Dragon Age: Inquisition Review: Dawn of A New Age

Dragon_03_WM_webDragon Age: Origins was one of the best RPGs of the last generation. Bioware looked back to its Baulder’s Gate roots and crafted a new world. Dragon Age 2 is often considered a misstep for the series, an incredibly rushed product that reuses environments too often and fails to consider the breadth and depth of the world. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a direct answer to the complaints of Dragon Age 2 meshed with some of the design sensibilities of Origins. Bioware excels at telling character-focused stories in rich and detailed worlds and Dragon Age: Inquisition is no different. It’s a game of immense scope that still manages to be incredibly engaging and personal.

The world of Dragon Age has always been that of off-kilter high fantasy, with various twists on the genre that give it more flavor. Mages are feared by many as being too powerful, instead of being revered as wizened, bearded, wisemen. Elves have lost their ancestry and live either deep in the woods struggling to regain their heritage, or as indentured servants to the more noble races. In fact, Inquisition removes itself so far from generic fantasy tropes that it almost doesn’t feel like the same world of Dragon Age: Origins. This is a problem at times, just in terms of old and new characters interacting with each other. Old characters pop into the world and feel out of touch with how society has changed and adapted over the years. Origins dealt in more of the socioeconomic underpinnings of fantasy racial tensions. Inquisition distances itself from these tropes and asks much more difficult questions about identity.

It can feel like a bit off-putting, but also natural. The Dragon Age games have taken place over a series of thirty years so seeing change within society isn’t so disjointed. The problem comes when attempting to shoehorn in mentions of Dragon Age: Origins, outside of Morrigan’s character. Luckily, these nods are few and far between and Inquisition is much better off looking towards the future away from those characters. It is as if the world grew up and acknowledged its short comings and worked to fix itself. The times when the old and new clash together show two different design philosophies struggling to communicate with each other just to please the fans.

Inquisition also boasts one of the more engaging representations of religion in fantasy or video games. Instead of the omnipresent Maker being a real and proven entity, their religions are more based on faith in ideas. They believe a Maker or God exists in some form, but it’s just a belief. People go to wars over beliefs and get into arguments over religion — it’s a welcome change from the “One True God” kind of fantasy we normally get. Your character can choose whether or not to be religious at all, you can spit in the face of those that call you the Herald of Andraste or commit to a lie to give the people something to believe in. And people will react accordingly. In my playthrough, I committed to telling people I was their Herald in an attempt to win favor and rally those to my cause; whether or not I truly believed in it didn’t matter.WarTable_WM_webThe thrust of the main narrative lies in someone believing themselves to be the next coming of a god in this world. It is the idea of a delusional person who will do whatever it takes to see their beliefs realized. As soon as you hit “Start New Game,” a massive explosion rips a hole in the sky during peace talks between Templars and Mages. At first, the world reacts as if this were a terrorist attack trying to denounce the Chantry and spin the world into chaos. You, as the lone survivor of this attack are accused of the crime. You are immediately flung into a years long conflict between Templars and Mages and a conflict surrounding religions. This is all while trying to find a way to seal a giant hole tearing the sky apart and threatening to swallow the world.

Once you encounter the main threat, Inquisition falls into some of the same narrative inconsistencies of Mass Effect 3 where the ever-present threat sits idly by as you solve the problems of the world. Inquisition does more to combat this logical leap by suggesting your threat is spending time building their forces, just as you are yours. Many of the main story missions focus on this directly. You only encounter the Big Bad a few times throughout the story, but each time he appears, he is a force to be reckoned with. The Inquisition gets knocked down more times than in most “save the world stories” with each victory costing some variation of sacrifice. The main narrative is engaging enough on its own, with deep introspective looks at faith and the unknown. The story is only further strengthened by the side stories told throughout.

