The Dragon Age was named for the sighting of the first high dragon in centuries, and suggested that the following century would be a difficult one for the continent of Thedas. This holds true, as another cataclysmic event occurs and it’s up to the Inquisitor to save the world.
Previously in the Dragon Age series: In a fantasy world where magic is viewed by a majority of the population as a curse and its practitioners subjugated, tensions rose to a breaking point at the end of Dragon Age 2. With the destruction of the Kirkwall Chantry acting as the catalyst, the looming threat of the Mage-Templar War takes center stage.
YOUR DECISIONS MATTER… EXCEPT WHEN THEY DON’T
Chaos reigns over the continent of Thedas as it falls into Holy War, between the oppressed mages and the Templars who used to control them. In an attempt to figure out a peaceful solution, the head of the Chantry (the Christian analog religion), Divine Justinia, calls a conclave between all the major factions.
But the story doesn’t start there. It starts shortly after an explosion, killing everyone but the Player’s character, who will be later referred to as the Inquisitor. The story follows the Inquisitor’s rise to power, battling suspicion and attempting to figure out who killed the Divine (and everyone else at the Conclave), and how to bring them to justice. Oh, and the explosion tore a giant hole in the sky, the barrier between the natural world and the world of spirits and demons, causing demons to terrorize the land. The Inquisitor is the only one who can seal these rifts.
I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrow at how lore-heavy this game is at the start. I’ve played all the games/expansions/DLCs, and have a very good working knowledge of the events of the novels/comics without having read them. I had no problem hitting the ground running, but I couldn’t help but wonder how a newbie to DA would approach this.
What is more egregious, however, is how much of the lore of previous games is retconned. Now, I do understand how difficult it can be to add to a series that has been out where everyone can see it, because one is unable to revise what happened previously. But there are so many bits of information that are blatantly wrong in light of previous games that it risks alienating fans of the franchise. It is true that the number of fans will ebb and flow, that some fans will leave and not come back and others will join in later. I am all about bringing in new fans, and am willing to compromise and understand that some level of retconning is acceptable, but this feels like Bioware went too far to the side of trying to bring in new fans.
The story doesn’t threaten to fall apart when one looks at it as the only story of Dragon Age they’ve known. But to fans of the series, the plot is full of holes you could fly an Archdemon through. And there is an increasing desire to push the analogy of how the Chantry is like Christianity, and the more they push it the more it falls apart.
Bioware tends to have no middle ground when it comes to story quality. When they’re bad, they’re really bad, but when they’re good, they’re amazing. And I am so glad that what they are nailing happens to be my favorite parts of the previous games: the companions.
DAI expands your ability to talk to people for extended conversations from not only your companions, but also advisors, and agents. Once a character has been recruited, the Inquisitor will be able to talk to them when they’re back at their base. There are also special circumstances where they can talk to them on the road, which I think is a great blend from Awakening [the Origins expansion] and Dragon Age 2.
And then, there is party banter. It is, without a doubt, my favorite thing out of any DA game to date, and DAI is no exception. Bioware has continued the model of having shorter banter, and more of it, like Dragon Age 2 did. And, similarly enough, conversations will continue as the characters revisit a topic, so it still retains the best part of the longer banters of Origins. It’s wonderful to see which characters get along and which don’t, and how the reasons for doing so might be surprising.
Bioware walks the line in being progressive while also not at the same. Krem, a transgender man, is a wonderful character and is well-respected in his mercenary company and the Inquisition. However, there is transphobic and transmisogynistic dialogue from NPCs as well as choices for the Inquisitor to say, both at him and others. The lesbian companion is emotionally abusive to the point that fans have been giving warnings about her relationship to help protect abuse survivors. It doesn’t help that the writer for the lesbian character has had a history in the series of writing the female/female romances to be abusive and/or end badly. So, in essence, I feel like Bioware keeps taking a step forward and then a step back when it comes to LGBTQ representation.
I have quite a few mixed feelings about returning characters to the story, as they are either wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking, to the opposite end of me wondering if the writer in charge of the character actually reviewed all the preexisting material for said character or only got a summary. Leliana and Alistair (as king, I haven’t had a chance to see him as a Warden) could have been replaced by new characters and I wouldn’t have noticed. This is terrible, especially with Leliana, since she is one of the advisors and therefore is interacting with the Inquisitor frequently. The Love Interests of Hawke, DA2’s PC, are handwaived away in implausible ways to outright personality assassination. It invalidates the player’s choices of DA2 in regards to their LI, which is actually the sign of a greater problem in the narrative.
