Firstly, I must be very clear on one thing. Dragon Age: Inquisition is not a bad game. There are a surfeit of reasons why this is so, and many reasons to be clear that this is so, not least of which is the need to be clear that Internet-era entitlements are not welcome in engaged criticism. I will however pick two reasons the game is not a “bad game” specifically for my own purposes: one, the game is clearly a well made game, the product of millions of hours of labour and love; two, I have not yet played enough of the game to offer a clear judgement on whether it is “good” or “bad” or, to be more interesting, where the game lies between those two vague poles. Why write about it all, then? Well, I’ve played enough of the game to be very disappointed. Not as disappointed as I was by Mass Effect 3,[ref]I need to write about that game at some point. In short, I have little to no issue with the ending of the game, if only because I had long since accepted the reality of my disappointment. I knew Mass Effect 3 wasn’t for me about thirty minutes in, it just took several more hours of playing to realize it.[/ref] but disappointed nonetheless.

This disappointment is of course personal and unique to my own experience. The game has landed on many “Best of” lists in the last few days and from what I can gather it deserves to be on those lists. Many, many people adore the game. I don’t, and though I hold out a healthy dose of hope that this will change I find it doubtful I will come around to love the game in the manner that so many clearly do. I wanted to write this post not to complain about a game, as that is entirely boring and mostly unproductive, but to talk about why such a universally loved video game could be so opaque and off-putting for me. I’m not writing a post to complain about the game, or whine that it’s overrated or even to state that it’s “bad.” Similarly, at the risk of repeating myself, I hold out considerable hope that the game’s storylines will get very, very good. At this point early on however, I’ve played enough to write about the trend in the overall Dragon Age series as I see it and why it goes directly against what I first loved about the original game.

Dragon Age: Origins made me a PC gamer. I had started to play games on my rugged dissertation-friendly laptop but I was still primarily a console guy and had been since I had first fallen in love with Halo 2, a moment that wrenched me away from a bit of Civilization here and a dose of Football Manager there and doused me in the larger world of video games in the twenty-first century. Origins was a different type of game for me. I played it and I played it, sometimes when I should have been spending more time researching my primary documents and oftentimes when I probably should have been sleeping. I “finished” the game and then I played it again. And again. I played around with the game’s mod tools, didn’t get up to much but had a lot of fun, and then I played the game again. This was actually my last playthrough, which I never quite finished, as an irritable and altogether overly solipsist human mage. It was a great game. I played the game almost entirely from above using the strategic view and I clicked and I paused and I clicked my way through the whole thing. It was wonderful. It was very much a light adoption of various design models consistent in PC games for years previous, but I loved it.

Dragon Age: Origins
Morrigan’s wardrobe was ridiculous, but she was a great character.

 

Dragon Age 2 was awful.

The usual caveats apply: a lot of talented people worked on it, it was technically impressive, there were some lovely design choices and so on and so on. However, it completely failed to hang together as a game, at least any kind of a game written in the same universe as origins. Where Origins was expansive, Dragon Age 2 was artificially and frustratingly limited, where Origins allowed the player to explore his or her own game Dragon Age 2 insisted that you stick to the script. The script in question was rather dreadful. You are the hero, you save the world, or at least the one city you’ll spend all your time in, and that will be that. Narratively, the game had a nice wrapper in the form of Varric the well written and appealing Dwarf, rogueish in personality and in profession. Otherwise it didn’t go very far at all.

The game has its apologists, which is fine. The game does indeed seem “not that bad” now, especially removed from the expectations generated by its forbear but I’m not sure there’s much benefit in taking it out of that context. In any case, taken out of the broader context it is still a very well made fantasy RPG that doesn’t really go very far in any meaningful direction. The most infuriating thing about Dragon Age 2, by far, is that they eschewed the gimmick that gave Origins such a strong start. Whereas in Origins you had a number of opening prologues to choose from to effectively develop a character before entering the main storyline, Dragon Age 2 presented you with a character with a huge range from “heroic figure with English accent” to “heroic figure with English accent.” Bizarrely, you couldn’t even change his name, although it was admittedly a pretty sweet name that evoked all kinds of Rutger Hauer-imbued mayhem: Hawke.

