Dragon Age: Inquisition – 5th Anniversary Retrospective

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“Whatever we were before, we are now the Inquisition”

The Inquisitor

Hidden amongst the spires of the Frostback Mountains, situated between the kingdoms of Ferelden and Orlais sits the fortress of Skyhold, the home of the Inquisition during the time of the third Dragon Age title, an imposing and towering structure that gives strength and determination to its residents, striking fear into their enemies. Until its release, I was still undecided on my perceptions of the series, I had enjoyed Origins and its expansion Awakening however felt its run time and structure just didn’t suit the format or style, preferring the more isometric approach taken with the inspirational titles Baldur’s Gate. Dragon Age 2 evolved and smoothed the rough edges of the first game however, the restriction of locations and reuse of assets gave the impression of a game that arguably should have been delayed or pushed back to perfect and indeed finish, the game. On the release of Inquisition towards the end of last generation of consoles, an ambitious title presented itself, taking onboard the myriad of criticisms directed towards it, Bioware introduced a plethora of locations, an assortment of characters with a variety of personalities and backgrounds, a fluidic combat system drawing on the strengths and experiences of the two earlier games in the series.

Given the size and scope of the release, it did have the unfortunate consequence of pushing the consoles themselves close to breaking point, an infuriating mixture of bugs and technical issues arising and often involving in an unintended frozen game, and sadly a restriction on the downloadable content meant you weren’t granted the opportunity to see the full experience. Having finished the game to its conclusion and the destruction of Corypheus I longed to continue my exploration of Thedas, restricted unfortunately by the technology of the seventh generation. As a cross generational title, one of the few games Dragon Age™: Inquisition_20190528191811I have purchased on multiple occasions the release upon the current generation resolved a great many of the issues, the content released in its entirety and finally, I was afforded the opportunity to explore not only Skyhold but the lands of Thedas in their majesty and confront the mystery posed by a member of your Inquisition. And with the release of the post game content, delighted at the direction of the game and its next chapter. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of Dragon Age Inquisition this year, and with a new game reported to be in development, its an appropriate time to venture back into the forgotten realms and look back at this behemoth of a game.

In keeping with the tradition of the series, presenting a singular isolated narrative with some connection to the broader story, the game finds you waking from the destruction of the Conclave, a gathering of mages and templars and a temporary truce in the ongoing conflict that had been in conflict since the second title. With your character having no clear recollection of the events the course and direction of the game is set, a rift has opened up above the continent of Thedas and your objective is to build the forces of the Inquisition to close and seal the threat from your encampment of Haven. In the early stages you have the option to explore a scattering of locations to build up your forces beginning with the picturesque Hinterlands, an assortment of terrains that showcase the various environments you’ll encounter on your travels before venturing further afield with more exotic and dealy locations to further your quest. One of the main criticisms levelled towards this game was the restriction of progress behind experience points gained through completing various side quests and tasks. One of the contributors to this page had left the title uncomplete based on this gating system, effectively blocking off new areas behind an artificial wall, and indeed for those yet to play Inquisition allow me a brief explanation. The game is formatted around experience points, you gain inquisition power from completing certain tasks and actions in any given area, as you accumulate the points and through the natural progression of the game you are presented new areas to explore by spending your power which in turn unlocks the story further.

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Choose your next quest wisely

For those looking to speedrun the game to use a gaming parlance, the frustration could set in with the inability to progress without engaging in some of the side quests or activities, to unlock the next required area, it effectively forced you to invest time into the game which in contrast to more recent titles such as Breath of the Wild which affords you the opportunity to go for the final boss immediately. Through my experience which of course makes this a subjective point, I never felt restricted or unable to progress the narrative, principally because as with a lot of Bioware games the standard of the story and characters were compelling enough to make me want to stay and explore the world around me. It does, force you I suppose to slow your play style and partake in the side quests, and I will say largely they are somewhat redundant and repetitive fetch quests and collection challenges that you’d hope will be a sign of the genre historically and not a mechanic carried forward. However, by and large through natural exploration and engagement, by looking to complete a majority of the given area before moving on you had usually earned sufficient powers or points to unlock one or two additional areas of your map. Taking a step back and looking at the game objectively its possible I’d surmise to view each area as a traditional level, told from a different perspective perhaps to platform games prior granted, but one where if you completed a set level or challenge it was entirely possible to move onto the next without hitting that wall of frustration.

