A BioWare Fan’s First Look at Dragon Age: Inquisition

I thought it ideal to stop 50-some hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition, a quarter of the way through the touted 200 hours of content, to write a review of the game thus far. While I do have a few complaints, in the main my reaction boils down to one word: wow.

This review will avoid spoilers but the main story quest has consistently impressed and surprised me. Think Skyrim meets Dragon’s Dogma meets the beauty of BioWare’s wonderful storytelling. Here’s the tl;dr version: Dragon Age: Inquisition takes a little getting used to but it has amazed and delighted me and I’ve only just found out what the main story’s about.

Note, please, that I’m playing on the X-Box One. Hubby has had continuous problems on his PC, including taking three days to download the game and a number of freezes and crashes. I’m not going to address those because they aren’t the game, they’re likely a combination of hardware and Origin problems. Let’s talk about the glorious masses of content, instead.

First, a warning about the very beginning: read what it says on the screen or you’ll miss the customization section. The button you normally use to confirm things on consoles here confirms that you are done customizing. If you get the screen to change your first name and you’re not done make sure you go back instead of forward!

I’m sad to say that customization made a poor impression. Had I not been so excited to play I might have been put off by the incredibly ugly default character and, Maker’s breath, the horror that is hair of any kind in Inquisition. It took a fair amount of tweaking but I finally got a dwarf without duck lips. The limited and, frankly, awful hair choices couldn’t be helped.

Eyebrows range from hirsute to sparse but all would look more at home on porcupines than people. Eyelashes offered several settings but all of them showed on the character creator as “none” or “tiny spikes sticking out of my eyelids”. It’s like they were set too far into the eyes but changing the depth of the eyes themselves did not improve or hide the lashes.

Playing a dwarf has caused a number of race-specific observations and created an interesting by-play about how not just a non-mage but a dwarf can do certain things and could fill the Inquisitor role as it develops. While dwarves have a different basic face and body shape that wasn’t the source of the problem. Both my kids have male Qunari and their character creator offered a laughably bad selection of eyebrows and facial hair. The hair for that race ties into the horn selection, which necessarily limits it to “not horrible”, “WTF”, and Sten’s cornrows. After a few tries and in looking at the characters in the game I conclude that BioWare simply couldn’t make hair look like hair, wherever it was on a head.

All in all, heads are my only major complaint. While many NPCs are reasonably attractive (and I’m particularly jealous of my scout dwarf that greets me at every new area, as she’s adorable) some of the most important people in the game just came out ugly. Cullen and Cassandra look like badly cloned versions of themselves that were hit in the faces with shovels as children. In full sunlight they look pretty good but not much of the game happens that well-lit.

A certain recurring character popped up and, until he spoke, I hadn’t the faintest idea who he was supposed to be. Why does Cassandra’s hair clip into her forehead, even in cut scenes where it should have been fixable? Why is everyone’s face so damned shiny?

Some of the companions and advisors got much better heads than others, though even the comparatively normal-looking companions have oddly squinty eyes in many situations. Cullen and Dorian in particular seem to suffer from a nasty glare problem. Leliana looks fantastic and Vivenne is truly striking while Sera has a certain pinched charm. Josephine, your poised and competent diplomat, looks precisely as she ought and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Blackwall stole Duncan’s beard and it really works for him. The utterly bald Solas suffers from variable skin tone but in general he’s least affected by the various lighting and clipping issues. The new looks take some getting used to but by the time you make your first major story choice you notice the problems less.

With that major exception, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a whole new world, visually. The detail is amazing. I stood inside a shrub and looked at the myriad branches that mimic nature, down to veins on the leaves and the uneven distribution. I stood on the beach at the Storm Coast and watched the waves for five solid minutes. I wandered the desert and admired the vista. Draw distances and the open environment let me see incredible distances and offered detail even in the misty, far-off reaches of the map.

The creatures are wonderful. Cute Fennecs romp, menacing wolves chomp, and all sorts of not-quite-Earth creatures threaten or flee. The Inquisition takes place in a world wonderfully alive. The birds are singing, the sun is shining—except when it’s raining or snowing, or when it’s night. Thedas still doesn’t have a day/night cycle but BioWare did bring us different weather for various regions.

That’s all icing on the cake, pretty but ultimately not critical. What you really need to know to decide whether you want to play the latest Dragon Age installment is how’s the cake? I happily report that the cake is excellent. It’s filled with fruit and nuts, crunchy surprises and subtle flavors that keep you guessing. The main batter, the side quests and exploration, holds it all together and keeps you eager for the next bite.

You start slowly, as you ought creating a rebel organization from scratch. After the initial tutorial level (and a thorough exploration of the town in which you’re based) you’re off to The Hinterlands to start building support. How do you do that? By doing a hundred little things that build your reputation and secure infrastructure.

You save a lost druffalo, you establish camps, you feed and heal people. Along the way you find a dozen different crafting resources, including metals, plants, and hides. This leads you up mountains and into caves. Bandits need clearing out and the mage-Templar war needs cooling off so you lay down the law and protect the residents and refugees.

