Dragon Age: Inquisition Review

By now, you’ve probably read plenty of other reviews extolling the numerous sacred virtues of Dragon Age: Inquisition. You’ve possibly also read my early port impressions, in which case you’ll have noticed that – at the time, at least – I wasn’t actually very impressed with what was on offer.

The cynics among you will be happy to hear that I’m still not especially amazed by Dragon Age: Inquisition, although it’s certainly a lot better than the early hours indicated.

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“The seat of power”, taken literally.

This is the third in the Dragon Age series (or fourth if you count Awakening as a separate game, or third again if you count Awakening as a separate game but pretend Dragon Age 2 didn’t exist) and despite the lack of a number in the name, you’ll get best results if you’ve actually played the past two games. The online Dragon Age Keep lets you choose what happened with pretty much every major decision from Origins, Awakening, and Dragon Age 2, and a lot of these have at least some ramifications on the proceedings in Inquisition. It’s full of references to past games, cameo appearances from previous characters, and ties up a lot of story threads the earlier parts of the series left flapping.

You’re the Herald, a vague nobody of your own creation who suddenly becomes a somebody when a giant hole opens in the sky, demons start pouring out, and everyone attending peace talks between mages and templars are unceremoniously murdered. Everyone except you, anyway. And it turns out that – via a side-effect of whatever the hell ripped open the fabric of the world – you may actually be the only one capable of closing these holes and saving the planet from unregulated demon immigration.

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Man, they teach the weirdest things in language classes these days.

You’re soon recruited into the Inquisition, an organisation that has split off from the Chantry and – with your help – may (okay, will) wind up becoming one of the most dominant political and military powers on the continent. Beholden to no nation or creed, it’s basically up to the Inquisition to sort all this shit out while everyone else carries on trying to assign blame and fighting their own little battles.

If you have no idea what the Chantry is, why mages and templars are battling it out, or what a Darkspawn is and how it relates to a Blight (assuming you know what that is), then you pretty much need to play previous Dragon Age games. Inquisition does an okay job of giving newcomers a basic grounding, but there’s an awful lot left out, and – as I said above – a lot rides on you going “Oh, hey, that’s that one guy from that other game. He did the thing with that whatsit. I remember him.”

Although, uh, not all of this is done too well. As I said, a lot of story threads are tied up, but… not very satisfactorily, in the case of many. I can’t go into details for fear of spoilers, but there’s at least one plot thread that’s been going since the very beginning of the series, and it’s resolved here in a painfully stupid way. If you’re hoping the resolution of some things will be worth the wait, you’re going to be a bit disappointed.

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Spoiler alert: a game called Dragon Age involves dragons. Double spoiler alert: a fantasy RPG containing dragons may, at some point, give you the chance to kill a dragon.

The way you actually go about sorting all this shit out, though, is relatively novel. The Inquisition have a war table, and this displays basically everything pertinent in the two countries the game spans. Some are big plot events. Some are zones you can explore and quest in. Others are little side-missions which you can have one of your three advisors deal with; this takes them a certain amount of real time, but basically nets you some free rewards. This baron isn’t happy about scouts tromping through his lands? Have your military guy sort out an escort for those scouts, or have your diplomat appease him.

The quest zones and main plot missions, on the other hand, can only be accessed by spending POWER. This is a very rudimentary gauge of how much general clout you have, and it’s increased by… well, by doing stuff. Completing side-quests is a pretty good way of raising it, but finding the materials to upgrade the Inquisition’s troops, or crafting trade goods, or fulfilling requests from various guilds and authorities throughout the land, also help out.

Then it turns into a single-player MMO.

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For instance: I cannot look at this place without thinking of Duskwood.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out a decent analogy for how Dragon Age: Inquisition actually plays, but “like an MMO” is the best I can come up with. Seriously: you go to random, wide-open zones full of quests (and these zones have no real bearing on the main thrust of the plot) for the sole purpose of levelling up enough that you can do the next story quest. Which will take place in its own little instanced zone and not in any of the zones you’ve been able to visit thus far. And then you go back to randomly levelling up in a zone of your choosing.

