Forget the disappointment that was 2011’s Dragon Age II. the latest game in the RPG series – subtitled Inquisition – is an impressive return to form and just about surpasses the excellent Origins. Frankly, it’s not just an awesome flying lizard RPG, it’s got some of the best, well, everything I’ve ever seen in a computer role-playing game.
Developer BioWare has basically taken all the best bits of its Mass Effect, Baldur’s Gate and previous Dragon Age games, and made them better. The result is an astoundingly huge RPG that delivers everything I had hoped for in another Dragon Age, along with a generous helping of extras I wasn’t expecting.
What’s it got?
So, what does it have to offer? Here’s a quick rundown:
Huge, sprawling open world to explore that’s jam-packed with sidequests, interesting characters and unexpected dungeons? Check.
Competing factions, fleshed-out religious beliefs, a pantheon of gods and a mature fantasy storyline that avoids feeling overly clichéd? Affirmative.
Entertaining companion banter, the possibility of romancing one or more of your party members, actual sex scenes complete with nudity (but handled in a tasteful, mature manner)? Oh yes.
Console-friendly controls, combat that’s neither too easy nor too overwhelming and a large number of combat abilities to unlock? You better believe it.
There’s even more to the game than this, but to reveal exactly what that entails would be to spoil it for gamers who’ve yet to play. Suffice it to say that once the game’s story really takes off, you will feel as if you’re really playing as someone at the top of a newly-resurrected organisation that is the last bastion of hope in the face of impending doom, with all of the responsibilities that entails.
For a computer role-playing game to pull that off effectively while managing to keep the player engaged all the way through without anything feeling forced or stupid, is simply astonishing.
You play as the Inquisitor, someone who appears “chosen” by the world’s gods to save it. Through mysterious circumstances, you are the sole survivor of an attack on the peace talks between Thedas’s mages and Templars, emerging from the ruins of the sensitive talks with the magical ability to seal the “rifts” that began to appear shortly after the attack took place.
Rifts are massive tears in the fabric of reality separating the physical world from the metaphysical realm of the Fade. In addition to the primary rift that’s expanding like a black hole and threatening to consume Thedas entirely, smaller rifts are appearing all over, bringing with them demons and malevolent spirits that cause chaos and destruction.
Since you’re the only one who has any hope of closing those rifts and figuring out who – or what – might be behind them, the job falls to you.
The main story revolves around re-establishing the Inquisition as a political and military force to be reckoned with, and to do that you must make allies, gather supplies, find and learn about your enemy and essentially prepare for the inevitability of war. Along the way you must level up to unlock new combat abilities, find magical artefacts and craft weapons and armour to make you as strong as possible.
The fighty bits are awesome
Fighting, as in the other DA games, is central to the world-exploring and quest-solving that you’ll spend a lot of time doing. Blessedly, the combat controls are spot-on perfect. Coming from DA:O and DA2 on PC, I was worried the complexity of managing an interface that favoured mouse and keyboard controls wouldn’t translate well onto console, but clearly BioWare learned from releasing those games on the Xbox One and PlayStation 3, because Inquisition plays beautifully – and surprisingly intuitively – with a PlayStation 4/Xbox One controller.
Playing on Normal, I was very happy to find the game offered a nice mix of battles that required only a little strategic planning, and ones that required a complete re-think of my strategy as I got my butt handed to me.
I struggled particularly with some of the ten magnificently-rendered dragons – yes, dragons – that are scattered around Thedas, just waiting to be discovered and dispatched and their epic loot stolen.
Being able to pause the game with a press of the Dual Shock 4’s touchpad in order to evaluate the battlefield and issue orders came in handy a lot, although the limited camera angle that had me hovering just above everyone’s heads and the inability to queue up more than one order at a time was a bit annoying. I hope that gets fixed that with a patch.
Overall, though, I really liked the combat mechanics. They didn’t make me feel as annoyingly ineffective as I did in DA2, but I also didn’t steamroll my way over enemies until very late in the game, making me earn every victory.
The game’s character classes are also dramatically different, and you can customise their skill trees to play exactly how you like. And if you choose an ability that doesn’t work out as well as you’d like, you have the option to re-spec your character in exchange for a bit of cash. EA has all of their bases covered here, and they’re happy to give you the tools to play the way you want to.
The non-fighty bits are pretty good, too
Like any major political figure in the real world, there’s a team of people behind you organising things behind the scenes. In Inquisition’s case, there’s a War Council made up of three other major characters, each of whom offers a different set of skills with which to address the inevitable political issues that arise.
They come into play in the War Room, which presents a table showing the land of Ferelden on which you’ll see various “missions” pop up as the game progresses. Each mission can be resolved by any of your three advisors, and their differing approaches lead to differing outcomes. Resolving conflicts and earning rewards is kind of satisfying, especially as it can sometimes lead to new mission areas.
As the Inquisitor, you’ll also eventually unlock the ability to judge people you encounter in the world, and how you judge them sometimes opens up new missions on the War Table. It’s a very nuanced – and surprisingly realistic – system that clearly took a lot of work to implement, but more importantly it made me feel like I was playing in a world that actually responded to my actions.
Each quest you complete earns you Power, which can be spent unlocking story missions or other sub-missions on the War Table. It forces players to see at least some of the world rather than letting them blow through the main quest like a Tasmanian devil in a hurry, adding some intelligent balance to the mix.
A word on relationships
It’s normal for a Bioware game but nevertheless worth mentioning that players can once again romance their party members too, adding an extra frisson to the already frissing storyline. What’s particularly pleasing is that in Dragon Age 2, your character – Hawke – could have relationships with people of the same sex but it wasn’t written into the narrative. In Inquisition, however, same sex relationships are specifically written into the game. This time around there are openly homosexual characters for the player to chat up (and more) if they wish.
