Dragon Age: Inquisition Review

  • First Released Nov 18, 2014
  • XONE
  • PS4

One for the ages.

Just as Jesus of Nazareth was asked to answer to claims of his divinity, so too does Dragon Age: Inquisition ask you to respond to rumors of your own godhood. As the game opens, you tumble from a rift in the sky, from which onlookers also see a glimpse of a woman. Many believe that the woman must be Andraste, the prophet whose doctrine inspired the rise of the Chantry, yet you have no memory of the event. Perhaps you are a chosen one; perhaps you are merely fortunate. The Maker may know, but His voice continues to go unheard, at least directly; it is up to you, and those you influence, to decide whether you have been marked by a deity. And just as with real-life matters of faith, there is not always a clear resolution.

Dragon Age: Inquisition does not draw subtle parallels between the Chantry and modern-day Christianity. Its references are obvious and sometimes heavy-handed, but clear allegory aside, this vast and engrossing role-playing game effectively explores matters of faith and devotion on an intimate level, surrounding you with a multitude of people, each of whom navigates evolving religious turmoil in his or her own way. The chaos of the world you are thrust into explores the usual Dragon Age themes--the struggle between mages and templars, the role of the Grey Wardens in holding off demonic blights, and the political machinations of the Orlesian elite among them. But the Chantry takes a central role, and the ways in which the dialogue and gameplay decisions allow you to express your own views of faith make Inquisition the most personal game in the series, which is a wonderful revelation given how much real estate it depicts.

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What a shame to spoil such a pretty place with magic and swords.
What a shame to spoil such a pretty place with magic and swords.

It is from tragedy and chaos that the Inquisition is reborn, and it is only appropriate that a fledgling movement appoint a fledgling leader--you--as its head. You tailor your Inquisitor in all sorts of wonderful ways using the game's intricate character creation system; you may even choose from a couple of different voices, even though the character is fully acted. You can also create a Qunari protagonist for the first time in the series, though you needn't mourn the options you didn't choose should you prefer a Dalish elf: your available party members, three of whom can join you at any given time, are a diverse group, and include Iron Bull, a no-nonsense, laid-back Qunari warrior who avoids becoming the gruff, gravelly-voiced stereotype he could so easily have been.

In fact, Dragon Age: Inquisition's characters typically avoid the cliches we've come to know in video games (and in fiction in general), which is much of what makes getting to know them, even returning ones, such a pleasure. Cassandra is primarily known for her interrogation of Varric, that dwarven teller of tall of tall tales, in Dragon Age II; in Inquisition, her stubbornness takes a beautifully human shape. She is driven not by power, but by law, and as she examines her faith during a time of upheaval, her questioning is poignant. That she believes is her most admirable trait, though it's this same trait that has her frequently confronting Varric with such aggression. Hearing the two bicker as they follow you across verdant meadows and through dim caverns is one of Inquisition's highlights.

The ways in which the dialogue and gameplay decisions allow you to express your own views of faith make Inquisition the most personal game in the series.

Meet Iron Bull. He may or may not be pleased to meet you.
Meet Iron Bull. He may or may not be pleased to meet you.

Of course, keeping these two in your party means leaving others behind, and it's hard not to miss Varric's hairy chest, which is almost a character unto itself. I grew to appreciate a mysterious spirit named Cole most of all, not just because of his talent with dual daggers, but for his overwhelming compassion for others. He reads minds, often communicating the thoughts and emotions he uncovers in a stream-of-consciousness poetry, fragmented and alliterative. Cole comforts people in need, but wipes memories of him from their minds, in a touching show of selflessness.

Dragon Age: Inquisition treats its characters with great respect; Iron Bull's description of sex among the Qunari is as honest as his admiration of a transgender mercenary is honorable. Your choices when speaking to your cohorts, as well as when adventuring, meet with their disapproval or approval, sometimes even when the character in question isn't there to witness the event. (It's odd to be immediately notified that Varric appreciates how you have destroyed a deposit of the dangerous mineral red lyrium even when he isn't at your side when it occurs.) Romance might ensue, presuming you earn the favor of the character you most fancy, though there is always the chance of a broken heart. As is the case with most BioWare games, many previous choices are inescapable; encouraging my lover to make the world a better place ultimately led to our split. In that moment, I recalled losing Alastair to a greater cause in Dragon Age: Origins; how appropriate that the best experiences in the series thus far would be similarly tinged with sorrow.

