Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s glorious, but it’s also a bit of a mess, in a AAA-ey way. Which means that I have no idea how to talk about the game in a coherent manner! So, in absence of that, a randomly ordered list of topics:
The Scale of Its Story
In Dragon Age II, you started out small, gradually worked your way up, and eventually saved a city. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a big step back in terms of restraint: sure, you start off under suspicion of murder and threat of death, but before you have time to breathe you’re the anointed hero in charge of an organization who is saving the world from an existential threat. (And reshaping the religion and social structure of the world, and acting as a power above nations, to boot.)
There are a few things that I like that come out of the increased scope, though. One is that the increased scope of your group’s charter means that there’s room for an extra level of advisors: people whom you can talk to whom you’re not adventuring with, people who are very competent but with a completely different skill set from your own. (Yay Josephine.) Another is that it lets the game raise questions of what religion means, what truth means, what history means, what social groupings mean. And a third is that the increased scope means that missions can occasionally take on a different tone as they approach a different level of the scope. (The Winter Palace mission in particular.)
But, still: the game could have raised any of those issues with a much smaller scale of story.
BioWare just keeps on getting better at this. I like the romance arc I followed, but I like much more the way that this series keeps on presenting your companions as people in their own right, and people who have lives and interactions with each other that don’t focus on you. (Though they do show a slightly unhealthy amount of hero worship…)
Even the companions that I don’t like made the story richer for me. Blackwell’s remarks towards my inquisitor whenever she left a conversation left a strange tone in my mouth; at first, I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into that, but then I hit his quest, and well, there are aspects to his character that I’m not used to in a companion. (And when I heard other people reporting that, if you take even one step down the romance path with him, other people start suddenly treating you as a couple, I thought: yeah, those responses I saw really were warning signs about interpersonal dynamics.) Vivienne certainly wasn’t my favorite person, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot to read there about privilege and social roles; Dorian was my favorite person, but if he’d been just slightly different then my attitude would have been a lot less positive, and I’m really impressed at the writers for playing with that tension. And I clearly did not spend enough time with the Iron Bull.
Sometimes, I felt like there was a bit of whiplash between the direct interpersonal scale of the relationships and the save-the-world scale of the plot. But, in retrospect, that was just me being weird: biographies of world-famous people still spend time on those people’s interpersonal relationships, and rightly so, world-famous people are still people!
I was quite impressed by the Hinterlands when I first saw them: so much terrain to explore (I’m curious what tooling they developed to support building that), and quests every place I stuck my nose into. Though I’d also seen some tweets, including ones by the game’s developers, saying: don’t spend too much time in the Hinterlands at the start, you’ll enjoy the game more if you move on. (The game actually recommends appropriate experience levels for embarking on the major plot missions, if you pay attention at the war table.) I took that advice, and I’m glad that I did: but the fact that that advice needed to be given is a warning sign.
Exactly what it’s a warning sign of, though, is not entirely obvious to me. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if the first non-Haven region had been a bit smaller, so that, even if you’d treated it in a completionist fashion, you still wouldn’t feel like you’d completely gorged yourself before moving on. But even that doesn’t feel like the right solution to me: the Hinterlands (and most other regions) didn’t feel nourishing enough, and the plot balance between the story missions and the regional quests felt off. Comparing it to the last AAA game I played, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the way Tomb Raider handled these issues, but Tomb Raider‘s plot was vigorous enough to make me feel like I was missing out if I wasn’t steadily moving forward, and then when it left me with breathing room, it left enough breathing room to let me enjoy the environments and enjoy being an explorer in them. (And, to be fair: Dragon Age: Inquisition left me with space to wander around all I wanted before the final battle, too, and, like Tomb Raider, you can wander around after the main plot concludes.)
Diving down a bit, though: as I said, the regions in Dragon Age didn’t feel nourishing enough. I enjoyed moving around them as physical spaces, and some of the missions and villages added to the richness of both the settings and the overall plot. But the game wasn’t confident in either of those aspects of those spaces to let them stand on their own, to really emphasize them: you’re constantly bombarded with much less meaningful activities. The fetch quests and looting of houses / camps / corpses are bad enough; the herb / ore gathering, though, really drove me up the wall.
There is one big counterexample to this, though: the Hissing Wastes. I really like Janine Hawkins’ take on the region: it’s lovely, it’s rewarding, and those are exactly because the region is confident enough to stand on its own beauty without bombarding you with constant activities or gold stars. It felt like Minecraft or Shadow of the Colossus, games where I’d spend dozens of minutes at a stretch just enjoying the travel through the environment.
