Dragon Age: Inquisition is the Friendliest RPG I’ve Ever Played

WTF is Dragon Age: Inquisition?

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third game in BioWare’s Dragon Age RPG franchise, released in 2014. It takes place in a medieval fantasy world called Thedas, where there’s magic and dragons and elves and everyone’s constantly arguing with everyone else. Thedas keeps getting attacked by demons called Darkspawn, and the specifics of the Darkspawn threat change from game to game.

The setup for Inquisition is unusually involved, but the main idea is that a Darkspawn named Corypheus has a plan to destroy the whole world and the player character becomes leader of the temporary military and political organization formed to stop him – aka the “Inquisition.” Along the way, the player character has to recover a bunch of lost memories, solve the mystery of why he or she has a magic hand that can close rifts leading into the spirit realm, attend a fancy party where the host is going to be murdered, fight a dragon, and make a thousand little decisions that kind of seem to matter but might not actually do much.

Gameplay is 90% a traditional party-based RPG in which the player can recruit a stable of nine companions, each with a different fighting specialty, to rotate in and out of specific missions. Otherwise, most of the game’s content is optional, so the nuances of the story, beyond defeating Corypheus, depend a lot on player choice.

Suffice to say that any path will involve some combination of killing people, fetching things, passing judgement on prisoners brought before the Inquisition, making tactical decisions around a big war table, and conversing with a wide range of characters. Choice and consequence is not a huge part of the game, except for one case where a choice you make in hour 30 can kill Freddie Prinze Jr. in hour 122.

Optional parts of the game:

  • Romance (including four gay romance options)
  • Betrayal (including one gay romance option)
  • Time travel
  • Riddles
  • Getting repeatedly mauled by bears
  • Failure at the armour crafting table
  • Tricking someone into accepting an apology statue from some elves
  • Helping a gay magician find love
  • Watching a gay magician yell at his homophobic dad
  • Prying into a gay magician’s personal affairs because he’s a good, kind, gentle soul, no matter what he pretends to be, and you don’t want him to get hurt again, and you feel like he’s your best friend even though he is pixels
  • Reading the scariest diary ever written
  • Making people wear dumb hats
  • Making people carry a shield made of cheese
  • Pardoning a criminal and then resenting him because he accepted your forgiveness too easily, and questioning your own values because you are confused by your reaction but you still hate his guts
  • Replacing the criminal’s sword with a magic ham
  • Killing dragons who haven’t done anything wrong besides being dragons
  • Actually closing the rifts that lead to the spirit realm.

The best part of the game is that it’s so inclusive

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the most woman and queer-friendly RPG I’ve ever played. There was no point where I felt like I wasn’t welcome, or like I was intruding on an experience that wasn’t intended for me. On the contrary, I was shocked by how much of the content seemed to have been made with me in mind. I’ve never had that experience with a big budget game before, and it was astounding.

Inquisition does something really smart that the previous games in the series did not do: it locates 99% of the prejudice its characters express in qualities the player can’t have in real life. People really hate elves, and they really hate mages, but they don’t have much to say about anybody’s gender, sexuality, or skin colour. That allows the writers to explore a lot of themes about oppression, racism, and discrimination without making players feel like the game itself is hostile toward them or like they’re being singled out and othered in a world that hates their guts. The “good” characters, especially, are extremely chill about things like hanging out with a tans man and save all of their angst for things like hanging out with a ghost.

Four out of the eight companions players can start a romance with are open to same-sex relationships, and the ones who aren’t are perfectly polite and not homophobic when they turn you down. The gay magician mentioned above also has slightly different interactions with female player characters including a scene that people have made a really big deal of where he comes out to you as gay, and apologizes if he led you on.

Women still make up less than half of the important characters in the player’s inner circle (a cast of 12 characters in total), and black people are still almost entirely absent from the Dragon Age universe (something that becomes even more obvious with the introduction of Vivienne, the first ever black companion in the series), and there are other things about the game that sometimes feel weird, but, if we’re grading it on a curve against other big budget RPGs, it’s still an unusually welcoming, thoughtfully-constructed game.