Dragon Age: Inquisition quite aggressively rejects the idea that Dragon Age 2 was a misstep, giving the admittedly wonderful Varric a prominent role in the game and even orchestrating a rather cringe-inducing “I’m back!” moment for Hawke, who has apparently become more boring in the years between the events of the second and third games. I don’t blame Bioware for standing by their man and by extension their game, but it is indicative of the overall progress of the Dragon Age games away from the very things that I loved about them early on. You see, I fell in love with the quirky computer-friendly aspects of Origins but it was created very much as a bridge between PC and console. That bridge has become ever more elaborate across the two sequels, but whereas I traveled the bridge in one direction towards the PC the structure was clearly designed for a surplus of traffic travelling in the other direction. This is particularly notable when playing Inquisition. I found the controls unbearable until I realized the game had been designed with a gamepad in mind. I crossed over and instantly had a better time of it. Strategic view is a joke, as is any semblance of strategy. You just run your people into a fight, press some buttons, drink some health potions and wait to see if you were levelled high enough to take them on in the first place.

The entire game is horrifically overwrought in its design. Although I appreciate the game clearly identifying my quest objectives, the whole thing is borderline automated at this stage with very little in the way of actual exploration going on. Of course, while you’re out there ticking the boxes on the right side of the screen, be sure to pick up some plants and do a little mining on the side. I actually like a lot of these things, God help me, in my games. I’m definitely not the biggest fan of the “just go and figure it out” approach to which some video game fans subscribe. My time with Inquisition, however, increasingly approaches the experience of a Call of Duty game, moving avatars from one place to another to let a mostly scripted sequence take place. In Inquisition, at least, such sequences are part of a more random and alive game world, but it all feels so perfunctory. I find myself wondering yet again why they didn’t bring back the prologue vignette gimmick, though I am thankful I have been given actual leeway over the game’s content this time.

Still, it’s hard to create a character that moves through the game essentially making fun of his own supposed heroism. You can be flippant in Inquisition but there’s something missing there. Bioware have preserved the option to play an unrepentant jerk, for which they must be applauded. If this game turns me around, as I would love it to do, I’m coming back as an enormous, horned, enormously horned antisocial hammer-wielding lunatic. I created my current avatar, an Elf rogue with an oddly baritone accent, in an attempt to have some fun with the story but I’m mostly role-playing an overly serious version of Art Alexakis in a fantasy setting.[ref]That’s the lead singer of 1990s band Everclear, kids.[/ref] The game has been designed so that I can do anything and everything but it all feels so limited. That makes me sad, but that is what this game is and it’s disappointing. It could well be a shift in the way that I enjoy games and it is certainly indicative of how I now value my time spent when playing games. Perhaps I’m being left behind by the advances of video game design. I don’t think so, though; Inquisition feels like a game made for the widest console audience possible at a time when so many games push against audience expectations of what games and game narratives can do. Now when I log in the game harangues me over my lack of involvement in multi-player, as if any sane person would buy a Dragon Age game for its multiplayer component.[ref]The multiplayer, admittedly, comes in the form of a co-op dungeon crawl and not deathmatch or something similar.[/ref] I’m offered untold riches of virtual chests full of virtual money and virtual weapons. This game, a landmark achievement for video game design at the highest levels incorporating massive amounts of talent and enormous financial investment, has chosen to adopt the same business model as the array of crap littering various mobile device software online warehouses, albeit with commendable restraint and a determination to keep it separate from the main experience. I will play on and salvage what I can but I cannot help but think of what could have been.

