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RPG Codex Review: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 31 January 2015, 23:57:37Tags: BioWare; Dragon Age III: Inquisition
As 2014 passed on, the RPG Codex was gripped by debate over which of that year's many notable releases would be crowned with our very relevant Game Of the Year award. We sure were spoiled: Blackguards, Divinity: Original Sin, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, the list goes on. The mid to indie developers worked twice as hard to make customers of us, and without even falling prey to bankruptcy! But not everything was Kickstarted. BioWare also graced us with a AAA release in 2014, with the third installment of their Dragon Age series.
Now, we all know that the last few years have been particularly rough on BioWare. Their creations have been met with unprecedented (read: minimal) amounts of scrutiny from the internet, and many have wondered if they've lost their touch. But much hope rides with this new game, with its new and more powerful engine, a completely altered landscape of RPG development, a great deal of feedback taken into consideration and a much longer development cycle when compared to Dragon Age 2. So far that hasn't yielded any awards for their game around these parts, but it remains a major release, and the Codex's prestigious input is required. So let's get on with it and take a good look at Dragon Age: Inquisition.
STORY - FINDING TRUE LOVE: EVOLVED
"We want to avoid it feeling like a vending machine for romance."
First things first: what is it all about?
The story of Dragon Age: The Burning Crusade entails saving the world of Thedas from a demonic invasion that goes nearly ignored as countless petty conflicts dot the realm and the common folk die in droves. The major one being that the world's mages have rebelled against the Templar Order (church warriors tasked with controlling all spellcasters), a global war which the Divine (Pope) intended to end by calling for a peace conference at the Temple of Sacred Ashes.
Unfortunately, the whole place is leveled by a magical explosion and the birth of the Breach, a green hole in the sky that connects the world of mortals to the world of spirits known as the Fade. As the Breach grows, numerous lesser Tears appear around the world, enabling a demonic rampage. You play as the sole survivor of the catastrophe, an amnesiac individual of undefined race and gender who was last seen travelling back from one of The Tears and falling unconscious.
Suspicion falls on you, since you're unable to explain what happened to you, how you survived and why your left hand bears the Mark of the Protagonist - a green glow that is tied to the Breach and grants the ability to control it (though it lacks sufficient power to seal it permanently). But rest assured that most denizens of Thedas will quickly recognize their Lord and Savior. Once you use your power to prevent the Breach from growing further, you will be declared to have been sent by Andraste, Bride of the Maker (Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc all in one). The rest of the game involves standing at the head of the Inquisition, an army of volunteers meant to pacify the world, bringing to justice those responsible for appearance of the Breach, and finding a way to close it for good.
Mind you, there's no opening vignette - all of the above is revealed in a single breath. The game begins with the explosion and everything that happened before that has to be explained later. This is fine and good for a long-time fan, but newcomers will have to rely on increasingly jarring dialogue that follows a "As you know already" format. For instance, protagonists of different races are integrated into the setting with different implied background stories. Mine was that of a Mage sent to the peace conference as an ambassador, so naturally everyone felt the need to put the last few years of history into words.
Once in a while, someone will query you about your past and you can pretend to know all about it. When asked about my family, I could reply with anything in between "us being very close" and "they being a bunch of jackasses". The past exists in this uncertain state to be customized as the game progresses, which is a compromise between the Origin sections from the series' first game, and a predefined story that you know very little about, a la Dragon Age 2. However, what remains is much less effective, since the main character's past becomes a bunch of references to people you will never get to meet in person. Still, it is nice to see the return of racial backgrounds and there are indeed some consequences tied to this choice - the races are not purely cosmetic.
As it is, the closest thing Inquisition's story has to a unified theme is the concept of religious belief and doubt. As the myth of the Herald of Andraste grows, different characters are pressed into joining the choir or detracting from it. As such, the game keeps pressing the same keys: were you sent by any God other than the writing department? Is it fair to use this narrative to unify people around your cause? How do you personally feel about this? In various opportunities, you'll be asked to offer input either as a believer, a cynic or an atheist. Each position makes sense, as not all of the available races are followers of Andraste, like most humans are. The elves have their own pantheon of gods, the dwarves practice ancestor worship and the Qunari follow a set of social mandates. Aside from small talk, much of the plot also reinforces the theme of religion, casting conflicting mythologies against one another. All of this falls in line with the former Dragon Age games, in which BioWare had always intended to keep the existence of the all powerful Maker in an uncertain state.