The biggest barrier to entry is the lore

Last year, when my Dragon Age journey began, I jumped into Inquisition with absolutely no knowledge of anything that happened in the first two games. This is not the first time I’ve jumped into the middle of a franchise cold, and usually what happens is that I’m confused for the first five or six hours, and then the focus shifts to the main plot of whichever game I’m playing, and I understand that well enough to feel immersed. Not so, in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Forty hours into my first play, I still had no clue what was happening. It was bad enough that I decided to stop and read the articles that tell you WTF was in the first two games, along with several entries in the Dragon Age wiki. At that point, I realized I’d already killed off the hero of Dragon Age II and taken a pretty strong stand in the mages-vs-mages-vs-Templars debate without realizing there were multiple groups of mages.

One of the things that makes the Dragon Age universe feel real is that its power dynamics are complicated. Each character experiences a unique combination of privilege and oppression that changes depending on who else is in the room. They’re all members of multiple groups and their group affiliation wavers depending which specific issues are up for debate. The same person who passionately defends the Templars in one conversation can get just as passionately angry about some specific thing the Templars did a few hours later. This is true to how people think and behave in real life, but it also makes it really hard to understand what’s going on unless you have a working knowledge of the complicated social structures in Thedas.

The place that’s most confusing is the war table. War table missions are a new mechanic where players are given a very brief text description of a situation that requires the Inquisitor’s input (trade disputes, land disputes, disputes over arranged marriages, etc) and then a list of three options to deal with it. You aren’t allowed to ask any clarifying questions, and the intel you do get is delivered almost like a riddle, peppered with the names of people you’ve never heard of, and sly allusions to political situations you are not aware of. On my first play, I’d say 75% of the time I had no clue what I was being asked at the war table or what my answer signified. I’d just dispatch people to go do a mission for four or five hours, and sometimes they’d bring me some swag.

Character development is the best part of the story, but also optional, and sometimes it costs extra money

BioWare frames itself as a studio that puts a lot of emphasis on characters, and I certainly felt that in Inquisition. The game’s main quest cycle isn’t terribly interesting, but the side stories involving the members of the Inquisition itself – the nine companion characters, plus three advisors who sit at the war table – are what gives the game its real weight. Milestones in the main quest line unlock new scenes with each character that not only help us get to know them, but also flesh out the story by providing a range of viewpoints on whatever’s just happened.

These were, hands-down, my favourite parts of the game, and something I really looked forward to. Having played the first two games, now, I can also say that they’re a big improvement over how similar “getting to know you” sequences were handled in the past. A lot of effort’s gone into staging these conversations and turning them into real scenes with movement, body language and changes in setting – it’s not just running through a dialogue tree.

The actors also recorded hours and hours of incidental dialogue that plays while you’re roaming the countryside, revealing friendships, grudges, and differences of opinion, as well as details from individual character back stories. It’s way too much content for anyone to hear during a single play, but it’s also fascinating, and written a lot more tightly and purposefully than similar conversation were in Origins and Dragon Age II. Every discussion that happens is meant to teach us something about the characters, and the writers have found interesting ways to play them off each other to that effect. One of these dialogue sequences even turns into a romance between two NPCs (see: helping a gay magician find love), which surprised and delighted me in a way I would never have expected incidental dialogue to do.

The part that’s kind of strange is that, if you want to know what happens to all the awesome characters when Inquisition ends – including the player character, and the character who suddenly fucked off to the wilderness without saying goodbye to anyone – you have to pay another $20 to install the Trespasser DLC.

