On The Highs And Lows Of DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION

Dragon Age: Inquisition

If you know me then you know I’m kind of a fanatic when it comes to BioWare’s Mass Effect games. Despite my disdain for the ending of Mass Effect 3 (something which I’ll channel into its own rant down the line), I remain a big fan of the overall game, the series, and of BioWare in general.

That includes their other active IP, Dragon Age. The series doesn’t wow me in the same way, but Thedas is a compelling place in its own right, having been the setting of three games of varying quality. I like the series fine, even if I’m never compelled to replay each game, choosing instead to wait for the next installment once I’ve finished.

Back in November, I was sure Dragon Age: Inquisition was going to change all that. First, there was that alpha gameplay footage that left me salivating. It promised a huge leap forward for the series. Exciting, since this was to be the first BioWare game released on next-gen consoles (it was also released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which might’ve been why the finished game lacks the sheen found in that alpha footage). Still, release day couldn’t come fast enough.

Now that I’ve put Inquisition to bed (130 hours later), I’m left wondering if it was worth it. I suppose the obvious answer is “yes,” as anything that kept my attention for seven months surely has its charms. But I keep thinking back to the game and wondering where the hell that time went.

You can count the game’s stellar moments on one hand with a few fingers to spare. The first act “surprise” remains the highpoint (something you should reach between 5-10 hours of gameplay, depending on how exploratory you are). And there’s one really engaging central quest that finds you and the rest of your Inquisition crashing a royal ball that perfectly summarizes everything I love about BioWare games. Beyond that? Not much. That’s not to say the rest of the story is bad, though. One quest centered around the Grey Wardens and the Fade (Dragon Age‘s version of the afterlife) works really well, though it’s more of an exception and not the rule.

The rest of the story missions are serviceable, though far from great. It’s disappointing because the civil war that has engulfed Thedas before the game starts has potential, and to BioWare’s credit, you can feel these societal ripples while traversing the game’s more populated areas. The “problem” is that there isn’t enough story. Not by a long shot. Inquisition sets the stage quite well and then turns us loose on Thedas to do…not much of anything. Side quests are necessary in order to level up for the story missions, but said quests begin feeling like a chore once you realize every new location has them.

Yes, I’m aware that nobody forced me to plow through all of Inquisition‘s extra content and areas, but I’m a completist at heart and the combat/characters/environments are satisfying enough that I didn’t mind grinding while being knee-deep in it. I don’t want to suggest Inquisition is a bad game, either. It’s a solid one that happens to collapse beneath the weight of its own scope.

We'll find that book, but it'll take six in-game hours.
We’ll find that book, but it’ll take six in-game hours.

It starts so promising. Dragon Age II‘s villain, Corypheus, returns and begins charting his ascent to godhood. Having peeked behind the veil and found the afterlife devoid of rulers, he’s making a play for heaven’s throne. That’s a pretty heady concept to build a fantasy game upon and I enjoyed how the Inquisitor (the player) is tasked with stopping him. Even if you begin the game somewhat disinterested, BioWare curries our investment by handing us an incredibly crushing defeat early on. For much of the game, stopping Corypheus feels personal and necessary.

The problem is that Corypheus vanishes for most of the game, removing his presence for much of it. In many ways, this is the standard BioWare template. For example, Mass Effect tasked us with stopping Saren, the rogue Spectre who vanished from the story until it was time to begin the endgame. In a lot of ways, Inquisition‘s structure is most similar to the original Mass Effect. Characters from several walks of life band together in an unlikely alliance to stop a threat that’s bigger than all of them. Both games allow you to dilute narrative urgency by exploring a dozen or so planets (or areas) along the way, encountering vast stretches of nothingness with very few pieces of interest scattered throughout.

This worked fine for Mass Effect for several reasons. When it was released in 2007, the “open world” concept wasn’t as trendy as it is now. Neither Mass Effect nor Inqusition are traditional open world games, though exploration is a strong facet of both. Also Mass Effect isn’t that big. If you do everything, explore every cranny of every planet and partake in every conversation, you can still finish it in or under 40 hours. That’s a long game, but not long enough to forget the main story. In Inquisition, approximately 40-45 hours of game time passed in between story missions at one point, leaving me feeling disconnected from the main plot and going online to find a story refresher.

Inquisition is just a lot bigger. Sure, areas we explore offer more to do, but its always the same few quest types: Find landmarks, locate crystal shards, stomp out waves of bad guys, close fade rifts, etc. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but outside the main story, very few side quests offer any narrative interest. In most cases, you’ll travel from one area to another doing some combination of the things described above with the only change being in the environment. It hardly justifies 130 hours of playtime.

BioWare is my favorite developer for a few reasons. First, they’re the best character writers in the business. One reason the fan base largely balked at the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 is because of how stupidly vague its resolution is (before the extended cut threw a bandage on it). The fates of characters we’d grown to love over the course of three games are left completely up in the air. If people didn’t care, they wouldn’t have minded how the game ended. In a lot of ways, it speaks to BioWare’s power as writers to foster that kind of reaction (no matter how unintentional).

Their games also invoke a sense of unparalleled satisfaction (at least they used to, and I’m hoping they can get back there again). 2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic changed my perception of role playing games. Having grown up on a steady diet of Final Fantasy, I assumed that’s how they had to be. But KotOR let me build my own character, make my own choices, and join the dark side if I wanted. Some of the decisions were agonizing, and this was the first time I ever second-guessed myself while playing a game. The player agency that BioWare delivers is almost unheralded, giving way to emotional investment isn’t easily earned, but is beyond satisfying.

