SPOILER WARNING FOR MAIN PLOT AND COMPANION QUESTS
This isn't the Dragon Age I know.
It's so much more. At its highest settings, Dragon Age: Inquisition is scarily good-looking. The world expands...surpasses the scope of what we saw in Origins and 2. Thedas feels alive. While its many regions are self-contained, Bioware delivers on the exploration they promised. The infamous one cave map is a fleeting memory, replaced by the expanded caves of Elven, Dwarven, and even Tevinter influence. Maps are garnished with soft details like cheese wheels and awful beers that forcibly ping your radar... And spiders. Damned spiders. Some players may skip out on the codex entries, but if paying attention (at the very least) to the letters and notes, the world unfolds as this organic atmosphere. The degenerative minds of Red Templars. The agents tracking Pharamond, founder of the cure for Tranquility. Even simple raunchy love notes scattered across. These small, additive details, coupled with the massive and engaging lands, collectively build and flavor the world.
The companions, advisors, and even agents of the Inquisition deliver. The voice actors are well-picked; for the life of me, I cannot think of a single one that underperformed, which I imagine is in good thanks to the writers and voice director Caroline Livingstone. Maker forbid Freddie Prinze Jr ever watches this review, but his take on The Iron Bull, especially in light of his romance, is one of the most entertaining and comforting performances I've seen out of a Bioware game. Let's not forget Jennifer Hale's voiceover of Krem, Cremisius Aclassi, the third Transgender character in all of Dragon Age's narrative. Krem stands strong as a character, as he is not used as a clown to be mocked, or some beacon of hope to be placed on a pedestal. He simply just is, and for a Transgendered person out of Tevinter, a nation that prioritizes perfection and breeding as important as breathing, Krem's story covers well the simplicity and absurdity of the situation that people experience in today's society, without making the character simply a tool for exerting a purpose or stance. The Bull's chargers took lead as the company you want to keep, showcasing an unprecedented mix of compassion, humor, and ferocity in a video game.
The Inquisitor voices definitely take on their own reflections and positively add to the experience. There are some awkward inflections existing in certain lines..."What's going on here?' being the most poignant in my memory. But other than that, Alix Wilton Regan delivers exceptionally with the female Inquisitor on the sarcastic side. Sumalee Montano's voice has a resounding boom when dealing with direct, aggressive choices. Admittedly, I have only experience with the "British" voice for the male Inquisitor, but Harry Hadden-Paton's take I think excels in so many key ways. (Like with Sera and magic)
As far as the Inquisitor's race and background taking a stronger role in dealings with Thedosians, I greatly enjoyed its consistency throughout the tale. Showing up to the Winter Palace as a Dalish mage and being immediately striked 20 points was hilariously challenging, but appropriate. Opposed to the Hero of Ferelden being merely accepted because they were a Grey Warden, as the Inquisitor, building up from such...humble beginnings had enlightening perspectives in both racism and religious ideologies. I feel this is where the game truly shines - the availability of shaping the Inquisitor as your own...in race, conversational tonalities, and character creation. Well, minus the hair. Wish there was more of that.
Moving on, let's chat briefly about the bugs. The most I had were crashing problems, which resolved themselves within a few days post-release. On PC, I never had the painstaking issues that other fans reported: lack of banter firings, audible pops, and so on. For PS4, my only difficulties were controls not working in specific dialogues. As I speak, Bioware has been working tirelessly on pushing new patches - and specifically two hot fixes, in order to counter the bugs. I suppose my experience felt privileged, as I did not experience the bugs reported, and thoroughly enjoyed my whole playthrough from beginning to end with little difficulties.
In regards to PC controls, as a formerly avid MMO player, neither the interface nor the controls gave me discomfort. I am used to the way the controls felt, and after realizing the F key and space bar could be used to interact with the world quickly, (of course I didn't realize these options were available until 50 hours in, stupid me), the game was easy to traverse. Some gripes with the tactical camera lie in its positional resetting upon switching characters, but that specific issue was identified as a bug and is to be fixed in an upcoming patch. I do miss the tactics of Origins, however, allowing visible control over the companions' actions. I hesitated at the beginning, not being able to dictate certain commands to apply in specific situations. But really, the only difficulty I find actually disconcerting lies in the AI, and companions standing in hazards like fire while fighting in huge engagements. Dragon fights, in particular. While I know there are an absurd amount of difficulties in coding AI, and completely sympathize with any developer (not just Bioware) for the bulk of necessary resource allocation, I found Solas standing in fire, basic-attacking with full mana...one too many times.
