Dragon Age: Inquisition has some utterly amazing moments, but they’re padded out by a fair amount of ho-hum filler.
In the wake of the disastrously incoherent, repetitive, and nearly-linear Dragon Age II, BioWare has thrown around a lot of claims for Dragon Age: Inquisition. Chief amongst them is that the RPG landscape changed in the wake of Skyrim—I mean, Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s executive producer literally made that claim.
Skyrim, with its open-ended freedom and massive world. Skyrim, with its emphasis on exploration. Skyrim, with its faceless blank slate of a character. Skyrim, with its lackluster combat and underwhelming main story. Skyrim, with its repetitive dungeon-looting, and yet still scratching some primeval itch to cross items off a heroic to-do list.
Congratulations, Inquisition—you took a lot of what Skyrim had to offer. But how does that mesh with what BioWare traditionally has made, a.k.a. story-heavy, semi-linear games? Well, it depends on your outlook.
First off, and I think this is important to say, Inquisition doesn’t repeat the worst of Dragon Age II‘s sins. Where Dragon Age II was set primarily in a single city, Inquisition is pretty damn massive.
In fact, there are now (oddly) zero cities for you to explore. You’ll unlock an achievement at one point for gaining access to the city of Val Royeaux. This “massive” city is actually smaller than any of the wilderness maps in the game, consisting primarily of a central square and a handful of merchants. You will basically never go there. The closest thing to a city is your own town, Haven (and later, Skyhold) where you’ll find all your companions, plus a handful of merchants and tertiary characters.
The focus is on exploration, and there are around a dozen sizable environments for you to traipse around, from wind-whipped deserts to lush forests to tundra. These are discrete environments, though—it’s not Skyrim‘s single massive map.
My main issue is that there’s not much to do. And that actually is a lie, because there’s plenty to do. I’m never going to 100% this game, but BioWare’s claim of “150 hours of content” seems reasonable. The crux of the issue is how much of said content you’ll want to do.
Inquisition ‘s wilderness is like an endless series of Skyrim‘s procedurally generated quests. “Collect these seven letters from dead soldiers, collect these ten supply caches, collect these four signs that a dragon has been around, collect these six herbs, collect these twelve rocks, collect this key, collect these landmarks.”
Even when it’s not put into “collect” terms, it still amounts to the same thing. For instance, part of the story involves you closing “Fade Rifts,” and there’s an achievement that happily congratulates you for closing 75 of them. It’s the same battle every time—walk up, fight five or six demons, wait for the second round to start, defeat five or six more demons, seal the rift. Seventy-five times.
The game even makes snarky jokes about it. At one point my main character said, “Who even keeps a journal these days?” Another character, Iron Bull, later commented that “This door sure needs a lot of keys.” Lampshading what are essentially stupid fetch quests doesn’t make them any less fetch quest-y though. Instead, it’s aggravating that the designers realized how utterly stupid these quests are and still left them in. You end up with dozens of quests eventually, but no real draw to do any of them.
And the greatest sin is that these quests don’t add anything to BioWare’s biggest strength, the story. The main storyline in Inquisition isn’t going to redefine the entire notion of game storytelling as we know it—you awake with amnesia, and quickly find out you have to save the world—but it’s damn good. Much of that is owed to the unique set-pieces employed, including a lengthy level at a masquerade ball that totally changes the pace and is absolutely my favorite section of the entire game.
Characters and dialogue are similarly excellent, though BioWare does them a bit of a disservice by making your main keep so large that it’s tedious to walk around and find them all to see if they have a new conversation for you. As a result it’s easy to convince yourself “I don’t need to check on Cole,” just because you don’t want to waste two minutes walking upstairs to where he’s been tucked away.
But the main story is padded, and padded hard. There are only five or six story beats in the entire game, and each of these main beats is padded by five or six hours of garbage collection on either side. As gamers, we always joke about “This game is slow at first, but it really gets going five hours in,” as if it should be perfectly acceptable to waste five hours of your life to get to “the good part.”