Unlike the other two expansion packs, which add an area to your map and a quest sequence in the Deep Roads – Trespasser functions as a proper epilogue for the base game, tying up all the loose ends, drawing the story to a real conclusion, and retroactively changing the tone of everything that came before from “swashbuckling adventure” to “bittersweet story about loss.” It introduces a Terrible Price to be paid for the powers that propel the player character to greatness, betrayal from people who had been the player’s friends, and – most importantly – the idea that the Inquisition has an end. The characters don’t just live in a castle forever, righting wrongs in Thedas and playing funny card games and making up songs. They move on with their lives and let go of this precious, fragile thing they built together. It’s sad and beautiful and there’s a pretty decent chance that it makes your romance story sad and beautiful, too.

It’s really poignant and powerful and it’s somehow not part of the game unless you choose to buy the DLC and play it.

The game design usually makes sense but isn’t elegant

Most of the issues I ran into while I played – not being able to make armour, being confused about why I was doing a lot of the stuff I was doing, getting bored in the Hinterlands – fall under this category. Having played the first two games, now, I can see a pattern where, whenever BioWare introduces new mechanics to Dragon Age, the mechanics are needlessly complicated and fiddly at first. I expect the stuff that bugged me most in Inquisition to be gone in whatever the fourth game is, but I also expect some new, fiddly, complicated thing to show up.

Meanwhile, the fiddly, complicated things in Inquisition make sense – they’re just not elegant.

The armour crafting system, which is new, makes sense. I figured it out around hour 80, and I could explain it to you now, but it would take between 500-1000 words. Similarly, I verified on my second play that, buried deep, deep down in the story, there are organic reasons why you’d travel to each of the regions on your map – they’re just not always obvious. The points-based upgrade systems, where you need skill points, and power points, and influence points, don’t not make sense; they just aren’t very intuitive.

I ran into a few legitimate bugs in Inquisition – the worst of which was party members getting frozen during combat – but most of the stuff that annoyed me on an hourly basis had to do with game design that made a simple task more complicated than it had to be, or game design that made it hard for me to know what my objectives were.

There is a lot of text to read in this game, and you pay a higher confusion penalty for ignoring it than you would in most other RPGs. The different menus in the game don’t always display information in consistent ways – for example, the shopping menus have different filters than the crafting menus do, and you don’t always know what the schematics you’re buying are for. The open world “choose your own quests to get the power points you need” structure is not immediately clear.

Sometimes, even the rules of how to navigate terrain aren’t clear. This is the first game with jumping and falling, so it’s the first game where you can fling yourself somewhere you’re not supposed to go. On every single play, I’ve had to spend time asking myself whether I’m ever actually meant to pick may way through all the objects in the wilderness, or if there’s going to be a path. Even after beating the game in a relatively completionist way, there are certain sections where I never remember how to get where I’m going.

More importantly, the game is full of unusable horses. It’s clear that someone put time and effort into designing them, but they’re slower than using fast travel, awkward to control, and not very good at navigating anything other than a clear, wide path. I actually like the fast travel options in Inquisition and wouldn’t want to remove them, but having horses and fast travel means the horses don’t serve any purpose.

All said, this is still a game I’d genuinely recommend for people new to RPGs

In addition to being an unusually welcoming and inclusive game, Inquisition is also an unusually flexible game. Players have the option to use different combat mechanics, including one that lets you pause or step forward through the action at your own pace. There’s an option to turn off persistent gore so that everything doesn’t look gross. You can skip most of the hard/annoying/boring quests that you don’t feel like doing. You can do okay with the equipment you get from looting, if you can’t understand the crafting system. You can choose which controller buttons your spells and attack skills map onto.

The story is confusing if you’re coming to it fresh, but the basics of the user interface are fairly easy to pick up and the experience can be customized a lot to make it what you want. There’s also replay value that comes from subtle changes to the story based on who the player character is (human, elf, mage, etc), and the specific mix of characters the player chooses to bring on each of the main quests.

I strongly recommend reading those articles that summarize the first two games, and I strongly recommend buying Trespasser, but this game seems like it could be fun for a really wide range of players, and I like that.

Image: Dragon Age: Inquisition; BioWare | February 12, 2019