Wednesday, February 18, 2015

GOT 'IM - Dragon Age: Inquisition

I still have a few 2014 game reviews to write in the first few months of 2015, heh. First among them is my assumptive 2014 Game of the Year, Dragon Age: Inquisition. 


Like many video games I really like, I was a little late to the party on Dragon Age, but once I arrived I went in deep.  I first played Dragon Age: Origins at the prodding of my friend Jon in early 2011; before then, I sort of disdained western RPGs in general and BioWare stuff in particular.  I go into that a little bit in my Jade Empire review (which you can read right here).  I've read a few of the Dragon Age novels and spent WAY too long reading lore entries and wikia articles on the series, in addition to beating Dragon Age: Origins and its DLC multiple times and Dragon Age II once. 

I won't get into it too deep, but Dragon Age: Origins is one of my favorite games of last generation and Dragon Age II was a bit disappointing.  The biggest complaint with DA2 were the recycled environments: your hero navigated the same big city, the same 4 or 5 wildnerness maps, and many of the same dungeons multiple times over the course of the game.  DA2 had other problems, but those repeated areas were the most glaring flaw. 

BioWare heard those criticisms loud and clear, and evidently also noticed how the large open world was implemented into the hugely successful Bethesda Softworks RPG, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  Dragon Age: Inquisition takes the best parts of Dragon Age: Origins, continues the conflict that came to a head in Dragon Age 2, and features open environments that immediately evoke Skyrim's massive landscapes. Short version: they fixed it. 

Story and Characters

THE NEXT THREE PARAGRAPHS ARE BACKGROUND INFO THAT YOU CAN PROBABLY SKIP.  Only worth reading if you don't know a ton about the world of Dragon Age and are a bit curious.  You've been warned. 

All of the Dragon Age games are set in Thedas, a large continent whose major powers are Ferelden, Orlais, Tevinter, Antiva, Rivain, and the Free Marches.  Ferelden is in the southeast, and was the setting of Dragon Age: Origins.  Ferelden is a proud kingdom, but still recovering from years of Orlesian occupation (ended about 30-35 years before the start of Inquisition) and is a major stage for the ongoing Mage-Templars war.  Orlais is the large, powerful nation west of Ferelden, which is experiencing a brutal civil war that began in between Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition (how the civil war started is explained in detail in one of the Dragon Age novels).  Tevinter is the country north of Orlais that was the greatest empire in the history of Thedas several hundred years ago, but has since become corrupt country rife with crime and slavery.  Antiva is a smaller country east of Tevinter that is famed for its merchant guilds and assassins network (really).  Rivain is the smallest major nation in Thedas, a peninsula attached to the west of Antiva.  Rivain is very maritime.  The Free Marches are the area between Tevinter, Antiva, and Ferelden, and refer to a loose collection of independent city-states.  Dragon Age 2 took place in Kirkwall, a walled city in the Free Marches. 

Woof.  That's a lot of plot bullshit.  And those are just the humans!  Dwarves mostly live in underground fortresses called Thaigs, and used to be the greatest power in the world along with Tevinter (and the elves, before Tevinter), but most of the Thaigs have fallen into ruin.  Only two Thaigs survived, Orzammar and Kal Sharok, and neither of them are visited in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Orzammar is an important location in Dragon Age: Origins, with a sizeable chunk of the story taking place there.  Elves were the most powerful civilization in Thedas before the rise of Tevinter, but mostly now live in slavery, on reservations, or in small free settlements in wooded areas (those woodland elves are referred to as "Dalish elves").  Most of the Elves were wiped out in racism- and religion-fueled holy wars called Exalted Marches.  The Elven gods were said to have died in a cataclysm before the rise of The Chantry, the predominantly human church.  The qunari are large, horned conquerors from the northern tropics, who were repelled in a war that lasted several decades over a hundred years before the Dragon Age story begins.  It took the Chantry declaring a bunch more Exalted Marches before the Qunari were repelled.  Qunari are the most uncommon race seen in Thedas (they mostly live in tropical islands north of Tevinter), but they're around.  Thedas is located in the world's southern hemisphere, so south = frozen and north = warm . 

