I must admit to a spot of hubris upon seeing the intro paragraph to RPS’s review of Dragon Age: Inquisition. “I’ve spent almost sixty hours uncovering as much of Inquisition’s enormous open world and intricate story as possible”? Yeah, there was some eye-rolling going on when I read that. This is Bioware we’re talking about, who have cut and cut and cut at the core concept of the RPG until it consisted of nothing more than a dull series of linear dungeons propped up by their character writing, which is still consistently above average. There’s also the fact that games journalists are paradoxically terrible at actually playing the products they review for a living; as a general rule of thumb you can take any time they quote for completion of a game and cut it in half to get the actual length1. And after the debacle that was Dragon Age 2 I’d mercifully insulated myself from any further publicity for the series, assuming that Inquisition would at best be more along the lines of a semi-decent fantasy Mass Effect than a proper, meaty RPG. Eminently disposable, in other words. I thought I’d be able to blast through it in a weekend and then move on to the next item on the huge list of games I have to play.
Forty hours later, and I am forced to admit I might have been mistaken.
Inquisition represents a remarkable return to form for Bioware. More than that, it’s the first time2 they’ve really departed from the stock formula they’ve had for their games ever since KOTOR and tried something new. I’m not going to call the end result an unmitigated success — Inquisition does have some fairly big problems — but it’s undeniably better off for the innovation and is at least partially successful in its attempt to move away from the stripped-down style of RPG that Bioware did so much to sculpt. Instead, Inquisition perhaps overcompensates by making sprawling scope the centerpiece of everything it does. Rather than being in control of some plucky adventuring party you’re given command of the titular Inquisition, a vast organisation with hundreds of spies, soldiers and diplomats at your beck and call. Rather than trudge through a series of linear, scripted dungeon experiences you’re instead set loose in a collection of fully explorable open world maps that draw heavy inspiration from Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed. The game suffers from the odd case of invisible wall syndrome, but the usual rule is that anywhere you can see, you can get to. There are dragons flying around these maps. You can go and fight them at any time, but beware — even when you’re max level they’re much tougher than the pushovers found in Skyrim, being more reminiscent of the dragon battles from Baldur’s Gate. Still, there’s nothing really stopping you from going and getting yourself eaten at level one if you really want to. Handing this much choice to the player is a dramatic shift in priorities for the series, and a welcome one too – mechanically speaking, Inquisition couldn’t be further from Dragon Age 2 if it tried, which can only be a good thing.
While the open world maps are the headline change here, I actually think it’s the lesser of Inquisition’s improvements. As a consequence of Bioware’s use of the Frostbite engine used to power Battlefield they are unfailingly pretty, with the coastal areas in particular using Frostbite’s weather effects to good purpose. The scenery is varied enough that each area feels different, too, and the game even provides a number of mounts to speed up your travel from place to place. However, they are if anything too big – not for me as a player, I’m all for huge sprawling environments that take hours to clear, but it’s clear that Bioware have had… difficulty, shall we say, in coming up with enough interesting quests and encounters to populate these maps. There’s a definite whiff of collectible-itis about many of the activities on offer, while many of the actual quests are simple Fedex visit-a-point-on-the-map-and-maybe-kill-some-monsters affairs. Thankfully there is enough actual content to make these open world maps worthwhile, and I think they bring a lot to the table and would definitely like to see more Bioware games that refined them as a concept. Because they could do with refining; I enjoyed the smaller maps more than I did the larger one not because they were smaller, but because they were more focused. I think the bigger maps could maybe have benefited from that sort of direction rather than the current approach of throwing stuff at the wall and hoping some of it sticks.
Where the maps do succeed, however, is in the injection of a large quantity of optional content that is genuinely optional. Those dragons I mentioned earlier? At no point does any quest, main plot-related or otherwise, require you to find and kill one. If you do hunt one down it’s done entirely on your own initiative — because you decided you wanted to kill a dragon, not because the game did. If you were to bulldoze through Inquisition’s main plotline from start to finish and only went to the areas you absolutely had to in order to complete the game, you wouldn’t even visit half of the maps on offer. Of the rest you’d see maybe 60% of their content, with the remainder requiring some additional exploration or questing to unlock. That’s both Inquisition’s great strength and its greatest failing: the main plot merely sits on top of this vast underlying world rather than the main plot being the world. While this is one of the contributing factors to Inquisition’s plot seeming unusually insubstantial (for a Bioware game, anyway) it also means exploration means something. You’re not just ticking boxes or doing a quick two minute side quest, you’re seeing a lot of stuff you genuinely wouldn’t see if you didn’t venture off the beaten path. Doing so is not without risk since it’s entirely possible to run into high-level baddies that wipe the floor with your party, but exploration wouldn’t be any fun if it wasn’t at least a little dangerous.
