BioWare is a game developer that has maintained a good reputation for making high quality games with engaging stories and well written characters. With titles like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect on their resume, the developer is one of the most celebrated western RPG developers. Despite BioWare’s impressive track record, the Dragon Age series has received very mixed reactions from the gaming community. The first game in the series, Dragon Age: Origins, was a highly celebrated title winning several awards including multiple Game of the Year awards, and it didn’t take long before a sequel was announced. Dragon Age 2 had a very short development cycle and the result was a game that was significantly smaller and less ambitious than its predecessor. While professional game reviews gave the game generally positive scores, the gaming community was outraged by the disappointment they felt after its release. The backlash hit BioWare’s community sites so hard they eventually chose to shut down the Dragon Age 2 forums all together, and to cancel the expansion pack they were developing. The announcement of the third game, Inquisition, was met with skepticism. The general consensus seemed to be that BioWare had a lot to prove after DA2. The developer was probably very aware of the importance of Inquisition. If the game failed to live up to expectations set by Origins, the franchise would be a lost cause. Inquisition was most likely their last chance to redeem the community’s faith in the series. After spending a lot of quality time with the game over the last month, I am ready to pass my judgment.
Saving the World With My Closest Friends
As in previous Dragon Age games, the first thing you will be introduced to is the character creation tool. Here you can choose the appearance, class and background story of your character. While you could only play as a human in Dragon Age 2, Inquisition brings back the possibility to play as Elves and Dwarves, in addition to adding a new playable race to the mix: The mysterious Qunari. The character creator is impressive and has a lot of depth. While it is possible to go for the easier route and chose one of the premade faces, the opportunities for making your own unique face seem almost unlimited. You can, for example, choose between Nose numbers 1-10, but you are also able to further manipulate each nose to look exactly like you want them. Small, large, pointy, round, broken, or scarred: the choices are all there for you to make your own personal Inquisitor. My only gripe with the character creation is that it is very lacking in choices of hairstyles. There weren’t many to choose from, and it was hard to find even one that I actually liked.
Immediately after the creating your Inquisitor, you are thrown head first into the game’s story. While many people were hoping for the different origin stories from Origins to return for this game, BioWare chose not to. There is no story sequence that will introduce you to the setting or to the world. While this is will be unproblematic for players who are familiar with the old games, BioWare has also done a good job of not making this transition difficult for new players. The story begins with the Inquisitor finding themself arrested and confused. People are talking over their head, debating how to deal with him/her. The character is as confused as the player possibly is. It doesn’t take long until a vague outline of what has caused this commotion is revealed. There has been an explosion of unknown origin at a diplomatic meeting. A lot of people died. Important people. To make matters worse, a rift in the sky has opened and demons are pouring out into the world. The only person to be found alive after these dramatic events is the Inquisitor, and this makes them a prime suspect. Problem is that while the Inquisitor knows they were at the meeting, they have no memory of what transpired there or who is responsible for the attack. It is up to you to figure out what actually happened and why, at the same time as saving the world from the demonic rifts that are opening all over Thedas. In true BioWare fashion, the story twists and turns from there. Many things are not as plain as they seem and difficult choices must be made that will shape the future of the world.
The writing in BioWare games has always been their strongest point, and Inquisition is no exception. The story is engaging and driven forward by a cast of well-developed characters. Some developments in the story had me amazed and some choices had me hesitating for several minutes before figuring out how I wanted to move forward. There is an emotional connection to the world and the characters that the writers are very good at establishing and using to their advantage. This makes some choices feel very personal, especially when you know they will have consequences for both the world and for your personal relationships.
On your journey to save the world from an initially unknown threat, you are joined by a varied cast of characters. Some will join you in battle as companions, some will serve at your base of operations as advisers, and others appear as supporting characters. There is great diversity among your supporters and each character has a unique personality and their own views on the world and your actions in it. It is with these characters as with people you meet in real life: some you will like and become close friends with, while others you won’t like as much. I’ve had my arguments with some characters over difference of opinions, for example. The world of Thedas is a political landscape, and you can see the good and bad on each side of arguments. It can therefore be hard to decide what side of the discussion you’re on, but once you do there is always someone who will disagree with that.