So that's the huge world that's been built up over two major Dragon Age games, a few books, and hundreds of pages of in-game lore over the years.  I didn't even get into the Blights - plagues of monster armies that attack once every hundred years or so that wiped out most of the dwarven Thaigs, with the Fifth Blight serving as the major conflict of Dragon Age: Origins.  Most of the races and nations have similarities to real-world places (Orlais is France, Ferelden is Great Britain, Tevinter is Rome, etc.), but really it's a new deal created by BioWare's writers.  And sure, most of it has specific similarities to other fantasy writing, but it has a lot going on and it works.  I'm biased though, as I adore the first Dragon Age: Origins and am invested in the world at some level. 


The story of Dragon Age: Inquisition begins amidst the fallout of Dragon Age 2, in which a rebellion of Mages against Templar martial law in the city-state of Kirkwall launched a continent-wide war between Mages and Templars.  It's become a long and bloody conflict by the events of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which takes place four years after Dragon Age II (and thus 10 or 11 years after Dragon Age: Origins).  Inquisition begins at a peace conference, in which representatives of the Templars, the Mages, multiple governments, and the Chantry were present.  The Chantry is the Dragon Age's organized religion, and the Chantry wields considerable political power in the Dragon Age universe, similar to the Catholic Church during medieval and Renaissance Europe.  The Templars were a military arm of the Chantry for many years, but have become mostly autonomous and exist to suppress dark magic.  The Divine, which is the Chantry's version of the Pope, was also present at the peace talks. 

Then KABOOM.  Seconds after selecting the New Game option, the steady march of Mages and Templars visible in Inquisition's opening menu is disrupted by a massive explosion.  The peace talks are attacked by what's essentially a terrorist group, and thousands are dead as a result, including The Divine.  The situation has gone to shit, and your character (who can be a human, dwarf, elf, or qunari of either sex), appears to be the only survivor of the explosion.  Furthermore, there's a weird scar on your arm that glows green, just like the giant green fissure in the sky that appeared following the explosion. 

So now you're a prisoner suspected of being one the terrorists responsible, and you remember nothing.  Cassandra, one of The Divine's former advisors, is interrogating you, but begrudgingly admits that they only have circumstantial evidence.  Cassandra is one of the chiefs of the Inquisition, a recently-revived organization from an old chapter of Chantry history.  The Inquisition's task is to straighten out the mess created by the mysterious attack.  Eventually, the Inquisitor (which is what I'll call the player-made character from now on) will assist Cassandra in investigating the explosion, along with Solas, an elf mage that volunteered to join the Inquisition, and Varric, a wily dwarf that was drafted into the Inquisition by Cassandra and Leliana.  Leliana is a former Orlesian bard that was part of the team that saved Ferelden during the events of Dragon Age: Origins and eventually became The Divine's right-hand woman. 

Long story short, the Inquisitor is cleared of any crimes and rises to the head of the Inquisition, traveling across Ferelden and Orlais righting wrongs and restoring order.  Over the course of Dragon Age: Inquisition you recruit new agents and fighters for your team, end the Orlesian Civil War, take a side in the Mage-Templar War and shut down its rogue elements, discover ancient magics devoted to old elven gods, and all kinds of other things.  Dragon Age: Inquisition touches upon nearly every major factor in the Dragon Age universe and has the Inquisitor play a part in changing the state of the world.  The only aspect I can think of that  that WASN'T affected in a major way is the Thaigs; nearly all the dwarves you meet in Dragon Age: Inquisition are surface dwarves.  You explore one or two Deep Roads dungeons but barely interact with dwarven or darkspawn society at all.  But hey, that could be DLC. 

Look, if you enjoy Dragon Age's setting and lore as much as I do, Dragon Age: Inquisition is astounding.  There is a vast amount of content spanning the entire Dragon Age universe, and there is some real player agency in shaping your version of how major story events work out.  There is even a Dragon Age Keep feature on EA BioWare's website that lets you customize player decisions from the first two Dragon Age games just to establish what the world's like before starting the game.  Pretty cool, right? 

