BioWare is back after a two year absence from the high-end console gaming scene with another epic fantasy RPG in its Dragon Age series. Dragon Age: Inquisition marks the third game in the series, and it is the first developed using EA's breathtaking Frostbite Engine 3.
Most fans of the franchise don't exactly hold the previous game, Dragon Age II in high regard, especially when compared to the first game, Dragon Age: Origins. Because of this, Dragon Age: Inquisition has seen quite a few delays over the course of its development to make sure that the famed RPG development team gets everything done right.
BioWare, the one and only, has finally made its debut on the next-gen consoles. How does it hold up?
A New BioWare for a New (Dragon) Age
Unlike a lot of series fans, I didn't hate Dragon Age II. I loved the characters and the writing, and I liked the cohesive art style as well. But the game was way too small in scope, riddled with bugs, and worst of all, repetitive.
The team behind the series took a couple years off, though, as you said. Instead of pumping a whole new game out in 18 months, they gave us three and a half years since the release of that previous entry, allowing us to forget our pain and giving them the time necessary to work on a much more worthy successor.
Where Dragon Age II felt small in scale and repetitive, Inquisition offers variety, vastness, and tons of options around every bend.
You mentioned consoles a couple times above, but I wanted to make mention right away that while you played the game on PlayStation 4, I've been working my way through it on PC.
Yes, I still have not evolved properly into a PC gamer.
Unlike you, I did not play Dragon Age II, but I did enjoy my time with the first one. The 18 month development cycle and bugs scared me off from ever picking it up, but when you talk about scope, that's where I begin to wonder a little bit.
Most of my experience with BioWare comes from Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Jade Empire. While all of these are non-linear RPGs full of choice, they are all very tight games that allow their storytelling and RPG mechanics to unfold a lot more fluidly than something which takes place in an open-world.
Dragon Age: Inquisition does feature pretty typical BioWare storytelling archetypes like a cataclysmic event and a group of colorful heroes rallying to put a stop to it, but I feel that the open-ended nature of it puts a little too much distance between the gameplay and the story this time around.
For me, it was a little bit more difficult to get into because it leans a bit towards what makes modern big games so popular and not enough of what traditionally makes BioWare the best RPG storytellers around.
I've Been Everywhere, Man
Dragon Age: Inquisition is, in a word, gorgeous. I've played tons of open world games this year, and each has its strengths. Inquisition might be the best looking one yet. It strikes a great balance on all counts – characters, architecture, and natural elements – between a realistic look and more fantastic elements that move it closer to high fantasy than low.
The game isn't an open world in the same sense as something like Assassin's Creed where you have one contiguous environment to roam around. Instead, the game is split up into areas – a primary hub and world regions that span across a continental map.
What this allowed the artists to do is create visually distinct areas without having to make some reason up for why this area was so different from that one ten feet away.
So we get areas like the Western Approach, the Emerald Graves, and the Storm Coast. The first is a barren desert that looks like something halfway between the dunes of the Sahara and the geology of Utah. The Emerald Graves is a massive forest of towering trees, a fairy-tale environment complete with an abandoned mansion, prancing deer and, for balance, some well-armed bandits. The Storm Coast is a rocky, sea-soaked coastal area with a frighteningly rough sea.
This variety is especially refreshing in a game with as much room to move as Dragon Age provides. Tired of wandering the desert? Go explore a forest, start one of the quests that takes you to an instanced dungeon, or revisit the Hinterlands.
I've spent a full 60 hours with the game, and I'm nowhere near ready to stop. Part of that comes from this constant at-will change of scenery.
Yes, the Frostbite Engine 3 is in full force with this game and proves that it can be used for more than just science fiction and war settings. This is one of the most beautiful fantasy games ever created, and this is coming from a person who requires a lot to be impressed with new graphics anymore.
Even I had to gasp at a few of the settings with The Western Approach and The Storm Coast being my favorites too look at. The art direction for the environments is stunning, and the scope that BioWare pulls from these separate areas are top notch.
Character models are unreal as well. Each different character has the subtlest of movements and facial features which makes them totally distinct from one another. Varric's broken nose, Sera's unusually elven pudgy face, and even a less important character like Harding and her freckles.