It is through dialogue choices and forking gameplay options that you become the Inquisitor you wish to be. You even sit upon your throne and cast judgment on those that wronged you--and then deal with the repercussions when certain people and factions don't like your choices. You might sentence a renegade mage to tranquility, only to face negativity from magical forces that fear your wrath--or, if you are a mage, see you as a hypocrite. Some of these choices play out on the war table, which you view along with your Inquisition allies from overhead. Here, you select missions that might reward you with influence and power, or earn you metals and herbs to use for crafting new armor and weapons, or for outfitting your base of operations with new decor. Once a mission is selected, you select an approach--usually diplomatic, surreptitious, or forceful--and then wait for word to come back and rewards to flow in. This is Dragon Age's answer to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood: you assign tasks to your allies, and they return, hopefully, with news of good fortune.

Veilfire is a new addition that allows you to see hidden elven writing. It's like real fire. Only magic.
Veilfire is a new addition that allows you to see hidden elven writing. It's like real fire. Only magic.

Your choices from previous games are reflected as well, though if you've decided to move to a new platform, you can visit the game's official website and tailor the world in advance. Some references to those choices are entirely too conspicuous, as if to scream "Hey, remember that thing you did? Do you?" Fortunately, not every contextual detour is so blatant. Your race and class are frequently noted in passing, and they are reflected in how people speak to you and react to your presence. As a Dalish elf, the idea that I could truly be The Herald of Andraste (the Christlike title I was granted) was blasphemy among many; as a mage, the Templars did not greet me with enthusiasm. At one stage, I was invited to hobnob with the Orlesian elite, a suspicious crowd that grew even more suspicious in my elven presence.

The mission that puts you face to face with the nobility of Orlais, as well as with the disturbing masks they donned, is somewhat of a slog--a lot of walking and talking and listening, but rather little in the way of epiphany. It's also an important one, in that it portrays the diplomatic aspect of the Inquisitor's role in this world. You are a spy, an ambassador, and a combatant, and this thematic diversity is reflected in the gameplay. You are also an explorer, spending most of your time traversing Dragon Age: Inquisition's expansive spaces. You move through the meadows, deserts, and stormy coasts from a third-person perspective, uncovering new areas, unlocking new camps for resting, and, of course, crushing the apostates, great bears, and wyverns that dare taunt you.

It is through dialogue choices and forking gameplay options that you become the Inquisitor you wish to be.

Closing rifts is your primary concern, at least in the early going.
Closing rifts is your primary concern, at least in the early going.

Combat is likely to be Dragon Age: Inquisition's most divisive feature. It is fun and colorful, and if you bemoaned the loss of the tactical camera in Dragon Age II, you'll be glad to know it is back, and available even on consoles, allowing you to direct the action from above. The tactical camera can be awkward, getting caught up on objects and sticking a bit too close to the action. On the other, the ability on consoles to use a single button to forward time instead of constantly pausing and unpausing is an intuitive tweak. But unless you're fighting roaring dragons or imposing bosses, you probably won't need the tactical camera very often, should you play on medium difficulty. Instead, you perform your standard attack, which costs no stamina, while throwing in more powerful abilities for dealing additional damage and controlling crowds.

In the meanwhile, your companions perform adequately enough; you can somewhat customize their AI routines as you could in previous games, but there's little need for micromanagement in this way. Most healing magic is gone, so you rely on health potions that replenish in camps and towns, and most tactical considerations, like throwing bombs and drinking draughts, can be dealt with from the default point of view. Ultimately, it's a good system that works well in both wide open spaces and cramped caves, and Inquisition is certainly the most fluid of the Dragon Age games. There are challenges out there, but nail-biting battles aren't common, though hard mode is always there if you want one, and dragon battles demand your concentration regardless.

Certain key boss battles aren't a comfortable fit; boss attack patterns sometimes require immediate reactions, but party members in the midst of combat don't respond until the current action is complete, at which point it might be too late to avoid damage. These occasions are the exception, however, and not the rule, and easy or not, there's no doubting the action's diversity. Because you can directly control the Inquisitor as well as any party member, there's never a need to stick with magic, or a two-handed blade, if you prefer to inhabit Varric's shoes and shoot his prized bow Bianca for a while.

Even deserts provide rest to the weary, if you know where to look.
Even deserts provide rest to the weary, if you know where to look.

Journeying is an absolute delight. You discover astralariums that hone in on constellations, requiring you to perform a connect-the-stars minigame to reveal the myth behind them. You peer through contraptions that allow you to survey the landscape and identify shimmering shards, which you then may collect. Such activities initially come across as busywork, only to be revealed as keys to new dungeons and temples. Meanwhile, your work at the war table often results in new areas being revealed, and previously accessible areas opening to you. And so you blindly venture into a new cavern, which might hold spiders, phantasms seeking respite, or puzzles that lead to even greater mysteries. There are decisions to make in the field, as well. I chose to betray my legacy and pursue untold magical knowledge, only to offer that knowledge to another when I feared the potential negative repercussions. There are paths I look back on with wonder and regret. What if I had gained the ancient ally I had forsaken? What if I had abandoned my selfish quest for wisdom and instead paid no mind to the power-hungry mage bending my ear?

