Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)

Dragon Age: Inquisition a very worthy entry in the grand, lovable, yet very inconsistent Dragon Age series. Dragon Age II was little like Dragon Age: Origins, and Dragon Age: Inquisition is again a pretty unique entry with its own unique strengths and flaws. The Bioware strengths are at full play here; there’s a fantastic set of characters written strongly and with much individual personality and flavour, the game is a reactive RPG offering the player great freedom in defining their relationships with such well-developed characters, the production value results in a gorgeous game with fantastic visuals and music, the lore is fascinating, the writing is generally strong, the game is a very succesful genre work. The weaknesses are the more odd, unanticipated things here.

[Note: My review here is of the game including the three post-launch story DLCs, Jaws of Hakkon, The Descent, and Trespasser. There are no egregious spoilers, for the base game or the DLCs, in this review, beyond “the good guys beat the bad guys” level spoilers.]

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Said weaknesses include what’s often criticised as the “MMO-like” structure of the game. There are many varied hubs in which the player can adventure, explore, carry out quests, and so on. These hubs have the typical main quests and side quests. They are also absolutely bursting at the seams with “filler content” reminiscent of MMOs. I was able to quickly turn off any obsessive RPG “must complete every side quest, find every collectable, etc.” tendencies and recognise that these pursuits were essentially busywork disconnected with any of the reasons I enjoy games such as these (characters, enjoyable fantasy worlds, the actual stories, etc.), but they certainly are irritating to varying degrees depending upon the individual player. The “dull fetch quest” issue of fantasy RPGs reaches what I dearly hope is the peak here, as I don’t think I could take anymore. The game doesn’t make it clear enough that you can effectively skip the vast majority of such low-effort content and just enjoy the main stories, and too many of them are tied into such stories in contrived ways.

There are other bothersome gameplay elements. I typically get wrapped up in the story, characters, and similar attributes when playing RPGs, and sort of gloss over the more functional gameplay mechanics purely as a vehicle for getting me to such moments (hence me often playing such games on the easiest difficulty), but there were a few elements here that broke through my disregard and actively bothered me. The inventory and crafting systems are cumbersome. The War Table system is fundamentally broken at a gameplay level – I’m not going to waste hours and hours waiting for a digital clock to progress. Outfitting your party is a pain. The game gets in the way of itself.

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Another weakness is that the game in the base, vanilla, non-DLC state has an abrupt and somewhat anti-climatic ending. The game doesn’t feel unfinished, but it feels somewhat lacking in closure. However, I was actually surprised to learn that the final DLC, Trespasser, was originally intended to be the the final mission of the base game – it’s a great DLC, offering all the closure one could want, but is so substantial and more of a coda than finale, that I didn’t expect it to be planned as the original ending itself.

I believe dissatisfaction with the anti-climatic ending of the base game stems from the odd structure the game employs. I’m an enormous fan of oddly structured stories and subverting genre conventions (Dragon Age II is actually my favourite game in the series, and its unconventional, challenging nature is one of the reasons why). Stories, especially fantasy stories, typically follow some sort of “protagonist/s get caught up in issue > face challenges, gain skills, get better at facing issue > have great loss where it seems all is lost and they’ll never surmount issue > succeed in surmounting issue > the end” structure. Inquisition doesn’t do that.  There’s a conspicuous lack of any “all is lost” moment late in the narrative. The “all is lost” moment occurs very early in the narrative (the quest “In Your Heart Shall Burn”, involving an attack on Haven). You could even argue it is the actual start of the narrative, and all that precedes it is merely a form of prologue.

The rest of the narrative follows the protagonist slowly but surely building up their forces, making slow gains against the enemy, steadily chipping away at the enemy’s resources until…you completely succeed, you chip away all their resources, make all necessary gains against them, and build up your forces to such a level that you triumph in somewhat anti-climatic fashion. In retrospect I actually find such structure quite amusing and interesting – I’ve never really experienced it in a game before. Bioware games typically follow the same plodding structure of raising forces, but there’s nearly always a moment where all seems lost, to precede the climax. Not so here. I enjoyed the game more on later playthroughs where I was already aware of the unconventional structure of the narrative.

