Yesterday, I finished Dragon Age: Inquisition. By "finished," I mean that I played the final story mission and watched the credits roll. Getting to that point took me 85 hours, but I still don't really feel done with the game.
First things first: If you're reading this, you're probably wondering if Dragon Age: Inquisition is any good. Well, is it? Yes, it is good. Fantastic, even. Is it better than Dragon Age 2? Yes, and in fact it feels like a borderline-hilarious overcorrection for every single one of that game's faults. Is it better than Dragon Age: Origins? That's probably more up for debate, but I'd say I prefer it. Short version: this game is pretty awesome. People are gonna love it.
That said, I'm not ready to review Inquisition just yet. I have a lot to say about it, but there's still more that I want to investigate. There's my second playthrough on PC, which stars a different character making different choices. There's the game's fun-looking multiplayer. There's the combat system, which I enjoyed well enough on normal difficulty but which I haven't really had a chance to stress-test. There are all of the decisions I could've made differently, and my lingering questions about how much those different decisions really would've changed my overall experience. And there's the fact that the retail PS4 version I played had a lot of bugs, some of which should be fixed in time for the game's launch next week, others of which I suspect will linger. (Note: Jason encountered a good number of bugs on PS4 as well, though Stephen is playing it on Xbox One and has had a smooth go of it in his first several hours of play time.)
I'll have some other articles related to the game up on the site over the coming week, and will post a full review before the game launches next week. For now, it's time for a list of things! A list of things about Dragon Age: Inquisition.
1.) It Definitely is a Fantasy RPG
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantasy role-playing game. Which means: you get to make a character, pick his/her race and class, and role-play your way through a whole bunch of cool fantasy adventures involving magic and elves and dwarves and dragons. You'll make friends with a bunch of neat followers along the way, get to know and care about them, and make some tricky decisions at crucial junctures in the story.
Developer BioWare has been doing this for a long time now, and Inquisition is not an attempt to re-invent their particular wheel—rather, it feels like a concerted effort to expand and fine-tune it. The PR materials accompanying the review copies we were sent informed us that "this is the Dragon Age game that we have always wanted to make at BioWare." Inquisition feels like a new checkpoint not just for the Dragon Age series, but of the whole "Combat, Companions, and Conversation" thing BioWare's been tinkering with for more than a decade now.
2.) It's Absolutely Huge
It's difficult to talk about the scale of Dragon Age: Inquisition without A) getting hyperbolic and B) invoking Skyrim. This game is massive. It's broken into separate regions which are unlocked as you go and can be visited from the game's world map. The first area you unlock, The Hinterlands, is so large that I spent the first four or five hours thinking it'd be the main area of the game.
Nope. Turns out, there are seven (!!) other comparable regions in the game (plus several other smaller ones), and each one is different from the others. There's a sprawling desert, a lush Elven forest, a rain-battered coastline, war-torn plains, a haunted swamp, a mysterious oasis, and more. You're free to explore as you wish in between the more constrained, scripted story missions.
Each of these areas takes many hours to fully explore and 'clear', and I have no doubt that there are plenty of secrets I've missed. There's also a labyrinthine home-base that's so large and full of stuff to do that I still get lost while exploring. Fifty hours into the game, I discovered a lovely courtyard that I hadn't even realised I owned, complete with a few characters to chat with and a garden for planting herbs. Fifty hours in!
I'm sure that over the next few days, you will see many comparisons between Dragon Age and Bethesda's sprawling open-world RPG Skyrim, which is gaming's current standard-bearer for "a really big role-playing game". Those comparisons aren't misguided. While I can't say for certain that Inquisition actually contains more square mileage than Skyrim, it certainly feels like it does, thanks largely to how varied the different areas are. BioWare's game also feels bigger because each section you visit is still only a small sliver of the rest of the world, even though that "small" sliver is huge.
So, Inquisition's segmented zones actually make the whole of the game feel grander than it would've had it been a straight open-world game. You'll spend an hour in the desert of western Orlais, then an hour in the swamps of southern Ferelden. In Skyrim, your wanderings are constrained to one giant landmass, which paradoxically leaves the game feeling smaller in comparison.
