I’ve recently finished Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI). By ‘finish’, I meant completing the Main Quests, Companion Side Quests and just enough left over power to be able to buy the rest of the Main Quests. I know I’ve spoken at some length about DAI before, and even gave it an award without having finished it yet. That’s because the game’s direction and quality isn’t going to suddenly change just because I have a few main quests leftover. A few weeks later, I confirmed the fact that I’m correct.
I’ve written about Mass Effect before, another one of Bioware’s epic trilogy (‘epic’ used un-ironically). Naturally, there’ll be a lot of comparisons drawn between the two, as well as some explanation of timeline and reception that I’d just like to speak about. There are, naturally, spoilers below this line, and viewer’s discretion is advised.
Dragon Age: Origins was the first in the series. It was a fairly mainstream spiritual successor to previous Bioware RPGs (Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinternights etc.). Its settings wasn’t anything ground breaking, and fantasy was something Bioware has already done a lot in the past. However, it was pretty much the only decent CRPGs for miles, and for that it received tons of praise. I wasn’t impressed by the gameplay. The game wasn’t as in-depth as a lot of old school RPGs, and was always criminally easy at times (I did a solo rogue run for god’s sake). However, I greatly enjoyed the writing, the party banter, and the general relationships that one could build in that game. It had a ‘scale’ for character approval, which is honestly kind of antiquated. Still, it got rid of the morality bar that has plagued Bioware games for so long (I’m looking at you too, Jade Empire). Choices are a lot more ambiguous this time, and all-positive choices requires a lot more effort to unlock than just a mouse click. I fell in love with the game, subjectively. It was actually one of my first CRPGs, most others I played afterwards.
Then Dragon Age 2 came along. Now I have to note this, but both of these games I played after all DLCs have been released, as well as owning all of them. Dragon Age 2 was a lot different than DA:O. The writing was still pretty much the same, and so was Bioware’s trademark of terrible facial animations (or just animations I general). I enjoyed it a bit, but the gameplay was horrendous. The game terribly lacking in content (due to it being rushed and all), Kirkwall was a dull and boring place that somehow we had to struggle through 3 chapters in, the repetitive and lazy dungeons that was put into the game, terrible developer’s retconning right in the face of everyone (oh Leliana). Those are the bigger design flaws, but the game also has several problems akin to that of the changes from Mass Effect (ME) to ME 2. Notably is the regression of RPG and tactical elements, also furthermore sacrificing PC controls for the sake of a console audience. This is why I still believe ME 2 was very weak, mechanics-wise, and DA 2 was the same deal. Games was a top-down action RPG. The game didn’t honestly need any mechanics at all. Furthermore, unlike DAO DLCs, DA2’s DLCs are honestly terrible. The main game wasn’t even that good to begin with, but the DLCs themselves added no value. Frankly, DA 2 was a disappointment, something that Bioware promised they’d fix with the release of the 3rd, non-rushed DAI.
So here we are. DAI has come, and it’s reported to have been doing amazing on launch. That doesn’t mean anything, of course, more jargon talk. I played the game myself, because naturally it’s become unfavourable to trust reviewers anywhere in this industry. Lo and behold, I was indeed correct. Problems with PC controls and performance were swept under the rug, and playing it only revealed many more. MMO-style side quests, forcing you to do to collect “power”. The game was also terribly paced. There were just so many non-combat mechanics in the game that it just make you exhausted. I spent a majority of my time in the Hinterlands, so that I could finally get enough power to move on to my quests. Most other areas (Stormcoast was the only with a name I bothered to remember) I barely touched. At some point I realised I was drowning in power, side quests are terribly, terribly inane and boring, and I can’t keep playing anymore. It was a serious pacing problem that could very easily been elevated (and didn’t exist before) by simply putting interesting main quests in different areas. No, instead we’re greeted with this War Table mechanics that took all the fun out of exploration (waiting for anything in real-time is unacceptable, especially if it’s not a timed event). I remember a burial ground, a desert, and a few other things. I also remember riding my horse around the coast, and had my controller (because PC controls a shit) rumble. I turned and sea a giant ogre fighting a lightning dragon. It was an amazing sight to behold, and I’m sure there are many more like it. The problem was: I couldn’t be bothered to. The game’s design didn’t allow me to. Instead of leading be semi-linearly through interesting side quests and beautiful locales, I’m stuck being forced to discover them out of my own volition. I don’t have that kind of time. I gladly put 90 hours into 100%-ing DAO on my 2nd playthrough, and I even 100% DA2 (because it was so damn short), but I’ll safely say I’d never 100% DAI. So many things here are War Table – related, that simply takes far too damn long, and many other things are boring and terrible. “Fetch 10 of these”, “kill 10 of that, but in different areas”, “contextual click this”. Dear god it’s infuriating.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the game. The main quests design are pretty good (even if the vision is horrendous and make casting spells a pain in the ass), the character writing was still quite interesting, and dialogues were still rather thin-air, although no one can really be as snarky as DAO Morrigan. Despite that, none of these things made the game great. It simply didn’t play well. Sure, there are many moments where I feel like a little inside me just leapt out. I found myself smiling a bit how Leliana expressed her love for the hero of Ferelden, so much so that I denied her the position of the Divine just so that they could finally reunite. How Varric recapped everything that happened in DA 2, and when I met Hawke again, and hearing her talk about Isabella. That’s also why I decided to sacrifice Alistair – effectively nulling any alliance with the rest of the Warden – just so that the champion of Kirkwall and the Pirate would eventually be able to meet again. I must admit I also gasped a little seeing Morrigan walking out of Celene’s courtroom, and felt a bit of a sting as she introduced Kieran to me but unable to put forward who the other parent was. This is because a lot of the mods I used to play DAO messed with the timeline, as that was supposed to be the son of her and the hero of Ferelden – who had a relationship with Leliana, and also a woman. Still, it was something I had to live with. Those were great moments, but not enough to make me think the game is anything more than it really is. This isn’t even getting to Bioware’s ‘mature and tasteful sex scenes’. You know what I’m not talking about that, because that just makes me upset.
