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RPG Codex Review: Inquisitor
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 16 October 2012, 19:04:19Tags: Cinemax; Inquisitor
[Review by Mrowak]
Inquisitor is an RPG developed over a period of ten years by Cinemax and first released in the Czech language in 2009. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, it went almost unnoticed by the English-speaking world. In a way similar to many other indie games, its promotional campaign was moderate, did not go in much detail, and generated mixed signals - at times filling the audience with hope and anticipation, at times making them scratch their heads in bemusement.
Prior to the official release we were teased with some gorgeous looking screenshots and pieces of concept art, as well as the promise of engrossing gameplay enhanced by a great character progression system. The game was introduced as built around an interesting premise - the player taking up the position in the Holy Inquisitorial Office, pursuing heretics and other enemies of faith. Accordingly, the gameplay was supposed to be centered around investigating heinous crimes, performing arrests, and using various inquisitorial implements to get the testimony out of convicts, all of which would culminate in a fiery conclusion after the trial. This sounded very promising and original due to the underexplored subject matter and implied an intriguing employment of RPG mechanics in depicting the toil of the Holy Church’s first servant.
What raised quite a few eyebrows was the announcement of a Diablo-like combat with items, stats and magic focused around it, as well as many varied types of enemies. This came across as standing in direct contrast to the investigation-centered gameplay announced earlier. The question arose: is it even possible to combine the two kinds of gameplay, and if so, how?
So has Inquisitor managed to blend water with fire? The answer to this is a resounding… no. Inquisitor is a game of many contrasts and baffling design decisions, and its problems sadly take away from enjoying what could otherwise have been a decent and unique experience.
Part I: Fluff
Background: setting and story
The story takes you to the realm of Ultherst, one of the kingdoms of the Old World, whose populace is still faithful to the teachings of the Holy Mother Church. Three years ago a terrible calamity befell the kingdom - the whole country was ravaged by the Scourges of God when the prophesied harbinger of apocalypse, the Star of Doom, appeared in the sky, raining meteors, wiping entire towns off the face of the earth, causing the dead to rise from their graves, and filling the world with all manners of infernal creatures. All that contributed to a social collapse, with dissenting voices blaming the catastrophe on heretics and the corruption of those in power. In the wake of this disaster a new office is founded, one grounded in holy teachings yet independent of the Church’s influence - the Holy Inquisition. They are to seek heretics out and restore balance to the scared realm. The plot starts out in a typical fashion as our hero is forced into the inquisitorial ranks by two strangers who send him on a dangerous mission to investigate the death of a certain Kurth Ollmier in a mining town of Hillbrandt, besieged by infernal forces. As the story progresses the player finds out that the case in question has more to it than meets the eye and that the small, panicked community harbors secrets that warrant inquisitorial attention.
Inquisitor is set in an alternate universe on an quasi-European continent. This allows the developers a greater creative freedom without forcing them to adhere too faithfully to the actual history of the Middle Ages. However, when it comes to the depiction of the Church and the kingdom of Ultherst, most of the creative changes are purely cosmetic in nature. The in-game institutions in this alternate universe use the same organizational hierarchy, symbolism and artistic styles as their real-world counterparts in medieval times. And even though some details in the historical background of the world may differ (e.g., the existence of prophets in lieu of the son of God), the historical themes and problems remain largely the same. Overall the game does a very good job at evoking the feeling of the high medieval period at the time of the Black Death without calling anything out by name.
The setting is enhanced by a rich description of every item, ability or spell that you acquire in the course of the game. They do not merely describe what the item does, but often contain informative snippets of lore: the place and uses of the item in the world, the method of its production, and even - in case of rare objects and quest items - a short story outlining its origins. This makes for an interesting read that allows the player to immerse himself in the world.
Little elements of the gameworld, such as items and their descriptions, provide the player with plenty of detail about the setting.
Sadly, on closer inspection, the effect of polish is diminished by the approach the developers took. It is easy to single out the aspects in which the developers failed to accomplish their goals.
First, there is the general plot-based presentation. Although the plot's premise is hardly original, it succeeds at introducing the player to the story in an interesting way. The real problem lies in the absolutely predictable way it unfolds - there was not a single point at which I would be surprised by the plot; or rather I was surprised at how run-of-the-mill everything was. It often happens that the player can point at the culprits before the game allows his character to voice his suspicions. I would also be hard-pressed to call the plot “mature” - except maybe in the sense that it involves gruesome deaths; unfortunately, the themes it touches on do not exactly reach deep. The plot is often contrived, with events happening out of the blue as characters react in an unbelievable manner just so the plot can progress. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that Inquisitor maintains a unique charm and the story is captivating enough to motivate the player to press on, which is often a good enough reason to ignore the many oddities that the game is plagued with.