The other major highlight of Inquisition's narrative is the colorful cast of characters.  Each of the nine playable companions embody a different playstyle and equipment set, and each one has a background and personality that stand out.  The four advisor characters (three of whom have been in earlier Dragon Age games) get almost as much screen time and are all interesting in their own right as well.  The two most "boring" characters to me in the early going were the taciturn warrior Blackwall and the elven mage Solas, but when their full backstories were made evident, they became really fascinating characters! 

Iron Bull and Sera are probably the two most popular new characters and I won't get salty about it. They're both really funny, represent interesting corners of Dragon Age lore (the Qunari's spy agency for Iron Bull and the Friends of Red Jenny vigilantes for Sera), and create unusual, fascinating dynamics as romance options.  Cassandra is really great as a fully rounded character featured prominently in the main story; Varric is a funny, charming storyteller who represents a welcome return from Dragon Age II; Cole is a fade spirit trapped in the real world who is unlike any other character in the Dragon Age universe (with the possible exception of Justice from Dragon Age: Awakening).  Look, I could go on and on, but this review is already too long.  And I've only just begun.  

These characters are great. There's a ton of dialog in Dragon Age: Inquisition, both as party banter during exploration and during choreographed scenes at your home base.  The cast is diverse, with every race represented and even different sexual preferences highlighted among the cast.  Like in many BioWare games, you can "romance" a number of the major characters, and this time they did an incredible job of catering to different players' tastes.  At first I thought I would romance Cassandra, since my character was a male human, I identify as a straight man, and Cassandra was a cool, interesting character, but... I ended up in a gay relationship with Dorian, the gay human mage.  Why?  Well, after interacting with all the different characters, I found that Dorian's personality and dialog was the most fun, and that my character seemed to have the most "chemistry" with him.  Really.  That's how good the characters and dialog are in this game.  I detected different levels of chemistry with my own dialog choices.  Holy crap. 

Playing the Game

The basics of Dragon Age are similar to the first few games, with a few small twists.  You have a party of four, and you walk around large map areas in a party of four. The basics of combat use the main action button for attacks and seven hotkeys for skills and spells, which drain stamina or magic (depending on whether your character is a Mage, Warrior, or Rogue).  The biggest addition to combat (compared from Dragon Age II) are the addition of barriers.  Warriors using Sword & Shield skills can create a physical barrier that protects their health bar for all your tanking needs, and Mages take it a step further by creating a rapidly-diminishing barrier for any ally regularly.  If Mages build up their barrier skills, you can protect your party from pretty much any damage if playing in Normal mode.

So yeah, other than generating barriers, most of the skill trees follow under traditional Dragon Age realms.  Warriors can tank, deal big melee damage, and manipulate the battlefield by drawing in enemies.  Rogues can deal big melee and ranged damage, and manipulate the battlefield with traps, distractions, and stealth.  Mages can deal big magic damage from all ranges, and manipulate the battlefield with barriers, traps, and area attacks.  Rogues and Mages are low-health and high-risk, and Warriors are less-so.  That's how it's been for pretty much all the Dragon Age games; in Dragon Age III the actions aren't always the same, but the roles are.

I played the whole game as a Mage, and I was a little disappointed by the skill trees.  Available to the Mage are fire, lightning, and ice magic (focusing mostly on offense, but with some extra shit here and there), plus the barrier skill tree.  No healing anywhere - that's potions only.  The three specialization trees (which unlock when you reach level 10 and do some quests, but you can only pick on specialization) were way more interesting - Knight Enchanter enhances barriers (in a HUGELY powerful way that I exploited for levels 11 through 21), Necromancer raises the dead and uses weakening spells (including series classic Walking Bomb), and Rift Mage uses high-powered ranged offense that breaks down enemy defenses (incorporating some gravity skills from Dragon Age 2's Force Mage build).

Now, all of that's dandy, but I have to say that more than half of the best spells were in the specializations, and Dragon Age 2's Arcane, Spirit, and Entropy trees are incorporated into the specializations.  Also, there are way fewer spells in total than Dragon Age 2, giving you fewer options overall.  That's kind of a bummer.  There are more passives and upgrades than the first two Dragon Age games had, but I'd like to have seen more action abilities.  I guess that imbalance has been the way with specialization system forever, but the specialization skills seemed WAY better than the other trees, which were on the generic side.  The other two classes were in a similar boat.  Champion (Warrior class tree) seemed like a better version of the Sword & Shield and Battlemaster trees combined.  Assassin (Rogue class tree) was practically a necessity if you wanted to be a dagger Rogue using the Stealth tree.  A lot of these skills were cool, but the balance wasn't great (Knight Enchanter is way fuckin' broke) and I was wanting as a result.