The Hero of Ferelden – also known as the Warden – is a footnote in this story. The Warden was the PC in Origins (and had the option to be so in Awakening, too), and the one mention of them in the game comes off as an excuse not to work them into the story. It doesn’t make sense, when the Warden saved the world, that they wouldn’t be talked about as being a possible ally, if the Warden was alive at the end of Origins. There is so much focus on the events of DA2 (which did it’s own bit of retcon) over Origins, and even they get those details messed up, that it makes me really wonder if my choices in the previous games mattered at all. The promotional material claims that the player’s decisions matter, and it certainly does for decisions made within DAI, but I keep getting the sensation that my decisions of previous games don’t matter at all.
Now, I do love most of the new characters. They’re nuanced and turn tropes on their head, and the voice acting is wonderful. In this, they carry on in the great tradition of the previous games. But I don’t know if I can recommend a game to someone only on these interactions. If I wanted to give them the benefit of DA companions plus plotlines that made more sense, I would steer them to previous games first.
DESIGNED TO A FAULT
Technology continues to amaze me, in what is possible to animate. But as we get closer to the slope of the uncanny valley without falling in, a different sort of problem emerges. This particular issue is not unique to DAI, but it’s something that is there. Instead of having detail so close to real that it comes off as creepy, the detail is so impressive it becomes a detriment to playing in it. Whenever I play RPGs, I like to usually take time to simply admire the scenery, and this is done in stolen moments while I actually move the plot forward. Origins did the scenery incredibly well, and part of the appeal of video games are these small moments I take to look around the corner and see a cat wandering around and the flowers and maybe the odd ruin. DAI is amazing for this, but terrible to actually walk around in. I have motion sickness only in relation to screens, and before now I had no problem playing games on the Xbox 360 or PS3 as long as I was the POV character and wasn’t watching someone else play. But the detail is so high, even after messing with the settings on my PS4, that I can’t play the game for more than three hours at a time. Then, I usually need to take a break for two hours or more before playing again. This poses a problem when I take days off of work to play a game and can’t play it for at least half the day because it is physically making me ill. And from talking to other fans, I’m not the only one having this issue.
The search function is a sort of echolocation, which replaces both the loot sparkling and the secondary benefit of the radial menu, and I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t so difficult to find the outlines and text cast by the echolocation. There has been a patch update which helps with finding loot on the radar, but it’s still difficult to see.
I think that my favorite use of the superior graphics can be seen in the designs of the armor. Not only can companions wear different types of armor along with the Inquisitor, but it often will stay true to the character’s style. Some of the textures leave something to be desired, but the design themselves is wonderful. On a whole, DAI has my favorite armor designs of the series.
I was also interested to see a mix of the styles of specializations, in terms of taking from previous games. In DAI, there are three specializations within the Inquisitor’s chosen class that they can pursue. The companions also have access to one of the classes (pre-chosen), and it is similar in style to how specializations were done in Origins. But, like in DA2, the companions only had one specialized skillset beyond a range of subgroups open to every character in the class. DA2 had individual plot-related specializations for each companion, which I loved, but I certainly like the spin DAI has given on the issue. The Inquisitor must also find the components needed to pursue the specialization, which I think was a cool twist.
Sadly, there is a giant issue with bugs in this game. I’ve had the dialogue wheel fail to trigger at least five times, and had to either restart or find a not-so-obvious work-around. There is a quest that is bugged so badly that it is almost unplayable. The game is in dire need of a patch or four. These bugs continue with DA Keep, the website used to import one’s previous saves to DAI and is supposed to streamline the process. But there have been problems from the start, and I have heard countless people say that their saves were messed up and didn’t find out until 25 hours in.
By the time I had confirmed that my own saves hadn’t been imported at all, my frustrations with the game so far and this information made me want to put the game down for at least a month. Even with how much I love the companions, I had lost all motivation to play. And had I not promised to review this game, I probably would have.
I was told by some friends that “it gets better later,” or “more is explained later,” but that doesn’t help with the now. A game needs to hold the attention of its player, and if it fails earlier on, it doesn’t matter how great the content is later. The person is lost. I’m still going to finish this game, but that’s because of my devotion to the series.
The unexpected boon of the website recently being down was I had a chance to double my gameplay time by the time this review is posted. And I still feel exactly about my previous statement 80 hours in as I did 35.
This just doesn’t feel like a Dragon Age game.
