Review of…Dragon Age: Inquisition

Should I Play (Or, who is this for?):

Gamers, adventurers, explorers, character-interested, RPG, tacticians, immersion, epic.

TL:DR (Or, seriously, give me the skinny):

Dragon Age: Inquisition is absolutely worth your time, and will take a good many hours of it. Exciting, intriguing and truly epic, the game has hooks in near everything you encounter. Gather your party and venture forth.

The Actual Review (Or, okay, tell me more):

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third instalment in the Dragon Age franchise. A high-fantasy-epic style game in a series of high-fantasy-epics. This isn’t a criticism. DA:I does it big and does it well. If you want a grand story involving nations, heroes, villains and monsters, DA:I has you covered in spades.

Much of the fantasy setting is well established stuff, and while there are no huge leaps for things like dwarves, elves or giants, everything is developed and fleshed out in DA:I’s own mythos, and is certainly original enough to be new and interesting. Similarly the game is nothing radical to it’s established franchise. If you’ve played a Dragon Age title before, you know in general what you’re in for.

Where DA:I wins out is the execution. Most every area of the game has been polished until it sparkles. Combat is engaging without drowning in mechanics, characters are deep and avoid archetype, the story is vast but not incomprehensible. In general, the game has been pored over, over and over until all the little nooks and crannies have been worked out, shined up, and then looked at again by a team of people who are actually allowed to think.

A small example of this excellent thinking is the option to turn conversation indicators off. Ordinarily, when you hover over a conversation option, there is an accompanying graphic (an angry face, a tearful face, a big romance-heart etc). Turning these off is an excellent way of making the game that much more immersive, if the player wants. Without the graphics, you can’t meta-game in the same way you otherwise would. As a result, you might find yourself accidentally flirting when you just wanted to be nice, of you might verbally beat down your companion when you just wanted to warn them, and it’s not because the game is poorly scripted – it’s because sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you’re going to screw up. You know, just like in real life. And when backed up by the characterisation and writing of the game, you won’t blame the game, you’ll blame yourself – in the best way possible. But of course, you don’t have to, it’s just an option for those that want it. And that pretty much sums DA:I up; you can do this thing, this way…but you don’t have to.

Pretty things –

DA:I is pretty. The sun glints off of armour, streams ripple and splash, magic cascades in big beautiful bloom. The game has some serious graphic attention. While the industry (and by that, I mean you, the consumer) really need to get over graphics being such a point as they are, DA:I does deliver it in spades. Well done DA:I.

Much more importantly, DA:I delivers aesthetic. The world looks good, not because it’s got pixels up the wazzoo, but because the world has been designed with care. Dwarvern caves feel stout, deep and old. Orlesian architecture is elaborate, curving and glorious. The world as a whole is not fifty shades of gritty brown. There’s a colour palette at work in each zone, in each race. Serious work has gone into terrain design. The game is pretty because it’s been designed pretty. DA:I may be touted as a ‘mature, gritty fantasy’, but it also understands that ‘mature’ does not have to mean that everyone and everything is grizzled and miserable. The game has scale in near every element of it, and it shows in how it looks.

Sound off –

The music in DA:I is nothing spectacular. While the theme music is good, music is not generally present in the game. The designers do gain credit for how they use the music though. There is at least one scene where music and song is used to great dramatic effect, showing that while it’s not what the game makers were all about, they still have smarts to use it well.

The voice acting here is very high quality. I have yet to encounter a conversation that jarrs due to poor acting. Incidental voicing is varied enough that you don’t often hear looping conversations, and party chit-chat is extensive, but not overbearing.

Equally, sound effects are varied and effective – from sword clashes to various magical ‘poof’ noises, there’s nothing to complain about here.

So much space –

A major, and fully justified, criticism of Dragon Age 2 was that it was lazy with maps. While DA2 had the defence that it was examining one city over a decade (as opposed to multiple countries over a year or so in DA:I), the twelfth, fifteenth, or eighteenth time you come across a cave which is the exact same cave that you’ve seen before, with a sloppy stone slab over a doorway and different enemies to make it ‘new’, that defence can shove it. In DA:I this has clearly been taken to heart. As you can almost hear the designers in your ear – you want more maps? FINE. Have ANOTHER map. And ANOTHER. You happy now? No? Have ANOTHER map! And good golly gosh it shows. DA:I isn’t technically open-world, but you could be fooled. Every map, every landscape you explore is huge. This-will-take-me-hours huge. Every map is oozing with monsters and landmarks and sidequests. And, the thing that makes this so so good, every area is unique. Not only in the it’s-a-different-shape meaning, but right down to core aesthetics – The Storm Coasts are a rain-driven mess of cliffs and sodden plains, where insects hide in every sea-washed cave. The Exalted Plains are a war-torn plains-land, with trenches and blasted spaces, and nooks of greenery and graves hidden all around. Every area is distinct. Every area has variation in it. Every area has more loot, sidequests and hidden little bits than you know what to do with. If you like exploring, expect to get your moneys worth here. More than once, I set off for a spot to complete a quest of some sort, and then became so interested in the landscape (ooh, what’s the tower? Ooh, an enemy camp etc) that I completely forgot about why I was originally there.

