I’ll be more upfront than usual; Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantastic game. The staggeringly large scope, excellent score, eye-popping visuals, and engaging gameplay, BioWare executed everything almost flawlessly. I’d recommend it to almost anyone, even people who aren’t typically drawn toward RPGs. Inquisition has issues, certainly, but none that would prevent me from endorsing it. If you are just looking for my recommendation, there you have it. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in a deeper dive into Inquisition, taking a look at the seemingly minor issues that keep Inquisition from rising into the stuff of video game legend, read on.
I think it fitting to begin a discussion of Inquisition by addressing the glitches that plagued my opening hour of gameplay. I spent around three hours attempting to satisfactorily begin the game. Character creation proved to be particularly difficult. No joke, all of the facial hair floated a good six inches off of my protagonist’s face, dissuading me from touching any of the glorious beards on display. Perhaps more importantly, the lighting in character creation looks nothing close to the lighting elsewhere in the game. Meaning that my first character, who I intended to look Middle Eastern, ended up looking like he had a fake spray tan that would never, ever come off. Though I initially thought I’d try to live with the abysmal results, I quickly ditched him because Dragon Age decided that he was going to be regarded as a lady by all other characters in the game, a rather significant glitch for which there was no fix. My second time through the creation process went much better, though depending on camera angles and lighting my protagonist could either look really awesome or like the world’s biggest simpleton. I thought I was in the clear.
However, Dragon Age kept switching him from a mage to a rogue midway through the tutorial. It took over a dozen reloads before I was able to successfully make it through the introduction and progress into the game proper. With those initial glitchy hurdles cleared, my experience was nearly error free, excepting the occasional giant falling out of the sky. I only encountered one major glitch after the opening ordeal. About halfway through Inquisition, the game introduces a new character who can be customized. If players choose to customize that particular character, there seems to be a 50% chance that their main protagonist’s voice could change to the default option if they had opted for the non-default voice during character creation. This happened to me with no way to reverse it. There are few things as grating as spending 40 hours with a character sounding one way only for them to suddenly begin sounding completely, irritatingly different.
Glitches aside, people interested in the PC version should know that Inquisition’s mouse and keyboard controls handle terribly. I could only handle about two or three minutes of gameplay before I decided to plug in a wired 360 controller, which proved to be a far superior experience.
A tactical RPG originally made for the PC, Dragon Age: Origins required strategic thinking and micromanaging that lent itself very well to a mouse and keyboard. To a lesser extent, that was also true of Dragon Age 2. However, I found Dragon Age: Inquisition to be more of an action game with RPG elements, which lends itself better to a controller than a keyboard. A tactical camera and customizable companion tactics allow players to fine tune strategies, but I literally never used either of those functions, never even touched them. Granted, I played through on Normal difficulty, so perhaps higher difficulty levels require a more tactical approach to combat. The fact remains that I approached combat almost like I would a button masher and had a great time. The change isn’t a bad thing for the Dragon Age franchise, but prospective players should be aware that Inquisition’s gameplay differs significantly from that of its ancestors.
The strength of BioWare’s writing team remains unchanged. To summarize the initial plot: The Chantry, the leading religious power in Thedas, convenes a special council to begin peace talks between rebellious mages and their former Templar handlers, an attempt to halt a disastrous war. Something goes horribly wrong and the entire council is obliterated in a magical cataclysm that creates The Breach, a massive portal to the Fade, a realm of spirits and demons. In all the commotion, a single individual emerges from The Breach, the bearer of a strange magical mark on their right hand. As that person, players make choices that shape the world of Thedas for better or worse. It is a great set up raising numerous questions for players to explore. What is the role of faith in times of peril? Is the protagonist divine? Can the current events all be rationally explained? Is there a god looking out for the people of Thedas? Unfortunately, none of these questions are really explored to much meaningful depth. It was a bit of a disappointment, especially given where the series might be going in the future.
If anything makes up for my minor grumbles with how adequately Inquisition explores its own themes it is how well BioWare succeeds in characterization. Far and away, I found the dialogue to be the strongest part of Inquisition. BioWare really isn’t afraid to explore waters that most other video games still aren’t ready to touch quite yet. One of the most compelling companion characters, Dorian, is a mage that prefers the company of other men. He’s not treated as a stereotype or a token character. He’s a fully formed individual, which is rare to see in most Western games. A more succinct way of putting it is that Dorian’s sexual orientation isn’t something that defines him as a character, rather he’s written as a person who happens to be gay. He’s also bold, brimming with clever quips, and can occasionally put aside his façade of bravado to try and be a good friend. BioWare isn’t content to rest on its laurels after crafting a character that most studios wouldn’t have bother with either. Krem, the second in command of the Bull’s Chargers mercenary company, breaks new ground as the first transgender character in the Western AAA game space. Despite not being one of the core companion characters, Krem stands out in the land of big budget games as a minority character written in a humane way. Much like Dorian, Krem’s gender identity isn’t the thing that defines him, he’s a person before anything else.
I only mentioned two out of a cast of dozens. Who could forget Cassandra, the hard case Seeker with a hidden love for trashy romance novels? Or Sera, the kooky-yet-practical city elf that seems more than a little unhinged? Or what about… I could keep listing names for paragraphs, but I think you’ve probably understood my meaning. Lesser writers would stop short. Cassandra would just be a stuffy warrior, Sera would just be crazy, Dorian would just be another gay stereotype. Heck, Krem would be a one line anomaly in a typical game. But BioWare adds just enough to make each one seem fleshed out and real. Each have their own motivations, goals, and desires. They have needs and wants that are directly communicated to the player and others that are only hinted at and suggest greater depth. Despite the fantasy setting and the supernatural threats that close in on every side, Dragon Age: Inquisition manages to paint more realistic people than many games that strive to be more grounded in reality.
