Dragon Age: Inquisition
By Dwip February 25, 2021, 5:43 pm Comments (0) RSS Feed for this post

So, 7 years after the fact I guess it’s time to talk about Dragon Age: Inquisition, now that I’ve done my second run through and actually finished all the DLC and everything. It is a game about which I have…opinions, as does just about everybody else. I don’t think I’m going to be trodding much new ground here, but when has that ever stopped me, really?

Graphics/Audio

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: while EA’s decision to go with the Frostbite engine for DA:I (most notable as the engine behind DICE’s Battlefield series) was basically an epic disaster on many levels that would truly come into its own when Mass Effect: Andromeda crashed so spectacularly on re-entry, it does do one thing amazingly and fantastically well: this game looks incredible. Seriously. You can go just about anywhere in Inquisition and the scenery will look amazing. Where I continually give DA:O and DA2 shit for having the best 2006-2007 graphics 2009-2011 have to offer, DA:I not only has great graphics for 2014, it’s one of the best looking games I own all the way up here in 2021.

The weird and notable exception to this is apparently hair, which varies between moderately acceptable and weirdly plastic depending on the color and angle. It’s poorly textured, not well shadered, and they apparently couldn’t be bothered to make any hairstyles that couldn’t be hidden easily by a helmet. However, if you like bald or that basic training buzzcut look, I have good news, because, well:

Somebody apparently had a thing for male pattern baldness, is all I can say.

As far as the audio goes, it’s a modern game so everything that isn’t music is basically fine. Swords clang, waves crash, spells boom, and all that. The soundtrack is noticeably lesser than in the days of Inon Zur’s now iconic soundtracks for DA:O and DA2, but honestly that all sort of fades into the background for me after a while anyway. The bit I do very much enjoy are the various bard songs they’ve sprinkled in, which add a jaunty sort of air to the taverns and are actually worth enjoying on their own merits.

I’m also less than sold by the voice acting. I suppose we must in this modern age have fully-voiced protagonists, and while that can often work quite well, like with the NPCs or the Hawke in DA2, both of the voices I’ve used thus far for the main character are…adequate, I suppose? They’re not outright terrible for the most part, but for something I’m going to be spending 150 hours with I found it hard to get excited about my Dalish Inquisitor sounding English instead of Welsh because you’ve got all of two choices because voices are expensive and take work.

Hold on to that, because it’s going to be a theme.

Interface

I suppose the best way to describe driving your character in DA:I after having played through two very similar games in DA:O and DA2 is…extremely jarring. Like, I get it. Frostbite is a completely different animal, and I suppose it even makes a certain amount of sense to revamp things while you’re having to rewrite everything from scratch because Frostbite wasn’t designed for RPGs, which I guess hold on to that, too, because that’s so totally a theme.

So much has changed it’s actually hard to know where to start. Movement is different, for one, and you can now jump and free look and try to pretend you’re playing third-person Skyrim, so I guess there’s that, which is kind of weird, and more on that in a while.

The camera’s different, too, and it’s kind of usable but mostly just sort of clunky and there’s a bunch of commands that don’t really work unless you go into super special tactical mode which functions in a completely different way, doesn’t have enough zoom out to be usable in any way, and is where they hid literally all the combat information like resistances and conditions, so that’s…great.

You may remember mages with like, a billion spells in DA:O, and you can do that here too, only you can only use eight abilities at any one time because that’s just how we do it now because consoles I guess, and because of that they shrank down all the skill trees even more from DA2 and took out things you’d expect to be there like, I don’t know, literally all the healing spells which are all locked behind potions now because I guess game balance or some other bullshit? They also simplified out all the stats (just like Skyrim!) except they didn’t, which is just nonsensical and weird.

They also added horses (just like Skyrim!) to go along with the open world gameplay (more on that later), and gave you a frankly shocking amount of mount variety like it’s ESO or something, except in ESO your giant elk actually moves faster than your normal running speed, which means there’s zero reasons to ever use a mount in DA:I and it’s this completely useless subsystem with whole questlines and everything.

I could go on, about how containers are super janky to interact with, how people just wander out of conversations for no reason, how targeting enemies is cumbersome and annoying and frequently targets some random nug in the distance rather than the dragon you’re fighting, how the awesome customizable party AI system from the first two games has been totally gutted, but I mean, what’s the point? Why soften the blow? This is one of the worst RPG interfaces I’ve ever used, full of shockingly bad design decisions, kludges, and outright bugs, and while on some level I can respect that they had to do it all from scratch because Frostbite, this entire interface just sucks. While you can manage to make it usable by the end of your 150 hours in the game, it detracts from the entire experience mightily.

