Dragon Age: Inquisition – Review

More than any other game I’ve played recently, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game experience that reflects what you, the player, put into it.  While claims of 20 to 200 hours of gameplay based on previews and developer interviews are still being debated, the fact is that this game contains an impressive wealth of content.  I’ve already experienced one moment in the game when I though “a lesser developer would have ended the game here and saved the rest for a sequel or paid DLC.”  Inquisition is a great game, a more than worthy addition to the series, and in my opinion, more than redeems Bioware’s reputation after the widely criticized DA2.  I’m roughly 30 hours into the game and still feel like I’m much closer to the beginning than to the end.

To give any readers some background on my perspective going into this game, I’ve played both Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, but I did not finish either of them.  (It’s not unusual for me to leave games unfinished, owed largely due to my widely varied interests and busy life.)  I enjoyed DAO, but like many players, I felt DA2 was an utter disappointment.

For those that have never played a Dragon Age title or, like me, did not finish one or both of the previous titles Bioware has created the Dragon Age Keep.  This site allows you to review all your decisions from past games, edit them, and make any decisions you missed out on.  Then you simply hit a button to prep your world for Inquisition.  This is all based on your Origin account, doesn’t require you to export or import any save games, and functions regardless of platform.  For example, I played the previous two games on PC, reviewed and edited my choices on the site, and am playing DAI on PS4.  Since both my Origin account and PSN account use the same email, everything synced automatically.  Oh, and unlike many other games lately, Origin’s servers seem to have no trouble at launch.  Everything connects as it should.

This all make it possible to get into DAI even if you’ve never played a Dragon Age game in the past, but there are a few resources that might be beneficial to you.  One of the greatest aspects of this series is the effort that has gone into crafting the world – a fantasy world that feels both familiar and unique – and taking a look at these sites can help you get the most out of Inquisition.  First, there’s Kirk Hamilton’s A Beginner’s Guide to All Things Dragon Age on Kotaku.  This is a great primer on the game world and provides everything a new player needs to understand key concepts like “What are the Blight’s?”.  There are numerous sites out there that provide info on the two previous games, two examples of which are Michael Rougeu’s article on Digital Trends and the Dragon Age in 5 Minutes video from IGN.  This will introduce you to some of the key characters and events from past games, and ideally I’d recommend hitting all three sites, then visiting the Dragon Age Keep before starting the game.  This will mean you have to delay a bit, obviously, but in my opinion it’s worth it.  Anyway, on to the review!

Mountain Overlook – GameInformer

Character Creation

Upon selecting the option for a New Game, you are immediately greeted by a large explosion (always a plus), and so the story begins.  I’ll avoid spoilers, but during the first few minutes you are given the opportunity to fine tune your character’s facial appearance in a fine degree of detail.  You’ll also select a race, gender, and starting class.  You must choose between one of two subclasses, but this merely determines your starting skills and gear; you have access to both skill primary trees (plus two secondary trees) for your class from the beginning.  Many of the changes you can make may be subtle, but you can easily spend a fair amount of time fine tuning your character’s appearance.  Some player have criticized a lack of broader variety in the available options, but the available options are obviously based on the game’s art style.  It simply wouldn’t make sense to have a character with bright pink hair in Dragon Age.

Graphics, Art Style & Technical

Inquisition is a beautiful game.  The first major area following the prologue (Hinterlands), is a land of rolling hills, valleys and woodlands.  In terms of overall style, DAI falls somewhere between Skyrim and Guild Wars 2.  The bright color palette of the Hinterlands might not meet the everyone’s desires, but players should also visit the swamps of Fallow Mire and the frigid coastline of Storm Coast before making up their minds about the game’s visual style.

The game is well polished and remarkably bug free.  I’ve experienced only a single crash, and the only issues I’ve encountered involved either a hang during dialog with a character – which resolved itself after waiting a couple minutes – and a problem finding an NPC to turn in a quest because the NPC had somehow traveled to an unreachable location.  Simply leaving the map and then returning to a specific fast travel waypoint respawned the NPC in a nearby location.

The quality of graphics on the PS4 is high.  Draw distance is good, as are visual effects.  I occasionally experienced a slight pause in Haven (your main base of operations following the prologue) and an area loaded, but this would occur once or twice at most and only in that area.  Weather effects, wildlife, spell effects, building designs, etc. all lend to the immersion of the game world.  Cutscenes are done in-engine, and while part of me wishes they were full cinematics (mainly because Dragon Age cinematics are usually superb) the fact that so many scenes include dynamic dialog options makes this impractical.

Sound

Further enhancing the game’s immersion is the sound.  Ambient noises of rain and wildlife are superb, and the occasional dialog between members of your party is likely to make you want to try different party combinations just to hear more.  Listening to a Grey Warden and a Qunari discuss combat tactics is entertaining, particularly when the massive Qunari explains that wearing an eye patch makes his opponents predictable – often resulting in the loss of his opponent’s head.  The voice acting is excellent and helps the characters come alive.  Voices generally do a good job of conveying emotion that fits the scene, rarely feeling forced or out of place.  The game’s musical score is simply outstanding.  Sometimes the music offers the subtlest background, while at others it asserts itself to match and reinforce a particularly epic scene.  The scenes leading up to your introduction to Skyhold make especially excellent use of music.