As I played Inquisition, I slowly began to feel an absence. I tried to shake it off, but it continued to grow as I progressed. Then, somewhere in the midst of court intrigue, large scale warfare, and demons raining from the sky, it suddenly stuck me how disconnected I felt from it all. It wasn’t that the characters are written badly, several of them are easily the most brilliantly written video game characters I’ve had the pleasure to come across. It also wasn’t that Dragon Age: Inquisition is boring; there are plenty of things to do and the game aims to be visually stunning at all times. It didn’t even seem like the problem was on a narrative level, an issue usually found in even the biggest AAA games. I really struggled to pin down exactly why Inquisition felt so impersonal, and it wasn’t until after the credits rolled and I had an opportunity to reflect on the game and BioWare’s previous accomplishments that the answer hit me.
One of the most positively received video games to come out of BioWare is Mass Effect 2. The wild, incredible narrative ride ratchets up over time to climax in a suicide mission made all the more satisfying by the time devoted to interacting with and learning about the team that risk their lives alongside the player. In other words, Mass Effect 2’s effectiveness stems from how the narrative and game design choices all revolve around each other, intertwined and inseparable. Practically every mission either links with a certain character, advancing the player’s relationship with them, or propels the plot forward. Almost no missions in Mass Effect 2 consist of dead air (except, of course, the planet scanning), every moment crackles with purpose to one end or another. To invest players and keep up the narrative momentum, BioWare kept every mission carefully directed and allowed for little in the way of exploration.
BioWare seems to have taken a different approach that centers on the vastness of the areas they’ve created. It is easy to see why; clearly a lot of time went into the awe-inspiring environments. However, the mission structures applied to these huge spaces feel very similar to what you’d find in an MMO. For many people that might not be a problem, but it leads to a relatively inert game both in terms of player engagement and game narrative. That’s why I had trouble pinpointing the problem at first; the disconnect isn’t on a traditional narrative level. Instead it is the result of a uniquely game-related design choice. Unlike Mass Effect 2, many of the missions, even some that involve companions, require backtracking through previously explored areas to kill bad guys/collect items/destroy things A, B, and C. They aren’t engaging tasks. You’ve probably done them thousands of times in other games. None of those things are as memorable or meaningful as the time Garrus tried to assassinate his ex-squad member, Sidonis, and was either talked into or out of it through conversation.
I spent almost 100 hours in Thedas, and there were still areas I hadn’t fully explored. I completed the game at level 24, even though the game recommends the final mission for character levels 15-19. The world BioWare created was so big that the side stuff overtakes the main narrative, despite it being the least interesting part of the experience. It seems telling to me that “Leave the Hinterlands” has become a piece of advice repeated again and again. Players are getting wrapped up in checking all the boxes, going into every nook and cranny, and engaging less with the characters and narrative. That’s a shame, because the main quest missions are easily the most interesting parts of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I just wish that there were more of them and less uninspired open world quest design.
Herb gathering exemplifies the issue perfectly. The game begins and it is exciting to stumble across herbs and harvest them, so you tap buttons to go through the gathering animations again and again. They’re all over the place. Then you discover that it takes herbs to replenish your supply of health potions. Gathering herbs stops being a cool diversion and becomes a necessity. Later you learn that it takes herbs to upgrade your potions, too. At this point, you will be willing to commit murder to not gather any more herbs. What started as a fun diversion becomes a mind-numbingly boring task. Sure, you can send soldiers to do it, but they’ll only bring six or seven plants back at a time, but you could collect double that in the time it takes them to bring more back. Even by the end of the game, I was scrabbling for more herbs, more crafting materials. It took me out of the world and diverted my attention from narratively important tasks.
With the writing talent at their disposal, BioWare’s decision to focus away from the dialogues is perplexing. I don’t mean that Inquisition lacks in the dialogue department at all, but rather there was a slight design choice that clearly emphasizes the open world gameplay over the conversations. One of the things that I loved about both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series was that practically all conversations with significant NPCs that had more than one sentence to say were done from multiple fixed camera angles that created more engaging visuals than the player controlled camera was capable of providing. It made conversations feel more immediate and exciting. While that is certainly still present in Dragon Age: Inquisition, more often than not players will be kept in the broad player controlled camera during conversations.
The design choice encourages players to leave the conversation with the NPC whenever they’d like. On paper, that seems like something a lot of players would want, but in practice I think it creates a lot of distance between the player and the sidequests or extra dialogue players might want to have with their companions. I understand that it is a large game and players have a lot to do, but are we really too busy to want personal conversations with important characters? I don’t think so, and I can’t help but feel we lost something rather important.
Ultimately, the estrangement from Dragon Age: Inquisition hurt my perception of its narrative. Perhaps I spent too much time pursuing side content and not enough on finishing the core missions, but by the end of the game everything felt stacked in my protagonist’s favor and the climactic finale seemed like little more than a formality. This could be an indication that the narrative itself is a bit flawed on how it approaches the overarching conflict in Dragon Age: Inquisition, but that’s probably a spoiler-filled topic for another day.
Despite the glitches, the feeling of disconnection, and the wall of text that might indicate otherwise, I very much enjoyed my time in Thedas. The criticisms I had were small, but they’ll be the reason Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t remembered quite as fondly as Origins or the Mass Effect series. Dragon Age: Inquisition left me wanting more, curious as to where the franchise might be headed next. Color me doubly curious since many loose ends from both Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 are resolved by the time the credits roll in Inquisition. I opened this review with a recommendation and I’m ending it with another. Do yourself a favor and play Dragon Age: Inquisition. Any missteps it makes pale in comparison to the enjoyable experience it can offer.
Dragon Age: Inquisition was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360