Some people, somewhere, should be extremely proud of what they created with DA:I’s explorable world.

Real people, real problems –

Bioware has a long history of good writing in it’s games, and it shows here. Clearly, it’s something that they invest a lot of resources towards, and frankly, a lot of other developers could take a big leaf out of their book. Because the result of good writing is good characters, good world, better game. DA:I doesn’t give you a best friend and then go “look, something is happening to your friend! You should care! Because we say so!” A trick that an unbelievable amount of games try to pull. DA:I gives you people. People with habits. People with flaws. People with struggles and opinions and bias. When you’ve spent ten hours with a character, listening to their comments, relying on their help, giving help in return, you don’t care about them because the game tells you you should, you care about them because you actually care. They seem human – even if they’re not.

While characters are a huge chunk of the writing, the story comes in here too. Often presented through the filter of surrounding characters, the story winds it’s way through the game in many ways. Everyone has an opinion about the baddie(s). And when events actually happen – goddamn do they feel big. It’s not just the big shiny lights on the screen, it’s not just the dramatic fight scenes, it’s the combination of pacing, mechanics and yes, writing, that make it feel epic.

Straight up, DA:I also deserves a big steaming heap of praise for some of the subject matters raised. For a start, it’s a triple A game that dedicates a lot of it’s story and characterisation towards religion. Even if it’s a fictitious religion, it’s not something a lot of games dedicate any time towards. If we’re being honest, it’s an issue that most games actively swerve to avoid, as potentially provocative as it is. DA:I has people struggling with faith, drug addiction and withdrawal, homosexuality, even trans-living (a person who is technically one gender, but lives and identifies as another). That’s the first time I’ve seen that covered in any game. And all of this is handled well. Nothing is clumsy, no matter how much or little story is involved with it. Not only does DA:I have top-notch writing, but it uses that writing to discuss and bring forward issues and possibilities that most high-budget wouldn’t dream of.

Dragons, dragons, dragons –

For a game with Dragon Age in the title, that has the in-game explanation that the Dragon Age is the age where dragons are appearing, you’d feel somewhat conned if the game didn’t have dragons in. DA:I does, and does so in the best way. In Dragon Age: Origins a dragon was one of the big bad story baddies, in Dragon Age 2 dragons are present, but sparse. I would argue that DA:I has the best integration of dragons yet. Once again, dragons appear in the story, and they are as epic as they ever were. But the best bit, the real bit, is how dragons appear in game. Somewhere, you don’t know at first know where, in many game areas…hides a dragon. It might be sleeping. It might be resting…it might be awake. These dragons are perfectly content to snore, breath various corrosive fluids, and terrify the landscape. They don’t even care about you – you’re just a weirdo with a sword, beneath notice. Until you think you’re not.

Make no mistake, dragons are sodding terrifying. My first encounter with a dragon is burned into my skull. I was exploring an area for all it was worth, I was climbing hills, fighting bandits, mining ore and generally having a whale of a time. I discover a new region. Awesome, I think. Suddenly, I hear a roar – far off, but not too far off. A flap of wings. A dragon tears out from behind a rock formation, smashing through part of it (Jesus, I think, it just tore through tons of rock without flinching by accident.) Another roar – the dragon has spotted me, and it’s not happy. Before I know what’s happening, a fireball is a second from my party, I scatter, too late! I watch, mouth open as my entire party charcoals in the hellish fires. Total party wipe. One shot. Right, I think. I’m coming to get you. I respawn, camp is nearby. I set off with the tankiest party I can muster. I see the dragon, I dodge its fireball – only one of my party is caught, and they survive, potion-ing up to health again. What followed was a humiliating minute of desperation as I sprinted to dodge fireball after fireball. My party falls. I haven’t even landed a scratch on the dragon. Clearly, I am not strong enough.

This is what makes dragons feel awesome, in the true sense of the word. They don’t give a crap about you. Leave them alone and you live. Maybe someday, somehow, 15 levels higher and dressed to the nines, you’re going to want to come back. That dragon hasn’t seen the last of you.

…but for now, maybe you’ll concentrate on smaller things, like saving the world. At least that seems doable now.