Gameplay

In terms of gameplay, Inquisition would probably be best categorized as an action RPG.  It feels less tactical than previous entries in the series, but this may be due to the fact that I’m playing DAI on a console and played the previous games on PC.  My character is an archer, so my experience is largely limited to ranged combat, but the overall gameplay and feel of combat is positive.  Most animations are good, and the camera is generally cooperative.  Character movement feels fluid and natural, though perhaps a bit sluggish at times during combat.  Bioware has also included a tactical mode which can be switched on and off as needed.  This allows you to issue orders to your party in a much more tactical manner, though the camera in this mode could use some improvement.

Two of the most obvious issues with gameplay involve jumping.  For starters, the jumping animation leaves something to be desired, and your characters seems to jump straight up in a very limited fashion.  The tendency to get caught by small objects while moving makes jumping tedious and frustrating.  Fortunately, you don’t have to jump too often (though I found myself cursing my bunny-hopping rogue as I tried to dodge the fireballs spewed by a dragon).  The second issue is that the jumping button is also used as your primary means of interacting the with world.  This means that, more often than not, you will literally find yourself jumping up and down any time you try to pick up loot.  More critically, in instances where your interaction is time-sensitive, the fraction of a second it can take for the game to recognize an interaction opportunity can have dire consequences.  Perhaps they should have mapped the interact function to the right side of the d-pad.  It’s counterintuitive, but I do not believe that button is used for anything else, and it would solve some issues.

The game’s AI also bears mentioning.  Enemy behaviors are nothing special, but the behavior of your party members can sometimes be problematic.  Put another way, “Could you guys stop bunching together when we’re being strafed by a dragon?!”  The tactical mode still allows you to control all your party members throughout a fight, so it’s not a big deal.  As in previous games in the series, you have access to a system that allows you to customize the behavior of your party, though many players feel the system is less robust than in the past.  While occasionally frustrating, this is not a huge problem.  I was able to defeat the aforementioned dragon with all the behavior settings left at default, while only exercising limited control over my party members’ movement and potions.

As any reasonable player would expect, missions are functionally fairly standard.  You’re tasked with killing targets, collecting items, talking to people, and exploring areas.  This isn’t a bad thing; just don’t expect some groundbreaking approach to RPG gameplay.  While generally straightforward, missions tie in closely with the story and events of each area.  They all have a purpose beyond simple filler, are well-written, and make you want to complete them.  There are no quest hubs, and missions are equally likely to be introduced through a conversation with a character or by stumbling across a note in some abandoned campsite.  For a game that prides itself on incorporating player choice and consequences, it would be nice to include choices and branching plots into more of the missions, but most consequences outside of the main storyline are based more on if you completed a mission, not how you completed it.  Inquisition still embraces meaningful consequences more than most games, but there is still room for improvement.

For all you completionists out there, don’t expect to finish off all of a zone’s content your first trip there (not counting trips back to Haven to clean out your inventory).  Content in some areas requires you to face stronger opponents than you are probably ready for, some quests require materials you have to acquire from later zones, and still other missions (like quests for your companions) will not be available until later in the game.  This keeps you returning to areas multiple times, further minimizing the sense of a simple linear progression.

While combat and traipsing about the countryside are arguably the most significant aspects of gameplay, they are far from all of it.  Crafting is involved and requires both raw materials and schematics which can be found throughout the world.  Varying the materials used allows you to choose both an effect and appearance of your gear, and items can be upgraded with hilts, blades, pauldrons, and the like for added effect.  Another critical element of the game is the War Table, which is where you manage the Inquisition on a strategic scale, sending agents on operations to gain favor, recruit allies, investigate rumors, and explore new areas.  This keeps the gameplay connected to the big picture and ties in nicely with the other game systems.

Story & Characters

Last, and absolutely not least, are the story and characters.  This is where DAI really shines, but also where you have to invest some time to get the most bang for your buck.  Characters are all well-rounded, with distinct personalities and strong backstories which are revealed throughout the course of the game – if you take the time to talk to them.  It’s generally a good idea to check-in with at least one or two characters any time you return to your base of operations, and always after major advancements in the storyline.  I’ve frequently noticed myself spending more than an hour in Haven just swapping out some gear and talking to people.  It’s not simply a scrollfest, as you have to make decisions about how you talk to people, decisions which have consequences.  Your compatriots’ opinions of you can and will open up new missions and War Table operations for you through the course of the game.

Being invested in the characters helps with any story, but DAI doesn’t need much help in this area.  The overall story can be best described in a single word – EPIC.  While it may seem like your standard fantasy, save-the-world fare, Inquisition still manages to set itself apart.  The events and scenes leading up to the introduction of Skyfall are outstanding.  The way the world’s politics and religions are incorporated into the story are some of the best I’ve seen.  To say there’s a rich historical backstory would be a massive understatement, and most of this is presented through excerpts from books, notes, and songs you find throughout the world.  While I’m ashamed to say I have read many of these so far, it’s worth mentioning that you don’t have to read all of them to still get a strong feel for the world.

Wrap-Up

I’m certain there’s a lot I’ve overlooked, and I’m not even close to finishing the game yet.  While there is still room for improvement, Inquisition is easily one of the best RPGs of the year.  In fact, it’s probably one of the best games of the year, period.  A great story that’s written and presented well, made even better through the fact that you actually have a say in how it turns out.  The Dragon Age games usually lend themselves to multiple playthroughs if you want to experience everything, and DAI is no exception.  Most importantly for Bioware, Inquisition goes a long way towards reestablishing the proud tradition of the Dragon Age series.

This post was modified a couple hours after the initial posting to include additional information on bugs, AI, and mission difficulty.

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