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The Dragon Age Diaries #1: The Devil Is in the Details

DA InquisitionGenre: RPG

Way back when Knights of the Old Republic came out, I was an insatiable, voracious fan, spending hours replaying that game and loving every minute of it. Thus began my love affair with BioWare games.

From KotOR I worked my way through Neverwinter Nights and its expansion packs, Baldur’s Gate II and its expansion, the Mass Effect series, and the previous Dragon Age titles, though I never did play Awakenings. I thought Dragon Age: Origins was a pretty solid game, but I’m one of the few who actually liked DAII better. Mass Effect was my preferred series, but the ending of Mass Effect 3 came as a huge disappointment to me, and I started wondering if maybe BioWare had lost a bit of its magic. Truth is, I wasn’t planning on buying Inquisition right away, but I kept seeing a lot of good press about it and my husband found a deal, so I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt.

I’ll come right out and say it: Inquisition seems poised to prove that all my doubts about BioWare games were unfounded. I’m still a bit skittish because ME3 was so great all the way up until the end, and I still have a lot of worries about how Inquisition will end, but after having put in around seventeen hours in game, I can say it’s quite possibly the best BioWare title yet.

It’s impossible for me to review the game at this point because I’ve barely scratched the surface of it. Instead, what I’d like to do is share my initial impressions, hopefully as part of a larger series so that I can continue to share my thoughts on the game as I get deeper into it. There will be some spoilers, so proceed with caution.

The basic premise of the game is this: most of Thedas’s leaders were killed in an attack, an attack your PC survived but has no memory of. Your PC awakens to questioning from Cassandra, a Seeker who is reluctant to believe your PC is as ignorant as he or she claims. However, Cassandra can’t just dispatch your PC. A rift has appeared between Thedas and the Veil, and your PC has a green glowing mark on his or her hand, a mark that turns out to lend your PC the ability to close tears in the fabric of the Veil–in other words, your PC is the world’s only hope, so Cassandra grudgingly decides to go along with it. Cassandra and Leliana (yep, the same Leliana you knew and loved in Dragon Age: Origins) decide to attempt to fill the power vacuum by declaring an Inquisition and working to gather allies to its cause, and your PC is to be the Inquisition’s figurehead. Due to your mark and your status as sole survivor, your PC is viewed either with religious wonder or suspicion, so your task is to not only close the Veil, but to attempt to win others to your Inquisition’s side in order to save Thedas.

One thing that’s really impressed me is how the character type you choose affects how NPCs treat your character. I’m playing as a Dalish elf, which lays bare some of the less savory aspects of Thedas: its religious intolerance and its deep-seated racism. Some NPCs are highly offended by the idea that the people of Thedas might regard my PC as Andraste’s prophet.

I also chose to go with a ranged PC, and am playing as an archer. I was very happy to see that BioWare has seriously improved the quality of archery in the game. I’ve played Origins as an archer as well, and it was an underwhelming experience, which is why I didn’t bother with playing as an archer in DAII. Thanks to the addition of upgrade slots to bows and enhancement of archery talents in Inquisition, my character can now deal damage that is comparable at times to her warrior companions.

This game has a lot of pluses, but the biggest is the enormous open world. I’ve never seen anything like it in a BioWare game. It’s as if Bethesda and BioWare got together and made a game that’s a mashup of the Elder Scrolls series and the Dragon Age series. The lore is there, many characters from previous DA games are there, but even so it feels completely different. I’ve had a lot of fun running around in The Hinterlands, which is the very first area you unlock. Since I’ve spent seventeen hours doing almost nothing but exploring The Hinterlands, that probably gives you an idea of how open and big the world really is. I’ve unlocked some other areas and even made a brief jaunt to Orlais for a meeting in Val Royeaux, but there are things to do in The Hinterlands, so many things, and since I’m a completionist, I must do them all.

The vastness of the open world feels a lot like an MMORPG than a single-player RPG. Moreover, the world isn’t only large, it’s dynamic. Creatures and crafting materials respawn, and NPCs in the various zones move around and carry on conversations. All of this adds to the feeling that your player character isn’t just on some huge dungeon crawl but is actually part of a vibrant world, where he or she forms only a small part, albeit an important one.

As for the things to do, they’re large and varied as well. I’ve done a few “Fed Ex” quests, as well as the typical “kill X number of enemies of this type”, but rather than feeling hassled, they feel like a natural part of the game. For instance, one NPC asked my PC to kill some rams to collect meat for starving refugees. I did it, and it improved the Inquisition’s reputation. Improving your reputation leads, in turn, to gaining Inquisition perks, a wide variety of which are available. Some are tactical and increase your martial skills. Others are more cerebral and increase the amount of experience you get for unlocking codex entries. Still others are more practical, allowing you to carry more loot, to gain a larger quantity of crafting materials each time you gather…and on and on. Really, the possibilities are seemingly endless. I admire the psychology of the game. MMOs are renowned for making Pavlov’s dogs of their players: push a lever, get a reward, repeat. This game does the same, and I enjoy every minute of it.

