Bioware are one of few developers in the gaming scene whose fanbase is as devoted and earnest as the games they create. Nowhere has this been demonstrated better than the release of 2012’s Mass Effect 3, whose lackluster ending spurred a movement that successfully forced Bioware to go back to the drawing board and release a free extended ending DLC. The developer’s other flagship franchise, Dragon Age, has fared similarly, with the first game, Origins, regarded as one of the greatest RPGs ever made, while its sequel sneered at as a betrayal of nearly everything that made its predecessor popular.
With the third game in the series, Inquisition, Bioware has pulled out all the stops to craft what is perhaps their most ambitious and longest game to date. A massive, novel length adventure spanning over 80 hours of gameplay, Bioware have perfected their storytelling craft to create a truly incredible narrative experience that, perhaps, will only be matched by CD Projekt’s upcoming The Witcher 3. It must be said, however, that a healthy knowledge of Dragon Age lore is required to have a full grasp of what is going on. The game throws you into the plot right away, and even though I played and finished the previous two games, it took a while for me to get a handle on what was going on because the game assumes that your memory of all things Dragon Age is fresh.
In Inquisition, you take on the entirely new role of the Inquisitor, a person gifted with the ability to close demon-spewing rifts that are plaguing the world of Thedas. Because of your special ability, you are made the leader of the Inquisition, a movement that seeks to restore order to the land. Throughout your adventure, you’ll encounter a vast array of characters, many of whom reprise their roles from previous Dragon Age games. The focal point of this cast, of course, is your own character and the nine companions you can recruit into your team.
From the very beginning of the game, you have a tremendous number of options to craft the Inquisitor you desire. You even have some leeway with voice options, as each gender has two different voice actors to choose from. The plethora of dialogue options available to you throughout the game allows you to truly define the kind of person your Inquisitor is beneath the surface. For example, many characters will ask if you are indeed the divine being that the masses perceive you as, and in my case I always expressed uncertainty, although the game allows you to either approve or dispel these rumors as well. Over the course of the game, your character will go from a nobody to the leader of a powerful movement who often decides the fate of both individuals and entire groups of people, and the journey is a pleasure to be involved in.
However, if there’s a complaint I have in this department, it’s that some of your character’s dialogue can come off as cliched and uninspired. One of the greatest reasons I bonded so well with my characters from previous Bioware games was that the dialogue options available to you were so well written and often filled to the brim with zingers and rebukes that made you go “Ooh!” One of my greatest joys in gaming came during Dragon Age: Origins when a distraught teenage elf finally opened up to me about his love problems after I calmly told him: “Tell me before I kick your head in.” It was great because it was such a wonderful foil to what would have otherwise been a cliched teen-romance subplot. Sadly, Bioware’s writers have chosen to play it a little safer with the Inquisitor, and while you will no doubt come to bond and identify with your protagonist, it won’t reach the 110% that previous Bioware games have managed.
Meanwhile, unlike Dragon Age II’s dull and grating companions, the ones in Inquisition are lively and diverse, not just in their race, sexuality and abilities, but their personalities and interpersonal banter. Figuring out what makes them tick and what they stand for is in itself a great activity and a testament to the game’s strong writing, and unlike previous games, how much they like or dislike you isn’t overtly quantified, allowing for conversations between them to feel more natural and less of a strategic affair. My particular favorites were Sera, a bubbly elven archer whose energetic and sarcastic personality serves as a great foil to the more serious and aloof types like Vivienne, and Blackwall, a Gray Warden whose stoic nature is only matched by his beard.
Given the scale of Inquisition’s story, it makes sense that Bioware has created, for the first time in their history, a vast open world that is fully explorable. While the environments don’t reach the level of scale as the Elder Scrolls or Far Cry games, they are still filled with areas to explore, with plenty of verticality and lots of hidden stories to uncover in every cave and abandoned house. You’re given the option to ride around these places on a mount, and this is a much needed asset given the size of the locales you visit. It’s a bit lazy on Bioware’s part that your companions sort of vanish into thin air once you get on your mount and reappear when you dismount, but regardless, a larger game world is certainly a welcome improvement to the series and helps to show off Inquisition’s stunning graphics.
With a larger story and larger environment brings a larger array of things to do. Aside from its compelling and epic main story, Inquisition features loads of quests for you to partake in, and almost all of them are in some way to the benefit of your fledgling movement. Taking a huge page from Mass Effect 3, the game puts you in command of not just your squad of warriors, but an entire army. You have to be on the lookout for supplies, ingredients and materials to strengthen your forces, and initially the array of responsibilities assigned to you can be intimidating, but ultimately they all serve as options you can pursue to improve your chances on the battlefield.
And speaking of the battlefield, Inquisition is a pretty tough game as far as combat goes. Much of this has to do with the fact that enemies in various locations do not scale with your level, and as such picking your battles is just as important as knowing how to fight them. The game helpfully lets you know what level your character should be at before embarking on a major quest, but it doesn’t extend the same courtesy anywhere else. This is particularly problematic in some areas, such as the opening Hinterlands level, because only a few meters from your main camp is a horde of monsters that will be well beyond your abilities until you advance to their level.
