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Dragon Age: Inquisition (Review)

With a deep narrative and engrossing conversations, "Dragon Age: Inquisition" is an unashamedly intelligent game

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It seems an almost foolish task to try and quantify a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition into a few thousand words. After all, this is a game I spent dozens of hours with, one where, long after I’d have exhausted many other games’ content (around the 40-hour mark) I was still running around collecting new quests and seeing new sights with half of the main campaign left to complete. To call it a vast experience is akin to calling the Grand Canyon deep. It’s a sprawling, dense, complex, eloquent and unashamedly intelligent game that sucks you in and can easily maintain a vice-like grip on your senses until well into 100-plus hours of gameplay.

The willingness with which I fell for Inquisition is all the more remarkable given — and this is a shameful admission — I neglected to play either of its predecessors. In a generation of gaming filled with incredible titles to play, Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II were always on my “must play” list, and sadly have yet to leave it. As such, I stumbled blind into a world already crammed full of lore, rich with experiences of the previous two titles and featuring numerous references and callbacks that simply flew over my head. Did it detract from my time with the game? Not one bit. Sure, there were moments I wish I knew a little more about some of the numerous factions and races within the game, or had participated in events alluded to in conversation, but if you’re new to the franchise, there’s still more than enough here to get you up to speed — even if you’ll occasionally wish you had a tourist guide as you navigate the continent of Thedas.

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Inquisition’s story opens with a massive explosion. Literally, the start menu shows rows of templars and mages walking towards a distant Chantry (the game’s religious organization) building. Start the game, and that building violently explodes. Before it became dust, it was hosting a peace conference between the mages and the templars, and in its wake, it ripped open the Breach — a giant hole in the sky — and created a series of smaller rifts throughout Thedas, through which various types of demons are now pouring into the realm of the living. The player takes control of the only person to survive the Chantry explosion, who emerges from one of the rifts with a mark on their hand that can open or control the portals.

Admittedly, out of context, everything above is just nonsense words, and I did wonder if I was seeing the events of the end of the second game as nothing was explained to me in the game’s first hour or so — but, of course, even my confusion transpires to be part of the my character’s story arc. And he really was my character. Players are granted an incredible amount of customization with how they play through Inquisition. There’s the binary choice of being male or female, but there’s also four races to choose between: human, elf, dwarf, or the giant, horned Qunari. After this, skin tone, facial structure, hair style and color and much more variables can be customized to your liking. Then, it’s time to select a class, with the RPG stalwarts of mage, rogue or warrior. My character? A male, human mage — who was almost distractingly handsome with his bronzed skin, styled hair and permanent stubble. Cutscenes, of which there are many, were a constant delight.

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From here, you’re tossed into the turmoil of Thedas, which is split between the poorer, more rural Ferelden, and the grand, opulent Orlais. During the story’s opening scenes, the player is tasked with closing one of the major rifts, and in doing so is introduced to several of the game’s key characters, as well as its deep, engrossing combat system. Indeed, combat here is a mixture of systems from the first two games, with the overhead tactical view returning from Origins. Inquisition works on a party system, with up to four characters in each party. It’s fully customizable, with the player able to select any variation — should you desire to have mostly warriors or mostly mages, that’s perfectly acceptable — but I stuck to a standard theme of two mages (including myself), one rogue and a warrior for most of my time with the game. Tactical view allows each battle with an enemy to be controlled, directing party members to flank or defend or attack in specific ways. It’s deep and engrossing, but also not necessary if you’d rather get stuck in yourself. Choose to play normally, and you can switch between all four members of your party at whim. Each has up to 8 special abilities which can be activated during battle, in addition to their normal attacks. As a mage, my staff granted long-range magic attacks, while I could bring down lightning storms, burn enemies in rings of fire, protect my party members with barriers against attacks, freeze enemies in place or even summon a rift of my own to leech the life from them during battles. It’s a varied, deep system of combat, and even on the game’s easiest difficulty you’ll need to keep your wits — as well as a supply of healing potions — about you, as enemies can be punishing, particularly at higher levels.

When not battling against hordes of demons, Red Templars,  Grey Wardens, dragons, wolves, the undead, or any other number of foes, you’ll spend a lot of time in Inquisition exploring its big, beautiful world. It plays like a mix of Skyrim and Fable. You can’t freely walk from one end of its world to another. Instead, each area is a self-contained section of the game, with travel handled via your map, but once in a region, you’ll find a vast playground waiting to be explored. Ranging from snow-capped peaks to arid deserts to marshy bogs and rolling fields, as well as the slightly dilapidated towns of Ferelden and the grand, ornate cities of Orlais, it’s a gorgeously detailed world. It’s boosted by an impressive graphics engine, which renders textures, lighting and particle effects with wondrous detail, from snow deforming underfoot to raindrops trickling down your character’s armor. Sound, too, is stunningly layered, from the cacophony of noises in cities as the residents go about their business to the crashes and yells in the throes of combat.

You’ll also never want for content as you explore Thedas, as seemingly around every corner there’s a quest to be embarked upon, a cave to be explored, or an item of treasure to be found. It can be overwhelming, but it’s also a fantastic diversion from the main game. Countless times I’d enter an area to continue the game’s main story, only to realize it was two hours later and I’d spent my time finding a lost farmer’s animal, clearing a fortress of bandits, recovering a lost family heirloom, closing rifts, hunting down bandits or helping a man deliver flowers to his wife’s grave. There’s an incredible variety of missions and quests, and though many are “Talk to someone, head somewhere, kill people or collect something and return to the original person,” they never become tiresome.