First Thedas Problems
- No inventory chest. Even after bumping up my inventory twice to 90, I felt that for so much customization pushed in this game, it was greatly restricted by the space limitations. Would be great to have one in the bedroom, to give it more significance than merely romance scenes.
- No respeccing of Inquisition perks is painful, as some perks (Deft Hands, Deft Tools to be specific) lock you out of quests and areas. (For example, Blackwall's fetch quest and the maps that you need to gather are behind a locked door in the Fallow Mire) Would have enjoyed the option to, say, gain Inquisition perks in lieu of improving Advisor operation time, as far as recruiting new agents, but that's just my idea.
- Hair. The selection of hair choices, for both males and females (since they were interchangeable) felt restricted. I don't expect long, flowing locks as clipping would make that surely unnatural, but in the future, I honestly hope there are more braids.
- While it's been said to possibly change post-release, a face code would have saved much anxiety over creating new Inquisitors and sharing old ones.
- The Inquisitor can't interact with their love interest post-ending. This is, like, a total travesty. Like oh my god. Bioware, pls. (/sarcasm)
The Inquisitor's Path
The Inquisitor's path is tightly structured and avoids heavy confusion. I've heard others believe the main quest line is too short, but adding in the amount of time for companion missions and conversations, like Samson's side quest and talking to Hawke or the available Warden Alistair/Stroud/Loghain, I felt the length was appropriate. Even in one of my cheating playthroughs, in other words unlimited gold and crafting materials, the main plot itself still took 35 hours. For each mission, I did not feel strung along to complete an arbitrary list of requisites. Each mission had an honest flow that made the story continuously engaging, and after a time, I realized power allocation was quite simple and even half-assed in some ways. Capture some camps? There's some power. Go about your way. The pacing and environments felt natural. Where, in Dragon Age 2, Hawke was simply reacting to the conflicts and complications of Kirkwall, the Inquisitor is hands on all the way.
My personal favorite is Here Lies the Abyss, the Grey Warden quest where you interacted with Hawke. The decision at the end really compounded my choices made from Origins and 2. It felt like a huge personal investment must be sacrificed, but the ramifications of that decision, from the Wardens and my former companions, really made me panic. How far does this death affect me? My Inquisitor? Can I be selfish and keep Hawke, letting the cycle continue and allowing her love interest and Varric another day, or be the responsible type and allow the Wardens to proceed? Or will whoever I leave actually be dead, as it is only "likely" that my choice will die, and perhaps dying in the Fade physically means completely different than dying while dreaming? At its surface, the choice between Hawke and a Warden felt like a jab at the player's feelings, but the consequences of said choice are so stretched in permutations that it leaves me bewildered. That left me loving this quest so much more.
As far as Inquisition as a whole is concerned, there's a lot of pressure on the player to engage in side quests. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and in their own satisfying ways, the Inner Circle quests actually trump the main quest. With Cullen's, the player researches an alternative way to fight Samson, with the help of Artificer Dagna. If you don't do this quest, then his boss fight is particularly difficult. However, if you choose to do the long string of quests involved with Cullen, you actually get a rune to later rip through Samson's armor...which, by the way, feels extremely rewarding upon completion. A lot of other side quests really shine in their own way, helping you gain power as the Inquisitor and, in some cases, making you feel like you are truly this big part of the shaping of the new world, little piece by piece, just like what the Hero of Ferelden did for helping Dagna. Or Hawke telling Sebastian off at the end, leaving Blondie's mess. And as the Inquisitor, there's a whole lot of mess to clean up.
