Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third entry into BioWare's highly regarded original fantasy role-playing world and it was met with high expectations. The anticipation speaks to the pedigree of the series, for BioWare has few peers in the genre, much of it was fueled by curiosity as to whether Dragon Age would recover from the disappointment many felt with Dragon Age 2. In many ways it is a rousing success, but I can't help but feel there was a cost.
BioWare admitted it felt it needed to respond to Bethesda's smashing success The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but I have to wonder why. And why now? Skyrim didn't do anything substantially different than Morrowind or Oblivion and when those games were getting press BioWare was getting press at the same time doing its own thing. They seemed, to me, content to let Bethesda play in the open world sandbox while they focused on admittedly smaller worlds with richer experiences.
“Emotionally engaging” was the phrase BioWare used often and it wasn't something Bethesda could really respond to. No matter how much fun Skyrim was, no one was calling it an emotionally engaging experience. It was not the kind of game that made you care at all about the NPCs you interacted with or the greater conflicts that gave context to your actions. This was BioWare's bread and butter; if they couldn't make you care, they failed.
For the most part I just didn't care about what was happening to Thedas or the threat the surprisingly one-dimensional baddie posed to the realm.
Before I dive further into what I felt BioWare sacrificed to compete in a race it never needed to, let me talk about what I did enjoy.
The game is spread across the two neighboring countries of Orlais and Ferelden. The latter is the setting of Dragon Age: Origins, and is recovering from the ravages of the Fifth Blight. Orlais is a France-inspired land of decadence and intrigue. We've never seen it before and those familiar with the lore will know it occupied Ferelden in the not too distant past.
Rather than go open world and allow you to traverse the two lands unimpeded. BioWare sprinkled large open zones across them. According to them, the first zone you enter, the Hinterlands, is larger than the whole of the first game and that's believable. The variety of zones you can explore as the game unfolds is a welcomed change to the reused brown bleakness of Dragon Age 2. Verdant forests, desert plateaus, rain-drenched bogs, open plains, it's all here to explore and it's quite addictive to do so. When you first enter a zone, your quest map only shows a sea of black pinned with quest markers. As you trek, the map opens up and you discover a wealth of time-sucking opportunities.
I don't use the phrase flippantly. Much of what you can do in these zones, any zone, is designed to be a time sink. When adopting the open world style, BioWare found itself with the task of filling that space with things you could do, most of it having little impact on your main quest.
There's herbs to collect, ore to mine, fetch quests to fill, and Fade rifts to close.
So many Fade rifts to close.
For those of you who do not know, the Fade is the realm of dreams and spirits. Also, according to Chantry doctrine (see: what might happen if the Christian church was established by Joan of Arc) it was host to the Maker's Golden City. In short, heaven. A long time ago, however, the city was entered by human mages using blood magic, turning it black.
The villain of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Corypheus, is one of these mages, freed from imprisonment during the course of Dragon Age 2's DLC Legacy. According to him, the city was already black when they arrived. Believing there is no Maker, he now seeks to make himself a living god for humanity and enter into the Fade bodily once more.
His actions have caused the veil between the world and the Fade to weaken, thus plaguing the lands with many, many Fade rifts that demons are using to enter Thedas.
Remember in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion when Oblivion Gates started opening everywhere in Tamriel? Yeah, basically the same thing only slightly less annoying to deal with because you don't have to invest nearly as much time in closing them. So, thematically, they serve a purpose, but their larger purpose is to pad gameplay with busy work.
Filler aside the environments are varied and beautiful. Seriously. They're a real treat and a promising look at what this console generation will deliver.
Next, we move on to what you'll be spending most of your time doing other than filler quests: combat. Intended to be more strategic than previous incarnations, Dragon Age: Inquisition finally allows console players a tactical view of the combat area that was only available to PC players. On the fly, you can pause the combat, take an aerial view, and assign paths and actions to your party. On casual and normal difficulties, you can forgo this mechanic for a more action-driven experience, in hard mode, it becomes a must, in part because of the sometimes flaky AI.