The action itself, well, it's a lot like the rest of the Dragon Age action.  Pretty good, pretty intense, but a little samey.  Switching between characters is easy, and the party-based combat is action-packed and way better than what Elder Scrolls has to offer.  The only problem is... once I had my Knight Enchanter combo going, I don't think I needed to use any strategy other than barrier and magic sword.  I was able to beat every boss encounter in the game in basically the same way I was handling every environment encounter.  Sure, I only played the game once, using one class, but that's still a knock.

The environments are divided up into "chunks" that are less contiguous and massive than the Skyrim overworld, but HUGELY varied and still MASSIVE sections to explore.  Famously, the early-game Hinterlands area (a wooded hilly section of Ferelden) is massive enough for players to spend 15+ hours there before moving on with the storyline.  I don't recommend that, but there ya go.  In total there are 12 or 13 areas to explore outside of story-generated areas - temples, castles, and the like, standing separate from those chunks and not including quest-giving NPCs.  All of the environments are huge and impressive, with those segmented areas especially so.  I visited all but one, with the Hissing Wastes unlocking right before I was leaving to fight the final boss.  My favorites were the Emerald Graves (a deep forest) and the Storm Coast (a cliff-side beach area), but all of them were great.  Except the desert.  Fuck that desert.  And the other desert. 

So those big open areas are full of quest givers, and that's another weakness to the Dragon Age formula.  Eventually, you're hustling between exclamation points and question marks on your map, speaking to quest-givers and reaching appropriate destinations.  It's very, very easy to waste a lot of time quickly doing this, especially since most of the tasks are either "find this thing" or "kill this guy," but occasionally putting those tasks in interesting narrative context.  Even though I enjoyed it most of the time, I won't defend Dragon Age: Inquisition's quest design.  It's a bit antiquated and frustrating if you want something a little faster or less rooted in BioWare tradition. 

But... how do you discover these areas, and are those in-field quests the only ones you ever do?  Let's talk about the War Table.  At the Inquisition's headquarters, you can speak to your four advisors and unlock new content at the War Table.  To do so, you read all about the tasks available to you located all across Ferelden and Orlais, and then assign one of your advisors to complete the task.  This can be anything from talking to some nobles to secure funds to dispatching a spy to gather information.  Most of these tasks require zero player interaction, and result in one of your advisors beginning a countdown timer (which can last from a few minutes to a few days).  Once a task is done, you receive a small reward and more tasks are unlocked. 

Eventually, a chain of tasks might unlock a new area for the Inquisitor to explore, and that's pretty much how you'll unlock every area other than a few directly connected to the main story.  You might argue that the War Table is just an artificial way to spread out story content over dozens of hours and another menu to navigate, and you'd be right.  But hey, it adds another level of engagement and lore to the otherwise boring task of choosing between a list of background missions, so I accepted it.  Occasionally, you need to spend "Power" to unlock an area or begin a major quest line on the War Table; Power is generated from nearly every task available in any zone.  You'll earn 1 Power for discovering a new campsite, 2 or 3 Power for closing a rift, and varying amounts of power for completing found quests. 

Oh, right, rifts.  Well, the Inquisitor has an imprint on his hand that allows him to interact with "rifts," which are breaks in the Fade from which demons can escape.  If you find a Fade rift (and there are dozens) and defeat all the demons surrounding it, the Inquisitor can seal it with the mark on his hand.  Fade rifts are a decent source of Power and EXP.  Parallel to Power is the "Influence" stat; you gain levels in Influence by gaining more Power, and each level of Influence you gain allows you to activate a small bonus perk at the War Table.  I mostly used Influence to increase my inventory capacity and mix more herbs.  Yeah. 

