[Review] Dragon Age: Inquisition

Posted by | December 02, 2014 | Reviews | One Comment
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Dragon Age: Inquisition is Bioware’s third installment in the high-fantasy Dragon Age series of roleplaying games. After 100 hours, I can safely say that Inquisition is one of my favorite games of all time. Its story and writing are phenomenal, its graphics are gorgeous, and its gameplay is exciting and complex. Inquisition is rated M for mature.

Story

The premise of Dragon Age as a series is that your choices matter—if you have chosen one person over the other to put on the throne  in the first game, you may see the effects of that decision in the second and third games. In this way players set up the world according to a story that they themselves are helping to write. As you can imagine, this makes for a lot of different pathways in the narrative and many different scenarios, which are affected by choices made both in previous games and in the current installment.

While previous Bioware games have given players the option to either import their old world settings or choose from a selection of defaults, Inquisition gives you the chance to set up your world via the Keep—a website where each important decision can be made without necessarily having played the previous games. While you can still opt for the default world setting, the Keep makes for both an insightful and aesthetically pleasing experience.  New players are provided with a sense of what has come before, while seasoned players can tweak their settings to their heart’s desire. Note that importing settings straight from old games is no longer an option; you must either use the Keep to set up your game or choose the default.

An example of the Keep's style and function.

An example of the Keep’s style and function.

The premise of Dragon Age: Inquisiton is that a great rift has opened in the sky, a breach in the Veil, which separates the physical world from the Fade. The Fade is where demons and spirits live, and where mages get their magic. It’s also where people go when they dream—all in all, not a place you want leaking into the real world. You, the player, have walked out of this rift, somehow still living, though without memories.

The last time something like this happened was thousands of years ago, when a handful of mages walked into the Fade and were expelled as evil Darkspawn, beginning the first Blight. (Dragon Age: Origins, the first game in the series, sees a character defeating the fifth Blight.) You are marked by this experience with the ability to open and close rifts, and the people of Thedas welcome you as the Herald of Andraste, sent by the Maker Himself to save the world.

If this all sounds confusing, don’t blame yourself. The lore and history of Dragon Age is immense and complicated. Suffice it to say, starting in on Dragon Age: Inquisition without playing the previous games may leave you at a bit of a loss. You can learn much of this history from codex entries: books, inscriptions, songs, and notes found around the world offer both entertainment and backstory. Some are hilarious, others heartbreaking, but they do require a lot of reading and listening. To make catching up even more challenging, the game has hundreds of these codex entries and they’re not necessarily easy to find.

The short version of it is this: elves ruled ancient Thedas. They were immortal and possessed powerful magics, but were defeated by the mages of the Tevinter Imperium. They enslaved the elves and conquered large swathes of the world for much of human history. The Imperium has, however, fallen from its original power; centuries ago, Andraste, a human slave, rebelled and led legions against the Imperium. Andraste is sort of a Joan d’Arc figure, said to be beloved of the Maker. She began the Andrastian religion, which, in the wake of the Imperium’s fall, spread across all of Thedas.  It is the only monotheistic religion. This leaves us with three relevant religions—Andrastianism with its organized Chantry; the Tevinter Old Gods (who were corrupted by the Blight and returned as Archdemons); and the ancient Elven pantheon, mysterious and half-forgotten, even by the elves themselves.

The Chantry has spent the last few centuries locking mages in towers across Thedas. There, they are supposedly kept safe from both themselves and the populace, as mages are uniquely subject to demon possession. However, the Chantry’s templars are sometimes brutal in their attempts to keep order. Tevinter corruption is still feared and hated and blamed for the Blights, and their ruling mage class goes against everything the Chantry stands for. Unfortunately, mages are the victims of this fear. The events of Dragon Age 2 set in motion a war between the mages and the templars, and it is in this setting that Dragon Age: Inquisition takes place.

