Dragon Age: Origins was my favorite fantasy RPG from the last console generation. It had everything I looked for in the genre: a rich, diverse world, an epic struggle against great evil, interesting characters, and engaging combat. What elevated the game above most others like it was Bioware’s stellar writing, particularly when it came to player choice. In many situations there was no “right” or “wrong” decision. Players had to choose the option they felt was best given the circumstances, or which was the lesser evil. Would these decisions be based on morality or pragmatism, and would the outcome be better or worse than expected? It was complex, immersive, and challenging, all distinctions which made it my personal choice for the best game of 2009.

When I heard that a sequel would be released in 2011, I was excited that I would have the chance to return to Ferelden and see how my actions had changed the land. After playing Dragon Age 2 however, I, like most others, was disappointed with the final result. It wasn’t a horrible game; the writing was still impressive and there were plenty of interesting twists. But the scope had been greatly diminished. I no longer felt like I was making an impact in the events of the game, that the overall conflict which was repeatedly referenced had any genuine significance. I was just going from point A to point B and back multiple times as the plot demanded. Quite a letdown considering the exceptional quality of its predecessor.

The staff at Bioware clearly listened to fan feedback and set out to rectify these problems with the third installment in the series, Dragon Age: Inquisition. While the hype definitely affected me at times, I was still cautiously skeptical. Would the game improve on DA2’s shortcomings, or would the changes made ultimately be irrelevant? Now that I’ve finished the game, I can say that there are elements which apply to both criteria. Inquisition is a significant step up from DA2, but misses the mark in several areas that keep it from being as good as Origins. Rather than explain my thoughts with a traditional review I felt I would break my thoughts down into two critiques, one looking at the game’s strong point, one at its deficiencies. Let’s start with an analysis of where the game excels.

 

Much Greater Threat – The danger posed by the Darkspawn in Dragon Age: Origins was, at least during the course of the game, restricted only to Ferelden. Dragon Age 2 focused on internal and external conflicts that only affected Kirkwall. Inquisition significantly raises the stakes with a menace which could tear apart all of Thedas. Not only has the destruction of the Chantry conclave further increased tensions between Templars and Mages following the deaths of their respective leaders, but it has opened ever-growing rifts into The Fade that are allowing demons passage into the mortal world. During my playthrough where I attempted to recruit the Mages into joining the Inquisition, my characters were sent a year into the future where I saw some of the ruin that would befall Thedas if I failed. It’s a simple but effective way of showing the player how much weight their mission carries.

 

Examination of Faith – Like the previous Dragon Age games, Inquisition focuses on the fight for social and political power among various forces in Thedas. Following the death of Divine Justinia at the conclave, remaining Chantry officials are seeking to elect a new Divine who will maintain the status quo they have cultivated over the centuries. With most of the grand clerics also dead, there are few who would be able to challenge their nominations. Chantry turmoil has also worsened the Mage/Templar conflict, with the former even more determined to establish their independence from the Circles and the latter determined to prove that they are the only force keeping the land safe. For both parties, their zealotry has led them to commit heinous acts which they consider “necessary” to further their end goals, while others are using the anarchy as an excuse to satisfy darker urges.

Concerning the Chantry, Inquisition provides a much greater analysis of how great a role faith and religion have in Thedas. Mother Giselle explains that since the Chant of Light has been altered and reinterpreted over the centuries to better suit the Chantry’s desires. Since hardly anyone was willing to question what was believed to be the word of The Maker out of fear they’d be branded a heretic, the Chantry exploited their revisions to gain significant political and military influence. Even while scrambling to rebuild, the clerics’ power is great enough to intimidate those who desire reform like Leliana and Cassandra. Dorian claims at one point that the Chantry is a “relic from a bygone age, desperately clinging to relevance,” and perhaps their more aggressive actions are a sign that the clerics know they’re on the cusp of losing everything they’ve fought to achieve.