But I think the one quest I feel so weird about lies in What Pride Had Wrought, which revealed the existence of actual Elves from Ancient times. It's an amazing quest and a huge "YES" for anyone who's played the previous games. Time magic already felt a bit far-fetched in the Mages quest. But finding out a previously believed dead people are still alive, and learning that years of Dalish lore has been blurred and mired across the ages to a different truth, is a huge realization. For...the informed. It's mind-boggling and exciting for the informed Dragon Age fan, but it loses its impact on players who are only learning right then and there "Oh, by the way, there's an Elven Pantheon". Beyond the codex, little has been divulged on the Elven gods in a digestible way. Is the goal to push players to extend their reach to find out what's going on? Or has Bioware thrown the player into the water, hoping they don't drown. Maybe a bit of both.
I think Bioware's challenge as this series goes on from the third installment is keeping all players up-to-date. The game is extremely lore intensive, even suffocating at times. And for those who have been following for quite some time, there are inflections upon the lore everywhere. Most of what is described in the main story that is integral to the narrative derive from the history of Tevinter, the Elven Pantheon, and Elvenhan. Those who have not been following closely enough cannot comprehend, perhaps even fathom the context of what organizations and risks are posed, such as keeping the Chantry or its Circles stabilized. The problem lies in if there's enough lore and context explained within the confines of the main story...and if newer players can at least grasp some context of their actions. It's a healthy problem to have, as nothing's wrong with having an engaging narrative. But while some of it is explained in the codex and the Investigate conversation trees, it seems the player is too forced to branch out of the main quest to become aware.
The Big Bad
If I were to claim my biggest disappointment for Inquisition, it would be summarized with one name: Corypheus. A character that players have seen before in Dragon Age 2's Legacy, where Hawke and company could truly feel the terror of letting this ancient magister go. Matter of fact, Corypheus's fight in Legacy was one of the most fulfilling fights out of Dragon Age 2, DLC and all, rivaling Knight Commander Meredith's multi-phase end battle. Yet, Corypheus's final fight was composed of "Catch Me If You Can", with the player haggardly running point to point, enduring his idle threats and Vint slurs. Even the dragon fight felt mediocre - an alleged Red Lyrium Dragon reduced to a tank-and-spank engagement, opposed to the engaging environments we've fought dragons within the open world.
It's not just the final fight that disappoints, but the progression of Corypheus as an enemy. Everyone dehumanized him into this power-grabbing Darkspawn where, in Legacy, we saw the sliver of humanity that existed in him. While the Darkspawn taint flowed through his veins, he was betrayed by Dumat. He was made Darkspawn. His interests felt so singular that every aspect of Corypheus within the main plot, including his own appearances and dialogue, poised him as this one-dimensional character. Too far apart are examples of his humanity. Cole's scattered thoughts. Words from Corypheus's apprentice hidden away in the Fade. His thoughts at the Shrine of Dumat, which are gated to Inquisitors who sided with the Templars. And even his true name. All of these are so removed. I feel Corypheus's effectiveness as an enemy is lost because he is reduced to being treated as, in Leliana's words, an "Ultimate Evil" - a Darkspawn and an Ancient Magister. But that's the problem - he is not inherently evil. He's human. We've seen it in the past. And there are hints in Inquisition. But none of them are capitalized on in the main plot.
We don't understand Corypheus. We don't understand Ancient Tevinter. He's told us, but has he really shown us? Hell, three games in and we are just barely learning more about modern Tevinter. Other than the superficial desire for the power of a God, we see little motivation or goal beyond that. Restore Ancient Tevinter? What was it in the first place? We don't know. We never truly knew. Corypheus's motivation and the Imperium that he left ages behind is lost to us.
My only grievance beyond Corypheus lies in the incomplete feeling of having only three of your companions with you at the end, opposed to engaging all companions in the final fight a la Origins, 2, Mass Effect 2, or Mass Effect 3's Citadel. While it's a heart-warming scene, having all the companions walk back with the Inquisitor, it left me in an awkward state. While they were all integral to the success of the Inquisition, not all were present for the final showdown that they collectively worked and prepared themselves for...together. It reduced Corypheus's meaning and the gravity of another rip in the sky.
At the end of all things, we saw Corypheus call out to Dumat and the Old Gods to aid him. His desperation means little to new players. His removal from the physical world means little. Corypheus's role was merely a placeholder in the grand scheme. But as his role was so integral to framing the main plot, it felt like a loss.