This has its pros and cons. On the one hand: loads of really big, beautiful, varied areas to explore (and they’re big enough that you really can explore), full of quests to take and beasties to kill. On the other hand: a lot of this feels a tad pointless because it doesn’t really have any bearing on the proceedings barring giving you POWER and adjusting your level. Some of the quests running through these zones are decent (and yes, if you’re thinking of the main quests from zones in your favourite MMO, you’re probably on the right lines) but it’s a bit sad that they don’t tie in a bit better to the overarching plot.

Also, far too many quests are accepted by reading notes either found in a ruined house or on a dead body, which is an utterly terrible way to start a quest. This happens about a dozen times in the very first zone of the game. This is inexcusable.

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I’m willing to forgive quite a lot when a game lets me ride a reindeer through a desert while wearing a masquerade mask, though.

Some of this disconnect might also be down to the dialogue, but that’s perhaps a little unfair – for the most part, it’s pretty decent. I wouldn’t say that BioWare are superb writers, but they are really good at ludicrous comedy and over-the-top melodrama, and Dragon Age: Inquisition acquits itself well when it drops into either of these. Very few of the companions are as horrifyingly dull as pretty much everyone in Dragon Age 2, and a few are all but guaranteed to become fan favourites.

Buuuut… well, even this has its problems. It’s not all ludicrous comedy or over-the-top melodrama; occasionally the game tries to handle Big Issues, and with one notable exception, these tend to be done in a horribly ham-handed fashion. It’s also a little weird that a lot of the voice direction is really, really off, with the actors clearly not knowing what they’re talking about or what they’re supposed to be responding to. Not the sort of thing I’d normally expect from BioWare, even when the game has as staggering an amount of dialogue as Dragon Age: Inquisition.

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I did warn you about the dragons, right? Right.

Writing aside, there are some other neat systems which tie into the gigantic world. There’s crafting, for instance. You’ll find schematics as you journey around, and once you find some suitable materials, you can have the Inquisition’s smiths forge some new armour and weapons for you. Different materials offer different stats; different schematics allow for the use of more materials in different ways. You can even name the resulting items, so if you really want to run around two-handing Horsecock the Flaccid, you can.

There are two elephants in the room which I’ve been skating around, and both are tied together (possibly by their trunks). These are “the PC port” and “the combat.”

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I’m 90% certain this isn’t actually Josephine punching Cullen in the face and laughing, but frankly, the screenshot was too good not to use.

Functionally speaking, the PC port is… well, it’s okay. I didn’t have any framerate problems, it looks relatively nice, and while I hit quite a few visual bugs, only two of them were even close to gamebreaking. For 60 hours of play, that’s actually not too bad – and most problems I found were easily solved by saving the game and then loading that save, essentially refreshing the area.

BioWare even went the extra mile, in that using mouse and keyboard completely changes the interface. The hotbar is different and the menu is (very slightly) different, so you’re not just fighting with console controls clumsily mapped to a different input device.

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I’m fffffairly sure this is a bug.

Except that… well, you are. The combat really, really isn’t based around mouse and keyboard controls; it’s like trying to play an MMO where you have to hold down R instead of just toggling your auto-attack. This is kinda tolerable in short bursts, but it’s really not an ideal way to play a 50+ hour game. And don’t talk to me about the horror of trying to loot things with mouse and keyboard, either. Or the dreaded menus, which – despite the changes to fit the new interface – still make the menus of unmodded Skyrim look like a masterpiece of design. Or… well, you get the picture.

The way you’re presumably meant to manage combat on mouse and keyboard is with the tactical mode, with the minor problem that this just doesn’t really work at all. The tactical camera itself is so far zoomed in that it’s impossible to actually get a tactical overview of the battle, and to the best of my knowledge there’s no way to, say, queue up a series of actions. Which means that the “tactical combat” is actually significantly less playable than it was in Dragon Age: Origins. Which was two games ago.