The Chantry isn’t the only force exploiting the faith of others. Corypheus bolstered his army by recruiting not only men and women who desired power (mostly Tevinter Mages), but those who felt that The Maker and the Chantry had abandoned them: disillusioned clerics, Seekers, and Templars. Even the Inquisition is guilty of manipulating peoples’ beliefs. The Inquisitor is assumed to be the herald of the prophet Andraste, granted their incredible powers by The Maker. It’s used as an effective tool of propaganda to gain support from powerful figures across the land, but is it right to exploit this claim when there’s no evidence to back it up? I didn’t blindly accept it, which upset several of the more devout members of the Inquisition. Those who shared my skepticism suggested that doubt is necessary to keep people sane, a position that I wasn’t truly sure had any validity in Thedas since the characters I encountered who were dubious on spiritual matters appeared to be the most troubled.

Eventually it was discovered that the powers held by the Inquisitor were not granted by The Maker, but simply a twist of fate. When I chose to reveal this to my advisors, they recommended that I continue to keep up the “official” story or all the alliances forged may fall apart. Pragmatically it’s the best action since it keeps the Inquisition strong, but I felt it was unethical to deceive those who had pledged their support because of a lie. Though I disagreed with the stance, I could understand its necessity. Earlier in the game after the base at Haven was destroyed, the refugees made a makeshift camp to recover from the attack. Though faced with the possibility that their efforts were all in vain, that Thedas was ultimately doomed, they sang a hymn to restore their spirits. Even if players don’t believe as the other characters do, they can see how this reaffirmation of their faith keeps them strong in the darkest times.

 

More of Thedas to Explore – Dragon Age 2 received much criticism for restricting its story to one city and its immediate surroundings with many reused level designs. In response, the development team gave Inquisition an open world setting with massive locations. Some regions actually cover more space than all of the first two Dragon Age games combined. Every area is beautifully designed, covering a range of environments from lush woodlands to murky swamps to sun-scorched deserts, all of which feel organic. Some species of plant and animal will only be found in specific climates like deserts or frozen mountains. Wild beasts and rival factions will often be seen attacking one another. The most striking moment occurred on the Storm Coast as my party spied a dragon and giant fighting one another in the distance. As my team looked on, the mighty lizard eventually felled its foe before taking to the sky. This wasn’t a simple side-quest that could be completed whenever I felt like it; it was a moment in time that would never repeat.

 

The larger locations brought back the sense of discovery that was missing from the second game. I greatly enjoyed travelling around each locale uncovering new features of the landscape and secrets which had been hidden away. New lore also allowed for a greater exploration of Thedas’ past, revealing surprising truths that the previous games had only touched on briefly. Whether it was the history behind a Dwarven shrine, chilling notes explaining the cause of a manor’s haunting by malevolent spirits, or a diary entry offering insight into a woman’s tragic death in the Emerald Graves. More light was shed on the history of the Dalish Elves, particularly the destruction of their civilization and magic that had long been lost to their race. This information had a significant role late in the game, which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t progressed very far, but there are many interesting concepts that I’d love to see expanded upon in future entries, particularly the time-manipulation magic being used by the Tevinter Magisters.

In addition to having more of Ferelden to explore, players can now also travel to the neighboring country of Orlais. Having only heard of this analogue to Renaissance-era France in passing conversation before, it was impressive to see it in person. The cities of Val Royeaux and Halamshiral were designed to highlight opulent splendor with ornate buildings and elegantly dressed nobles indulging in conversation about culture while they flaunted their status. A central story mission set during a peace conference in the capital further demonstrated how invested the country is in power and political status. Every dialogue choice influenced the court’s opinion of the Inquisitor while covert actions and double-crosses took place behind the scenes, ripe with dirty secrets that could be used to manipulate the nobility. Even in the wastelands the Orlesians found ways to create beauty, as I was literally awestruck when I saw a magnificent palace near a desert oasis in the Western Approach. The contrast between the two nations’ attitudes greatly added to the sense that the game occurred in a vast, diverse world.

