It's been about four months since I've spent quality time in the world of Thedas--nearly 70 hours' worth of it. This week's content release for Dragon Age: Inquisition, Jaws of Hakkon, may have jump started my engine, reminding me what I love most about the core game: the sense of wonder, the thematic richness, a fantastic sense of place and personality. The new adventure becomes available in the second act of the game, taking your Inquisitor to the Frostback Basin, the foothills and valley near the mountain range at the southern end of Thedas. You've been called in to provide support for an archaeological survey of the region that is searching for the final resting place of the world's last Inquisitor, Ameridan. While piecing together the mystery of Ameridan, you'll have to navigate the region's complex geography and even more complex sociopolitical relationships.
The Frostback Basin is a deceptively big zone. What seems easily conquerable on the map screen is actually a sizable and intricate mix of environments. Foothills open up into plateaus, which feature deep, dangerous pits. A lakeshore runs into the bubbling, muddy shallows of the basin, and those turn into misty swamplands and damp jungles. It's all brought to life with vibrant color and fresh ambient sounds. The Frostback Basin feels distinct from the game's other zones, and it's mostly a joy to explore.
I say "mostly," because sometimes it feels like BioWare is trying to stretch out the available content in Jaws of Hakkon. Over the course of eight hours in the Frostback Basin, five different missions make you "follow the trail" across territory you've already explored thoroughly in the course of doing other missions. Most egregious is a mission that sends you around to flip a number of switches scattered across the northern half of the zone. For the previous six hours of play, these switches had been visible but inactive, and I knew that they'd send me back eventually. They did. This decision is particularly strange because Hakkon doesn't need to be stretched in any way. The Frostback Basin is packed with all of the elements that made me love Inquisition to begin with: smart characterization, interesting combat encounters, and carefully written lore.
The Frostback Basin is home to two rival tribes of the Avvar, a human society that briefly pops up early on in Inquisition. The development of these groups (and of the region's history in general) is the high point of Hakkon, and you'll get the most out of this DLC if you dig into the lore about these people and their culture and religion. Dragon Age has always been at its best when the stories it tells are multifaceted and mysterious, and the same is true here: Religious iconography blurs together; magical traditions are at once remarkably similar and fundamentally different; and the final, "true" history is often left unknown.
Best of all, the Avvar work to break apart the classic binaries that show up throughout the Dragon Age series. They share the Elven relationship to nature, but are human. They're human, but don't belong to any of the major political powers. They're deeply spiritual, but also incredibly practical. They have a strict system to govern the use of magic, but use terms and concepts to explain the magical world that are entirely different than those used by the Templars and Circle of Mages. All of this works to complicate the world of Thedas by providing yet another potential perspective to consider.
This makes it extra frustrating that so little of Jaws of Hakkon shares the cinematic sheen of the rest of Inquisition. Most other zones in the world of Thedas have a mix of two different sorts of quests. Firstly, there are the little, MMOG-style missions you complete for this or that character: kill ten bears, or recover a missing satchel, or perform some other small task. Secondly, there are the major story missions that take you out of the third-person perspective and into a cutscene view, where dramatic music supports characters who emote and animate as the plot unfolds. In Hakkon, only the very beginning and very end of the main questline offer this second sort of storytelling. Throughout the rest of my eight hours, I watched as world-shaking information was delivered without any pomp or luster.
If you told me last week that this would bother me, I'd tell you that you'd be absolutely wrong. But here I am, missing the intimate close-ups and the sweeping vistas. (Maybe this shouldn't be be surprising: Imagine an episode of Game of Thrones that never shows the detail of a character's face.) Over the course of the previous 70 hours, Dragon Age: Inquisition had quietly taught me to expect a certain rhythm: I'd meander around a zone until I was ready to commit to one of the many "big" story events. There was a sort of storytelling grammar at work, and by reducing the use of that grammar, Hakkon rarely feels as substantial as it should. Thankfully, the final hour or so of Hakkon does utilize those storytelling tools to great effect, and it joins them with some new, unique mechanics in a series of major combat encounters that build momentum and velocity until an explosive climax.
Though I wish that Jaws of Hakkon was less bloated, and though I miss the cinematic flair of the rest of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I know that in a month I'll have forgotten these quibbles. Instead, I'll remember my time spent in Frostback Basin fondly. I'll remember the sharp wit of Svarah Sun-Hair, the leader of the local Avvar clan. I'll remember the holy symbols that blur the line between competing faiths. I'll remember the mist and the mountains and the sun's light through the trees. I'll remember confronting legendary foes, and the time I got to spend with some of my favorite characters in video games.