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The final DLC, Trespasser, feels more like a coda than a more climatic ending with more closure. Depending on player choices (and romances), it may be a very climatic culmination of the most important relationship the player character has, or it may be more of a low-key reflection on how the player character led the Inquisition in the base game. It’s a RPG success, and yet another irritating case of Bioware DLC so good that players do themselves a disservice if they don’t buy it, yet remains annoyingly highly-priced for the vast majority of the time. Not quite as bad as Mass Effect DLCs (some of which were even better, and nearly all of which were priced even worse), but still frustrating. The other two Inquisition DLCs tell interesting enough stories, the first with implications for the Inquisition itself (somewhat dulled due to the twist being a tad negated by how I’d made my player character, but impactful nonetheless), and the second with many lore implications that will no doubt come to the fore in future instalments.

Setting aside talk of narrative structure, the writing is very strong when it comes to character, well above the industry standard. The player character’s developing relationships with the prominent NPCs, and the accompany “loyalty” side quests, are easily the most compelling part of the game – I thought the characters of Blackwall, Dorian, and Cassandra were particularly well-done. I was happy to spend inordinate amounts of time just doing the “Bioware round”, walking around the homebase and talking to all the prominent NPCs after every story mission. My favourite moments of the game were the great character moments found both in dialogues and cutscenes (some of the best cutscenes being low-key character-building moments). Bioware maintains their reputation of very strong character writing easily with Inquisition.

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The player character is something of a dud for me – not as flexible and reactive as the Warden, and not as well-sketched and nuanced as Hawke. The female Dalish elf background offers the most compelling playthrough, to my mind (the conflict between Dalish religion and background between the player’s status as an Andastrian prophet is fascinating and makes for many interesting conversations where the player can roleplay to their heart’s delight, and it also offers a key romance that ties into the main story of the game significantly), but I still feel the Inquisitor is far less of a memorable character than Hawke, and less of a deeply reactive and malleable avatar like the Warden.

Speaking of the player as a prophet – the game’s exploration of religion is, to my surprise, very well-done. It’s legitimately nuanced – not to an extraordinary degree, but far beyond what I’d expect of a high fantasy video game like this. The player can remain atheist even in the face of performing apparent miracles and being worshipped by hundreds, the player can completely buy into being the prophet figure of their own religion, the player can quietly respect other’s devotion but remain an adherent of a religion that doesn’t even recognise the player’s own status as a prophet, and so on. This isn’t just relegated to mental roleplay abstractions, as various characters and situations will call on the player to clarify their thoughts on religion and their apparently semi-divine status. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the game is where the the player is first truly revered as something of a divine figure, where the music, development of multiple characters, player choices regarding religion and divinity, and narrative development surrounding the burgeoning Inquisition all culminate in a moving sequence where the player character’s assumed divinity amongst the people crystallises. I’ve embedded the clip below, but it’s somewhat devoid of context, and does contain what I’d consider somewhat significant spoilers.

A unique aspect of the game is just how reactive it is to the earlier games. Bioware developers created something called the Dragon Age Keep, where players can input their choices from earlier games to create a worldstate they can import into Dragon Age: Inquisition. It negates the messiness of importing saves. I’ve never seen anything like it before, in terms of mechanics. It’s really impressive, and a really great show of how Bioware understands and responds to how strongly fans feel about their choices and playthroughs. What’s more…it looks really neat. It’s stylised like a tapestry and is just really enjoyable to explore. I had fun making terrible “doomsday” worldstates with the choices opposite to what I’d actually choose, to result in the worst possible Thedas, but inputting my actual “canon” playthroughs was easy, although the amount of choices present got kind of tedious at times – surely not all of these will really be accounted for. Then again, I never would have expected something like this in the first place, so who knows whether it’s just catering to fans who cared deeply about those minor choices and want them reflected on the tapestry even if they’re never used as checks in future games, or whether they really will be.

dak.jpgSpeaking of aesthetics, I really love the general visual design of Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s not quite “cartoony”, but it uses colour wonderfully, and is stylised to a nice degree. It’s just gorgeous to look at. The soundtrack is also generally quite strong, but you barely hear it, as the developers made the odd move of only having it drift in and out haphazardly as you explore.

My greatest issue with the game was a terrible bug I was plagued with, “the banter bug”, that saw me receive something like five banters across the entirety of my first playthrough. Even when I re-played the game this year, I was still accosted by the bug, and I had to resort to a Cheat Engine hack to get banter playing consistently. The highlight of the game is character interactions, so such a bug is pretty inexcusable.

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Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t a perfect game, but it’s still a very good one, and most definitely a worthy entry into the franchise. The flaws are substantial – crippling bugs, ridiculous amounts of padded filler content, an undercooked and mishandled antagonist – but they’re very much surpassed by the strengths – fantastic characters, great visuals and environments, compelling writing – in my opinion. I give the game three elven orbs, and a wooden griffin.

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