Adventuring is just as deep. While out trying to complete a quest, your character may stumble upon an astrarium, which opens up a puzzle. Connect the stars so that they resemble the diagram in the lower right corner, but you have to do so without crossing back over a line you’ve already connected. If you’re successful, you unlock a codex entry about the constellation. Solving every astrarium puzzle will apparently not only earn you an achievement, but will also give you access to a vault with special equipment, though I’m nowhere near that point yet. At other times, you’ll find ancient magical ruins to explore with the help of Veilfire torches. There are landmarks to be claimed, houses to be searched, other ruins to plunder–you get the idea. It’s possible to spend hours just wandering and dungeon crawling, all without advancing the main plot. Or, if you prefer, you can disregard all side missions and just do the main mission, which makes the game appeal to a broad variety of preferred player styles.

There are so many other small touches that I like. I like how the load screens offer up three tarot-like cards. Flipping through them gives you practical tips on combat or crafting, or the cards contain songs and lore. My only gripe is that sometimes they disappear too quickly for me to read the longer lore entries, much to my disappointment. It really says something about the quality of a game when I enjoy its load screens.

Crafting is another area I’ve only just begun to explore. You can purchase schematics from some shops, find them in caves and ruins, or dig them out of chests tucked away in niches. Making items is a simple process in that all you need to do is select which material you would like to use for each part of the item, click a button, and its done. The possibilities for customization are huge, though, and I’ve crafted several items that are far nicer than even some of the rare items I found in loot drops. Once you realize that using nugskin for this type of armor is great, and having drankenstone for that sort of staff blade is handy, you’ll find yourself gathering every item in sight.

The overall look of the game is far superior as well. The environments are vibrant, lush, and beautiful. Houses burn where mages and templars have been battling it out, driving away the villagers. Refugees huddle around campfires, talking about their plight and trying to figure out where to seek shelter. Waterfalls tumble over cliffs. The detail on the armor is exquisite. My archer looks great in the stylish leather duster I made, and the detail on her cuffs provided by her armor upgrade are quite nice. When the wind blows or when she runs, her coat flaps out around her. When she stands still, it stirs gently in the breeze. The same is true of the companions’ outfits. My one complaint is the hair is just plain awful as it looks more like molded plastic caps than anything, but you can’t have it all, right?

There are a few other minor flaws: your PC sometimes gets stuck in the environment, and it can be frustrating to try to get from point A to point B by attempting to climb up rocks that seem like they shouldn’t pose too much of obstacle but then prove to be insurmountable–anyone who’s played Mass Effect 1 will vividly remember the same frustrations from their forays in the Mako. NPCs tend to be like marble statues, rooted to the ground while my PC tries to find her way around them. And as beautiful as the environment is, it sometimes gets in the way. There’s one rift in The Hinterlands that’s particularly frustrating because it’s located in a stream just below a small waterfall, so getting your PC into the correct position to disrupt it is an exercise in frustration as the PC has to be positioned just so. Meanwhile, your companions are getting thrown around by level 12 demons. Trees often get in the way during battle, and once I used an ability that causes my PC to leap backward to evade enemies only to have her take a giant leap and plunge off a ravine. Whoops.

These are small complaints, though. All in all, this is an amazing, beautiful-looking and beautifully-written game. Some of the lore entries are fascinating, and the conversation between my PC’s companions never ceases to amuse and interest, as do her personal conversations with companions when they’re back at their stronghold. Solas in particular is interesting to me because his take on the Fade and demons is vastly different from any other interpretation I’ve seen in other DA titles. It’s as if BioWare decided to construct a narrative around the perils of being a mage, get players invested in it, and then proceed to dismantle everything they thought they knew and understood. I love it. It’s made me look at the game’s mythos from angles I’ve never before considered.

If you’re an RPG fan, this is a game well worth playing. I’ve read that it easily contains 100+ hours of gameplay, and my personal experience indicates this is no exaggeration. I anticipate I’ll get 100 hours and then some out of a single playthrough. Video games are not cheap up front, but pound for pound I find I tend to get far more bang for my buck out of games than I do books, movies, or other forms of media. This game is already stacked up to be an incredible bargain.

tl;dr: This game is awesome so far. If you love games, you should buy it.

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