And so a world builds around you. You blow a horn that sounds out across the land, signaling to your comrades that a fortification is cleared of enemies and theirs to inhabit. You find notes and read books, and they build a narrative picture remarkably consistent with the game's sights and sounds. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, gameplay and story are not separate objects, but inextricable entities. The story you create in your mind by the very act of adventuring, and the one BioWare tells by way of its events and characters, have equal footing. Dragon Age: Inquisition separates its expansive regions and makes them accessible on its world map; it is not one massive space, as an Elder Scrolls game would be. But it feels no less impressive for it, nor does the storytelling suffer from the sheer size of the world and the sheer amount of content. These elements form a large, coherent, self-consistent picture.

Well, it is called
Well, it is called "Dragon Age," after all.

No Caption Provided

This enormous and attractive picture reveals blemishes should you look closely enough. Rare sound bugs, awkward jumping puzzles, characters that pop into view, awkward cutscene transitions, and weird clipping might briefly distract you, but their sum total amounts to little. 85 hours after I started Dragon Age: Inquisition, the story reached a conclusion, and yet I still stare at all the areas still dark on the map. You can customize the keep that serves as your base of operations, and I look at the list of related unlockables, most of which still remain inaccessible. I wonder about Vivienne, the haughty mage that joined my cause, yet whom I barely know. I look at the small list of potions I have unlocked, and get anxious, wanting to rush into the Hinterlands or the Storm Coast, hoping to find plans for more. I ponder these schools of combat I have been told of, and the quests that (I think) will add them to my party's repertoire upon completion. I long to see and do all that I missed, not because it's there--but because I am confident it's worth seeing and doing.

You spend several of those hours at the crafting tables, creating and enhancing armor and weapons using the metals and herbs you collect along the way. If there's anything that slows down exploration, it's the frequent searching and collection of elfroot and serpentstone. You don't actively spend skill points in core attributes like constitution and ability, but you can still affect them when constructing gear for you and your cohorts. I miss Dragon Age: Origins' Sandal, the lovable lug all too eager to enhance your armor with a simple call of "Enchantment?" But the system he services didn't go as deep as Inquisition's, which had me carefully hoarding the rarest resources so that I might use them wisely. That spark-spewing dragon wasn't going to die a natural death, after all.

This is my inquisitor. What does yours look like?
This is my inquisitor. What does yours look like?

You might also spend a few hours in Dragon Age: Inquisition's cooperative multiplayer mode, which recalls that of Mass Effect 3, in that you have access only to a few different archetypes, and gradually earn more characters, more skills, and more items to boost you and your teammates in battle. (Of course, you can also purchase loot caches if you wish to hurry the process. It wouldn't be a modern big-budget game without a raft of microtransactions.) Matches are straightforward sojourns through three different maps focused exclusively on eliminating enemies, and while the enemies may differ, the pace is straightforward. Mass Effect 3 garnered a dedicated online following; Dragon Age: Inquisition's moment-to-moment gameplay doesn't have the same immediacy and spark, making it a fine bit of light entertainment, but unlikely to inspire the same devotion.

Inquisition's characters and world, on the other hand, recall the grand gestures of the original Dragon Age, even though the game as a whole is so structurally different to its predecessors. It offers the thrill of discovery and the passion of camaraderie. It features a glee club called The Sing-Quisition, and a dwarf with writer's block. It establishes connections with its world in big ways and small, with the sight of a titanous temple and the smirk of an Orlesian commander in love. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a wonderful game and a lengthy pilgrimage to a magical world with vital thematic ties to one we already know.

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The Good

  • Wonderful cast of interesting and relatable characters
  • Overarching narrative and diverse environments create a cohesive world
  • Choices that lead to adventure, triumph, and heartbreak
  • Lots of big areas to explore, with lots of great secrets to uncover
  • Fantastic balance between exploration, combat, story, and customization

The Bad

  • Combat requires relatively little strategy

About the Author

Kevin VanOrd has played every major Dragon Age release. (Admittedly, he's never touched a Dragon Age on mobile platforms, or on Facebook.) His favorite party member in the series is Varric. He does not miss his previous Dragon Age love interest, Anders. (That jerk!) He spent 85 hours on the campaign, and several more in multiplayer. He played on Xbox One and PlayStation 4; this review will be updated to reflect the PC version once he has spent enough time with that version.