'Dragon Age: Inquisition' is Nothing Short of Art

DJ Arruda, ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Electronic Arts Inc.
It is rare to find a game that sets out to accomplish so much and succeeds in the execution so well. Indeed, though many RPGs have gone big before in terms of open world and character customization, none have been as successful as Dragon Age: Inquisition. In spite of some controversy in the past, BioWare has wiped the slate clean with this sequel, both removing any doubts of their capability to produce a stellar game as well as setting the bar extremely high for future entries into the genre. The debate over games as art has been waging for a long time, as the interactivity of games make them stand out over other mediums such as film and television. But if the player is able to draw an emotional connection with the world and its characters and in turn actively controls the way those feelings play out, then shouldn’t the game be lauded as art? When a film brings tears to audiences’ eyes through superb acting, it’s rewarded with the same label, so why not games? Never before has a game offered such a canvas to the player as Dragon Age: Inquisition does, and it also gives them the proper tools with which to create their own works of art over the many hours spent playing. Dragon Age: Inquisition has brought that opportunity, and for that, the industry should take note.
The game is the third entry in BioWare’s fantasy franchise, with the previous release being Dragon Age II in 2011, itself lukewarmly-received and lost in the shadow of the more well-received first game, Origins, in 2009. With over three years of development time (extended by one year when Inquisition was delayed last fall) the studio has clearly been listening to the community, addressing the issues players had with the previous games while also bringing innovation to their series, thanks to the Frostbite 3 engine. Putting players in charge of forming the Inquisition, an ancient organization originally created to bring order to the world of Thedas, gives them a number of choices to make just in choosing their Inquisitor’s race, gender, class, and appearance. The options available for customization are mind-boggling, from such specific details as inner- and outer-iris colors to the overall facial structure modified by unique three-dimensional sliders. Also notable is how NPCs actively and frequently respond to your race and gender, a boon to immersion that other RPGs fail to capture, as players in Inquisition are literally put into the shoes of their character.
Photo Credit: Electronic Arts Inc.
Once players begin their journey, the true beauty of the game is revealed. The environments look downright gorgeous, from the snowcapped peaks of the Frostback Mountains to the rolling plains and forests of the Hinterlands to the shifting sands of a Forbidden Oasis. Each location is distinct and staggering in size, a direct answer to players’ complaints of repetitive environments in Dragon Age II, and the vastness of each open area is comparable to an open world sandbox, giving players much to explore. The amount of time players can spend in each area shows just how well-constructed a world BioWare has made here. If art was defined by sheer visual beauty alone, Inquisition would already take the cake. Additionally, BioWare once again shines in terms of party-based gameplay, offering nine possible companions of different races, genders, and classes, ensuring players can play the game the way they want with who they want. From the faithful Cassandra to the enigmatic Cole, and from the boisterous Iron Bull to the intellectual Solas, the banter between characters never gets old, making players feel as if they are building relationships with real people and going on adventures with true friends. The voice acting and character models for these characters take the place of physical actors, but if players can be brought to tears through their favorite character’s personal quest, does that not qualify as art?
Moreover, combat has gotten a major overhaul, and in a good way. Though there has been some controversy regarding changes to healing, leveling, and difficulty settings, these changes tie into the overall shift in gameplay for this sequel. The emphasis is now on strategy and tactics in the long term, forcing players to think about what they can accomplish from where they are, and to know when to back down from an encounter and return to camp. Enemies are now scaled based on area, not player level. This allow players the freedom to choose their encounters, but also doesn’t hold their hand if they attempt to take on a dragon at a lower level. The range of enemies is wide, from demons and wildlife to mages and Templars, ensuring players are always offered exciting new battles. The tutorial is well-built into the prologue for easier learning, while the inclusion of both the real time third person camera and the return of the floating tactical camera allows players the opportunity to face fights in whatever way they choose. The slick animations and beautiful elemental effects of the magic alongside the hard-hitting shield bashes and swings of warriors and the stealthy tricks of the rogue make each battle come alive onscreen. The controls are mapped logically to the controller, and the addition of Kinect voice commands makes one feel like a true leader as they control their party even more easily. Players also directly control the Inquisition itself though an intuitive War Table menu, allowing them to equip perks earned by gaining influence to assist in different ways, such as number of useable potions, inventory size, and new dialogue options. It is also there that players send out agents to investigate what happens in Thedas and unlock new areas and operations to progress the story. Players actually feel like they are in control of the organization, and that immersion is not to be underestimated.
Photo Credit: Electronic Arts Inc.
Photo Credit: Electronic Arts Inc.
Coinciding with these changes is the new in-depth crafting and modifying of armor and weapons, seen before in the series but never with this much freedom and customization, complete with mods and runes for enhancing armor sets and great swords alike. All of this can be done at Skyhold, the stronghold of the Inquisition and the prime location for players to build relationships with other characters, tailor their equipment, and pick furnishings ranging from banners to beds and more for their fortress. The addition of mounts ranging from horses to harts and beyond allows players to traverse the many environments more quickly, although at the cost of missing party banter. The addition of jumping allows for even further mobility. Also of note is the addition of multiplayer mode, following in the same vein as the cooperative squad-based missions that were well-received in Mass Effect 3. Allowing players to dungeon crawl with up to three friends online and to choose from a number of unique characters derived from the lore and gameplay of the core game, the mode is entirely optional and does not affect the main story, but is worthwhile to check out for additional fun. Side quests also feel impactful and worth attempting, as even if they are just fetch quests, they are presented as an enticing way to shape the world and get players interested in the conflicts. Puzzles and collecting items similarly add to the lore via Codex entries, keeping players absorbed when they aren’t fighting demons and sealing rifts.
Within all of this new gameplay and customization lies the heart of the game, like in all other BioWare games—the story. Beginning with the forming of the Inquisition to seal the Breach, a massive tear in the Veil between worlds that allows demons to pour in and cause havoc in an already tense world, the narrative follows many twists and turns, trumping expectations and showing just how excellently-written a game can be. Writing is the major facet of any piece of narrative art, and here, BioWare goes all out, with everything from ambient dialogue by NPCs to heartfelt conversations with companions to the larger story decisions that players are forced to make, such as recruiting new members into the Inquisition or judging a prisoner. Though it should be noted that players unfamiliar with the previous games may take some time getting accustomed to the world of Thedas, BioWare shows off the rich lore and history they have constructed in their plot while also taking it to new heights. Decisions imported from the Dragon Age Keep, a cloud based service allowing longtime fans and newcomers alike to create world states for the previous games, are noticeably mentioned and brought into account along with the new narrative being crafted, which truly places players in their own personal version of Thedas. This story is something special, taking the best of both high and dark fantasy and situating it firmly and uniquely into BioWare’s distinctive world. One wonders if the script, which has to take into account so many choices and variables, would ever be able to be told or executed so well in a medium other than games.
Overall, Dragon Age: Inquisition succeeds in its vision as a pseudo-open world fantasy epic, and it succeeds quite well. To think that after the issues raised by previous sequels, BioWare hits this one out of the park, is a great comfort and reasserts their dominance as one of the industry’s best. Aside from some minor graphical and audial issues, the game runs stunningly on the Xbox One, a fact that especially stands out, given so many other games released last month have been plagued with launch issues. Indeed, the only true criticism that can be leveled at the game is that its scope is so daunting and ambitious. Players can easily get absorbed in the early areas and not move onto the main story for some time, but that is testament of how great the game is. Amongst all its competition, Inquisition stands out as a shining gem in immersion, storytelling, and third person gameplay. If that does not signify gaming as art, then what else would?
Overall Rating: 10/10

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