Another issue is that of character presentation: some of the characters come across as unique, others as rather unmemorable, but all share one flaw: the walls of text. Nearly every question the player can ask - however short or innocent it may appear - results in long uninterrupted soliloquy. While other games such as Planescape: Torment may also have some lengthy responses, they are at the same time full of asides and the narrator's interjections that break the monotony and spice things up with details (environmental information, facial expressions, reactions, etc.). Inquisitor has nothing like that - just one gigantic wall of text. As a result, at best many conversation struck me as filled with unnecessary information; at worst it seemed like characters were rambling. The uneven quality of translation only adds insult to injury.
My Eyes! My Ears!
Surprisingly close to and fitting the apt presentation of the setting is Inquisitor's artistic direction. From the game's first moments it becomes evident that the developers invested a great deal of effort in depicting the gameworld as convincingly as possible. While the graphics are far from stellar, the careful attention to graphical detail permeates the game through and through. For one, all buildings - dilapidated houses of the poor, ruins of older constructions, inns that are cozy and somewhat sordid at the same time, nobles' houses with their posh decorations, and spectacular Roman and Gothic cathedrals - all have a very organic feel to them. The effect is enhanced by the gray and muddy-brown color palette that renders the outdoors in a very naturalistic way. But the absolute epitome of Inquisitor's art design are the “occult” locations - places of heretic rituals. Rich ornamentation coupled with evocative symbols and gory remains of past ceremonies convey the sense of eerie mystery which adds a lot to the overarching theme of the game. It is obvious that the artists involved in the project knew their trade.
Inquisitor excels in the artistic department.
Unfortunately, animations are a far cry from the excellence of the static environments. More often than not they are blocky and stiff – as if missing a few frames – which is partially masked by their very abrupt, unnatural execution. The only moments where they seem to be rendered with care are the torturing scenes; there you can see every detail of the operation performed on the convict.
Music is another area where Inquisitor proves its competence. Clearly inspired by Medieval and Renaissance organ music, it may lack a certain gravitas and the epic feel common to the more generic fantasy titles, but it more than makes up for that with the clear general flair that greatly enhances the atmosphere. Inquisitor's music succeeds at evoking the feeling of the era and encompassing the entire thematic scope of the game. Sadly, while the music does a great job, the sound effects do not exactly impress and there is just not enough of them. Although the game takes place in bustling towns you will not hear any of the sounds you would normally associate with them - only the same generic background noise also used for the wilderness. Similarly, the sounds accompanying the player’s or enemy actions come across as abrupt and uninspired.
Part II: The root of the problem: Gameplay
So far in my impressions I have focused on the static segment of the game. In spite of the many expressed misgivings, it may be stated that Inquisitor is fairly competent at setting the stage for the action. Indeed, if the review was to end here, it could be assumed that what the developers accomplished would make for a decent adventure. Unfortunately, Inquisitor fails at a critical point which effectively defies its own promise - the gameplay is exceedingly disappointing. In fact, it may be argued that of all gameplay mechanics there is just one that can even be considered satisfactory. It is not hard to identify the main culprit of this state of affairs, Inquisitor's poor integration of two irreconcilable gameplay modes, adventure game mode and hack and slash mode, each warranting a separate analysis.
As mentioned before, a large chunk of Inquisitor is focused on investigation. Thus it was to be expected that the game would feature adequate mechanics to reflect this area of focus. Unfortunately, it does not. The first problems surface as early as the character screen.
Before the game begins, the player can choose from one of three classes - Paladin, Priest, or Thief (who is in fact an impoverished noble). Each class is characterized by 5 attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution and Speed) as well as by a number of class specific and cross-class skills, including magic schools. Each skill has 4 tiers of mastery that drastically raise its efficiency and in some cases unlock access to new spells.
On the surface this offers the player a sufficiently complex range of customization options, with plenty considerations to take into account. Sadly, this amount of detail is not reflected well in the gameplay itself, due to the poor implementation of the statistics and the game's failure to give a good idea of what they are supposed to represent. First off, 90% of skills are purely combat oriented, with only 2-4 skills (depending on the class you have picked) used in the adventure mode. Furthermore, the skills used in the adventure mode are all effectively passive, which already puts the alleged focus on storytelling into question. Secondly, the usefulness of these skills is limited. For instance, the Identification skill is rendered useless by the existence of the Sixth Sense spell which identifies all magical items regardless of the spellcaster’s expertise, available even for first level inquisitors. Likewise, the Priest’s Authority skill can be handy for convincing an unfriendly NPC to talk to the player, which requires you to choose the correct dialogue option. But even if the player fails the skill check, he will be free to select the same option over and over again until he succeeds... Which makes you wonder what the point of improving the Authority skill might be if there is no penalty for failure? And even the skills that do work, such as the Thief’s Stealing skill, have no inherent value in terms of the adventure gameplay; the Stealing skill, for one, is merely an extra means of obtaining some items for free, without being tied into the adventure via quests. To sum it up, the majority of Inquisitor's RPG mechanics are almost meaningless when it comes to the investigative part of the game.