That said, I do not think this theme is adequately explored, and a big reason for that is that it isn't properly reinforced throughout the whole narrative. Without revealing too much, the game begins and ends on the same note, with most plot points revolving around you being Jesus and around the setting's mythos, while the middle is often quite dissonant. BioWare's default tendency towards Epic Adventuring falls back on a habit of introducing completely unrelated plotlines that are tied to the main story by nothing more than the passage of the protagonist, just like in Dragon Age: Origins. These are completely distinct adventures, each with their own theme (such as court intrigue, in one of the more memorable ones). This is unfortunate - if there was one thing that was good about the infamous Dragon Age 2 it was that the game attempted to tell a tighter story, with a smaller scope and where each plotline built upon the last. Almost everything in it revolved around the dangers of magic and different societies' attempts to control it and the game was better for it.
So, let's discuss the game's core cast. In total there are nine party members, which work along the same lines as in previous BioWare games, with their own plotlines and personalities. In addition, there are three advisors, who act much the same as companions, except that they don't follow you into the field. Instead, they are involved in the daily matters of running the Inquisition. You've got recurring characters Cullen and Leliana as your military commander and spymaster, respectively, and newcomer Josephine as your ambassador. They are the source of much of the professional activity of the Inquisition, which means that they constantly bicker with each other and you'll have to make all the decisions.
Each of these characters is meant to represent one aspect of the setting, hailing from different groups and nations, and they have strong opinions on the various conflicts that occur in the story. For example, almost everyone has an opinion on the Mage rebellion. You see, magical ability in Thedas isn't a choice. It is an inherent trait and carries risks such as madness and demonic possession. Therefore, the Templar Order was created to corral magic users into Circles, isolated from the mundane. So, for instance, the elf archer Sera fears magic and will shun any decision that grants mages freedom of movement, and Vivienne tends to agree, as a Circle mage who favors safety. In contrast, Solas is an apostate - he was never part of a Circle and very much values liberty, as does the roguish dwarf Varric.
As in the first Dragon Age, they will each gain or lose points in their respective Approval Meters according to what you say and do. Indeed, what they think of you constitutes the majority of the consequences the game allows for your choices. Depending on whether you please or displease each of them, you will trigger their angst, friendship and even the odds of a romantic subplot. This time though, there's a small twist: the meter itself is hidden from the player.
Other choices are going to be local in their effect; you see a repercussion after the choice is made, but it's confined to the plot or the region the choice occurs in. Then a smaller number of choices are global; they have effects down the line, affecting the critical path in small and large ways.”
The above quote is a pretty good summary of your experience role playing as the Inquisitor. The nature of the plot is very much set in stone. For all of the setting's possibilities, you can't really affect the direction that your organization takes. Choice is basically about the protagonist's motivation for acting in the exact same way. You can't, say, become a villain or even an antihero. A select few choices have consequences tied to them in theory, but act in a way similar to changes in a room's curtains.
The Dragon Age Keep, a website used to track your choices throughout the Dragon Age saga in place of importing saves files directly, will often lead to the same results we have already seen in BioWare's Mass Effect trilogy. If a given character is dead, then his role on the plot is fulfilled by another carbon copy, or maybe that particular plot point wasn't so relevant, such that it may be cut entirely without major loss to the story.
Inquisition is also filled with minor choices of "immediate" effect, giving you the power to resolve very minor issues however you want. One example is that as the Inquisitor, you'll get to sit in judgment of former villains, dispensing death by execution or a number of very diverse alternatives. Though entertaining, minor choices such as these have no real weight, as they are clearly not meant to have any bearing on the main plot. The dialogue system itself might be seen as a long stream of minor choices with "immediate" effects. As in Dragon Age 2, the protagonist is voiced, with a "tone-based" dialogue system which always offers three options in conversations: the Noble or Paragon tone, the Witty tone and the Asshole tone. Sometimes, each of these leads to the same reactions from NPCs.