Inquisition boasts a cast of varying social and economic identities that attempts to show the world through the many different lenses of the Dragon Age universe. It is, in many ways, the Star Trek: The Next Generation of fantasy casts. Everyone forms a much-needed view on the rest of the world, giving each story beat multiple different contexts and filling in pockets of detail where necessary. It creates a unique cast that feels alive; they are people you want to learn more about. But, as is the problem with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Inquisition finds itself lacking in conflict between characters.

This isn’t the worst thing in the world, after all there is always the looming threat of world ending bad guys, so everyone puts aside their differences and works together as a group. Of course, when some new, shadier characters come about, some party members may find them off-putting or request you not take them in. But, you’re the Inquisitor and they always defer to you for final say. While inter-character dramatic beats are few and far between, Inquisition does like to present scenes of characters interacting with each other in often comical or light-hearted moments. These scenes give a sense of a larger ensemble cast, rather than just scattered personalities.

Hinterlands_WM_01The drama for characters, then, is relegated to their individual stories. These quests mimic those of Mass Effect’s companion-specific quests, but never quite reach the highs of some of that series’ best efforts. Most quests revolve around talking through issues and killing a few random enemies, nothing all that different from the main narrative thrust. While they may not reach the explosive heights of Mass Effect’s companion quests, Inquisition makes up for it with one of the better casts in a Bioware game.

The characters are some of the most varied and personable Bioware has ever written; the problems they deal with are incredibly human and relatable to the real world. Dorian, for instance, wants his father to accept his sexuality and not try to change him. Or Cassandra, who worries about her wavering faith in the Chantry (the main human religion in Dragon Age). Most of the companion quests in Inquisition somehow link to the larger ongoing threat while still being personal to the individual, giving even more gravitas to completing them. Some characters, on the other hand, are given shorter shrift than others: Vivienne, for example, hardly gets much time for her story to develop, all the while her personality is clouded in mystery that makes connecting with her difficult.

Better yet, Bioware doesn’t allow you to romance all of your companions; some have other people in their lives or just don’t want to start a relationship right now. For the first time, Bioware seems to be treating romance with more reverence and forethought than just banging everyone for the faint praise of an achievement/trophy pop-up. Even the sex scenes themselves have more weight and personality to them. No longer are you just looking to hook up with someone, but form a genuine relationship with them — something Bioware has had trouble with in the past.

While you got to know them and formed a bond with them, most Bioware relationships before Inquisition were silent montages of polygons bumping together in feigned animations. Inquisition takes a different route, placing you in romantic situations of foreplay, or scenes where characters talk about their relationship, or your friends accidentally walking in during an intimate moment. Sex in Inquisition removes itself from those stilted animations and moves into a much more affectionate territory. And relationships themselves have very different connotations: my relationship with Iron Bull started off as casual sex that developed into something much more over time.

avengers-parody-enInquisition also boasts one of the most eclectic casts of various genders, sexualities, and races. The characters aren’t defined by their gender or sexuality either; they much broader and well-realized characters that surpass any basic qualification. It’s the opposite of generic fantasy with extremely racist and sexist tones. Here, women are in positions of power all across the world and anyone can be free to be in a relationship with anyone else. It still dabbles in a small bit of fantasy racism, but even that seems to be lifted and polished off — my female elf was originally talked down to and called “knife ear” until people understood that I was just as much a person as them (also being the chosen one certainly helped).

Of course, I didn’t spend 66 hours talking to characters and working the political and religious game, I also fought a bunch of monsters. Combat, like most of Inquisition, takes nods from both Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, trying to make combat a sweet spot of tactical action. However, that’s mostly only true when you’re fighting in story missions or dragons, really. You can engage with the more dynamic skill combinations to take down enemies, if you wish. Through most of the early game, though, you can hold down the main attack button and fire off a couple of spells or abilities and be fine. I didn’t bother with the tactical camera much, only using it during late-game fights when I needed to micromanage my party’s abilities.

I did reallot my skills and my party’s skills a number of times for better cool-down management and crowd control. Later in the game, you unlock class specializations that add more complexity to skill combinations. Once you get into more powerful and higher-leveled enemies, tactics take a much greater focus. I eventually turned my mage into a debuff, damage-dealing character. The depth of combat exists, if you’re willing to engage with it.