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This is either a bug or calisthenics.

It also doesn’t help that mouse and keyboard controls are actually lacking some of the functionality of the gamepad controls – there’s no walk modifier key, for instance. This isn’t a big problem but there are a few areas later on that require some precision movement, so it would’ve been nice to have there. More bizarrely, the gamepad controls also have an option in the tactical camera to move time forward when you hold down the trigger rather than toggling the pause on and off. There might be a way to do this with mouse and keyboard, but again, I couldn’t find it.

So, okay, mouse and keyboard are basically out if you don’t want to lose your mind; I dumped them about three hours in and never looked back. Unfortunately, the gamepad has its own quirks. The menus are still awful, for instance, and you can’t get around this by lazily tapping through them with the keyboard because if you have gamepad controls enabled, you cannot use the mouse and keyboard in the game. At all. I can sort of understand this when you’re on the field, because of the massive differences in the interface and how you use abilities, but in the menus?

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It’s not quite Alpha Protocol in the “meaningful dialogue choices” stakes, either, but then what is?

Double unfortunately: the tactical camera being pointless is, I suspect, because it’s really just a bandage. There’s no real need for tactical depth on the standard difficulties, to the extent that even most boss battles can be won by holding down the attack button and using abilities when they’re off cooldown. You might occasionally pop into the tactical mode just to order someone to use a potion, but that’s about the limit of what’s required. On higher difficulties this may be more important, but based on what happened when I actually tried controlling fights with it, I’m going to guess it’ll wind up being finicky micromanagement rather than an in-depth tactical experience – not least because things like “did an attack hit” aren’t based on stats, but are actually based on collision detection. Trying to do a dragon fight in tactical combat would likely take at least 30 minutes if you actually tried to move your party out of the way of every telegraphed claw-swipe.

The problem, really, is that Dragon Age: Inquisition feels like it’s trying to serve two masters. Yes, you’ve got mouse and keyboard controls and a specialised interface, and yes, you’ve got a tactical camera… but these are present in a game that doesn’t work with mouse and keyboard controls, and doesn’t require tactics. It wants to be a third-person hack-and-slash game with RPG leanings, but doesn’t want to lose its CRPG status, and it winds up not actually being much good at either. It’s a hack-and-slasher that doesn’t really require any action finesse, and/or it’s a tactical RPG which doesn’t require any tactical thought.

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It does manage some really lovely views, though.

Which leaves us with a competent and generally enjoyable RPG which never really steps beyond “quite good, I guess.” It’s utterly huge, and there’s joy to be found in exploring the huge areas and chatting to the denizens. There are lots of little mini-stories to sink your teeth into, and an engagingly silly main plot which features possibly the best Arsehole At A Ball simulation this side of Dishonored. But this is all let down by a game that doesn’t really work with PC gaming’s default controls, and with combat that’s tepid at best, and this has a massive knock-on effect with everything else.

The crafting is quite neat, for instance, but with the combat the way it is you don’t really need to be too in-depth with it, so wrestling with the menus to produce a knife called THE STABBENING becomes a bit pointless. Exploring the zones, finding hidden caves, and exploring them to find long-lost runes is an engaging way to spend 30 minutes… but the grand sum of the experience is that the flashy-but-simple combat will become a bit easier. Etc. There are no fights you’ll have to attempt repeatedly while trying different tactics, so while it’s rarely frustrating, the battles offer no satisfaction. There are solid setpieces, but nothing that quite matches the Redcliffe defense or Indy-inspired Urn of Sacred Ashes quests in the original. I sigh.

Two steps forward, one step back. It’s better than Dragon Age 2 and it’s certainly a distracting game in its own right, but Dragon Age: Inquisition doesn’t feel like it’s quite settled on what it wants to be, and that – more than the controls, more than the combat, more than the menus, more than anything – is what seems to be really holding it back.