Much like Dragon Age: Origins, Inquisition has various plotlines that culminate in a far-reaching "global" decision. To favor one faction out of two, to pick the ruler of a kingdom, and so on. However, what the game lacks is a climax which redeems all of these choices in a satisfying manner. Here's an analogy: in Origins, regardless of what you did, Denerim was saved by a combined army from all over the land, but for some players, the aid of the dwarves was accompanied by stone golems and a group of elite warriors called the Legion of the Dead. What truly gives sustenance to the dwarven story are those secondary plotlines - without them everything would feel much more phony. Inquisition has something of an equivalent to the Battle of Denerim, but it does not feel as satisfying. The problem sometimes boils down to the choices themselves, where every nuanced option you are given has consequences which can be and are portrayed in the same manner. Choosing one sovereign or faction out of many hardly feels significant when the actual impact on the game, or on the realm, is made up of the same actors wearing the same clothes no matter what you choose.
As the curtains roll and the game ends, it is clear to me that Dragon Age: Inquisition is really just another heroic fantasy adventure by modern BioWare. By fate, coincidence or writer's block, you are the Chosen One and you partner with a number of opinionated companions whom you should be able to please with enough pretty lies. Roleplaying is limited to defining your main character's personality archetype and there's very little in terms of systemic emergence the way that Dr. Spector or Sir Wolfsbane envision. What you get is an illusion of choice delivered through lots of cinematics. Is the story enjoyable? Given the size of the production, there should be at least one character, scene or plotline that strikes a chord with each player. Your enjoyment will definitely be off the charts if you've been blessed with the ability to laugh at unintentional camp. But my point is that we've seen much of this before and if you happened to enjoy it then, you'll probably do so again. I, personally, kind of did, but I don't feel like it was anything to write home about.
EXPLORATION - THE SEQUEL TO KINGDOMS OF AMALUR THAT NEVER HAPPENED
Let's address the game's actual content and area design. As much as I enjoy seeing the open world dream being chased by developers, I can say upfront that Inquisition did not particularly benefit from it. It's an obtuse attempt to cash in on Skyrim's success. That's not to say that it was entirely misguided: the powerful Frostbite engine that BioWare inherited from Electronic Arts gave them the capacity to render larger and better looking environments, which is precisely what they did. Also, the world of Dragon Age: Inquisition isn't a seamless one like in The Elder Scrolls, which would inevitably clash with the more guided form of story that Dragon Age favours. Hell, Bethesda's open worlds even clash with their own games' minimal plots.
It goes like this. There are three activities on the world map: main story missions, areas of interest where the Inquisition must spread its influence, and advisor missions. The main story missions are as linear as you can get and are supposedly urgent, but you can't complete them before being tall enough to enter. That's where the areas of interest come in: open-ended wilderness zones set up for random questing for Experience, Power and Influence. Experience is the same as always, and the game suggests you reach a certain level bracket before engaging with the critical path. Power and Influence represent the growth of your faction and are acquired as you complete side quests. Influence is somewhat interesting as it opens up new conversation options and other perks of varying usefulness, an enlarged inventory, and so on. Power on the other hand is just a way to stop the player from progressing through the plot faster than intended; you must accumulate and then spend a given amount of Power to move on. Advisor missions are assignments you can hand out to one of your three counselors, each of which wishes to complete them in a different manner. After handing an advisor mission out, you have to wait for quest completion in real-life time (not in-game time!), after which you receive a report and gain some sort of minimal reward.
In theory, this system could have worked very well for portraying the life of a badass faction leader, but when you get down to it, the whole thing quickly falls apart. You adventures in the wilderness consist of prancing around reading people's letters, collecting 10/10 goat meats, picking up flowers, mining for ore, killing respawning enemies, eliminating nameless villains and closing a laundry list of Fade Tears, grinding for the means to advance the plot. This is how questing feels in Inquisition - like the sort of thing that I forced myself to put up with in my World of Warcraft years. Occasionally, it even manages to creep into the main quest itself, where I was once asked to outmaneuver a court of backstabbing sycophants by collecting 30/30 conveniently placed secret letters.
