Dragon Age: Inquisition hands-on: fine fantasy

Evan Lahti

Inquisition takes inspiration from both Origins and DA2.

You might have seen images of maps online, on Reddit or elsewhere , where cartographically-skilled gamers have compared the sizes of The Largest Worlds in Gaming. Tamriel is sized up against Liberty City , Chernarus against Far Cry 3. Just Cause 2's island is overlaid atop The Lord of the Rings Online (a ridiculous 30,000 square miles, allegedly).

World size has always struck me as a meaningless measuring stick. For RPGs, doubly so. When I talk to someone about Skyrim, I don't gush about the virtual land area I've experienced. I tell them that they can be a cat person and steal the silverware of whomever they please, or replace the mammoths with giant, exploding chickens.

Distance isn't intrinsically fun; if a game's massive space isn't populated purposefully, its promised 'epic journey' can be pretty dull. I say all this to explain why I was unmoved by the marketing line BioWare began using around E3 for Dragon Age: Inquisition . This was the “biggest game in the studio's history,” we heard in every interview. In a presentation for the game, one slide replicated exactly the style of map I mentioned, overlaying Inquisition's zones atop the Skyrim map to demonstrate that BioWare's world was biggest.

Surely there was much more to Inquisition than scale, I hoped. BioWare, after all, has some convincing to do after Dragon Age 2, the sequel that mainstreamed some of Origins' old-school intricacies for the sake of a more controller-friendly template.

To see for myself, I spent a full day playing Inquisition, and hours in conversation with BioWare at its studio in Edmonton. I left Canada more than reassured about the game's direction, with any worries that Inquisition was simply a 'Skyrimification' of an RPG I liked a lot fully assuaged.

Story moments can have permanent effects on the world.

Showing, not telling

If anything, it's the absurd variety of Inquisition's biomes, not the dimensions of its open world, that makes the setting compelling. Yes, BioWare has built an awfully large house for you to raise a loving RPG family in, but more importantly it's furnished the hell out of it. Let's take inventory: Inquisition gives you a handsome, customizable castle-base, within which you craft weapons, chat up companions, and manage your organization. DA2's dusty engine has been swapped for Frostbite, the same tech that drives the Battlefield series. Your player-character can be male, female, one of four confirmed races, and speak with an American or British accent. There are nine potential companions, but despite the effort they took to design, voice, and write, you can skip meeting or recruiting most of them entirely, and they can be dismissed at any time. Inquisition's combat system finally gives equal favor to its real-time and pausable approaches to fighting. There's the cooperative multiplayer mode , independent from the single-player story. And there are dragons: dragons that take ten or more solid minutes to kill, dragons with individually-damageable legs.

It's a kitchen-sink approach to RPG design in some ways, but the relationships between these features are encouraging, especially in how they support your role as an Inquisitor within the metagame. It isn't scale for scale's sake, from what I've played. When I ask BioWare what's interesting about its biggest RPG ever beyond being a useful marketing line, executive producer Mark Darrah brings up something he calls “intrinsic storytelling.”

“Big levels obviously can't narrate themselves; that's impossible. The scope of that is too big. They need to give the player opportunities to tell their own stories and ultimately that's what comes from exploring this open-world gameplay.” I get a feel for what Darrah's talking about in an area called the Dales Highlands, a zone that ends up being my favorite in Inquisition. The intro to the Dales is incredibly light. An arcane, malicious blizzard has grasped the area's rough, typically-thawed cliffs, icing the river that nearby Sarhnia depends on for food and trade. What I notice throughout this area, and appreciate, is the lack of heavy-handed exposition about who, what, where, and why: the theme of the Highlands, as I discover simply by fighting through it, is driving out an invader and advancing the frontline.