 

Effective Tonal Balance – Dragon Age has always contained elements of dark fantasy and horror, and Inquisition continues this trend with several moments that are quite unsettling. When exploring the devastation at the Temple of Sacred Ashes after the conclave was attacked, you’ll find petrified corpses among the debris, forever frozen in anguish like the people of Pompeii. The spiritual world known as the face has been redesigned to appear much more surreal than in previous games, with stones carved into grotesque faces, a sickly green haze covering the area, landscapes possessing unnatural angles, and a small cemetery you can find with headstones bearing each party member’s name and an epitaph pertaining to their greatest fear (Solas dies alone, Iron Bull succumbs to madness, Sera is forgotten by all she knew, etc.)

The most chilling event I encountered came when I went to recruit apostate Mages to the Inquisition’s cause. After confronting Alexius, who was attempting to manipulate the Mages into allying with the Tevinter Imperium, he used his powers to send me and new ally Dorian one year into the future. In that timeline, Alexius’ master “The Elder One” (Corypheus) had been victorious, laying waste to all of Thedas. My companions had been reduced to living corpses which were used to grow red lyrium. Redcliffe Castle had been converted into a torture chamber, with bloody equipment in multiple chambers and screams of torment echoing through the halls. It drove home just how much was at stake if the Inquisition failed, instilling a greater drive to succeed in the battle against the Corypheus.

 

Inquisition isn’t wanting for sorrowful or even tragic occasions, but it’s far from completely depressing. There are many points where the tone is one of triumph or jubilation. Every victory against Corypheus’ minions, every innocent life saved or conflict averted, brings a sense of satisfaction. The periods of respite when at the stronghold provide a chance for some quiet, contemplative discussions with allies, a chance to reflect on your progress and get to better know your companions. There’s also plenty of humor to lighten the mood every once in a while, from the comedic banter between party members, to obvious but still funny jokes (a scout at Redcliffe says no one in the village was expecting the Inquisition), and some absurdity like a giant cheese wheel which can be used as a shield.

The game never feels too lighthearted or miserable because it knows when to adjust the emotional atmosphere depending on the situation. The best example of this came after Corypheus and his forces wiped out Haven in an assault. While mostly everyone escaped together, the Inquisitor stayed behind and had to find an alternate route out. They then had to trudge through the Frostback Mountains, severely weakened from the attack. It takes about five minutes until it ends, but doesn’t deter the game or feel like padding because it demonstrates how fatigued the Inquisitor is, not only physically but mentally as well. After collapsing in the deep snow, the Inquisitor is rescued by the survivors of Haven. As they prepare to rest for the night they lament their defeat, but then their thoughts turn to hope for a more successful future. It’s incredibly uplifting, leaving a much stronger impact than if they’d all remained dour and pessimistic for the rest of the scene.

Well-Developed Characters – One of Bioware’s greatest strengths is creating rich ensemble casts. Almost every secondary character with a prominent role in one of their games has a unique, three-dimensional personality that makes them stand out. With two exceptions I’ll discuss later, the cast of Inquisition continues this trend.

Of the characters returning from the previous games, two have shown considerable development which made them much more fascinating than they initially were. Leliana (voiced by Corrine Kempa), originally a rather dull spy preoccupied with little more than gossip, has undergone a massive crisis of faith following Divine Justinia’s death. She begins to wonder if the Maker truly cares for the people of Thedas since he allowed his faithful servants to die so brutally. Having the core of her beliefs shaken has made her much colder, more willing to take a life and sacrifice others if she thinks it will benefit the Inquisition in the long run.

Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast (voiced by Miranda Raison) first presented herself as the harsh ice queen she appeared to be in Dragon Age 2, understandable since she was outraged by the mass murder at the conclave. As the Inquisition continued to gain influence, she softened up quite a bit. I learned that she had long held doubts about the Chantry’s actions, such as making Mages Tranquil if they were perceived to be a threat, and how such decisions were hurting not only the Chantry’s reputation but Thedas as a whole. She is sincere about reform, yet bites her tongue out of fear that she’ll be labeled a heretic. Aside from this introspection, there are also some humorous scenes with Cassandra when it’s discovered that she has a penchant for erotica that she wishes to keep hidden from her peers.

