Dragon Age: Inquisition
360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Dragon Age has always asked a lot of its players. The series began as a knowing tribute to the Infinity Engine RPGs that made Bio Ware’s name; strategic complexity was in its DNA, as was a certain demand on your time. Origins was a completionist’s game, deep and broad, less agile than Mass Effect but arguably smarter. Its sequel was the opposite. Dragon Age II hoped you’d care enough about its central drama that you’d not notice it all took place in the same room. It asked you to appreciate the realities of turning around a sequel against a publisher’s ticking clock, which is an entirely different kind of demand.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is your reward for that halfdecade journey if you made it, and the best argument you should do so if you haven’t. This is a vast openworld RPG that borrows from Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed and The Witcher, but matches that contribution with a heavy dose of Bio Ware’s renowned ear for character and humanity. As a follow-up to both Origins’ breadth and Dragon Age II’s wit, it’s an out-and-out success.
Set ten years after the first game, Inquisition begins with an explosion that tears a hole in the ‘veil’ that separates reality from the realm of magic. Your character stumbles from this breach in the Fade with only a fuzzy memory of how they survived. Branded as a killer and apostate at first, and later as messiah, you’re positioned as a complicating factor in the series-spanning conflict between mages and the Templars that police them, between Darkspawn and the Grey Wardens that seek to eradicate them, and between Thedas’s fractious races. As the head of a new faction called the Inquisition, you’re brought in to find answers and establish peace. The main strength of Inquisition’s setup is that it places you in a position to interact with the entire Dragon Age narrative, including threads that have been left dangling since the original. Its weakness is that it asks you to absorb an enormous amount of information quickly. You can get by with a cursory understanding of what separates the Circle from the Chantry, but ideally you’ll either already be familiar with this lore or willing to delve through conversation trees to uncover it.
This is a consequence of a game that wastes remarkably little time in introducing you to its open world. The Inquisition has a power rating independent of your party, and you spend this resource to unlock plot-advancing main missions. This mandates that you spend a certain amount of time building the order’s reputation by exploring and completing sidequests, which are provided in MMOG-like quantities. Menial tasks such as gathering resources and hunting bandits can be hoovered up between objectives or ignored entirely, while seeking out and closing further Fade rifts underscores the Inquisition’s role in the world. There are camps to establish, puzzles to complete, collectibles
Frostbite affords the game an extraordinary sense of place, particularly when it comes to the sight of a distant mountain
to find, and customisable keeps to capture and hold. Individually, few of the tasks here match the narrative complexity of their equivalents in previous games, but Inquisition aims for quantity, plus the sense of freedom imparted when you discover the world on your own.
So you can jump for the first time in this series, and explore vast zones in any direction you like – only a handful are linear. The Frostbite engine affords the game an extraordinary sense of place, particularly when it comes to the sight of a distant cliff or mountain range. Atmospheric lighting and environmental effects vastly exceed what Dragon Age has achieved before, and are used to great effect in conjunction with the dragon encounters that punctuate the open world.
And it’s out in the world that you can gather the collectibles needed to upgrade the Inquisition’s fortress in a dozen ways, down to the drapery, as well as find the materials to fuel a deep, modular crafting system. The game is potentially an obsessive completionist’s nightmare, but min-maxing every map is optional this time around. The process of exploration is better on PC, however: using the mouse to discover objects to interact with feels natural, whereas its controller equivalent is a ‘ping’ system that highlights pickups in a radius around you. This forces your eye towards the ground, which is exactly where it doesn’t belong.
Combat is another weakness, at least at first. Complexity comes slowly, even though you’re given control over all four of your party members, and padded enemy health bars can leave you holding down the same button for minutes at a time as you wait for your auto-attack to do the job. Things improve as ability combos are unlocked and understood, but while the presentation is better, the series still doesn’t manage to reconcile the readability and strategic depth of the first game with the action-RPG feel that it has subsequently sought. There are also visual glitches that occur just frequently enough to be a problem, such as NPCs clipping through walls, sitting on invisible chairs, and so on. This is a big enough game that it can bear these issues without hampering the whole too terribly, but it is a problem nonetheless.
These are, however, imperfections that fade into the background when you’re faced with all the things that the game does so well. The scale of its landscapes and the powerful, varied drama of each main mission is matched by an attention to detail and character that is rare for this type of game, whether that’s a deftly written conversation overheard as you walk between destinations or an in-character codex entry that makes you laugh. This is the most ambitious game Bio Ware has ever made because it operates on both the large scale and the small, where most RPGs pick one or the other. Dragon Age: Inquisition demands your time and attention, but it gives a lot in return, too.