Before we get into the thick of this, allow me an admission: I liked Dragon Age 2. While it didn't reach the heights that Dragon Age: Origins did in getting back to Bioware's CRPG roots, it really wasn't trying to, which I thought a bold move, and one that panned out exceedingly well... for me.
Why am I starting things out this way? Well, at the risk of this turning this into some weird meta review of that game instead of new release Dragon Age: Inquisition, I think it's good that you understand where I'm coming from when I tell you that Inquisition is the culmination of everything Bioware did in both of those games. Like a perfect child born to a couple of comely parents, Inquisition overcomes both the glossy shine of the first and the critical panning of the second to become something not unique, but evolved. This IS the next step, and, ladies and gentlemen, what a hell of a step it is.
The game begins at a bit of a turning point for Thedas, the world that bears the weight of the Dragon Age saga. Divine Justinia, leader of the Chantry, or the Pope if you want to break things down in to real world terms, calls a meeting of leaders from the Templar Order and the Circle of Magi, who are deep in the throws of a war that started at the end of Dragon Age 2. Upon pressing the button to begin a New Game, this meeting immediately goes up in literal flames as the Chantry in which both sides gathered explodes, leaving no one but your character alive. Marked with a glowing green scar on your left hand that matches the giant scar in the sky, referred to henceforth as the Breach, you're immediately scooped up and taken in by Cassandra, Seeker of Truth and Right Hand to the Divine.
Without taking a huge trip into spoiler territory, things escalate quickly as you find out that your character is the only one capable of closing the Breach, as well as smaller rifts that begin popping up all over the place, serving as door ways for demons to invade. As closing them relies on you alone, Cassandra reluctantly brings you into the inner circle of the Inquisition, a military split from the Chantry meant to restore order from chaos.
From that point forward, you begin to make decisions that affect all of Thedas, from the lives of individual farmers to the rulers of whole nations. There's an amazing sense of scope to the whole thing, which becomes immediately apparent the moment your small group steps into the Hinterlands, your first open area to explore. Easily larger in size then anything in the two previous games, your task in these areas is to solve problems, which in turn causes people to look highly on the Inquisition, adding to your prestige and generating Power, a currency you spend to both open story missions and build upon portions of the world. It's an interesting gating mechanic, and I appreciate the way they built you doing pretty standard RPG things, like collecting items or killing enemies, into the story, as it's these actions that lead people to believe in your cause.
Those basic actions can be split, in very Bioware ways, between conversations, exploration and combat. The conversations use the dialog wheel made famous in the Mass Effect series, serving up choices that move the dialog along on the right, and special or information sections on the left to expand upon what's happening. Where Dragon Age 2 employed a wheel with a series of icons that explained whether an option was, for all intents and purposes, good or bad, Inquisition's wheel is much more ambiguous. Sure, the upper right choice normally follows the formula as the kind response, but actions and responses are no longer graded on a moral curve. On top of the choices being much more gray then in previous games, there is less of a reason to play “for points” as it were, and more of one to respond as you think your character would.
In addition to the loss of the moral slider, companions also no longer offer a scale as to what they think of your character. No longer can you ply their decisions with gifts and trinkets; instead, you actually have to listen to what they say and how they respond, noting their approvals as you take action to get an idea of which way their moral compass points. It's a fantastic evolution to the Bioware formula, one which made me care even more about the people I adventured with.
That's not say those choices were the only reason I cared. Each of the companions is fleshed out to the point of feeling like a real individual, and where there were always a few characters you never care for, I found myself switching in people I wasn't normally traveling with just to hear them banter back and forth while walking the over world. Never hearing the same exchange twice over my 70+ hours in the game, mixing and matching characters into workable parties was a joy, and none brought me more happiness then... Freddie Prinze Jr.'s Iron Bull. Where James Vega, Prinze's character in Mass Effect 3, fell short as a fairly dull and only occasionally funny meat head, Iron Bull is the exact opposite, providing both meaning and laughs from his straight forward way of looking at things. A Qunari with giant horns on his head, hence the name, Iron Bull offers a fresh, honest opinion about everything, and his unbridled joy every time he gets to face one of Thedas's high dragons is not to be missed.
