When you hear a new game is coming from Bioware, you brace yourself.  This is a company that delivers compelling and interesting stories, where every companion is alive and so much more than a character class.  The choices are never black and white, and the consequences can reach far further than you ever imagined.  It requires an investment, both in time and emotion, that pulls you in and sticks with you long after.  Welcome to the Inquisition.

When you launch a new game you’ll be asked if you’d like to import a world state from the Dragon Age Keep.  The Keep is Bioware’s website that allows you to tailor your story with the hundreds of decisions (e.g. Is Alistair King? Who did you romance, if anyone? Did you kill the dragon in the Bone Pit?) to ensure that the world of Dragon Age Inquisition is the world you’ve shaped over the hundreds of hours of the previous games, DLC, and expansion packs. When you look at all of the possibilities in the Keep (there are over 300), you can see how modifying even the smallest detail can have huge repercussions on the storyline in Inquisition – encouraging for those who enjoy multiple playthroughs of the game.

I want to preface this review a bit.  Often I remind readers that I do not include spoilers in my reviews, but it’s all the more critical when the decisions carry this much weight.  Anything of consequence in terms of story that I will say in my review was already present in my preview.  While I have completed the main story thread, there is easily over 100 hours of this game that I’ve not uncovered.  I’ll talk about the mechanics, pacing, and some very broad strokes on the overall game, but I absolutely will not spoil anything for you — this is a game that you need to experience on your own.  Rest easy, intrepid adventurer; there are no pitfalls or traps here.

DAIReview01

When you see these guys appear, kill them immediately or expect to reload.

“The elves are a lithe, pointy-eared people who excel at poverty.” – Sten

The storyline in Dragon Age Inquisition focus on a cataclysmic event: a tear in the Fade causes a massive explosion that kills scores of delegates during a peace talk between Templars and Mages.  I mention this small spoiler as it literally happens the moment you hit the start button, before you even exit the opening screen.  With tensions already high between these two, you can imagine just how badly they want answers when you emerge as the sole survivor. Clapped in irons, you’ll answer for their deaths — long before you will become Inquisitor, you will be a criminal, a murderer, and a pariah.  It is now up to a band of unlikely heroes to prevent the mysterious tear in The Fade from destroying the world of Thedas. That is, if tensions between the Mages and the Templars doesn’t destroy it first.

This is Bioware, so you know that you’ll face a complex web of stories that’ll keep you guessing.  David Gaider, long time novelist and writer for Bioware, and his team have penned a fantastic story spanning over 150 hours.  Thick with lore and detail, even minor characters have plenty to say.  In fact, there are over 85,000 recorded lines of dialogue in this game.  Beyond that, there are tens of thousands of words in books, scrolls, plaques on statues, and much more.  The world of Thedas has never been this well detailed.

I completed the main story arc and enough side missions to reach that point to make sure I could speak to the evenness of the story itself, as well as the completeness of the ending.  I was happy to see that, despite moving to a completely open-world model, the game remains as cohesive and intricate as ever.  It wasn’t until over 30 hours into the game that it felt like it truly hit its stride.  I won’t ruin it for you, but there is a moment where I felt like it instantly lived up to its namesake.  A little further into the main story the game takes a hard turn and gives you a chance to engage in a little traditional diplomacy.  In the end, you’ll make decisions that change the face of an entire nation — there are no small decisions in Dragon Age Inquisition.  The ending of the game felt comprehensive and complete, tying up some loose ends and fully fraying others on purpose.  I feel like Inquisition’s storyline is a masterstroke and easily the best in the series by a wide margin.

The Iron Bull kills everything in front of him.  Without exception.

The Iron Bull kills everything in front of him. Without exception.

“We’re here to kill them all, yes? For sport?” – Shale

As the Inquisitor, you’ll spend a great deal of time with your advisors at the War Table.  Familiar faces will return to offer counsel on how you might approach your objectives to win the war and stop the true source of the massive tear in the sky. Using the War Table, you’ll dispatch diplomats, spies, or soldiers to help build your power and influence in Orlais and Fereldon. When you’ve selected a mission, you’ll be given the option to send resources from one of the three advisors, each having an opinion and sometimes an advantage, based on the objectives therein. This resource becomes unavailable for a real-world amount of time (which does pass even while you are not playing, so plan accordingly), leaving them out of the next round of missions. I’m told there are over 300 missions on the table, and you can’t possibly tackle them all in a single playthrough as there are a handful that are tied to your race, decisions you’ve made in the past or present, your class, and many other factors. Completing these missions gives you rewards such as gold, equipment, and influence for the Inquisition, as well as furthering the main story, but it comes at a cost.