Inquisitor's dialogue is a curious mixture of a compelling subject matter marred by a rough presentation. It makes for an interesting read, but the lack of options and the walls of text drastically reduce its impact and appeal.
Quests - their composition, structure and the (lack of) mechanics that would underlie them - is another area where Inquisitor does not live up to its promise. On the positive side, it must be admitted that the game features a large amount of content: there are plenty of side quests and the main quest is fairly complex, with a lot of avenues and dead ends. Quests often overlap, creating a feeling of seamlessness and consistency, which reinforces the atmosphere of the gameworld. All these positives, however, can be attributed not to the gameplay, but to the solid foundation laid down by the setting.
Unfortunately, they are not reflected well in any actual mechanics. To begin with, the quest structure is devoid of logic. On receiving an investigation quest, the player’s job boils down to approaching everyone in town who has a name tag (nameless NPCs are only there for the filler). There is usually no crime scene, no suspects, no witnesses - it is just your PC speaking to random named people about the case in the hope that someone somewhere might make a vague remark as to the whereabouts of a suspect or an item. Even when there is a crime scene, your involvement with it comes down to finding a MacGuffin and then running around the town showing it to everyone. In the course of your inquiry you will inevitably come across other quests, which will again force you to ask even more people about even more things. This dramatically increases the amount of backtracking that is completely random in its nature - pretty much the worst kind of fedex quest system.
But even that is not the biggest problem here. The real issue is how automatic the process feels. The player approaches a NPC, asks him or her a question, the game then provides you with a single supplementary question, and off you go to search for another “victim”. There are no negotiations, no intimidation or bluffing, no opportunity to get a suboptimal consequence via a dialogue tree; there is, in short, no actual gameplay to that whatsoever. It is all about the question-response scheme, with very little involvement on the part of the player. This only leads to a feeling of tedium, since the questions you ask and even the person you are speaking to do not matter. Fortunately, this is sometimes alleviated by the content of the conversations, but the form remains severely lacking nevertheless.
The trite and automatic character of the gameplay carries on into the way the player interacts with key characters and events, and what he is allowed to do. Often the player is able to piece the mystery together long before his character does - which leaves you wondering what arbitrary goalpost you have missed this time for the character to finally realize the (all too obvious) truth of the matter at hand and for the appropriate dialogue option to appear. There is overall too little for the player to work out on his own, because even when he does, the game will not let him progress unless he passes some arbitrary quest points.
Even worse, it frequently turns out that the dialogue option you so look forward to getting is not even there in the first place, and never appears. This problem is best visible in (although not limited to) one of the selling points of the game - suspect interrogation. When the player finally collects enough evidence to arrest the suspect, he can conduct a torturing session. Unfortunately, during the session the player character's options are extremely limited, and even when there are multiple questions, they invariably lead to one and the same response. Moreover, afraid of revealing too much too early, the game often does not allow you to ask about some of the more substantial details (e.g., if the convict had any help). Inquisitor only gives you plot rewards whenever it feels like it, undermining its own gameplay as a result. To provide an example, this is particularly aggravating when you interrogate a stalwart hedonist heretic who is immune to pain for some contrived reason and will not confess under any amount of torture and in spite of all the strong evidence you have against him. Add to that the fact that the choice of torturing tools has no impact on the interrogations, and you have the most ineffectual and gimmicky gameplay mechanic in recent video game history.
Burning a heretic at the stake marks the conclusion of your investigation. Too bad it usually also means more combat ahead.
In spite of my many complaints, there is still some fun to be had in Inquisitor's adventure game mode. The poor gameplay may considerably undermine the solid foundation laid down by the decent setting and unique subject matter, but it does not demolish it completely. However, what could otherwise be salvaged as a lacking adventure game is buried even deeper by the subpar and broken combat.
Combat in Inquisitor is such an excruciatingly uninspired and painful affair that one cannot help but be baffled by the approach the developers took. The first point where their design decisions must be questioned is character progression and how poorly it fits the hack and slash framework adopted by the game. Despite that 90% of the skills and all character attributes have a bearing on precisely this aspect of gameplay, there is little doubt that their implementation was not thought through well enough, resulting in a serious imbalance between classes, abilities and - most confusing of all - gameplay mechanics they are supposed to be utilized in.
