I probably owe BioWare an apology. As a lifetime fan (or close to one, anyway), my experience with the somewhat-disappointing Dragon Age II and what can only be described as a malicious hate for the finale of the Mass Effect trilogy seem to have soured me on one of my favorite developers. My skepticism regarding their ability to produce excellent experiences feels at odds with the fact that it springs from one merely-okay game and the abysmal, implausible, tonally-inconsistent ending of a great one. Perhaps it’s true that that shaken faith was unwarranted, but nonetheless, I went into Dragon Age: Inquisition with plenty of uncertainty. Fortunately for us all, it turned out to be one of BioWare’s best games ever.
My adventure began as most BioWare journeys do: with a slowly-paced, restrictive, and relatively humdrum introductory sequence that gave way to one of the most open, colorful, and cohesive game worlds I’ve ever dived into. Is this BioWare’s Skyrim or Cyrodiil? Perhaps, though that comparison doesn’t truly convey the structure of the game in an adequate way. There’s a gigantic amount of world to explore, but it never feels as random or homogenous as some of Bethesda’s more recent Elder Scrolls titles. The locations here are more akin to areas in Xenoblade: large places to be sure, but far more densely packed with interest than I found Skyrim to be. Regal villas and Uncharted-like dungeons lie tucked-away in the mountains of the Hinterlands, spooky, run-down hovels in the midst of the Fallow Mire hide ghastly horrors from the light of the full moon, and dragons tear at giants in the recesses of the foggy Storm Coast. This is a much bigger world than either previous Dragon Age, but that scale doesn’t come at the cost of having an identity.
From the outset, I worried that these large places would be little more than window-dressing to hide a cynical AAA checkbox-extravaganza. My concern was that banal objectives like “Close 6 rifts” and “kill 10 rams” would offer little real impetus to comb the rolling hills and dry plains. While it’s true that there is some sense of that, I thankfully found those objectives to more often be supporting goals that get the player exploring the world and undertaking far more interesting quests. Closing those rifts might take you to a corner of one region where a smuggling cartel conspires to make the place inhospitable to refugees so that they might continue an illicit mining operation. Hunting those rams could lead to ancient ruins full of world-building lore and powerful magical items. So, the answer is yes: this game has some bland Fed-Ex quests. However, they’re punctuated by an utterly gorgeous world and far more interesting objectives often enough that they feel more like side distractions that give you a sense of accomplishment in the midst of your exploration, rather than the centerpiece of the entire experience.
Dragon Age II went a little trigger-happy in its paring-down of RPG elements, kneecapping item management, character statistics, and tactical concerns in combat. Inquisition feels like a direct response to those criticisms in that all the things missing from Hawke’s jaunt through Kirkwall are back and bigger than before. There’s a massive item system featuring gathering and crafting far less insipid than many other games’ halfhearted attempts. Gear often has multiple customization slots to fill, and using quality materials can often net you phenomenally powerful weapons and armor. If you’re the type of player who enjoys min-maxing every aspect of your gear on every member of your party, Inquisition will sing to your greedy little heart. As the game progresses, you unlock more and more methods and materials, constantly adding interesting new possibilities to your massive list of schematics, runes, hilts, and what-have-yous.
On that same note, the combat in Inquisition delivers on the concept first attempted in Dragon Age II: maintain the tactical considerations of Origins while making the basic gameplay loop far more exciting and punchy. For common encounters, weaving between my warriors and rogues, timing parries and counters to punish foolish foes was easily managed in real-time. But when things got dicier, zooming the camera out to carefully control the battlefield was painless. The net result of the system is that I got the sense of playing an action RPG when I wanted it, but when I needed to, I could pause battle and carefully consider the best course of action. It helped that the classes each feel fantastic to play, and that different skill builds even within the triangle of warrior-rogue-mage lead to drastically different styles of combat.
There are tons of little wrinkles throughout the experience, more than would be sensible to describe in full, but still worth mentioning briefly. Each class has access to specializations that grant entire new abilities and skill trees (rogue to assassin, or warrior to templar, for example). Complete the right sidequest, and you unlock horses for faster travel. Your Inquisition’s home base can be customized in appearance in a number of ways, and gathering allies to fill it up begins to take on a Suikoden-like flow. Tons of characters from earlier games make appearances in varying capacities. There are lots of these little touches that make every facet of the game feel fully-realized, and no one portion feels like an afterthought.