Unlocking new areas to explore costs power.  You’ll earn power by completing missions, closing rifts, and helping your army with requisitions, and it’s all spent at the War Table. The power is consumed, so you’ll have to spend it wisely or you’ll find yourself back out in the field doing side missions because you just spent points needed to move the main story forward.  It’s a great gating system that balances out the fact that monsters do not scale with the player.  By putting power requirements into tougher areas, it ensures that you’ve tackled enough missions to earn the requisite XP needed to survive in that zone.  Newly-unlocked areas often show a recommended level, but there are plenty of opportunities to step off the beaten path and find your party immediately destroyed by hulking beasts you are not ready to face.  Like so much of Inquisition, the choices, and consequences, are entirely yours.

Raising your Inquisition’s influence also allows you to purchase perks at the War Table.  Each of your advisors has a litany of available perks ranging from additional XP for killing foes, and extra knowledge to open up additional dialogue options, to rare crafting materials, lockpicking skills, and class-specific schematics.  It is here that you will also expand your inventory and how many potions you can carry.

The inventory limits in this game feel arbitrary.  I’m sure that Bioware, while watching playthroughs of the previous games, observed people sifting through a massive box of goodies and wanted to restrict that to keep the game moving forward.  As a long-time packrat RPG player, I was sad to sell my companion’s possessions.  In my head I struggled with freeing up one more inventory slot, or selling off The Iron Bull’s namesake axe, or Cassandra’s Seeker shield.  Call me a romantic, but those things should be proudly displayed on a wall or at least tucked in a box.  To have your own fortress and not have a room to pile your junk can make inventory management a needless frustration.

It's not all sunshine and rainbows in Thedas.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in Thedas.

“Enchantment?  Enchantment!” – Sandal

In previous Dragon Age games you’d receive the most powerful weapons and armor from high-priced vendors, or as hard-earned quest rewards.  You’ll certainly have that opportunity here as well, but more often you’ll be relying on the new gear crafting system.  By picking up crafting nodes (and slaughtering a lot of cute and fuzzy animals) you’ll be able to create weapons and armor, as well as augment things you might have already made.  Even at lower levels, this gear is often far better than anything you might pick up or buy, so it pays to keep pressing that left thumbstick to send out a small pulse that detects and highlights nearby collectables of any kind.

Crafting nodes are not only used in gear creation, but also in the outfitting of your army.  A requisition master will request that you help outfit your troops with things as simple as tents to keep them away from the elements and swords to dispatch your foes, to materials for upgrading your fortress.  Running a fortress is expensive work, so expect to pick up a lot of flora, kill a lot of fauna, and plenty of clanking on mining nodes.

As the game progresses you’ll also meet other crafters that’ll uses much of the same materials. An alchemist will refill your potions, but also help you upgrade their efficacy.  He’ll also craft and upgrade tonics and grenades if you’ve got the right goodies in your bag.  Thankfully, these materials don’t take up any space against your overall inventory capacity.  They also regenerate in the field over time, so there’s no need to get particularly worked up about missing a crafting node.

Weapons and armor are broken down into three tiers, as well as familiar rarity levels. After finding or purchasing the appropriate armor schematics, you can create chest, arms, and leg pieces from the various materials in the world. Similarly, you’ll create a weapon, as well as a pommel, grip, haft, or other accessory based on the type. Each crafting material offers a different bonus. To create even more adaptive armor choices, you can also slot these in four possible positions which changes the bonus conveyed. Cotton conveys six Willpower in the Utility slot, whereas it will give you 1.5% health recovering on each kill if used in an Offense slot. In the end, no two pieces of armor will end up the same.  Throw in the random chance of creating a masterwork and you end up with a slot machine that you’ll happily pull frequently.

There is one thing that I think the team overlooked with the crafting system: as you build out equipment for your ever-expanding team, you cannot see what they are wearing or wielding from within the crafting window.  Without that option, you will be constantly bouncing back and forth between the inventory and crafting window.  It seems like it would be an easy fix to annotate what a character has equipped.

As you begin to upgrade your stronghold, you’ll be given choices that have a massive impact on how your Inquisition is viewed.  As an example, do you build a garden that will give you necessary herbs, or do you build a Chantry that can give you money from tithes?  Depending on the factions you’ve decided to support, you may have a difficult moral quandary on what would otherwise be a simple choice of resource.  Building out your stronghold further, you’ll be able to choose the furniture, heraldry, decor, windows, throne, and more that makes up the overall look of your fortress.  Much of these will have to be discovered in the world – just how we like it.

Even character creation is full of choice.  It’s my belief that most people will easily spend an hour or more in the character creator as there are dozens of sliders, as well as a new incredibly granular control over colors, shapes, sizes, and placement of just about every aspect of your character’s facial traits. You can even adjust eyelash length and style.  The improvements are welcome and show off just how much detail has really gone into each and every character in this world.  Throw in the fact that you can play a male or female Dwarf, Elf, Human, or Qunari as a race, and then have to chose from Mage, Warrior, and Rogue for classes, and you’ll be stressing over choices before you’ve really even begun the game.