In the previous games it was possible to a certain extent to manipulate the approval of your companions. Even if your decisions resulted in a negative response from them, you could always get the rating back up by buying their affections with gifts. Give Leliana a nice pair of shoes and she will forget that little transgression when you had to kill a child possessed by a demon. No problem! In Inquisition, however, the approval system has been revamped and it is no longer possible to cheat your way to high ratings. While the rating system is still there, it is no longer visible as numbers on the character screen. In Origins, the rating went from -100 to 100, and the earned ratings were shown on the screen as numbers, like +15 for giving a nice gift. In Inquisition you still get prompts that inform you whether a character approves or not, but you don’t know exactly how high or low your rating currently is. The gift system has been completely removed. It is also not possible to avoid getting negative ratings for certain actions by not bringing characters with you. I’ll leave Zehvran at the camp so he won’t know I just slaughtered an elvish clan in cold blood. It’s not like any of my party members are going to tell him when we get back, right? No problem! However, in Inquisition you can get positive and negative reactions from characters even if they are not in your party. This makes it a new and refreshing challenge to build friendships, romantic relationships, and trust with your companions and it feels a lot more dynamic and realistic. When you get to key scenes that show the friendships between different characters, they feel all the more significant as it took a lot of time and effort to create that connection. With the fantastic writing behind these characters’ personalities and background stories, it really feels like you actually know them.
I’d also like to briefly mention the relationships between characters, and not just their relationships with your character. As you play the game, you will see many scenes involving your companions spending time with each other, reflecting that there are other friendships and rivalries developing around you. Some characters even fall in love with each other and start relationships. This makes the world feel a lot more alive and real than previous BioWare games. It’s not just about you and your relationships; everyone else has a life of their own as well.
While the story, setting, and characters help you get very immersed in the game, there is unfortunately some cosmetic issues that can easily break that spell. In true BioWare fashion, the character animations are as stiff and awkward as ever. This has been a problem as far back as the first Mass Effect game. While the graphics department has seen a huge improvement over the years, the animation department has been lagging behind. Most characters walk as if they have a stick up their behind or look as if they are in desperate need of a toilet break. The heads a wobbling back and forth in awkward ways during conversations, and don’t get me started on the weird hand gestures. In a game that does so many things so well, the animations stand out like a sore thumb and can be very distracting in certain scenes. I’m trying to focus on a characters dramatic tale of childhood trauma, and all I can think of is how he should probably get that issue with his neck checked out by a healer. I hope that BioWare will get better at the animations in their future games.
An Open, Dynamic World
The world you get to explore in Inquisition is bigger and more varied than in the previous Dragon Age games. You got to explore many parts of the lands of Ferelden in Origin, and only the city of Kirkwall and surrounding areas in DA2. Put together the areas in Inquisition and you have a bigger area to explore than the two previous games put together. There are new areas to explore in Ferelden, but now you also get to explore the neighboring country Orlais. The world is also a lot more open to exploration than before and the developers seem to have taken inspiration from games like Skyrim. It’s not a fully open world though. The areas are isolated from each other like in previous DA games and you select which area you want to travel to on the world map. Once you get to the designated area, you are free to go wherever you want. The areas are very big in size and full of quests, so you can easily spend several hours exploring each of them. Graphically, the world is simply stunning. It is easy to see that BioWare has put a lot of effort into every environment. Inquisition is the best looking game that they have released until now and is a huge improvement from their previous release (Mass Effect 3). I found myself taking time to simply marvel at the different areas in the game before moving on. Everything from the water effects to the snowy mountaintops far in the distance look beautiful. The game truly looks a like a next gen release.