Speaking of herbs, this is maybe the most item-intense Dragon Age game yet.  you're constantly collecting materials to make items, weapons, and upgrades, and can craft your own loadout of healing potions, traps, and poisonous grenades before venturing forth.  You can collect plans and materials to make weapons and armor, with their attached abilities, appearance, and name customizable by the player.  Without going into EXCRUCIATING detail, I'll say that there is a HUGE number of item, weapon, armor, and costume customization options for your team. I did a little and it was helpful, but I felt that I barely scratched the surface of it all.

I'm trying to think of what else to get into.  You can customize and decorate your home castle, the biggest change to combat is the inclusion of magic barriers, you can recruit "agents" for the Inquisition (non-combatants that reside in your castle and provide small persistent bonuses) by completing certain quests, and the big decisions you make in the story shape the overall narrative.  There's so much shit to do that it's overwhelming.  I know I'm forgetting to mention things.  There is too much for me to have even found it all. 

Visuals and Audio

I played Inquisition on PS3, so I'm already at a disadvantage.  The game looks decent, but lacks the super-nice models and textures of the PS4/Xbone/PC version.  The upgrade from PS3 to one of those systems is somewhere in between impressive and outstanding.  If you have the option, I implore you to play it on a modern system just for the visual upgrade and reduced loading times.  But hey, it ain't exactly bad-looking on PS3.

The audio is excellent.  In the tradition of most western RPGs, the background music is mostly atmospheric and supporting in nature, so there aren't catchy melodies taking center stage during combat or character-specific themes that announce their presence like a pro wrestler's theme music.  Nah, the music in Inquisition is enhancement rather than a feature (other than the tavern songs, which are alternately amusing, pretty and pretty amusing), but a lot of it's still pretty good.  I won't be getting the album, but the soundtrack did its job.

The voice work is excellent.  All of the main characters are distinctive, expressive, and well-acted in their voice work.  It was a pleasure hearing the returns of BioWare voice veterans like Claudia Black, Jennifer Hale, and Freddie Prinze Jr. (really).  Iron Bull's rumble is so unique and different from Prinze's normal voice that it's nigh-impossible to tell it's him without already knowing it.  Great voice work overall. 

The Final Word

Dragon Age: Inquisition represents a grand payoff of the promise of Dragon Age: Origins and some of the plot setup of Dragon Age II.  It has some rough edges (especially with the lack of good fast travel options, the antiquated quest design, and the samey combat), but holy hell does it deliver on customization, story, and characters.  This is the first game perhaps in history that has me chomping at the bit to play DLC.  That's a bit of a sad thought, as in general I support the existence of DLC but don't go overboard in buying it.  This is not one of those times.  I loved Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I still want more. 

Games Beaten: 2014 Edition

1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions
7. Mortal Kombat (2011)
8. Digital Devil Saga
9. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
10. Persona 3: Portable (FeMC)
11. Sonny
12. Sonny 2
13. Dragon Age: Origins
14. Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening
15. Retro Game Challenge
16. Batman: Arkham City
17. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
18. Bravely Default
19. Persona 2: Innocent Sin
20. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
21. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
22. Dragon Age: Inquisition
23. XenoBlade Chronicles

Targets: 10/14


Jeez, that one went on too damn long.  And took me too long to write.  Sorry about that.  Especially the story section.  Anywho, I wrapped XenoBlade in the first few days of 2015... but I'm counting it as a 2014 project. When that review gets written I'm still going to post the 2014 list.  And I don't think I'm going to write a Symphony of the Night review here - just know that it's a classic that I love, and may yet replay it in the next year or two.  After I finish that XenoBlade review, I'll move on to the 15 in '15 tag and have my 2014 gaming officially behind me. 

Right now I'm in the early throes of Fire Emblem: Awakening and Paper Mario, and I dunno which one I'll finish first.  4 in February put both of those on hold.  I'm near the end of Persona Q, but I hit a snag.  Persona Q is on hiatus until I feel the Persona bug biting again.  I just BARELY started Heavenly Sword and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, and hopefully one or both of those will get finished by this weekend.  I'm also doing album reviews and Music of the Year stuff at RPGFan, so look forward to the reviews as they land and MOTY stuff in late February. I'm out. 

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