But perhaps my biggest beef with Inquisition is, sadly, its combat system. Don’t get me wrong, the game is functionally competent in this department and you’ll still have to exercise a degree of tactical prowess to overcome your foes. However, Bioware have inexplicably truncated the AI Tactics that were a cornerstone of the Dragon Age series. The previous two games allowed you to set up very specific parameters for your teammates to follow. You could, for example, have your warrior activate a defensive skill if his health dropped below a certain level, or have your mage avoid melee encounters. This has all been severely watered down in Inquisition to a more simplified version that covers very basic parameters, like when to drink health potions and which targets to prioritize. All of your playable characters have the same rudimentary parameters and you cannot add or subtract any of them. Only the Maker knows what form of madness was plaguing Bioware when they decided to castrate this crucial element of Dragon Age.
The absence of customized tactics leads to increased micromanagement, in which you have to switch between characters to make minute adjustments. This wouldn’t be so bad if your teammates’ AI wasn’t so idiotic when it came to specific strategic moves. You can order your team to hold their position, but use a ranged weapon on a distant enemy and they instantly disobey you and charge into battle. You can take control of your archer to jump to higher ground for a better shooting position, but switch away from her and she will instantly leap off her perch and get dangerously close to the action. Because the game lacks specific AI parameters, your companions will use all their skills willy nilly, and this is annoying because certain skills are better left for the player to activate. An example of this is the Charging Bull skill which, left to the AI’s whims, can lead to your follower charging straight off a cliff.
Additionally, some of the combat encounters are outrageously difficult, particularly because the game has no healing spells. Instead, you have a fixed supply of health potions that your party shares. Once you use all of those up, you have to replenish by going back to a campsite. This is contrary to previous Dragon Age games, where one could stock up on loads and loads of healing potions, or use a mage and his or her replenishing mana to restore the party.
The results of this abomination of a design choice are situations like these: One quest involved me hunting for bears. Even though I was at the same level with them, the sheer number of bears and their high damage and high health, along with the afore-mentioned limited health potions, made the battle impossible to win. I was forced to retreat to a campsite, with the bears following me the entire way there. In the end, I just sat my party at the camp, hacking away at the bears, using up health potions within minutes, and then instantly restoring them all by clicking on one of the tents. It is a tactic that won the battle, but it completely broke the immersion and made me feel like I was exploiting the game rather than fighting fairly.
A similar, more severe scenario occurred at a crucial story quest battle about 20 hours in. My party had to ready an onager to fire at a crucial target, and this entailed directly controlling one of your party members and holding the action button down to turn the lever to operate the machine. Meanwhile, hordes of enemies were attacking my party, and this wouldn’t have been so bad if A: there weren’t so many of them, and B: I could actually switch to a fighting party member, because switching away from the member operating the lever would cause him or her to stop doing it, and C: the game didn’t have its stupid limited healing potion design, because once you use them all up, that’s it. For that specific story mission, there was no campsite to retreat to, and combined with the fact that your party members regain a pitiful amount health upon revival, I had to once again resort to unsavory tactics to win.
Essentially, I had my archer, the lone survivor, retreat to the farthest corner of the map, where the enemies couldn’t be bothered to follow. From there, I simply stood very far away and picked them off with her bow and arrow. The enemy AI is very easily exploited in this regard, as they will simply stand around like morons while being punctured by arrows. It took a very, very long time to pull this off, but it was a slow but sure way to win and at that point I had little desire to restart the whole thing and put myself through further frustration. There’s nothing wrong with a game being difficult, but it has to be fair and afford you the tools to triumph. Although Inquisition is a challenging game, there are moments like the ones I described that are only hard because of foolish design choices, such as the truncation of AI tactics and the potion system. In the end, Inquisition doesn’t change its combat mechanics which worked so well in the previous games, but it removes important player tools that made those combat mechanics so good.
The Final Verdict
Ultimately, what will carry Dragon Age Inquisition is its characters and story. Without spoiling anything, this truly is one of gaming’s landmark titles that will raise expectations for videogame writing. Like many good stories, it bides its time before unfurling its greatest moments, and while it takes a solid ten to fifteen hours before Inquisition really gets going, it is all in service to a greater long term reward. Inquisition also has competent gameplay, but it is truly one of the greatest mysteries why Bioware chose to “fix” something that was never broken and screwing with the combat system that worked perfectly fine in Dragon Age Origins, which still in my opinion remains the best game in the series. This is not a game for fans of hack n’ slash RPGs or the easily distracted; this is a game for those who are willing to give it the same amount of attention they would give their favorite novel or three hour movie. In conclusion, Dragon Age Inquisition is a fine game that is easily recommendable to both fans of the series and newcomers because its story and characters are so rich that they make its shortcomings just barely tolerable.
+One of its kind storytelling and characters
+Vast and beautiful environments to explore
-Extremely questionable combat system design choices