After Dragon Age: Origins had successfully established a lore heavy world with its epic fantasy tale of ancient evils and bastard princes, Dragon Age II took the unusual step of confining the setting to tell a small individual drama that in both story and gameplay felt more like a spin off than a true sequel. Inquisition may be more in line with II’s action-adventure approach and focus on the internal politics of Thedas, but in spirit and execution harks back to Origin’s epic scope and tactical combat. It is, in short, the best of both worlds.
Epic is the word. Although not quite an open world in the sense of an Elder Scrolls title, Inquisition’s world is enormous. Ferelden, Orlais and the intervening Hinterlands are separated out into individual enclosed areas. Rather than feeling restrictive, these areas are huge sandboxes, full of quests, collectables and plain old exploration, and without the need to connect these areas Bioware have crafted wildly varying biomes that feel like living, breathing lands yet are still connected to Thedas. And I wasn’t kidding when I said they were huge: the first unlockable area alone is bigger than Origins and Dragon Age II combined – and that’s the “starter” area. This is a game so big that even after 20 hours, Inquisition is still throwing you new gameplay mechanics. A completionist playthrough will easily set you back over 100 hours, and that’s ignoring playing through again as a different race or class, or seeing what other path your adventure might take. Clear your schedule for the next few days weeks years, you’ll need it.
At first the story is somewhat lacklustre, but as you play all the quests tie together in a way previous Dragon Age games couldn’t manage. You play as an unfortunate bystander caught up in a huge disaster. As the mages and Templars are negotiating peace in a remote temple, a huge rift into The Fade opens up in the sky and causes the temple to explode, killing everyone inside (incidentally, this information is bizarrely conveyed through the menu, as if Bioware were so impatient to get you into the action that it couldn’t even wait for you to press “New Game”). You play as the only survivor, possibly sent by God Himself, and armed with a mark on your hand that allows you to close similar rifts scattered across Thedas. There is a very big possibility that you might actually be the Messiah, and the game doesn’t shy away from these comparisons.
If you’re late to the Dragon Age party, be prepared to spend a lot of time trying to understand what is going on at first, as Bioware have taken full advantage of both established lore and previous games (and their DLC too). In fact, unless they have devoured everything Dragon Age, even experienced Dragon Age players might find themselves lost for the first few dozen hours trying to figure out which ancient demon is doing what, or which political power is pulling the strings. Returning players will be happy to know that importing saves is possible even cross platform, in a way, via the Dragon Age Keep website. In just a few minutes I was able to recreate my decisions from previous games and their DLC, and the process of importing was seamless (providing you log in with an EA Origin account). Alas, despite being as user friendly as possible, it didn’t actually work, and I spent a lot of time not only figuring out what was going on but also what had gone on in the past.
Characters too are hit and miss. They are superbly acted and every line flows into the next, creating the illusion that these weren’t recorded in isolation in a studio somewhere but were actually spoken in the gameworld itself. Even the Inquisitor has a choice of voices, which considering how much dialogue the player character has is mind boggling. Yet despite all this, while I developed real bonds with some characters (Inquisitor not included, as he/she is always something of a blank canvas), others I never warmed to and barely interacted with. For a studio that has delivered so many memorable characters over the last couple of decades, many felt strangely flat. In part this is due to the enormous world, as in previous games you were encouraged to talk with them after every quest, but here you are invited to go and explore at every opportunity. Something had to give, I guess. Ok, so compared to previous titles Inquisition’s story doesn’t quite compare, but it’s hardly a weak point, more a series of minor niggles. And fortunately, the core mechanics are so enjoyable that these minor niggles are relegated to the background fairly quickly.
A lot of what is going on under the hood has been streamlined, but what is so striking is that every tweak to previously established systems has a purpose. Attributes are now no longer modifiable directly, but instead are added to via ability bonuses. While this might annoy those hoping to min/max their way to victory, the result is an emphasis firmly on allowing the player to facilitate their own style. Rather than putting points into dexterity hoping your rogue will actually be able to hit something, you choose the ability you want them to have and the system adds the points you need for it to work. Your mages gain more willpower for magic the more abilities they gain that will actually use it. The character planning is still there, but it lets you get back into action quickly, rather than spending hours in a menu screen every time you level up. And if you make a mistake, you can always respec your character. It’s a system that combines both depth and accessibility but unlike previous efforts it’s difficult to imagine that fans won’t be happy with the core changes.
Combat similarly has been overhauled. Bioware have gone back to the drawing board, and crafted a combat system that combines the best of Origin’s overhead dungeon crawler view on the PC, to II’s more hack’n’slash combat. At first, you are fighting over the shoulder, locking on and holding triggers to attack. But one button press and the camera takes to the sky to offer a view of the battlefield. While the two modes might not seem to gel too well together, Bioware have made some ingenious control decisions that blend these two disparate styles perfectly. In over the shoulder mode, the triggers attack, but in tactical view the triggers unpause the game.
