It all starts, like most good stories do, with chaos. The Chantry, Templars and the Seekers are baying for your blood. The Breach looms in the sky above you; a yawning rift into the Fade. Demons are spilling into the world, threatening to overtake Thedas. The maw of the Breach is widening, and it is killing you, thanks to an inexplicable link – a mark on your hand.
Welcome back to the grim fantasy world of Dragon Age. This is not a land for the faint of heart. Blights threaten to destroy everything, hordes of ravenous undead and demons following the goals of Archdemons, corrupted fallen Old Gods which rise up to claim the world as their own. The last Blight, the fifth such recorded, was recent enough that the horrors it wrought on the land are still fresh scars. Now this new horror, the Breach in the sky itself, has people fearing that the end of the world has come, something made worse by the vacuum of leadership and power in two of the pillars of Thedas’ structure. But all is not lost, because the mark that is killing you might be the answer to closing the Breach too.
Open up for adventure…
The explorable area of Dragon Age: Inquisition is massive. A dozen regions can be opened up for roaming around, full of quests, collectibles and resources for you and your war efforts. Every camp you set up, every hapless bumpkin you help will add ‘power’ to your garrison’s resource pool. This power is used to send scouting parties to unlock new areas, or to muster forces to further the story. Along with power you will amass influence, which allows you to purchase favours that directly benefit you and your companions. From carrying more healing potions to being notified of which shops are having sales, the perks you choose with influence can help you to stopper your weaknesses, or bolster the advantages of your play-style.
How large are these regions? While the size does vary somewhat, here is an example. If you remember Redcliffe, an area of interest in previous games: a village that thrives thanks to a river route and a windmill that supplies the surrounding area with grain. That village is one location of 20 in the region of the Hinterlands. Think big. The world is big enough that it can be daunting at times, as you attempt to tame and complete one region before moving onto another. The level design is a wee bit smarter than that though, with several locations designed to only be accessible (through physical barriers or monsters several levels above you) later in the game, meaning players must learn to control their inner OCD desires and sometimes rather explore new regions, or push the main story forward. Thankfully the quest tracker does a good job of splitting things by region (or if your completionist urges kick in, sort regions by collectible type) so that you can find what you are still missing when you return after a long stint of questing elsewhere. The regions are varied and beautiful. From the granite columns on the shore of the aptly named Storm Coast, to the desolate open dunes of the Western Approach, where many ruins and monsters lurk in the shadows, there is a lot to explore and the land is structured in such a way that you want to explore. Cliffs and mountains are common here, and finding a way to traverse the landscape is part of the pleasure, as for the most part, you cannot just point your character towards your next objective and run forward. Narrow, steep mountain trails and tiny trade caravan roads are your only help in finding your way out of a ravine, and road signs become important as you attempt to read the land and find your way. Failure to do so might have you running into a dragon’s nest instead of the next village, so be warned.
…And prepare to read!
That is not a typo. Dragon Age: Inquisition provides a lot of information, from hints about new quests in the region, to excerpts from religious texts, diaries, research notes, the history of architecture and old Avaar songs, the depth and quality of these collected writings is staggering. While it is possible to play the game without reading all these texts, skipping those pesky word things to the action and the talking bits, you are doing yourself, and the game a disservice.
Tactical combat, if you wish it
If you want more control of your team, without constantly switching between which character you control, you can go into tactical mode. This pauses the action and gives you an aerial view, which contains useful information like monster health, statuses and immunities. Once you give your team instructions, you can advance time, making sure those critical opponents are dealt with or combos get executed without AI interference. It is a great way to control the action, but there was only one encounter where tactical control of the battlefield was necessary to survive, though it might be possible that I over-levelled slightly after battling with a particularly annoying demon. As a result, I ended up using it more to survey the area and get a good look at the monstrous foes I was about to slay.
More than one battlefield
Prepare to wade through the political mire of Orlais, where excess and golden staircases lead to gilded tongues hiding behind masks, barbs and the Grand Game: the politicking, intrigue and favour-bartering that is their national pastime. This is one of many battlefields you will have to learn to manoeuvre if you want to survive these trying times. It is these missions which take place outside of the realm of open-world locations, where monsters and resources don’t respawn and there is only a single path forward that the story, and level design, shines. Whether prancing around at court in Orlais, or storming an enemy fortress, the sequences are tight and rush you along to pivotal choices, choices that might affect hundreds of lives.
When not in the field, you will spend your time in your stronghold, where all manner of merchants, quests and conversations with your various companions can be had. It is your calm in the storm and a chance to catch your breath in a world that seems intent on killing you. Several characters help handle the mundane, daily routines and the specialised spy work and playing games in the diplomatic arena for you, so that you can focus on the bigger picture. Your war table allows you to see requests for help, or missions that your companions and allies are interested in. In most cases you can choose to deal with the matter through favours and connections, military force or your spy network. These actions take real time to complete, meaning your forces will want to report back while you are in the field, or after you say goodnight and log back in to play a bit before work (this will happen). You might even have some time to play some cards or court one of your many companions.
Then, it must be said
So far this has been a glowing review, hinting on the depth, the size, the beauty and several other thoughts that come to mind when thinking of this game. But during your long journey, through Thedas, you will come to notice a fair number of failings. The framerate is, at times, appalling in how choppy the on-screen action becomes, marring otherwise impressive sequences in the game. Main quest dialogue trees break, at some points requiring a hard reset or skipping several lines of conversation during those critical moments where every word could shape or sway your imminent decisions. At least one of the romances, always a high (if sometimes controversial) point of Bioware titles, is broken. The character animations broke on my screen, and what should have been a tender, sweet moment between my character and a companion became an epileptic fit, which left the companion talking to me with a clearly broken neck.
This plus the game actually crashing on you (highly annoying) or refusing to let you take control of another party member until reloading or travelling to another region (mildly annoying) and having sound lag a few seconds behind what is happening on-screen (pretty annoying) all start to weigh down on the game. Compounded to this is a rather underwhelming ending, after several sweeping story missions which leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. Perhaps there are multiple endings and I got the short end of the stick, but I doubt it. It seems, yet again, that Bioware are much more interested in the journey than the destination and taking 54 hours to complete a game (with many, many collectibles and side quests left to do), it makes sense that so much effort has been put into the journey. Because it is those moments in the wilds, with your companions at your back, that you will remember fondly.