Perhaps the most important aspects of the game are its story and characters. In that regard, the amount of care put into the writing is immediately obvious. Gone are the “I want to be a dragons” and black-and-white, “who you choose doesn’t matter because they’re both evil” gotchas of Dragon Age II. Inquisition packs a fascinating overarching plot that carefully showcases true good and pure evil, along with, most importantly, the shades between that make up real experiences. The foes of the Inquisition are many, and the biggest of them all rivals Saren and Sarevok as one of BioWare’s most frightening and charismatic. The playable cast, featuring nine diverse folks, is outstanding. Your conversations with them reveal honest backstories, believable struggles, and if you choose, romances that ring far truer than this developer has managed in the past. In fact, I’m comfortable saying this is probably the the best fusion of overarching plot and individual character arcs that BioWare has achieved in any of their modern titles.
If you’re worried you might burn through this one too quickly, know that I spent about 60 hours clearing the critical path. This number came on nightmare difficulty, and involved me skipping a significant amount of side content simply so I could finish the story in time for review. Judging from what I didn’t complete, you could easily expect to spend well over a hundred hours seeing everything the world has to offer. More critically, you can easily expect to actually want to spend well over a hundred hours seeing everything.
A perfect game it ain’t, though. There are problems, even in the face of all the care and attention put into the gorgeous visuals, great voice acting, excellent music, and tight gameplay. The menu interface is a mess, even on PC. Comparing items, working with shops, and crafting take far too many clicks. It’s clearly designed with the console experience in mind. However, even on the console version, with which I spent much of my pre-release playtime, I still found the menus way too cumbersome for how long I was expected to spend in them.
The gorgeous world has its fair share of visual glitches. Foes can clip through the earth on uneven spaces, models will occasionally float up and down on the ground as part of their idle animations, and player characters can frequently get hung up on objects in tighter spaces. Oftentimes I’d smash a box or other destructible thing in the world, only to have it disappear and then immediately reappear. On more than one occasion, this lead to me failing a time-sensitive objective, like “get this person out of the burning building before it kills them.” Sometimes I’d make a decision in conversation, only to have the dialogue option that prompted the choice immediately re-appear on the wheel.
There were also many times where the tactical camera became an utter hassle to maneuver, particularly in tight spaces or low-roofed areas. The camera itself can’t be moved through solid barriers, so in order to attack enemies past a doorway, I’d have to navigate to the open door and slide the cursor through it as though it were a character of its own. In some areas, it was difficult or even impossible to see anything without a lot of fiddling. Thanks to the controls and the inability to move through solid objects, the usually great flow between real-time and strategic tactical cam action was often disrupted.
Finally, the load times are way too excessive. Even on my well-powered rig, they were simply too long. Once you’re in the game world, new places stream in as you reach them, but there were a few instances of the world freezing in place for a few seconds as new assets loaded in, particularly in my Inquisition’s home base. There’s a patch coming for the game on the same day this review will go live, so I’ll be sure to update with whether or it offers any significant improvements.
I’ve already written more about this game than I normally would in a review, but with so many fans wondering if they’d be left behind by an attempt to grab a bigger audience or nervous after the previous entry, I erred on the side of greater detail. I struggled with scoring because, to my mind, it’s an utterly fantastic, deep, and exciting game full of heart and all the best things a talented developer like BioWare can do with a publisher like EA’s budget. In the end though, I was forced to bump it down a few notches in light of the technical hiccups and bruises I had to deal with along the ride. To sum it up: this is one of BioWare’s best, easily my favorite Dragon Age title, and a game I encourage anyone to check out. Just be ready to put up with some technical weirdness along the way.
Editor’s Note: There’s a multiplayer component as well, but I haven’t had the chance to test it out much. I’ll be updating this review accordingly once I have some time to spend some time with it and the forthcoming patch. For now simply know that unlike Mass Effect 3, the multiplayer in Inquisition has no impact whatsoever on the single-player adventure, so you can feel free to ignore it entirely if you so choose.