The open world maps are a broadly positive addition to Dragon Age, then. However, they end up playing second fiddle to the real innovation Inquisition makes: the titular Inquisition itself. Since I knew nothing about this game before I bought it I expected the Inquisition to be the bad guys — it’s hardly a name bereft of cultural association — but about an hour into the game the player character is put in practical command of it3 and you get access to its resources and personnel. This alone puts a hugely different spin on how the game feels; you’re in charge of an army, not a handful of emotionally-damaged NPCs, and the flavour of your activities in-game changes dramatically as a result. You goal is to build the Inquisition’s power from a small group of religious fanatics into a continent-bestriding colossus that rivals nations in its power, which means that your day-to-day concerns go some way beyond acquiring a sharper axe or a shinier suit of armour. Instead you’re sending out spies to investigate rumours, lending your soldiers to the efforts of fending off attacks by bandits, darkspawn and other nasties, and dispatching diplomats to smooth things over with a cranky noble class.
Because you do a lot through your agents in this game you need some way of interacting with them, which is where the War Room comes in. This is a map of Thedas that’s liberally covered in mission markers for you to attempt; you have three advisors representing your spies, your military and your diplomatic corps, each of whom can turn their attention to a mission on the map. The advisors each have a different approach, and so the outcome of a mission can change depending on who you pick to tackle it. Once an advisor is assigned to one mission they’re rendered unavailable for other missions until a completion timer counts down, and this can be anything from a few minutes to twenty hours long. Thankfully it counts down when you’re not playing the game too so it’s not totally unreasonable, but even if you’re stretching your playthrough out over a sane amount of time it’s impossible to do even half of what’s on the map in a single game.
I have mixed feelings about this way of doing things. Yes, the whole timer business is a little too much like a Facebook game, but in this case it’s meant to force you into some hard choices; you can’t do everything, so you have to pick and choose what’s most important. I don’t really have a problem with the timers. Where I do have a problem is the missions themselves; some of them do lead to other missions unlocking on the map, some of them have pretty good rewards, and some of them are inherently entertaining in and of themselves even though they’re just text in a box. Unfortunately there’s far too many missions that are just plain inconsequential, where the reward you get for committing your advisor is two sentences of flavour text and sixty gold. These don’t exactly make me feel like I’m spreading my influence through the world; instead they feel like a smaller version of the issue with the open world maps, where there’s a lot of trivial shit stuffed into the thing in order to make it look like there’s plenty to do.
The missions also represent something of a missed opportunity when it comes to your unused party members. Bioware games have had this problem since the dawn of time, where you run around the universe with your bestest buddies and everyone else gets left on the ship to twiddle their thumbs; except for Garrus and his calibrations, exactly what they got up when you weren’t there was something of a mystery. Involving them in the missions would have given them something to do, and while it might have disrupted that feeling of having to make hard choices with limited resources that feeling is arguably a mirage anyway thanks to how pointless most of the missions are beyond their flavour.
Speaking of party members, I think Inquisition falls down a bit here in an area where Bioware is traditionally so strong. Not since Knights of the Old Republic have I wanted to punch so many of my party members right in the face; Cassandra, Varric and Iron Bull are all pretty cool (Cassandra and Varric in particular have so many lines needling each other that I was still hearing new ones twenty hours into the game) but there isn’t a single recruitable mage who isn’t completely insufferable, while Sera is the walking embodiment of “lol so quirky!” that fans of Bioware games inevitably latch on to and repeat phrases from ad infinitum. There were nameless Inquisition footsoldiers who were more likeable than this lot, and I resented having to save the world with such a bunch of jerks.