Exploring the game world itself is not very engaging. The wilderness areas are fairly large and open-ended, and also quite good looking. But BioWare seems to think it would be nonsense to just drink in the visage. With so many fetch quests to accomplish, you simply don't have the time to become lost in an immersive world! Which is why the mighty Quest Arrow is here to guide your every step, along with the "Search" (default 'V') key that highlights everything of note in an area. You won't have to find anything in this game: collectables, quest opportunities, objectives, locked doors, almost everything is marked on the world map. While this isn't entirely unlike the previous Dragon Age games, at least their more inane quests weren't spread throughout miles of terrain, far out of the way from the main plot.
Lastly, whatever items you collect in the game follow the Blizzard Treadmill Principle! seen in productions such as Diablo 3. An inordinate amount of pants and sticks are delivered to the player, who's expected to loot and verify each one for any possible microscopic gains. Some item names are written with a very special color meant to mark its supposed desirability. Purple is meant for "unique" treasures, which often come with a special little background story. Too bad the items themselves can just as easily be described by "Damage Per Second" and "Armor Rating", which are the sole reasons why you'd want to change your hat. There are also minor assorted bonuses, such as +10% cold resistance and +5 Intelligence, each just as irrelevant and boring as they sound. Beyond that, you can also find crafting schematics, for which you need the aforementioned flowers and ores, but they aren't much more than another way to gain 20 more points of Armor Rating. We've truly come a long way from the likes of Baldur's Gate 2, where you'd hoard dozens of magical items, each with a special ability that could potentially turn a battle around. Oh, and I'm sure you'll be overjoyed to learn that looting has also been made more cumbersome by requiring that you walk towards loot containers using WASD before being allowed to loot them using the loot button (default 'F' and the left mouse key), to say nothing of the unskippable crouching animation.
All of this comes across as a silly attempt to keep the player occupied for a given amount of play time. Silly and unnecessary, since the larger zones alone would have been more than enough to achieve that, if they contained a few interesting quests instead of many generic ones. Here's an example of what I'm talking about: there's one part of the Hinterlands which the game does not reference on the mini map. If I remember correctly, it is neither close to the main path nor the objective of a quest, just a little cottage on fire surrounded by hostile templar knights. I approached it out of my own volition only to discover a number of mage corpses inside. The templars had put the place to the torch to destroy their foes more easily. While this does not sound like much, it does manage to tell a little bit of story with minimal effort. This is the difference between treating "open world" as an experiment in storytelling and mindlessly following "industry leaders".
In a nutshell, BioWare's open world is a formulaic and uninspired experience, which soaked up a lot of development time for very little gain. The areas themselves look pretty and some are even effective at driving a particular tone, an atmosphere, but all of this does not make up for their overwhelming banality.
We really want you to be able to play your way… there are, absolutely, some things that skew more hardcore.”
Since snapping people's necks is how every situation is resolved in Dragon Age: Inquisition, combat is the most important aspect of any review of it. For better or for worse, it is the activity that occupies you throughout all of what I've discussed so far. The basic formula is well known and mostly unchanged from previous titles: a third person action-RPG-with-pause, where you need (in theory, at least) to manage a party of four characters with cooldowns, mana bars and aggro mechanics in order to succeed. Nevertheless, the system has been altered in certain key ways which I'd like to examine more closely.
First of all, the game's rhythm is unchanged from Dragon Age 2, which mean it's markedly quicker than most party based RPGs and clearly puts a focus on action as opposed to party management.
Discrete camera modes have been introduced, with the third-person and top-down modes each having different control schemes. When in third-person mode, you control a single character and are expected to hold 'R' to auto-attack (which in itself is a travesty and quite frustrating when controlling melee characters). It is meant to be used for the vast majority of the game, when you are killing trash mobs which pose no real threat. Only the top-down mode offers some means of controlling your entire party at once, allowing you to order your companions to attack targets with a simple right click. Given how effortlessly seamless all of this was in Origins, I believe this change is ultimately a net negative.
Indeed, the return of the traditional top-down view is marred by poor adaptation: with the new engine, battlefields have become many times larger and very often include different heights, which was very rarely the case in the previous games. The camera just doesn't work in these situations, as the zoom don’t go as far out as needed. This only adds to the confusion caused by the game's overblown spell effects, which rival good old Neverwinter Nights 2. Laughably, when entering an area with a lower ceiling than usual, you'll often be confronted with a camera view that is glued to the floor. In short, the much lauded tactical view, flagship of what the mainstream press sees as BioWare's response to the anxieties of the "hardcore audience" is simply a joke.
