Dragon Age: Inquisition – The Final Review

If the new Dragon Age were an Elder Scrolls game, I’d crown it the best Elder Scrolls ever.  Alas, this one feels more like Dragon Age Lite than Skyrim Plus to me.  And while I finished it this weekend after sinking 75+ hours into the game, I feel vaguely sick, as though I’d binge-eaten Pringles potato chips for two weeks’ running: not high cuisine, but a greasy fast-food experience that was satisfying but somehow never filling.

The reason why is that past Dragon Ages were all about the story.  The first Dragon Age was so amazingly rooted in character that it gave us six – six! – different opening sequences to get through, depending if you were a Dalish Elf or a Dwarf Noble or a Magi.  There was an elaborate story that really rooted us into the events of the day.

And story is, for me, the most critical element of every game.  Because every videogame is fundamentally, depressingly, repetitive.  If I play Borderlands or Halo, I will be shooting infinite men in the face.  If I play a Mario game, I will jumping on infinite Koopas in the face.  If I play Skyrim or Dragon Age, I will be fireballing infinite men in the face.  Videogames are an endless grind of doing the same task over and over again.

I had a friend, once, who told me that he couldn’t get into Arkham Asylum because of “All the cut-scenes.”  He wanted to focus on the mechanics of the game, which is why Halo was so perfect for him: there was just enough story to justify him moving to a new map where he could shoot aliens in the face with increasing precision.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But for me, story provides the reason for the repetition.  Yes, I’m going to fireball twenty thousand Darkspawn to the face over the course of this game.  I am going to run across the map and fetch a foozle five hundred times.  But why?  I am an actor.  I need motivation.  If I know that I am fireballing this hundred Darkspawn to save the village of Trenzlor, then for me, I’ll do it – not because I like endlessly mashing the X button, but because I want to be the hero of goddamned Trenzlor.  The more you can make me worry about the safety of Trenzlor, the more you give me a reward that feels like saving Trenzlor had an effect upon the game-world I live in, the more I will feel rewarded.

The previous two Dragon Ages had repetition, but they also had a story intertwined heavily with their quests.  And when I finally collected the ten nug statues, I was frequently given more story – a sense that I’d helped push this Dwarf into a different career, the idea that the Grey Wardens now thought better of me, more conversational dialogues and cut-scenes.  There was a reward system that was heavily intertwined with narrative.

Whereas this new Dragon Age, well… it has some of that.  But the balance has shifted away from story rewards and towards game rewards.  This is why a lot of essays have accused Dragon Age of having a filler problem – now I’d say about 65% of the quests have zero story reward at all.

Like the Rifts, one of the main story processes.  There are about 125 Rifts you’re expected to close, and every damn one is the same: fight a wave of monsters that comes through the Rift, fight a second wave of monsters that comes through the Rift, close the Rift.  In return for this, you gain +1 Power.  “Power” is supposedly a measure of how potent your kingdom is – kind of a story thing, right? – but there’s no story reward aside from unlocking new missions.  Nobody ever says, “Wow, thanks for saving me from all these Rifts!”  Nothing ever happens to advance the plot: you can literally close all 125 rifts and still be in Act One of the game.  The rifts never mutate in response to anything you do.

It feels really static.

And add that to the fact that you can have a story-based quest and then forget entirely what you were supposed to be doing because you got lost on the fucking terrible map, thus stripping away the story reward to leave you with a bare-bones “find the yellow dot” experience, and you wind up with a tale that feels very thin.  Even some of the “ally” quests are reduced to foozle-finders – oh, Dorian!  I’m supposed to win your love by killing these three groups of Venatori mages!  And my reward for that is… +1 approval for each group killed.  No new intimacy, no new cut-scenes, just +1 approval.

Dullness ensues.

Maybe if the central tale was as rich as Dragon Age Origins or Dragon Age 2, both of which had super-strong narratives, this could be balanced out.  But the central narrative is weirdly unbalanced.  Inquisition actually starts out with a tabula rasa character – you have no idea who your dude is beyond a paragraph of boilerplate text – and then you’re given no opportunity to make meaningful choices until ten hours in.  So you’re following a guy around who literally has no personality beyond what you choose from the Noble/Snarky/Greedy conversational wheel.  (Trusting DA, I thought this purposeful emptiness was leading up to a Big Spoiler that would show me that my dude was Not What He Thought He Was, but – mild spoiler – no, it’s just narrative laziness.)  So I didn’t care about my guy until the end of the first Act, and thanks to wandering around endlessly in the Hinterlands, that was 20 hours in.