You play as the Herald of Andraste. Whether or not you believe you have actually been sent by the Maker is up to the player’s discretion. Much of Dragon Age: Inquisition revolves around questions of faith. While Andrastianism is clearly based on medieval Christianity, the game doesn’t aim to make any statements about religion. Rather, it allows the player to navigate these questions in a number of different ways.  You (as the player character) have had divinity thrust upon you, and with this comes a great deal of responsibility. Some may look to you as a savior, while others believe you are nothing but a cultist or heretic. Some may believe you have been literally sent by the Maker—a reasonable conclusion, given the lore—while others question whether it really matters whether these things happened or didn’t; faith doesn’t have to be about literal events. Then there are those who simply don’t believe in Andrastianism in the first place. They may follow you because you are doing good regardless of the reason, or because their own beliefs led them to you.

Concept art of some stained glass windows of the Andrastian Chantry.

Concept art of some stained glass windows of the Andrastian Chantry.

Regardless, as the Herald you are tasked with closing rifts, finding out what happened to you in the Fade, and trying to heal the wars raging across Thedas. Thus the Inquisition is formed. You can collect allies and advisors and choose to forge friendships with these followers—and even fall in love. The story does not revolve around these personal interactions, but they are an important part of the experience. Dragon Age: Inquisition is filled with entertaining, evocative, and interesting conversations.

The story, overall, does feel a bit lacking. While I was invested throughout, the ending was a bit anticlimactic, and it does feel very much like a part of a greater whole–Dragon Age is a long series, and Inquisition is only a piece of an epic tale spanning decades. The cliffhanger left me only wanting more. But, for those looking for a story that they can start and finish and be done with, Inquisition isn’t the right game.

Gameplay

The gameplay is—above all else—long. We’re talking 100 hours. At the outset of the game, players must choose from four races (humans, elves, dwarves, and the horned qunari), and then whether to be a mage, a rogue, or a warrior. Within these roles are more advanced specialties. For instance, my first character was a human woman who excelled as a storm mage. In another playthrough I chose an elven archer, and in another yet I might choose  a horned qunari wielding a broadsword. Each character setup will offer different dialogue options (though not drastically different). An example: my mage developed a crush on Cullen, a former templar. In the wake of the mage-templar war, she and Cullen had some uncertainties to work through. Conversely, as an elf, my character faced racism from human characters.

There are several distinct facets of gameplay at work here. There’s the world exploration and combat, the war table and main quests, and then the dialogue choices.

First of all, I have nothing but praise for the first facet of gameplay. If you’ve played Skyrim, you will recognize some elements in common. The environments are expansive, gorgeous, and filled with collectibles (some silly, some less so), codex entries, puzzles, armor and weapons to forge, people to talk to, dragons to defeat, and even castles you can storm and claim for the Inquisition. Doing minor quests will earn you Influence, but more importantly, they give you a chance to wander Thedas and get to know the world. You’ll be able to explore regions only mentioned in previous games—the court intrigue of the French-inspired Orlais, the tragic beauty of the elven glens, the rugged cliffs of the Storm Coast. There are many such environments, and they are, indeed, massive. Combat is pretty standard for RPGs, but with the addition of the pause ability and the tactical view. Honestly I found the tactics aspects of the combat a little hard to work with, but some players may enjoy it—commanding your companions to move to different positions or use specific abilities, like pieces on a chess board.

A group of characters takes on a large demon.

Typical combat.

The War Table allows you to undertake Operations by assigning one of your three advisors to the task. Operations vary in scale and importance, and each is timed. Some may take a day to complete, while others may only take a few minutes. You may earn Influence and other rewards for accomplishing these tasks (many of which are unlocked by exploring regions and completing minor quests), but you also are awarded a glimpse into what is going on in the world around you. The War Table is also where you embark on the main quests—important missions that advance the story. These missions are characterized by intense decisions, more cut scenes, and bigger boss fights.

Finally, there’s the dialogue mechanic. This is where much of your decision-making happens. It may be in a conversation in a tavern with a friend or sitting upon the Inquisition throne to sentence wrongdoers, but the choices you make in your dialogue can have a profound effect on the outcome of the story. It can also simply alter the tone of your delivery, giving you more options to create your character’s story and personality. Your followers may or may not approve of your choices, depending on their own stances.