12 thoughts on “The Personal Disappointments of Dragon Age Inquisition

  1. I agree, half the zones and half the side quests would have given them time to add a real story to them rather then several books worth of codex to read so you know why your in the still temple and whats going on or why to care about fairbanks or his little group I could go on and on and on. But the best example is compare the DAO: missing person quest were the guys wife turns out to be a wareworlf thats not transforming correctly to the DAi: missing person quest given in hinterlands by one of that andrestian cults members and I think most poepl will see why the game feels so empty, both have almost the exact same basic idea but one is interesting and thought provoking while the other one is literally nothing more then a fetch quest.

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    1. Definitely. The game seems to rely more on a compulsion to tick boxes than just play the game. At least it does for me; plenty of reviews pointed this issue out but the reviewers still enjoyed the game. Maybe I’m just unlucky.

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  2. I agree with all except when you said you don’t like the “go figure it out aproach”. That is one of the best things to have, and I’ll explain why in a logical manner. Having it allows you to use your brain. This in turn helps with problem solving. Video games have been proven to increase brain activity and create better problem solving abilities. Having that aproach allows this in a greater way and also keeps the game from feeling linear and forced. If you are being told what to do at every second you begin to resent the game, or who is telling you. Think of all the hate that Navi from Legend of Zelda Occarina of Time has. She has tons. All because she tells you what you need to do. People don’t like having things handed to them and rightfully so. It’s boring. Games are entertainment, the opposite of boring. Granted there are some games that should give slight little subtle hints. But never outright say it or make it painfully obvious.

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    1. Also did it ever upset you that you were so limited in weapons and armour by class? And that the gui was such shite that you couldn’t swap weapons with a button? This game was dumbed down far too much. I don’t think it deserved any top ten placement other than maybe nine or ten. But it definently was not a top five sort of game. Dissapointing from a company that brought us Origin and the first Mass Effect. I noticed both series declined as they went on.

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      1. I want to go back to this game because my personal experience with it was just so bad. I can’t even play the thing with a mouse and keyboard, which frustrated me.

        As for the weapons/armour stuff… I chose rogue because I always do and it was a huge mistake. The game is very combat heavy and there’s really not much fun at all to be had playing as a rogue. I need to start an entirely new game as a mage or something. That really fed into my overall disappointment. The game compares very poorly to the original Dragon Age, at least for me.

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      2. I don’t know, I loved Mass Effect 2. Really, really liked it. Mass Effect 3 was the disappointment for me.

        For the record, I still have this game in my backlog to revisit. Too many people say good things about it for it to just be “bad.” I’m hopeful I just had a rubbish experience.

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      3. Compared to Mass Effect 1 from a writing perspective I feel like they took and the clear, consistent work they done for mass effect 1, flushed it down the toilet and then proceeded to write mass effect 2 while neglecting everything they done for 1.
        I’m not talking about gameplay.

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      4. I can see that, for sure. I think that Mass Effect 2 kind of swept me along… I bought in, though that’s a pretty obvious term to use. I didn’t do the same for ME3. ME1 probably goes down as the better RPG of all three games; really, except for those awful Mako sections it’s an incredibly strong game.

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    2. Well, I actually meant (and this is my fault for not making it clear) that I’m not generally in line with people that want zero help from the GUI. I was totally fine with the MMO-style quest listing going on. While saying that, I started playing Pillars of Eternity a few weeks ago and that game absolutely does demand that you go and figure things out on your own, with little or no guidance, and I love it.

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      1. ironically enough, they did gear the game for it to be the rogue counterpart to origin’s warrior and 2’s mage??? Which i think was a lazy excuse to say “each game fits, guys!”.

