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Review – Dragon Age: Inquisition

Eighty hours, give or take. That’s how long I spent playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. The first twenty or so of those were spread out over the course of about two weeks: an odd hour here and there, maybe four or five if I was particularly in the mood for it, but never consistently, and rarely were any of them all that enjoyable. Then, something strange happened. The main villain tipped his hand, the titular Inquisition became a real, tangible entity rather than just something people kept telling me I was a part of, and I spent the next sixty hours sat in front of the television, only occasionally breaking away for hasty meals and restless, dragon-disturbed daydreams.

Only in relation to video games could one possibly utter the phrase, “It gets good after the first twenty hours”. It’s true, though. Dragon Age: Inquisition really doesn’t come into its own until at least a third of the way through the story quests, and in typical BioWare fashion, getting even that far is a significant time investment. If, like me, you’re one of those hopeless losers who has to scour every inch of the map, complete all the available sidequests and read every single Codex entry, you’re potentially looking at almost a full day of your life (if not longer) spent filling in what amounts to little more than a glorified checklist.

And it’s intimidating. This is a terrifyingly huge game, both in terms of explorable real estate and how rapidly your journal fills up with things to collect, kill or claim. It feels almost like a middle finger raised in defiance of the widely-reviled Dragon Age 2, which reused the same handful of uninteresting environments over and over (and over) again throughout its story; Inquisition is instead absolutely bursting with ambition and scale, so much so that the early game can feel somewhat overripe with potential.

The Hinterlands, for example, the first area you have access to (and one of the largest), is a lush, sprawling countryside teeming with wildlife, farms, settlements, a village, bandits, abandoned temples, Dwarven ruins, rivers, waterfalls, caves, mountains, even a dragon. This is all immediately accessible, and it’s just one area; there are many more throughout the game, along with several major interiors and smaller, more linear environments which are specific to certain quests. The world isn’t fully open, of course – the significant areas are all segmented, connected as usual by a world map, but they’re all terrifically diverse, rich in personality, and individually enormous. Which is by far the game’s grandest achievement, yet also the source of its most pernicious problems.

See, if I stand atop a mountain on the coast, I can see for miles. There are storm-lashed waves breaking against rocks on the shore; a distant island squatting across the water, wrapped in shadow; further along the coastline, a lumbering giant is doing battle with a high dragon, pulling boulders from the earth and hurling them through the air. Everything I can see, I can reach. If I pull up the map it is initially foggy and indistinct, but as I walk around and explore it fills up with landmarks. After a while, it is as littered with icons as any Ubisoft sandbox game. But only a small percentage of those icons represent truly meaningful content.

Of course almost everything you do slots somewhere into the increasingly-convoluted Dragon Age lore, or at the very least is briefly contextualised. Refugees need food, for instance, but they can’t go out and hunt because highwaymen are plaguing the roads. So you descend on the nearby bandit camp, and then nip into the woods to slaughter the local wildlife and collect an arbitrarily-defined amount of meat. That isn’t meaningful, though – it’s busywork. And there’s an awful lot of it: collectible hunts which span the entire continent; countless scattered journals and letters (the vague information in which our hero is always compelled to act upon); camps to establish; rifts to close; and people who expect you to help them for no better reason than the steady drip-feed of XP you’ll get for doing so. Eventually, when the stakes are properly established, this stuff gives way to more traditional world-saving tomfoolery, side quests which spiral out of your investigations across the globe, and personal expeditions for your companions – it just takes an awfully long time to get there, and it’s disconcerting to see this MMO-style of game design in a title which is not, apparently, an MMO.

It certainly doesn’t help that Inquisition motors through its opening, only sparing time to establish the least interesting aspects of the story before dumping you into the first big playground. The hero this time around is a convenient amnesiac who has a weird mark on his hand which allows him to seal the demon-spewing “rifts” – essentially the gates from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, just coloured in green. There’s a particularly big rift which needs closing, there’s a nebulous off-screen baddie who’s impossible to care about, and there are some characters from previous titles who have seemingly had their sense of humour lobotomised between games. Oh, there’s also a small heretical order known as the Inquisition, which you swiftly become a part of.

This entire setup moves at an uncharacteristically (for BioWare, at least) torrid pace. There’s little room for proper drama, and the initial mysteries aren’t all that interesting or mysterious. I’m hesitant to use the term “boring”, but the early portions of the game are certainly flatter than you might be expecting; some of the series’ charm is wearing off, it seems, and there’s a distinct sense that BioWare are coasting on player’s foreknowledge of the world rather than painstakingly rebuilding it around us. That’s fine for the third game in a trilogy, but the Dragon Age games aren’t strictly direct sequels in the same way Mass Effect 2 and were. It’s not a huge issue, but I certainly noticed it.

Having said that, once the hero is officially put in charge of the Inquisition proceedings become very engaging very quickly. There’s tremendous satisfaction to be found in dispatching your spies and soldiers around Thedas, sitting in kingly judgement of your conquered foes, and shaping the political landscape through meddling in elections and flexing your influence in various interesting and logical ways. That influence can be keenly felt as the Inquisition expands and develops: capturing forts doesn’t just change an icon on your map, it fills them up with your troops and opens new trading avenues; people you recruit to your cause actually offer something, and they frequently unlock new strings of operations for you to complete at your base’s War Table. Curiously, these occur in real-time, similar to something you might see in a free-to-play game, but it doesn’t hurt in any way. None of the flavour missions are necessary to progress the main story, and these things taking time actually lends the parts of the world you can’t see as much scope as those you can.

