is not a review. Or it is, maybe. Having spent a hundred plus hours in Dragon Age: Inquisition, there’s no way to sum up that experience into an 8 minute read appropriately. Might as well try to condense the works of Margaret Atwood or explain why people have been playing World of Warcraft for 10 years. It’s probably sacrilege to even compare those two, but come on, we’re talking meaty creations, deeply complex and extensively worked on universes. The Dragon Age series, as well, has built itself in a similar fashion, but Inquisition takes it up to a new level.
The introduction of multiple open environments, large and extensive, filled with tasks to do and enemies to tackle. A diverse cast of characters with their own goals, ideas and abilities, and the choices you can make all shape your experience. The world having been built upon the Tolkien tropes and Game of Thrones violence and intrigue, yet defining its own ideas, using them to illustrate the issues of sexuality, race, morality, class, terrorism, government power and almost every modern talking point you could probably imagine.
So sure, I’ll try to sum it up and give some sense of the game. No pressure, eh? No biggie.
The Bioware nut that I am, I was squealing for the first new gen-game from the Edmonton branch (the original Bioware studio). It looked beautiful and from descriptions was sounding like a classic, whilst still pushing the boundaries more, evolving, revising each facet of the game to bring something that feels fresh. In many ways Dragon Age has become the Final Fantasy of western roleplaying games. Each new instalments revolves around a new team of heroes, new gameplay elements, yet still use the same world, sticking to its roots as a fantasy, action-strategy game (and dragons, would you believe). That’s equally good and bad, and if nothing else, a consistently respectable design choice. It enables players to pick up from whatever point and be caught up in the basics of the world, a great way to jump in for newcomers. Yet that results in the series not feeling as personal. Bioware’s other big franchise, Mass Effect, keeps you as a singular character, Commander Shepherd, from the first game till third. Focusing on Shepherd’s story, compounded over several separate adventures, allows the player to build an attachment and consistent view of the world. Meanwhile, Dragon Age feels disjointed at times, separating protagonists in a way that keeps you distant from becoming attached to them and changing how you experience the world. It’s also positively grander for it, delving into aspects and roles of the world that a linear, single character perspective cannot give you. Regardless, the central objective of any Bioware game is to tell a good story. And boy do they deliver big.
As soon as the Main Menu screen loads, the story is being told. It shows marching Mages and trampling Templars, two major factions heading to the Conclave to conduct negotiations so the war between them can be ended. It’s instantly impactful, the fluidity of the storytelling shows a great harmony between narrative and game design. For fans who know of the Mage-Templar War, it intrigues them to know why the groups are together. For newbies, the never ending line of these two striking forces shows them coming together for some major reason. Starting a new game, a short cutscene plays, where all hell breaks loose for both sides. You then choose your character’s race, class, appearance, and soon enough the game begins proper as you stumble out of ‘all hell breaking loose’. It’s quick, getting you straight into the play with minimal faffing about. Such a minor piece of design, but it changes the fundamental way of getting players into the action and story with minimal set up, and maximum exposition. All on the Main Menu. Such a rare consideration of developers is to use all aspects of their game, which is why Inquisition, straight away, impressed me. It didn’t always sustain that though.
Which leads me haphazardly into the characters. I was actually a bit worried before launch whether I’d even enjoy the teammates I’d be hanging around with for a couple weeks of my life. All the new guys seemed generic. Know-it-all mage, spirit assassin, religious knight, characters I’d expect a really boring Dungeons and Dragons campaign to have. But just like the use of other Tolkien elements, the unique direction taken by the writers justifies their depths than first appears. Even those who I hated, like Sera (basically a deviant child from an internet forum), were well-made and distinct, so layered and convincingly real. Which makes me think of the lovely Dorian. Because of his fleshed out character, I couldn’t help but… sizzle his pork sword. Dab his dongle? Pick his prick? That is to say, I pursued a male homosexual relationship with him. None of the women really compared. Josephine was appealing, but the high-society and politics shtick just didn’t entice me. In the end though, I’m not ashamed to have ‘gone gay’ for Dorian. How could I not, have you seen that moustache? Which is some kind of magic that the writers have, to make me pursue a character I would never would typically, because they were so well realised that I could feel more connected to him. The snooty, almost elitist side of Dorian conflicting with his compassion made him more vivid, both wanting to be pampered yet offset with his goal to abolish slavery in his home country. He was flawed, conflicted, trying to be patriotic despite all the evil he knew it represented. And his character become more revealing as the friendship, and then relationship, developed. Though with more naked bum polygons than I was use to. Not complaining. It was a nice bum on a great character.
It was because of this (not the bum) that I was so disappointed by lack of a built up main villain, especially compared to previous instalments. Loghain, from Origins, is still the right layer of baddie who can be anything from a usurping tyrant to an anti-hero depending on the relationship players have with him. Even the ideological stalwartness of the Arishok from DAII, with his imposing rhetoric and appearance of ultimate power made him memorably scary. Inquisition seems to be aiming for a mix of both, though fails to hit either. The beginning of the game leaves a vivid villain absent, and when they finally do appear, they’re not very substantial. Barely characterised, rarely present and a bit cartoony in their “I will rule the world!” sort of way. Disappointing, mainly, and easily avoidable considering the past successes.