The Hinterlands introduce you to the major change in the Dragon Age universe, namely the semi-open and widely variable world. If you’re looking to take a straight line from point A to point B and the road meanders around a bluff, in some cases you can climb up and over (usually finding crafting nodes and the occasional hidden goodie along the way). How can you do this, you ask? In Thedas, people have finally evolved the ability to jump. It’s glorious!

Bored with fetching and carrying? Get a (intricately detailed and beautiful) horse or halla or dracolisk (or that awesome bog unicorn) and participate in the races. Head back to your home base and dispatch your friends to unlock new areas, find new gear, and create alliances. Recruit people to your cause. Secure lands. Spend some quality time reducing the nug population—they’ve escaped the deep roads and they’re everywhere! Fill requisitions for needed equipment. Talk to a dozen people about lore or just read their books and diaries. Maker, there’s lore everywhere!

What I’m trying to say is that Dragon Age: Inquisition starts with its strengths. It gives you a reason for your role and then makes you earn your way to fulfilling it. It shows you lovely and war-torn places and begs you to explore every corner—and gives you reasons to do so. It throws a giant at you, and a dragon. Even the earliest location has reasons to return and more work to do as you progress.

All of that, however, doesn’t tell you the story. While the side quests look pretty and give you a million “one more thing” excuses to keep playing story has always been where BioWare shines brightest. Inquisition proves that in spades. For my first run, I went to the mages for help and discovered a jaw-dropping thing that kept getting better. “Ah,” I said to myself, “so that’s the big bad this time.” I immediately started planning a Templar run, perhaps with a two-handed elven warrior, but that will have to wait.

In famous BioWare style, the red herring took me down a rabbit hole and then, when I’d done almost every quest I could possibly complete, it laughed in my face and said, “You fool!” I have let loose a girly squee on half a dozen occasions, done at least as many happy dances, and stopped to just admire the scenery more than both combined. My companions and advisors are chatty and offer opinions on every side of the war that started this whole mess.

People, things, and locations from Origins and Dragon Age 2 pop up in unexpected ways. You can flirt with a generous number of people (though I’m not far enough in to have any comment on romances yet) both companions and NPCs alike. The Iron Bull has turned my opinion of Qunari on its head. Sera’s recruitment mission had me in tears of laughter. A collection quest gives you item descriptions clearly written by a clever and wicked mind (or a crew egging each other on to make each more hysterically bizarre than the last).

I’m a completionist so I’ve spent a shocking amount of time doing every quest I can click in the first three areas of Fereldan. It took me 40 hours just to get Skyhold keep and the game nearly doubled in size when I did. The initial areas still have things I couldn’t or didn’t do and they’re still available while new places to explore and missions to complete dot the map. I thought the Hinterlands map expansive. Then I found myself in

Crafting adds a finicky element to the game that you can ignore utterly (aside from potions). It requires a significant commitment to exploration and gathering, and another to killing skittish forest creatures. Enough rare and unique items, armor, weapons, and upgrades drop that the fights doesn’t require you to take that time. For me it’s been thoroughly enjoyable. Every type of metal, leather, and cloth does something a little different, depending on which slot in which you use it. As you progress so does the tier of your crafting materials.

I do wish BioWare had done one thing differently. It would help if you could compare equipped items to what you’re crafting so you can decide whether using that incredibly rare resource will result in something that gives you enough improvement over what you have to be worth it. Instead, you get to see what color changes different materials bring to your new togs or weapons. I hate it when the best materials end up clashing! Sometimes it’s worth the stat loss to make something that looks cool.

Your companions come with crappy, if distinctive, equipment. Switching them between the various categories of their particular category to see what each will look like provided me a great diversion, particularly finding something to keep Vivienne warm and protected. Apparently The Iron Bull doesn’t do shirts but his pantaloons do change color, pattern, and skirting depending on the type and material. He also gets awesome body paint with some armors. Each companion has a style but only Varric has a specific weapon (because Bianca).

Helmets and hats let you put giant wings on Sera’s tiny shoulders and the occasional ornate construct that gives your dwarf that extra stature to get a little respect (or laughed at behind her exceedingly elaborate back). The only reason I wish I were on the PC at this point is the ability to take screen shots so you could see the Orlesian monstrosity my character is wearing at the moment! How Varric fits that enormous jaw in the Free Marches helmet I’ll never know but it’s funny see him rounded off that way. At some point I hope to find a much better version of Blackwall’s default (but awesome) Griffon helmet because I want one.

In general, Dragon Age: Inquisition takes Thedas to a whole new level of fascinating. Clearly the game is not without its flaws but BioWare’s excellent storytelling and character development gloss over those with panache. I’ll be back when I’m much farther into the story to give spoilers and comments on a romance or three, depending what I manage to develop along the way, assuming I ever quit wandering the countryside long enough to do so. I haven't even touched multiplayer yet!

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