REVIEW - DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION
(originally published November, 2014)
Dragon Age: Inquisition expects a lot from the player behind the controller. This is not a next generation series installment that has been rebuilt from the ground up to welcome new players to the world of Dragon Age. Part of the appeal of the Dragon Age series is that it attempts to put the player in the middle of a living, breathing high fantasy world, complete with upheaval, turmoil and a persistent history. Dragon Age: Inquisition jumps feet first into the subject matter and themes of this particular outing without much in the way of explanation.
On the start menu screen, two lines of soldiers – one column of staff-bearing wizards, the other shield-bearing soldiers – march through a beautiful snowy landscape toward a castle far off in the distance. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that as soon as you start a new game, the scene erupts in a deadly act of terrorism and it’s off to the races. Even though I’ve played both of the major releases before this one, it has been three years and I could not remember for the life of me what was transpiring in this opening, which becomes the motivating force for the entire rest of the game. Luckily, Wikipedia had my back and reminded me that the Mages and Templars have been engaged in a brutal war in need of resolution.
From the smoldering remains of a disastrous peace summit, the player’s customized character emerges miraculously unscathed. Since you are the only survivor of the mysterious attack, the authorities are suspicious, especially since it seems you’ve acquired some magical power to close and open demonic portals at will. I can certainly understand their concern. In the wake of the attack, a massive rift has opened over the land of Thedas, and as demons pour forth from an alternate dimension, a counterattack is launched to stop the invasion of darkness that is quickly spreading across the world.
After proving yourself worthy and capable, you are appointed as the leader of the Inquisition (naturally): a far-reaching, independent campaign to uncover who was behind the attack and why they are enabling the demon invasion.
Aiding you in your quest is a cast of warriors, mages and diplomats, who through a seemingly endless array of dialogue and combat encounters, can become either your most trusted allies or despised enemies. The game provides you with a small band of adventurers to start, but as you progress, characters will join the Inquisition’s cause for a variety of reasons both personal and practical. Meeting and convincing these characters to become your allies is one of the most important and rewarding things in the game. As the herald of the Inquisition, you have the ability to conduct war councils and launch diplomatic, reconnaissance or military missions, all in an effort to expand the reach and power of the Inquisition. There are rival factions to contend with, threats to assess and address and alliances to forge, enabling the player to truly shape the course of the beleaguered land of Thedas to their will.
As the game progresses, the Inquisition engages in battles with a multitude of enemies, and as the herald, you command a squad of allies in the heat of combat to slash, shoot and cast their way to victory. Combat comes in three flavors, one of which will define your character: there are the melee-focused warriors, the magic-wielding mages and stealthy rogues. Each of the roles and characters that fill them is distinct and capable of further customization depending on your particular preferences. Upon defeating enemies, loot and experience are acquired, further increasing your Inquisition’s capabilities.
By completing even the most seemingly innocuous quest, word of your achievement spreads and thereby increases your Inquisition’s in-world power as well. I found this new variation on the classic quest formula to be very refreshing, as it adds a degree of purpose to your efforts beyond simply performing tasks because the game says you should. I felt like I actually wanted to go on side quests in order to see who I could possibly recruit as a result, and in what ways my influence could expand.
In case it wasn’t clear from all of the above: Dragon Age: Inquisition is a massive game. And its this sheer breadth and depth of content that is one of the game’s most impressive features. The world of Thedas feels genuinely alive. I know there are a lot of games that purport to that kind of robustness, but in this case I found it to be true. Areas open for exploration are enormous, varied, and steeped in lore and life. People from literally every strata of society are interesting and often defy the genre stereotypes. Songs and poems and books and journals and letters and basically any kind of means of communication are all crafted with the utmost care to not just add to the immersion, but to add to the meaning of the game’s proceedings. BioWare has always been a developer with something to say about humanity and the ways in which we do harm to one another, and all of the scraps of information and culture uncovered throughout Dragon Age: Inquisition help flesh out that thematic exploration.
From a technical standpoint, Dragon Age: Inquisition is generally capable, but does leave something to be desired. Environments are very well-rendered and well-lit and are in truth one of the highlights of the game. The various locations to which the game takes you are sometimes breathtaking. Sprawling cities hum with life, desolate mountains are berated with snowy winds, death-ridden swamps feel disgusting just to look at, just to name a few. One of the most memorable scores in recent gaming adds a sense of gravitas and wonder whenever I was traversing a new area or descending into a dank dungeon. The first time I actually encountered a dragon, the orchestral movement was so moving and complimentary to the moment that I just stopped and listened.
But like many of BioWare’s games before this one, the characters are not always of the highest quality. The graphics – at least on the PlayStation 4 retail copy – were not as impressive as I had hoped, especially compared to other titles. While textures and designs were excellent, the models of the humanoid characters were often stiff, lifeless, or awkward. Though they looked fine in motion despite some oddly choppy animations, I found myself laughing out loud on more than a few occasions during a dramatic conversation or scene where I would notice a couple of my allies standing in the background watching without expression and their arms straight down at their sides, seemingly uninterested.
Moreover, characters and the items they carry are often clipping into one another in distracting collisions. Normally this wouldn’t be a major issue, but because you spend so much time in unskippable dialogue exchanges, it becomes annoying seeing again and again how my character’s arms are intersecting her sword and armor. And though this is a minor quibble, it was strange to me that a game with such pedigree and capability in other aspects would come up short in such an obvious manner.
To be fair, BioWare has never been renowned for this kind of thing, and I can say that what really counts in most cases are the facial expressions and voice acting, which are—without a doubt—excellent in every capacity. Dragon Age: Inquisition features some of the studio’s most impressive dialogue options. The disrupted world they’ve created in this game is filled to the brim with intrigue and politics; very few conversation options given (and there are tons available depending on the context) are black and white in the decisions afforded. As a result, the voice acting and expressions are more nuanced than ever before and this was a very intriguing aspect of gameplay to negotiate. I often found myself watching a character more closely than I ever had in the past in order to determine just what would be the best response, as I would in real life.
In addition, the menu user interface in which you spend a chunk of your time can be confusing to navigate, especially with regards to assigning, buying and selling equipment. Long lists are presented without any particularly good way of seeing the big picture of what you have at your disposal, and I’ll assert it here that whatever one thinks of Destiny, every major developer could learn from the way Bungie handled its equipment menu in that game.
Given the size of the game, I would have been absolutely floored if Dragon Age: Inquisition was devoid of bugs, but I feel I should mention there are a few. As I’ve heard reported elsewhere, the game did crash a couple of times during my time with it. There were moments when something had gone wrong with character management and I was unable to switch characters, even to interact with character-specific elements, requiring a quit and restart. Occasionally a random character or creature would flicker in and out of conversations and the character management screen would fail to load models, items and whatnot.
None of the issues were game-breaking and in a game so complex relatively small problems like these are nothing that would ever ruin my overall experience. They will all undoubtedly be patched at some point in the near future.
With that, I’ll conclude that although there is an almost overwhelming amount to see and do in the world of Thedas, I cannot imagine myself abandoning the Inquisition any time soon. The game can be demanding of your time and attention, but given enough time, it grabs you and never let’s go. In each aspect of the game except for a very few, it’s clear BioWare has put a great deal of love and care into Dragon Age: Inquisition. Fans of the genre will not be disappointed and I can’t wait to see where this series goes next.