Inquisition's size goes beyond acreage, too: there's an overwhelming amount of things to do in this game. I've seen plenty of people concerned that there are too many busywork "go here and get 10 of these" quests in Inquisition. While those sorts of quests do exist (and seem pretty optional), they're easily overshadowed by the game's wide array of more-interesting diversions. Explore this time-frozen battleground, and see if you can find out what happened there. Visit your Inquisition's war-table to dispatch your forces and unlock new regions, or solve problems for minor characters. Use hand-drawn maps to scour the desert for a hidden Dwarven ruin full of powerful relics. Solve constellation puzzles in each area to triangulate and unlock a treasure room. Go giant-hunting, or challenge and defeat a trio of extremely dangerous dragons. Open a dam and venture into the caves beneath a lake to close an underwater demon rift. Survive the guardians of a hidden Elven ruin and re-forge a legendary sword. And on, and on, and on.
I spent a great deal of my first playthrough gawking at the sheer amount of cool stuff in this game, so much of it off the beaten path and technically inessential to the main story. Most of it is unique, or "bespoke", to use the current design buzzword: full of distinct artwork and lovely design, like a hidden bonus tucked away for anyone curious enough to wander. This game constantly rewards exploration; it's so generous that each new discovery eventually becomes a sort of joyful punchline: Oh, well of COURSE there's a bunch of puzzles and a neat side-story in this haunted house I discovered in the woods. Why wouldn't there be?
3.) It's Currently Got Some Technical Issues
Less happily, the version of Inquisition that I played had a whole bunch of bugs, from small visual tics to game-halting glitches and crashes. A lot of those will likely be addressed in a couple of coming pre-release patches, but they're still worth mentioning here.
The PS4 version that I played had some sort of incompatibility with Sony's PS4 v2.00 software that caused the game to regularly hard-lock my entire console, forcing me (terrifyingly) to repeatedly unplug my PS4 in order to get it working. Worse, sometimes those resets would cause my saved games to become corrupted, forcing me to constantly maintain multiple saves in fear of losing progress. Don't worry, though: that particular issue should be addressed before the game is actually out; Sony says that they're issuing a small system update this week that should make the freezing issue go away entirely. Over the weekend, I tried a loaner PS4 with the updated system software and the freezing issue didn't repeat. So, everyone reading this should be fine. All the same, it was unnerving to encounter a bug that severe in a retail build of a game.
I've encountered a fair number of smaller bugs on both PS4 and on PC, as well. As beautiful-looking as Inquisition often is, there are lots of weird shudders and tics at the margins—non-player-characters that'll zoom into a scene as if by magic, textures that'll pop in in odd ways, menu options that'll go missing, and the occasional crash that'll kick you back to the OS and force you to reboot the game. Often, I would load a new area and find that sound effects were entirely missing; I'd have to wait for several long moments before my character's attacks or footfalls made any sound at all. Several times the game would glitch out during conversation and leave me with no dialogue options, watching as characters expectantly waited for my character to say… something. I'd begin hitting the "skip" button to force my way through the conversation, the whole time worried that I was making some narrative-altering decision without even being aware of it.
All the bugs and other technical issues feel patchable, and Dragon Age publisher EA's PR team tells me that there is indeed a day-one patch coming that will address a lot of the bugs I noted. All the same, I doubt the game will ever run completely smoothly; it feels like it's being held together a little loosely, or like it could've used a few more months of QA testing. That's not surprising, given how ambitious it all is, and aside from the freezing bug, none of the rough patches are dealbreakers. But the bugs were enough of an issue while I played that I'd be remiss not to mention them.
4.) You Can't Rush Through It
It would be a colossal mistake to rush through Dragon Age: Inquisition. I suppose it would be possible, though the game does gate your progress by making you earn "power" points by doing various side missions before you can open up new regions on the map or new story missions to undertake. But while it may be technically possible to barrel through the back half of the story, skipping a number of the game's open-world zones in the process, it would be a mistake to do so.
That's one of the reasons I'm not hurrying to review the game. One does not simply wolf down an 85-hour game in a week, fart out an opinion, and call it a day. Or at least, I'd rather not do it that way. While in those 85 hours I do feel as though I saw the majority of the most interesting side quests and follower missions, I'm also sure that there are a whole bunch of hidden things that I missed.
