I feel like “game” might be too limited a term to express the experience of Dragon Age. Not only is the series so buried in lore as captivating as Lord of the Rings or its sci-fi sparring partner Mass Effect, the latest entry in the series, Inquisition, is so jaw-droppingly large that to call it a game seems to equate it unfairly with the action-packed yet relatively compact experience of Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. Its not that there’s anything particularly wrong with these arcade-based predecessors, but sitting down with Dragon Age is the equivalent of sitting down with a good book, only this time you don’t have to play backseat driver to an overly impetuous dweeb like Harry Potter.
The game is admittedly rough around the edges, and while some purists claim that artwork is the pursuit of perfection, I prefer my art to be sharp and scathing and meaningful with plenty of questionable morality in the mix. This isn’t your grand-mammy’s simplistic (and sexist) rescue mission. Instead you’ll be confounded with intricate questions about lore and minutia, as well as plenty of situations where you sit atop a throne and determine whether a prisoner lives or dies. This is not to say that the game is inherently cruel. In the same way that Link or Samus are as perceptive at puzzle solving as you are, your Dragon Age Inquisitor is as bad as you wanna be.
The rough stuff: the world is so expansive and mesmerizing that you feel a powerful freedom bubbling beneath the surface. As Kotaku said in their review, the game keeps opening doors at points when normal triple-A titles would be closing them. And a door is even too limited an expression to use for the many pathways and sprawling landscapes you’ll explore. It’s more like a magic trick where the magician draws the curtain and the walls around you vanish and you’re left in the middle of the Sonora Desert wondering, how did I get here?
The story is at its basis the sort of “you’re the chosen one!” pablum that we’ve been force-fed in this industry for decades, and as life-affirming as that may be, it serves as a mere throughline to give your player character an exceptional set of powers and authority. In designing your Inquisitor, you choose from a few different classes- warrior, mage and rogue- and a few different races- human, elf, dwarf, and the stately Qunari- and then fully sculpt your appearance and persona from the ground up. Do you want to be an arrogant badass? Doable. Do you want to be the world’s most devastatingly attractive wizard? Also doable. Do you want to be some weird amalgam of flesh and digitation who acts irrationally and sentences people to their death at an amoral whim? So doable you wouldn’t believe it.
So what about this rough stuff I keep mentioning? All the former sounds neat and dandy. Well the combat’s a little questionable, though fully functional, and when compared to Mass Effect 3’s outstanding shooting, it doesn’t quite match up. The deal is you can play two ways, either in real time where your three a.i. controlled allies run amuck without your input, or in tactical mode where you slow combat down to a screeching halt and assign your pieces’s movement like a game of chess. It’s not so skillful and smooth as chess however; it often feels like you are herding chipmunks.
There are simple tactics that make this mode easier- telling your units to attack the weakest foes first, picking your opponents off one by one, that kind of thing- but when you discover that the most advantageous way to play is to slow things down and follow the same exact strategy in every of a jillion battles, you start to lose interest. It’s more a matter of doing the same thing over and over again without incident rather than actively strategizing against your foes, which after a point becomes tedious. The base level of competency for the combat in most RPGs is the highest level of battle efficiency.
And don’t get me started on Dragon Age’s a.i. tactics, a ‘feature’ that they’ve been shoving down our throats since the first Dragon Age, which basically screams of ‘please program our game for us.’ If you don’t like the way your team behaves you can give them alternate behaviors, but generally speaking, they’re decent enough as is, with the exception of occasionally using skills at inopportune times. The original Dragon Age had an extensive tactical programming page that turned into a big clusterfuck as soon as you tried to utilize it. This one pares it down, but even if you tweak it, all you’re doing is telling your characters not to act like assholes.
