I don't know why I find myself so incensed by the Dragon Age series, sometimes.
I've never viewed Dragon Age: Origins as if it were perfect; as if it were Bioware's magnum opus, as so many do. I was never a hard-as-balls PC-style fantasy RPG guy at pretty much any time in my life. Yet I find myself personally invested in Dragon Age, and watching as it has evolved since 2009. Is it because Bioware's identity crisis has been so sad to watch? That has to be why. Watching as the spirit and the structure of the series has so radically evolved from where it started years ago is almost the easiest way to see why so many people have fallen off the Bioware bandwagon, particular since the EA acquisition.
I remember Dragon Age: Origins as something flawed, that I loved perhaps more than it deserves in much the same way I feel about the original Mass Effect. There's issues, a section or two of the game that is a horrible slog (The Fade comes to mind) but overall it is a wonderful introduction to a dark fantasy universe, with a great style, mood, and lore that could be built on in a very similar way to the Mass Effect series over time. But then Dragon Age 2. Never have I personally experienced such a steep decline in a video game series after such a promising first entry. Short, sloppy, and copy-pasted, where each side of the conflict is a psychopath, a creator's pet that doesn't get called out like he deserves, and encounter designs far below its predecessor. Dragon Age went from being this hopeful, awesome thing to being a tragic example of how executive meddling and trying to play to a larger audience can completely tank your series in an instant.
Inquisition was meant to be the make-good. The game where, after Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3, Bioware realized it had one last shot to prove to their long-time fans and supporters, as well as the critical establishment, that they could still bring their A-game. That they had style, grace, and gave good face. It being my first meaty new-console experience on the PS4, I had high hopes.
Beautiful zones don't make up for the fact that they're mostly populated by busywork.
The first thing you recognize when you enter the open world is that Dragon Age: Inquisition is gorgeous. Even if nothing more than an a first introduction to a new console, there is worth in Inquisition. Zones, character models, battle effects - from top to bottom Inquisition is one of the better looking games I've seen so far. Who says consoles are shitty? The Emerald Graves in particular is one of the best looking areas I've probably ever seen in a video game period.
All of this wore off within a few hours, though, when I realized how little there was to do of worth in these areas. Most sidequests consist of collecting notes to go read more notes. Reading notes to go kill bandits. Eavesdropping on someone to discover something that's upsetting them so you can go off and be problem-solver-man completely unbeknownst to them ala Mass Effect 3. Fade rifts are an Oblivion-gate level of monotonous, and generally just serve as something that gets in your way. For example, in the Hinterlands, one of the earliest missions in the game is to go talk to a stablemaster so you can procure a supply of horses for the Inquisition. Right by that person's farm is a fade rift surrounded by level 12 monsters that basically make doing a couple of quests in the area almost impossible.
The bland design of the zones continues though. There are very few caves or proper dungeons to be found. Almost no NPCs exist in the world that you can just happen across. There aren't really any dynamic events in the zones to speak of at all, really. Each zone only really has one "major" questline to be done there - mainly serving as your justification for unlocking the area to begin with - but there is so little production value associated with these quests Inquisition does a very poor job selling the events as all that serious. With very few conversations, and 90% of the exposition given in text boxes, it's hard to form much of an attachment to the conflicts. Most of what takes up space on any given map that isn't directly related to the main story are these three things: Closing fade rifts. Collecting shards. Setting up camps. Aside from those, most areas are pretty much empty.
What is especially frustrating about the lack of in-depth things to do in the overworld, however, is the fact that there are so many great ideas for sidequest plots on the War Table back at your base. Between Josephine, Leliana, and Cullen, you can send your operatives off on missions to collect resources, build influence, solve disputes, etc, but this is only presented as a text box and a timer. That's it. Instead of collecting shards in the Hinterlands, why not make "Track down the remaining Seekers" a thing that I actually do myself and have any agency in beyond watching a clock tick down.
Even Operations like "Collect resources in the Hinterlands" would've been more useful as a sidequest you get yourself from, I don't know, the alchemist that has his own building at the Inquisition base? You know, the guy that does basically nothing?
Toward the end of the game, I was doing my best to get as many companion quests as possible because, as you do in a Bioware game, you want to get to know your party members and see their personal stories. Cole asks me to obtain an amulet for him that can protect him from mages that seek to do him harm, and after that short cutscene "Operation: Obtain Amulet For Cole available at the table in the War Room" pops up. I'm fucked, because I have hours (!) left on my advisers being all tied up in various operations already. Because there is no personal agency in these sidequests for your own companions beyond initiating a timer in the War Room, I am left with the decision of continuing on to see the ending segments of the game, go waste my time doing busywork I don't want to do just so I can pass the time, or put the game down. That should never be the case.