Outside of conversations, the majority of your time will be spent actively exploring some of the largest areas Bioware has ever put to code, and fighting what enemies those areas present. No where outside of Bethesda's Skyrim have I found an exploration experience as rewarding as Inquisition's. There is almost always something to find in nearly every nook and cranny you look in, and the map is peppered with quests, collectibles, and even a small mini game built on drawing lines to form the star constellations. Finishing the game when I did, there were still two whole areas I had yet to fully map out, and more then a few with items like Dragons and collectible shards, left to mop up and collect. You are also rewarded with oodles of loot to help stock your coffers, as the majority of it, as in any game that features treasure chests, is good for little more then selling.
Of the three ways to spend your time, combat is the only one that ever game me pause. A mix between Origins tactical almost turn based breakdown and DA2's more action oriented spin leaves you free to explore and experiment. I played through most of the game with a Xbox 360 controller, choosing more of the action approach, and while this worked for the most part, the ability to program in specific actions for your individual party members like you could in Origins was lost, replaced instead with a two command “follow or defend” system. After some playing around, I was able to get it to a point where I could actively forget about my followers actions for the most part, but there were still times I had to drop into tactical mode in order to get the response that I wanted.
Using a button to advance time like you were watching a recording, Inquisition's tactical mode is where any and all depth to the combat can be found. Allowing control of individual characters on a micro level, it's easy to plan out and execute elaborate maneuvers. While not necessary on Normal, both the default difficulty and where I played my review, a quick glance to higher modes like Hard and Nightmare confirm a requirement for becoming comfortable with the system. Add to this tactical factor is the removal of healing spells from the game. While heal potions still exist, as well as a spell deep in the Spirit tree to raise fallen comrades, the meat of any in combat health buffs come from generous uses of a Mage's Barrier spell, or a Warrior's Guard ability. Both skills tack what amounts to an extra health bar, but they are more obtuse then simply allowing mages to heal.
As long as we're talking about complaints, I found the frame rate dipped severely whenever it came to loading in a new area or when it switches from direct game play to a cut scene. I tried playing with some of the graphic settings, thinking it was my card that was doing it, but even set to the lowest possible, where hair switched from nice looking video game hair to a hard plastic mold that wouldn't have been suitable for a mannequin, the dips were still there. They were over quickly, but if I notice them, and I rarely notice them, it's worth noting. Switching gears to some in game quality of life issues, it also would have been great, especially seeing that you own a CASTLE, that Bioware would have thought to include some storage space for those of us who have a hard time letting go of earned loot. There are a ton of uniquely modeled weapons to find, and just because the dagger I had isn't as good as the one I just found, it doesn't automatically mean that it heads straight to the sale bin. If it was present in the previous games, and if my CASTLE has room for every other collectible I seem to pick up, I should have a small space for goods is what I'm saying. Small space. Small.
As is the case with most modern releases, Dragon Age: Inquisition also includes a multiplayer component. It's round based co-op where you and three other players (WARNING: Do not even try with less then a full party. It's not fun. You will die and earn next to nothing) travel through one of three themed areas. The maps are randomly generated, look great, and feature a diverse compliment of enemy types. It uses the same type of “random chest” unlock system that Mass Effect 3 used, which, short of a system that charges you by the minute, is the worst possible unlock system available. There is also the ability to purchase Platinum pieces with real money. Thankfully, unlike it's predecessor, Inquistion's multiplayer has no effect on the single player campaign. It's a rather benign add on for those looking to adventure with friends.
In my 70+ hours with Dragon Age: Inquisition, there were a ton of little moments and call backs to the previous games, and while many of them could be considered fan service, not a single one of them felt cheap or unearned. These little bits of joy, when added together with the great story, present a treasure so startling, that I was actually sad when I closed the book on the story. There are not many games that gave me that kind of pause, and fewer still when, after 70 hours, the only thing I can think of is wanting to jump right back in, with a new character, just to see what changes when I go a different way. Despite some minor hiccups, Inquisition is absolutely the realest of deals, and should be missed at your own peril. Though I never thought them to be gone, all other take note: BioWare is back.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!