Each area in the game have a very unique feel and setting. Some cover the usual environments you often see in RPG games, like the snow area, the desert, and the forest, but others are more original. There are weather effects that changes things up and a wide variety for monsters and creatures that inhabit the lands. The areas all have their own storyline that helps them establish their setting from the moment you arrive. The first area you get to, for example, is being torn apart by a war between rogue Templars and mages. There are refugees who are in desperate need of protection and supplies. So, naturally, it is up to you and your newly founded Inquisition to help sort things out. What usually happens in big open world games is that you complete a lot of quests but it never really affects the world around you. I was very excited to see that as I spent more time in each area, I could see the results of my efforts. It isn’t very big differences, but the small things can mean a lot. For example, after completing quests that revolved around driving away bandits that were robbing refugees I started seeing people traveling on the roads because they were now safe again. Details like that make a big impact in making you feel like your efforts matter and that you are actually making things better. Furthermore, Inquisition avoids the trope of having you do a lot of menial quests that doesn’t really amount to anything except an experience boost. While some quests are similar to the ‘kill 10 wolves’ stuff you often get in these types of games, you are rewarded with Power and Influence. You need Power to unlock new areas, complete certain quests, and continue the story. Influence increases the level of the Inquisition and allows you to unlock some very useful perks, like experience boosts and weapon schematics. Because of this system, even the smallest quest feels like it’s connected to a bigger, important purpose. No task seems too menial as I know it will make me and my organization more powerful.
In addition to being a source of quests, the different areas also offer a range of resources to collect. Some of these are dropped from enemies, while others are collected in the wilds. The resources are well worth taking the time to collect as they are used to craft and improve weapons, armor and potions. The crafting system is simple at first glance. Find a schematic, add appropriate resources, and you have yourself a new dagger. Look a bit closer, and you can see that weapons and armor can be modified to your liking depending on which materials you use. Bear hides will give different stats than goat hides, so it’s up to you if you want to make an armor based on magic resistance or health bonuses, or something different all together. There is a lot of freedom to the crafting as long as you have the resources.
The drawback of having areas of this size to explore is the bugs that appear every so often. Some are of no real consequence, like NPC’s suddenly appearing in front of you or being unable to pick up resources off the ground because the prompts does not appear. However, I have encountered a few bugs that have bigger ramifications and have forced me to reload or restart the game to get rid of them. For example, I have experienced that the command wheel has suddenly stopped working. This really became a problem when it happened in combat as I could not issue commands to my party, nor use any potions. In some instances I had to watch my party get slaughtered before having to reload a save to fix the issue. In other instances the ability to change which party character I controlled stopped working. Again, this became a real issue in combat, and only a reload would make it work again. In addition to the gameplay bugs, there are also some bigger bugs that have been reported. Many players have experienced that even if they make a male character, the game thinks they are playing as a female, or vice versa. This is impossible to fix once it happens and there is no other choice but to start a new game and create a new character. There are also many issues related to importing the world state and decisions players made in previous games from Wardens Keep. This means that the decisions players made in Origins and DA2 that could have affected the world in one way or the other are not incorporated into the game. Instead, the player is stuck with what BioWare has decided to be the ‘default’ world. While this might not bother everyone as much as it does others, it’s still affecting a significant part of the immersion in the game world. I personally like to hear people talking about the things I did the previous games and what they think of it. Hearing a decision that a stranger made does not have the same impact. Granted, BioWare is currently working on patches to fix these bugs and more, but that doesn’t help the players who have already had bad experiences because of them.
Fluid and Fun Combat
The real time combat system has been one area of the Dragon Age franchise that has gotten a lot of mixed feedback. With Inquisition it seems like BioWare wants to merge the good points of both the strategic combat in Origins and the more action oriented combat of DA2. While the combat is very fluid and feels good to play, it still feels like it lacks the strategic depth that Origins had. While it is possible to enter a strategic view of the combat and micro-manage every character’s action, it never felt necessary in my playthrough. You can also stop or slow down time so that you can choose positioning and abilities with very high accuracy and exact timing. Playing through Origins I used this way of approaching combat a lot. The game was very challenging, and I felt that using the strategic view was necessary to save myself a lot of problems. I also really enjoyed to play a game that demanded this much of me to succeed. While playing on Hard Mode in Inquisition I did meet my share of challenging battles. Some were so difficult I had to focus on getting better gear and higher levels before coming back and attempt it again. Despite this, I never felt that the strategic screen was needed and I got through every encounter without too much hassle once my equipment was of a decent level. It might be that playing on the extra hard Nightmare Mode will make me need to micro-manage a lot more during boss fights, but I did just fine without it on Hard.
