So, Dragon Age Inquisition.
Long story short, I rellay like it. .
I’ve always considered Dragon Age as modern Bioware’s “secondary franchise”, compared to Mass Effect. When ME1 came out, it already had a strong identity, both in aesthetic and lore : it was a well-done, focused, developed universe. By comparison, Dragon Age Origins, despite its qualities, fell a bit flat to me. It was essentially Baldur’s Gate, but in 3D, it was bog-standard fantasy. A rather interesting lore was there, but it wasn’t exploited a single bit.
Then something weird happened to the two franchises. Mass Effect, despite being awesome, never quite lived up to its original premise, and, in a weird way, is a franchise that’s actually less than the sum of its parts.
Dragon Age went the other way around. First there was DA2 – an hyper-stylized, experimental fantasy RPG that, albeit a failure in many aspects, was actually trying to build on DAO’s small spots of originality.
Then came DAI.
There’s something weirdly compelling when playing DAI, it’s the feeling that you are in front of a game franchise that has reached maturity. In terms of gameplay, it’s a game that took what worked in DAO, what worked in DA2 and streamlined the whole thing. In terms of story it’s probably the purest form of Bioware’s character-based storytelling. In terms of lore it’s a game that’s so confident in its own world-building that the names of its main story missions are based on the lines of the holy book of the game’s main religion.
DAI knows where its strenghts are, and capitalizes on them. In a way, I’d argue DAI is perhaps one of the the greatest examples of a AAA, early 2010s non-open world, pre-Witcher 3 western RPG.
DAI has issues. It’s padded with needless quests, Corypheus is a shitty villain, you never truly get the feeling of running the Inquisition, the character pieces are disjointed, the gameplay can get stale if playing in certain ways.
But all these flaws are nothing new… They are classic Bioware flaws, and DAI is essentially the quintessential Bioware RPG.
What’s new to me is how well-crafted and well-thought the whole thing is. There are too many things to do in DAI’s areas, that’s true : but every single of its compartimentalized levels is incredibly well-crafted. Their sense of place is usually spot-on, every single landmark has a written history and a reason to be there : despite being, essentially, still vignettes, they feel like places with history, places belonging to a living world. Even the weakest areas (Emprise du Lion, the Fallow Mire mostly) have this feeling about them. It’s pulp high fantasy, yes, but pulp high fantasy that makes an incredible amount of sense. Yes, the Canticle of Light is essentially the Bible, yes Orlais is 17th century France, yes Tevinter is essentially the Byzantine Empire, yes magic has nothing inherently original : but it all works together well. Thedas is a world that feels like it has a history, a geography, a concrete existence. DAI is pulpy. But it’s coherent and it makes sense – as much sense as TW3s gritty dark fantasy world.
The way DAI handles religion for example is remarkable. Most fantasy RPGs tend to handle religion in two ways : either “well, it exists I guess” or “stupid religion, checkmate theists”. DAI uses religion as a main plot point : it uses it as a living thing, with a history, with controversies, with conflicting interpretations, with political structures – it’s both a subject and an actor. That’s where DAI’s maturity lies. It’s a game that handles politics and religion in a pulpy, yet highly believable way, and makes it a major aspect of the story. It doesn’t need grim battlefields, sorceresses impaled in public or full frontal nudity to be a mature story. A plot point based around the birth of a schism based on the conflicting interpretation of a line in a holy book is enough.
If DAI had a more involved gameplay, a better villain, less side quest padding and an actual management system for the Inquisition, it would have been an instant classic.
As it stands, it’s just the gamification of a very clever, very well-acted pulpy fantasy show that actually gets out of its way to picture a world that feels coherent, yet offers a rare degree of inclusiveness for a fantasy RPG world.