Screen7_ENWhen traveling the world fighting random mobs, combat is much more Dragon Age 2 than Origins. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, the combat is fine, it’s just nothing of any specific note. Spells fire off in dazzling effects and everything looks really great, but you’re not particularly challenged on the normal difficulty. They arbitrarily add a level of challenge by not refilling party health outside of battle and removing all healing spells from the game, forcing you to use the limited number of potions you can refill at any camp.

Inquisition is broken up into a number of large zones filled with a number of quests all their own. Most of these boil down to “return the ring to its rightful owner” or killing a number of enemy forces. Some, however, are much more dynamic quest designs that can change the makeup of an area. These quests give meaning to all the running around you’re doing, but they don’t change the fact that most quests are of the “go here, do a thing” variety. At times, the moment to moment gameplay of Inquisition can seem more inspired by the basic quests in Skyrim, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. Skyrim is a great game with a gluttony of content, same as Inquisition, yet the more engaging quest designs of both games are what people tend to remember, rather than what some might consider filler content.

The world you explore in Inquisition is vast and varied. The opening area of the Hinterlands is one inspired by generic fantasy, with green rolling hills dotted with tall pine trees and rocky terrain. Moving outward, you come across frozen landscapes and vast deserts.One area is a dense and beautiful old forest with trees taller than giants, almost glowing in vibrant green; you can hardly see the sky through the thickness of the trees. Architecture varies depending on geographical location and the culture of that area’s people. One area sees a forest burned to the ground by an ongoing war; spirits and demons now populate the deadened world. Each area is just as beautiful as the last, and many times it feels like absolute wonder exploring a new place. You see places that gives the world Dragon Age a larger sense of identity, further pushing it away from most fantasy environments.

Inquisition also features a war table where you send your advisor’s troops out on missions to further your reach. These missions are more about assigning people to carry out tasks for you, or open up new avenues for you to explore. Each of these missions (and all the quests you do) give you Power and Influence, two of the lesser systems in the game. Power opens up new areas for you to explore, while Influence gives you certain rewards. However, by the end of the game you are drowning in Power, I had a spare 203 Power at the end of the game with nothing to spend it on. It feels like an undercooked system to give weight to you controlling outcomes of the world.

CaptureI also ran into a number of small bugs that tended to pull me out of the world. Sometimes sound would cut out, or my party members would get hung up on geometry. Once, my save failed to load properly and another time I had the game completely crash. Luckily, the auto save is generous enough to where I never lost too much progress, and the recently released patch fixed most of my issues. But some characters and furniture still pop into the world which sort of takes you out of what is otherwise a terrific game.

While counting issues in Inquisition, something should be said for the stilted character animations. In some cutscenes my female elf slumped her shoulders and held her arms out in a wider frame, as if there was a base set of character animations for the player character that don’t necessarily fit all the different character builds. Sometimes heads would bob and move like they were disjointed from the neck and other times characters would just kind of fidget in weird ways, as if there weren’t enough frames of animation. It’s a small complaint, mostly, but it seems like Bioware has been getting by on the same style of animations since the original Mass Effect, and maybe with a new generation we could get more varied and lifelike animations to match the personalities and writing of the characters.

Even with those complaints, Dragon Age: Inquisition remains a fantastic RPG with a wonderful cast of characters and a nuanced world. The environments are all beautiful and varied and ache with story to be told. Inquisition represents the culmination of the Dragon Age world so far and also a new beginning for the franchise moving forward. Dragon Age: Inquisition is the game that has stayed in my mind for hours after playing, a game I want to keep talking about with other people. Not because I want to know what choices they made or who they romanced (although, those are interesting conversations to have and Iron Bull is the only answer), but because the world it presents is so unlike most fantasy and the characters are so well-realized. Bioware claimed Inquisition represents their design philosophy for RPGs in this generation, and if that’s the case, they are off to a terrific start.