Saturday, 22 December 2018 03:48

A Return to Dragon Age [Review]

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Cover Art from Dragon Age: Inquisition Cover Art from Dragon Age: Inquisition BioWare
 

Introduction

     Recently at the 2018 Game Awards they revealed a trailer for a new Dragon Age- along with the hashtag #TheDreadWolfRises [1]- which re-sparked my interest in the series. I had basically dropped BioWare games entirely after 2017’s abysmal entry to a different BioWare series, Mass Effect Andromeda. When I did play through the Original Mass Effect last year, it only rubbed salt into the wounds left by that awful game. But due to the recent announcement, I decided I would retry BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. A game I had not picked up in four years.

     I had fun with my experience, getting to experience the parts I enjoyed again, but, as I progressed through the first act of the game, all of the terrible bits also became increasingly clear to me.  After playing for several hours and enjoying several play sessions I tried to take a look at my old review. I had written of Dragon Age: Inquisition right after it came out. I could not find it, but I do recall some of what I said. And currently I do not agree with everything I said. The six main points I will be focusing on include Setting, Plot, and Quests; Characters; Graphics; Soundtrack and Score; Gameplay and Mechanics; and Controls. Oh and a fair warning - Spoilers Ahead.

 

I. Setting, Plot, and Quests

     The Dragon Age Setting, or Thedas, as the writers call it (Yes it an acronym) can be briefly summed up as a Dark Fantasy World. In Thedas there are Demons and all sorts of foul creatures. Magic is dangerous, and Mages are treated as second-class citizens. The Chantry (Church) is overbearing and often corrupt. I like this setting; I have played the first and second entries into the series a few times each. This is an interesting setting. The plot on the other hand is where this category is going to lose out on some points.

     The Mage-Templar War is set up during the climax of Dragon Age II, and has come to a head during the opening of Inquisition. The game opens with a massive explosion, making you the sole survivor of a tragic event. The Prologue is actually fairly paced and offers much In terms of story value. The first act sets up everything it should, your motivation, the big bad, taking a side in the war, fighting the war. This offers great progression in terms of Characters and Story. The Quests here feel big, you are trying to acquire materials to essentially assist one side in a war. The “fetch” quests here serve a purpose which is not typical of the Open-World RPG. Each mission you take on helps move the plot as all the companion characters are gathered together by the end of the first act. The characters you interact with grow as you help them with their personal journey and take time to get to know them and their motivations.

     Then act one finishes, and the game immediately takes a nose dive in coherency and overall is a big letdown. The Mage-Templar war, which has been hyped up the entirety of two games ends at the first act’s climax. The “big bad” they set up was really not that big of a deal, as there is a bigger badder baddie to deal with that comes out of nowhere during the second act. The second act is inherently worse than the first act. The story becomes disjointed, wandering from large open world area to the next, to the next, with no real reason to do any of it, no satisfying motivation for your protagonist, (none of it). The Quests become nothing more than chores that are a slog and a grind to get through. I find myself having to force myself to play the game so I could get further in it, even if I didn’t want to.   

     Although the real icing on the cake is that there was an entire section, an entire questline that was gutted from the game. A section Bioware was all too eager to show off during E3 and other conventions. In this quest line, you would have to choose to either save an entire village, allowing your stronghold to get captured, ultimately sacrificing your soldiers, or protecting the stronghold and sacrificing the village.  The village would have side quests, merchants and a whole bunch of content for you to experience, should you choose to save it. The village is gone. That whole section was reduced to securing your hold on the region and investigating the fate of the village. This was a total let down. This is an adept description for the entirety of the second act.

     The bigger badder baddie at the end of the game was revealed to be a character that you had already dealt with in the previous game, Corypheus. Honestly, the reveal is major letdown and the fight against him was as well (according to watching gameplay videos, as I never finished the game). Another reveal is then made that one of your companions, Solas, is actually an Elvhen (ancient Elvish) Deity by the name of Fen’Harel the Dread Wolf, a god of Trickery. He was the one who caused all the mess of the game’s intro to happen in the first place. I actually found this revelation about Solas to be pretty awesome; but it is a bummer that so much “meh” surrounds the reveal that it gets lost.

