Dragon Age: Inquisition
March 30, 2015, Author: Andy Corrigan
I learnt a lot about myself in 2014, but pertinently for my games writing, I learnt that it’s probably not a great idea to take on four reviews with a potential 350-400 hours combined gameplay at the same time. Dragon Age: Inquisition was ultimately the game that suffered the most as a result of a busy period that gave me an unprecedented writing and gaming burnout, something from which I’m only just recovering.
Out of the four games I was reviewing at the time, Inquisition was actually the one I started first and, at around the twenty hour mark, I found I just still wasn’t enjoying myself. It was weird, I liked the previous entries and it had all the hallmarks of a game I’d enjoy, but something just wasn’t clicking.
After consulting with some peers, I decided that I might have been the problem. I was possibly too obsessed with ticking off the quests as I would have – and have loved doing – in something like Skyrim, and wasn’t enjoying the structure as perhaps intended. I decided at that point I would have to accept that I’d be delivering a very late review regardless, take a break from it, finish other outstanding work and come back later with a fresher frame of mind. That time is now.
Sadly, time didn’t quite make the heart grow fonder in this instance, as while I can accept I had some failings coming in to it, Inquisition has enough of its own too…
Obviously set after the events of the previous Dragon Age games, Inquisition follows the actions of your entirely new created character, who survives a sabotaged meeting between senior members of the Mage and Templar orders. Nearly killed in the aftermath by demons and creatures from the Fade, your character escapes by the skin of their teeth, but not before accidentally acquiring the ability to close the enemy-spewing rifts that have appeared over the land. Originally feared and blamed for the meeting’s fatal events, opinion is swayed and your character becomes regarded as the ‘Herald of Andraste’; essentially an ass-kicking prophet. The Herald is swiftly given the task of leading the Inquisition as they seek to close the breach and stop the one behind it.
Unfortunately, despite a promising setup, the overarching story never really delivers. Sure, it succeeds in explaining your comings and goings around Thedas, but it never enthralled or captivated me as much as the previous games did. Simply put, it was never once the reason I carried on playing, and there were several aspects that didn’t sit right with me. The transition from villain to the hero in the public eye, for example, was surprisingly quick, and being put in charge of the Inquisition felt a bit convenient at best and at odds with the early pace at worst.
I never felt that I was sufficiently invested in why I was doing the things I was doing once in charge either, and I place the blame on a largely bland antagonist in Corypheus. Yes, he’s extremely powerful, wants to take over/destroy the world and do evil and whatnot, but he’s also incredibly fucking boring, totally unsympathetic, and barely appears for more than 20 collective minutes. I was just going through the motions in my bid to stop him because that’s what was being asked of me.
While Dragon Age: Inquisition is undeniably rich with content, its structure doesn’t particularly help with the narrative. The story here accounts for less than twenty percent of the package, with much urgency put on stopping Corypheus. Yet, the story missions are gated, meaning you need to earn ‘Power’ by doing side-quests to have the right to proceed, and any intended urgency is undermined by this. It left me feeling that the overall experience was quite disjointed. That, ultimately, led me to care a lot less than I might otherwise have.
What makes the story especially disappointing is that Inquisition is packed with so many utterly brilliant, multilayered and fleshed out characters that it’s almost amazing that the plot isn’t much better. In fact I’d go as far as saying that, Inquisitor aside, the diverse cast here is one of the best I’ve ever experienced in video-games – be it the suave wit of Dorian; the classy, high-born demeanour of Vivienne; the no-nonsense, gung-ho attitude of Iron Bull; or even the common-as-muck charm of the elven archer Sera. The character writing is wonderful and bolstered by some fantastic voice-acting; the people who have your back in this game feel like they could be real people.
Even those that don’t actually join your active party are exceptionally written. I found Krem, for example, who is possibly the first transgender character I’ve met in a game, to be wonderfully realised. His backstory never comes across as forced or badly shoehorned in despite his willingness to talk about it, nor is a big deal made of his gender status. It just is; which is exactly how such representations should be.
As I mentioned before, Inquisition is absolutely packed with things to do, not only when exploring the numerous and expansive open-world areas of Thedas, but also in the hubworld of Skyhold castle. Sadly, I didn’t find all of that content stellar or even worth pursuing, and this is what caused me most of my issues.
There are so many collection activities, seemingly pointless fetch quests, not to mention looting quests that yielded barely anything of interest. I complained about this on Twitter early on and was advised to get out of the Hinterlands area as soon as possible, but I didn’t find that this was an issue related solely to that area. The result of my first twenty hours was that I had been rewarded with very little but some crap loot and the honour of looking at some remarkably gorgeous environments.
Now, this is where I accept that part of the problem was down to me. In most RPGs, you’re encouraged to fulfil the side-quests to boost your level before jumping into the meatier story missions. While you do need to complete a number of side-quests to earn the political power to go to new areas and continue the story, I was following this pattern to the extreme. In this case it was absolutely to my own detriment.
