Review: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a good game, decently-made that could have been a classic if only it had a proper editor.  Brilliant moments that marry exposition and gameplay in thrilling encounters are separated by hours upon hours of grindy tedium, in a case of a sandbox too large with too little to do in it.  Nonetheless what is there is solid, if relentlessly padded: the mechanics mostly sound, the engine technically proficient; the one big strike against the game becomes late-game balance, as certain specialisations can break said balance across their knees with a resounding crack.  Nonetheless, well worth a look if you enjoy the Dragon Age franchise or open world RPGs in general.
Review: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Date published: Apr 25, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third in the Dragon Age series of classical western CRPGS developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts.  The Dragon Age series up to this point certainly has been a mixed bag, with the original, appropriately-titled Dragon Age: Origins, being a bit of an uncut and unpolished diamond, offering plenty of potential but with many flaws.  The expansion pack Awakening refined on the formula, tightened up the storytelling, and was probably the best of the series so far, and Dragon Age II, well we don't talk about the second full installment in polite company, but suffice it to say that it's the first Bioware game I played and reviewed that I wouldn't recommend.  So the question to answer when we look at Inquisition is whether it evokes the potential of that first installment or falls into the mire of technical issues, completely-unstructured storytelling, and general mess that was the second.  Thankfully, Inquisition is much like Origins in this respect, but perhaps to a fault, since it very much again seems like that unpolished diamond with plenty of minor imperfections.

The story certainly delivers, with a coherent narrative
and proper character development, albeit some poor character writing in spots

The framing device is hardly the only similarity - While the “prisoner” framing device is how the game starts in media res, it includes a variety of other call-backs through the “Dragon Keep”, dredging your past saves for your Warden and Hawke and working their decisions into the plot in little ways.  It’s hardly the pay-out of Mass Effect however, given all the characters are different, and serves mostly as a call-back to lesser games for the most part, and changes little of the plot.

This is really where Dragon Age II failed: you never got sight of the end-game, the final goal-posts, until you practically about to run headlong into them.  One could be forgiven then, for wondering if Inquisition drank the same poison, when you're dropped bleary-eyed and clapped in chains in media res to respond to an interrogation from the same people that were interrogating Varric in Dragon Age II.  Fortunately, the plot gives way to an actual over-arching goal almost immediately to quell those fears - you somehow through means you cannot remember in a case of all-too-plot-convenient amnesia acquired what appears to be a green video card artifact flickering occasionally on my hand that apparently can close rifts in the very fabric of space and time through which demons can arise.

If it sounds like I'm taking the piss with the story description a bit, it's because if I have one complaint with the story it's that it thrusts you into the fire almost immediately and expects you to care about the outcome.  That is the perennial peril of a story beginning in media res, especially one that is starting immediately before the chief danger, it misses all the build up that you would have that is supposed to make you care about the outcome of the crisis event presented.  It's in this that Dragon Age II's nature is revealed: it was largely as a framing device for Inquisition, and it seems indeed to validate concerns that Dragon Age II was at best a holding pattern.

Fortunately, Inquisition's story progresses at a decent pace and does a much better job of instating an overall objective: form the Inquisition to build a force to be able to fix that hole in the sky disgorging demons, gain support, and work towards finally dealing with it.  The story is told on a meandering journey through Orlais and Ferelden, the direction of which you plot through a series of story missions on the "War Table" that opens up a series of pretty expansive open world areas.

Inquisition burdens that otherwise-pretty-great story with a ton of arbitrary padding

The War Table is where I found my biggest gripe in the game - it's basically adding an element of waiting to the game, old browser-game style.  While it is the means whereby you choose story missions and therefore a proverbial vehicle for the plot (lifted mostly whole cloth from the Galaxy Map in Mass Effect), it's added a bunch of fluff that is unnecessary.  The war table offers you three ways to complete each mission: "Forces" (representing military might), "Diplomacy" (representing alliances and the like), and "Spies" (espionage, cloak and dagger, and such) - and while this in theory probably sounds like it would make for some interesting choices, Bioware's old problem rears it's head again - it just doesn't know how to pay off that design decision, and ultimately for the main story missions they're unnecessary, and for the non-mandatory quests they essentially come down to being a cap of three simultaneous missions.  There's only a handful of war table missions that have an appreciably-different result if you choose one element over the other.