I put my customized character next to the ones BioWare created, and I felt really embarrassed that I couldn't make someone to look as good what BioWare provided.
See, I love my character. We're getting married next week.
One of the real highlights I mentioned for Dragon Age 2 was how much of an improvement the character designs were over Origins. This came at a cost, though, as your companions had a certain look they were meant to fit into. Even this element has been built upon in Inquisition.
While characters' armor is limited by class – not exactly a new element for a fantasy RPG – there are a few different styles of armor for each class as you progress through the game, so even if you're rolling with the same party you have been, they don't look quite the same.
My dwarf had this awesome unique shiny red armor, and even when I figured out how to construct something far more powerful, I didn't want to change it. Of course, he ended up getting wrecked by stronger enemies, forcing me to change, but yes, the armor brings a lot of character to the party also.
I want to take it back to the environments though. We were talking about how I was playing Persona 4 at the same time while playing Dragon Age: Inquisition to prepare for this review. I mentioned how it was hard to put down the countryside town of Inaba and jump back into exploring Thedas because I was far more invested in Persona 4's.
Ironically, despite its large, gorgeous environments that are supposed to suck you in, I only felt I was able to marvel at them at a distance and never really be a part of them. This comes into comparison with a cheaply made Japanese RPG that had only five or six miniscule areas played from the palm of my hand.
I wouldn't say its because of the graphics, but rather because of the game's structure, where our opinions on Dragon Age Inquisition start to differ.
Ain't No Party Like a Dragon Age Party
You had mentioned earlier that Dragon Age: Inquisition is not open in the sense that Assassin's Creed is, and I get that point. Unity had a single open-world environment to explore around in, and Inquisition has is realm broken up into many parts.
However, as I played more and more of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I began to break away from the main starting area of The Hinterlands and find the other subsequent areas we discussed before. Upon arrival of these areas, my first step would be to open up the map and find where the nearest camp is. After that, I would run to these camps, fight any baddies in between, and immediately after settling, I would see all of the subquests, rifts, astrariums, telescope skulls, and red lyrium.
After the second map, Assassin's Creed was the first thing to come to mind with its laundry list of repetitive quests to do, and this happened in all the subsequent maps as well. Drop in the Herald, clear the map of objectives, move to the next; the kind of rinse and repeat formula you find in Ubisoft's popular franchise. All it was missing was a huge tower to climb!
I also mentioned Borderlands and how it melted into an emotionless game of jumping from waypoint to waypoint, which I think caused some distance between me and Dragon Age: Inquisition's story and immersion. Yourself?
Interestingly, I wasn't even aware of the red lyrium quests until you mentioned them just now. Somehow I'd missed the line of conversation that led to that, and I think that's part of what I like about the game. While we're playing the same game and even the same story, we're experiencing it quite differently from each other.
The vast majority of the repetitive quests are just simply side quests. They're optional, so I'm not that worried about them. I'll adjust my path to pick something up, but I don't really spend a lot of time chasing after collectibles, so they didn't take up too much of my time.
Dragon Age: Inquisition scratches a very particular sort of itch for me. It has a quality I find in games like Skyrim and Mass Effect. Sure, some stuff is fill in the blank kind of quests. You're going and getting something, picking up a collectible here and there, and that stuff's fine for what it is – an excuse to enjoy the world longer, if you want to. When I'm doing the main story and the more story-heavy side quests, though, I feel like I'm leaving my mark on Thedas, deciding fates and developing relationships.
While I'm not going to lie and say I haven't skipped any of the spoken dialog, I often found myself wanting to go as deep as I could into different characters' backgrounds. I enjoyed talking to companion characters like Cole, Iron Bull and Dorian for both the interesting writing – whether for humor or otherwise – and for the stories each character had.
Even when I wasn't focusing on a character's story or a quest the character had given me, just having them in my party was a treat. Whoever you have in your party, banter develops between them. With so many alliances – nations, religions, armies, races – each character had some point of contention or union with another character, and it was never as simple as them liking or hating each other. There was often grudging respect and poking fun between characters on opposite sides of one of those conflicts. I always felt like I had the right characters along, but I also felt like I was missing all the others. I can't imagine how many different combinations of dialogue there are. And so far, they've pretty much all been enjoyable.
