For those unfamiliar with Dragon Age, it’s essentially a role-playing game based in a medieval fantasy world, developed by BioWare (who made Mass Effect) and published by EA. It has elves, dwarves, magic, dragons – all the usual stuff. But unlike many Tolkein-esque fantasy universes, Dragon Age sets itself apart by taking very real topics and weaving them into a world that we can relate to our own.
The series started on the right foot with Dragon Age: Origins, which revolved around the same overarching task that BioWare games tend to give: to explore the world and form an alliance with all the major civilisations. After solving a dispute in each area and gathering an army, there was a climactic finale where the fruits of the player’s labour came to pass. It was a solidly designed game, and cast a formidable shadow for any subsequent entries to the series.
As you may have seen in my Dragon Age 2 PlayBack, the sequel took a tumble downhill. It had a story that felt more forced than natural. It made the player explore the same diminutive maps over and over, and ultimately became an obligation to play for the plot alone.
Here steps in Dragon Age: Inquisition, sceptre in hand, flowing cape on its back, and boot placed firmly over Hawke’s smarmy face. From what we’ve seen so far, Inquisition is the result of some serious retrospection on BioWare’s part, and has improved on Dragon Age 2 in every regard.
Inquisition has us play as Trevelyan, who has become magically linked to a potentially world-ending cataclysm. The sky has torn open, and it’s their job to team up with key characters from the last two games to solve the mystery at hand. It sounded like a simple premise for the game and, honestly, I didn’t expect much plot-wise.
Within the first hour, the player sets out on an expansive map to begin their mission. For the first couple of hours, I did some exploring and side missions, and re-familiarised myself with the combat. Inquisition keeps the tactical combat of DA:O, where the player can pause and resume the action while they micro-manage their team, and the fast pace of DA2, where teammates must concentrate on forming cross-class combination.
By entering tactical mode, Inquisition lets you view the battlefield from an isometric perspective, where you can slide the camera around the map and examine enemies and their weaknesses. From here, the player can formulate strategies and manipulate the battlefield with greater precision. The range of possibilities by combining attacks is phenomenal, and visually stunning. More often than not, the paused battlefield will be decorated by sparks, fire, smoke and blood splatter.
The combat continually evolves as you play, only giving full access to abilities and specialisations at the beginning of its second act. Before then, the player has the whole of the first act to get used to the new combat features, which push for a more strategic take on each venture away from camp. One of the most notable of these changes was in healing; health potions and healing abilities are in short supply, and potions can only be restocked in designated areas.
To balance this, mages can now manifest barriers around team-mates and warriors can build a defensive layer called guard. Effectively, characters can have two protective layers over their health bars that will prevent them from taking damage. It sounds safer, but losing HP is no longer a trivial matter. Damage builds up over time, and healing is a limited resource. Even out of battle, you will need to gauge whether it’s better to head back to camp or carry on with your last remaining potion.
The limitation on healing adds to the feeling of exploration, and makes exploring the enormous new maps feel like a real adventure, with your characters edging closer to exhaustion as you push your limits. As your character progresses in ability and in political standing, you can feel them adapting to the world, and it to them. Enemy levels scale with yours, to a point, and certain actions in the plot can alter what enemies you face. After a while, what was an impossible journey will be a walk in the park (and in the first area, the Hinterlands, this is literal).
Unlike the last instalments to the series, the protagonist’s mission starts off as a daunting, seemingly impossible task, but we see their power build and their reputation change before our eyes. The writing is refreshing, and takes the poorly moulded ideas of DA2 and crafts them into something so much more.
Ideas that were touched on in Origins, then clumsily stepped over in DA2, such as the ideas of faith and destiny are re-explored, and give the player as many questions as they do answers. Rather than stating exactly what is happening, or telling us who the hero is and what their role is, Inquisition offers a mystery that we must solve.
Inquisition isn’t just a subtitle title, but a symbol for what the game stands for. It takes all the series’ previous ideas, turns them on their head and asks us what we think about them.