Developed by BioWare. Published by Electronic Arts. Released November 18, 2014. Available on PC(reviewed), PS3, PS4(reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One. Review copy provided by publisher.
I like to collect books, herbs and metals. It’s a thing I only do in virtual worlds. The character I control is an absolute freak that struggles to pass by even the most commonly seen node of elfroot. Even in the thick of attack from Tevinter mages or crazed Templars, I’d rather pick flowers than cast spells. I often cure myself of this obsession by realizing there’s usually nothing to do with these pretty flowers in the game I’m playing. They almost always serve no purpose at all. In contrast, Dragon Age: Inquisition reminded me more often as I progressed that every single freaking flower matters in your quest to save the world of Thedas. That’s because each system in this sprawling RPG is woven into the next to create a tapestry of heroic fantasy. Every creature you best, every relationship you cultivate, every weapon you upgrade, every place you discover means something to the player in this excellent experience provided by BioWare.
Yeah, Dragon Age: Inquisition is really, really good.
You start out the game in the Fade, that other plane where magic and demons come from in this setting. The character customization comes up soon after and you have the chance to sculpt your hero with an almost frightening level of precision. You can make elves, dwarves, humans and now the horned Qunari with the tools at your disposal, but it isn’t until your character starts to speak that it begins to feel real. On that tip, the conversation choice system in DA:I is the familiar radial menu, but it allows an impressive amount of expression. Sadly, not all the voice actors employed bring the same level of expressiveness to their performance, but that could have just been because I chose to play a stoic female Qunari for the bulk of my time in Inquisition. The male elf mage I experimented with is a smirky little diva – all is right with the world.
The story is full of twists and reveals – often referencing previous Dragon Age games and DLC. An important meeting between the Templars of the Chantry and the Mages who rebelled against them in Dragon Age II is disrupted by a huge explosion and your character is the only one there who survived. Finding out how and why takes up the bulk of the plot, but there are some interesting discoveries as to the nature of the darkspawn adversaries in Origin and the religion of the Chantry as a whole. Fans of the series will appreciate the nods to previously seen characters and stories – it’s great to hang out with the sarcastic dwarf Varric again, and his relationship with Cassandra, the Seeker interrogating him all through DA2, is comedy gold. You’ll be hard-pressed to choose only three companions to take with you out of the nine well-established party members. Even Freddie Prinze Jr.’s performance as Iron Bull, the Qunari mercenary, is entertaining, huge horns and all.
BioWare wonderfully blended third-person action and a tactical top-down view in combat. Because of a decent AI controlling your party members, you can concentrate on controlling one rogue, mage or warrior exclusively to mop up the mooks with devastating combos. But for the more challenging fights against dragons or what have you, it’s probably a good idea to enter tactical mode for a bird’s eye view of the field. You can then pause and give each party member specific orders like moving behind the big guy or shielding everyone with a magical barrier, watching your orders play out by starting time flowing again. It’s also great how you can seamlessly move between the two modes, lending a hand when you need to, sitting back to watch them take care of the baddies or moving to third-person action view to mix it up in the fray. The AI is moddable too, allowing you to set thresholds for healing potion consumption or to avoid using some abilities or actions unless you command them to. You can set it and forget it, or change up each party member when they get new abilities. It’s up to you.
The designers squeezed a lot of customization out of just three class archetypes in Dragon Age. Each class has four talent trees from which to choose buffs and abilities, with a fifth one added around a third of the way through the game, and these serve to create vastly different roles in combat. Sure, a warrior that uses a shield is going to feel different than one who wields a huge-ass axe, but even two-handed weapon warriors can be unique depending on the spec chosen. It certainly helps to choose abilities that complement those of your party, but you aren’t locked into the strict choices needed for cross-class combos like you were in Dragon Age II. There are ways to trigger the devastating combos across many different builds and potion loadouts. While it can be fun to play around with triggering these combos on normal difficulty, it’s hardly necessary to micromanage. I was impressed at how well the AI handles most of it.
Where excessive micromanagement and coordination is necessary is in the standalone multiplayer system. Similar to Mass Effect, you can team up with other players to tackle dungeons using some of the abilities and archetypes available in the single-player game. You can level up and unlock individual characters, and equip them with stuff you find in the three dungeons provided. (There is some variance in enemies encountered, path through the dungeon and other factors so it doesn’t get boring quickly.) The combat itself is pretty tough to manage – I’ve yet to successfully complete an encounter with the limited match-making available before launch. Teammates must speak to each other to plan where to push forward and when to hold back. If you like the teamwork needed to complete high level dungeons or raids in MMOs, then you’ll get a kick out of the multiplayer here. I was intrigued enough by the offering to dog-ear a session or two once the servers go live – it’s a significant challenge to balance taking chances on offense with the limited healing available.
The healing in combat in the single-player game works similarly to the multiplayer, and I’m not sure it’s a good change. In previous Dragon Age games, mages had spells to heal your party in addition to hurting foes. That’s been removed in Inquisition, for the most part. Instead, mages can cast barriers, magical shields that absorb damage for a limited time. You can only heal damage by using consumable potions. (There is a powerful exception – one mage specialization has an ability to heal the whole party.) What all this means is you will have to closely watch your consumption of potions and head back to camp when you are low. There you can “replenish supplies” and continue adventuring, but at the cost of feeling like you’re going backwards. The larger dungeons have crates to replenish healing potions, usually after big fights, to keep you progressing.