None of this is particularly complex or unique, mind. Decisions you make from your comfortable throne are a lot like those in Fable 3 (though obviously less morally black-and-white), and while you have some wiggle room in how you want to approach the War Table operations, they always succeed regardless. The Inquisition’s accumulation of power is handled exactly the same way as the War Assets were in Mass Effect 3, so the mechanic is familiar, but it works here for the same reasons it worked there: by making pretty much everything you do further a single, grand purpose, the world itself is lent a noticeable sense of connectedness, and your decisions within it much more weight and consequence.

Of course not all problems can be solved from a big chair or a table full of maps, so in those instances the Inquisitor is forced to venture out into the world with up to three mates for some in-person skull-cracking. Combat here is of the real-time variety, much like in Dragon Age 2, with the option to pause the action and issue tactical commands if you deem it necessary. You probably won’t though, at least not on Normal difficulty. Players control a single character while the other party members are handled by some incredibly basic AI scripts, but abilities are governed by only a slight cooldown period, so generally everyone runs around and uses their flashy skills near-constantly. It works, and it can be a lot of fun, but it’s a far cry from the in-depth tactical options of Dragon Age: Origins.

The actual role-playing is, similarly, rather straightforward. As you gain levels you’re awarded skill points to dump in several class-specific trees, but everything else is out of your hands. You can’t tinker with Attributes or general skills like you could in Origins, nor can you unlock more complicated scripts and behaviours for your party members. Outside of race, class and gender, you can’t select a specific background which influences your options or how people treat you. There is a lot of room for experimentation in how you build your character, though. Almost all of the skills feel useful and perfectly applicable in the right situations, so each point you gain does feel like a reward. And each of your companions has a unique tree which fits their character and style, so they feel like individuals rather than combat classes who just happen to speak. I certainly spent much more time swapping my party around in Inquisition than I did in any of the preceding games.

I also spent a lot of time selling useless shit in stores. There’s a new crafting mechanic which allows you to build (and name!) custom equipment and weapons. The game’s most powerful gear is that which has been built by your own honest hands, using the best schematics and materials. It’s a nice idea, but because the schematics can be bought or found in specific areas, and the requisite materials can be mined in fairly large quantities early on, the latter half of the story (in my case, at least) was spent picking up garbage I didn’t need and selling it all in bulk every time I wandered near a merchant. It’s kind of like in the first Mass Effect when you bought all the Spectre weapons and realised everything else was absolute dogshit – it takes something away, especially when you’re enduring twenty-minute dragon fights to be rewarded with loot that doesn’t match up to stuff you’ve been carrying around for thirty hours.

There’s a similar mechanic that allows you to create and upgrade potions, too, but I never once used it. The concession made to try and encourage you to bother with this is the complete removal of healing magic, which means the only way to recover health in or out of combat is to glug potions. Again, it’s a nice idea, but the basic healing tonics are free, and they’re restocked every time you visit one of the many campsites dotted around the map. I’m not sure how much utility this whole thing will have on the tougher difficulties, but I found it entirely superfluous. Still, better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

A lot of Inquisition is like that, actually: if you want to really engage with the new mechanics, or tick all the silly quests off the map, then fill your boots. You can do that. But if you just want to ignore the extraneous bits and crack on with the core game, you can do that too, without being penalized for it. And the core game is much the same as it always has been, with typically stellar worldbuilding, character writing and plotting.

Besides, I’m going to assume those are the parts of the game which people are generally here to see, and outside of the somewhat shaky start it all amounts to an incredibly worthy package. There are plenty of faces eager to talk at you, many of them bestowed with hilariously plastic-looking hair and Groucho Marx moustaches, a handful of which you’ll even recognise from previous games – though most fulfil slightly different roles now. Leliana, for instance, is now your spymistress rather than a party member, whereas the ice-queen Seeker of Truth Cassandra can now slowly defrost on the front lines, where she spent most of the game as my go-to tank warrior. There’s also Dorian, not only the first good-guy all the way from the Tevinter Imperium, but also the first openly gay party member – although it’s only really brought up (in a disappointingly on-the-nose way) during his personal quest.

This, along with all the power-plays and political manoeuvring, is what really makes Inquisition tick and feel distinct, even within its own canon. Orlais, now finally explorable, is a fascinating place to inhabit, despite the wonky accents, and the quest which has you turn up at a diplomatic party there is one of the best the series has produced thus far. Take into account the many other high points which I can’t discuss in fear of spoilers, and there’s an awful lot of excellent stuff throughout the main storyline alone.

Dragon Age: Inquisition’s own ambition could have easily been its undoing. It’s a game which clearly prioritizes quantity over quality in a lot of respects; one so stuffed full of ancillary content and distractions, stretched out over such a vast canvass, that there’s a lack of focus and importance on certain characters, plot beats and individual activities. The cast is also pretty disconcertingly big – especially for folks you’re supposed to be building relationships with. You have the usual array of party members, but also four advisors, each with their own backgrounds and evolving storylines, as well as a castle full of people with names, roles and things to say. It’s a lot to take in, and the majority of the time most of them are left waiting around until you can be bothered to tour the whole keep and check in with everyone.

What’s fascinating is how Inquisition is able to remain focused on the story it’s telling (at least after it builds momentum), and yet remain astonishingly open, without ever really pushing you in one direction or another. It lets you take things at your own pace, and you’re free to see as much or as little of Thedas as you like. It’s a refreshing experience.

If you judge a game’s worth by how full it is with things to do and see, there’s more value for your money here than most other titles in recent memory. If you’re in it for the story, put aside the unfocused opening hours and you’ll find a genuinely compelling fantasy tale with a fantastic cliffhanger ending. If you’re here for the gameplay, the levelling and the role-playing, there’s enough of that to chew on for a good long while. Really, there’s no way I can’t recommend Inquisition to anyone who isn’t radically opposed to the genre, and if that’s the case why are you even reading this? Go and hate Elves somewhere else, you racist.

G7

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