In a series that used to focus so much on the PC’s relationship with the companions, the approval/disapproval sliders are nowhere to be found. There is no storage chest, like in every game prior, and no good reason not to have one. (Even when Hawke was poor and destitute and leaving with their terrible uncle in the beginning of DA2, they still had a storage chest. There is no reason the Inquisitor – who has anywhere from an entire town to an entire castle – not to have room for a storage chest for their extra items.) I had to choose which I wanted first – the better lockpicking or a better backpack, and that was never a decision I had to make before. (Upgrading them involved different game elements in previous games.) The maps have flipped from many, many smaller maps to fewer, but incredibly larger maps. There is nothing wrong with open-world, but that’s not what I come to DA for. This is a personal preference, I realize. The gameplay has become more fun now that I’ve gotten used to it, but it is in the way of sitting down to play a new game that wasn’t Dragon Age. And that’s a problem.
There is also an increased focus on tactics, and one that can’t be avoided. A strength of the previous games was that if one wanted to micromanage their team they could, but if they just wanted to run in and hit things, they also could. With as varied gamers as there are people, Bioware is its strongest when they’re balancing both. I feel like this is leaning in the direction of the power gamer, making it more difficult in a way that can’t be avoided. If they had made the additional tactics as an option, I would have praised it for being innovative and marketing to a wider variety of people. But here, I feel shoehorned into an experience I don’t want.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I didn’t hate the lack of heal spells. I’ve honestly only really missed them badly during the fights with the high dragons. Mages can cast barriers which help protect party health, and warriors also have a guard function to give them extra protection.
The game introduces the ability to jump, as well as mounts, and I have mixed feelings about both. While both functions have been around for a long time in gaming in general, they weren’t a part of the DA games.
And this leads into a problem that the series has had in general – Bioware doesn’t seem to know exactly what they want to do to keep the unifying thread throughout. In Mass Effect, there was Shepard, who was the PC for all three games. I’m not asking for the same thing with Dragon Age, but the narrative of DAI is vastly different than DA2, which is vastly different than Origins. The unifying thread is Thedas, and I don’t think the DA team has been able to figure out yet the best way to carry that thread through to bring back repeat gamers. A friend of mine mentioned that changing the style of gameplay changes the narrative, and I couldn’t agree more. This is what bothers me most about the game.
There is, to date, no DA game in the series that I would say is without some significant problems, in either the story, gameplay, or both. But there are also different things they do well, and it’s for that reason I have trouble picking a favorite. However, I’m in the minority in the DA fandom that I enjoyed the previous games equally, because each game is vastly different. And DAI continues that tradition as well, being a different type of game that some will love and others will hate.
It’s like trying to order the same sort of cake, and each time I get the same frosting and a different cake. They might all be good cake, but some is better than others, and the frosting is deceiving because it hides what kind of cake is I’m getting. But the frosting is so good I keep ordering the cake, because the frosting is the best part.
WE ARE THE INQUISITION
I did get a chance to play a few rounds of multiplayer, and found it to be very fun. It’s co-op, and similar to the style of the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer in the ability to randomize settings and enemy groups, and “buying” supplies. The main difference here is that the player has to “craft” to get to the locked class specializations, which they do by breaking down weapons they don’t want.
It’s difficult to complete a session at first, when the character is at level 1 and is using the starting gear/weapons. But failure doesn’t mean that XP and gold is not given out – there is simply a bonus given if the session is completed. In that respect it’s a little frustrating at first, but the characters level up quickly, and once a player has more than one character made, it’s easy to swap them in/out according to what the party needs.
The starting character/classes are legionnaire (warrior), keeper (mage), and archer (rogue). Standard issue weapons and armor are always available.
The trick with multiplayer of any sort is who one plays with. The Critical Hit crew has discussed this multiple times on the podcast in relation to table-top gaming, and the same is true here. So, I’m picky about who I play with, but I also have a blast. Your mileage may vary.
BOTTOM LINE: WAIT IT OUT
I want to love and adore this game, I really do. And it might be surprising for readers to know that, with how critical I’ve been, I am still head-over-heels in love with the companions and will talk to my friends about them at length. I can’t say that if I could do it all over again I wouldn’t buy the midnight release, but maybe I wouldn’t have paid the extra money for the deluxe edition. And if I weren’t actively involved in the fandom and trying to keep up and avoid spoilers, I would have waited for the price to drop, to hear about the game as it is.
This is a fun game, but it barrier of entry varies.
I have two reasons why I believe it would be wise to wait for the price to drop. The first is for the gamer who focuses on the story and can let the gameplay slide for sake of the story – it’s insulting to downplay the abilities of the previous PCs for the returning DA fans, and it’s so lore-heavy it might be a deterrent to newcomers without cliffnotes. The second is for the technical side – for the gamer who loves to focus on the mechanics and the gameplay and might find this appealing, there are still so many bugs that it’s worth it to wait at least for a few big patches. If Dragon Age: Inquisition wasn’t already on your radar and at the top of your list of games to buy, I’d seriously suggest waiting for a price drop (or two).