…but while the first act is one of the best Dragon Age moments ever, with you facing down the Big Bad in a truly cinematic spectacle, the story dribbles to a close.  Events are poorly explained.  Promises are not kept.  There is much talk of the Big Bad’s plans, which sound really magnificent, but he never gets close to doing that – and more importantly, after much blathering on about the nature of the Gods, you don’t get close to seeing any of the questions he raised answered.  (First rule of writing: if you tell someone about a place extensively, the reader kind of expects to go there at some point.)  The biggest and most interesting choice that gets made in the game has much more of an effect upon [CHARACTER REDACTED], who was my favorite character in a past game, than it does upon you – which just serves to make you wonder who the hero of this game actually was.

(Though I loved the post-credits ending.  I did.  And I loved seeing what happened with [CHARACTER REDACTED], who I hope is the hero of the next Dragon Age.  I just wanted more answers.)

Don’t get me wrong; what they do, they do magnificently. I loved my romance quest so hard.  And some of the others are great – in particular, the way they handle BDSM dynamics with Iron Bull’s romance is nuanced and expressive.  Varric’s characterization is brilliant.  The politics at Orlais were wonderful.  What Bioware gets right, they get right better than anyone.  But that rightness is like having the occasional act of Shakespeare buried in a massive tome of 50-Shades-of-Grey-fanfic – for every great moment I treasured, there were five fetchquests that I just killed time doing.

Which leads us to the weirdest action of Dragon Age: the War Council.  Which I have such mixed feelings about.

At first, I thought the War Council was just an absolute waste of time.  You have three agents, who you can assign to various tasks, which are completed by… waiting.  If you hang around and do nothing for a small War Council quest of 12 minutes, the quest will complete and you’ll get a small reward.  Or you can assign your agent to a big quest that takes five hours and get a big reward!

I thought “Christ, they’re just acknowledging that this game is to kill time.”

But as the game went on, I started to feel rewarded.  I was going to spend four hours in the Exalted Plains anyway!  It was nice to come home to something after grinding!  It felt less like busywork and more like another layer of gratification, so I began to warm to it.

Then the weird thing happened.  I was romancing [CHARACTER], and our story had progressed far enough that more options were appearing.  And a new quest quietly appeared on the War Council: Get her family crest.

And I realized that I had people working for me now.  The War Council wasn’t killing time; it was a way of setting the priorities of my new organization, which was pretty damn sweet.  And so I could use it to do all sorts of favors for people I liked, having my assistants work on their needs, and that felt like a strange empowerment.  As the all-powerful Inquisitor I was, strangely, lacking the power to call people in to talk to me – no, I had to spend five minutes manually running out to the edge of the damn parapets every time I wanted to talk to Cullen – but I could have my agents out doing my bidding while I was slaughtering Templars.  So good!  And I felt like it was a very potent tool that I wanted more of.

But then I had one story-based mission where I was investigating the weakness in a Big Bad’s armor.  And I had to use the War Council to ferret that out.  Except I’d assigned all my agents to super-long quests for max rewards, so I had no free agents.  So I had to do meaningless filler quests for two hours until someone freed up – for no apparent reason, I couldn’t say “Wait, this is more important, come back.”  (Which made even less sense since I could talk to my agents in independent conversations at the castle.)  And then I finally got the agent free, and waited for half an hour – again, doing filler quests, though all I wanted to do was face down that Big Bad – and discovered that I had to do two more War Council missions, waiting around for another hour total before I finally got to unlock the Big Bad’s weakness.

….Which did, I admit, help considerably in that battle.  But I’d gone from “Oh, I’m doing optional quests for my friends, how lovely!” to “Jesus, why do I have to wait another 12 minutes for Cullen to unlock this thing?”  And so, in the end, I was totally weirded on the War Council.  It’s a good idea.  But it’s also a chokepoint.  And that chokepoint got very frustrating at other times.

In the end, I’m harsher on DA than I could be.  It was a good game – not Game of the Year Game, maybe, but good enough.  But Dragon Age comes from a heritage of games that had strong story, which is why we played them, and what we got here was a good story interlaced with a lot of stuff that’s not story at all.  It’s watered down. And putting the Dragon Age name on a game gives us expectations, and what I expect of DA is a narrative that locks me in.

The narrative didn’t.  I gave it until the end.  It had some nice moments.  I’ll always remember you fondly, Act I.  But I did what the game wanted me to and min/maxed with a Knight-Enchanter (thanks, Michael R. Underwood, for clueing me into how massively overpowered that class is), and took down the villain without ever even drinking a potion.  And I got one nice moment of mystery and miracle at the absolute end – which, in the style of this game, nobody ever bothered to ask me how I felt about it.

I like it when they ask. I do.

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