I liked Dragon Age: Origins a lot when it came out way back in 2009. I’d long been a fan of Bioware’s D&D based fantasy RPGs, especially Baldur’s Gate I and II. Dragon Age seemed to introduce a new level of grittiness both moral and physical to the genre, with some interesting characters, dark themes, and tough moral choices. I was pretty disappointed with Dragon Age II, though, which followed only a year and a half later. The setting still worked and there were some good characters but it felt rushed, repetitive and decidedly un-epic. I finished that review by saying, “I hope they do another, and do better with it, because the game world has great potential…” So, three and a half later, have Bioware done better with Dragon Age: Inquisition?
In the midst of a civil war between wizards and templars, a giant explosion destroys the ineffectual leadership of Thedas (The Dragon Age Setting, believe it or not) and tears giant holes in the sky through which demons begin to pour. But can a hastily instituted new Inquisition save the war-torn and politically fractured world from enemies without and within?
I guess you could say Baldur’s Gate had a pretty open world, but over time, with games like Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, Bioware tended to move towards more limited, linear game worlds with the emphasis more on story and character interactions. It’s Bethesda that have tended to do the truly huge and flexible open worlds with games like Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls, offering huge potential for exploration but less in the way of plot and personality. Inquisition makes as good a fist as I’ve seen of trying to combine the two.
The world isn’t truly open – it offers maybe ten or so regions you can open up and explore, but each of them is pretty damn big and beautifully realised, much less artificially enclosed than the likes of Mass Effect, and with all kinds of side quests and collections to get lost in. Then episodes in the central storyline will occasionally take you away to other areas for some specific purpose, even into the world of dreams or a possible future… You don’t get quite the magnificent vistas, varied light and weather, and freedom of Skyrim, but the world still feels massive. And there’s just a lot more actual people in it. In Skyrim you feel you face the world largely alone. In Dragon Age you feel you’re part of a group of companions, but also of a wider society, and there’s a strong sense that your actions impact on the world and people.
The setting is a strong one with plenty of believable background, offering dark twists on fantasy staples. Elves are fallen from past glories and enslaved. Dwarves are fallen from past glories, embittered and isolationist. Wizards are fallen from past glories and in constant peril of falling to demonic madness. The nobility are self-interested backbiters, the church is hidebound and oppressive, their templars drug-addled zealots. Inquisition gives you the chance to steer the fate of most of these groups, for better or worse, but few actions come without consequences…
Gameplay will take the form of a hell of a lot of running around and a fair bit of killing stuff. Three classes, various skill trees and heaps of customisable weapons, armour, potions and accessories give you the option to tailor your approach to this in some detail. You can control your character in real time and allow your sidekicks to follow their own script, or for particularly tough fights you can pause things and give out detailed orders before advancing time bit by bit. There’s probably a fair bit of depth and complexity to all this but I must admit, playing on normal difficulty I never really needed to do much beyond the basic. Even fighting the ten (magnificent) dragons which are the game’s most challenging additional content a few judicious potions were enough to get me through.
Still, Dragon Age is more about the story than the action and on that front it delivers admirably. It’s not Skyrim-massive in terms of its sheer sprawling enormity, but it would be a bitter critic indeed who complained about the quantity of content. After about 20 hours of solid play there was a prolonged sequence that made me feel like I’d just got through the prologue and, completing pretty much all the significant side quests, it took a full 100 hours to finish the game and my enthusiasm never really flagged. I’d even consider playing it again with a new character, which is truly rare for me these days. Your nine companions are varied and well-realised, their off-hand interactions while you wander the wilderness often a real high point. You also have three advisors – military, spying and diplomacy – who can contribute to the cause via a strategic map of the world, and all have their own distinct personalities, concerns, and outlook on events. Some of these folks are people we know well from the previous games, which only adds to the feeling of an ongoing, developing world. There is a lot of depth and clever detail out there, and I encountered very few bugs or nonsensical bits of conversation. The whole thing feels extremely polished and carefully thought through.
Criticisms? Well, dialogue isn’t always supremely well written and the acting is a little patchy, with some characters way more entertaining than others, but that’s highly forgivable considering the sheer quantity of content. Compared to Dragon Age 2 there’s vastly more range in the movement and expressions of the characters, as well as the way the conversations and cut scenes have been ‘directed’. There are some sequences that fall a bit flat but also some great moments – even some you could call moving, and seeing a character you’ve customised and created yourself fully participating in the drama can be a real buzz. Sometimes you’ll get a tight close-up of a face in a certain light with eerily convincing skin and plant-matter stirred by the wind in the background and the whole thing looks magnificent. At other times expressions can seem a little off, delivery weirdly halting, and my character had a really peculiar, stiff-shouldered walk, a bit like John Wayne, which bugged me every time she walked into the war room.
If you were being harsh you might say dialogue options seemed a little limited. Usually there’s a ‘nice’ response, an ‘arch’ response, and a ‘harsh’ response, and the harsh one just seems overly prickish and calculated to piss people off, giving you the feeling you’d have to be evil AND an idiot to pick that one. One of the nice things about Mass Effect was it tended to give you the choice between Ruthless Hardass or Generous Paragon, both conceivably sensible for the mission. In this version of Dragon Age I found it hard to be harsh without feeling like I was foiling my own aims – the choices more or less boiled down to lightly snarky hero or entirely unironic hero. It didn’t feel quite so dark a world or a game as the first Dragon Age, either. Origins served up lashings of slavery, betrayal, madness and apocalyptic pessimism which (no surprise) I rather liked. This serving did feel rather more vanilla. I never really doubted the heroes would prevail.
Still, overall I’d have to call it a massive success, much the best of the three Dragon Age games, with a vivid and vibrant world and characters, plenty of drama and oceans of content. If you dislike the whole concept of long, involving fantasy RPGs you need not apply, but I’ve always liked em a lot, and there hasn’t been a better one since Skyrim. Maybe before…