The Inner Circle
While Corypheus felt like a pawn in the grand scheme, the true heroes of Inquisition drove the story to a satisfying end.
Many fans joke about the "feelsuh", but the stories of the Inquisition's companions and advisors are some of the most diverse and enchanting story lines in Dragon Age yet. If you go so far as to converse with each companion, the motivations and expressions for each bit of pleasure and pain are...fascinating.
I'd be amiss if I didn't mention Dorian Pavus, voiced by Ramon Tikaram and written by David Gaider. Dorian is a show of vulnerability and pride, fronted with wit and sarcasm that really catered to the high expectation for the son of a Tevinter magister. Perfect body, perfect mind, the highest of magical talent... bred for the purity of the Pavus bloodline. But underneath, he's just a clever ass, who becomes defiantly reserved, despite feigning self-reliance. The different inflections and expressions in Dorian's voice alone in the confrontation with his father is intense, striking with twinges of anger and pain. Confessing to the Inquisitor of his homosexuality and his father's use of blood magic to tamper that identity, is more than just a scene in a video game. It's a reflection of what some people face today, and in its moment, that reflection of reality within Dorian's own situation is not just narratively compelling, but sincere.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sera was shockingly a breath of fresh air. Why? Because I hated her. Excuse me - disliked ever so strongly. While I could respect Sera's character as a whole, I find her so overwhelmingly loathsome that I'm appreciative of how she is written.
She acts like a child: a carefree prankster, but willfully ignorant and insensitive. Her condensation for anything academic, or even beyond the boundaries of her own Andrastian beliefs, is so repugnant, so outrageously inflammatory, that I'm glad she's part of the Inquisition. And even more so, the ability to kick her out. But, she stays true to her passions that I can respect the character as a whole. Feeling like I had to lie to her face in order to get her to stay in the Inquisition, or even to just shut her up, made me see how effective of a character she was. While, at first, I actually hated Sera's lack of character progression from start to Inquisition, I realized that my reactions to her made me self-realize as both the Inquisitor and myself, in the way I play and act diplomatic/sarcastic/aggressive, and in how I choose my decisions as a player. And she made me think so in a way more than most characters in the franchise have ever challenged to my Warden or my Hawke...hell, me as a player, to think. So bravo, Sera. Bravo. I love to hate you.
As far as favorite moments, the most personally hard-hitting arc, as I did not expect it from her character, is Morrigan and the Old God Baby, Kieran. Simply put, the way that she earnestly cares for her son, hell...even showing more of her humanity instead of the manipulative coldness and callousness she showed in Origins. Seeing Morrigan develop, challenge Flemeth, and be willing to give up her own freedom, one she fought for so long, for the sake of her son, was one of the most poignant scenes in Dragon Age yet. It was a relief and captivating to see the Old God baby revealed in such a way, changing Morrigan for the better. And while I probably made a mistake giving Flemeth such power, at the same time, closing Morrigan's tale on a happy note, and with a happy family, made the decision satisfying, to say the very least.
Shifting back to our own happiness, the romances themselves do not overlap in any way. Some are light-hearted, and others make you challenge what you believe. While optional, they are organic. Honest. Each takes care to not just interact with the Inquisitor, but to also meld with the experience. The laughter, the tears, the madness. The romance develops as you go on. You can forget your love as much as you forgive. Or you can dive fully into the experience. The romances themselves are soft, hard, and everything in between. It's not sex for the sake of it. The romances become so much more than that. They become yours.
These reflections of reality, our own reality, shine in the backgrounds of each individual character. Each has their own faults and failings, despite pledging themselves to the Inquisition. Cullen struggles with his lyrium addiction and the terrors of his torture at the Ferelden Circle, all the while managing the responsibility of the Inquisition's armies. Cassandra's leap of faith as she is claimed heretic for creating the Inquisition. Blackwall as the pretender, but finds his own path to correct his past. Even the most simple of things: Varric's in love with a woman he can never have. But he risks assassins at his door to get her help...to correct what him and Bartrand uncovered in that fateful expedition years ago. Forget the dragons and the magic. The high fantasy. The ability to become a walking god may have drawn you in, but the connections and stories you experience with these characters reverberate. Powerful. And make it all the more enriching.