The leveling up system is similar to the one found in Dragon Age 2, but with some differences. You no longer get points to use to build up your stats; the game does that automatically for you. While it excludes some customization options, you no longer need to worry about a character that becomes too unbalanced and will have trouble in the later stages of the game. The abilities the characters can learn are sorted into 4 different skill trees. You can choose to focus on only one or two skill trees or put some points in all of them. Spreading your points out will prevent you from getting the strongest skills of each tree. There is no need to worry about messing up your choices of skills as you can buy items that will reset the skill points of a character and let you re-customize them. This makes the character customization a straight forward and risk free endeavor. It does, however, allow for experimentation in finding combinations of skills that make the characters work better together.
During combat you can also use some commands to control your entire party. These commands are very basic and consists of ‘Attack Same Target’ which will have everyone attack the same target as you, ‘Hold’ that will have them keep their positions, and ‘Disengage’ which will have them put away their weapons and allow for a quicker get away. I would have liked there to be more of these commands to easier make my party behave a certain way without having to pause the combat and instruct them one by one. To have an option to tell them to keep their distance, or focus on support spells/abilities would go a long way.
Since you are only controlling one character at the time during combat (though you can switch to any other party member at the push of a button), the game has the option to set your own behavioral pattern on each character. This system has sadly been very stripped down since the previous games. While in previous games you could go very in depth and more or less program your own AI for combat, Inquisition has only a very basic selection of commands. You can choose what skills the character can use and not, how much stamina they can burn, and how many potions they can use. I really miss the opportunity to make custom behavior patterns for characters that I can change when I need them. While using a mage as a primary damage dealer, there are times I would have liked to have him change his behavior and focus more on casting supporting spells on the melee characters. As the system stands now, there is only one set of behavior for each character and if you need them to do something else you will have to try to override this behavior as best as you can yourself.
A new layer of strategy that has been added to the combat that I found very interesting is the complete removal of healing spells and items. You have 8 healing potions at your disposal, but there is no way to refill them unless you go back to camp and rest. This means that after a challenging battle you are faced with a decision: Do I fast travel back to the camp and heal up, or do I press on with only 2 potions left? You never know what could be waiting around the next corner, but it is also a bit of a hassle to backtrack all that way. The system also makes battles harder because that you can’t survive everything as long as you have 100 potions in your inventory. You only have a small handful and you must use them wisely.
While the combat feels good while playing, it also looks fantastic. This is especially true for the mage spells. If you have more than one mage in your party that focus on different elemental spells, you are in for an impressive display of fireworks that is as devastating as it is flashy. Rogues and Warriors also have some moves that look cool and are well implemented into the combat, but it is the mages that draw the longest straw this time around. Nothing feels better than defeating that really hard boss and looking awesome while doing it.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantastic game that not only lives up to the legacy of Origins, but in some areas even manages to surpass it. The story is engaging and fun with enough twists and hard decisions to keep you on your toes. The companions are well written with strong personalities and opinions. It’s easy to connect to them and care about them. The world you get to explore is bigger than the previous games combined, and each area has several hours worth of content. The world is varied and each area unique both in how the environment looks and the story they offer. The combat system feels very fluid and is a lot of fun. You can customize each character, their abilities, and behavior to fit your play style, but the system is not deep enough and leaves a lot to be desired. The game is also riddled with bugs. Some are small and won’t affect the gameplay in any way, while others can break your game, forcing you to reload. In addition, the game has very awkward character animations that can easily break immersion. Despite the bugs and minor flaws, Inquisition stands as one of the best games to be released this year, and one of the best RPGs I have played in a very long time. With this game BioWare has re-established Dragon Age as a high quality game series and the future of the franchise is looking bright.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is available on: PS4 (played), Xbox One, PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360