Dragon Age games tend to fly under the radar, I’ve noticed, in comparison to other Bioware and EA titles. However, as a fan of Role Playing Games, I think they’re some of the best out there, especially on consoles. The much-awaited third installment in the Dragon Age series, Dragon Age: Inquisition, came out last month and has definitely been making more of a splash than its predecessors; it’s won a host of Game of the Year titles from Kotaku, The Game Awards, AP, PC Gamer, Game Revolution, and many more, and has been nominated for still other Game of the Year titles. But is it worth the critical acclaim and hype?
In two words: HELL YES!
I should note that honestly, I don’t really find all the “game of the year” titles so impressive because it was…kind of a lousy year in terms of game releases with few really notable games. But if you are an RPG fan and you love an immersive, intelligent, open-world game with a thrilling plot, strategic battles, and companion characters you can interact with to no end, this is the game you’ve been waiting for.
A quick history lesson: Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third game in the Dragon Age series, as mentioned above. Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) was the game that started it all back in 2009 (and is also a doozy of an RPG.) Centered on the “blight”, an invasion of demonic forces in the land of Ferelden, the main character must call together the humans, elves, and dwarves inhabiting the kingdom and unite them to fight the impending threat. The game was really well thought-out, and while not as open-world as some of the other popular RPGs, quickly became known for its six unique origin stories, intense plot, intricate lore, and frankly insane amount of companion interaction and character development. The game was a great success, and to this day is something I play over and over again.
Bioware set out to capitalize on DA:O’s popularity and in March 2011 released Dragon Age II (DA2.) Clearly a bit rushed and not nearly as robust as its predecessor, DA2 received generally favorable reviews among critics but is largely scorned among fans of the first game, myself included. Many of the exceptional features loved in DA:O were marginalized or stripped out: the ability to personalize one’s own hero was minimized, dungeon designs were reused leading to predictable gameplay, companion interaction was extremely limited, and unique items no longer had flavor text. Even the game’s big selling feature that was marketed at E3 and other game conventions, the unreliability of the storyteller, was used just twice during the game in brief, canned segments. While the plot was interesting and well-written, and the combat system had been improved upon, the whole game was a giant yawn for me (I’ve played DA2 exactly once, compared to the 13 and counting times I’ve played Origins and the 120 hours Xbox says I’ve played Inquisition since it came out last month.)
I was very, VERY trepidatious about the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I almost didn’t want EA to release this game because I was so worried I’d end up with the equivalent of some cardboard cut-out game that just went through the motions without any joy, like DA2. However, this game has knocked my socks off. Okay, enough context. I’m sure you want to know about the game.
Let me preface this by saying that you don’t have to play the first two Dragon Age games to understand what’s going on in DA:I, although your appreciation for the plot will be enhanced if you do, or if you read about them (whether that’s before or during, as the in-game codexes are thorough as well.)
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the story: your character was sent to a religious conclave in the kingdom of Ferelden. The conclave is a gathering of the Chantry, the main religious faction of Thedas (the continent.) When you arrive at the conclave, something has gone horribly wrong and the earth is shaking, demons are everywhere, and people are dying/being swallowed up by a portal in the sky. You try to help but black out, and when you come to, you are being held prisoner by Templar forces (soldiers of sorts who work for the Chantry.) Everyone is very upset that the head of the Chantry and all of their major religious figures were found dead, and furthermore, it’s suspicious that you are the only survivor found. A giant portal has now opened in the sky- a tear in the delicate fabric that separates the human world from the Fade, the world of spirits and demons- and now demons are coming through and creating even more openings in different places across Ferelden. Still worse, somehow in all of this, one of your hands now has a green, glowing energy permeating from it, which looks somewhat similar to the Fade portal in the sky.
As you protest their claims and maintain your innocence, the remaining Chantry members and Templars declare you must be tried for your crimes. However, during the ensuing chaos as remaining forces try to fight off demons pouring out of the sky, you discover that you’re able to actually close the tears in the Fade and seal the portals to the spirit world shut using the glowy thing on your hand. An Inquisition is formed by a few of the remaining Templars and Chantry members with the purpose of finding out what really happened at the conclave that day, who is responsible for ripping open the Fade and murdering the Chantry leaders, and bringing them to justice.
To say a few words on the rest of the story line: it takes my breath away. If there’s one thing I appreciate the most about this game, it’s the story. Everything is framed so simply and becomes so complex. Nothing ever seems to go as planned and goes wrong in the most interesting ways. I can’t really get into detail without spoiling major plot points, but it’s such a fun ride. I wish I could play this game for the first time again and experience it all once more, brand new.
Is this the part where I can gush on about how much I love this game? I love this game. It’s SO much fun to play. I find myself motivated to do very little other than play this game these days, which is incredibly dangerous when one has a full-time job and needs to sleep.