The Red Templars (a faction of rebel, overzealous Templars) are to blame for the magic winter, and I see their signature pocking the cliffs as I climb: red lyrium. This potent, dangerous anti-magic substance is the source of the corruption that's tainted these Templars, and huge crystalline shards of it are piercing the Highlands. I cleave and shield-bash through a fourth pack of the misguided knights in an ice tunnel; the whole screen is a glow of blue light filtered through pristine ice and unnatural, saturated red emanating from the lyrium. These colors tell the story as well as any dialogue.

Further up, I fight a Red Templar Behemoth, less a soldier and more a 15-foot-tall, faceless lump of bipedal lyrium. For the first time I have to toggle-on Dragon Age's tactical camera, renovated for Inquisition, to kite the monster and deliberately spend my party's abilities. It's here that I realize how comfortable Inquisition feels when played as a real-time action-RPG; even more than it did in DA2. Broadly, the combat isn't as demanding as a conventional action game—there's auto-attack—but it also never drifts into, say, over-generous hit detection or the disconnected 'combat dancing' of some MMOs.

“We're going for a hybrid of Origins and Dragon Age 2 stuff,” Dragon Age creative director Mike Laidlaw says of the combat. “We want the responsiveness of DA2, that's a biggie, but the influences of Origins are undeniable. We did want to find that balance.” Although I played Inquisition on PC, unfortunately I wasn't able to do so on a mouse and keyboard. Still, it was strangely reassuring how well the tactical approach to combat handled on a controller, of all things. Plotting commands was simple, clean, and helped by an interface that mostly mirrors what we had in Origins. Unlike that game, though, Inquisition uses highlights and color to make that visual information more interesting and readable. The camera behaved well throughout. Automated AI settings are preserved, too, like how much mana a mage should keep in reserve, or at what HP threshold a character should down a potion.

The way those things move is really something.

After I clear the Red Templars from the first part of the Highlands, a floating context cue invites me to build an Inquisition camp. The screen fades out and in, revealing new tents and rudimentary defenses. A few Inquisition scouts mingle. I can replenish my potions, and the camp is a fast travel point. I earn power, a resource I can spend to complete operations, the main course of Inquisition's metagame. And a blocked gate is cleared, granting access to another part of the Highlands.

That feeling of not knowing what's around the next corner is new in Dragon Age, and it beats the hell out of backtracking through the mostly-homogenous cityscape of Kirkwall in Dragon Age 2, which was rightly criticized for reusing some level assets. By the end of the demo, I've seen a spectrum of biomes. I wade through the Ferelden Bogs, an inky undead swamp that could've been borrowed from Resident Evil or Diablo. I close Fade Rifts on the Exalted Plains, which resemble Norway on steroids, the wooden bones of abandoned forts punctuating its rolling grassland. I first tiptoe, then blast, my way through the Still Ruins, a crumbling temple where demons are frozen in stasis alongside Venatori cultists... until I retrieve a staff at the end of the level and have to fight my way back through these reanimated mobs.

The Iron Bull has fan favorite all over him.

Back in the Highlands, there's another bit of that intrinsic storytelling woven into the environment, although I don't pick up on it initially. A stone bridge called Judicael's Crossing is snapped in half. I tap a key to mark the busted infrastructure as an operation point for my Inquisition, then fast-travel back to Skyhold, my castle, and Inquisition's answer to the Normandy in Mass Effect. It's detailed, cavernous, but more importantly, there's more stuff you can do in Skyhold than on Commander Shepard's ship. Past the tavern, stables, courtyard, kitchen, and dungeon (for imprisoning people, not slaying rats, I learn), I step to the War Table. Here, a dozen or so operation markers populate a world map: scouting missions, a task to gain the friendship of the dwarven kingdom of Orzammar or to recruit an arcanist. You complete these micro-quests entirely through the menu, and they grant modest benefits: gold, loot, resources, or adding more 'agents' who join the Inquisition. But some, like addressing the Chantry in Val Royeux, are tied to the main plot.

