DRAGON AGE INQUISITION: A Story Worth Living

Screenshot from Dragon Age Inquisition
Credit: BioWare/EA

I can’t help it. When I’m playing an RPG, especially one from BioWare, I just want to do everything. It makes it very difficult when you’re meant to review a game like Dragon Age Inquisition, especially with several other marquee titles hitting within the same two-week timespan. What does all this mean? It means my review of this game took much longer than many others, as I played, and played, and played – even after beating the main story, it was hard to stop going back in.

And that’s just one of the awesome things about it.

In an age of 4-6 hour first person shooter campaigns, it’s an incredibly satisfying experience to get to deep dive into a world this way. Thankfully, the world is engaging, full of interesting and varied characters, political clashes, a rich lore, and exciting twists and turns throughout. In fact, the entire game changes at the end of Act 1, when what looks like your main goal is achieved just a third through the game.

The story itself is one that fits the mold of medieval fantasy, with the signature Dragon Age epicness and twists and turns along the way. Still, it’s accessible enough, even if you haven’t played the first two games, to anyone with a passing interest in fantasy realms of swords and sorcery. While the major story beats are fairly formulaic within the “Hero’s Journey” as seen in most RPGs – get call to arms, gather your party, take on increasingly difficult foes until you save the world – the way you craft the major moments through decisions, conversations, and even your companion choices are what make it so compelling. And while the story is interesting and entertaining, and the gameplay well-crafted, this game is really about relationships. That’s not to say the story doesn’t have its own moments – the major twists at the end of Act 1 and in the post-credits scene of the game, for example.

It’s remarkable how well BioWare disguises games about one-on-one human interaction, friendships, choices, doubts, fears, love, distrust, triumph, failure, and betrayal. It would not be wrong or unfair to describe Dragon Age Inquisition as a game about using magic and might to hunt dragons and rid the world of an ancient evil; but that’s really about one-tenth of the game’s core. While those are things you do in the game, it’s more about figuring out who you want your Inquisitor to be, and how the world around you is shaped by that personal journey. Your ruthlessness or mercy, your honesty or deception, are what make the world you play in for 50, 60, or 200 hours (if you’re a ridiculous completionist) into everything it can be. That constant evolution and the direct and indirect way your every choice changes everything is what BioWare does so well, and they may have perfected it here. There’s a particular scene, led by Varric (a holdover character from the last game), that is so heartwarming and real that it instantly forges the bonds between all your characters. I wanted to go back and play through that scene over and over because of how much it said about all the people you’re spending several full days worth of time with.

But hey, you’re not just watching a story – you’re playing a game. The tactical play of Dragon Age Origins and the action-oriented combat of Dragon Age 2 are both back, after a fashion. I certainly found myself using the tactical view in Inquisition more than in the sequel, especially in the mid-levels, and when facing bosses or other more challenging groups of foes. The action-oriented combat worked fine for the early and later levels (say, about 1-7 and anything 19 up) for the most part, especially when meeting small patrols or groups of foes while exploring the world. All in all, it was a solid balance between two disparate playstyles, and I was surprised to see how much I shifted between them depending solely on the situation. There’s an immense amount of inventory management and weapon/armor customization. The weapon schematics in particular are important to purchase and discover, as they offer drastic improvements over those you can buy or loot in the world. And hunting/fighting dragons? Probably the singular most fun experience I've had in a game this year.

That world, by the way, is enormous and diverse. The lands you visit go from decadent palaces to lost temples, from open plains to deserts to frozen tundras to dense forests. Cliffs overlooking the seas look properly majestic, and the relatively few caves and dungeons are varied enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re going to cut and pasted rehashes, an issue even BioWare admitted with the second game.

The one major gameplay problem came when exploring those diverse areas, however. For some reason, BioWare felt the need to put platforming puzzles into their deep RPG. While collectibles and some hard-to-reach places are fairly standard for their ilk, some of these things required the right guessing, timing, and sheer luck of where it happens to be that you jump (or land). I found myself spending several minutes hopping around trying to aimlessly make my way up a too-sheer cliff or a half-burnt building. It wasn’t fun, and took me completely away from the story that was so central to the enjoyment of the game. It also brings up those dreaded game-logic questions: Why can’t a guy with the power to essentially teleport himself short distances, withstand a body blow from an enormous dragon, and magically close giant rifts in time and space… also climb a four-foot tall rock? The idea that these beings of near-limitless powers are so easily foiled by a slightly steep hill or a fence post that is shorter than their own height is frustratingly silly. I kept thinking to myself during these explorations, “either you want me to get to this place, or you don’t – making it about 60% skill and 40% luck is utterly pointless.” I don’t mind having to figure out how to get somewhere, but if actually getting there takes more than 5 or even 10 tries purely due to bad design, that’s an issue.

Unfortunately, during my playthrough on the Xbox One, I was also plagued by crashes. First I discovered this game really does not get along well with the Xbox One’s “snap” functionality. I had one corruption that locked the camera on my character in an awkward from-the-front view that affected all of my saves. After uninstalling and reinstalling the game (quite the process with 40 gigabytes of data), I got that working again. Then my saves themselves got corrupted, and the game was stuck in a perpetual saving loop; when it eventually (finally) crashed, it wouldn’t start at all, and I had no access to any saves for any game on my entire Xbox – it took wiping all local saves in the settings section of the system, letting it download the most recent cloud ones, to fix that problem. These are major and game-destroying glitches, something that seems far too common an issue in this season of games, and I experienced two of them. My next playthrough (as it doesn’t deter me from doing that) will most definitely be on the PlayStation 4, which despite some initial issues due to a system update, has reportedly much less problems.

But I digress; the issues are far outweighed by the good aspects of this game, and particularly the relationships forged along the way. There are more big decisions in this game than Dragon Age 2, and particularly more that, while I may have been slightly disappointed by the outcome or somewhat curious how things play out other ways, I don’t know if I’ll ever play without making the same choice. One that led to a character’s death, in particular, was so deeply affected by two games’ worth of choices, and how I viewed certain characters in my head. I couldn’t not make that choice – it wouldn’t come from a place of truth otherwise. A game that makes me confront those kinds of issues and evaluate who I am through the lives of fictional characters is a unique experience, and it expresses everything I love about the evolution of this medium.

Ultimately, I can see Dragon Age Inquisition easily becoming my next go-to BioWare obsession. I played Mass Effect 2 to completion 7 times. Inquisition could take that title away. While it doesn’t have the same continuous depth of character that three games worth under one playable identity does like its sister series, it has a depth of world that is unmatched in any game I’ve played. That makes for an incredible experience, and more than enough reason to make several return trips to Thedas in the future.

And oh, that final twist? Well I just can’t wait to see what’s in store for the Dragon Age universe after that.

Twitter activity