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Of course, this is all without even getting into what was, at least to me, the grandest part of Inquisition’s vision: its conversation system. Like an amalgamation of Skyrim and Mass Effect, it’s a refined dialogue structure that offers multiple possibilities on every interaction with another character. Players can be polite, or combative, or sarcastic. They can be emotional, or inquisitive, or apathetic. There’s the option to ask questions, to explore ideas, there are special responses such as historical knowledge or political bargaining, or class-specific options such as mage-related conversation items. Talking to other people is a core part of the overall experience, and I’ve spent countless hours speaking to every last person I could find to learn something more or gain something new from my time with the game.

Indeed, it’s your party members who you’ll enjoy talking with the most. As a backdrop to your time in Thedas, the main story will see the player rise to be leader of the Inquisition, an organisation tasked with investigating what has caused the rifts to open across the continent. Here, you’ll amass your own team of advisors and friends, consisting of the core group of Josephine, your political ambassador, Cullen, your military advisor, and Leliana, your spymaster. With these three, you’ll plot the moves of the Inquisition, which takes place in the War Room complete with overview of a map of Thedas. Here, you can send out scouting parties, armies or diplomatic missions to do a variety of background tasks, such as finding ore deposits, helping nobles deal with uprisings or dealing with threats to the Inquisition or its allies — they’re timed tasks, and complete without your intervention, and many are necessary to progressing in certain missions. Outside of this, you’ll have your party members, the people you can bring with you on your quests. It’s possible to recruit people as you play, bringing in a wider variety of people to help you deal with whatever mission you’re facing. My preferred party was Varric, a novelist and Rogue dwarf, Iron Bull, leader of a mercenary group and one of the towering, imposing Qunari, and Dorian, a Tevinter mage. Oh, and he’s also my boyfriend.

Yes, Inquisition has full romance options, and true to their creed of not giving a shit about a person’s sexuality because this is 2014 and that’s a ridiculous thing to care about, developer BioWare has given options for heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality when romancing other people. Indeed, Dorian is a first for the series as he can only be romanced if the player is a male character. Try as a female and you’ll be rebuffed. Sure, it seems slightly asinine to care about a fictional romance in a game, but I still got a little giddy as I moved through the machinations of our relationship, from initial flirting to the first kiss to a (sadly, fade-to-black) sex scene and then the establishment of a full relationship. It’s another layer to Inquisition, something that further personalises the game to my experience, and it’s a fantastic nod to equality in the process. Oh, and if that’s not enough, Krem, Iron Bull’s second-in-command, is transgender — something you’ll only learn if you spend enough time talking to him and Iron Bull, and which is raised organically in conversation. It’s a fantastic, surprising discovery.

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Really, I can’t commend Inquisition’s conversation and characterization enough, from snippets of dialogue between party members to full conversations on the state of affairs back at the Inquisition’s base. The main story itself somewhat pales in comparison to what you’ll be seeing and discussing elsewhere. The player is tasked with bringing down Corypheus, an ancient mage who plans to use the rifts to ascend to godhood. You’ll battle him, and his various minions and puppets, throughout the campaign, but it’s far from the most engrossing of stories. It provides an excellent backdrop to the rest of the game and its many missions and quests, but you won’t stay in Thedas just for the main story alone. That’s not to say, though, that it doesn’t offer its fair share of incredible moments. Indeed, one standout mission in particular combines all of Inquisition’s strengths into one sumptuous whole. After a brief bit of time travel in an earlier event, you’ll learn that Corypheus plans to kill Empress Celene, who presides over Orlais. Celene is embroiled in a civil war with her cousin, Gaspard, who wants to claim her throne. On top of this, Corypheus plans to assassinate Celene and use the turmoil that will cause to further his gains. Enter the Inquisition, who must attend a royal ball at the Empress’ palace and devise who will assassinate her, as well as decide which side in the Celene/Gaspard war the Inquisition will support. It balances everything, from the game’s deep, unashamed politicking, as you converse with nobles and try to curry favor with councilmembers before you address the court, to eavesdropping on conversations to learn secrets which can be used against those who’d stand against you. On top of this, you’ll be attempting to remain neutral and impassive, so as to give as little information away to those you’ll talk to — everyone is a potential enemy here. Furthermore, you’ll be sneaking away from the party to look for clues as to who is plotting against Celene, you’ll become embroiled in battles in the palace’s servants quarters, and you’ll even encounter a rift in the garden. The shift between exploration, conversation and intense, close-quarters combat makes it a memorable, exhilarating mission. It’s rewarding on every level, including an intellectual one rarely seen in such games as you try to master the wheelings and dealings of this political and noble elite.

There’s even more content on top of this, from the game’s crafting system for armor and weapons, to researching better potions and magical grenades, to levelling up your character and their special abilities, to the horse you unlock to make traversing terrain even faster. There’s even a full multiplayer mode, separate from the main game, giving you another character to level up as you battle through increasingly difficult dungeons with up to three friends. It’s an exhausting amount of content, and indeed, it can be easy to become overwhelmed when you see every quest and side mission that awaits you. Furthermore, there are the somewhat expected bugs we see in many open world games. Sound will occasionally drop out when you enter areas or leave dialogue, characters will fall through objects or jump around in cutscenes, lighting will bug out and flash as it tries to figure out where shadows should be, and the framerate can take a hit during heavy battle scenes if there is a lot going on at once.

None of those problems, however, detracted from my time with Dragon Age: Inquisition. At its core, it’s a deep, engrossing RPG with a sprawling narrative and a dense rich world. Layered on top is a fantastic conversation system that dares you to not care about the people you’ll interact with and the decisions you’ll make. When that’s all mixed with an almost ridiculous amount of things to see and do, it represents one of the greatest value propositions in gaming.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

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