Reviewing Dragon Age: Inquisition
In a lot of ways, Dragon Age: Inquisition was Bioware’s second chance at making Mass Effect 3. Both games task you with uniting the world/galaxy to combat a common threat, and both games are the third entry in series packed to the gills with history and player choices. The problem is that a whole lot of people hated Mass Effect 3. Its ending, as well as other elements of its design, alienated or at least disappointed many series fans, especially considering that Mass Effect 2 was so acclaimed that comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back were made. Dragon Age: Inquisition was Bioware’s opportunity to show they still had what it takes to put out a high quality AAA release. And they mostly succeeded.
[No Spoilers Ahead]
[Please Note: This review only covers the single-player component of the game.]
Low Expectations Are a Virtue
One thing Inquisition had going for it from the beginning was low expectations. To many people–myself included–Dragon Age 2 was a terrible disappointment of a game, the absolute antithesis of Mass Effect 2. It took the expansive landscape of Dragon Age: Origin and shrunk it down to a single city, where you had to complete dozens of quests in the same handful of dungeons for about 40 hours until the game mercifully rolled the credits. The brilliantly complex, albeit slow and clunky, combat from Origin was replaced by fast, style-over-substance action. Origin‘s meticulously crafted, comprehensive narrative was discarded in favor of episodic storytelling, where connections between episodes were largely superficial and never culminated in anything satisfying. To generalize, if Dragon Age: Origin was filet mignon at a five-star restaurant, Dragon Age 2 was half an expired Big Mac that someone ran over with a bus.*
If Dragon Age: Inquisition managed to even be one complete Big Mac, it was already going to be better than DA2. But Inquisition does much better than that. It brings back and even doubles the expansive world from Origin; the combat is flashy while maintaining an acceptable level of strategy; the story even stays single-mindedly focused on one grandiose conflict that must be solved. There are caveats to each of these compliments, of course, so let’s break it down point by point.
Trees, Trees and Elfroot Everywhere
Inquisition takes place across two very big nations, Ferelden and Orlais. While the game is not truly open-world–all the gameplay takes place on closed maps–every area is so big that it will take many hours to see everything in it. A few isolated dungeon maps aside, you are going to be spending most of the game hiking through forests and mountains, whether on foot or riding a loyal beast, with a couple deserts thrown in for a little variety. I have to give Bioware credit for making these maps look like completely convincing landscapes you could find in the real world. I also have to curse them for making them so convincing.
The truth is, much like in the real world, a big chunk of the land isn’t used for anything. There are big tracts of land that exist solely for you to traverse them. You can collect Elfroot, or Iron, or Silverite, or a couple dozen other materials from the landscape that can be used in item crafting, but that’s the most you’ll get out of these rolling hills. Only about 20 percent of the landmass will actually be used to fight, or talk to people, or collect and complete quests. Thankfully, there are a generous number of points in the game between which you can quick travel (You can hop from a desert camp back to your home base in a matter of seconds, and vice versa.), but first you have to reach all those places in the first place, through hours and hours of wandering.
To give you an idea of how big this game is, it took me over 95 hours to finish one playthrough. I at least fully explored every map except the Hissing Wastes, and in the interest of time, I skipped reading the vast majority of the world-building Codex entries. That means just glancing at the whole game world requires almost 100 hours of your time, if you make an honest effort to do the majority of the quests. And the truth is the majority of the quests are either “Kill this guy, because he butchered my family and it bothers me” or “Please deliver this trinket to my friend’s grave, because I have a hair appointment and you’re not busy.” You’ll resolve most quests just by casually exploring, or by hopping briefly between a few Navigation Points to acquire an item. The only really meaty questing occurs in self-contained main story missions, of which there are surprisingly few missions.
But the somewhat flimsy sidequests never really felt like busywork to me. Nobody was forcing me to complete all those quests; I decided to be a sucker entirely of my own volition. It’s hard to fault Bioware for trying to fill up their giant empty landscapes with at least something. And besides, completing quests big and small provides you with new power and influence to grow the size of your Inquisition forces, so in that contrived manner, even fetch quests fit into the bigger picture.
I played the game on PlayStation 4, and the graphics were pretty good all-around. They never blew my mind, but the draw distance was impressive at least. Cloth textures and skin complexions all came across pretty nicely too, but the game had some of the laziest, almost non-existent water effects that I’ve seen in a long time. Like with most things regarding Bioware, it’s hit and miss.
I Am the Herald, I Am the Inquisitor
Inquisition begins with a literal bang, and that bang serves as the source of conflict for the entire game, start to finish. You, as the alleged Herald of Andraste or the Inquisitor, are tasked with figuring out why this big bang occurred, why the bang has caused tears in reality to open, and who is responsible for the mess. If the aforementioned tears are not sealed, they will let in hordes of demons from a plain of spirits, and the world will be destroyed. Luckily, it just so happens that you alone have the power to seal these tears, though you don’t know why. As Herald/Inquisitor, you need to recruit rival factions and even rival nations to your cause in order to help you seal the rifts.
And that’s the whole story. No strange segues, no big chunks of plot that are introduced and immediately forgotten. Nope, this game has one story to tell, and it tells it. About one-third of the way into the game, you find out who the true villain is, and your focus shifts to stopping him. I’ve seen a lot of people criticize him for being a lame villain, but I disagree. I think he’s a very menacing figure with an extremely interesting (but ultimately ambiguous) backstory, and my only complaint is that you never get to see enough of him.
Equally importantly, the supporting cast of playable characters in this game is mostly excellent. Every character has their own personal missions you can complete in order to learn more about them and further their individual goals as people. By the end of the game, most of the characters will have grown a great deal, some even in surprising directions. I used the same party with rare exception for all my fighting though; a tank, a rogue for locks, and two mages was the only formula that ever made sense to me.