The returning companions I was most pleased to see back in action were Varric Tethras (voiced by Brian Bloom) and Morrigan (voiced by Claudia Black). Varric is still a welcome source of clever quips as well as philosophical musings befitting his nature as a storyteller. While he won’t hesitate to put down his superiors if he feels they’re in the wrong, he is truly devoted to the Inquisition’s cause, partially out of guilt for bringing red lyrium from the deep roads.

Morrigan, my favorite character from Dragon Age Origins, remains as enigmatic and beguiling as ever. In the time between the first game and Inquisition, she’s become an advisor to Empress Celene of Orlais, abandoning her post to join the Inquisition without a second thought. She makes it clear that she has her own agenda for joining, hoping to use the Inquisition’s resources to gather more information about arcane knowledge that would otherwise be lost. I was pleased to see she’d been given much greater depth with her return. Morrigan reveals that she knows much about ancient Elven magic, gradually revealing key secrets to the Inquisitor if she feels it will benefit her. The greatest change to her personality came about because of her son Kieran (I chose to have a child with her in Origins). His presence has softened her somewhat, made her less callous and more compassionate, more willing to make sacrifices for others. Near the end of the game it’s shown just how strong this bond is and how far Morrigan has come as a person.

 

The new party members all left an impact in one way or another, but I found the following to be the most intriguing:

  • Solas (voiced by Gareth David-Lloyd) – initially Solas came off as a fairly bland character; an antisocial mage obsessed with the academic nature of sorcery and spirits over everything else. The longer I spent with him, however, the deeper his true personality became. Unlike most I encountered, he didn’t see issues in simple black and white. From his perspective, the fear many people displayed towards mages, spirits, and even demons were borne of a lack of understanding. His pursuit of knowledge wasn’t only motivated by self-interest, but out of the desire to educate the masses so that hostility and prejudice could be lessened. Depending on the missions he’s taken on, Solas also reveals that he clearly knows much more about the powers Corypheus seeks than initially thought, leaving players to wonder what other secrets he’s hiding.

 

  • Iron Bull (voiced by Freddie Prinze, Jr.) – Iron Bull is drastically different from the Qunari as they were depicted in previous Dragon Age games. He is not merely another interchangeable stone-faced stoic from a proud warrior race. Iron Bull is boisterous, outgoing, and friendly, something I never would have expected to see from a member of the Qun. Though he clearly respects his people and their traditions, he isn’t as beholden to Qun law as much of his brethren are, as evidenced by how he’s chosen an individual name rather than simply being identified by his rank. However, his sense of loyalty and desire for freedom lead to several moments of serious internal conflict. Bull’s outlook on the world is a sharp, refreshing contrast to that provided by Sten and other Qunari before him.

 

  • Sera (voiced by Robyn Addison) – brash, rude, impulsive, and possibly mentally unhinged, Sera comes off as little more than comic relief when introduced, but these first impressions are as deceptive as the tactics she employs. Sera has little respect for authority and takes delights in pulling pranks on the rich and powerful if she feels they deserve to be taken down a peg. While her actions are childish, they’re motivated by a cause other than simply causing trouble for the fun of it. Sera has a very warped but understandable code of honor. She despises when those in power abuse the weak or defenseless and believes taking them down a peg (through either humiliation or violence) is an appropriate retribution, which is why she joined the Friends of Red Jenny. The question is, when does she go too far?

 

  • Cole (voiced by James Norton) – without a doubt the most disturbing companion that can be recruited. A spirit which has taken physical human, Cole possesses an unnatural sense of empathy. He can sense the deepest emotions and desires of those around him (people, animals, and even some plants) whether living or dead. He has difficulty filtering these sensations, though, and will often utter the hidden secrets or feelings that he’s picked up, usually in a creepily dour pitch that can make people listening uncomfortable. Despite his off-putting nature, Cole is driven by a desire to help people in distress by covertly providing them with what they need, then making the recipients of his gifts forget he was ever there. Such a goal is noble in theory, but many times when he’s come across those wounded from battle or suffering from an illness, he believed that a swift death was the best way to end their agony. This behavior not only frightens Cole’s allies but the spirit himself, as he fears he could become corrupted into a malevolent spirit if he succumbs to weakness or rage.