Coming back into it a little later having reprogrammed my brain to stop just trying to tick items off a list, I found much more enjoyment chasing the meatier quests as soon as possible and fulfilling the more repetitive tasks only as I stumbled upon them naturally, or when I absolutely needed them to progress.
That said, I find it a massive shame that to find enjoyment in Inquisition, I had to actively and consciously avoid activities, especially when in the likes of Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, and in some MMOs, even the more benign quests feel substantially beneficial or at least offer a worthy reward for your time. Even Dragon Age: Origins did this better, where each side-mission felt like it progressed character development in some way, or at least entertained with an interesting subplot. With Inquisition, it amounted to ‘go here, press button or have a fight; if you’re lucky your party might have a funny chat at some point’.
That’s my sticking point, I think. I rarely felt suitably rewarded in Inquisition, and I think some of that can be attributed mostly to the quest structure, but also partially to the painfully slow levelling system. The skill trees at least are vast, varied and the options are useful, constantly offering some sort of passive boost or a new attack to take into combat with you. The weapons upgrade system too is satisfyingly deep, allowing you to not only forge new weapons, but also to augment them with elemental power and other abilities.
I find it telling, though, that some of my favourite moments came not in the field where you’d hope, but back at Skyhold, performing minor functions like talking to my party members and finding out more about them, sentencing prisoners to death or banishment, and talking strategy around the war table with my generals. The war table is where you’ll spend your hard-earned power to unlock new areas and story missions, as well have your subordinates take care of objectives deemed too menial for you, such as arranging the gathering of materials and coin, striking up trade deals and other such hands-off objectives.
From here, you can also make beneficial changes to your game world by opting to repair or build structures found in particular regions, opening up previously inaccessible parts of a map. In this sense, you have a greater effect on Thedas from a menu than you ever do by being in it yourself.
Inquisition is mostly polished to a remarkable level, but some bugs and crashes kept halting my progress, and usually – as Murphy’s Law dictates – right at the times that I was really enjoying myself. Crashes during loading screens were commonplace, but more harmful were the instances where the conversation system broke, in one case leaving me unable to progress until I’d reloaded my save five times and abused the skip button until I eventually got lucky and it let me bypass. There were comical bugs too, where having fast-travelled to a new area, my Inquisitor had no legs until they suddenly unfurled from within his abdomen. Ruddy hilarious, and I really wish my PS4 had recorded it.
A.I. was also a regular problem for me. Often I’d go into a room, only to find out that one of my party had decided to see if being a door was a suitable career change, making it impossible to get back out again. Of course, an easy work around is to switch to that character and lead the party away from the door, but a workaround is not a really valid excuse for crappy A.I. Such baffling behaviours weren’t restricted to friendly A.I. either; constantly I had enemy archers – you know, long-range attackers – fruitlessly trying to draw arrows at me from as little as a few feet away.
Other little annoyances kept grating at me too. For example, one story mission had me shmoozing at a posh political party with secret combat sections interspersed. Every single time it flicked me from party mode to battle-ready I had to reselect all my gear and weapons all over again. This isn’t always the quickest process, and it made me do it four times in a relatively short space of time. Frustrating.
Still, on the subject of combat – which to my own surprise, I haven’t even mentioned at this point in the review – it’s one of my favourite aspects of this iteration of Dragon Age. Inquisition lets you fight in two different ways. The first is in a pretty standard third-person viewpoint; if you’re a close-quarter class like I was, combat feels suitably chunky, with good visual and audible feedback for hits.
If you’re playing this way and need to change your strategy quick-sharp, you can switch to your other party members with a touch of the D-pad. Likewise, you still have the ability to program the actions of your party so they automatically heal at certain health levels, or perform offensive or defensive duties. It’s satisfying to tinker to this degree as the slightest change really can make a massive difference to a fight, especially in the lengthy boss or dragon battles.
If you want greater strategic control over combat, then you can always pause the action and switch into the tactical combat system for an aerial view of the battlefield. Here you can micro-manage specific commands for each member, and forward time as slowly or quickly as you like, allowing you total control of your troops and the actions they perform.
Your use of either system can boil down to preference and just how you want to play the game, but I found both useful, switching between the two either as the fight dictated or down to the type of fight itself.
Dragon Age: Inquisition has proven one of the hardest review processes I’ve ever endured, one that not only required me to look at the game in question, but also myself, and how I approach games of this size and type.
With that, there are definitely positives to be said about Inquisition. Thanks to its strong, satisfying combat mechanics, absolutely gorgeous and expansive fantasy locales, and some of the finest, most inclusive character writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing, I enjoyed spending time in its world even if I didn’t particularly enjoy the things set out for me to do therein.
Despite going back in with a different approach, I found the flat villain and lacklustre story disappointing when compared to its predecessors, a structure that invites early burnout for those unprepared to ignore content and, with a couple of incredibly aggravating, almost game-breaking bugs to boot, it was just one of those I found hard to love.