Gameplay

And now that I’ve finished shitting all over how Inquisition drives, let’s talk about how great Inquisition is to play.

*crickets*

So, it seems pretty obvious that an awful lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition came about because they all played Skyrim and were like “What if we did all that cool open world gameplay, but with cool Bioware writing and quests?” And to be completely fair to the designers here, on paper that’s a great idea. Hell, until I played this game I used to say things like that all the damn time. Unfortunately, what we got was…not that. What we got was an MMO, if MMOs were super terribad and single player. Literally none of this works.

For starters, while there’s plenty of open world, and as we’ve previously discussed it looks stupendous, there’s…not a lot to actually do. Oh, there are a lot of fetch quests and material harvesting and dudes to endlessly murder in the face – sometimes for more crafting materials, and you can claim things and collect things and…whatever, none of it actually feels like it matters to the story. None of it feels like you’re doing it for any particular reason other than to pad the game out. It’s wide, but it’s not particularly deep, and where in Skyrim you can generally rely on Bethesda’s skill at environmental storytelling to push you through your 18th draugr ruin, in DA:I there’s just a ton of dudes to kill and some iron deposits. Every so often they give you a nice, tight, focused ruin or something with a plot, and those places are amazing, but they’re extremely rare. You’re going to spend a lot of time running around maps, and so very little of it means anything.

Another special peeve here is the amount of platforming Inquisition feels the need to include, because, well, they added jumping, right? That, in and of itself, isn’t the worst idea. I don’t mind a little jumping from time to time, and vertical space can add a lot to a level. What I don’t actually need is an entire quest series based around a scavenger hunt for dozens of shards that has you bunny hopping all over hill and dale. I’ve played literal platformer games with less platforming than this game. It’s insane.

Since I talked about crafting materials, let’s talk about crafting. There’s crafting in this game. There’s a lot of crafting in this game. I suppose it’s conceivable that you could not engage with the crafting system, you want all the cool top tier stuff, right? There are, based on the ten page cheat sheet I made for crafting, 72 base crafting materials, slightly in excess of 500 weapon and armor crafting recipes, and I’m not sure how many special materials. I have spent literal hours just figuring out the next set upgrades for my people. I’d feel a lot better about that if I was getting a bunch of super cool abilities, but honestly most of the time it’s about getting several percent better at some stat and slightly better DPS, which is a stat this game tracks on its weapons. Like all things MMO, one can’t help but feel like all of this could have been cut down very heavily and somehow made into a stronger experience for the player.

But let’s say you need a break from mining crafting mats in the Hinterlands and you just crafted your super elite gear. You’re rationing out your plot quests, because that’s a thing you need to do in this game, and nobody has anything interesting to say because it’s locked behind the plot quests. What to do? Well, let’s talk about the war table. Do you like the idea of a separate set of missions where you choose an advisor to send and then some amount of time later they come back with a reward? Good news, because there’s a lot of that in this game. And if you like waiting for 24 hour timers, you can do that, too. Hell, you can log into the game, start some war table missions, and log straight out of the game. And if you thought to yourself, “Man, this mission about saving my entire clan from political intrigue and death sounds awesome and I’d love to play it,” well then fuck you, because this is Dragon Age: Inquisition and we don’t do meaningful side quests like it’s a Dragon Age game or something.

No, really, I’m not kidding. They actually did cut out the separate quests based on the Inquisitor’s origin and shoved them into a bunch of text in the war table missions. What, did you think this was Origins or something?

If all of that sounds completely negative, that’s because it is. This is all shit tier MMO gameplay that Bioware should be better than by now but for some reason isn’t, and if that’s what you’re after, go play ESO because at least it’s competent about it.

There are a couple of positive notes in all this negativity, however.

The first of these is Skyhold, which is one of the best build-a-fortress subplots in any RPG I’ve played except maybe Crossroads Keep in NWN2. You get a castle! You can add stuff to your castle! People show up in your castle! You can play with the furniture and stuff! There are a couple of oddities (I have a prison, so why do none of my prisoners show up in it?), but overall, just fucking around in Skyhold is one of the funnest parts of the entire DA:I experience for me.