There's a lot of different characters and backgrounds that are missed in Inquisition. Merrill's Eluvian, Wade...Bodahn and Sandal, to say the absolute least. But I think one loose end from the books is the most glaring, which I honestly hope will be approached in either DLC or the later games.
The fact that Briala has access to the Eluvians. In the Wicked Hearts mission, where the Inquisitor essentially decides who will rule Orlais, three characters are presented. Celene, the current Empress of Orlais who has control over the Imperial army. Gaspard, whose reputation as the Grand Duke and Chevalier only complements his blood right as Emperor of Orlais. And Briala...who commands Elven spies?
Spies? In the Masked Empire, we find she has a network of Eluvians at her disposal - in accompaniment of her spies. Sure, no one wants to give up their hand, especially if it's one of the most ancient magics available. But at the same time, there's so much leverage that Briala could have offered beyond the accompaniment of spies that would have made the Inquisitor curious of her involvement. It seems like a huge loss in the main story, one that directly involves the Eluvians in Corypheus's plot, to not mention the many back doors that Briala has at her will. That alone tips the scales in giving credence to allowing Briala to stay alive and not be exiled. To have her affixed to Gaspard or Celene. I know as the Inquisitor it is our job to...well, be Inquisitive, but at the same time, there's little note of the power Briala owns.
Don't get me wrong - the issue is not involving Briala in the main plot with the Eluvians. My grievances lie in not allowing the Inquisitor...to allow the player to be aware of the grave mistake in keeping Gaspard alive with Briala. Or reconciling her with the Empress. Some things, like Fiona being mother to Alistair, are not important to the grand scheme of Thedas. However, having any power over the Eluvians...is.
South Thedas, or Where Do We Go From Here
The real story is the Inquisition. The advisors. The companions. Forgetting Corypheus's role in almost ending the world reminds you of what the Inquisition actually is: a re-shaping of Southern Thedas into what the player wants. The Inquisitor holds more power than the Hero of Ferelden and Hawke ever had. Well, quite literally. The Inquisitor chooses the fate of the Mages and Templars. The Seekers. The new Grey Warden conflict. The leader of Orlais. The revitalization of the Circle, or the founding of the Mages' Collective. The Divine.
Enough hints during the Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts mission, as well as the War Table operations, point to a possible relationship with Kal-sharok and the Inquisition. Dwarves are even more curious on Orzammar's attempts at reconciling the two Dwarven kingdoms. With the absence of a strong Dwarven presence, in the exception of Varric's personal quest with the Carta and the possibility of a Dwarven Inquisitor, it seems all signs point to the Dwarven kingdoms in the next installment...or more likely, DLC.
But where does this leave the Inquisitor? In a couple of positions. Like the tempting ability to become a God. While the Orb is destroyed, the Inquisitor still holds the Anchor that allows passing physically into the Fade. They even banished Corypheus to it. While it is a small detail that Morrigan hints at, the Inquisitor does hold the power to become a God themselves. I'm not calling DLC, but I am glaring at the opportunity to not only have our Inquisitor succeed, but also ascend. A person in such a position of influence does not simply fade away - and where the Inquisitor leaves off at the end of Dragon Age leaves much difficulty in constructing a powerful, yet effective player character for Dragon Age 4.
The Inquisitor alone holds so much influence. When we pass the DLC, and find our ways up north, finally leaving Ferelden to its fate, and perhaps Orlais to its own trifles and stinky cheeses, I hope that the lessons learned from the first two games and the drastic improvements set forth in Inquisition, pave the way to the ultimate exploration and narrative experiences for future Dragon Age games to come.
On my final thoughts, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a narratively and mechanically ambitious game that delivers tens of hundreds of hours for the player's enjoyment. Its careful reflection in the Inquisitor and the Inquisition itself outshines the conflict which drives the world into madness in the first place. While the game presents an enemy that only superficially delivers, its journey and true end share Bioware's pride and solace in exceeding its expectations as a Dragon Age game, shifting away from small stage of its predecessors, and unveiling the massive scale of what is truly Thedas.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a journey worth taking, worth experiencing, and has definitely been worth the wait.