I clocked it: The first time I really felt “into” Inquisition, I was a dozen hours in. That’s utterly insane. You could do it faster, I’m sure, but I tried to play the game the way BioWare clearly intended—exploring the nooks in various environments, chatting with my companions, and generally absorbing each location as I came to it. There’s a lot of filler.
Filler is par for the course for RPGs. Skyrim is guilty of it, The Witcher is guilty of it. In the past, however, I felt like BioWare tried to keep the amount of filler down. You were given enough side quests to make each location feel lively, but most of your time was spent on the main story.
Inquisition is the opposite. The ratio of engaging story content to useless fetch quests is not very favorable here, and the worst part is it screws up the pacing of the main story as a result. There’s nothing like hearing that it’s “urgent” you save the Empress of Orlais or she might die immediately, only to be told to come back in six hours when you’ve gathered enough “Power” (a meta-currency) to actually attend her masquerade ball.
Pop! Goes the Texture
I’d also like to take a moment to discuss Inquisition as a PC game.
First off, BioWare deserves some commendation for sticking the tactical combat view back in; as in the original Dragon Age: Origins, you can play Inquisition‘s combat sections from an overhead, active-pause mode. On normal difficulty it’s entirely unnecessary, but you could do it.
Combat is fairly rote. To attack you literally just hold down a button and start swinging away, occasionally triggering one of your special abilities. It feels a bit awkward on mouse and keyboard, but it’s not unplayable. Plugging in a controller and playing with the triggers and analogue sticks definitely seems like the preferred control scheme, though.
At first I also thought the menus were designed with controllers in mind, as they seemed pretty awkward/unresponsive for mouse and keyboard. Plugging in a controller completely changes the menus, though—meaning it’s literally just poor menu design for the PC.
And then there are the even weirder bits. Changing any graphics options requires the entire game to be restarted, and switching between mouse/keyboard and gamepad necessitates exiting to the main menu. Why?
This wouldn’t be too egregious except that Inquisition‘s load times are massive. Even simple cutscenes required a few seconds of black, and loading into a new area meant it was time to pull out my phone. Once you’re in an area everything seems fine, though there’s a bit of distracting texture and object pop-in, but those initial loads are mammoth.
I also hit some bugs. If ever somebody complains again about how many bugs are in Bethesda games, point them at Inquisition, which proves the problem isn’t with Bethesda but with the entire genre of massive open-world RPGs. My favorite bug saw me flying two dozen feet into the air for no discernible reason. My least favorite bug was when the game crashed to desktop four times during the course of my playthrough.
On the plus side, Inquisition is well-optimized. By dropping a few settings I was able to run it on my laptop (a mid-tier Origin gaming machine) with few problems, although the frame rate took an occasional dive.
This is where tacking a score on a game feels awkward. On my ultra-scientific Dragon Age: Origins to Dragon Age II scale, Inquisition definitely leans towards the former, and I’m constantly impressed by the extent of the world-building and lore-crafting BioWare has done for this universe. If you played through the core story and only dabbled in the side content, this is a perfectly decent story. It ends a bit abruptly, and it’d still feel a bit padded out of necessity (you’ll have to grind a bit to get to the recommended level for each piece of content), but Inquisition‘s main through-line is strong.
Most of the non-core quests are a slog, though, and if Inquisition does anything it proves how hard it is to encapsulate what makes Skyrim a great game. At best, Inquisition feels like your standard BioWare game mixed with a pale shadow of Elder Scrolls.
That’s still not a bad pedigree, and the game is definitely deserving of any accolades it receives. Despite this largely negative-sounding review, I largely enjoyed my time with Inquisition. As I said, the main story is worth playing through and (since I’ve neglected to say it until now) the voice-acting here is fantastic.
But Skyrim this is not. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that pursuing an open-world detracts from BioWare’s strengths—namely, the story. That doesn’t make it a bad game, but I wonder how much better Inquisition could’ve been if it’d stuck to what BioWare does best instead of chasing something it’s not.
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