Dragon Age: Inquisition Review
Reviewed on PCAlso available on Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
BioWare had a lot of goodwill to recoup. Despite Dragon Age 2 delivering a solid continuation of the story set up in the much-loved original, it felt rushed. Overused environments, underwhelming visuals, an action-heavy combat system and a condensed game world all combined to cause consternation amongst fans. There was unrest in Thedas, and there was a lot of rebuilding to do. Thankfully, Dragon Age: Inquisition ably demonstrates that an astounding amount can be achieved in four years.
Following on directly from the events of Dragon Age 2, the world is in turmoil as the battle between templars and mages reached its climax. Now, as both factions are contemplating their next move, a devastating explosion at the heart of a sacred chantry temple has left only one survivor: you. Furthermore, a number of Rifts have opened up around the land, spewing beasts from the spirit realm into the world. The reasons for your survival and subsequent role in closing these Rifts are just two of the many mysteries you need to solve. Indeed, the former helps inform the latter, as you are held aloft as a Herald by the disparate stragglers from both factions, and you join high-profile characters in restoring an Inquisition and creating a war council to combat the new threat. How you choose to use the growing power of the Inquisition will have significant consequences on the endgame, but you are aided by a number of familiar faces including Cassandra, Varric and Leliana, and there are plenty of nods to both of the previous instalments. It isn’t essential to have played the first two games, but it will certainly provide context to the considerable mythology and comes highly recommended.
As with previous instalments your first act will be choosing your avatar, and the available character creation options rival The Sims in terms of customisation. Everything from the level of chin protrusion to the placement of scars is available for alteration, giving you the freedom of avatar-building unlike in any RPG to date. The visuals throughout are simply stunning too, particularly on high-end PCs. Whether crunching through snowy tundra as you arc crackling blue electric bolts at foes, taking in the dazzling draw distance of the mountainous landscape, or fighting off glowing wraiths in a candlelit mine, the spectacle on show is captivating. There are quirks of course, not least the laughably rendered hair sitting atop characters like a mop head on a mannequin, and the blinding lip shine (which, fortunately, can be reduced to zero during character creation). These are mere blips, easily overlooked in the overall picture; the filmic quality, excellent lip-synching and general background business all combine into an immersive whole, drawing you into the world of Thedas before the tale has even begun to weave itself.
Power and Influence are the two driving stats within the Inquisition’s war council, which you will acquire as you discover and claim new areas within the world, complete quests, and make alliances with various factions. Power allows you to send out scouts from the council to complete missions and unlock new opportunities. These are done in real-time, which allows you to have several different scouting missions on the go whilst you’re out in the field completing your own quests. Returning to the war council once each scouting mission is completed will provide an associated bounty. Influence increases your Inquisition’s rank, and provides unique upgrades as you advance, such as increased XP gains when killing enemies, or a party-wide boost to defence. It’s a neat way of encouraging your participation in the plethora of side missions available, as each not only builds on the underlying narrative but also offers different, interesting rewards. The map within the war council is fashioned like a strategy board game with miniature representations of your scouts moving around the table like game pieces. As your politicking increases, more plot quests are opened up; it’s as vital a component as any within the game, yet it’s just a small element making up a much grander tapestry.
Completionists will have an absolute field day in Inquisition - we lost count of the number of progress bars which needed filling and collections which needed completing. Whether you’re discovering landmarks or collecting ingredients, sealing Rifts or hunting down shards, there’s so much going on at any one time that it makes the previous games, especially the second, look utterly linear. The best thing is, you’ll want to collect things. Unlike titles like Assassin’s Creed which used collectibles as a way of padding out the main game, the various systems, codices and quests in Inquisition mesh together so seamlessly that it’s hard not to feel compelled to climb a mountain to track down a new flower, or head off in search of a rare beast to harvest its hide for a requisition recipe. Even minigames make an appearance in the form of Ocularums which you use to track down shards by scouring the landscape, and Astrariums where you reveal the location of hidden caves by solving constellation puzzles which would rival those in a Professor Layton title. Neither feel out of place, and both add welcome variety to your exploration of the countryside.