Looking specifically at the narrative structure the game is set around ten critical juncture points, the Inquisitors Path and the main plot of the game. Following a similar progression path to other historic games both in this and the Mass Effect series there is a substantial amount of secondary and companion missions and quests to explore that expand your experience and general length of play. In addition to the character missions each explored area has anywhere between twelve to twenty objectives to fulfill, as noted often repetitive in nature but certainly, there is a great deal of substance to occupy your time, how much you decide to invest in the game is a personal decision you as the player make. I loved the world of Dragon Age and the lore and history behind the worlds the studio builds, Inquisition benefits from the two titles as well as countless tie in novels Dragon Age™: Inquisition_20190528193117and art and lore books released to support the games, it is evident from the earliest moments you find yourself emerging into a rich and interesting world not lacking for content or creativity. Whilst certain sub missions do become repetitive the game does have some memorable sequences, the Winter Palace escapade feels like a sequence lifted from the French Revolution with the intrigue and subtifuge ever present. Depending on your choice there is a great, time travel element introduced that feels in keeping with the series lore and magic and lastly a memorable experience into the fade contrasting well to other journeys into this magical realm experience in the other games in the series. Having always opted to pursue a warrior class during my play throughs the experience of the fade and mages was always one I was quickly trying to get through as swiftly as possible, so it made a nice change to experience this dimension without the lore and knowledge of magic generating a sense of fatigue.

The companion quests work in a similar fashion to those found in the other Dragon Age games which is to say with the standard conditions in place you never have the sense of peril or dread your decisions will adversely effect the composition of the Inquisition if you generally act in a decent fashion. One of the great mechanics I enjoyed about Mass Effect 2 and the relationship building aspect was the focus of at first recruiting your team then building up their trust before engaging on the suicide mission, if you didn’t put in the work to gain their loyalty, chances are they would end up dead. It was a different mechanic to the first game and made a real difference in how you approached and how much you invested into completing the game. Unfortunately you never have that sense of urgency or peril in your actions, largely as long as you keep saying nice things and doing one or two of their missions everyone seems to stay loyal to the Inquisitor. This does change somewhat in the DLC content and the final package that was released for the game but I won’t go into that for obvious reasons. I don’t think any of the Companion quests were that memorable save for Dorian’s father and his somewhat implied homophobic mentality towards his son which was a quite open attempt by Bioware to address this issue and not subvert or bury it in metaphor. I enjoyed Sera’s inclusion, she felt like a subtle nod by the developers to not take the game to seriously and injected some fun into the more dire and straight faced mix of characters surrounding you. Lastly, because she was the more obvious and hence my first romance in the game, the various stages of building the loyalty and then affections of Josephine were also some memorable side missions mixing in politics with assassins and murder, a healthy mix to build up a blossoming romance.

Let’s talk graphical prowess, in the age of high definition resolutions and capabilities a cross generational title such as this was always going to be a mixed affair looking back especially after a half decade has passed since its release. Using the Frostbite 3 engine, the same platform that drove Mass Effect Andromeda visually the environments in my opinion are still of a consistent and highly realised aesthetic. Using familiar fantasy and gaming tropes the variety and scope of the locations experienced do tend to border on the familiar, the spooky forest, barren desert, wooded hills and stormy coast all capable of conjuring a familiar image in your head before you’ve even experienced the game. There are of course exceptions to these and those tend to be the more memorable, the Winter Palace as mentioned above was a remarkable experience set in a Parisian style ball full of decadence and grandeur, the forces of the Inquisition dressed in regal attire for the duration of the level before returning to your familiar uniform and clothing. Equally, your journey into the Fade subverted certain expectations of earlier games which saw a reuse of other locations redressed with a filter and instead opting for a very individual appearance. One of the aspects I really enjoyed which Inquisition did well was the transformation of locations when you had completed a certain level of objectives or mission criteria. When you arrive for instance in Crestwood, until you fulfill a certain objective the area is a stormy night with rain falling heavily around you. Once you reach a critical moment the area transforms and the area is returned to sunlight and splendour, a small touch but one that had a visual impact on your actions, where you could actually see how you were making a difference to the world around you.

The characters and cast of Inquisition are a mixed affair, as with the other games in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series you have the option to customise and design your central protagonist although on the majority of your playthrough depending on your preferences you will be adorned in armour and as such will spend as much or as little time as you wish ensuring your armour reflects your preferences and predication. Honestly, I do perhaps approach these games with somewhat of a male attitude around functionality and aesthetic, if it works and meets my survival requirements how it looksDragon Age™: Inquisition_20190528202318 is somewhat lost on me. I do generally operate on the basis if I have the option to dye my armour I will always go for the green and black tints or hues. I understand it adds longevity and customisation to design and perfect your appearance but honestly, it doesn’t appeal greatly to me in real life so the prospect of using my free time to obsess over colour combinations and matching armour or accessories is a moot point. Once I have my suit of armour of clothing that seems acceptable generally speaking that’s my wardrobe for the duration of the experience. As with other Bioware games the armour in the Dragon Age universe consists of various tiers and levels although fairly simple to understand the crafting aspect, once you have reached the top tier, I believe there are about a half dozen levels of progress generally speaking any other choices are simply a superficial choice.