 

  • Josephine (voiced by Allegra Clark) – graceful, sophisticated and demure, Josephine Montilyet is the perfect ambassador for the Inquisition. A consummate diplomat serving as one of the Inquisitor’s advisors, she favors a diplomatic approach to resolve political issues. While she mostly advocates rational negotiations, she isn’t afraid to resort to underhanded tactics if the people she’s dealing with are excessively stubborn. I was quite smitten with Josephine’s charm and grace, which made her the obvious choice for my romantic partner. On that note, I found that establishing a relationship felt much more engaging than in the previous games. It started with simple flirting when the option presented itself, then built up to side missions and the occasional quiet moment together that further strengthened the bond between my Inquisitor and Josephine, until it finally culminated with a heartfelt expression of love (without a gratuitous implied sex scene). It was very satisfying instead of coming across like a trivial achievement.

 

As I gained new recruits, I noticed several of them represented a theme of defying tradition and rejecting outdated norms. Iron Bull, as mentioned earlier, considers several aspects of Qunari social structure to be unnecessarily rigid and restrictive to individual freedom. Dorian and Krem, both hailing from the Tevinter Imperium, have become outcasts in their families because they refused to abide by the Imperium’s social constructs; Dorian is gay and would not enter into a loveless marriage with a noble woman simply to maintain his family’s social influence, while Krem is trans-male who risked slavery or death when his secret was revealed to military officials. In an interesting subversion, Solas is dismissive of the Dalish’s archaic superstitions about forbidden magic, critical of their current beliefs while advocating that acceptance of his people’s ancient ways would be more beneficial to them. Their attitudes parallel and reinforce the Inquisition’s challenging the traditional ways of the Chantry; perhaps they joined because of this shared ideology.

Like the previous titles, there’s the potential to persuade NPCs with special options dependent on which party member you have for a specific situation. For example, having Blackwell in the group makes it easier to negotiate with Grey Wardens, Dorian can smooth talk Mages, and Solas can sway Elves. Party approval ratings are present again which can be influenced not only by dialogue options and orders issues, but by actions performed in the overworld (Varric is pleased when red lyrium deposits are destroyed, Blackwell when Darkspawn are killed, etc.) However, their overall approval ratings aren’t present on the character screen, which makes it very difficult to tell what their opinion of you is and whether or not they’re at risk of leaving. A new addition to the companion traits are special skills dependent on their class: Warriors can break down fragile walls, Rogues can pick locks, and Mages are able to energize mystical artifacts and break through magic barriers. It gives them a tangible differentiation aside from an arbitrary classification.

 

The War Table – A great commander must be able to effectively coordinate the actions of the men and women under their control. From the War Table, players can send their forces to complete various tasks throughout Ferelden and Orlais. With few exceptions, there are usually two or three approaches that can be taken for each mission as recommended by your advisors: Josephine will always suggest a diplomatic approach, Leliana prefers more covert actions, and Cullen favors a display of military might. The time necessary to complete each mission depends on the course of action, but getting the job done quickly isn’t always the best way. Players need to carefully think about which approach will be best, though there’s no way to tell what the outcome will be until it’s complete. It reinforces the complex nature of politics in Thedas.

 

While advisors can’t be sent on another mission until the current objective is completed, the time needed to finish each task is dependent on the system’s internal clock rather than how much time is spent playing the game. This is very useful with some of the more intricate quests which can take upwards of 20 hours or longer to resolve. Depending on the approach used and the overall success, the Inquisition is rewarded either with money, unique items, or more influence. Some missions unlock new areas to explore which also provide a chance to gather rare weapons or armor, or find texts that expand on the world’s mythos. My only complaint about the War Table are the quests with multiple stages. There’s no record kept of prior actions or decisions, so it can become easy to forget what you did before and why you acted in such a way. This became most problematic when I had to identify an undercover Venatori agent which involved several logic puzzles; since I couldn’t remember the information given to me earlier to help narrow down who the suspect was, I had to take a wild guess at the end.

