On paper, Dragon Age Inquisition was everything that Dragon Age II wasn’t. It was huge, massive and epic. It had original characters, a road story and a traditional fantasy quest.
No one could accuse it of just reusing the same bunch of locations. The Frostbite engine brought Dragon Age Inquisition close to something resembling an open world (though still with no day and night cycle) and many of them were stunningly beautiful. Even more gorgeous were the interiors of castles and fortresses. The Elven and Orlesian art were particularly amazing.
There was also an epic story. You weren’t poking around doing fetch quests in the same city for 5 years. Instead you were doing fetch quests across a vast landscape. But there was also the traditional struggle between good and evil.
So what went wrong?
1. Icon vomit – EA decided that the future was Assassin’s Creed. So all games must be AssCreedified. Bioware didn’t suddenly decide to listen to fans. They were under orders to make their own Assassin’s Creed game. And they did.
Dragon Age Inquisition was much better than the Assassin’s Creed games. You never have to follow around eavesdropping on an NPC. But it was full of the traditional AssCreed icon vomit.
DAI went crazy for collectibles. Collect tiles, collect shards, solve puzzle maps, collect gears, collect collectibles, collect icons. Worst of all, the shards and gears were door keys. And door keys were a design gimmick that died with Doom.
Some of these were voluntary, some were required to gain access, but even voluntary icon vomit is still icon vomit, it changes how the game is played and gets in the way of the story. If your landscape is filled with icons to clear, it’s not a magical place.
2. Story fail – The original Dragon Age had a good balance between a personal story and the larger struggle. Dragon Age II mired players in a boring personal story with no larger struggle. Dragon Age III is all larger struggle.
DAI had plenty of characters but most of them felt bland and lacking in depth. The central character is defined by his leadership of the Inquisition. And that means constantly being complimented to death. Personal growth is meaningless. The choices are between being polite or rude.
Worst of all, DAI Mass Effects you, dumping you at the center of a huge organization (while still having to do all the work, including micromanaging it) with strongholds you can get lost in. It’s epic, but also epically boring.
Between the icon vomit and micromanaging all the social and political tasks of the Inquisition, Dragon Age Inquisition doesn’t feel legendary. It feels like a job. CEO meets RPG.
Does anyone really want to play a game running an organization like The Inquisition?
And the story itself feels cut and pasted from a hundred other RPGs. It’s practically the story of Elder Scrolls Oblivion right down to rushing around shutting down portals to the demon realm. You’re even playing the “Chosen One”. Bioware throws in all sorts of twists and turns, but it’s not really enough.
3. None of It Matters – You can shape the Chantry or the Orlesian Empire, though you don’t much see the impact of that, and this time your choice between mages and templars actually matters. Somewhat.
The enemy is purely evil and insane. Even when it isn’t, you’re not allowed to talk your way out of misunderstandings. Instead you have to fight.
Bioware likes to pretend it gets gray areas, but all the story gray areas don’t change that you’re not allowed to play the game in shades of gray. Instead you go from pointless fight to pointless fight to cutscene. It doesn’t matter what’s in the codex if the only acceptable solution is to cut off the other guy’s head. That was the problem in Dragon Age II.
It’s still the problem.
The judgement scenes are a nice idea, but the original Dragon Age did it much better by just forcing you to confront the question of how to deal with nuanced villains. It made the game feel like a paperback fantasy novel.
Dragon Age Inquisition doesn’t feel like a story. It feels like a great engine with a lot of disconnected attachments that take you out of the story. And it gives you very little access or control over the story.
Dragon Age asked you to make personal decisions about how to save the world. Dragon Age Inquisition sets out to do the same, but somewhere along the way it again abandons player agency. Instead it flatters your ego and throws you into a simplistic story full of job tasks and fetch questions, pointless customizations and empty exchanges, instead of real decisions with consequences.
And it was a close thing.
Corypheus was always the wrong villain for the game. Solas was the right one. Instead he’s being reserved for a possible sequel. But Solas is the kind of personal nuanced villain Dragon Age Inquisition needed. Corypheus is the classic unhinged villain, a ranting egomaniac who wants to destroy everything to get his way. He has to be destroyed. But Solas wants to reshape the world while committing terrible crimes along the way.
A better game would have asked you what crimes you were willing to commit to stop him.
Unfortunately Dragon Age Inquisition wasn’t that game.