It won’t be long before your fighting skills are tested on the many enemies roaming the landscape. The combat engine has been overhauled to merge the best facets of the first two games into a gripping combination of third-person action and traditional strategy. The party AI is uniformly excellent, so you can either leave it to manage itself if you so wish - at least for weaker mobs - or delve into the character orders screen to specify a wide array of instructions such as using actions or drinking potions dependent on health levels, enemy numbers, and so on. However, it’s when you start butting heads with more challenging opponents that the tactical view becomes vital. This rotates the camera to a top-down viewpoint, allowing you to easily select party members, issue them orders, and then play out the resulting carnage at a speed to suit you. It may feel a little impersonal compared to the normal battle view, but you can switch between modes at any point and the micromanagement it allows soon becomes an essential weapon in your arsenal, especially when you first take on a dragon. The result is a satisfying, visceral and dazzling experience which never gets old, thanks in part to the wide array of enemies and the interesting animations and attacks they each have.
Injuries have mercifully been done away with, and characters who go down in battle will either get back up at the end, or can be resurrected mid-fight by holding down a button for a few seconds whilst standing over them. It brings a tense pay-off to proceedings, forcing you to choose whether to sacrifice an assault in order to bolster your party. Better still, you can establish camps throughout the world which allow you to heal fully, restock your potions, and acquire new requisitions. These are recipes of a sort, requiring a combination of components which can be gathered from the countryside or on your travels, and provide a reward once completed. For instance, creating Inquisition Weapons by gathering enough iron and a logging stand will increase your Power, whilst some requisitions will provide different outcomes or approaches to quests once filled. Each requisition indicates its benefit to the Inquisition’s overall purpose, elevating it above the more mundane kind of fetch quest. Better still, even the trivial tasks you’re handed have meaning. Whether you’re hunting ram meat for a hungry group of refugees, or tracking down a potion for an ill villager, the threads all tie into the same story - namely, the aftermath of the war.
This convergence of purpose isn’t surprising, as Inquisition truly succeeds in the area BioWare has traditionally excelled - its storytelling. The main narrative may initially appear superficial, as you travel from Rift to Rift, fighting demons and closing each fissure, but it ultimately evolves into something far more compelling as the politics of each faction intertwine to provide you with a number of uncomfortable decisions to make. That said, the scope of the game itself often undermines the thrust of the main plot; because there’s just so much to do, you’ll find yourself regularly consulting your journal to work out where exactly you should be heading next to progress the story. Ultimately, the narrative fails to reach the epic breadth of the world it inhabits, but the smaller story strands are the ones that will stay with you. Whether it’s the love-hate relationship of Varric and Cassandra, the dry witticism of Solas, the condescension of Vivienne or anything that comes out of Iron Bull’s mouth (usually filth, courtesy of the excellent Freddie Prinze Jr.), your party’s interactions with you and each other rival those of Baldur’s Gate 2. The option to romance characters is present and correct, and switching out party members as often as you can is recommended since they are all fully developed characters, and their banter is invariably top notch thanks in no small part to the superb voice cast. They are complemented by a wonderful orchestral soundtrack. The audio composition of Inon Zur was a hard act to follow, but Trevor Morris has done a sterling job here. The themes change as often as the environments, but whether you’re wandering through the medieval town of Haven or along the rain-battered Storm Coast, the music is always appropriate. Whether it’s a rousing cacophony as you seal a rift, or a haunting series of strings accompanying a dungeon dive, everything fits.