I didn't spend too much time with the tactical view, but the number of times party members fell because of stupid AI decisions (rarely using a shield to block, never stepping out of the way of sustained breath weapon attacks from dragons...) made me long to master its intricacies.
Gone are healing spells for mages, which took me a minute to deal with... emotionally. However, I found that I rarely needed them in combat since my health, and my party's, was often regenerating in combat due to arcane wizardry on the part of my AI-controlled mage. When emergencies arise, the party can share a pool of up to 12 healing potions and you can equip other potions to each companion manually. Only healing potions are refilled automatically without a cost in camp, so you must choose wisely who gets any of the other potions, tonics, or grenades.
As with previous games in the series, abilities are mapped to three face buttons and pressing the right shoulder button gives you access to three additional face button slots, making a total of six abilities at your disposal quickly. I was playing a warrior and spread my accumulated points across four ability trees and found myself mining for passive abilities once the six slots were filled with go-to actions I didn't want to mess with.
Were combat kept to a single protagonist, and not a party, I'd have little to grouse about but it's not and it all comes down to AI; it's frustratingly stupid sometimes. Those 12 healing potions the party shares aren't for me. Aside from when the environment occasionally conspired against me (it's swell when you're mopping up a hard fight only to have a few bears wander in), I didn't find myself having to use them nearly as often as the rest of the party. Warrior abilities and magey stuff kept my health high most of the time. Many was the time, though, when I'd see a party member's health take a dive and find them engaging in activities they'd no business entertaining.
One might argue that the tactical view alleviates this problem, and they'd be right, but it misses the point as the action-driven playstyle is just as legitimate.
Lastly there's the companions themselves. By and large they're all pretty great with unique voices, viewpoints, and depth. Perhaps the most one-note of the bunch was Varric, a carry-over from Dragon Age 2, but I can admit it may be my own bias. I never cared much for him in that game and that sentiment didn't change here. I took no small amount of glee during a particularly heated scene between Cassandra, my paramour, and him and siding with her as much as I could rationalize.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is more of a sequel to Dragon Age 2 than Dragon Age 2 is a sequel of Dragon Age: Origins. Dragon Age: Inquisition picks up a year after the beginning of the Mage-Templar War got kicked off in Dragon Age 2 and is heavily influenced by it. The game dramatically opens up with a peace conference between the two factions literally exploding. As part of the main quest in the game, you're forced to choose one of the two factions to back. Given that I thought mages needed to be watched, backing the Templars was a no-brainer. Like Marvel's X-Men, the game tries to treat being a mage like it's a civil rights issue, but the argument falls apart on close examination.
Are there good mages who don't want to enthrall a village to their will, or invite demonic possession for quick power? Sure. There are also gun owners who don't want to rob a bank or shoot random strangers.
One of these groups still has to get a background check.
It's for these reasons I didn't find the mage angle convincing, though obvious Templar excesses are inexcusable, and why I was tired of mages by the time Vivienne hitched her wagon to the Inquisition's train.
Since the game centers around mages and Templars so much, of course the Chantry and its teachings and politics takes front stage. In fact, as you progress the Inquisition may even throw its influence behind a new Divine, a heavy decision indeed. What's most noteworthy about all of this is the discussion BioWare tries to elicit about faith. What could have been interesting came off to me, a man of faith, as very patronizing. It's hard to explain further without delving into real spoilers, but suffice to say the message I got was, "You're free to believe whatever you want, despite the evidence, so long as it make no demands upon those around you."
The Gospel of Jesus the Chant of Light is not.
Like all BioWare games, romancing a companion is an option and I've already mentioned who I chose. To BioWare's credit, they eschewed making most everyone bisexual (something I've complained about in the past), keeping it limited to only two: one companion and one adviser. Some characters aren't even interested in a romance, which is a nice change.