Plenty of time in this screen, forging awesomeness.

Plenty of time in this screen, forging awesomeness.

“Rivaini, stop looking at my chest. My eyes are up here” – Varric

There were twin axes to grind in Dragon Age II – linearity and the near-removal of the tactical combat engine.  The linearity question was obliterated by the introduction of a massive open world that makes its contemporaries look like a tiny and empty parking lot.  As incredible as these gorgeous environments look, it’s the refreshed tactical system that’ll have people talking.

At any point you can press the View button on the Xbox One controller, T key or scrolling out on the PC, or the Touchpad on the PS4 to bring up the tactical system.  It pauses the game, allowing you to control as much or as little of your battleplan as you’d like.  You can select every character and specify their selected powers or basic attacks, then pull the right trigger to advance time for as long as it’s held.  Releasing the trigger lets you again pause time, selecting new powers.  This allows you to fight difficult battles more tactically instead of letting the battle rage in real time.

In practice and on normal difficulty (there are four levels from easy to nightmare) I found that I used tactical combat to kick off nearly every battle. I’d deploy traps with Varric or launch area of effect attacks.  Since height matters to archery now, I would also push my archers and mages onto higher ground to keep them safe to rain fire onto my foes.  Most of the time, once I had kicked the hornets nest, I would release time and fight the remainder of the battle in real time.  Using the tactical combat camera offers other advantages though as pausing over an enemy reveals their weaknesses, resistances, and any status effects you may have imposed upon them.  It also lets you look over the landscape of the battlefield to spot any foes you might not have noticed quite yet.  Since line of sight also matters, sometimes the tactical system allows you to position your troops appropriately.

On the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, the right thumbstick moves the camera as well as selecting targets.  It should be immediately obvious that the mouse and keyboard option is a far better engine for this, but the consoles do a decent job with the tactical system.  The tactical selection camera can occasionally be finicky as you glide over the environment, sometimes getting stuck on objects or the ground itself.  Outside of the tactical system, the camera is freely controlled, in stark contrast to the locked system of Dragon Age II.

Diplomacy, Spycraft, or Soldiers - solving problems with "diplomacy"

Diplomacy, Spycraft, or Soldiers – solving problems with “diplomacy”

“Let’s show them our hearts, and then show them theirs.” – Oghren

Beyond the obvious mechanics of combat, there are quite a few new systems that lie just beneath the surface.  Combining sympathetic powers will create Synergies.  Using electricity to stun an enemy, then unleashing Ice Storm to freeze them in place as Cassandra closes distance and beats them to pump with a Shield Bash links your party in a way that clicks better than ever before.

At Level 11 you’ll have the chance to select specialization trees.  Unlike Dragon Age II, these are not visible until you break that level barrier.  They obviously grant incredible combat advantages, but they serve a secondary purpose – it can drastically change who you carry with you into battle.

One of the things I noticed early on is that each companion arrives with no pre-defined skills.  All of their points unallocated, you are free to change the role of anyone who joins your Inquisition.  This means that you can take an advertised two-hander warrior like Iron Bull and make him a sword-and-board fighter instead.  You can purchase a relatively inexpensive respec potion as well, so if you aren’t satisfied with how things turned out, you can simply change it. Each companion has a pre-defined specialization, so each character could (it is optional – you don’t have to spend points in specialization) end up drastically different than how they started.  It does negate a lot of these fantastic companion videos that show off the skillset they have, but it does tie into the open-world “play your way” concept that Bioware has created.

One of the things that shocked me was just how incredibly well balanced the classes were.  Certainly, you’ll be a devastating force on the battlefield by the end of the game, but I always felt challenged.  Beyond enemy levels, their ability to combine ranged, magic, and close-distance damage makes them dangerous.  It gave real weight to the choices I had made with each character, meaning I had to plan ahead to take out tougher foes.

The largest change to the combat system is the way potions are used.  Rather than spamming health potions when you are injured, you’ll only be able to carry a handful of them for the entire party.  Inquisition perks can offer additional potion slots, but you are still very limited by the amount of healing you’ll be able to do.  Since healing mages are equally limited and hard to come by, the ability to keep a mage barrier or generate shields on your warriors becomes incredibly important to survival.

