Dragon Age: Origins was one of the first games I played on the Xbox 360. I instantly found a connection with it that I hadn’t experienced with other games in recent years. I felt more immersed in the world of Thedas than I had in any other videogame setting; I wasn’t just playing as the Hero of Ferelden, I was the Hero of Ferelden, who would rid the world of the fifth blight, take Alistair’s hand in marriage and rule the world by his side.
When Dragon Age 2 came out, I found it to be a disappointment. Joe Yang, in his retrospective review, for Continue Play, thought different, but Dragon Age 2 lacked the scale and wonder that the first in the series evoked. Between its repeated environments, two-dimensional characters and an intrinsic lack of any real plot-line, Dragon Age 2 barely constituted what I had learned to adore about its predecessor, and seemed lackluster in comparison.
So when Dragon Age: Inquisition was announced, I was cautious. Here was a franchise which had instilled so much emotion with its first installment, yet disappointed me at nearly every given moment in the second. But, hey, I can’t resist a good Bioware game.
At its most basic level, the story in Dragon Age: Inquisition follows that of most other Bioware games: you’re the sole survivor of an attack on the human race and must rise above it in order to overcome a great evil and restore a sense of natural order to the world. You do this as a member of the Inquisition – a fanatical religious order opposed to magic.
Playing as a member of the Inquisition is certainly an interesting take on the series; the order were (broadly) portrayed as zealots in previous games, so the opportunity to see them fleshed out here is welcome. While it’s odd that you end up pursuing your quest accompanied by a number of magic-wielding characters – we’ll get to them in a moment – for the most part, the game is well-written, with an added layer of political intrigue which adds a layer of depth and flavor to races and areas only fleetingly seen or heard of in previous titles.
Of course, the thing that really makes a Bioware game is the supporting cast, and the characters in Inquisition are a diverse and interesting bunch. Helping you to form the Inquisition are your advisors: Josephine Montilyet, the eldest daughter of a noble Antivan family and an eminent figure in diplomacy, making her incredibly influential; Leliana – who you may remember from Dragon Age: Origins – the Inquisition’s spymaster and the Left Hand of the Divine; and finally, Cullen Rutherford, who has appeared in both of the previous games – the ex-Knight Commander of the Templar Order, and my personal romance option for the game. I just couldn’t resist his charms. Maybe it’s his permanent 5-o-clock shadow.
You also have a choice of nine companions to take with you on your journey: Blackwall, Cole, Dorian, Iron Bull, Sera, Solas, Vivienne and, returning from Dragon Age II, Cassandra – who wasn’t a companion but did appear in the game – and everyone’s favourite dwarf, Varric. Each companion has their own personal quest and back-story, and while some are more poignant than others, time spent in their company is largely enjoyable.
My personal favorite is Dorian, an Altus mage of the Tevinter Imperium. I’m trying my best to avoid spoilers in this review, but Dorian’s story is equally compelling and heartbreaking, giving him a sense of depth which was lacking from all companions in Dragon Age 2, and although other characters may not be quite as comprehensive as he, their stories all make for interesting tales and experiences. He’s also the first gay character to feature in a Bioware game (while same sex romance has featured in Bioware games previously, those characters were bisexual).
Customization is an incredibly important feature in RPGs. Dragon Age: Inquisition has a thorough character creation screen, allowing you to customize nearly all aspects of your Inquisitor’s facial appearance. There’s even an option for you to choose which voice your Inquisitor uses. For both males and females, you have the choice of an American accent or a more traditional British one.
For the first time in a Dragon Age game, the Qunari – a horned humanoid race from beyond the northern oceans of Thedas – are an optional race along with human, elf and dwarf. Unlike in Origins, you can’t choose between your, well, origins, and only have the option of one back-story per race. A minor disappointment, perhaps, but for a game concerned so much with politics and intrigue, it would have been nice to see a more personalized response to your character based on their social class in addition to their race. Also, the hair options for your Inquisitor are quite limited. This may simply be a triviality for some people, but for others, it might be an issue.
Customizing your gear has, thankfully, become much more extensive this time around. A huge variety of gear and weapons can be crafted, and each have their own unique appearance. Instead of simply collecting any old piece of leather and the first bit of metal you find, the material you use to create an item affects both the look and the effect that is placed onto it. This could mean that using halla leather gives you +15 to dexterity, whereas canine leather gives +10 to cunning. Of course, you could simply disregard all of this, and create an item with the materials that make it look the prettiest. The additional sense of depth when it comes to shaping your Inquisitor into who you want them to be just adds to the immersion of the game, making you truly feel that you are your character. It’s a welcome step up after the relatively limited systems in the previous games.