Inquisition's greatest pleasures lie off the beaten path: indulging in meandering, philosophical conversations with minor characters; learning some random vendor's backstory; reading lengthy and enjoyable codex entries; listening to lovely songs performed by the tavern bard; wandering off in one direction and just seeing what you find. There is simply no way to do most of that in a hurry; this game all but demands that you relax and take your time. (Which makes it all the more important that BioWare really does fix the technical bugs—nothing makes it harder to relax and enjoy a game like this than being regularly distracted by audio glitches and crashes.)
5.) It's Not Really Newcomer-Friendly
I get the sense that a lot of people will be coming to Inquisition without having played the first two Dragon Age games. Those people are going to have to do some background reading, because for better or for worse, Inquisition is hugely reliant on the lore, characters, world-building, and backstory laid down by the first two games. If you don't know a Tevinter Magister from an Orlesian noble, you're going to be a bit lost here.
Dragon Age: Inquisition also places a surprising (welcome!) focus on politics, specifically the civil war raging in Orlais, the nation next door to Origins' nation of Ferelden. If you're a big Dragon Age nerd like me, you're probably super psyched to hear that, but it does mean that newbies will have to spend a lot of time actually reading the game's (enjoyable and well-written) codex or tracking down some entries on the Dragon Age wiki just to keep their head above water.
Furthermore, several of the plot's twists and turns rely on knowledge of some pretty specific events from past games. Even seasoned players will want to brush up on Elven mysticism, the Tevinter Imperium, the legend of the prophet Andraste, the hierarchy and schisms in the Chantry, and even the events of Dragon Age 2 DLC just to understand why a given plot development has everyone worked up.
6.) I Can't Quite Tell How Much My Decisions Mattered
Dragon Age: Inquisition follows the established BioWare formula: start with a few party members, meet a few more, go on some initial story quests, start to explore, get more party members, keep exploring. And, also true to the BioWare tradition, you'll have to make a lot of moral choices, each of which affects the story in a small or large way.
The choices are often tricky, and the best ones are less of the kill/spare variety and more of a trust/don't trust kinda thing. However, I'm still not sure just how much any of them really mattered over the course of the game. I played "right," in that I kept all of my party members from leaving and did pretty much every major follower side-quest. But when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure how many real branches there were in my narrative tree.
I don't personally mind this; the main storyline was decent if a bit rote, and I was really in it for the smaller personal stories that this game provides in such abundance. But some players expecting a narrative that twists and turns based on your decisions might be disappointed. Over the coming week, I'm planning to check out some of the alternate paths so that I can have a better idea of just how different your playthrough might be from my first one.
7.) Freddie Prinze Jr Wins
Here's something I wasn't expecting: Freddie Prinze Jr, star of such '90s high school dramas as
She's All That and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, damn near walks off with Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Prinze voices The Iron Bull, an eight-foot Qunari warrior who joins your cause early in the game. Bull is not what you'd expect, especially if you suffered through the Qunari-infused second act of Dragon Age 2. He's a thoughtful, wry killer whose joie de vivre and reckless enthusiasm for danger make him an all-but-essential party member for adventures out in the field, particularly because of all the great banter he has with other characters. (The field banter in this game is great, in general.)
Prinze did good work as soldier James Vega in Mass Effect 3, but it turns out the actor was kind of wasted in that role. Here, he finally gets to be "the cool one", and he knocks it out of the park. There are a lot of great characters in Inquisition. In fact, the good-to-dull character ratio may be better here than any past BioWare game, but thanks to the combination of the script and Prinze's lusty performance, The Iron Bull steals the show.
8.) Multiplayer Looks Fun, But I Haven't Tried It
Inquisition also includes a full co-op multiplayer suite, which seems almost ridiculous given how much stuff there is to do in singleplayer. I haven't tested it out yet, as there have been a few scheduled pre-release multiplayer sessions for reviewers to try, but nothing I've been able to coordinate with people I regularly play games with. I'm looking forward to trying it out, and will reserve judgement until I've had a chance to really play it like I'd normally play a multiplayer game. If you want to see it in action, you can always go watch the archive of the stream BioWare did last week.
9.) It is Gorgeous
Dragon Age: Inquisition is an exceptionally good-looking game. BioWare has transitioned to using EA's Frostbite Engine (the same engine that powers the near-photorealistic Battlefield games) and while I sense that the engine is responsible for a lot of the previously mentioned technical weirdness, it compensates by offering some spectacular vistas. Every new area offers views that stretch off into the distance, with fog-shrouded castles and mountain-sized sculptures looming against the horizon. It looks much better in motion than it does in still shots, with the mist rolling through and the grasses and trees swaying in the breeze.