The effect is seamless giving you the feeling of controlling the battlefield with one button no matter what your play style.. And the fact that these two modes switch so smoothly means it’s not only possible to play the game the way you want, but play out each individual skirmish appropriately. For simple battles with scattered bandits or the odd wolf, it’s easy to get stuck in and treat Inquisition as an action-adventure game. But when enemies are higher level or more numerous, the tactical view turns it into a real time strategy, with you maneuvering your party into position and micromanaging their abilities. And by just easing off the trigger, it becomes a turn based affair, each move allowing a countermove deliberated and executed to the millisecond. Bioware has successfully avoided annoying its fans by crafting a system that can tailor to any play style. As I said, every design choice has a purpose behind it.
This design philosophy permeates every aspect of the game. While there is a main quest line, this can only be accessed by gaining more power for the Inquisition, which involves going out into the world and making allies. Since every quest ties into this main goal, and there are so many quests, you can advance your cause in whichever way you like. If you don’t want to get involved in the civil war between mages and templars, or abhor killing the bandits who are merely trying to eke out a miserable existence, you can aid farmers by finding lost livestock, craft blankets for refugees, or just head out and explore the world, finding collectables and claiming land for the Inquisition. Bioware has made a big deal out of the little things and even traditional filler quests such as “kill ten of this thing” or “take the thing to the place” serve the grander purpose of cultivating support for the Inquisition, granting Power that can be used to unlock new areas, or Influence which can grant perks. Think Mass Effect 3’s War Assets, except that they actually do something.
Power and Influence can also be gained in Inquisition’s other type of quest. At the war table, the Inquisitor’s aides (a returning Leliana and ex-templar Cullen) can use their network of forces on missions to further the Inquisition’s interests, whether it be ensuring favourable succession in a powerful noble house, or sending out spies to gather information. These missions are little more than a push of a button but nevertheless add to the feeling that you are a rising power slowly exerting its influence, rather than a single figure out there in the world.
That crafting system, incidentally, goes further than previous games by quite some distance. Weapons can still be upgraded with runes, and potions still brewed and improved with herbs, but now new items can be made entirely from scratch, providing you have the blueprints and your choice of leather. It’s a deep system that, like everything else, is there if you want to get involved, but not essential if you just want to plough through the story. No matter what you choose to do with it, you have to hand it to a game that lets you make a jacket out of squirrels.
Bioware’s first forays into console gaming at the start of the last generation often left a lot to be desired, but Inquisition is remarkably polished. Rather than using their own custom engine, Inquisition is built on the Frostbite 3 engine, and it’s an assured first use of the engine for Bioware. Performance is solid in gameplay (although as is traditional for Bioware, the framerate can dip markedly during cut scenes). Clipping can occasionally be a problem, most notably with Cole’s improbably large hat, characters can sometimes jump jarringly without triggering animations, and on a few occasions instead of dialogue I was presented with a random codex entry on Ferelden courtship rituals, but these are minor niggles considering the spectacle on offer. The huge areas have an appropriately huge draw distance to go with them, pop in is minimal, and the texture detail makes full use of the large amount of RAM modern hardware has to offer. But the real star is the lighting, which is simply gorgeous. Too many times have I stood on top of the hill, marvelling at the shafts of light beaming through the trees, glistening on the rain soaked metal adorning my squirrell encrusted jacket. Inquisition is arguably the prettiest game out there, and for console players a strong reason to migrate to the new generation.
But, if all of that weren’t enough, then there is also, for the first time in a Dragon Age game, multiplayer. Let’s not pretend here, the only reason a game like this has multiplayer is for a bullet point on the back of the box. But like Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer before it, it’s neither a detriment to the main game nor a last minute, tacked on affair. You level up a separate character and go dungeon crawling with a group of friends. Even the crafting system from the main game migrates across, giving the multiplayer a surprising amount of depth. It’s a fun diversion and a remarkable value added (many whole games have less content), and although no one will ever buy the game based solely on this one addition, it is a welcome addition nonetheless.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a wonderfully crafted, deep and vast game, boasting not just hours but weeks of gameplay. Bioware have successfully integrated the disparate styles of their previous RPGs into one cohesive whole, underlied by core gameplay mechanics that are designed to give players the tools to shape their own gameplay experience. While the story doesn’t quite match up to previous offerings, it is compelling enough to drive the nearly 100 hours of gameplay without ever seeming contrived. The game is gorgeous, providing a leap in visual fidelity next generation players have been waiting for, and this is topped off with Bioware’s typically excellent voice acting. It is a magnificent game that stands as one of the best RPGs made and the culmination of Bioware’s efforts to create a deep yet accessible RPG. No one expected the Inquisition… to be so good.
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