I was later informed I can skip through the Operation timers by adjusting the PS4's system clock. Shame I didn't know then.
Okay sure, but what about the story?
The setup for Inquisition is more or less the fallout of the events of Dragon Age 2. The Templars and Mages conflict has escalated to outright war, and to avoid tearing multiple countries apart, the head of the Chantry, Divine Justinia, gathers a huge peace talk conference in the hope of ending the war and restoring order. Then the whole thing gets blown up, various chains of command are thrown into chaos, and there's a huge rift in the sky. You're the only one with the power to close the rifts that have formed, and you're tasked with figuring out who did this and why, with the hopes of restoring peace to Thedas as Divine Justinia had hoped.
As a premise it's fine. Before long, you run into an ancient Tevinter magister named Corypheus, who seeks to physically enter the Fade with the goal of becoming a God to guide the world into a new, orderly future, as he traveled for ages before realizing all of the Gods have seemingly left us behind. He is the reason a massive rift opened in the sky, and why you have the mark on your hand, and needs to eliminate you for getting in the way.
Here's the rub: Corypheus is boring. Your initial confrontation with him during the destruction of Haven is more or less all you'll get from him throughout Inquisition's runtime, and things never really escalate from there. Final Fantasy XIII gives more screentime to its villains than Inquisition. After this point, you actually spend most of the game easily foiling his plans time and time again. Corypheus isn't exactly a particularly threatening or effective villain to pin your game's main story on. There's honestly so little to say about him because the game does almost nothing with him beyond his stated goals from the beginning.
Eventually you uncover that he has discovered the secret for effective immortality, but this reveal doesn't really have much weight to it considering that he's been swiftly defeated at every turn and more or less the entire world is against him.
One of the tragedies of this is that once Corypheus enters the picture, the tension on the Mage vs. Templar story gets completely thrown out. All of the build-up - which was the only true highlight of Dragon Age 2 - is thrown under the bus for yet another generic villain who wants to be God. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not one of those "tropes are bad" people, but Corypheus is never fleshed out, and his plan remains roughly the same regardless of all the times the Inquisition beats him. By the end, Corypheus' arc ends with a whimper. The Templar and Mage conflict had real nuance and tension set up for it over the course of two games, but the book is closed on this pretty early in the game.
Companions remain interesting characters and fun to talk to though, in true Bioware style, even if they suffer more here due to the presentation. Determining your affinity with them is vague (this is the frustrating result of all those people that whined about the affection meter from Origins) and it's difficult to determine when they actually have something worthwhile to say - a problem that Mass Effect 2 solved years ago. When they're finally ready to entrust you with a companion mission, these are usually given in the form of War Room Operations as opposed to something you actively go and do with them, with few exceptions. It's a very detached and impersonal way to approach what is supposed to be the culmination of the trust you have built up with these people after your adventure, and I think it would be difficult to spin this as anything other than an inferior approach than Bioware's previous games.
Have all the edges been rounded off Dragon Age over time?
I noticed something early on during my time with Inquisition: Noticeably less cursing and generally foul language. Then I started thinking "There has been way less blood than I remember. This world is a lot brighter and colorful than I remember Dragon Age being, too. What's up with that?"
It's hard to believe at this point, but back in 2009, Dragon Age: Origins was being advertised with trailers set to Marilyn Manson music and they were playing up how this was going to be a return to dark, dirty fantasy. The crapsack world of Origins largely reflects this, with liberal use of cursing and blood, plain-looking characters who look like they've seen some shit, sprinkled to taste with betrayal. Hostility with your party members was a much bigger deal. Dragon Age at that time was never meant to be pleasant, and definitely not meant to have whimsy.
@oldirtybearon, who I consider a friend of mine on these forums, when we were talking about Inquisition elsewhere, said that he felt like Dragon Age in general has been "Disney-fied." I don't know if I'd go that far with it, but I see why he thinks that. A lot of the shit and mud has been sort of bred out of the series with time. The world is more bright and filled with color, the art-style has undergone a lot of changes since Origins to make everyone look generally prettier, and even though things like "persistent gore" remain an option in the settings, there's not much need for it. Even Morrigan's power-hungry hostility has been tamed to where she's now just kind of a snarky MILF has opposed to being cut-throat. Dragon Age has undergone a serious attitude adjustment since Origins.