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  3. i agree with this- all of it. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Age 2, i excused it as a one-time thing in the hopes that they returned to how Origins played out, and saw it more of like an attempt of mixing the newer telltale games with Mass Effect 2. The Last Court, ironically, made me much more satisfied with the way Inquisition was going, as well as the videos they made pre-release, even though it was just the additional addon to the horrendously glitchy Keep (which i had also excused in hopes of them fixing the problems later- they never did.)
    The problem I have with the game is how far its deferred from what it promised to be. It promised the players to deviate from the canon path like in origins , have more of an impact in the story- the videos they revealed in E3 already had more love dispensed evenly in it than the game itself. It feels like everything was taken out for the sake of time- whole areas, story archs, people’s signifigance- and replaced by what was assumed would appeal more upfront- the cameos of “power” with the wartable, the crafting system, Morrigan and Leliana’s overimportance, the Cullen romance (that a dev postponed the game last minute to develop better), what you mentioned of Varric and Hawke; even Teagan and Alistair/Anora.
    Instead of bringing new, interesting characters in and developing ones we havent seen up close before (for example, Michel de Chevin had just as much development as Cole in the books, as did other agents we can recruit), they instead slapped on titles on borish characters that they failed to develop in time and left the others to be there as a shoutout. At least in the Last Court, each cameo wasn’t spoonfed and attempting to mimick their importance like in the other games.
    The hinterlands, it seems, has the most love in the game- scratch that, everything before skyhold has the most time and effort placed in it- and even that was limited because it was crammed with collecting bottles, astariums, and power. Everywhere else either felt unimportant, or a mirror of the hinterlands- I wonder if they were given the amount of time Mass Effect Andromeda had (which even now, i am terrified over what can go wrong), how different the game would be. I also wonder if, had they worked with a smaller space instead of pushing for a “bigger map than Skyrim!!”, the game would flow easier and more of the things theyve promised would be made possible- like the keep system they brought up at one point.
    And the decision making was abysmall- everything gears you to pick one descision unless you absolutely want something else. Halamshiral, the Well of Sorrows, the goddamm Mage vs Templar war being stripped down to “pick one or the other”- at least in the Last Court, there were more reasons like the amount of twilight ive collected to execute why i can and can’t do things.
    Wasn’t everyone excited for tough decisions that werent “which of your favs do you want to keep alive”? Like trying to save a keep and maintain others, or thd godforsaken village example they had all the commercials for? Where did that all go? With the devs, which one of them, who stayed since Origins and is the champion for cole and the hinterlands, left the game?
    Even the origins of each character was shoehorned into us. Lavellan and Trevelyan are the only important character, it feels- the dwarves and qunari will only be important if you pushed through unrelentlessly.
    Which is sad. I miss playing my dwarves in origins and yearn still for abiding by the qun in a playthrough. I wish that the promises within the game to kal sharok being the next place to ne weren’t tossed aside for Tevinter because “human and elves, ya?”.
    When the game came out, I bought it on the Xbox 360- first mistake. Had i realized that from the get-go, the game was made for the Xbox One and PS4 aduience, I wouldve made a switch to PC- a middleway that can be modded and fixed. With each update, the game rendered itself a waste of money- I cannot even finish my second or third ‘playthroughs’ because of the disgusting AI and falling off the map at various points.
    My second mistake was trying to excuse the game after the first playthrough. “I feel satisfied”, i lied to myself, “it was a good game.”
    And don’t get me wrong, i adore the codexes, the information brought to us- the dlcs like jaws of hakkon and descent did something better than any dlc from 2.
    But the dlcs were obviously supposed to be in the game. Tresspasser, another unfinished piece of crap, was supposed to be in the game. On top of that, with the lore beelining to elven revolution, i feel turned off to it. My interests arent in the special snowflake effect that the fade will ultimately have towards elves vs human, at least not in the condescending way it presents it to us.
    And sadly because of all of these things, there fails to be much of a replay value. Everything, no matter what, will pale to the first playthrough like Oblivion with its problems, and everything will pale in comparison to Origins, or even Dragon Age 2. And that mirrors how the game is marketing itself to the newbie gamer with a “theyll buy it anyways” attitude to those who plaued origins and 2, no tactics to chose from to truly make the game worthwhile for even grinding, and no truly developed romance aside from literally Cullen, Cassandra, Dorian and Solas.
    I feel tricked into buying a failed, incomplete game- the novelty of a year has passed.
    When the online card game developed on the side is better than your year-long project its marketing, you know something is wrong.

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