It should be noted despite being released before Andromeda and as a cross generational title Inquisition didn’t received or experience as much criticism for its characters animations and appearance. There is a consistent finish and appearance to all the characters and models in the Bioware universe, a sort of waxy clay like exterior in terms of skin texture and appearance, never pushing for photo realism or definition. It allows a standard to be set that doesn’t overwhelm or push the boundaries of what was possible but seemingly allowed the developers to focus instead on the environments and clothing which in part do look fairly impressive even to this day. Andromeda attempted to push perhaps what was possible with Frostbite 3 at that time and endured a barrage of criticism for the appearance of its characters both superficially and in terms of mannerisms and expressions. Whilst there character definitions and textures aren’t a remarkable aspect of the game they are competent, creating a consistency across the series and a familiarity to anyone who had experienced another Bioware game. Equally, the environments are presented in bold and defining colours that do stand out. It does suffer at times when you get to close to the walls or cliff edges with some of the detail lost but, for instance the shot below you do get a sense of depth and textural difference from the soft waves of sand on the floor to the sharp edges of the bushes, the various stone structures around you, and whilst similar in nature the various tones and hues used creating separation for instance between the sand and the rock.

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The game itself taken as an experience on the seventh generation of consoles was honestly, pushing the hardware to its limits both in terms of its scope and size, on numerous occasions I was either experiencing a complete freeze of the game or even the console unable to turn off or shut down correctly resorting to the ill fated pulling of the plug and allowing it to cool down. A fault with my hardware perhaps? well since I only ever play Inquisition on my PS4 I have never experienced such a severe range of faults or bugs or indeed, any instances such like this when going back onto my Xbox 360 a good few years after I first played and completed Inquisition on any other title. What the game was trying to accomplish was remarkable and indeed pushed the console to its limits, that it didn’t see a release on the WiiU using the Frostbite 3 engine probably alludes to the difficulty on getting the main infrastructure working on technology of that generation. I was curious to see whether those issues had been addressed or picked up when I crossed the generational divide and all I can attest to, since I’ve played it and whenever I’ve spent considerable time in this game I have experienced none of the game breaking or ineed console breaking bugs and issues I experienced with Inquisition in its earliest form. Also, having the opportunity to go back and play through all the additional content as a complete game of the year edition was a welcome touch, the game in its entirety can be brought for relatively cheap these days, for the scope and quantity of content included I do consider this a great title to pick up and experience even just the once. Whist fore knowledge of the series does assist it does function somewhat as a soft reboot of the series, typical with the character waking with amnesia trope and experiencing the chaotic world of Thedas around you.

Inquisition plays as with the other games in the series as a third person combat action role playing game with light upgradable elements introduced and expanding upon. Whist I will always champion the traditional D&D titles such as Baldur’s Gate, of which Dragon Age Origins on the PC drew a considerable influence from allowing you to play in the same style or almost the same turn based moving and combat, the sequel and Inquisition opted to simplify the combat and present a more action and streamlined approach. As a consequence it does turn the game into somewhat of a button bashing exercise, there are elements of environmental combat and cross combination attack Dragon Age™: Inquisition_20190528195941tactics that do pay off when utilised well. The mage character for instance can progress and develop ice based attacks that work well in combination with a fierce strike from a warrior class.  Equally enemies with similar ice based attacks do make use and cause increased damaged if you are exposed to water creating challenging circumstances. One of the fun aspects of playing Inquisition was the option to expand or change the rule set and difficulty of the game at a whim, if you chose to have increased damage, friendly fire or more challenging opponents you could, I do prefer and enjoy games which present you with a uniformed approach but give you the freedom and flexibility to amend the game as you see fit without resorting to throwing more enemies at you or increasing an invisible armour statistic for the challenge. If you want a challenge you can customise the game as you see fit.

One aspect of the game I didn’t find especially interesting but did experience was the addition of the multiplayer mode, a function that seemed to be included for the sole purpose of generating income for the studio and I would presume EA. Working in a similar fashion to Mass Effect 3, you and a band of random individuals work to complete a series of challenges within a defined dungeon area, gradually building up your resources and equipment although of course with the provision to spend actual money to gain little more than a superficial advantage. With Mass Effect 3 there was a tenuous connection to the main game with your actions altering the galactic readiness to defend against the Reaper invasion. Here, no such connection as far as I can tell, there is never any reference to your actions and as such it felt entirely as a tacked on addition to add a mode no one needed or wanted and as such a barren part of the game. I dabbled with it briefly but without the option to carry your main character over in this arena, presumably you can spend money building up their appearance, it just felt like a missed opportunity. I would, one day like to experience a Bioware game with others, perhaps that was the direction and intention of Anthem although given its multitude of failure you don’t feel that has longevity. I will be curious to see with Dragon Age 4 whether they push to use a games as service methodology in its design, something similar to The Division or other so called Looter Shooter games the world of Inquisition wasn’t viable but I remember in the earliest days of PC gaming playing Baldur’s Gate with other players through its multi-player options, even something similar to Resident Evil 5 would be an interesting prospect. There is scope and potential for multi-player to work in a title like Dragon Age, a random tacked on addition that just seem’s like a cash grab by the studio or publisher is an unfortunate miss that leaves somewhat of a bad taste.