These days though, I look back on that Manson trailer, and boy it's fucking cringey. Like, it would make me laugh if a publisher released something like it today beccause it's so over the top and silly sounding - complete with sexy Morrigan to tick all the boxes - that, yes, I see why I wouldn't want to go back. But it is for this reason among others that I can see why a lot of people that probably comprised the core of the Dragon Age fandom in its early days have jumped ship to The Witcher. I'm not entirely unsympathetic. I agree that a lot of the rough edges of this series don't seem to be there anymore, probably out of a desire to chase The Wider Audience, but regardless of the cause it has made the series' personality a bit more generic.
Here's the last thing I'll say about this: Bioware has this thing where they love including some form of social commentary, even if their attempts at this are never, uh, subtle. I liked Dorian just fine in Inquisition, and he was my romantic interest of choice, but Zevran from Origins has always been my favorite character in Dragon Age as a whole because of how matter-of-factly his sexual desires are framed in his introductory conversations:
Zevran: I grew up amongst Antivan whores, men and women both. My introduction to the subject of sex was, shall we say, rather practical.
Clean, easy, adult, all business. When it comes to sex there's no melodrama about his identity. Bioware isn't very good about this most of the time when it comes to the male/male relationships. Kaidan in Mass Effect 3 is the sappiest romance story that young adult literature would say is too cheesy, and the less said about Cortez from the same game, defined almost entirely by weeping over his husband, the better. Dorian runs into this similar issue when you eventually find out his family was literally going to attempt gay conversion therapy via blood magic. It's the sort of thing that elicits "Oh come on, seriously?" In the end Dorian remains a really good character who I hope is in the next game (considering the likelihood of it taking place in Tevinter) but I'd like Bioware to make their gay romances a little less "coming out story."
In the end I genuinely ask: Why do *you* like Dragon Age: Inquisition?
Dragon Age: Inquisition is fine.
In the immediate aftermath of finishing it, I actually thought I was going to say "Yeah, that's a solid 4/5 I guess." After I started thinking about how I would put those thoughts in writing, however, I began to realize that I couldn't possibly justify that. Each time I would tell myself I liked something, a nagging voice in my head would lay out the argument for why it wasn't as good as I thought it was. My boyfriend suggests that makes me too hard on things, and maybe he's right.
Look, Inquisition is technically competent and lovely to look at. The voice acting is some of the best of the series. There is still pleasure in chatting with all your companions, exploring dialogue options, and diving deeper into the Dragon Age universe. This game is at its best when you properly feel like a leader, sitting on your throne judging criminals, solving disputes. Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts - the section wherein you play cloak and dagger at a grand ball in Orlais - is a fantastic segment of this game that I love. I think, in general, the combat of this game isn't as bad as people make it out to be, and let's face it, the combat in Origins wasn't perfect either. Despite the failings of the tactical camera, I began to see what other people see in playing on a higher difficulty. A lot of those fights can be fun, with the right abilities. I think Inquisition is, on the whole, better than Dragon Age 2.
But still, when I think of the main story, I remember a villain that you barely interacted with, and whose agency is utterly undermined by the twist post-credits scene that goes on to render Corypheus as nothing but a pawn on Solas' chessboard. I remember huge open areas filled with sub-MMO-tier side content, most of whom were completely detached from the main narrative. I remember thinking "Man, all of these plots on the War Table that could've been amazing sidequests instead." From any other series, and any other developer, this game might have been a pleasant surprise, but as a flagship game from Bioware, it's fine.
So this is where I ask: Why do a lot of people like this game as much as they do? What am I not seeing? Inquisition won Game of the Year from multiple places, including Polygon, Game Informer (their endorsement includes the line "Everything you do contributes to your progression" like this is a novel concept), and The Game Awards. The PS4 version sits at an 89 on Metacritic. I don't understand. I don't ask this to be snarky, I mean it sincerely, what about the story impressed people? What about the combat impressed people? Was it literally just that it was a chill open-world to run around in that also happened to look really good? Was 2014 that bad, and I've just forgotten? I honestly hope I haven't become this out of touch.
I'm still looking forward to the next Mass Effect. I love that series as a whole too much to let this get me down.
|If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 3 / 5||Total Playtime: 50-ish Hours|