So some of you may be wondering where my review of Dragon Age Inquisition is. Sure, I hinted that things weren’t going so well when it made my list of biggest disappointments of the year, but that’s not a review, just a mention. The honest truth is, I haven’t touched the game in weeks but somewhere in my heart I still hoped I’d go back to it. That maybe a break might rekindle my interest… sadly this was not to be. I have finally reached the point where I don’t see myself ever going back to it, so instead of a review I’d like to recount my feelings about the game over the course of my ~60 hour long journey.
One of the things I value about console experiences is that they’re generally complete, self-contained experiences. So when I started up Dragon Age: Inquisition and was promptly told that, unless I went to my computer and did their setup process, I’d be given a default history and not allowed to make any decisions or import any settings… I was really annoyed. I let them pick a default set for me, ’cause I didn’t wanna go to the hassle at that time, and it ended up hurting my experience dramatically. I ended up with a Hawke who was nothing like my Dragon Age 2 character, who had made decisions that didn’t line up, and the result was a world that just felt weird.
So afterwards, I went to check out the Keep and it is very impressive. They really have crystallized all of the really important decisions and allowed you to create the world that should have been based off of how you played the previous games. But it’s still a separate entity, and in the end – that’s not acceptable. If they couldn’t do an import system – and I understand why that’d be so difficult – they should have created a simplified version for the consoles that just contained the basics – gender/class/race/romance and the biggest world-altering decision such as who you sided with in Dragon Age 2 – and then gave you a notice saying that if you wish for more customization, you can go to the Keep and do a full setup there.
No Beautiful People
After the Keep, you get put into an absurdly deep character customization with one big flaw: It’s virtually impossible to create a female character that doesn’t look hideously deformed. I’ve seen a few online pictures of people who managed to pull it off, but even the devs couldn’t make characters who looked good judging by the vast majority of female characters in the game. They’re all terrifying, and my poor Elf is no less so. She tried to be pretty, but the game just wouldn’t let her – the worst part is that she turned out nothing like what she looked like in character creation. It’s a sad, sad story – and it also means that your romance options are pretty limited since there is only one female character in the entire game who doesn’t look deformed – fortunately she IS a romance option.
I would’ve loved to have had a simplified version of this that would give me a bit less deep customization but still let me feel as though I wasn’t just picking a preset – but that wouldn’t have changed that the characters were just plain hideous. Male characters don’t seem to have quite the same problem, as most of them at least look… well… not deformed. Some of them actually even look good.
Making Progress… or not
So… as you can tell, the game didn’t get off to a great start for me. Then you start playing, and the opening sequence is pretty bland. You meet your first party members and get to see a pretty explosion. You get stuck with Varric again, and sadly he’s the only returning party member from Dragon Age 2 – I guess they wanted people to forget that game, although it really wasn’t that bad. The scene gives a few hints of story to come, but nothing that really built much interest for me.
It then drops you into this fairly standard plains region and you start to get to actually experience the game. I spent 15 hours in this plains zone, and… it was a waste of my time. I made no notable progress, I didn’t really get much stronger, I got no real long-lasting benefit, the story didn’t really move much from it, and I still didn’t even finish the zone. At one point I became frustrated because I just had so much stuff left to do and I still didn’t feel strong enough to tackle either of the other zones I’d tried to enter so I felt like I was obligated to keep going in this zone. Of course, that was mostly bad luck on my part – I just happened to pick two very hard areas… but there was no guidance, or insight as to where I should be going… just a list of places I could explore. This isn’t inherently a problem, but when areas are so large it can become one since it can make you feel like you’re not getting anywhere.
Of course that’s relatively minor, but it just all leads into the bigger problem which is that no matter how much time I spent, no matter how much I leveled, no matter what I did… nothing changed. I didn’t feel much stronger, fights never got shorter or more exciting, my abilities never felt more impactful, and it never felt as though the quests I got contributed anything to the gameworld. It just felt like nothing I did resulted in anything changing and it made me feel like I was just wasting my time.