The new healing system does create a nice feeling of exploration and, well, occupation. The areas you explore in Inquisition are gigantic. According to the materials provided by BioWare, the first open area you encounter, the Hinterlands, is bigger than the total explorable area in Origins and Dragon Age II combined. Now, bigger is not always better, but what these huge areas give the player is a sense of the growing power and influence of the Inquisition. Peppered throughout the world are places you can set up permanent camps for your forces which function as bases for your party. At each camp, you can heal to full, get more potions, change up your party roster and turn in some collection quests. More importantly, you can also fast travel to every camp you set up. Get into a hard fight with a few Rage demons? Just head back to camp before you explore some more. The more camps you set up, the less you have to travel to get back to the frontier. Once I understood this system, I appreciated the lack of healing a little more.
On top of the camp system are the strongholds. These are major castles or fortifications the Inquisition can take over to exert even more pressure on the area, and give you more options without heading back to your main base. You can craft weapons, sell stuff to a merchant or check in with the stronghold’s commander for quests or news from the area. Each one of the strongholds feels unique and important. Even the merchants have an interesting story to tell as to why they’ve set up shop there.
Crafting and inventory management is a game unto itself. As I said, you can spend hours collecting resources and recipes in the world. Other than the standard healing potions, you can equip special consumables like Lyrium (mana) potions and grenades like Jar of Bees (Yes!) to each party member. Each one of these costs an herb, which would be reason enough to pick up each elfroot or spindleweed you see, but you can also upgrade potions by spending large amounts of herbs to research improvements. 30 elfroot is a bit hard to come by so you’ll perhaps want to invest in planting seeds to grow more at your base or engaging in resources collecting missions. Weapons and armor can also be created, and the tiered metal system has a lot of depth to it – don’t even get me started on the runes and the various other weapon and armor upgrades like grips and pommels. With every slot of your party under your control (and visible on their character model), there is a lot of time you can invest in making sure they have the equipment they need. It all may be a little hard to manage for some players, but most RPG fanatics will appreciate the detail.
Nearly everything you do in the world increases the power of the Inquisition. Turn in a quest, close one of the many Rifts in the Fade or set up a camp, and you’ll get messages that pop up which say “+1 Power” or “+60 influence”. You use power to fuel the major or minor quests you undertake from the war room and influence to choose important Inquisition perks like increasing your inventory space or unlocking dialogue options. The war room itself is an interesting new mechanic – your advisors meet around a massive wooden table and plan out the actions your movement is going to take. Some of them involve sending a councilor to speak to a faction, while others scout out new explorable areas to unlock or trigger main story quests. It’s cool to look at the 3D representation of a military campaign map of Orlais and Ferelden and see small game pieces on it to represent your forces. It’s another game within a game.That’s the beauty of Dragon Age: Inquisition. For all the fun derived from min-maxing and contending with its numerical systems, playing the game feels like you are in charge of a realistic political movement. You have to deal with things like the rumors of illegitimacy, and winning over the people who’ve been wracked by a civil war between Templars and Mages. The choices you make and the quests and camps you use to occupy an area feel like you are actually affecting this world. That’s not easy to accomplish in a sprawling game like this.
It’s also very hard to miss that there’s a huge number of female elves, dwarves and humans in powerful positions in this story. The Inquisition itself is founded by a small council that includes three women (four if you count my Qunari rogue), and there are dozens of important characters throughout the story which just happen to be female. The story doesn’t really make a point about it – the cultures in Thedas have always treated gender this way. I found it refreshing and exciting.
I haven’t even gotten into the eye-popping vistas on display in each area, the excellent sound design, or the well-composed score. In most zones, there are oculi located up on high ground or promontories you ostensibly use to locate hidden objects to collect. The real reward though is using them to scan the gloriously sculpted landscape, realizing that, yes, of course, you can actually go there (unlike how it feels in other games). The deep bass effect that builds to a climax each time you close a rift is so satisfying you’ll find yourself timing the blast with a hand gesture just for the fun of it. There’s even a musical number – a moment that verged on treacle but its sentimentality won me over by the time all of the characters took up the chorus. Every detail and system in Dragon Age: Inquisition supports the whole experience. It’s remarkable.
I’ve heard people in the industry compare video games to medieval cathedrals. Those massive structures required coordination from so many different disciplines: architects, masons, painters, mosaicists, glass blowers, sculptors. Video games must also fuse the talents of many different craftsmen and artists: composers, sound designers, level designers, systems designers, visual artists, animators, programmers, voice actors, writers and storytellers. Just like the Notre Dame, you can tell when all of those disciplines are meshing together to form a video game that will be remembered for a long time. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a masterwork.
Bottom Line: BioWare has created a role-playing game which feels like a massive monument to our culture. Inquisition is an absolute blast to experience for one hour or 150.
Recommendation: I highly suggest you buy Inquisition to play it for yourself.[rating=5]