     Dragon Age: Inquisition earns high marks for its stellar opening, excellent first act, and tremendous setting. Its second act drops it down to only average marks with a -1 penalty for inconsistent storytelling, and a -1 penalty for cut content shown at a convention. It does earn a +1 Bonus for setting and World Development.

 

collection of Dragon Age themed tarot cards

 

II. Characters

     The characters in this game are (with a few exceptions) pretty memorable, many of them have depth and are well written. Varric makes a return from Dragon Age II and along with his crossbow Bianca to join your crew. Varric’s witty banter and exaggerated stories make him a personal favorite for me. Iron Bull is probably the best written of the crew. Each of the party members (with 3 exceptions) is a compelling character. They have their own motivations, thoughts, and quirks and their personality makes you want to help them along with their own goals.

     Take Cassandra for example, she has a deep hidden love for the stories written by Varric, even though she and Varric butt heads all the time. Her favorite series of his is an erotic novel series, featuring a character from a previous Dragon Age game. She asks you to secretly convince Varric to finish the final entry in the series. Varric takes the opportunity to really tease her about her reading habits. It is an extremely awesome scene and I loved every second of it. I died with laughter and marveled at the chemistry the crew has because of these interludes.

     The Character line-up is probably the strongest part of Inquisition. There are So many relate-able Characters and because of the depth of each one you wouldn’t mind taking a whole side mission just to help one of them find something or other whether it be equipment, artifacts, secrets, etc. This earns Dragon Age: Inquisition high marks with a +1 Bonus for Character Interaction.

 

III. Graphics

     Dragon Age: Inquisition has a highly stylized art style that I personally find very enjoyable and pleasant. It has aged reasonably well the past four years. However, there is an abundance of animation glitches and several of the characters (Josephine and Cassandra in particular) have weird facial animations. Overall, the facial animations are fairly lackluster at best and below par at worst. The environment is probably where most of the attention went to, as it is beautiful and colorful. This is a stark contrast to the tone of the series, but it complements the game instead of detracting from it. This is a commendable achievement.

     Performance-wise, it does make my computer run pretty hot, but seeing as my Computer is over 5 years old that is not a surprise. However, at the time of release, many people did complain about performance optimization as it came to playing the game on PC. Its performance was rough on my computer at release, even if I ran at medium graphics settings (I have a laptop, and not a gaming rig). By contrast it did run Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3 on High to Ultra settings with little effort. With all this taken into account, Dragon Age: Inquisition earns above average marks. It also earns a +1 for stylization. Dragon Age: Inquisition takes a -1 penalty for its lackluster facial animation and for its performance.

 

IV. Soundtrack and Score

     The Soundtrack of Dragon Age: Inquisition is amazing. Trevor Morris is a Genius. Honestly, it is probably the most enjoyable portion of the game. I could not help but hum along or dance with my feet as I was playing the game concentrating on boss fights, crafting loot and doing various other things. Inon Zur is the composer that had worked with Dragon Age in the past, and as much as I loved his work, Inquisition probably has the best soundtrack as a whole with very few notable exceptions from the previous titles. Even the ambiance noises and other environmental features are beautiful to listen to. This is real reason to buy the Digital Deluxe Edition; the other content is kind of irrelevant. I love the Soundtrack and commonly play it as music to listen to around the house. Trevor Morris brings home extremely high marks to the Dragon Age team for his musical genius.

 

V. Gameplay and Mechanics

     Dragon Age: Inquisition feels light on the actual RPG mechanics that put the series on the map to begin with. Gone are skill points and several of the specializations that the Series is known for including the Blood Mage, Bard, Assassin, and even the Spirit Healer. Instead of the four specialization choices for each class that Origins and II had, Inquisition only has three (The Awakening Expansion had 6). The Spirit Healer was my jam in the first game. It really sucks that the Mages in Inquisition have been relegated to a DPS role exclusively. In fact there is no way to heal your party outside of using Health potions- which have been mapped to the “9” slot on your hotbar. Slots 1-8 are the only slots you have for abilities which feels very limiting. “0,-, and =” have all been assigned other uses as well. There are also less Armor slots (only Armor and Helmet) as opposed to Chest, Legs, Arms, and Helmet from the previous games. Skill Points have been removed and skills are now boosted through equipment and passive abilities you take when leveling up.