Anyway, back to the War Room. The missions are a bit of a mixed bag, yes, but I do like the idea and they succeed in promoting the idea that you’re in charge of an organisation with influence that goes beyond the room you’re currently standing in. A better use of the War Room, though, is in how you open up new areas. As you complete quests and slay demons in the world you’re rewarded with the usual experience and loot, but also something called Power. Power represents the support and influence your Inquisition can bring to bear on a problem; amass enough of it and you can spend it in the War Room to establish a beachhead in new areas. This makes thematic sense as well as being a neat mechanic to govern progression — of course fighting your way into a region infested by monsters is going to take expendable manpower — and the really nice thing about it is that it’s occasionally used to unlock new areas within a map by repairing a bridge or clearing a rockslide, so spending your Power in the War Room directly changes the world you’re exploring. Inquisition is pretty on the ball in rationalising abstract game mechanics we take for granted as the result of your organisation working to achieve your goals — for example, the fast travel points ubiquitous to open world games are presented here as your Inquisition forces setting up camps in the regions you’re exploring. In certain areas you can capture and claim forts that are subsequently inhabited by Inquisition troops, while there are missions on the War Room map that let you build docks and other facilities in areas you’ve been through and cleared. It’s nothing particularly meaningful in terms of what it gets you in terms of loot and experience, but it does paint a convincing picture of the world changing in response to your actions.
The bulk of Inquisition’s gameplay is about expanding the Inquisition’s power in this way. Opening up more areas and conquering more land is pretty engrossing, which is why I got pretty annoyed that this thing called “the plot” kept intruding on my War Room scheming. Mainly this was because Inquisition’s plot is both paper thin and incredibly bad; it starts with a huge explosion taking out a peace summit between warring factions of mages and templars which subsequently creates rips in reality that spawn demons. I thought that closing these dimensional rifts was going to be the focus of the game — which would have been fine, it’s pretty world-threatening and I’m sure you can work in some additional threats trying to take advantage of it — but unfortunately the writers apparently get bored of it about ten hours in and hit you with the real bad guy, who is some nobody from Dragon Age 2 that I don’t even remember. This might be Bioware’s obsession with characters from tie-in fiction receiving prominent roles in their games, but he’s presented with little to no explanation of who he is or why I should care about him, and proceeds to sit on his ass for nearly the entire rest of the game. I’m fairly sure that in the thirty hour gap between him showing up and me burying a mace in his skull during the final boss battle he made a grand total of one appearance in person and one as a sort of hologram type thing, and I actually forgot he existed for large portions of the game, which should tell you something about how effective he is as a villain.
The rest of the plot isn’t much better; it’s used as an excuse for some pretty fun quests but the actual story behind it is incomprehensible rubbish. It’s also painfully obvious that the “choices” presented to you during the course of it are meaningless; a typical example is when you’re asked which character should stay behind to sacrifice themselves for the cause, except it doesn’t matter because the survivor is immediately hustled out of the story rather than create any inconveniently branching plotlines. I will say that despite spending a good half hour setting up my game state in Dragon Age Keep it apparently didn’t import correctly and I ended up with the default version, which is really, really dull. Maybe if those choices had made it through I wouldn’t have experienced such a bland playthrough.
Still, for once you’re not playing a Bioware title for the plot. You’re playing it for the world and for the atmosphere, and it really does deliver on both those counts. It’s the biggest RPG Bioware have put out in years, and it is for the most part a very enjoyable one. It also comes with a co-op multiplayer mode that’s patterned after Mass Effect 3′s unexpectedly excellent one, which has allowed them to refine their combat system in a similar manner; it suffers from control issues but as long as you’re content with controlling one character at a time it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It took me forty hours before I even started to get bored, and I only invoked the end of the game because I thought the Keep import issue meant I was getting less out of it than I should. I want to play through it again when I have a graphics card that can do its world full justice. I want to see all the areas and secrets I missed. I want to kill all of the dragons. There is so much to do in this game, and while those forty hours have gone some way beyond scratching the surface I haven’t even come close to seeing all of what Dragon Age Inquisition has to offer. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s pretty, engaging and scratches that exploration itch, and in this way it’s the closest title to the original Baldur’s Gate that Bioware have made since. Given how much I like Baldur’s Gate, this is high praise indeed.
- I have no idea what it is they do to inflate the time by 100%, but it certainly isn’t playing the damn thing. ↩
- I’ve just gone back and looked at my DA2 review and it turns out I started it almost exactly the same way! So let’s call this the first successful time they’ve departed from their stock formula. ↩
- A nice and appreciated touch is that it isn’t until several hours later that you’re put in actual command of the Inquisition. They don’t just hand it to you from the start because you’re the player character and you’re super special; instead, you have to spend some time proving yourself to its members before they accept you as leader in name as well as fact. It’s one of the few things about the plot that was well thought-out. ↩