Bioware: The Game
HIGH: Cassandra's fangirl outburst
LOW: The persistent feeling that I had accidentally launched World of Warcraft
WTF: It sure is convenient that we found this giant castle with nobody living in it
Bioware games have settled into a consistent pattern over the past decade or so:
Step 1: Allow the player to create their own character.
Step 2: Add rich, endearing, well-written, and highly date-able companions.
Step 3: Create iffy game mechanics that may (or may not) work well.
Dragon Age: Inquisition follows this formula to a tee, and the result is both one of Bioware's most enjoyable and most maddening games.
Things get off to a muddled start. The player's character has mysteriously acquired a green mark on their left hand, the result of an explosion of unknown origins. After being initially blamed for the explosion, I was put in charge of the Inquisition (who, me?) and then dumped into a massive zone with about a zillion quest markers and told to get cracking on tasks for the cause.
What is the Inquisition? At that point, I had no idea.
All of this happens very quickly, and it was difficult to get a sense of who my character was and how she fit into these events. As a result, the first ten hours or so were an absolute snoozefest. Walking around in the first area (the Hinterlands) with characters I knew nothing about doing missions I knew nothing about for reasons I knew nothing about is the exact opposite of what I consider a strong opening.
However, the most galling thing about those first ten hours was that it was entirely unnecessary. It's possible to do everything required to advance the story within two hours, which would have been preferable to wandering around the Hinterlands without any real sense of what I was supposed to be doing. Nowhere in all the quest markers was it apparent that I could leave at any time.
This poor beginning was particularly disappointing since Origins and even Dragon Age 2 featured strong starts that gave the player a solid foundation and illustrated their place in the world. Inquisition, on the other hand, was content to toss me in with little explanation, resulting in an incredibly terrible impression. As such, the best possible advice I could give to anyone about to start Inquisition is this: Leave. The. Hinterlands. As. Soon. As. Possible.
Fortunately, things don't remain so sketchy once the player moves on. "It gets better later" might not be a pleasant thing to hear, but it does get better—the characters get deeper, the story begins to have meaning, and the player's role becomes clearer. The pacing picked up as I kept progressing further, eventually becoming as enthralling as any of Bioware's best work. By the time I reached Skyhold, the Inquisition finally felt like it was mine.
In addition to the improving pace, Thedas lore experts will be in for a treat, as Inquisition feels like the most expansive in-game look at the greater Dragon Age universe to date. The narrative is heavily tied to past events, and there are small references and callbacks throughout. While lore knowledge is by no means a requirement, it definitely enhances the experience.
Of course it wouldn't be a Bioware game without a rich cast of companions, and Inquisition features some of the best the Dragon Age franchise has produced. Even the characters who might seem like total dullards at first have something going on beneath the surface, and trust me, it's worth seeking out the hidden aspects of the entire party. There are some truly great character moments to be found, and those alone make Inquisition worthwhile.
Unfortunately, the high points are few and far between.
In contrast to the earlier titles, the exploration zones here are absolutely massive. Each area is about as big as the entirety of Dragon Age 2, with an open vastness to them similar to Skyrim or the recent Fallout games. The environments are gorgeous, ranging from lush forests to sand-swept deserts and opulent palaces. The criticisms of Dragon Age 2's confined spaces and repeated environments have been very much addressed.
Unfortunately, the size of these areas is also Inquisition's greatest problem. The majority of the quests in these areas are of the "go here and get this" variety, which offer little in the way of interesting story or character bits. In fact, the overall structure of these areas feels very much like an MMORPG, and not in a good way. Inquisition seems big for the sake of being big, stuffed with fetchquest after fetchquest solely for the purpose of increasing gameplay length.
In addition, progressing through the critical path requires "power" points, a resource that is gained by accomplishing these fetchquests. This results in sizable gaps of time between any meaningful story sequences, with a dull, grind-heavy experience filling that space.
On the plus side, combat and exploration are solid enough, so the time spent between story missions wasn't so bad as to be unbearable. Fighting enemies recalls some of the most memorable battles from Origins and has none of the randomness that made Dragon Age 2 so hard to deal with. While the inclusion of an overhead camera wasn't all that useful to me, the smooth ‘command, pause, move, pause, command' flow of battle is still intact.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a frustrating game. I often found myself scratching and clawing through boring, MMO-like content for enough power points to progress to the next major plot event. However, the fact that I was willing to slog through it at all shows just how good this game can be when it hits its stride. The dichotomy between the narrative parts and all that shoddy fetchquesting is a shame because when it hits those high notes, Inquisition is an absolutely beautiful experience.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 45 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 1 hour of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, nudity, sexual content, strong language. The content descriptors are pretty self-explanatory, but nothing felt over the top or inappropriate. It's not something I would have a problem with an older child playing.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There shouldn't be much trouble. Everything can be subtitled and audio cues aren't a significant gameplay factor.
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