"Templars suck!" Signed, The Mages

“Templars suck!” Signed, The Mages

“We now have a dog and Alistair is still the dumbest one in the party.” – Morrigan

Graphically, Inquisition is beautiful. Certainly there are a few wonky clipping issues and muddy textures here and there (at least on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4), but there is no denying that this is a fresh and new experience. Jungle environments are packed with thick vegetation, flowers, and wildlife. Cities are filled with statues, filigree, cathedral-like ceilings, and colorfully clothed citizens.  It is amazing what the team at Bioware has been able to pack into the engine with a stable framerate.  My hat is off to Matthew Goldman and his team.

On the Xbox One, the game runs at 900p and 30fps.  PlayStation 4 runs at 1080p at 30fps, though you’d be hard pressed to see the difference unless you ran it side-by-side.  On the PC you get all of the resolutions, and all of the frames your system can muster, if you have the rig to run it.

For reference, I have a MSI GT70 laptop, and it was able to nearly max out the game settings and still hit a frame rate near 30fps with the textures set to “Fade Touched”.   It took a bit of tweaking, but it seems like if you have a 700 series card from NVidia you should be pretty well set.  Check the minimum and recommending settings to see how your mileage may vary.

I will say this – look at the video below for the same scene recorded on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Ignoring the bizarre set of pants that wanders by (that’ll be fixed in the upcoming patch for the game just before launch) but you’ll very easily see that the PC is head-and-shoulders above its console counterparts.  The texture quality, shadows, and additional bells and whistles obviously make a marked quality difference.  That isn’t to say that the console versions look bad, on the contrary, it’s quite the opposite.  I’m simply saying that if you can run this on a PC with a decent enough framerate (and thank you Bioware for the included Benchmarking tool), you should seriously consider picking it up for that platform.  Throw in the PC-centric UI, tighter control in tactical thanks to the mouse and keyboard, better visibility for comparing equipment, and a few other small tweaks and it edges out the PC as a clear victor between the three.   For those inclined, you can also hook up a controller and play the game on the PC with console-centric play style – a first for the series.

There is one issue that comes up on all three platforms – occasionally the camera has entirely the wrong focus during cutscenes.  There are a handful of Havok physics engine oddities which has eyes rolling in odd places, but more often the camera will be stuck behind a patch of grass or leaves that were in the foreground when the scene started.  Thankfully this is incredibly infrequent, happening half a dozen times over the course of over 60 hours of content.

No bullshot - you can reach this level of detail with your armor loadout.

No bullshot – you can reach this level of detail with your armor loadout.

“I removed the chance of compromise, because there is no compromise.” – Anders

Trevor Morris has outdone himself.  The composer behind such works as The Tudors, The Borgias, Olympus Has Fallen, and my personal favorite, Vikings, Morris has composed an incredible soundtrack.  Invoking emotion at just the right moments, and more importantly laying in the background when it doesn’t, the soundtrack rivals any of his previous work and lines up against any major motion picture.

With the likes of Jennifer Hale, Miranda Raison, Steve Valentine, Corrine Kempa, and Nicholas Boulton joined by one of the largest voice acting casts I’ve seen in any game, the voice work in Inquisition is some of the best I’ve heard.  Sure, there are some repeating voices on occasion, but the quality is of the highest caliber.  These voice actors and actresses serve as the vessel to deliver the fantastic storyline, and they do so with the practiced hand of veterans.

Multiplayer:

If you are not interested in multiplayer, I’ll gladly say that my score stands with or without it. The amount of content, both mundane and story-based, is so high that it could easily be a single-player product without consequence.  I’m glad it’s not.

The multiplayer is a 100% separate experience from the single player, and no cross-over occurs.  You’ll select from Mage, Archer, two-handed Warrior, or sword-and-shield Warrior, with the aforementioned specializations available for unlock once you’ve levelled up enough to discover them.  There are (currently) three maps and four difficulty levels, each set up as a side mission as if they were dispatched by the Inquisition from the War Table.  In this mode, four players of any configuration (though balanced parties are obviously better) can tackle a five-stage adventure that takes roughly 25 minutes to complete.  You’ll battle scores of demons, Venatori, and Red Templars as you cut your way through the areas, looking for loot.  The objectives are very straightforward, asking you to slay groups of enemies to move forward, gain a key to a door, or unlock a barrier.

Not unlike the single player game, there are opportunities locked to specific classes that open up other side areas.  Warriors can bash down weak walls, rogues can pick door locks, and mages can dispel barriers – pretty standard stuff.   These don’t open up any sort of shortcuts that I saw, just additional loot opportunities.  Let’s hope there is some more imagination in future maps.

There was one bug that was absolutely constant during my runs in multiplayer – voice repetition.  Every few seconds all four characters would say something like “I hope I can return to my former life” and “Do we have any sort of plan?” or something similarly generic.  It was pervasive and cut into the fun a bit.  You can also say things like “Over here!” to try to signal to your team if you are a mage trying to cast barrier on your crew, or to direct attention to one of those class-specific side areas.