 

Passing Judgment – Once the player has been appointed Inquisitor at Skyhold, they are given the power to sentence people who have committed crimes against the Inquisition and the people of Thedas. It demonstrates how much power the player has and tests how they will use that power. If they’re merciful to those on trial, will they be viewed as just or weak? If they choose to hand out the harshest punishments, will allies see them as a stern, forceful ruler, or a murderous dictator?

I chose not to execute any of the prisoners who came before me. Instead, I found a sense of schadenfreude in handing out punishments that would most humiliate them, like sentencing a duchess who had allied with Corypheus to spend the rest of her life doing manual labor on a farm, forcing her to experience what life was like for the lower classes she ignored and oppressed. There were times when I questioned my decisions though. After Erimond had been defeated and his plans to manipulate the Grey Wardens thwarted, I decreed that he would be handed over to the Wardens so they could pass judgment. After this, I realized that the Wardens would most likely execute him for his betrayal. I rejected personally authorizing capital punishment, but had hypocritically turned over the duties to another party while ignoring the role I played in deciding Erimond’s fate. It made me realize that even though I tried not to abuse my power or compromise my beliefs, I could still do so unintentionally if I believed my actions were the best option.

Improved Combat – combat in the Dragon Age games has always followed a real-time battle system, somewhat like a hack-and-slash, with the ability to switch between party members on the fly. This remains unchanged in Inquisition, but several new mechanics have been added to enhance the experience. The greatest change is Tactical Mode, which allows for an overhead view of the area and every character (ally or enemy) present. With this, players can analyze enemy stats and weaknesses, as well as issue individual orders to party members so they can carry them out without the need to directly take control of them. It’s a considerable improvement over the first two games, though I did keep running into a situation where the attack I wanted a companion to execute had already been used, so I had to wait until the cooldown period ended. Companion AI behavior could be pre-set to act certain ways in battle, but I found it unnecessary as each of my party members was quite competent without any alterations.

The foes encountered also pose more of a threat than in previous titles. Mages will attack from a distance, protecting themselves and allies with defensive spells, while enemy soldiers carrying shields react very quickly when you attempt to flank them or attack from behind. More difficult foes will appear as you make progress, requiring a change in tactics to defeat them. They feel like genuine threats instead of mindless cannon fodder. The most impressive enemies were the giants and dragons, which put up the most intense fights while reacting to danger as intelligently as smaller threats. These behemoths have multiple regions of their body which can be targeted to provide some advantage in battle, such as weakening a leg to leave them temporarily crippled.

 

Several other new features were added for better combat. A maximum of eight abilities can now be mapped to the controls instead of only six, allowing for more combination attacks. Melee attacks aren’t wasted if they fail to connect with an enemy, which was very beneficial for my Rogue Inquisitor specializing in double daggers. After reaching Skyhold, each character unlocks a new skill tree that offers new traits unique to them, as well as a Focus ability which can deal massive damage to enemies or a status boost that affects the entire party after enough energy is built up. Mages and party members relying on ranged attacks can take cover behind objects, but most of them can be destroyed if they take enough damage. The most welcome changes to the system were the ability to revive fallen party members without the need for a spell (though potions are needed to restore health as it doesn’t automatically replenish after battle) and minor enemies which would respawn to provide more opportunities for leveling up. The only problem I had was that when characters level up, their stats are automatically increased rather than requiring allocation. It streamlines the process, but it also means there’s no way to give them a specialized talent. However, I found it balanced out by making weapon and armor equipment dependent on level rather than a certain parameter like strength or dexterity.

 

There is much to enjoy when playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. But as I said earlier, it is far from perfect. In my next breakdown, I’ll look at the game’s weaker areas and how they detract from the overall experience.

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