All of this is particularly irritating due to the fact that many of the game's enemies are designed with the expectation that the party will be routinely avoiding super charged attacks. An oversized bruiser bringing down a hammer, or a magical trap instantly conjured underneath the feet of your main fighter - that sort of thing is everywhere, the mark of every remotely interesting enemy in the game. The limitations of the camera and the fact that everything goes by so quickly makes party-wide coordination uncomfortable at best. Focusing on a single character and hoping that your companions' AI somehow manages to avoid getting hit is the more efficient strategy for the majority of the game.
Even the dodging in Inquisition is unsatisfying and poorly implemented. There is no action cancellation and attack animations are over-elaborate enough to hold you in place for several seconds, while walking is quite slow. The most physical act that you can perform in the game is a pitiful little jump and a number of cooldown-based epic evasion maneuvers that each class can acquire, such as a super back-flip for rogues or a magical rush forward for mages.
On top of all that, the UI is also plagued by some strange decisions. A simple maneuver such as ordering your party to hold position has been turned into a nightmare. In previous games, it was a simple toggle which altered the behavior of your party members universally. As long as Hold Position was active, they'd try to obey it no matter what, even if you gave them another order. This was very useful for ensuring that weaker characters were out of danger, or for drawing enemies out of a strong position. Now, Hold has become an order like any other, which works on an individual level. Should you, say, tell one of your companions to attack a target, Hold is deactivated for that particular companion and only him. It is all quite confusing.
The ability to customize your characters' AIs has been streamlined down to three options. You can assign the frequency with which they should use active abilities (either "never" or "preferably"), their potion consumption, and their targeting behavior. Missing are things such as a "Cautious" behavior that instructs weaker characters to always stay away from all enemies. Now my archers randomly decide to walk into the middle of melee battles and take gratuitous amounts of damage, most likely because their target walked behind some obstacle. This is a completely unwarranted source of frustration that could have easily been solved under the old system.
The big change in Dragon Age: Inquisition that everyone was talking about before its release was healing. In previous games, you had a great deal of potions and healing spells at your disposal to keep you fighting, which tended to trivialize combat. Now, a cap on the amount of potions you can carry has been introduced, while healing magic itself is no more. Instead, fighters and mages focus on accumulating extra life bars and avoiding damage preemptively. While this new system might have had potential, the reality is that potions are easily restocked in the wilderness by fast travelling, and the main story missions offer an excess of checkpoints to keep you safe. In the end, it's all just a time sink. Actually, in Inquisition, keeping party members alive is even less of a priority than you might think, since they can now be revived in the middle of a battle by simply holding your mouse button while on top of them. They might come back with only a few HPs, but they are never really out of the battle.
On top of this needless streamlining and simplification, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, you are no longer awarded attribute points on level up. Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence et al now increase automatically as you level, according to the passive abilities that you choose. This isn't much of a loss, since the attribute system in previous Dragon Age games was always kind of a formality - its stated goal of giving the player options botched, as each class had key stats that always had to be increased. Of course, this still means there is that much less character building to look forward to in this role playing game.
I could go on and on, but I'm already feeling bad for turning this review into a list of complaints that don't hit the heart of the issue. So let me summarize my experience for you. For the first 30 or 40 hours of play time, my Mage's award winning tactic was comprised of three actions. I'd cast Static Cage, an area of effect ability that traps enemies and gives a damage bonus to every strike they receive. Then, I'd cast Energy Barrage, a series of weak arcane missiles that made the most of Static Cage's bonus. Finally, I'd hold 'R' to auto attack and wait for my mana and cooldowns to align for maximum damage. Rinse and repeat. Each of these spells is charged with a great deal of visual flair and sound which attempt to convey a feeling of great power. That illusion falls apart when you realize that all that thunder and lightning can still take upwards of a minute to kill petty bandits and random wildlife.