This constant character development, peppered throughout the side quests and concentrated in the story, helped me feel connected to the cataclysmic events going on in the world at all times. The characters' discussions sometimes led back to the event itself but more often to elements tangential to it, like the constant fighting between the mages and templars or the in-fighting between the Mage Circle and the Apostate Mages.
Well, you certainly got a lot more out of the story than I did. I would have conversations with my comrades, but never felt totally invested in any of them. Varric was cool, and I also liked hearing their "banter" between one another while running through the map, especially Solas.
As with most BioWare games, the best part of the story can be found within the details. Otherwise, what is the overarching plot of Dragon Age: Inquisition? You have to close a hole in the sky, which is what Captain America and his friends did. After that, you run across the country gathering information for a final confrontation with Zombie Ganondorf, aka, Corphyeus. If you want the extra details on the story, you really have to dig for it, which is again where structure and narrative clash for me.
Mass Effect 2 and Skyrim are the perfect examples of how to do a Western RPG right. Mass Effect 2 is totally narrative based with little focus on exploration. You make choices, get to know your characters, upgrade your RPG stats, and save the universe in a nice, quick, fell swoop. Boom, boom, boom. Totally satisfying.
Skyrim on the other hand has very little focus on a direct narrative, starting you off with a blank map and leaving you to uncover the world's lore and backstory at your own pace, as well as discover different areas in the world altogether. Again, totally satisfying because you have nothing nagging you or holding you back from your own pace.
For me, Dragon Age: Inquisition hit a bit of a point where the two could not co-exist. It's too obtuse to let a natural story flow out, and it has too much exploration on the maps that are always going to be nagging a neurotic RPG player like me in the back of my brain. At the same time, it's not quite big in "scope" enough to give the sense of exploration allowed by a genuine open-world, not these pretty segmented ones. The waypoint jumping doesn't allow that suspension of disbelief.
It's partially my fault because I am just so into combing worlds and making sure that everything is finished. But at the same time, I think Dragon Age: Inquisition is a classic case of trying to make something fans of both branches of these kind of RPGs can enjoy, and not succeeding overly well at either one of them.
I do want to call you out here and say that I think it's a little overly reductive to boil down the plot that much. Yeah, it's a pretty straight-forward fantasy plot. I'd almost call it a standard fantasy framework. While I'm certainly not going to say no to a creative new idea if someone comes up with one, I think it's unfair to level that criticism at Inquisition and not Mass Effect and a billion JRPGs and shooters and… you get the idea.
The story's there to compel the characters to do something. Business is serious enough to force all these different people to work together and bond, and that's where the fun is – the bonding. There's enough details in the characters and the world, the side texts are short enough but just frequent enough, it starts to come together to feel less like an amusement park and more like a real place.
Yea, I agree. That was a little bit of an over-simplification on my part. Like we both said, the main chunk of the story lies in the details, but I just think I've seen better details and better delivery before, especially from BioWare.
Fight for Your Right To Fight
There's one more element we'll want to discuss, though, and like the story, there's a lot of room here for different experiences.
When you weren't talking or exploring, did you enjoy taking down the fauna and monsters of Thedas?
Oh, the monsters looks great. Much like the party members, the Frostbite Engine 3 does a fantastic job of making combat look amazing. I kept flashing back to the start of the previous generation of consoles, when everyone was complaining that video games were too brown, and was thinking that developers might have actually begun to overcompensate on the color.
Flashes of blue, red, and especially green from the Herald's anchor, the power he holds in his arm, go a long way into making Dragon Age: Inquisition one of the most beautiful games to portray violence.
I was a little nervous at first, thinking that it would never evolve beyond its "hold R2 to win" formula, but the characters definitely unlock enough abilities and passive skills to change up how to tackle groups of demons. Its easy to understand HUD already makes it far more accessible than some of BioWare's more complicated games, and the fact that you are almost controlling it like an action game really makes you feel in the fold.