Mass Effect built brilliantly on that conceit, but it was 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins and 2010’s Mass Effect 2 that perfected it. Those games stacked our choices and pulled out all the stops when it came to their respective endgames. Characters who weren’t your regular party members were put to use in ways that cemented immersion. Before these games, it was ridiculous to have 6-8 characters to chose from, most of whom sat sidelined with zero function (save for those in your squad). To this day, Mass Effect 2‘s suicide mission is my personal benchmark for gaming perfection. Not only does it incorporate your entire crew into the final mission (even that one character you never bothered to try out was put to task), but it also brilliantly rewards your in-game work so when you’re able to beat the odds and walk away without casualties, you do so with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

DA:I battle

Compare that to Mass Effect 3‘s lackluster finish. I’m not talking about the downbeat nature of it, or the narrative thud exemplified by the Catalyst (that discussion will come later). 90% of the game is completed before you head back to Earth to defeat the reapers once and for all. The entire game is predicated on uniting the galaxy, building alliances, and finding more forces to help stave off the reaper threat just long enough to dock the Crucible. And yet the final mission is little more than a glorified horde mode–a waltz through the narrow corridors of burnt out London defeating endless waves of enemies. We never see the fruits of our labor in action, and what’s worse is that our non-used squad mates aren’t helping with the push. This is the galaxy’s last ditch effort to avoid extinction, and the rest of your crew can’t be bothered to step off the Normandy. It’s a boring mission and our accumulated assets (that the entire game is centered around obtaining) never figure into it.

Sadly, Inquisition has this problem as well. The main story kind of tosses in the towel before ending. When your army makes its last push, we get a few cut scenes showing your forces moving into position. The battle happens off camera and that works well enough because we’re given a different task to accomplish. The Inquisitor and his team must push forward around the obstacle of war, and it’s a reasonably exciting quest that should’ve set the stage for a phenomenal endgame.

But the story fizzles during two disappointing final missions. One is an extended dialogue sequence that incorporates a returning character from the first game as some kind of twist (that feels more like an afterthought). The last mission is nothing more than a boss battle and it’s executed without a modicum of dramatic excitement. You and your selected team literally stroll onto the map and engage the villain without any real build-up. And the game can’t be bothered to explain what the rest of your (unused) crew is doing during this time. The climax feels like a gigantic step back from the heights of Dargon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, leaving Inquisition‘s wrap-up to feel as though the developers simply ran out of time. It’s perfunctory and that’s what makes it disappointing.

And yet, it works! As is the case with any BioWare game, the magic and appeal lie in its characters. That’s very true of Inquisition. Despite missing out on Vivienne (I was 100 hours in before realizing I’d missed out on recruting her), and becoming so damn annoyed with Cole’s lectures that I booted him from the cause (and good riddance, I say), I found a core group to compliment my rouge Inquisitor. Some folks didn’t do much for me (sorry, Solas and Blackwall), but there’s always a few who don’t resonate as much as the others.

BioWare knows that character appeal is their bread and butter so it’s no surprise they’ve balanced the unsatisfying story with some of their best character work to date. My Inquisitor romanced Cassandra, a character I already dug thanks to her brief appearance in Dragon Age II, and her evolution didn’t disappoint. This pious warrior is among the strongest in BioWare’s stable. At the outset she’s not terribly interesting, especially to players without religious inclination, but that soon changes and discovering her hidden layers are among he game’s sweetest and most rewarding moments.

Some may question the appeal of romance content in a video game, though its inclusion is most welcome, serving as a counterpoint to the wall-to-wall action and/or exploration. It provides quieter moments that allow for in-game decompression. And my Inquisitor worked hard at that relationship! Attempting to learn more about Cassandra’s interests while trying to create the perfect environment for which to woo her was fun, and one of the things I’m likely to take away from my Inquisition experience.

Inquisition is likely to be remembered for that strength above all others. My core unit consisted of Cassandra, Varric and Dorian, and their banter turned them into living, breathing people. Cassandra and Varric’s contentious chemistry (a welcome holdover from Dragon Age II) created an extra air of realism. If you played that game you know precisely why they don’t get along, and I’m glad Inquisition rewards long-time fans with these types of details.

When you’re kicking around Skyhold castle, the game provides other social distractions as well: I drank and played games with my crew, pranked them and helped each come to terms with their personal demons (lots of daddy issues all around–another BioWare staple). Like most BioWare games, I came away wishing there was more of this stuff (and less empty maps and boring side quests), but this is a step in the right direction.

In some ways, Inquisition feels very meticulously assembled. While most of Mass Effect 3 is excellent, the uproar over its ending dwarfed the many, many good things about it. Inquisition feels deliberately engineered to avoid such controversy, crowd pleasing but ultimately vanilla and forgettable in its execution. This isn’t evidence of a BioWare whose glory days are forever gone, though. I prefer to think of Inquisition as a harbinger of transition.

It’s a massive game, and BioWare filled it with all the requisite characters you’d ever want to experience grand adventure and/or romance with. I only hope they soon strike a more satisfying balance between that and better central storytelling. Give me side quests all day long, but make them matter. There’s really no point in offering massive worlds to explore if they’re not going to be populated with much of anything.

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