With this silly little rotation, I eventually managed to kill everything in the game, from bears to dragons. The latter being the centerpiece of big battles full of fanfare, in which you can even attack the dragon's specific body parts. But there's no finesse to it - you just slow chip away a set of health bars through the repeated use of a few abilities. It all feels like a chore, as if you are trapped in an assembly line to mindlessly manufacture your own entertainment.
If that wasn't enough, by hour 40 I had unlocked Specializations and Focus Abilities. The former being an extra bag of tricks that each class can acquire and the latter a sort of limit break which is charged by dealing damage in concert with your party members. If they incapacitate some enemy and you use damage abilities against that enemy, you gain Focus. Once the meter is filled, you can cast one of the ultimate abilities that each specialization has. The funny thing about this system is that it seems designed to break what little game there still was.
I myself chose the Knight Enchanter specialization. Its unique ability is that for as long as you deal damage, your personal Barrier is continually restored. Its active abilities are Spirit Blade - a spammable low cost melee attack with a small area of effect that inflicts as much damage as my old combo with a single cast - and Fade Shroud, another low cost, short cooldown spell that renders you temporarily ethereal. For a while, the only thing in the game that packed enough punch to overwhelm my protections were massed enemy archers, but thankfully, Spirit Blade can also be improved to deflect enemy projectiles with each swing. The Knight Enchanter's ultimate spell is Resurgence, which resurrects and heals your entire party to full health. And there are other horror stories out there, like how the Rogue Tempest specialization's ultimate spell, Thousand Cuts, can very nearly one shot the final boss. I can't confirm that though, as at this point, having become virtually invincible, I just stopped paying attention and slept my way through the rest of the game.
You might be thinking that I was playing on Story Mode or maybe even Normal. You'd be wrong - every story mission and boss battle was finished on Nightmare difficulty with Friendly Fire activated. Now, I hope I've made myself understood here: Inquisition's sin isn't that it's too easy - that's just part of the problem. The real problem is that utter boredom isn't my idea of a "Nightmarish" or even "Normal" fantasy adventure. There are numerous games which I've enjoyed, games which I found to be ultimately easy but in which I could single out at least one feature as unique, something that I could use to entice my friends to play. For example, Baldur's Gate 2 had those elaborate magical battles everyone talks about. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the best thing I can come up with is that one time when I had to manage three cool downs simultaneously.
How does one explain all of this? Well, Inquisition's combat is the result of something BioWare has been trying to do for years: to offer a compromise between two imagined audiences. The "hardcore" lover of party-based RPGs, and a casual buyer who's supposedly only interested in action games. It does so by delivering both experiences in one, which is why each camera mode has a different set of controls. And the result is exactly like flicking Arcanum's turn-based and real-time combat switch: terrible.
When all is said and done, there just isn't enough stuff in this game's ruleset to make it an interesting party-based RPG - be it in the realm of spells, status effects, potential tactics or character building. Nor does the game's quick rhythm feel suited to party management. At the same time, it is evident that the game's action mode fails to introduce the much more satisfying controls, physicality and fluidity of movement that almost every modern action game of note has. In trying to cater to every taste, BioWare doesn't have time to do much for anyone.
Kris: I came into this game with some expectations and the beginning was promising. You were given an early choice with different routes and implied consequences. But a few hours in and I started to wonder if there would be any more good content, because it was only contained in the linear, but well made story missions. Unfortunately, it never improved, and if anything the areas became less interesting with fewer NPCs the further you got. Had not Christmas cleaning been my only alternative activity there is a large chance I would have given up on it. The majority of its gameplay was just so boring. If I had to rate this game, I would rate it as slightly more fun than vacuum cleaning.
Delterius: What more can be said? Combat is mindless, exploration is tedious and what could otherwise be an enjoyable story is gated behind them. And this was RPG of the Year on countless gaming sites! Its development dances well to the status quo of the industry. It has sufficiently high production values to allow the professional blogging scene to praise it to the highest of heavens without losing face. Never mind that it brings absolutely nothing new to the RPG genre. Years from now millions of people who don't know any better will cite its name as proof that Games Are Art. But the truth is that Inquisition is nothing more than an exercise in treating players with a great deal of condescension. I can sympathize with the notion of simplifying a series in order to attract a wider audience but by God, I can't in good faith recommend Dragon Age: Inquisition even as a casual experience. It just isn't fun.