There was a moment in “Dragon Age: Inquisition” where the hours of content in BioWare’s massive new game sneaked up on me. As I approached the top of a cliff and a gorgeous vista a little counter indicated that after two hours of exploring one of the game’s massive areas, I’d discovered just four of it’s 26 different regions.
Behind me a pair of masterfully written companions squabbled over a pivotal moment from an hour prior. Everything clicked into place and the world around me settled down like a grandfather in an easy chair, ready to tell his audience a story of all the little things. In a game that easily tops the 50 hour mark, it’s the small stories that make it special – for better and worse.
“Inquisition” is a triumph of scale from BioWare that would have seemed impossible when the series originally launched in 2009. The days of tight dungeon corridors and combat scenarios is gone, swapped out for staggeringly large sandboxes where the player is just a part instead of the focus. A simple but fun blend of action and strategy combat carries players from point to point well, keeping combat active and players moving across the large areas. There are fewer instances in the game where enemies exist solely to attack and harass players’ inquisitor, and the conflicts in the game feel more genuine as a result. From top to bottom, “Inquisition” is the best realization of Thedas’ scale as a world the series has ever seen.
However, BioWare attempts to use a handful of these new or dramatically altered areas to form a welcoming world for new and old fans, but falls short of creating the sense of cultural and environmental diversity previous games from the developer have achieved, or a genuinely good starting point. They’re gorgeous, big and fun to play in but they lean heavily on fairly obscure points of lore and fall short of providing everything a new game in the series needed. Knowing the significance of a sea of sand at the edge of the Anderfels, for example, is hardly explained and important locations are thrown around during conversations with little in-game context.
The larger story tying everything together suffers similar identity issues. In the simplest terms, “Inquisition” tells a story of Thedas’ humans and the history of the Dalish – the series’ vehemently independent nomadic elves. To say this is an overly reductive explanation is an understatement that speaks to both the game’s inability to completely fill its predecessors’ shoes or avoid overwhelming newcomers.
The story feels small in its breadth, like BioWare told the rest of the richly realized world to pack its bags and take a hike for simplicity’s sake, but still too crammed full of enough references to important information from previous games for new players to be comfortable with the rapid pace at which it moves. A handful of important events from past games are hardly mentioned, and the complexity of Orlais’ political maneuvering, a primary part of a central story mission, is enough to overwhelm series veterans and possibly alienate newcomers.
Those picking up “Inquisition” as a starting point are unlikely to have the knowledge necessary to appreciate how carefully the story threads surrounding a handful of key characters, and the complex history of the Dalish, have been constructed over the last half decade. Meanwhile, the complete absence of meaningful roles for the series’ Dwarven and Qunari races as well as the culturally independent City Elves is likely to leave returning fans scratching their heads.
As with the world, however, none of these issues make the story bad, just not what it could have been. BioWare has set their own bar high in the past, and despite not hitting the mark some people might expect of them “Inquisition” is still good enough. Though too tightly focused, the tale is at least focusing on two of the series’ most interesting elements. The history surrounding the Dalish is home to some of the best lore in the series and the identity crisis of the Chantry, previously little more than a Christian allegory, creates a much needed transformation in a series cornerstone.
From moment to moment “Inquisition” stands toe to toe with anything BioWare, or anyone else in the video game industry, has written. Though their impact is slightly diminished due to unfamiliarity, the entirely new cast of companions are more than strong enough to carry the extra weight. They also fix the issues BioWare has previously had when tracking relationships – there’s no reduction of characters to a number or slowly filling approval bar. It’s impossible to make them all happy in every situation, and when they’re upset you learn about it through speaking to them instead of a menu.
“Inquisition’s” biggest struggles again come back to its size though. Like other large games, it’s filled with bugs ranging from infuriating to distracting and ridiculous. Companions regularly fail to load in the game’s hub areas, making it impossible to talk to them unless the area is reloaded. Sounds regularly disappear or play when they aren’t supposed to, and certain areas experienced significant performance drop off despite my PC exceeding the recommended technical specifications.
Worse than the bugs, however, are all of the animation issues. For a game so dependent on close-ups and cinematic shots, Inquisition’s animation is appallingly bad. It’s understandable to think animations wouldn’t be consistently great in such a large game, but it’s unacceptable when a soldier has a hammer sticking through the back of his hand instead of holding it or the bows of archers clip through their own bodies because of how their arm is animated. Scenes often cut away abruptly, and there are a handful of occasions when animations simply didn’t play for large groups.
More perplexing is how the stiff, impersonal animations of the characters clashes with the outstanding facial animations. Though not as nice as their performance captured counterparts, BioWare has always done an excellent job with facial animations. To pair those subtle movements and detailed faces with dead eyes and marionette like bodies is bewildering. They don’t detract from the story being told, but they are a major distraction. The least BioWare can do is make sure the big scenes in their games look as good as possible, but even those look just as rushed as the rest of the animation.
“Dragon Age: Inquisition” is BioWare’s biggest, but not their best. It’s the start “Dragon Age” as a series should have had, and in a lot of ways it feels like the first game in a new franchise. It’s a good game, more than worth the price of entry, with fun combat and excellent writing that hasn’t quite realized all of it’s potential. There’s more than enough for anyone who decides to pick it up, and a lot of great things to build off of in the future, but it’s unlikely to be everything anyone hoped for.
(STRIKE: Score would be 3 1/2 out of 5 stars if this goes in the paper.)