The first hours of Inquisitor visibly favor the Paladin and Rogue classes due to their focus on dealing high physical damage and their lower threshold for weapon and armor specialization (in comparison to the schools of magic), which allows them to take advantage of better equipment earlier on. In contrast, playing the Priest class is at first full of hardships. As the game progresses the tables turn and the Priest becomes a juggernaut of destruction whereas the Paladin has a hard time staying alive, with some enemies capable of taking him down in literally less than a second. That kind of difficulty curve may not be a negative in itself, but when it leads to such a huge disproportion of power between classes over great chunks of the game it can only contribute to a sense of tedium.
Combat skills vary in their usefulness, with some, in particular the passive ones (such as Melee Combat or Armor Use), being essential and others (mainly the active ones) completely meaningless and not fitting the gameplay mechanics at all. For example, the Mana Restoration skill lets the Priest restore a small fraction of Magical Power by sacrificing his entire Stamina bar; but the combat is so fast, the staminar bar so crucial, and full mana restoration potions so cheap, that there are not any situations where this kind of trade-off could be beneficial.
By the same token, the Paladin’s Enemy Estimation skill, which identifies the enemy's spell resistances, is practically worthless to a class that can not specialize in spellcasting to begin with. It appears that the developers put those skills in the game without giving it any thought whatsoever and completely failing to make their presence meaningful.
That is not to say the gameplay is only hampered by a bad implementation of character statistics. There are also some extraordinarily out-of-place mechanics that simply cannot work well in a hack and slash combat system. The primary example is Inquisitor's magic system. Every spell you learn not only consumes both mana and stamina but also has a very high chance of failure. Additionally, casting a spell causes a global cooldown on all your active abilities. As a result, every magic user - even a Priest who specializes in spellcasting - is doomed to fail repeatedly in his attempts to pierce through the enemies' insanely high magic resistance, forcing him to run around the screen waiting for the cooldown to pass, kiting even the weakest foes for a long time and chugging down litres of mana and stamina potions. All of this is hardly an entertaining prospect in a hack and slash.
The stamina bar is a feature whose rationale is difficult to determine. Whatever action the player takes, be it attacking the enemy with a sword or casting a spell, consumes stamina. Your character also loses some stamina when hit in battle. If the bar reaches zero, the character's attack and movement speed are lowered by half, which in many situations leads to certain death. Stamina regenerates, but only as long as your character is standing still, and at a very slow pace. My impression is that the stamina bar is a purely artificial addition, intended to make it more difficult and introduce yet another type of potions cluttering your inventory. It markedly slows the combat down and forces you to keep track of an additional statistic, and that is pretty much the extent of its role in Inquisitor.
Another part of the problem with Inquisitor's combat also stems from the completely uninspired encounter design. A typical encounter involves the player entering a room, having everything inside rush at him, after which the player and his followers do nothing but exchange blows with the enemies while spamming potions or kiting every enemy throughout the entire explored area. One exception from this rule could be the boss battles where the player’s followers die almost instantly and he is left alone to the task of overpowering a considerably stronger foe - which, unfortunately, tends to only lead to kiting again. The enemy variety is poor and their abilities are limited; they do not even posses any exciting skills or modes of attack other than firing projectiles. With the exception of boss battles, there are no “champion” enemies common to other hack and slash games, which could at least spice things up.
Naturally, that means there is no tactics involved in any battle other than sometimes casting a few buffs and pressing the potion hotkeys on time. Even Diablo - the pioneer of hack and slash action-RPGs - took into consideration such basic factors as character positioning or enemy variety. In Inquisitor enemies swarm at your position and fire projectiles with enormous speed, causing chaos on the screen that further limits your options. The end effect is nothing but repetition and tedium compounded by the sheer number of "filler" encounters characteristic of the game's huge overland areas and dungeons alike.
Inquisitor may even come across as built around various cheap exploits and metagaming knowledge, since its core ruleset denies the player any flexibility. Kiting is by far the most common tactic available to the Priest and the Thief. The constant potion spam is a requirement for all classes - in melee the character loses HP and stamina so fast that there is no time left to try any alternative approach. Save/reload is almost integrated in the gameplay; how else can you defend against 4 Spirits who fire lightning bolts simultaneously and kill you in 0.5 seconds once you open the crypt door when you don’t even know they are there? And if you do know, will you succeed in hitting the health potion hotkey in time?