The other unfortunate aspect of the fetch quests and the item collecting is their conflict between their scope and your role as leader as the Inquisition. Closing rifts makes sense: it’s a small-scale task, but you’re the only person who can do it. Gather elfroot, though? Returning a ring you found to its owner? The Inquisition does have scouts; surely you could hand that ring to one of them and be done? The picture that’s being painted here is: you’re a leader who is completely incapable of delegating or maintaining perspective, you must work directly on any task that passes through your line of sight. Or, in other words: you’re incompetent as a leader. Which is, admittedly, no surprise: you were elevated to that task without any sign that you had aptitude for it, let alone experience and training! But that’s not the story the game is telling.
(And yes, I know you can ask people to gather herbs for you from the War Table. That doesn’t take away from the constant interruptions that the herbs provide during missions, and having one of your three direct subordinates being charged with supervising the gathering of six elfroots and then needing to be told what to do 15 minutes later is a piss-poor implementation of delegation as well.)
Contrast all of this with the item collecting in Tomb Raider: the items in that game were much less frequent, you were playing one of the youngest members of a group of shipwrecked refugees, and you’re an archaeologist, with actual skill and interest in that task! Even in that game, the item gathering was distracting, but it was much less so, somewhat more rewarding to carry out, and it tried to make sense.
That’s the regular environments. Skyhold (and Haven before it) is a completely different matter, though: friendly, cozy environments that are still large enough to surprise you, that are comforting to return to, that are soothing to wander around, that let you feel grounded and loved. One of my favorite aspects of Dragon Age II was how familiar you become with the city; Skyhold provides that same benefit (albeit in a slightly smaller scope), and makes it more personal.
Gathering, Crafting, and Inventory
I’ve already complained about the gathering of herbs and ores, how that constantly interfered with just enjoying the experience of being in the environments. But the thing is: I didn’t like how they were used, either! Herbs were used to level up potions, which is fine: it provided an alternative system through which you could increase your powers, and at any given time I had to choose which potions I was able to level up. But they were also used to brew those potions, which meant that you couldn’t (or at least I couldn’t) feel free to experiment with them. Maybe it would have been interesting to try out different combinations of potions in different tough situations; but would I really want to do that if it meant that I’d have to go out and spend time gathering herbs in order to refill my supply? Fortunately, I found a merchant who was able to sell me infinite numbers of the ingredients for my healing potions at a good price, so I could stock up on those and not have to worry about it; but still. (Hmm, in fact: the herbs would probably have worked just fine if the regular herbs had only been available through merchants and the only herbs you could actually gather were the rare herbs.)
The ore, on the other hand, fed into item crafting. (Well, item crafting plus those annoying requisition missions: ah yes, people are spending too much time gathering ore, so let’s insert an economy sink that drains that excess ore and replaces it with a currency (power) that quickly inflates so much as to be meaningless!) And, I’ll be honest: I have no way of judging how well item crafting works. Crafting is something that I actually can enjoy if it’s either mandatory or purely ornamental; here, though, it’s optional and (the cute names aside) functional. And it interacts badly with my loss-averse psychology as a game player: any given upgrade will only be useful for a few hours of play time, so if you could have done okay in those hours without the upgrade, then the upgrade was pure waste, which meant that I’ll never do it. Maybe the crafting worked better for other people, though, I’m really just not the target audience.
Of course, herbs and ores aren’t the only things you’re gathering: you find various other bits when looting corpses or chests, the most prominent of which are weapons and armor. All I have to say about that is: I have no idea why the game thinks that me being halfway through a dungeon, opening a chest, realizing that my inventory is full, and trying to figure out what to throw away will somehow add to my enjoyment of the game.
The Plot Missions
I enjoyed all of them; some of them were great. And here, unlike the environments, the game seemed to me to be much more confident of what it was doing. Combat was frequently a sideshow, missions frequently focused on something beyond directly stopping the bad guy, the final boss fight was quite restrained by RPG standards. The experiences of these missions were crafted with purpose; they fit squarely within a role-playing game context without acting hamstrung by those conventions.
What Do I Feel about the Game as a Whole?
So what does that all add up to? I think the most relevant answer is: almost 2000 words. So this one is going to be a two-parter.
- February 8, 2015 @ 14:48:25 [Current Revision] by David Carlton
- February 8, 2015 @ 14:48:25 by David Carlton