The few small criticisms I have for Dragon Age lie in the controls and user interface. This game is definitely built for a controller. I was having trouble really getting the game down until I plugged in my Xbox 360 controller. Instantly the camera clicked, running felt good, and combat was more fun. I don't think this is a mouse and keyboard game (though that doesn't keep it from being tactical). My other complaint is that the jump button – a great addition – is the same as the explore button. I found myself standing on the treasure chests I was opening as often as not.
One more thing I'd like to mention is that while my PC experience has been largely smooth and enjoyable, the game has crashed out mid-combat a few times. I save frequently and the game autosaves, so I've never lost more than a few minutes game, but it's still frustrating and I'm looking forward to patches.
With all that out of the way, I agree with you. The combat gives back what you put into it. If you play on easy, this certainly can be a one-button affair. Even if you keep things fairly action oriented, though, you can still customize your combat to fit your style.
Aside from assigning preferred attacks to buttons, you can also tell your characters how you'd like them to act. You can disable undesirable abilities – like Dorian's necromancer abilities that keep enemies alive past the end of the battle, bless his heart – as well as determine things like how the character will fight, when they'll use potions, and things like that. You don't have to micromanage combat to experience the depth the game offers, but it's certainly there if you're of a more classic sensibility with your RPG combat.
I come from a JRPG background, and micromanaging combat is the only way I really know how to roll. Not in this game though, I was more than happy to just let the AI back-up my main character, and leave it at that.
If I had one complaint about that combat, it's that BioWare leans a little too much on it to get players out of situations. The whole game feels like a constant swap between combat and conversation trees, and the two never overarch all that much. Combat is gameplay. Conversation trees, for as far as I could tell, only affected narrative.
Older BioWare games, even all the way up until Dragon Age: Origins, were always so much more than these two separate elements. I enjoyed pumping points into personality and profession stats in their older RPGs. I liked being able to hack a computer and reprogram security droids, or I liked electrifying a floor, instantly killing a group waiting to ambush me. Origins' Circle Tower also stands out in my mind as one of its best designed dungeons with its demon summoning segments.
The peak of BioWare's design theories came from a world in Knights of the Old Republic where you had to play two Sith trainers off one another, earn both of their trust, and eventually score some poison from one of them. Use the poison on one, and the other would fall quickly in battle, or you can think about it intelligently, poison both of them, and kill them without a hitch when it came time to clean up the Sith school.
This is what made BioWare games separate from the rest, and it's kind of absent in this game. Decisions are only enormous ones that affect the world and overarching narrative, not so much the smaller choices, and dungeons rely way too much on combat or simply pushing "X" on a highlighted item to solve all puzzles.
Have a Rogue in your party? He can pick a lock. Have a Mage in your party? He can light a torch. Have a Warrior? He can bash a wall. Mere shadows….
Just a side note, my absolute favorite part of the game was sitting in the Inquisitor throne and judging criminals brought before you. That is the kind of situation I am talking about.
I think this is where my main complaint with the game lies. Dragon Age: Inquisition sacrifices a little too much of these smaller points that made other BioWare games so special and leans more on streamlined trends that make other modern open-world games so popular.
BioWare has always been a company with wonderful ideas of how to blend gameplay and narrative into a single experience, but the two are separate here. It should be the development team that other developers aspire to be, but I see Dragon Age: Inquisition as a step towards it adhering to what's required on the AAA market.
I don't think it's a bad game by any means, and it's definitely worth the $60 for those who like a nice, epic high fantasy world and story, but when I look through my memory banks, I've felt more invested, immersed, and challenged in its other games because BioWare was always able to find that balance between gameplay and narrative. I don't quite think it's here.
I don't know that I disagree with your point about an over-reliance on combat, but there's so much to do, and so much of it is great fun, that I don't miss those elements like I might in a game with art and writing that doesn't climb as high as Dragon Age: Inquisition does.
I think the best part is that, as you proved earlier with the Red Lyrium quest line, I'm 66 hours into the game and there's substantial story elements I haven't hit on, things I'm missing that I don't even know I'm missing. If I don't have something else to play once I finish with Inquisition, I'm going to have to go back again and see what else there is to discover.
Disclaimer: We purchased Dragon Age: Inquisition for the PlayStation 4 with company funds and PC with personal funds, and we played 30 hours on PlayStation 4 and 66 hours on PC.
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