(All images via http://www.dragonage.com.)
Fans of BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise have waited with bated breath for the next installment of the fantasy RPG series. Criticism levied at its immediate predecessor, Dragon Age II, called it a misstep at best, a sign of impending doom for the Edmonton-based studio at worst. When Dragon Age: Inquisition was delayed, those whispers only grew. As a rabid fan of the series myself, I started to worry that the transition to a brand new engine—a heavily-modified version of DICE’s Frostbite 3—would make for a combat-focused experience, rather than the narrative masterpieces that were Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II.
It turns out that most gamers’ fears for the franchise—and for BioWare as a whole—have been allayed. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a massive, incredibly stunning game that provides plenty of service to longtime fans while welcoming new gamers into the rich world that is Thedas.
You are the Inquisitor, tasked—as in virtually all RPGs—with Getting Things Done. You can play as either male or female, and can choose from four races: human, elf, dwarf, and—for the first time—qunari. As with prior titles in the series, you can opt to be a mage, rogue, or warrior. Once you make your Inquisitor, you are asked if you would like to use the default world state or load a customized state from the Dragon Age Keep.
Once your world state is selected, you are launched into the opening cinematic, which raises more questions than it answers. Set just four years after the end of Dragon Age II, Thedas is in utter chaos. Conflict between mages and templars, civil war in one of Thedas’ most influential nations, and the disappearance of a storied group of warriors have thrown the world into chaos. The Chantry (Thedas’ version of the Catholic church) throws a hail Mary and organizes a Conclave to broker peace between the mages and templars. Your Inquisitor is in attendance when an explosion blows the temple apart, killing all present, including the head of the Chantry, and rips multiple holes in the Veil between the world of the living and the world of dreams. You stumble out of one of those tears, and the adventure begins. The story is—true to BioWare form—riveting from the start, and you amass a group of companions and advisors who are painstakingly crafted by some of the best storytellers in gaming. Dragon Age: Inquisition features what is arguably the best cast of characters to date, and half the entertainment value is had in getting to know these complex personalities.
Beyond the rich story, Dragon Age: Inquisition is an audio-visual treat. The soundtrack is epic. The main theme summarizes the game via music in a way I’ve never experienced. Voice acting is, as usual, top-notch, with many familiar voices returning. Alix Wilton-Regan shines as the default human and elf female Inquisitor voice, and I marveled at Allegra Clark’s intoxicating turn as Josephine Montilyet. Series mainstays like Claudia Black (Morrigan), Brian Bloom (Varric), and Greg Ellis (Cullen) do their best work for BioWare yet. Sound effects are on point, though I did encounter an intermittent bug in which dropping out of tactical camera mode caused a brief interruption in sound. Even on the Xbox One, which was scaled down to 900p resolution, the graphics are stunning. I marveled at how the designers managed to stream sunlight through pine boughs in such a way that the snow beneath my feet sparkled just like real snow. Fabrics, such as Josephine’s satin sleeves, have accurate textures. And, as I set foot in Val Royeaux for the first time, I gasped at the grandiose architecture. Animations were smooth and (thankfully) lacked that obvious cutscene look and feel, thanks to the Frostbite 3 engine. I experienced very few graphical glitches but did encounter a cutscene bug that caused long pauses during conversations with Dorian, as well as minor clipping when weapon and body meshes intersected.
Players will also be pleased to find that BioWare has found a balance between the drawn-out battles of Dragon Age: Origins and the razzle-dazzle combat in Dragon Age II. While there is a sustained attack option, Inquisition introduces console players to a tactical camera mode that, on higher difficulties, is absolutely essential for surviving encounters. You can control any party member at any time, directing them with Patton-esque precision. The fly-cam takes some getting used to, but you’ll eventually wonder how you ever played without it. Many enemies have specific resistances and are aggressive without being unfairly overpowered. As a result, each requires a strategic approach. On higher difficulty settings, the enemy AI becomes more intelligent, rather than simply spawning more enemies to kill.
With great demon-slaying power comes great responsibility, however, and in Inquisition that means your health must be watched constantly. You and your party no longer auto-heal after battles, there are no traditional healing spells, and you are limited in the number of potions that all party members draw from, necessitating careful battle maneuvers. Fortunately, you can replenish your potions at campsites, and more can be crafted, along with tonics and grenades.
Speaking of, crafting returns to the Dragon Age series, and in a big way. Not only can you craft the aforementioned supplies, but now you can create customized armors and weapons for you and your crew. (Word to the wise: Crafting armors with silverite removes the class restriction. Go ahead, make Dorian a near-invincible beast in heavy armor. You’re welcome.) Thanks to fan feedback, your party members now retain much of their signature look, yet can don custom armors.
Managing the Inquisition is relatively straightforward, thanks to the implementation of a war table. While you traipse through the Hinterlands, plucking every elfroot leaf you can find, you can send your advisors on missions that net gold, influence, and other bonuses. Each advisor has an area of expertise—diplomacy, espionage, or military—and their approach can make or break the mission success. The missions are tied to the real-time clock, which makes farming gold and resources relatively easy to do, even when you’re not playing the game. The war table also allows you to spend power, which is gained by completing quests and requisitions from your quartermaster. Power points unlock the critical path quests of the game, and act as a gateway to keep low-level players from attempting encounters that are far beyond their skill level. The game still makes use of a traditional quest journal, sure, but looking at that massive war table with its various markers really imbues the player with a sense of real agency.
Dragon Age: Inquisition has carefully marketed itself as a game that puts the fate of the world in the player’s hands. To be fair, BioWare does a great job throughout the game of convincing you that your choices have weight. Critical dialogue points give dire warnings of the consequences of each of the presented options. The Dragon Age Keep allows players to shape the state of Thedas before the game even loads, and those decisions manifest themselves in various ways throughout Inquisition. Yet, for all the decisions I made, I wasn’t always certain that they mattered. While this game is by no means as blatantly rail-guided as Dragon Age II, I felt that there was an overarching narrative that trumped the story of my Inquisitor. As a result, I didn’t develop a kinship with my character like I did with my Warden or Hawke, and that left me feeling somewhat disconnected from many emotionally-triggering points in the game. Overall, while I’m sure the choices I made do have impact on Thedas in some way, I got the distinct impression that they wouldn’t necessarily matter in Inquisition. To fuel this suspicion, the ending felt anticlimactic and definitely left the door open for the future, whether DLC for this game or full titles.
Overall, BioWare has thoroughly outdone themselves with Dragon Age: Inquisition. At the time of this article’s publication, the game has already won Game of the Year honors from The 2014 Game Awards and stands poised to pick up the honor from several major media outlets. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a clear standout in a year of big releases, not only for its level of polish (looking at you, Assassin’s Creed: Unity), but the technical and artistic triumphs involved in its development. With a single-player campaign that can take over 100 hours to complete (mine clocked in at 110 hours), Dragon Age: Inquisition is a solid addition to your game library.