The minute-to-minute gameplay is a considerable improvement from the previous game. No longer does it feel as though you’re just button mashing your way through enemies. Battles feel tactical: you could focus your attention on one enemy with my ranged attacks – I played as a rogue archer – and then shift your attention to an approaching target, leaping away from them swiftly – all with a movement of a joystick and the press of a button. The option of using a tactical camera is welcome, but its implementation feels awkward. Battles simply take too long when you utilize it, and over-thinking the situation often means that the outcome is an untimely demise. Still, combat is a nice balance between the more tactical considerations of Origins and the dumbed-down, button-mashy combat from Dragon Age 2, and the tactical camera does come into its own on higher difficulties (Nightmare difficulty lives up to its name).
Bizarrely, something missing from Dragon Age: Inquisition is any form of healing magic for a mage. Instead, a Dark Souls-esque collection of potions are used, which can be restocked at any camp. There are upsides and downsides to this approach. On the one hand, it means that the mage in your party can have a sole focus on offense, making them nigh unstoppable against many foes. On the other hand, having a limited number of potions – especially in a boss battle – means that healing has to be done sparingly and once your potions run out, you have to rely on running into the heat of the battle, reviving allies and then running back out, only to have to repeat the process when they die again (which happens quite a few times as characters only revive to half health). It also means that there’s a lot of backtracking to camps in order to restock your supply, which harms the pacing. It’s a rather odd decision; healing magic is well-established in the lore, so their absence here breaks from continuity. Oh well, maybe we’ll see them added in an expansion further down the road (Bioware has stated it intends to restore cut content and add new features, post-release).
Enemies sit neatly between familiar opponents from previous games and a selection of new foes to taste your steel. You still have the fan favorites in the darkspawn, the common bandits and undead found in most RPGs, and rogue templars and mages which are nothing new to the franchise; however, there are also some new enemies which add more diversity to the mix. Small animals such as nugs and rams can also be found running through the forests and deserts found throughout the world of Thedas. There’s a greater range of human enemies to be fought and even human-esque creatures, affected by a new substance called red lyrium which creates monsters out of those who consume it. Larger enemies can be found throughout the world such as giants and wyverns, which can be attacked at various points of the body, and this is worked into the battle strategy needed to defeat them. Come across a giant, and you can attack its left leg, causing it to collapse on one knee and making it far easier to take down.
But the real question on everyone’s mind: Are there dragons in the game?
Thankfully, the answer is yes, and defeating one is incredibly fulfilling. Each dragon fight feels like a truly epic encounter, with the enemy taking off and flying to another point of the map when it drops below a certain amount of health, summoning smaller creatures to attack you as it assaults you from above or even – in one of my favorite fights – using its lightning ability to affect the water surrounding the arena, limiting your movement and making you truly utilize available space. As mentioned previously with the giants, each limb of each dragon can be attacked separately, bringing the monster down slowly but surely before it collapses and you slump back in your chair yourself to recover from the encounter and bask in a personal sense of glory. Fighting and defeating one of these monstrosities feels like a set-piece and a genuine achievement, to the point where Inquisition even manages to outclass Skyrim.
Despite being broken up over a number of different areas separated by loading screens, the world still manages to feel huge, and each explorable area often stretches off for miles into the distance. A brilliant aspect of Dragon Age: Inquisition is the breadth of capacity it gives to you as the player. The largest area – the Hinterlands – took me around fifteen hours to fully explore and complete all of the quests. This could be a problem for some players, as the first twenty hours of the game can feel like a massive grind for experience, items and materials; but once you get past that and things start to pick up in both the story and the options available to you, the wait more than pays off.
Special mention has to be given to the game’s orchestral score. Each composition fits the situation perfectly and if you’re considering buying the game, I would recommend getting the soundtrack along with it. The voice acting is also (mostly) very well delivered, a personal highlight being Freddie Prinze, Jr. as the Iron Bull. Who would’ve ever thought that Buffy’s husband would play a pansexual, one-eyed Qunari mercenary so well? Sound effects are similarly accomplished, with the grunts and roars of wildlife adding to the sense of threat they inspire, and battles becoming a wonderful cacophony of steel on steel and deep, speaker-trembling impacts.
So how does Dragon Age: Inquisition compare to other RPGs? The answer’s pretty simple: it has everything. There’s the sense of customization, the interaction between other characters that should be prominent and a quest-line which insists you make decisions in order to shape the world. Bioware reckons it will take players over 100 hours to fully see and do everything on offer, and after playing for 110 hours now, I can personally attest that it’s not an exagerration.
The second question I need to answer is how does this compare to the other Dragon Age games? Luckily, the answer is pretty simple to this one as well: it’s better. Bioware has learned from their mistakes in Dragon Age 2, and created a compelling story with believable characters set in a gorgeous environment. They’ve taken the best of both games and put them into one, which, I am thankful to say, has paid off.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a masterful representation of its genre and sets a new standard for RPGs to live up to. It sets itself apart from other games through its fascinating narrative and rich cast, and is easily the best role-playing game of the year. Bioware has created a jewel when so many expected them to unveil a lump of coal, and reestablished themselves as masters of the genre.