I spend some of the power I accumulated in the Highlands to rebuild the bridge. Some operations, like this one, are instantly resolved, but others ask you to pick which of your three advisors—Josephine (political), Cullen (military), or Leliana (spying)—is the right fit for the job, making them temporarily unavailable. You can visit with all three of these support characters inside Skyhold.

Also nestled into the War Table (but separated from operations) are Inquisition perks, which draw on influence that you gain from exploring Thedas and completing quests. (If power is “Inquisition gold,” as Darrah puts it, influence is Inquisition XP, effectively.) There are four perk types: Forces, Secrets, Connections, and simply 'Inquisition', the first three of which are tied to those previously mentioned advisors. A Forces perk might increase your potion capacity by four; a Secrets perk might increase the XP you earn from picking up codex entries; one Connections perk grants better merchant offers on rare items. Skyhold changes as a reflection of which perks you favor, although I wasn't told how. It probably won't take the form of decor, considering part of playing Inquisitor means decorating Skyhold manually: everything from the windows, throne, banner, and heraldry to the drapes can be swapped in a menu.

Only one companion returns—the rest are new to the series.

The piece of Skyhold I'm most curious about, though, is the one that was only described to me. As the Inquisitor, BioWare tells me, you'll pass judgment on NPCs who come to Skyhold, characters who typically act as echoes of events in the main storyline. After you rescue Inquisition soldiers from the Ferelden Bog, for example, the offspring of the barbarian leader you kill arrives at the Skyhold front gate, knocking a dead goat against your walls. It's a ritual insult for killing his kin, but you have to decide whether to give this barbarian and his followers weapons and exile them, put him in a stockade, or take a different action.

BioWare sees these judgment sequences as a way of getting players to reflect further on their decisions. “They're an opportunity to ask the player, 'OK, you finished this, you saved the orphanage—how do you feel about that? Why did you do that? It's essentially getting a little bit of motivation from the player because you're asking them to make a subsequent follow-up decision. And often story doesn't do that, it just says, 'OK, you saved the orphanage, hooray!'”

It can't hurt Inquisition that people are so high on Thrones.

Laidlaw underlines the value on getting players to look backward rather than simply anticipating the next quest. “Inquisition, moreso than many of our other games, takes a moment to just ask 'how you feeling?' and have characters dig into why you did what you did. And to try to understand the Inquisitor's mind. And they're some of my favorite moments in the game,” he says.

Back in the Highlands, I cross that bridge I fixed to explore the new area it's opened up. Before I've fully stepped across, two dragons are in the air above me. They won't attack—dragon encounters aren't dynamic events in Inquisition—but a few minutes and a few more dispatched Red Templars later, I stumble into a den. I'd thought the sky-lizards were just set dressing and spectacle, but they were telegraphing the threat ahead. “Oh look, a dragon. What a perfect way to ruin our day,” my mage, Dorian, quips.

Beginning's end

I like how Inquisition trusts I'll find my own way. It's not a do-anything, kill-anyone sandbox game, nor should it be, but it's encouraging that it seems to be keeping its spirit as a dialogue- and party-driven game intact while embracing the scale the new engine enables. And it's fitting that the end of the main quest won't be the end of your save file—you'll be able to keep playing. That makes sense in an open-world structure, but could it undermine the finality of the ending? I ask Darrah to explain BioWare's approach.

“Often in storytelling you would put a nice bow around everything and then everyone opens up a hotel on the beach and drinks Mai Tais, and you can't do that—you need to leave the world in a relatively unstable state but bring enough resolution so that the story has a satisfying conclusion.”

Forecast: stormy with a chance of portals.

The end isn't the end, and in a different way, that's one of the most exciting things for me about Inquisition: this four-year investment to reset and broaden Dragon Age can't be a one-off. By the end of our conversation, Darrah admits that “it's fair to say that we have had some thoughts to the future.” If Inquisition is truly the foundation for more Dragon Age, we'll have a lot to enjoy from BioWare's fantasy team in the years ahead.

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