The second is that various of the open world areas have interactive bits that can change the way the area plays. Crestwood, for example, has an entire thing around draining a dam and unlocking flooded parts of the map. There are a few times you can use the war table to unlock more areas on the map, with visual changes and new stuff. You can capture keeps and use them as forward bases. If Inquisition was more doing that and less killing the 37th god damned quillback this hour because why in Andraste’s holy knickers is the respawn rate this frigging high I’d be a lot more positive about the experience.

And I guess, to be fair, taken in isolation none of this is completely awful. I don’t mind mining, I generally like crafting, I don’t even mind wandering around the wilderness and murdering dudes in the face. But, and I want you to think about this for a moment, I spent 150 hours doing this stuff. In two playthroughs of DA:I I have 275 hours. By comparison, I have three DA2 runs at 122 hours (so about a 40 hour game), and I think three runs of DA:O at 173 hours. Literally I could play DA:O three times in the time it takes to play Inquisition. That’s what the problem is.

Story

By this point you’re probably wondering why the hell I’ve bothered to invest so much time in a game I feel so negatively towards in so many ways. And, well, it’s a Bioware game. We’re all here for the story. And I’m here to tell you, the 20 hours or so you’ll spend doing main plot quests are…actually pretty good. I mean, don’t get me wrong, here too there are downsides, such as wrapping up the entire central conflict of DA2 in one or two quests, or shoving all the character backstory quests into the war table, or how uneven the writing is for Dalish inquisitors, but, you know, quests like Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts are some of the best in the history of Bioware, let alone this series of games. They have varied gameplay, they greatly expand the lore, and they’re just generally fun to play.

Likewise, I quite enjoy most of the companions. They’re interesting, they’re personable, and while I’m not really a fan of the way they trashed the friendship/rival system from DA2 and the gifts, I can stand most of them for long stretches of time, with the possible exceptions of Sera and Cole. They can’t all be winners, but for the most part what time you spend with your companions is pretty well spent. They could have done the Hawke cameo better, but whatever. They tried.

It’s just that, you know, you have to go spend 10 or 20 hours of aimless wandering in the Hissing Wastes or something in between 4 hours of doing a super amazing plot quest. Have I mention this game got padded out way too much? I think I might have.

The Black Emporium

This was the launch DLC, I think, and…it’s a store. There are schematics that are useful, I suppose, but the clear winner is the supply of crafting materials, because ain’t nobody got time to murder 37 quillbacks for some leather, and money is fairly easily available in Inquisition. Whatever. The most interesting thing about this entire DLC is the Meredith statue they stuck on a shelf.

Jaws of Hakkon

Another DLC, and…fuck, it’s another open world area to explore. Which it is, but unlike, say, the entire rest of the game, Bioware actually took some time here to put in an interesting main quest and some cool side quests while making an interesting area to explore. In contrast to, say, the Exalted Plains, I really enjoyed traipsing about the Frostback Basin, and if all of Inquisition had been like this I’d be hugely positive about the experience.

The Descent

The third DLC is basically the only glimpse of the Deep Roads we get in Inquisition, and I like it. Sure, it’s a Golems of Amgarrak-style dungeon crawl with nothing to do with the actual plot of the game, but it looks amazing, truly expands on what you thought the Deep Roads previously were, and has enormous implications for the dwarves down the line. I had to force myself to stop playing.

Trespasser

The last DLC is also, like, the actual end of the game, because that’s what Bioware’s been doing since Witch Hunt or so and it’s seriously annoying at this point. In fact, there’s a lot of similarities here with Witch Hunt, right down to chasing your apostate mage gone rogue around looking for answers. The difference this time is that it’s actually got a good and compelling story, coupled with relatively tight pacing and excellent area design with very little fat. Again, if all of Inquisition had looked like Trespasser, I’d feel a lot differently about this game as a whole.

Overall, this is easily the best set of DLC for any Dragon Age game, both individually and as a whole experience. I hope that’s because the Inquisition team learned some lessons after the fact, and I hope DA4 ends up being more like these than the base game.

Conclusion

As I hope I’ve imparted by now, I find the gameplay experience of Dragon Age: Inquisition to be dismal. It’s the worst in the series, worse in every way than even DA2, and that holds true for everything from simple movement to combat to side quests and conversations. This is an ocean of content (in the most cynical sense of that word) that’s 5 miles wide and 2 inches deep, and nobody needs that. On the other hand, I find that I can suffer through everything else if only because I find the actual story interesting and compelling. This is a deeply conflicted game that could have been so much better than it was, and I think it’s the worst of the series easily.

And yet it’s still pretty good. I dunno.


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