Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Dragon Age: Inquisition

The Last Supper (c) Bioware
The Gist
Seventy hours of Thedas being saved by people of questionable morals (and taste).

The Story
The world, once again, lies on the brink of ruin. The events that unfolded in Kirkwall sparked a brutal war between the Circles of Magi and the Templars who were once tasked to protect them from themselves.

In an attempt to broker peace, the Chantry's Divine and her senior council arrange a peace conference between the mages and templars. Things don't go as planned as an arcane explosion kills everyone save for a stranger who possesses a strange mark on one hand and no memory of the past.

As Thedas plunges into its darkest hour, an ancient evil arises to take advantage of the ensuing chaos in an attempt to tear open the realm of the Maker and seize the god's empty throne. The land's last hope lies in the establishment of the Inquisition - an organization that seeks to rally the forces of Thedas against the looming apocalypse. With the Hero of Ferelden missing and the Champion of Kirkwall nowhere to be found, they turn to the stranger from the Rift to carry the burden of Thedas' salvation.

Gameplay Impressions
The story continues where Dragon Age 2 left off, with the inevitable war between the mages and templars being the backdrop that the game begins with. Staying true to Bioware tradition, players can import their choices from previous games as various 'World States'. This allows longtime players to walk in a world of their own making, from worlds full of light to one deemed as the Darkest Timeline - and everything in between.

Inquisition spans across two powerful regions. Orlais is a center of culture and extravagance reminiscient of Renaissance-era France. Ferelden, on the other hand, is a large region populated by everything from rolling fields to dense forests to swamps and moors seemingly representing medieval England. The overworld is a sprawling place, and players will spend countless hours trying to see every nook and cranny that Thedas has to offer.

Perhaps one of the strongest points that Bioware has going for the series is the fact that they are able to handle character orientations in a relatively mature manner. My World State has a male elven mage as the Hero of Ferelden (Dragon Age: Origins) who has pursued a relationship with Zevran Aranai, a male Antivan Crow. I also had a male mage Hawke as the Champion of Kirkwall (Dragon Age 2). While he pursued a relatonship with Merill, he was just oozing with sarcasm, much to the annoyance of his companions.

In Inquisition, I had a male Qunari mage as my Inquisitor and pursued a relationship with Dorian - a male Tevinter mage who was on a self-imposed exile from his homeland due to his sexuality (because why not go all the way). In all seriousness, I did not expect video games to handle this material very well. Much to my surprise, I was proven wrong - the way that Bioware presented Dorian's strained relationship with his father proved to be one of the game's strongest stories. His situation as a pariah was handled with maturity and taste that is rare in an industry notorious for its attitude towards such matters.

Sadly, that's just about all the praise I can tell about Inquisition.

While having varied environments is always a huge plus, there will be times when the game's world is too large for its own good. This is especially evident in the Hissing Wastes, a desert that is just about as sparse as one would find in real life. Everyone appreciates varied scenery every now and then, but creating a massive sandbox just for the sake of scale doesn't paint Inquisition in a positive light. It doesn't help that players will have to spend hours picking herbs and other miscellany, even if they're the head of one of the land's most powerful organizations and thus have countless underlings to do their bidding for them.

Gameplay controls are a combination of Origins and Dragon Age 2. While it shouldn't pose problems for players who prefer the action oriented playstyle of Dragon Age 2, Inquisition's controls provide an additional layer of difficulty for those who wish to micromanage their characters especially in the game's higher difficulties. A particular example is when trying to order someone to revive a teammate in the heat of battle, most of the time the character just runs off to their unconscious comrade and starts to resume attacking enemies. It's extremely frustrating since order queues were flawlessly implemented in the first game and were seemingly added as afterthoughts for Inquisition.

Another gripe to be found with the game is the War Table mechanic. The War Table is a hub where the Inquisitor meets with his council and assigns the Inquisition's resources towards cries for help from across the land, ranging from providing farmland with troops to guard it up to meddling in disputes regarding royal succession. In doing so, the player is awarded Power, which is a currency used to unlock further quests or open up new areas for exploration. In theory this should lend the player a feel of what it's like to manage an organization with such a hefty goal. In practice, however, it sucks.

While players won't be directly engaged in anything besides tapping a few buttons and selecting who fixes what, Bioware opted to borrow a page from Facebook games and decided to add timers to track the completion progress of these missions. They literally put countdown timers on missions that the player has no ability to affect - from five minutes up to a staggering twenty-plus hours. This is an incredibly counter-intuitive decision, given the fact that their target market would probably be people who work for a living and would have to set time aside to play their game.

It is the worst example of padding a game's length in recent memory. I've heard from a bunch of people that they've not gone through the rest of the content after finishing the story due to this design decision - something that I definitely agree with.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is an attempt to try and please a larger audience as opposed to a long devoted fanbase.

While it is still a solid game, it is plagued by dozens of hours of busy work, unnecessary timers and an atrocious control scheme that are huge steps back compared to its predecessors. These faults greatly overshadow the vibrant world and extremely detailed codex that try to lend life to a rather empty world. Still, it's worth a playthrough for the story and I hope that the inevitable follow-up would fix the game's design choices.

Not Bioware's best outing to date - the experienced developer should play to their strengths in future efforts rather than try to become the next Elder Scrolls.

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