Many things may be said about Inquisitor's combat, but certainly not that it looks engaging.
Inquisitor's counter-intuitive combat interface hammers the final nail in the coffin. Inquisitor only allows the player to access his skills, spells and equipment via a single panel of just ten slots. This puts a considerable limit on all three types of resources, and you will often find yourself switching skills in and out manually, which is inconvenient even outside combat, not to speak of the heat of the battle. Additionally, the game fails to register hotkey presses while you hold down the mouse button, so that you cannot turn to any potions or spells when moving your character around, further reducing both maneuverability and the available options.
It may be concluded that combat in Inquisitor is deeply dissatisfying. From the gameplay mechanics and encounter design to the stats and skills, there is not a single aspect of the game's design that could be considered well done. It cannot be considered challenging either; its difficulty comes cheap, stemming as it is from exploits and a noticeable lack of options and tools.
A conflicted marriage
For many, the way the game is divided in two gameplay “modes” may come across as artificial. Nonetheless, in case of Inquisitor this segregation is justified. The two layers of the game are completely separate - they do not have anything at all to do with each other. The sheer fact that Inquisitor can be so easily divided in two distinct gameplay parts signifies a profound game design flaw which persists throughout the experience.
Setting consistency is the first victim of the division. The game sometimes contradicts itself. For instance, the adventure mode makes a big fuss about the Pagan, Heretical and Infernal magics being forbidden arts, but not only can you use them without any constraints in combat, you can also buy scrolls with those "forbidden spells" in almost every church you come across. Another example is when the player slaughters a large group of knights serving a noble family without a second thought, followed by a conversation with their master who tells you you were misinformed and wrong in what you did, but it is fine, you can still be best pals - nevermind that his knights continue attacking you. Occasions like these are common in Inquisitor and will often leave you scratching your head.
There is also the issue of location design. There exists a clear separation between town hubs, where the biggest part of the adventure mode takes place, and all other areas, where you engage in combat. In all fairness, this is a rather common hack and slash design, but here it also serves to highlight the disparity between the two aspects of gameplay. When out of town, you enter a kind of twilight zone which completely suspends all the logic and nuance present in the investigations; all you are left to face are the enormous empty overland maps and dungeons filled with mobs to be disposed of in the most lackluster way imaginable. At times you will stumble on a riddle or a simple puzzle of the “find the hidden passage to a location” variety, but nothing really ambitious or worthwhile.
The disproportion between the two gameplay modes is Inquisitor's biggest balance flaw. The adventure mode, in spite of its many problems, is the one that features the most interesting events and generally pushes the game forward. In contrast, the combat mode is boring, repetitive, and devoid of any genuinely exciting elements. Indeed, Inquisitor is the first game I have played which had me dread to even think of exploring new dungeons for the fear of spending long gameplay hours soldiering through the tedious combat. I would have rather focused on investigating murder cases and unraveling mysteries, which were at least better presented and had more dynamics to them, however broken the underlying gameplay mechanics were. It is therefore most baffling that the adventure mode constitutes at most 30% of the gameplay, whereas the combat mode will unavoidably be accountable for at least 70% of your entire play time. In the face of such a strong contrast between the quality and the quantity of each segment, it is difficult not to question the developers’ priorities.
Inquisitor is a hard game to pass judgment on. On one hand, it is surprisingly easy to pinpoint multiple problems with it on many levels of gameplay - which remain annoying throughout your playthrough. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that in spite of its many bad design decisions Inquisitor does manage to attain a unique charm, difficult to find elsewhere. The game is a far cry from a cheap, heartless money grab churned out by many a bigger developers, and in terms of the setting alone it is one of the more original products to come out recently. It was clearly a huge effort for a small studio, which poured a lot of time and love into their creation. Unfortunately, this only proves that sometimes effort and love is not enough - you also need a clear vision of what you are trying to accomplish.
Bluntly put, Inquisitor is a bad game. There is not a single gameplay aspect it excels at. Far from that - it actually manages to implement many of the common hack and slash mechanics in such a haphazard manner that the end result is naught but an unplayable mess. It is evident that the developers lacked focus and did not know what it was they were trying to convey and what the strongest aspects of their project could and should be. It is as if they had picked the wrong medium for their goal. With its excellent art direction and the decent story it tells, Inquisitor could have been a good illustrated novel or comic book. As an interactive medium, however, Inquisitor fails miserably simply because its creators did not know what makes a good game. I appreciate the developers’ effort and wish them good luck in the hope that their next endeavor will be better thought through design-wise, but I cannot in good faith recommend this game to anyone.
Many thanks to Crooked Bee and Jaesun for their invaluable help.