It’s about time games did something like this, honestly, and Inquisition has even been recognised and given an award by GLAAD, a group that specifically monitors media for the portrayal of LGBT characters.
Me, I say well done: it’s about time games, movies and TV shows acknowledge that their audiences aren’t pigeon-holed cardboard cutouts only made up of characteristics the Powers that Be deem acceptable.
And better yet these scenes unfold naturally, so if you’re looking for it, there it is, but if not then it won’t affect you. That’s about as equitable a manner to handle something that’s still quite controversial despite it being 2015 and all, and a good job on EA’s part.
No size complex here
And when I said earlier that the game is huge, I wasn’t blowing smoke. Inquisition’s world is made up of many regions, each its own, self-contained open world level that will take you – in some cases – tens of hours to fully explore.
I should know, because when I started playing that’s exactly what I did: I’d accrue a laundry list of quests by talking to everyone I could talk to, and spend a lot of time actively attempting to complete them by uncovering as much of the map as I could, and exploring every nook and cranny.
I’d often stumble over more quests in my travels and even the occasional dungeon, some of which centred around clever puzzles that needed solving. Basically, everywhere I went I felt the proud hand-crafting of dedicated, talented developers who clearly wanted to give me even more than I had bargained for, and I’d logged over 80 hours each in DA:O and DA2.
Chase or meander?
One of the things I didn’t like was that actively pursuing a quest didn’t work out quite as I had hoped. While I was successful for the most part, I found pursued sidequests would sometimes not resolve as fast as they would when I wasn’t as focused on my objectives.
At one point, probably around 60 hours in, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and said “Stuff this”, and simply went around fighting things and looking at the pretty scenery (as you do). Along the way I just happened to find things I needed for several quests, leading me to believe that wandering around is more effective – and more fun – than putting a laser-sharp focus on any one particular quest (that isn’t the main story, of course).
A weird take on “open” levels
Something else I noticed is that despite being labelled an “open world” game, Inquisition’s levels were often anything but.
Emprise du Lion, for example, is one big maze actually disguised as an open level; I’d set my objective marker and then attempt to reach it, only to be forced down linear paths that twisted and winded everywhere except where I wanted to go. I eventually found my way there, but only after a considerable – and annoying – struggle. Fortunately not all levels were as aggravatingly laid out.
As with any game of this ambition and scope, there are bugs in Dragon Age: Inquisition, but happily they aren’t the game-breaking ones experienced by other high-profile recent releases.
Instead, they range from party members glitching out and getting caught on scenery to levels being loaded right in front of you without a loading screen to hide them and falling through the floor on occasion, although to be fair that only happened to me once, and at a specific dungeon level.
There’s also quite a lively discussion on various forums about the game’s combat, specifically about how some abilities and status effects work or don’t work. They’re not things that bothered me, as I set my party AI to On and gave each member access to all of their special abilities, so I won all but the most difficult battles. Combat, to me, worked just fine.
But on Hard and Nightmare when playing without AI assistance (why anyone would want to do that is beyond me), when you count on specific abilities having the specified effect and it doesn’t happen, that can spoil your strategy, apparently.
At the time of writing BioWare is working on a third patch for all versions of the game which might address the remaining issues.
Play with a friend
Inquisition has a multiplayer mode, but it’s completely separate from the main game. It lets you and up to three friends take part in a dungeon crawl where you must take on four waves of enemies, and if you make it to the fifth, a boss. Levels are randomised every time, so while the setting may stay the same, the layout doesn’t.
Objectives in each level range from “Protect that guy” to “Kill everything” to “Kill that one specific target”, and once you succeed, the level’s over and you’ll need to start another one. Along the way you’ll collect XP and gold, which is used to upgrade your characters and purchase chests that have cool loot in them.
There are only three character classes to choose from initially – Rogue, Mage and Warrior – but there are a total of 12 that can be unlocked through play. Chests spit out loot that can be used to upgrade your characters, but often they don’t give you anything useful.
These somewhat-useless items can be broken down and their parts used to craft better items, but the number of parts required is often ridiculously high, meaning a lot of grinding is necessary to get your character properly kitted out.
Of course, this being EA, you could just pay to win. To nobody’s surprise you can buy Platinum, the multiplayer game’s currency, with real-world cash, which can be used to shortcut the whole “grinding for loot” thing by buying chests without putting in the effort.
In all, it’s kind of nice to play a Dragon Age-esque game together with your friends, and its bite-sized nature is likely the best approach BioWare could have taken with it. That’s because the main game is so ridiculously long that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to play it from start to finish with the friends in your party given how hard it can be to line up everyone’s schedules.
That EA has baked microtransactions into Inquisition’s multiplayer is less than pleasing, but then if it helps to fund the development of future games of this calibre, I suppose I can’t gripe too loudly.
The best bang for your entertainment buck
Even if you were to spend the full R899 on a next-gen console version of Dragon Age: Inquisition, it will still be the best value for your entertainment buck. By the time I finished I had clocked up over 130 hours of play time, which works out to around R7 per hour of amusement.
Sure, I spent a lot of time doing sidequests and just wandering around looking at things, but the mere fact that I didn’t find that dull in the slightest is a huge testament to the game’s ability to draw me in, and keep me there.
In the end, this is a game I believe every fan of role-playing games will enjoy. It’s essentially the product of Electronic Arts putting its considerable wealth of talent onto a single project, and that level of sheer creative genius is on show every minute of every hour you’ll play.
From the music to the graphics to the story and the world itself, Inquisition is a beautifully-crafted piece of digital art, and a game that you simply can’t afford to miss.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. Dragon Age: Inquisition is out now on PlayStation 3/4, Xbox 360/One and PC, with a retail price that starts at R599 for PC and R699 for console.