I take a step back and look at how everything has done. Unlike ME3 (which was the best game in the series), DAI was mediocre. Unlike the ME universe, where Commander Shepard left her mark across the universe, the DA universe had three different heroes: The hero of Ferelden, the champion of Kirkwall, and the Inquisitor. A lot of this changed the atmosphere for a major part of gameplay. In DAO, you’re a leader of a party struggling to save the world. In DA2, you’re a leader of a party that doesn’t really go anywhere, and really were just dealing with things as they come by. In DAI, you’re the leader of an entire god damn Inquisition. Your situations in these cases are very well handled, and you felt this distinctions too. In DAO, you were without a home, with nothing to rely on except your party camps to get a moment’s rest (which was also promptly attacked at some point). Everywhere you go was dangerous, and a single misstep would mean your life. In DA2, you eventually got a home, and everyone had their own in town. You just kind of walk around the same place you do every day to solve problems. In DAI, you have safe camps plastered all over the world, and this entire War Table to make things smaller from your perspective. It’s a truly telling comparison. As far as atmosphere goes, I’d say DAO’s was the best, but that was an honestly subjective thing to say.
Now that we’ve gotten through all of that, let’s finally talk about the elephant in the room, also the last thing on today’s schedule: romance. Romance in Bioware games had always been something of a pet peeve of mine. With the advent of technology, they do it well enough at most times (the scenes anyways), but that alone won’t make characters likeable. Since DAI put such a huge number of romanceable characters, I felt like I had to talk about this. In DAO, you have 4 romantic choices (that are effectively all bisexual due to mods). Alistair was a struggling but ultimately boring person. Morrigan claimed interests, and never really gotten closer than she really wanted herself to, which was great in my opinion. Leliana, on the other hand, had an entire backstory that she had to get through before being capable of trusting me. Zevran was also ultimately uninteresting, and he didn’t even have that much of background to be entertaining. At some point the hero of Ferelden was with both Morrigan and Leliana, but of course Morrigan left, so never mind that. In DA2, everyone is pretty much already made bisexual (unless you play that DLC with Vael in it, but let’s pretend that doesn’t’ exist). Anders was a lot more interesting than I experienced, and even though he’s filled with angst to the brim, the man still had struggles and demons (sometimes quite literal) that he had to deal with. It made him far less of a pretty boy problem than Alistair was. Fenris was… dull, and honestly I can’t even be bothered to do anything about him at all. Merrill was like this honest-to-god innocence. It was quite a breath of fresh air, but she was also bothersome at times. It made her more believable, being honest. Isabella, however, was the one Hawke ended up with (who also already had sex with the Warden Commander at some points in the past). Some of my friends told me that she never came back for them. Hawke never gave her up, and defeated the Arishok to do it (this is just some of my canon ramblings).
That brings us to DAI, where there an entire cast of romanceable characters, twice as many as DAO. Cassandra was honestly the first one that came to mind. She was probably the most interesting character in the game, although the lack of mods meant she ultimately turned down the Inquisitor. Due to time constraints, I’ve only been able to test things out with two others, namely Sera (who was just kind of annoying as a lover, but endearing as a friend), and Josephine. Lady Montilyet was the person at the Inquisitor’s side at the end of it all, but she wasn’t particularly interesting, truth be told. Most of the companions or advisor in this game are fairly two-dimensional. None of them ever grown enough to be someone interesting, which is a weakness to this superficial ‘end of the world’ thing that DAI had going to drive its plot forward. Overall, DAI had rather disappointing odds and ends.
But regardless, it did finish off the series. Now that it’s done, I felt relatively indifferent. This is mostly because unlike ME, this wasn’t the story of one woman. Every instalment of Dragon Age had its own ending, and frankly Thedas was never interesting enough to care about. At the end of every game, all that honestly mattered was how the player character turned out, and by that metric they all did well.