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'Dragon Age: Inquisition' review: Don't you like feeling special?

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Dragon Age Inquisition

When I was a teenager, a few friends and I regularly ditched our extracurriculars to wander through the woods behind our school. As far as woods go, they were pretty pathetic—we were in an industrial part of New Jersey, right off a highway that reeked of exhaust and diesel fumes. (Ah, the Garden State.) Nature wasn’t welcome there—but the trees grew in spite of this.

One time, we found a train engine, long abandoned and left to rust. It was the coolest thing—we stepped into the old locomotive, full of dirt and dead leaves, wondering what it was doing there and who left it behind. We were going to make it our hangout. When we came back the next week, it was gone.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantasy game, one without trains or highways or high schools. Instead, it has mages and knights and, yes, dragons. One of the major hurdles of enjoying a good fantasy game is the idea that those things must appeal to you. This isn’t true; you just have to be the kind of person who loves the idea of walking into the woods and finding something mysterious, something with a story behind it—one you might never even know.

If you’ve never played a fantasy role-playing game before, here’s how it works: You create a character, decide what they look like and specialize in (magic or a broadsword?), then take them through a vibrant world full of hidden secrets, and, of course, a grand quest. Talking to people, wandering aimlessly, and reading letters and messages you find are just important as fighting bandits and demons.

Inquisition is actually the third Dragon Age game, following 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins and 2011’s Dragon Age II. I mentioned this a couple weeks ago, when I first wrote about why the game was worth playingbut you don’t really have to be familiar with either to enjoy this game. While there are plot points and characters from the first two that play a pretty big role in Inquisition‘s main story, it also works very well as a self-contained narrative. Besides, half the fun is forgetting all about that main story and wandering off the beaten path.

That said, the main story is your gateway into this world—so let’s talk about it.

The game begins with a disaster. A supernatural event tears a hole in the sky, forming a massive breach in the fabric of reality from which demons can now enter our world. This event also causes a massive explosion at a huge cathedral, killing hundreds. Your character is found there, the only living soul amidst the ruins.

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The main character’s identity is entirely up to you. You choose their race (i.e. Human, Elf, Dwarf, or the horned giants known as Qunari) and gender, customize their appearance, and pick from three classes (warriors for those who prefer full-on combat, mages for those who prefer to cast havoc-wreaking spells, and rogues for sneakier types), which can then be specialized further. These choices won’t just affect how you play through the game—they also affect how the game reacts to you. Elves are discriminated against. Qunari adhere to a rigid code called the Qun. Dwarves come from underground cities and pooh-pooh surface dwellers. Humans are jerks. Oh, and if you’re a mage, no one will trust you at first. Magic in Dragon Age comes from The Fade, the world that lies on the other side of that hole in the sky. Using it can give people great power. It also makes them vulnerable to possession from demons who live in The Fade.

It took me several hours of starting and restarting before I settled on playing as human mage. Choices in Dragon Age are rarely easy.

The Dragon Age games, like most games made by development studio Bioware, are very much about narrative choice. Every character in the Dragon Age universe has a place in this world, a set of allegiances and political views and sexual preferences and values—and there are a number of ways you can go about interacting with them. Are you sympathetic to the Mages because they’re oppressed by Templars charged ensuring that they don’t unleash armageddon? If so, a number of characters will have a problem with you.

Some characters just disagree with everything you do—like Sera, the elven archer. Sera hated me. I rather liked Sera—she was funny and weird and completely out of place most everywhere. I thought of her as Tumblr personified. She also disagreed with every decision I made. Maybe it was my fault for not getting to know her better.

Bioware games are far from the only games where narrative choice is important, or even morally ambiguous. Telltale’s adventure games, like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, are almost exclusively made up of difficult narrative choices—save this person or that one, tell one character the truth or a lie, kill someone or let them live.

A lot of these games don’t really share how you’re doing on any sort of karmic scale. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to tell just how much your choices change the experience. It seems like it’s possible for Inquisition to unfold in multiple ways, but there’s often no way to check short of playing multiple games at once. I think I prefer this; choice in a video game is best when you commit yourself to accepting consequences and doing the best you can with what you’ve got. The only metric you have in Inquisition is what your partners think of you—but while some may disagree with your decisions, there’s no real quantified way of seeing where you stand in their esteem. Because, ultimately, it’s your story.