In total I played around 60 hours of gameplay… and it wasn’t until the end of that time that I realized how little progress I’d actually made by checking the trophy list and seeing how many story trophies there were. The game does a terrible job of motivating you to actually pursue the story. It tells you things are urgent… for example, you are tasked with stopping an assassination and it’s life or death serious, but there’s no penalty or alteration if you spend another 30 hours wandering around the game. I get it, open world game… but don’t give me the urgent tasks until they’re urgent then. If time is of the essence, make time of the essence.
Probably the most frustrating aspect was that the combat just never felt satisfying. I played on hard seeking a challenge… what I got in stead was a long series of slow, drawn out, boring fights. I suspect this is because there is no healer class, but speculation is pointless… the simple fact is that the only ‘difficulty’ that increases is the amount of time it takes for the fights. This is not a fun way to increase difficulty, and I hate games that do this. I want to have to think on my feet, have things feel like a struggle so that when I complete them I feel accomplished. If you just make fights longer but no harder… then I just feel bored and tired. And that’s not satisfying or fun.
The worst part of the combat, though, is the animations. Playing as a spellcaster is supposed to make you feel frail but powerful. You’re supposed to feel like you’re at risk because you’re squishy… but that you are walking artillery. When you pull out your power, you should instill fear and awe with your spells. Not a single spell in any of the spellcaster’s main skill trees feels powerful. Fire spells feel more like a campfire than a raging inferno, lightning feels like a static shock rather than a thunderstorm, and ice reminded me more of a light flurry more than a frigid snowstorm – and Winnipegger’s know snow.
The game also features some really poor region balancing. I get having different areas with different power levels within a region… but that’s not what Inquisition does. You’ll stumble upon little randomly placed groups of enemies that are dramatically stronger than other areas. For example, one of the rifts in the middle of the lowest level zone in the game is about ~15 levels stronger than everything else in the zone. Just randomly in the middle of a river you have to cross on the way to other low level areas. It feels kind of poorly laid out, and it can lead to some wasted time that would’ve been largely unavoidable.
The World and Its Denizens
Overall, I was not having a great time with the game. But I was still playing. The game did a few things relatively well, which kept me interested. The characters were really well designed with trials, challenges, strengths, and real personalities. None of these characters felt like parodies. They may not have been beautiful, thanks to the character creation engine, but they were believable. And it held my interest in the game for a lot longer than I expected. The banter between these characters, regardless of which characters you brought along for the ride, has some of the best humour I’ve seen in a game. You will laugh, and it will make your time so much more enjoyable. You might even forget how bad the rest of it is during these moments.
While the characters were a highlight, the world itself, along with the story, suffered from the same problem most of these open world ‘build your own character’ adventures do… by having to accommodate whatever possible history you build for your character, a lot of the story elements become fairly generic, at least in the early segments of the game… because, sadly, I didn’t make it all that far in.
The Final Straw
The reason I stopped playing is not the above. I wasn’t particularly pleased with the game so far, of course… but I’ve finished games I didn’t enjoy before. No, what stopped me was a story sequence that is probably the worst segment I’ve ever played in a game. You get invited to a state ball and you have to maintain the approval of the guests or else you fail. The problem is that there seems to be no way to increase your approval except to sit around and do nothing for a while or by discovering court secrets and telling them to your spymaster. As long as you’re at the party, your approval gradually improves… but every action you can take, just about, gives you either a penalty or a neutral result. If you talk to people and say the right thing, nothing happens typically… if you say the wrong thing or talk to the wrong person or stand in the wrong place, it drops dramatically.
Your goal is to explore the off-limits areas of the castle to solve some enemy plot – I won’t spoil the exact details but it is utterly imperative to the story that you solve this. While in the off-limits areas, your approval gradually decreases (surprised? I hope not) so you have to alternate idly doing nothing for a while and then wandering about other areas of the castle. It is every bit as boring as I imagine a real court function would be… but this is not where to go for realism. They should have been aiming to make it interesting, fun, and strategic but in stead it almost felt like they were trying to make it as boring and bland as they could. If so, they succeeded.
So I’m likely never going to play this game again. It is highly unlikely I’ll ever finish it, and that’s why. That scene broke me, and I don’t see myself intentionally failing it because that’s not my style.