The turn of the decade wasn’t a fantastic time for Bioware. The end of Mass Effect 3 sent screams of frustrated gamers rising into the night, a conclusion that rendered your 200 hours or whatever godforsaken time you’d clocked moot, the promise that all of your painstaking actions would form some unique tapestry of a denouement broken. The outrage was so uniform, Bioware had to release several DLCs to rectify the situation. And before that there was Dragon Age 2, the ‘fantasy epic’ that took place all in one city and sent you to the same areas so many times it firmly crossed the line from expedient to taking the piss. To say it was released to some resistance would be to be polite. So Dragon Age: Inquistion wasn’t just the next game in the 1000 year plan for Bioware, it had diplomacy to attend to, hearts and minds to win.
It comes as no surprise then that Dragon Age: Inquisition has a back to basics feel about its story. The more familiar Frodo vs Sauron, Harry vs Voldemort structure is back, you have your hero and the big bad magical motherfucker he has to stop ending the world. For its more intimate structure, it borrows from Mass Effect 3, in which you play peacemaker, trying to solve the various races’ (the mages, the templars, the Grey Wardens, Orlais and Ferelden) disputes and unite them under the banner of the greater good against the greater evil. The main endeavour seems to be in redeeming the gameplay. The world couldn’t be more open, with playable maps upon playable maps, a free-roam element that simply didn’t exist in the previous game. Here, if you feel like forgetting the narrative for a while in order to item horde in a series of exotic locales, or just going off and hunting dragons and trolls and the like, the game will afford you that opportunity. It does feel like the designers played a lot of Skyrim, took appropriate notes, and ‘were inspired by’ it accordingly. But as a consequence, the game feels freer, the world more genuine, now that you don’t find yourself running into endless invisible walls, or watching the same cave level morph into several settings for several stories.
From a storytelling perspective, though, part of me can’t help but feel this is a less ambitious game than Dragon Age II, once the question moves away from literal scope and gameplay. That game had no big bad, no overriding quest. The ‘right’ choices were harder to discern, companions could and would betray you, and the restricted setting that turned out to nullify the gameplay actually serves the story pretty well, with several refugee races packed together in a tight-fitting melting pot. Differences and disputes building over time, no clear heroes or villains. The game had a three-act structure just like Inquisition, but each act was its own self-contained story, which allowed the game to restart after each ‘final boss’ more effectively, whereas the more sprawling approach of Inquisition means a pronounced pace issue, in which you can go from a plot-heavy, character-led mission to six hours of fetch-questing before you’ve earned enough points to progress. This would be fine, but because the story is more singular than its predecessor, the last thing you want to do after the story has made a giant leap forward is go and close a bunch of rifts and go and hunt 15 goats.
I think part of the problem comes from the villain Corypheus, an ancient mage responsible for the first blight, being a fairly standard Cypher; wants to be a god, wants to enslave the world etc. There’s no real sense of a character, or of something, even for a moment, to separate him from a thousand gaming big bads, with their stiff talking and ‘you are not worthy, puny human’ vernacular. Bioware’s ethos is to inject greater emotional involvement into these well-trodden genres, tell character-led stories; it’s a shame they couldn’t extend that to the bad guy here. It means the missions focused around the campaign to defeat him lack the weight of impact of some of the earlier missions that revolve around vested interests in the game.
These missions, revolving around the Mages, the Templars and The Grey Wardens, are when the game became genuinely great to me. Each telling the corruption of orders that set out to do good, and thus having a tragic overtone to them, they benefit from the focus and perhaps the weight of previous games, in which the conflict between Mages and Templars featured heavily, just as it does here. It is in these levels that the game shows the kind of ambition that slightly lacks from the main story too, utilizing ‘The Fade’ (Dragon Age’s spirit world) to chilling effect. The Grey Wardens level in particular captures the visceral ‘choose your own adventure’ approach of Bioware of old, where the central dilemma of whether you pick what’s best for you or best for the world rears its head again and again.
I understand why some of the changes in Dragon Age: Inquisition had to happen. Their storytelling ambition was perhaps prioritized over gameplay in Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2, and that seemed to have alienated some purists; the gamers more invested in the, well, you know, gaming, than philistines like me who are fascinated by the storytelling potential of a fast expanding medium. Dragon Age II was perhaps the Man Of Steel of the gaming universe, its faults so unforgivable to fans that its qualities were then forgotten in the frenzy. Bioware couldn’t ignore that. So in Dragon Age: Inquisition, things are less experimental, arguably a little less morally ambiguous as well. It’s a better ‘game’. And the benefits from that are obvious from combat, to exploration, to the freedom of the open world. From a narrative perspective, did anything work as well as the Qunari Aroshok segment of its predecessor? Not to me. It is still a fantastic game, and it may well win Game of the Year, but that will speak about the lack of competition more than anything else. It’s a transitional game, I think, one that sees Bioware re-evaluate what it is about, re-adjust its balance between gameplay and story. The kind that has me more excited to see what they do next than the pinnacle itself, and if the post-credits scene (thanks Marvel for installing a culture of watching credits to the end) is anything to go by, the next game could be one for the books.