Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game straining under the weight of its own esteemed but fractured lineage. After the critical and commercial success of tactically-astute series progenitor, Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare took a sharp left turn for the release of a sequel, just fourteen months later. Dragon Age 2 dispensed with the expansive customisation options and overhauled the combat system; in doing so it became more action-orientated and less expansive in scope as a result.
In approaching the third game in the series, it appears that the headache for BioWare has been how to combine the disparate hallmarks of its existing Dragon Age titles. Clearly, the aim has been to create a game that appeals to fans of both previous titles, while also capturing the imagination of those weaned on the likes of The Elder Scrolls, Fallout and The Witcher. As problems go, trying to figure out how best to follow-up two successful entries in a multi-million selling series is not a bad one to have but it is a challenge to be negotiated, nonetheless.
To tackle this problem, BioWare has opted to go wide rather than deep. As such, Dragon Age: Inquisition boasts a multitude of elements of its predecessors, as well as features borrowed from its peers and some MMOs to boot. The result is a hulking beast of a game both in terms of scope, length and the sheer amount to do but while its individual components often entertain the overall result consistently struggles to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The one genuinely disappointing element is the narrative. Starting with that most hackneyed of plot devices, the “amnesia” ploy, and combining it with the equally trite notion of you as a “chosen one”, Dragon Age: Inquisition’s story never really manages to engage on the level that it’s aiming for. The sole survivor of an attack you cannot remember, you are left marked with a luminous tattoo that has the power to close rifts that have sprung up across Thedas, through which demons and assorted nasties are emerging.
The politics of Thedas and machinations of the powerful serve as wider backdrop to this demon-slaying and come to the fore after you are pressed into service by the titular Inquisition. Despite the world-ending threat looming overhead the assorted lords and ladies of Thedas still find time to bicker over petty disputes that require you, or your fellow agents of the Inquisition, to resolve through guile or force. The Templars and mages are forever at one another’s throats and the Chantry rarely misses an opportunity to make a grab for more power while espousing the virtues of its order. Nonetheless, for all of the talk by major players of power struggles and political wrangling, you seldom feel embroiled in anything approaching A Game of Thrones levels of intrigue. Instead, you’re running the same errands you’ve run before and busying yourself with collecting ten of these or fifteen of those before trotting off to find a lost ring.
It takes a long time for things to become meaningful. Certainly, for the opening third of the game – some 10-15 hours – the Inquisition feels toothless. There’s no examination of the tough choices or morally shady activities that you might expect from such a provocative outfit. So concerned is BioWare to let you play the game your way that it fails to deliver its story with any authority or sense of deliberately measured pace.
Instead, you can have a score of quests to carry out and the luxury of an open-ended time frame in which to achieve them; there’s little explicit consequence of your dallying and neither is there the potential for your behaviour to sculpt the shape of the Inquisition, outside of siding with one group or another. When the time finally does come for the Inquisition to wield its power and pass judgement over those that have wronged it you’re presented with a man whose most heinous crime is flinging goats at your keep. No, really.
While the story falls flat, the manner that you progress it is at least varied. Power is the currency of the Inquisition and can be gained via a multitude of tasks. Some expand the map, such as establishing camps that facilitate fast-travel to those areas, others are more mundane although not all have the outcome that you might expect and BioWare occasionally surprises by taking seemingly inane tasks in an unexpected direction. By consulting the world map in the Inquisition’s war room, you can spend your accrued power like physical coin, which necessitates that you venture forth into the world to garner more before being able to progress the story further.
Fortunately, this busy-work takes you to a wide variety of well-realised environments. Bandit-infested forests are zigzagged by streams and fissures while dank bogs, parched sand-scapes and towering peaks hide a multitude of emergent quests to sidetrack you again and again on your way to your intended destination. It’s here that the volume of activities becomes apparent and it’s not unusual to have two dozen active quests ticking over in the background, with the UI helpfully keeping track and surfacing the relevant info when you stumble across the bandits hoarding the soldier’s sword that you’d forgotten was a thing you were even looking for. It’s not an unpleasant way to spend an afternoon or two and the loot drops ensure you’re always brimming with the spoils of war, it just sometimes struggles to convey any sense of the impending destruction that your comrades keep fretting over.
A key area of any RPG is its combat and here Dragon Age: Inquisition is most certainly its parents’ offspring. The tactical camera of Origins is back, as is the more hands-on third-person approach of its sequel. Your three AI party members can be controlled directly or indirectly but it’s as valid a tactic to let them manage themselves while you manoeuvre your own character around the battlefield. Should you wish to, you can use the tactical camera to pause the action, assess each threat, position your comrades in advantageous flanking positions and tweak your party members’ behaviour to exploit enemies’ vulnerabilities.
However, you can also just hold the right-trigger to auto-attack and cycle through each ability as the cool-down timer expires and your comrades will do much the same. It’s not that combat is unsatisfying per se, just that in a bid to make one approach as viable as another, BioWare has had to ensure that all aspects of combat system work equally well for those that want to approach it as a more action-orientated activity. For those willing to put in the time, there are a multitude of skill-trees and interesting inter-class abilities that can play off one another in some tactically satisfying ways. Managing the progress of your squad manually is by far the best way to achieve a sense of connection with the on-screen action and to feel a sense of accomplishment that can be attributed to design rather than serendipity. The sparse multiplayer mode explores this notion by putting you in control of just one character and having you play as part of a team in a wave-based loot run.
Back in single-player, there’s a whole host of customisation options littered throughout Dragon Age: Inquisition. A potion and crafting system; ability specialisations, skill-trees and behaviour management; a wealth of written lore and numerous romance options, the list goes on. You can even decorate your keep to your own tastes; apparently important that the Inquisition sport the latest trends whilst its spreading its influence. It would be churlish to suggest that there is too much on offer but at its most unfocused it sometimes strays into the realm of being generous to a fault. In trying to be all things to all people, Dragon Age: Inquisition lacks the impact that it might otherwise have had if BioWare had imbued it with the same sense of purpose that its predecessors carried. Dragon Age 2 was criticised for its relative lack of scope but at least it had a strong sense of identity and knew what it was trying to achieve. Dragon Age: Inquisition, on the other hand, offers an embarrassment of things to do but sometimes forgets to provide the motivation to do them.