Some decisions are life and death.

Some decisions are life and death.

Standout Features

The character builder and character animations are spectacular. Not only can you customize appearance, but also voice, an option hardly seen before in a game in a meaningful way. This made my Inquisitor more believable and more likeable than many roleplaying-game characters, who are often silent and blank-faced. The same goes for your companions’ features—these are characters I can grow to love and enjoy the company of (or the opposite), and much of their personality comes through in the animation. It’s also worth noting that the Inquisition is made up of both men and women in equal numbers, of varying sexualities, ethnicities, and class backgrounds (complicated subjects that definitely are touched on in the story).

A dark-skinned man with a sad expression.

At times it feels like you’re watching a movie.

 

This is, unfortunately, where I have to mention that all of the above was compromised by some pretty incredible graphics glitches. Research has told me that I’m not the only one who has experienced these glitches, but I’m also in the minority in that most people have not had significant problems. This game requires a very high-powered PC to run effectively, or at least a high-powered graphics card. These troubles didn’t seem to occur for console players, or even a majority of PC users, so this isn’t a condemnation, but rather a warning. It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed the game that I was willing to put up with the fractured environments, missing body parts, awkward freezing, and low frame rate in order to play.

ESRB Rating

Dragon Age: Inquisition is rated M, and for good reason. The game is graphically violent. Though “persistent gore” can be turned off in the settings, players will still navigate scenes with intense violence—for instance, a torture chamber filled with bodies. Genocide waged in the name of religious fervor is a theme threaded throughout the story. The murder of oppressed peoples, the slaughter of soldiers on the battlefield, and the violence done to the psyches of your friends, allies, and the people of Thedas are no small part of this world.

The violence in Inquisition is not without meaning, though. You hear many sides to the conflicts, and you are forced to think about its impacts. You are allowed a glimpse into the day-to-day life of the people of Thedas when reading a love letter to a dead soldier or hearing a song about a centuries-old tragedy.

As for sexual content, the game doesn’t shy away from lewd jokes, but the sex scenes are comparable what you might see on primetime television. There is some nudity, but fade-to-black is the phrase of the day. Some romance scenes are raunchier than others, but the banter that occurs between companions while traveling can easily be as lewd—if not more so—than the scenes themselves.

Finally, substance use is quite common in the game. Characters can drink at a tavern, and it’s presented as a fun activity promoting camaraderie. Players can also collect the Bottles of Thedas, a series of alcoholic beverages scattered around the landscape with amusing descriptions. Most importantly, however, the game discusses drug use. Lyrium is a magical stimulant that mages can use to bolster their abilities and templars must use in order to match the power of mages. It is addictive, and one character is shown suffering the effects of withdrawal. Others are force-fed it, and some are corrupted and disfigured by its use. While lyrium is not depicted as a positive thing—in fact, it’s usually tragic—it is omnipresent and many players may find its place in the story extremely disturbing.

There are scattered instances of strong language as well.

Takeaway

I can’t recommend this game enough. Despite a few minor complaints regarding the bugginess of the PC version (most of which will hopefully be fixed with patches and updates), I know it’s a game I’ll play many times again, and hope to get more out of each time. For those who’ve been with Dragon Age since its first installment, it will be a welcome addition and continuation of a world we’ve grown to know and love. For those not so invested, it’s a gorgeous RPG with very entertaining mechanics—despite maybe being a bit opaque, story-wise. It’s an M rated game that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to mature teens, and can’t wait for the chance to discuss it with my friends and siblings once they get in on the fun.

Keezy Young

About Keezy Young

Keezy is a gamer, illustrator, and designer. Her background is in teaching and tutoring kids from ages 9 to 19, and she's led workshops for young women in STEM. She is also holds a certificate in teaching English. Her first memory of gaming is when her dad taught her to play the first Warcraft when she was five. You can find her at Key of Zee and on Twitter @KeezyBees.