So what I’m trying to say is- you won’t be spending much time fantasizing about the combat late at night as you close your eyes. You will however be too busy obsessing over the romances and personal interactions between the characters which are as varied and detailed as possible. You can be any sexual orientation you’d like to be in this game and the well-written characters are there for you to wine and dine at your leisure, each with an individual romantic thread. That doesn’t mean you can seduce whoever you please willy-nilly! The game’s characters are so skillfully written that if you make certain story decisions or say certain buffoonish remarks, you can be in the doghouse before you know it. Not only that, as I learned in my first playthrough, at least one character is a straight-up lesbian and was 100% not interested in me, no matter how much of a Christ-figure I was. (This happens to me a lot in real life too.)
That character, Sera, is just about the most fun character in the game, unless you count Dorian, a sassy gay mage with a hipster Dali mustache. Oh, and then there’s Iron Bull, the gigantically man-boobed Qunari warrior played by the ACTUAL Freddie Prinze Jr. doing a voice that can only be described as NOT FREDDIE PRINZE JR. You can get drunk with him. Then there’s the old favorites from previous Dragon Ages like Varric the dwarf who spins yarns, Cassandra the hard-edged knight, Cullen the petulant commander, and Leliana, a formerly sweet bard who became a spymaster. I’m not mentioning the bad guy, because he’s just kind of a big douche who wants to unleash the old gods. He’s none too interesting and was actually a questionable choice for a villain all around, considering he was introduced in Dragon Age II, NOT in the main story, but as a type of add-on paid DLC. Whereas most games got special or ultimate editions that smushed together all their DLC with the main game, retailers told EA that they would be uninterested in trying to move a DAII SE, so most people never even had a chance to meet the bad guy without shucking out extra bucks on a game with as many detractors as fans. (While the story and characters were wonderful the combat was simplified and the maps had a nasty way of repeating themselves.)
Almost in retaliation to criticism and the success of Skyrim, Inquisition seems obsessed with reminding you that you got your money’s worth. You have so much freedom to tackle whichever quests you want that you end up getting as lost in it as you might an MMORPG. The characters are as vivid as real people, and in most cases are ten times more likable. Even if you rush through the story, you’ll still have a sizable experience, and if you take it slow, you might never finish (at least that’s what I’m discovering on my second time through the damn thing.)
Before I was a sensible Qunari and now I’m a vivacious mage. I was originally going to make my character as much like April Ludgate as possible, but she ended up looking more like a ginger Liv Tyler. Anyway, she romanced Josephine, the diplomat who still plays with dolls, and she sentenced one of her other friends to a life of servitude because he, like, totally betrayed her trust. This game is the best experience you’ll ever have living in a reality that is not your own. You might as well forget about the oculus rift, because this is my kind of virtual reality.
Yeah, there’s dumb stuff too, video game stuff, like invisible walls that block certain exploration, inexplicable glitches- some on a New Vegas level of what the fuck- and again, we’ve got this big beautiful universe with billions of side quests and the main story is still: You’re Dragon Jesus! Kill Dragon Satan! (This is also the exact same thing that happens in the Bible, only in this version Jesus doesn’t have his trademark wooden chainsaw.) But yeah, do you really care about all the little stupid things it does wrong- like limiting the number of abilities you can easily use during combat but letting your a.i. allies bypass that lock, meaning they’ll have twice the arsenal but none of your ability to strategize, or how you’ll still be doing about a hundred fetch quests replete with backtracking- and focus on the big, vivid gooey things it does right. Every time you interact with a character, it feels like you’re talking to a real person, and not just in terms of looks, but in terms of how they respond, how they perceive and what their goals are. It’s like trying to manage an actual team of working adults, except your comrades in Dragon Age are actually skilled rather than the pessimistic weasels and dunderheads you’re used to.
So yes, it’s a game in some ways and a movie in others and a really great series of novels at the end of the day, but what is it really, and what term encompasses the whole… experience? Maybe that’s what I should stick with since I led with it anyway. It’s like when you go into one of those “4D” rides at Universal Studios and Spider-Man lands on your car before plastic bees stab you in the back or whatever. You think you’re in for one thing, then the walls fall down, and you’re just left wondering, how did I get here?