Dragon Age: Inquisition, in more than one sense, is a game of good and evil. There are many evils found in the game BioWare has produced, and it’s only through the brilliance of the good found within that it succeeds as well as it does. Here there be dragons, and questionable design choices.
Never before has the opening of a game so poorly represented the quality of the adventure to follow. It plays like a chimeric hodgepodge of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Dragon Age II, and any decade-old MMO.
Our custom hero is spat out of a tear in reality caused by a massive explosion. These Fade Rifts are tears in reality that allow demons to invade the mortal realm and threaten all life on Thedas. Despite some early confusion, you are summarily named Herald of Andraste and tasked with aiding the newly reformed Inquisition in closing the rifts, restoring order, and generally saving the world. First step: collect 10 ram carcasses and five Elfroot plants.
After rushing through the introductory sequence you are dropped in the game’s first region, the Hinterlands, with no clear objective and very little context. The Hinterlands are massive even by RPG standards, and this lack of direction reduces these first hours to little more than a grind through bland fetch quests and repetitively shallow combat. Things pick up markedly once you stumble upon the central narrative thread, but it’s a real shame the combat couldn’t come along for the ride.
Combat has always been a divisive issue in the series. Changes to the system from Dragon Age: Origins to Dragon Age II split the game's audience: some adored it, others resented its focus on action and immediacy over tactics and considered decision making. Dragon Age: Inquisition is firmly in the camp of the second game, yet somehow has even more limited tactical options available. AI tactic behaviours have been all but excised leaving you with little option but to play the game in a very action focused manner.
You are still able to pause the game and survey the battlefield, but due to the rapid nature of the combat, making any sort of battle plan is all but out of the question. BioWare has reintroduced the so-called tactical camera, which is supposed to bring back some of the depth from Origins, but the system is so poorly designed that it’s next to useless. The tactical camera doesn’t zoom out far enough, and it's actually constrained by ceilings or walls. You are not able to issue more than one command to a party member, so flanking manoeuvres or stealth attacks requiring sequences of commands to execute are impossible to pull off without finicky micromanagement and plenty of otherwise unnecessary stoppages in play. The result is combat that now feels more like that you might expect to find in an MMO with hotbar cooldown skills and a spammy primary attack.
There is a litany of design choices that irritate or frustrate, but don’t wholly detract from the experience. These range from a clunky inventory system designed with controllers in mind, to the removal of healing spells, and the fact that when using a mount your other party members simply vanish. There are also a number of mouse control features that are lacking such as the ability to click on the ground to move your character, or to move to a selected interactive object.
And yet, despite all of these sometimes glaring issues, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a spectacular game. It succeeds mostly due to the BioWare playing to its strengths in both storytelling and world building.
Visually, Inquisition is nothing short of stunning. Every enormous map is beautifully rendered. Each location is teeming with detail, wildlife, encounters and interesting interactions. Unlike Dragon Age II, there is not a single repeated cave, or copy-paste location to be found. The amount of game and variation found here is, frankly, awe-inspiring. Rich texture detail, painstakingly hand-built locations and massive scope give the world of Inquisition a depth and realism that has not been achieved by any other RPG to date, even eclipsing the works of open world veterans at Bethesda.
Unlike other open world games Inquisition is not one giant play space, but is instead a series of massive zones accessed via the world map. The Hinterlands alone would normally contain all of the locations of a traditional RPG. Even now there are large sections of the region I have yet to explore.
More locations will be unlocked as you play through the campaign. Some of these open up as a matter of course, but others require investigation through the use of spies, or your advisors. These usually have a real-time cost to them, but once completed will open up a new location to explore and a slew of new side quests. Each location will have at least one main story driven quest which relates back to the core narrative, as well as numerous fetch quests, points of interest, and other distractions to keep you occupied.
Of particular note are the Astrarium and the scattered shards found in each map. The Astrarium are magical devices that task you with drawing a designated constellation. These can become quite complex and are a worthy puzzle addition to the game. Completing each puzzle will partially unlock a special dungeon that stands as its own unique experience. The shards also provide a similar reward. As you collect shards you will be able to spend them to unlock rooms in another dungeon, and these each offer unique rewards. Both completely optional, but are a welcome addition to the game.
Other optional tasks include the MMO-style fetch quests you are given very early on, but as the game progresses even these become more interesting and make more sense as the Inquisition gathers resources to strengthen its army, feed refugees, and improve the armory.
Everything about Dragon Age: Inquisition instills wonder, whether it's utilising your Stronghold’s War Room to direct Inquisition agents across the nations of Ferelden and Orlais to unlock new regions, perks, or resources, or the continued escalation of the central story and the eventual revelation of the antagonist. The world is sold through numerous branching sub-quests, NPC conversations, and references to the previous games. It is a stunning achievement. Assembling this epic and directing the player through it is perhaps BioWare's greatest accomplishment to date.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a triumph for a developer who has had to contend with backlash for many decisions in its recent releases, and this game isn't without its questionable design choices either, but the quality of core experience, and the obvious care taken to present players with a proper world to experience smooths over practically every bump in the road.