Party time –

DA:I sticks to the DA formula of a four person party. It works. It gives you enough room for multiple setups, and allows you to go out adventuring with a small but significant punch at your disposal. With three classes and three subclasses for each, there’s a big range of possibilities for how you want to kit your band out. DA:I continues the franchise idea of a ‘stripped back’ fantasy rpg, so each class only has four or five skill trees to choose from, but may freely invest in any of them. While it can seem a little underwhelming, there is more choice in here than you think. Want a front-line mage? It’s possible to do. Want a near-unkillable tank? That’s there. It’ll take some changes and time, but you can jiggle your characters to the ends you most like. Helpfully, there is a infinitely buyable item that allows you to respec a character, so don’t feel your customisation must be forever.

Something I was slightly unimpressed with here is the lack of presented information about skill combos. For clarity I must say that some the information is there, away in the codex, but even then it’s not particularly explained. Essentially, some skills will inflict a condition – paralysis for example. A combo detonator can bounce off this status, inflicting a further, more dramatic condition. This much is explained. But what is not explained is which skill-combo will yield which effect. What combination is needed to inflict nightmare? What does nightmare do? Why do I want rupture? The game is not forthcoming. It seems an strange thing to miss out, given that so much of your time will be spent slaying beasties.

Nevertheless, there are many many tactical setups you can create – dependant on which party members you take with you, and how you have skilled them out. Creating multiple area of effect zones is funny as hell, although you feel a touch sorry for the fighter who has to wade into a storm of ice, fire, poison and lightning. The more in-depth tactical pre-planning of previous DA games is gone, and aside from listing certain skills as preferred or disabled, your party members will simple act as they think best. The AI is serviceable, and on normal difficulty you’ll have no troubles. But, if you want to get the most bang for your buck, going into tactical-combat mode is for you. Much more reminiscent of older RPG games, in this mode you dictate your entire squad’s actions, giving you much greater control over what happens, when, and where. All in all there’s a lot of freedom in your combat setups, and if you want a more tactical, challenging time I absolutely recommend cranking the difficulty up to highest and testing your mettle.

One surprisingly large criticism here that dampens all of the above is that of bash, unlock, energize. Sometimes in the world you will find things that have special interactions – a weak wall, a locked door, etc. Each class can perform one special action; warriors bash, rogues pick locks, mages energize. These special actions might give access to a secret loot room, or unlock a shortcut, or let you grab a collectible. The problem is a combination of two things. First, these actions aren’t common, but you never know where one’s going to be, anywhere you go you might run into one. Second, the things you can get aren’t game-breakingly important, but they’re too good to just ignore. So the only solution if you want these things (apart from going to camp, changing party, trekking back, going back to camp again, changing party back, trekking back again) is to have one mage, one rogue, one warrior in your party at all times. And that’s crap. There’s nothing wrong with having that setup, but this is a game of tactical possibility and excellent characters. Limiting the party variation for something so moot is annoying. I want to know what happens when my main whole party is mages – does it work, is it awesome, what conversations will the characters have, and so on. Why limit that? In a game that has so many little bits of customisation and direction, having something as central as your party composition limited so severely sucks. It’s a problem that’s ever present, and somewhat of a glaring mistake in a game so well crafted.

As above, so below –

One of the things that makes DA:I enjoyable on so many fronts is it’s balancing of the big and the small. A faux-currency encountered with this is power. You earn power through completing quests, large or small. Gathering 10 elfroot for a healer, that’s 1 power. Closing every rift in an area, that’s more like 5 power. This power is then spent with your war council, scouting new areas, unlocking new operations, and often advancing the big story. It’s serviceable interplay, but the execution stops it feeling like a chore. You’re not grinding for power so you can unlock the next mission; you’re exploring, questing, having a good time, which just so happens to give you power, which you then use for larger things.

Yes, you are one person, but that one person is at times leading an entire movement, commanding troops and making deals on a country-wide scale, and then appearing down among the people, fetching herbs and slaying bandits. You mine rare rocks and find rare herbs while out exploring, and then your war council puts them to use, or you craft some big bad potions. You want to go out to explore, to adventure. You want to go to base to help your movement. One helps the other which helps the first, synergy.

Conclusion –

DA:I is good. Really really good. It has flaws, yes, but there’s nothing that will stop you investing hour upon hour with a smile on your face. In an industry that inexplicably spews out volleys of triple A games that fall flat on their faces, it’s good to know that there are also triple A games that are worth the money and industry titans behind them. Dragon Age: Inquisition is the 2014 poster child of how to go big and make it worthwhile.

Well done.

Final Review (Or, give me ratings):

Appearance: High. High graphics, high aesthetic.

Length: Long. You’ll be here for some time.

Music: Average. There are good moments, but it’s not a particular feature.

Sound: High. Good quality voicing and FX.

Gameplay: High. Good mechanics and good execution.

Plot & Story: High. It’s just damn good.

Enjoyability: High. Good times ahead.

Overall: Exceedingly high. Get playing.

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