I've played extensively on PS4 and some on PC, and both versions look nice. (The screenshots and GIFs in this post are all from the PS4 version.) The PC version is definitely the way to go if you have the option: it's crisper and the gameplay sections run at 60fps (cutscenes and most dialogue sequences ran at 30 for me, which is probably a good thing). The PC's mouse and keyboard controls are about what you'd expect (they work well, with a big bar of hotkeys and controls similar to those in Origins) and it even includes controller support, should you want to kick back and play on your TV. Also, the console versions do this strange thing where spells and other actions get blurry at a distance, to the point where everything looks weirdly pixellated and it can get difficult to tell what's going on. It's not a huge deal, but spells and other special effects are much sharper on the PC, so it's easier to tell what's happening in the midst of a lively fracas.
Despite how lovely it looks in general, there is still one area where the game looks dated: Cutscene animations. Characters still stand stiffly when talking, and while the lip-synching technology BioWare is using is unnervingly good—how did they sync up such an ungodly amount of dialogue? Is it procedural? I don't even—the rest of the animations are weird.
When your character smiles, it's the same bizarre horror-mask that Commander Shepard so often wore in
Mass Effect. When characters cross their arms, their hands clip through their chests. My lady protagonist had male animations in cutscenes, so she'd swagger into each scene carrying invisible suitcases, legs splayed like she was riding an imaginary horse. It's all pretty awkward. The strong writing and voice acting make up for that stiffness, and after a while I stopped noticing. But given how incredible video game character-animation has gotten over the last several years, Inquisition's awkwardness sticks out.
10.) Combat Is Streamlined In Interesting Ways
Combat in Inquisition hits an interesting balance between the arguably oversimplified combat of Dragon Age 2 and the sometimes too-fiddly combat of Origins. Basic attacks are tied to the right trigger, making melee combat in particular feel almost like an action-RPG at times. Players who are downed in combat don't become "injured" like they did in Origins, removing the need to carry around injury kits and making death less of a big deal.
However, there's no healing spell in the game, which is a bold move and in my experience so far, a successful one. The only way to heal mid-combat is by using potions, and you're initially limited to eight among your entire party. That means that buffs, barriers, and guards become extremely important, and you'll no longer have to dedicate one of your four party members to act as healer to the other three. The game encourages a satisfying blend of caution and aggression, and it really works.
There's now a top-down tactical view in all versions of the game, which makes it much easier to pause combat, zoom out, and carefully issue orders to your team. The tactical view is well-done: you can hold down a button to advance time, then release it to pause the game again and issue more orders. That removes the constant frantic pausing and unpausing present in Origins and makes a cautiously played Inquisition battle feel almost like a turn-based tactical affair, should you want it to.
For the most part, I found that I was able to let my melee characters go off on their own, and I stayed in control of my mage for 90 per cent of combat encounters. I'm planning to explore the game more on hard difficulty, however, which I sense will force me to play much more tactically. Generally, I really like combat in Inquisition: it's my favourite combat system of all three main games, and I've never felt bored by a fight, even when I hopelessly outclass my low-level adversaries. And, good news for people who think that the "Dragon" in the series' title should mean something: there are quite a few (mostly optional) dragon battles in Inquisition, and they're suitably challenging and exciting.
11. My Main Character is the Best
I'm not sure this qualifies as something you need to know about Dragon Age: Inquisition, but my heroine, Sabetha Trevalyan, is a total babe.
She kicks ass, too. After spending dozens upon dozens of hours guiding her leadership of the Thedas Inquisition, I've gotten pretty attached to her. (Actor Alix Wilton Regan's outstanding voice work certainly helps.) Point being: the game's protagonist is well-written and becomes a relatable, interesting character over the course of the story. More so than in past Dragon Age games, particularly Origins, my protagonist felt like a proper cast member, not just a foil for a group of more-interesting supporting characters. That's a big step in the right direction for this series.
85 hours is a lot of time to spend playing a game over the course of a year, let alone over a single week. Obviously, I really liked Dragon Age: Inquisition. Have I interrogated the game enough to have a complete opinion of it? Not quite yet. I'll have a review up soon.