It would have been easy to skimp on the environmental content given that half of the game world alone is bigger than both of the previous games combined. Despite this, travelling around Thedas is never less than captivating since it’s packed with interesting diversions - random caravans and buildings, unique non-hostile creatures, new landmarks to discover - but you’ll soon need a quicker method of transport. Camps come in handy here too, acting as fast-travel portals between areas you’ve already discovered. These are selectable from the world map and, like the other changes made to make the game more accessible, they make exploration far more fun than previous instalments. We’d be remiss to ignore the new jump ability which adds a whole level of verticality and freedom to the world, and makes you wonder what could have been achieved in the previous games if it had been included. Comparisons with Skyrim will inevitably be drawn and open-world inspiration can certainly be seen here, but Inquisition ultimately owes more to BioWare’s own back catalogue. The developer has cherry-picked the best features of its previous titles, refined its interfaces and gameplay, and ditched the elements which frustrated. They even included a separate online multiplayer mode which lets you and up to three friends take a new character to three randomly generated dungeons. Level caps are available to hit, prestige points can be earned to bump you up the leaderboard ranks, and you can open up new characters by crafting new equipment. It’s a surprisingly fleshed-out addition that is far better than it needed to be, and is as intuitive to jump into and play as the main campaign.
In truth, an awful lot has been simplified, nearly all for the better. Potions - almost the sole method of healing in Inquisition- are now refilled at caches within the camps you build and at larger dungeons, rather than you having to rely on scavenging them on your travels. Aside from one notable exception, healing magic has been jettisoned completely in favour of more defensive magic such as barriers and shields. The abilities system has had an overhaul too which has trimmed the amount of available skill trees, meaning you’re no longer required to sift through eight or nine different pathways, agonising over where to spend your points. The codices are even better this time around, as they are broken into unlockable, bite-sized chunks which are far easier to navigate and identify entries than the sprawling lists of the previous instalment. This minimalist rebuild makes the inclusion of a search command an odd choice, at least initially. Ostensibly a way of highlighting hidden or easily overlooked objects in the environment, it requires you to continually press a button to send out a sonar-like pulse which makes nearby collectibles glow with a golden tinge, whilst also providing an audible cue and a dot on your minimap. Whilst feeling cumbersome to begin with, it soon becomes an addictive mechanic, encouraging you to scour every available area thoroughly for fear of missing a hidden cave, landmark or cache of loot.
If only the controls were so simple. After a couple of hours wrestling with the keyboard and mouse, we gave in and resorted to the gamepad. The experience was markedly different, and mostly for the better. Inquisition is clearly a game designed for the console arena. Movement is more natural, the camera is more intuitive on two thumbsticks, and menu navigation feels comfortably familiar for anyone used to playing the previous games on PS3 or Xbox - mainly because the menu changes completely to match the controller layout, suggesting that the clunky mouse and keyboard menu layout is simply a result of poor design. PC players would be strongly advised to invest in a gamepad. As it’s a BioWare release, we encountered a few bugs too. Thankfully - at least on PC - none of them were too concerning. Early on, we lost the ability to switch to other party members and had to reload to get control back, but this issue never manifested itself again. Pathfinding was occasionally erratic too; whilst AI is excellent on the whole, your party may sometimes try and take a path through a cave wall rather than around it, which becomes annoying if your controlled character has marched ahead to take on a foe. Similarly, our character sometimes got stuck traversing mountains, forcing us to switch to a different party member in order to teleport the stuck individual back to the fold and negate any progress we made on the climb.
But these are minor missteps in an otherwise incredible achievement. Coming off the back of the divisive Mass Effect 3 and the unfairly maligned Dragon Age 2, expectations were almost unreasonably high, and the hype built up to astronomical proportions. People expected another failure. Yet BioWare had a point to prove, and with Dragon Age: Inquisition it has rallied from its previous disappointments to deliver a near-flawless fantasy experience of staggering scope, mending the oft-broken hopes of a gaming nation alongside its own reputation as the foremost purveyor of adventuring. As 2014 draws to a close, Inquisition is a contender not only for game of the year, but for the best title to come out of BioWare’s impressive stable - either way, it’s an essential purchase for any RPG fan.