     The Tactical Camera makes a comeback in this installment. It is useless indoors (literally unusable) and basically useless outdoors (clunky, but usable). Even interacting with objects has been made more difficult by a combination of the controls and mechanics of the game. You have to be facing the exact proper angle in order to loot, something that should be a breeze in an RPG. To top it all off there is no area loot mechanic like in the two previous games/installments

     There is a nice addition to the newly revamped crafting system. It allows essentially full customization of your party’s equipment. Everything can be adjusted to your preference: from the color, to extra abilities, the type of damage, stats and more. The crafting system is pretty extensive. It is easily the best of the mechanics that have been changed from previous installments.

     Combat is pretty mediocre to be honest. Most of the encounters are uninspired and somewhat dull. The limited options for character progression and abilities make many encounters feel same-y. Really the only saving grace keeping the combat from being just like the rest is the tactical approach that essentially every boss fight has. The Dragon Fights are super cool and really well done. Being able to target the different parts of a Dragon is a neat change. You can focus of the wings or a leg to weaken the Dragon before bringing it down, Each Dragon Fight utilizes different tactics so that is nice.

     Nearly everything in Dragon Age: Inquisition has been “streamlined” which is another way of saying removed and striped out of a previously excellent RPG experience. The Limiting of Character Progression choices and combat bums me out. With the removal and simplification of mechanics Inquisition earns below average marks from me. The Crafting system is once again a nice touch, and does snag a +1 bonus.

VI. Controls

     The PC controls of Dragon Age: Inquisition are resoundingly mediocre. It is extremely obvious that it is port from consoles to PC, which is highly unfortunate. There are several mechanics that suffer from the poor controls., The most notable being the Tactical Camera. As previously mentioned, it is useless indoors as it is next to impossible to control properly. The camera gets stuck on everything from tiny rocks, to enemies, to even your own characters. The camera controls in this mode makes the Tactical Camera essentially useless as a mechanic. Some other mechanics that suffer are the Explorations, Combat and Quick Slots, and numerous other “RPG staples.”

     When I returned to the game I had hoped that the issues with the terrible controls would be addressed. They were not. The same awful control system present at launch was still in the game and was still just as atrocious. Dragon Age: Inquisition earns a below average mark with a -2 penalty for sheer dreadfulness in controls.

 

Close Angle shot of Iron Bull

 

VII. Conclusion

     With the #TheDreadWolfRises Trailer and a new Dragon Age announced, it is time to discuss how to improve upon the Dragon Age Formula and how to not make the same mistakes that were made with Inquisition (and DA2) again. First up: Focus on the strong points of Dragon Age. Spend more time writing characters, interactions, and enthralling story threads instead of trying to haphazardly implement multiplayer and “open world” content. If I wanted to play an Open World Game, I would play Witcher 3 or Final Fantasy XV instead of Dragon Age. Simply Focus on Characters and Stories. Second: Open up Character Progression and Hotbars (especially for PC). Limiting Character Progression in the way that Inquisition did felt like they were taking a step backwards. Open it up, put the Role-Playing back in the Role-Playing Game. Allowing players to have quick access to their abilities on a Hotbar (not limited to 8 Slots) would allow players to enjoy their experience in their own way - without artificially being forced to play a certain way. And Lastly: Make sure to make the Controls at least decent on every system the game is released. This should be a no-brainer.

And now for the Scoring:

  • Setting, Plot, and Quests. C+(2.9) Dragon Age: Inquisition takes a -1 penalty for the poor payoff plot wise, and a second one for cut story content. It does earn a +1 Bonus for its theme and setting.
  • Characters. A(3.7). DA:I brings home a +1 Bonus for its stellar Character Arcs.
  • Graphics. B(3.3). Inquisition earns a +1 bonus for stylization, but takes a -1 penalty for its technical issues.
  • Soundtrack and Score. A+(4.0). No bonuses or penalties awarded.
  • Gameplay and Mechanics. C-(2.6). With a +1 bonus for a neat Crafting System.
  • Controls. D(2.2). Dragon Age: Inquisition is penalized with a -2 for Tear Inducing Controls.
  • Totals. C(3.0). In the end Dragon Age: Inquisition is nothing more than an Average experience, in a Stellar series, from once excellent developers. As much as I struggled to enjoy my play through of this installment, I hope BioWare can turn things around before the Release of Dragon Age #TheDreadWolfRises.  
  1. Link to DreadWolf Trailer:
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