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The legacy of Dragon Age Inquisition, I would probably argue Bioware as a company is an unknown and mixed affair. It’s hard to see a positive and sustainable future for its most recent release Anthem, and having followed in the footsteps of Mass Effect Andromeda, a game I did enjoy but a good while after its initial release with two relative failures to its name certainly much of the goodwill generated by the studio during its formative and crucially, independent years away from EA has diminished somewhat. Still, and whilst I’ll accept this is a subjective standpoint the main concern from the fan base after Anthem’s less than prestigious reception wasn’t around that game specifically but more the future for the studio and where they might go, and of course with the return of Casey Hudson all indications suggest this is towards Dragon Age 4 with a reveal trailer hinting at a continuation of the story from Inquisition and that ending with one of your companions. If so, whilst there have been elements of continuity between the games to date, they have largely been characters on the periphery with your main central character always different between games, I would hope and expect given the final moments of Inquisition you would carry on with your main character from this title and as such the legacy of this game might actually be far more important than that experienced in Dragon Age Origins and its sequel. As a game it was an ambitious attempt to present a more expansive open world structure that opted for a more unique approach. One fault I’ve come to witness having explored a great many worlds is the artificial nature of change when you explore the environments around you and for variety sake, how quickly open world titles attempt to force different climates for example into a limited arena.

Often there are shortcuts, Far Cry 4 for instance had a subquest in the snow filled mountains before returning you to a temperate location. I enjoyed Skyrim but being exposed to so many micro climates in such a confined area felt as artificial today as it did when I was playing Ocarina of Time. You could accept the short cut during the formative years of the open world genre, it allowed the opportunity to explore a variety of environments and challenges whilst never breaking the illusion of exploration. With Dragon Age Inquisition, the world was broken down into separate areas to explore, a return perhaps to the more traditional RPG play style with loading screens taking you Dragon Age™: Inquisition_20190528192629back to Skyhold and from there planning your next course of action before setting out once more, cliched perhaps but different from its peers and attempting something new. In the subsequent period of course we have been treated to the likes of Breath of the Wild with its vast open world setting a new standard for the genre and indeed addressing many of the issues if not the fundamental issue of the compressed micro climate arena in a viable and engaging form. One of the criticisms you could direct and indeed is a genuine issue with Nintendo’s finest is the lack of characters to interact with, of my very brief experience to date it has a somewhat forlorn and desolate sense. One of the great strengths of Bioware has always been is secondary characters and dialogue and narrative options, I’ve always been a fan of Zelda as a series, most recently when I concluded Ocarina of Time could be described as a literary classic but beyond Link, himself a mute protagonist and Zelda there are few memorable and developed characters as seen in a Bioware release. If Nintendo have set the bar for what we would consider a believable open world to play in, my hope and desire a studio such as Bioware would have the means and willing to fill it with a variety of people to meet and connect with.

It was an accomplishment that exceeded, indeed pushed what was possible on the last generation of consoles and only became viable on our present day technology. It’s a game built on Frostbite 3, with all the implied limitations and difficulties that have been reported and commented on by the game’s developers, a platform used to build a range of games from Battlefield IV to Dragon Age Inquisition. At times, its a marvel to behold and you find yourself catching your breath at the spectacle of the world around you, the beauty of the natural environment, swept away in moving and memorable interactions with a cast of companions unique and varied beyond anything experienced in a Bioware game to date. Certainly, as discussed there were technical issues and challenges, and would I ever position or propose the game is a classic or fundamentally changed or challenged the genre? no. But then, it didn’t need to, Dragon Age in all its iterations and forms was never an attempt to break the wheel or challenge the status quo, indeed from its origins it was always an homage and attempt for the studio to build upon the success of the Baldur’s Gate games into a living open and expansive world to explore. As with the Dungeon and Dragon setting used previously,  the series was built upon a lore of  and respect for the knowledge of the subject matter, treating its audience with a level of respect and allowing you to engage in whatever form you wished. It tried something different with its approach without testing the boundaries of acceptability, will the direction for a sequel be to a game as a service, always online, always pushing for connections to others, perhaps. Therefore, lets grant Dragon Age Inquisition in its fifth anniversary year a nod of appreciation for being a fitting tribute to a game of its type. A divisive game on its release but one that has found renewed favour wherever the Inquisition forms across the lands.

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