BioWare took this game as an opportunity to really lay out their politics on the matters of sexuality and sexual relations. To anyone familiar with the company and their left-leaning attitudes, it's no surprise. Same-sex relationships in Thedas are common and barely worth batting an eye about. In fact, there's even a codex treatise on the topic should you wish further reading. Additionally, this is the first game from them that I'm aware of that features a transgendered NPC. She's a member of Iron Bull's (one of your companions) retinue and while it seems the setting does take notice at that, Iron Bull does not because she's a good soldier.
Which is something BioWare also chooses to plant their flag on: women serve equally side-by-side by men in battle. While this is a topic of debate today, and only possible given technological and medical advancements made within the past 100 years or so, it's absurd to cast it as feasible so far into the past, even a fantastical past. It's clearly there to make a political point while ignoring socioeconomic realities of the medieval age it purports to take place in, and the stark biological differences between the sexes.
This is the worst sort of storytelling and it's all the more noteworthy because BioWare is better at its craft than this. That said, however, they've embraced one of the key techniques of normalizing otherwise objectionable content in media: don't draw attention to it. Don't draw attention to it, treat it as innocuous, and it will be absorbed a piece at a time organically.
This is a lesson Christian media has yet to embrace, preferring to obtusely beat non-believers about the neck and face with a message.
Finding Cassandra's warm center – BioWare has described her like being a “crusty baguette” - was a real joy. Her embarrassment when you uncover her more 'girly' predilections is delightful. The height of the dance between the Inquisitor and her (and the only time nudity came up), however, was unceremoniously marred by a glitch that froze the cutscene for a minute or so. The drama, the poignancy, was gone and I was reminded that I was playing a video game.
This particular glitch reared its head a numbers of time during my play through, tossing a damp rag on what would have been story highlights. There's nothing quite like thinking, for a moment, a scene paused for effect when in reality it was taking a smoke break. Thankfully the bug got squashed with a 300MB patch that came out when I was about three-quarters of the way through my game.
But it seemed to then introduce total game crashes, an issue I never experienced before the patch. I suppose I should thank BioWare for the new feature. After losing several hours worth of progress, I really took stock of what I was doing and realized that I'd gotten caught up in beautiful chores. Nothing I'd done during that time progressed the plot, mattered to anyone I cared about, or would even open up an interesting bit of side-story.
I wrapped up my time with Skyrim when I noticed I was approaching 100 hours of playtime and it felt like a good place to deal with Alduin because he'd been so patient about my shenanigans to this point.
I wrapped up my time with Dragon Age: Inquisition when I realized nothing I did for the majority of the game mattered. Astute readers may see a contradiction but the thing is I didn't expect to matter in Skyrim.
I do in a BioWare game.
And that's what I think BioWare sacrificed in trying to compete with Bethesda. But I have to admit that my voice may be alone. Already the game has garnered several Game of the Year awards from various publications. I think that if this game were The Elder Scrolls VI I'd have to agree. Bethesda would have done an admirable job at pushing a story and characters that matter, that we might care about, to the fore. It would have represented a step forward for them.
While Dragon Age: Inquisition is an improvement from Dragon Age 2, and not quite a step backwards, it feels like an unnecessary sidestep. It picked up a gauntlet I'm not sure was ever thrown.
I enjoyed my time with the game. I really did. I cared about most of my companions, what they thought and felt. The combat, while sometimes frustrating because of deficient AI, is a lot of fun, and seeing Skyhold grow and change as the Inquisition becomes a force to reckon with is a nice reminder of what you mean to a world that really lacks such a reflection for most of what you're doing in the game.
My time in Thedas is now over. I don't think I'll be revisiting this incarnation of it anytime soon. Dragon Age: Origins, my favorite BioWare game, calls to me again. I might take it up.
Of course now that Green Ronin Publishing finally got Set 3 of the Dragon Age paper-and-pencil RPG out I could always get a group together for that. Let it never be said I am not a fanboy for the setting!