That’s one of my problems with the game.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is about a lot of things—faith and doubt, order and freedom, power and responsibility. But really, more than anything else, it’s about how very special you are. As you scrap together a ragtag group of allies to form the titular Inquisition and seal the Breach in the sky, you grow in influence until effectively becoming one of the most powerful people in the world. Towards the end—at least, if you played the way I did—you’ll be hard-pressed to find a character that doesn’t  tell you how important you are.

I really wish this weren’t the case.

Video games are obsessed with making players feel special. There are two problems with this. The first is that it’s boring—the number of games that cast the player as The Special Chosen One Who WIll Save Us All are legion. Granted, the idea that One Person Can Truly Make A Difference doesn’t really get old—but it’s a lot nicer when you’re not constantly told about what a difference you’re making. Show, don’t tell, and all that.

The second problem has to do with gaming culture and entitlement—but that’s a whole other thing.

I’ve managed to talk about Dragon Age: Inquisition for quite a while without really talking about how big it is. So I’ll mention it now: Dragon Age: Inquisition is huge. If you are a completionist, it will probably give you stress dreams. Every major region (there are about seven) is expansive and covered with little icons indicating stuff for you to do. It’s strange—in breaking up the world into discrete areas, Bioware managed to make the world of Inquisition feel infinitely bigger than any seamless open world game. It’s all very pretty, too—at least, it is if you’re playing it on a Playstation 4 or Xbox One.

Here’s where you’ll run into a problem, unless someone tells you otherwise: You actually have to go out and explore that world as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself stuck in the Hinterlands, doing something like herding sheep—and wondering what the big fuss is with this game.

This is a recurring issue with Inquisition. At one point relatively early in the game, you can get a horse. My horse was cool and all—but only marginally faster than traveling on foot. Later, I found out that I had a stable, and in the stable I found out that there are a lot of animals that you can ride. Some of them sound really damn cool—I don’t even know what a Dracolisk is, but if there is one thing my Medieval Fantasy Jesus Analogue should be riding, it is a Dracolisk.

I played this game for eighty hours, and I never figured out how to get one.

If the amount of time I spent with this game gives you pause, here’s a comparison for perspective—that’s still less hours than it’d take to binge-watch of all of The Sopranos. So it’s not a horrifying number of hours to spend in front of a television. Just don’t do it all at once, because that’s crazy. And even with the qualms I have, I still enjoyed almost every single one of those hours.

I still want to go back to it, even though I’ve finished the game’s story. There’s still so much to see and do. Starting over could be fun, too.

But yes, there are problems. As illustrated by the aforementioned Horse Issue, the game isn’t the best at explaining everything to you—there is very little indication of how dangerous any particular group of enemies is relative to your merry band of warriors’ current skill level. You could be happily traipsing your way through The Hinterlands, the first big area the game sends you after the prologue (which, again, you should leave as soon as you can), then suddenly stumble upon a horde of demons many times stronger than you who will very quickly humiliate you.

Oh, and let’s not talk about the first time I ran into a dragon. There are a few of them just wandering around. Have I told you that you should save your game a lot? You should do that.

There is also a multiplayer mode in this game. I’m not sure why—there’s already far too much to do in—but it’s actually pretty well thought-out, if a bit dry. You pick from an array of characters with different abilities, level them up, unlock new abilities and characters, team up with three other people, and fight your way through some dungeons. It’s probably a lot of fun with people you know. It’s not so great with people you don’t.

You probably won’t have time for it.

A recurring theme in the story of Dragon Age: Inquisition is one that’s shared by a lot of very popular fantasy stories, like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s that the world has lost something awe-inspiring and wonderful. It’s kind of ironic—these are fantastic realms full of wizards and orcs and massive castles, yet the people there keep talking about how great the world used to be.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Time does a lot of things to us, but the cruelest may be this: It makes us forget. Maybe fantasy really is just about remembering, or learning the stories behind the places and people around you.

Of course, this is something you can’t really do by staying put. You have to go places. Talk to people. And in doing that, you create a story of your own.

If you’re really lucky, you might even find an old train in the woods.

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