Game Review: DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION Lasts An Age But Doesn’t Drag On
OK, OK - It’s taken a long time for me to review Dragon Age: Inquisition. That’s not because I’ve been disinterested - quite the opposite. Inquisition is simply an enormous game, one that constantly taunts you with new things to do and characters to meet. That I’ve progressed so slowly and methodically is a testament to how addictive this damnable game is.
Even starting a game of Inquisition is a lengthy process. You can click through the setup using (randomised) defaults if you want, but that denies you one of the best character-creation tools I’ve used. Dragon Age Keep - used to “import” story decisions from the first two games - is a miserable shitsuck of a tool, but actually building your Inquisitor is a joy. The intuitive two-axis slider system yields a wide range of character looks. Based on the character I created, I apparently really like role-playing as dumpy losers.
Hot Dog Trevelyan, I decided, was too stupid to be a mage, but he worked hard enough to make up for his idiocy, scraping through with a C average from Mage University. He’s incredibly stupid-looking, with prominent front teeth, alternately suspicious and vacant eyes, and a generally doughy demeanour. As a result, everything he says in-game (via the still-great dialogue wheel*) comes out sounding absolutely hilarious. I mean, just look at the guy:
The story of Dragon Age: Inquisition is as opaque as those of the other Dragon Ages. I don’t know what it is about fantasy, but the learning curve always seems steeper than in other genres - even titles like Mass Effect, with similarly dense lore. Perhaps it’s because the fictional history in science fiction is partially our history, with a grounding in science rather than magic. Regardless, if I have to do extracurricular reading to understand what’s happening in your story, that’s some shaky storytelling.
That’s not to say BioWare have failed. The broad strokes of the story and setting are painted well - the rift between worlds; the civil war between mages and templars - but what all that actually means are murky, demanding considerable codex entry spelunking. The world of Dragon Age is rich, loaded with relationships, racism, politics, religion, culture and class warfare, and more - but it’s often hidden below the surface.
On the surface, you get a variation on the BioWare story template: a huge cataclysm (driven by a mysterious antagonist) threatens everyone in the world, and it’s up to a blank-slate protagonist to assemble a crack squad of variously-skilled individuals and groups to prevent the apocalypse. The principal theme is faith: the story takes place during a civil war between mages and the templars who see them as demonic, and the Inquisitor struggles with the possibility of being a divinely chosen saviour. It’s rare to see a game go as deep into religious discourse as this. Interestingly, “gods” and “demons” are presented as real, actual beings, so the grey area lies only in how individual characters interpret the existence of those beings. It’s religion filtered through a world where magic exists.
While Inquisition’s protagonist is more or less a blank canvas onto which you project your own heroism (or dumbassery), the supporting characters are varied and wonderful. Aided by a new engine and some top-notch voice acting, the dozen or so major characters in the story are very expressive. As is typical for BioWare, they’re often more compelling than the main plot - faces and voices achieve more emotional investment than any amount of swirly green particle effects can hope for. Importantly, a noticeable Game of Thrones influence has brought out more commoners than the high-fantasy hoity-toities of previous Dragon Age games. Characters like Blackwall, Iron Bull, and the wonderful Sera are pleasingly down-to-earth, with little pretension. That’s vital when bringing players into an alien world.
Special mention must be made to the treatment of gender and sexuality in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Female characters are far more prominent here than in other games of this ilk, but it’s the range of female characters that’s truly inspiring. Women fill every conceivable role, from villagers to thieves to warriors to leaders of great power and import. It’s never drawn attention to; it’s never made into a joke; it’s just a matter of fact.
These guys and gals are all loveable in their own ways, including romantically. Some are straight, some are gay, some are bisexual - and while they may rebuff your advances (hilariously, in many cases), it’s great that you can at least ask anyone if they’re interested. No assumptions are made by the game about your or your party members’ sexuality. Your party members can also more broadly approve or disapprove of your actions. Seeing that a character “strongly disapproves” is as dispiriting as Telltale’s “[x] will remember this”, but worse, characters can leave your party if they disapprove strongly enough. It’s impossible to please everyone all of the time.
You’ll visit a wide variety of areas in this game - the verdant Hinterlands, the sandy Forbidden Oasis, the extremely unpleasant Fallow Mire - with much to see and do. For the first time in the Dragon Age series, I found myself wandering off the story path just to see what was out there. It’s the same “map filled with icons” gameplay loop that plagues many open-world games, and there are a few too many fetch quests, but between the combat and characters, it’s still fun just to troll around the map getting into trouble. Things can even happen emergently: one time, I was attacking an outlaw camp, only to be set upon by a trio of bears, who slaughtered my whole party in seconds. Stumbling upon challenges too great for your party’s experience level is a great joy - it gives an impetus to get better. One day, I’ll slay you, Hinterlands dragon. One day.
Whether you triumph or perish, combat in Inquisition is better than ever. I never got on board with Dragon Age combat before - it always felt clunky or simplistic. But Inquisition’s seamless blend of real-time combat and tactical planning is goddamned rad. Real-time combat gives you fine control of a single character, while tactical view lets you zip your camera around the battlefield, examine enemy weaknesses and resistances, and direct your party members to go places, attack enemies, or perform tasks. Both are fine on their own, but using them in concert is where the combat truly sings. Flipping between tactical and real-time mid-fight is immensely satisfying - you feel like a god orchestrating a dance of swords, arrows, and magic.
Ever since Mass Effect presented players with the worst UI in history, BioWare has tried a number of different approaches to inventory management. In Inquisition, you pick up tonnes of weaponry, armour, upgrades, crafting materials and miscellaneous items, and I honestly have no idea what to do with most of it. The interface for dealing with upgrades and inventory is arcane and confusing, and the lack of D-pad navigation makes moving through it a chore. I still have no proper idea how to upgrade equipment. For the amount of time you spend in menus, the menu design is straight-up awful.
Inquisition is the first Dragon Age to feature co-op gameplay. In concept, multiplayer could be a superb extension of the party system, but in practice, it’s disappointingly lightweight. Co-op is a separate mode, with its own skill trees, experience, and inventory. It sees groups of players clearing dungeons, with the occasional basic objective like “protect this NPC” thrown in on occasion. It’s a grind, and in my experience, not a particularly fun one. The presence of microtransactions to acquire currency and loot chests doesn’t help, either. The co-op feels half-baked and uninspired - disappointing given how slick and deep the single-player game is.
The overachievers at BioWare claim Inquisition is the Dragon Age game they always wanted to make. It’s certainly a huge achievement: all the exploration of a Skyrim, mated with BioWare’s strong writing and some of the best RPG combat I’ve ever seen. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a reviewer’s nightmare: a game whose side elements are so tantalising that even well-crafted story missions can be wilfully ignored for hours on end. I don’t know whether this truly is the Dragon Age game BioWare always wanted to make, but it’s very nearly the one I always wanted to play.
* I have encountered a number of bugs with the dialogue wheel, which it seems are widespread - the wheel sometimes does not open, which gets the game stuck, effectively. I have to assume a patch is coming for that.