These missions, incidentally, are Assassin's Creed style, except without even the customisation aspect of knowing and developing your agents - you don't go on them.  While that certainly soundly solves Commander Shephard's delegation problem, as it seems the Inquisitor is much better at that, but the missions you choose and send people on often only bring back very paltry resources at best, or open up additional side missions, so I certainly couldn't recommend fussing with it, as trying to get 100% completion easily inflated my first play-through to a ridiculous 120 hours, only maybe 20-30 of that is the main story arc.  While that might seem impressive, most of that time is padding, kicking around in a mostly-empty sandbox waiting for time to expire.  I became quite appreciative of how repetitive the harvesting mechanics quickly became as I waited for the latest one to tick down it's utterly ridiculous 6 REAL HOUR time to finish.  While those missions aren't the average (average being about an hour by some back-of-the-envelope math), there were enough of them to really put the brakes on any feeling of pace or flow.

The fundamental design problem here is that the intermediate breaks between the story points become too slow and drawn out, contrasting too sharply with the rapid-in-comparison pace of the actual story missions.  It's a kind of narrative backlash, going from 0 to 180 in a few seconds, when you do go to do one of the main plot quests, and the juxtaposition of the two paces is jarring and makes the game seem stilted, along with the more general complaint that the padding tends to make the game drag on.

The world that Inquisition presents is brilliant, gorgeous, and very, very empty

Skin shaders are the one egregious bit in Inquisition - That said, they’re a particularly egregious one in some cases, such as Sera above, with a certain je ne sais quoi to their ... over-moistness that makes them settle comfortably down right smack in the middle of the uncanny valley.  Given that some of the characters do not exhibit this problem one wonders at why they chose it, since it seems deliberate.

That's the other thing that contributes to the feeling the game is drawn out - the over-world is large, expansive, and .. not filled with very much.  It feels like it's trying to evoke the kind of largess exemplified best in the sandbox of Elder Scrolls Online, but the problem is that where Elder Scrolls Online did a very good job of filling the landscape with stuff to do - perhaps to the point of making commutes a chore - Dragon Age: Inquisition goes the other direction, and the world is basically a very empty expanse other than the areas which are essentially the locus of quest lines.  One could certainly argue this makes the game more realistic, but it also makes it much less fun, and as such diminishes the game, being a thing ostensibly made for the purpose of being fun.

I'm not saying there's nothing to do however - but there's not enough of it to fill a sandbox of this size.  It's like trying to make one of those tiny wrapped squares of butter stretch through four sandwiches: the result is a very thing butter indeed, and not very satisfying overall.  There definitely are some areas that are interesting to explore, but they all seem to come with built-in moats of empty zones around them, as if the medieval zoning laws precluded having construction closer than fifty yards to existing cities, or more on point, as if design committee were arbitrarily trying to make the game of a certain size.  It feels very arbitrary, in other words.

Some effort is made to offset this with herbs and other resources dotted across the countryside Oblivion-style, and the occasional procedurally-generated patrols or other  small set-pieces like camps that crop up at certain predefined nodes, presumably without much of a conditional placed on it because I once had three people huddled around a campfire for warmth when they were up to their knees in warmth - and the campfire equally as underwater.  So it's a half-effort at best, one that smells somewhat of a budget that once might have felt meaty and large now reduced to the last bone on that rack of ribs and trying to make the most of what remains.  It's rarely as egregious as my example, but the "seams' are largely on display in that case.