These problems may not have seemed so apparent if it wasn’t for the monumental length of the game, leading to a double-edged outcome. By spending so much time in Inquisition, delving into the world, you’ll be learning about it, remembering the paths you’ve explored and growing with the characters. But the faults become quite glaring, as well. The dialogue bugs, repetitive mission design, time-intensive inventory, the annoyingly large base you have to trek around just to talk to your team. The most frustrating of all features has to be the War Table. Using a map of the world, you choose where to send members of the Inquisition to take on non-priority missions, which give you rewards and can open up further quests. It tries to involve you by choosing ways to make your Inquisition feel like a greater part of the divided DA world. But the crux of it is that all the missions pass in real time, meaning some take up to 48 hours or more just to finish, giving mostly measly rewards for it. Having been set up to believe my decisions as the leader of this massive Inquisition would bring some weight, none of the War Table stuff did. You’d think a mission like contacting your hero from the first game, or helping rebuild the city from the second would be more impactful. Nope. Here’s that fire resistance belt you already have and a letter that feels like generalised spam e-mails. It’s just not satisfying.
In all ways it feels as if the War Table was intended to be a mobile game, like those companion apps, that allow players to assign your troops through, whenever, wherever. Instead, I periodically turned on my console just to send my guys on missions so they could be done as quickly as possible. It stopped me from finishing the main story for a few days just in case something major happened, or I’d miss out on a crucial reward. But it never mattered. Really, the War Table represents the various, sometimes counterproductive, design choices that Inquisition has borrowed from other genres with varying success, like the MMO fetch quests and Skyrim proportioned environments. This casual/mobile game mechanic is famously used to extend short or hollow experiences that makes you want to keep coming back to finish. But why extend a massive game by using a timer, especially when it’s filled to the brim with activities already? It put me off. I didn’t feel like a leader, but a time management consultant for the Shadow Cabinet’s staff during the prime ministerial elections. “How can we make this week efficient, team?” it asks me. Look I came here to feel like ‘the Chosen One’, a Gandalf or Aragon, not adjust my daily routine to make sure I log on for that that extra bit of gold from the dwarves, let’s get some momentum going here.
It should have learned that pacing from the multiplayer, a very excellent new feature to the series that gives you quick, satisfying thrills. It melds the action and strategy-lite elements from the main game, and puts a team of four through a short, randomly generated gauntlet. It’s just great, very Mass Effect 3 with a Dragon Age template, including its simple yet deep system. As is typical when playing with friends, if you plan and work in sync, enemies will be no real trouble. But even without them you can just go hacking away with strangers, sometimes achieving similar amounts of success. Warriors can be effective tanks, rogues deal the real damage up close or at range, whilst mages can soften up or debilitate enemies. You can have a team of just warriors, or mages, or a combo, whatever, the ease of access helps to simply put you in a game and the action. It’s nice to just get a feel for the multiple classes, whilst promoting teamwork and new ways to play, much like an MMO raid but without the extensive investment you’d have to put in. If the debate about games attaching unneeded multiplayer rises, Inquisition is where to point and say “no”. Fast, enjoyable, and doesn’t try to impose itself as anything more than a bit of fun. The chips next to the steak, in a way. But is that a fundamental issue with the game? In its scale to include as much as it can, does it disrupt the cohesiveness?
The bigger a game is, the longer you stay with it, the more cracks appear. It’s hard sustaining a good buzz for a long time, it’s why a number of indie games, with their short and sweet formula, are praised. But that just makes Inquisition even more admirable to me. There’s something beautiful in a campaign that can keep me going on 90 hours, even with its faults, and then make me really want to restart the game as a new character with different abilities and see how my teammates and the general populace of DA would react to my different choices, to a different me. That’s powerful, to compel a player want to dive back in after a cumulative four full days of their life has already been lovingly lost to it. Just do it all again. No game’s perfect, but they can all be compelling. Inquisition definitely left an impression on me despite the qualms.
So what comes next for the series, or even just Bioware? I can’t imagine possibly going ‘backwards’ with the large open environments. I want the Mass Effect planets to with bases, caves over massive open areas that you can venture into as in Inquisition. I also want the world of Dragon Age to grow further, letting me explore the northern jungles of Seheron, the mage-controlled Tevinter Imperium, or even just let me revisit Denerim and see how things have changed after the constant wars it’s dealt with. The potential that’s still yet to be met. Dragon Age has so much more to show and I cannot wait for another chance to group up with some amazing characters and take down more baddies. In the meantime, maybe just one more playthrough will sate me.
Take this from my writing, if nothing else.
Bringing down a mother-flippin-fiery-dragon is amazing each time.