Speaking of which, your player character can also be a variety of races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Qunari) of any class (Warrior, Rogue, Mage, with specializations later), man or woman, and the story will adapt to those choices. I was a male Qunari Mage, which basically meant everybody on the planet was prejudiced against me in the beginning. It was a really great touch, on top of countless others, to show how much care Bioware took with crafting a story perfectly attuned to your choices (unlike in Mass Effect 3).
All in all, the story really doesn’t throw very many curve balls at you, except for near the end. In this particular case, I didn’t mind it, perhaps because of the aforementioned Low Expectations above. If anything, it was refreshing to play a plot-heavy game that didn’t actively try to pull the rug out from under you the way BioShock Infinite and its ilk would. There’s nothing wrong with a game that has a tidy ending.
Die, Venatori Scum
Combat in Inquisition is full of pros and cons. Amongst the pros, you can make the combat as fast or slow as you want, pausing the gameplay to micromanage the battle. You are also provided enough characters that you can specialize at least one character in every possible variety of directions. If you want to try out combat with four Rogues, you can. The crafting system, while entirely optional, allows you to create and name your own custom equipment too. This game gives you the freedom to build exactly the party you want.
It’s too bad your enemies aren’t nearly as varied. You’ll fight wolves, bears, bandits, rogue Templars, cultist mages, an average of six types of demon, and that’s about it. Frankly, it gets old. Sealing rifts especially gets old, because they are everywhere, they always require you to fight through two waves of demons, and again–there’s usually only six types of demon. And in the early worlds, you only see maybe four of those types.
Plus, if you go out of your way to complete as many sidequests as you possibly can on a given map, you will inevitably end up overleveled when you return to the main story quests. I was something like Level 10 for a story quest that demanded Level 4, and the quest ended up not even having combat. Even the final battle was a disappointing breeze, especially compared to the optional dragon boss fights.
Your first one or two dragon fights can be pretty thrilling experiences. By the third or fourth, you realize these fights are mostly all the same, and slaying them truly is busywork, so I couldn’t be bothered to finish them. I may not have a life, but I still have my pride.
One critical (but still manageable, at least on Normal difficulty) problem with the combat is its extreme bugginess. Perhaps a patch will fix this, but throughout the whole game, there would be times I would input a command for myself or others that would then be immediately ignored. I got so used to ignored commands that re-inputting commands became second nature. Additionally, the targeting reticule on AoE magic would occasionally disappear, and I had to cancel out of the menu, waste a precious second of combat time, and then go back into the menu to get the targeting reticule back.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg! Bioware is infamous for its ability to shoehorn dozens of bugs into a game that you would never see in a game made by any other publisher of their caliber, and Dragon Age: Inquisition is the buggiest of them all, in my experience.
A Quick List of Every Bug I Encountered in Inquisition
- The game crashed on me 6 times in one playthrough, via an error message displayed on my PlayStation 4.
- My ability to talk to NPCs ceased at one point, and when I was finally able to initiate a dialogue with an NPC, no dialogue options for me to select appeared on screen when I was prompted. Thus, the game could not continue.
- A new area loaded, but the Map menu stayed displayed on the screen over top everything else, rendering it impossible to continue playing the game.
- When you fall off a cliff, the game respawns you nearby in a safe spot. Except for one time, where it decided to respawn me in the exact spot where I fell. Thus, I was trapped in an infinite falling loop, rendering it impossible to continue playing the game. It even Autosaved while I was stuck in the infinite loop!
- On two occasions, the buttons to switch between characters ceased functioning. The only way to rectify this was to Load a Save.
- Audio cutting out was rampant, in and out of combat. Opening and closing a menu would rectify it.
- An NPC seemingly vanished after combat once, so I had to leave and return in order for the NPC to appear normally.
- Dialogue with one particular character would cause the game to pause, unless I manually hit a button to continue the scene. Once, I was forced to sit and wait for 40 seconds until the dialogue decided to continue.
- If you happen to be moving a certain way when you initiate a dialogue, your character will become locked in a shuffle/moonwalk during and after the dialogue. This glitch is merely hilarious instead of harmful, and can be fixed by jumping.
- The ignored combat commands and vanishing AoE magic reticule mentioned above.
I’ve almost definitely forgotten to address a few more glitches, but that’s okay, because Bioware has too. *zing* But in the interest of fairness, I have heard reports even among PlayStation 4 users that they have encountered no glitches. I find this utterly incredible, but it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t make note of it.
Brighter Days Ahead
Dragon Age: Inquisition is far from a perfect game, but man, it tries. It tries so hard. Playing this game, I could just taste how badly Bioware wanted to make up for Dragon Age 2, and how badly they wanted to show they could make player choice matter again after Mass Effect 3. But even when you factor out my Low Expectations, Inquisition is still a very high-quality game. Yes, the game is a bug-ridden mess (for now). Yes, the combat gets repetitive. Yes, you spend a lot of time hoping adventure is just over the hill instead of knowing it.
And you know what? I still think Origin is the superior game, easily. I frankly can’t even imagine a Western RPG I could enjoy more than that, though I honestly haven’t played very many. But at the end of the day, I just plain had fun with Inquisition, a heck of a lot of fun. If I want to be jaded about having fun, then why should I even play video games anymore?
*Although I speak very harshly of Dragon Age 2 now, the truth is I was as hopelessly and massively addicted to that game when it released as I was to Origin and Inquisition. It was enjoyable, but in a very mindless sort of way, like popping bubble wrap.