All the same, the engine and art design combine to create a world that looks very great.  There is a very high-fantasy style on display here, with great costuming and building design, with each region feeling unique in it's own right.  It's .. all pretty familiar, a fidelity upgrade on consistent Dragon Age looks, but it does it well, and the underlying engine is very solid without and notable performance issues.  The only time I ever had any issues was trying to run on max settings, and given I have a middle-of-the-road graphics card, above average but not excellent, that's somewhat to be expected.  Notable however is that the game's fidelity comes in an honest fashion, with the texture quality very sharp and the models high-poly, rather than just pasting shaders on it until it's appropriately "next gen" and you cannot see anything, though it's worth noting the wierd "realdoll" sheen that makes some characters (Sera in particular) look like they're made of that strange artificial rubber.

Combat is where the meat of the game is,
and to Inquisition's credit it works very well in either mode

Whereas the story is more a call back to the story-telling methods of the first in the series, the mechanics are where the majority of the real retooling of Dragon Age has happened. The combat has a much more on point interface that will be familiar to those whom play MMORPGs, but the progression remains similar and indeed refined over the previous two iterations.  The core change is that it's entirely viable to play the game as a sort of open-world Skyrim sort of experience, or to use the tried-and-true tactical combat mode and its pause system.  For my part, I much more enjoy the former, so that is where I spent most of my time, but the turn-based mode is much more refined than before, with movement and giving commands both quite simplified over the original since it's much easier to switch between followers and less jarring to do so.  It likely helps both modes a great deal that the AI for the most part can be relied upon to "mill about smartly" when it doesn't have a direct command, and I found myself needing to "assume direct control" much less frequently.

The abilities in general have been boiled down to powers that seem much more unique compared to one another, each with specific advantages, status effects, and the like, as opposed to Origins where many similar powers bled together, or 2's over-reliance on plain and uninteresting passives for the majority of powers.  Each of the available classes plays fairly different, and you'll get a different experience with each in combat.

Difficulty curve is where this falls apart a little, since while some of the classes and their attached specialisations pull away from the pack much quicker than others (the mage's Knight Enchanter being comedic in it's broken nature), the game in most cases fails to balance incremental player progression with like incremental increase in enemy difficulty - you'll find yourself getting to a point where only the boss fights present any real challenge, and if you pick one of the more broken professions, even that will quickly fade.  That said, the combat is strong, but the difficulty isn't, and that detracts from it.  It is difficult to feel satisfied by a combat system, however well-designed it may be, that does not present an appreciable challenge to the player.

The cast of Dragon Age Inqusition is very, very much a mixed bag

Character writing in Inquisition is a game of no half-measures: when it's good, it's brilliant, when it's bad its mother pusbucket frigging bastard shitebag pissface! Eat it, you lop-eared, son of an arse-nut rot-suck piece of...ugh!

Yeah, that's real dialogue from the game.

There aren't characters that are badly-written per se, they're all fairly fleshed-out, but some of them are just annoying, and someone needs to remind whoever wrote Sera, quoth she above, and Vivienne, that intentionally annoying, is still annoying. 

All the same, the good and bad balance out, and there's certainly enough strong acting and voice talent to carry it in the various characters that you'll inevitably find someone to whom you take a liking amidst them, likely two or three.  The romance is actually more fleshed out as well, responding to past criticisms, but I'd still say it feels very slipshod and tacked-on.  Simply making the "quest" for the romance line more complex doesn't make it more realistic, or any less game-y.  it doesn't feel natural in most cases, and the ones where it does make it feel like a fling.  Not anything that bothers me, but if you were going into this expecting better, having heard it's better in Inquisition, well it is, but not really in the right way.

The Final Word Recommended - While an empty-feeling empty world diminishes the addition of the open world, Dragon Age: Inquisition nonetheless offers a decent RPG with some strong combat mechanics, let down by that padded, empty feeling and the specialisations breaking game balance. It’s not perfect, but it’s well-made, and likely the best in the series.  Certainly worth the look for a Dragon Age or RPG fan.