In general, gameplay for Dragon Age games is somewhat consistent: talk to your characters for a while at camp, gear up for a mission, go on said mission, come back and sell your loot, talk to your characters again. There’s very little variation in this pattern, and that’s no exception here. All your companions have plenty of things to talk about, so there are new topics almost every time you talk to them. Which is a lot. There’s a lot of talking in this game. The main character is fully voiced, and the dialogue wheel will often either depict the intention of a comment (a teary eye may indicate emotional appeal, for instance) or the placement of the comments around the wheel will eventually fall into a pattern of polite at the top, sarcastic in the middle, to-the-point on the bottom. Combat is fun, engaging, and satisfying, and crafting is entertaining and addicting, once you get the hang of it.
One factor I did find disconcerting is that the healer skill trees and healing spells are not present in this game, so one cannot have a healer in their party at all. Instead, the game makes heavy use of potions, buffs, and barrier spells to fill this gap. I personally…got used to it but don’t like it. Call me old-fashioned, but I like having one person in my party of four who is completely dedicated to keeping others alive, not to mention I occasionally found the max limit on potions to be insufficient.
This game is MUCH more open-world than the other DA games. You can explore regions in the countries of Ferelden and Orlais, and even though the regions are somewhat “confined”, in a sense, they are often massive and it really takes some doing to explore them all and see everything. The main quest itself is actually somewhat short and is paced throughout your exploration of the lands and doing about a hundred million side quests. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or criticism, maybe both.
Your Hero and the Dragon Age Keep
You can choose from four races: human, elf, dwarf, or qunari (human-like but larger and may or may not have horns) and a detailed character design wizard will help customize the perfect Inquisitor for you. There are three classes: mage, rogue, or warrior, and each class has three subclass specializations. Each class also has four skill trees to spec out, so there’s no shortage of customization. You can come up with a backstory for your character as you introduce yourself to other characters through dialogue options, which is pretty clever.
The Dragon Age Keep is an application that allows you to import previous game decisions from DA:O and DA2 into your DA:I world, which is a godsend for people like me who bought a new console since playing the previous games and don’t have save files. The Keep is actually pretty cool. You can go through major decision points from each of the previous two games, and there’s a nice little movie generated to put the decisions into context. You can then import a Keep state into your world. While there is a default world state for those who don’t want to take this extra step, and many of the decisions don’t have much of an impact other than a few dialogue changes here or there, there are a few big items that come up in the main quest in some way or another, which is a fun callback to the previous games.
Companions, Advisors, and Romance
You have access to nine different companions across the game (SO MANY!), one for each class specialization. It would take too long to go into them all here, but they’re all well-developed, from completely different places and backgrounds, and fun to talk to in general. My personal favorite companions are Varric, a good-humored dwarf storyteller (also a companion from DA2) and Solas, an elven apostate mage who enjoys sleeping in ruins and historic battle sites to enter the spirit world and relive memories of the battles. A couple of the more…polarizing companions include Dorian, an openly gay mage from Tevinter (a land known for slave trade) and the Iron Bull, a massive horned Qunari looking for epic dragon fights (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.!) There’s never a dull moment with the party banter, I will say that much.
Three advisors are also available throughout the game to guide your decisions in the inquisition and carry out special side missions at the “War Table”, such as gathering materials or attending diplomatic negotiations among other things. A former Templar commander (Cullen) takes charge of your forces and uses a direct approach to these War Table missions. Your spymaster (Leliana) can send out agents or assassins to do your dirty work, and your diplomat (Josephine) is well-connected with ambassadors and nobles to aid you. The war table missions can have an effect on the end result of your world state, and each advisor has significant personal development and related quests, just like companions.
Since this is a Bioware game, we obviously have to talk about character romance. Firstly, Bioware has definitely changed the overall tone of the romance and sex scenes. Gone are the days of dreadfully cheesy music and even worse clichéd soft core porn in the game (Origins is the worst offender I can think of here.) Bioware really stepped it up and made the romances tasteful and appropriate (except Iron Bull’s. Cough.) There are also a total of eight romanceable characters, diverse in race, sexual preference, and gender, so there’s bound to be at least one option that appeals to everyone. I think. After perusing some Dragon Age Forums, it seems that the Cullen and Solas romances are very popular with girls (for entirely different reasons, I may add), and Josephine and Cassandra are the most popular with guys. Dorian, I’m told, has a very touching romance that is only available to male Inquisitors and Iron Bull’s romance scene (for male or female inquisitors) is the funniest and is worth looking up on YouTube if you don’t choose it in-game.
Fun and engaging gameplay, thrilling story, satisfying companion relationships and romances, entertaining dialogue and very detailed lore are all wins. Combat is very good, graphics are pretty solid, load times are manageable, character customization is satisfactory, replay value is good. Bugs: there are…some. Many, even. QA was probably rushed on this game. They are being addressed, and thankfully I haven’t had anything that I couldn’t work around. Inability to run/sprint seems to annoy people greatly (just ride your horse, people!), junk items lacking flavor text are annoying and worthless, importing save games via Dragon Age Keep is confusing, Dragon Age server issues cause long startup times, and inability to access the War Room from anywhere outside your main base is frustrating.
I do not give out such high scores or high praise often for games, but this one is worth it.