The Meh-ness of DA:I

What is wrong with Dragon Age: Inquisition? DA:I appears to have many of the right ingredients to make a satisfying game: a broad open world with different regions, characters, factions, some decent dialogue choices… And yet, much of the experience of playing DA:I resembles watching paint dry. What’s wrong with this game?

A few things, at least.

First, Bioware went with the most generic, least interesting overarching plot they could have to tie together an open world game: there are generic defined demons spilling out into the world from portals throughout the world! Please, explore the countryside, interact with the often nonplussed locals, and close these portals whenever you might feel the inclination! It’s a pretty shameless rehash of Oblivion, made still more generic by the fact that none of these demons are interesting in the least. DA:O had demons, but it did a nice job of characterizing them: they had personalities, they sometimes gave people what they wanted to get their way, and they illustrated a somewhat sophisticated, nuanced approach to a demon-haunted world. DA:I (as far as I can tell, almost 20 hours in) lacks all of these niceties.

Second, the “open world” is not much of an open world, by modern gaming standards. First, the regions themselves are pretty weak: Oh, here’s a vaguely French region! It rains a lot in this other part of the world! Wowee, forests and wild animals! But more than that, because of the way that gameplay and fighting work (more on that shortly), you’re always tied to your camps, the generic Inquisition, and the dry-as-dust plot. You can’t just stock up on potions, head for the hills, and go exploring: healing potions have to be restocked in your camps, you can’t rough it by resting out in the wilderness, and regions have to be unlocked by fulfilling the missions of the Inquisition. Even unexplored, difficult bits of territory are blocked by impassable landscape and near-unbeatable enemies. Skyrim is far from perfect, but it occasionally gives you the experience of coming upon extremely difficult enemies, seeing them before they see you, and then backing away very, very slowly (or getting seen and swiftly killed). For a nominally open world game, DA:I is annoyingly railroaded.

And finally, the gameplay and combat. The other sins of DA:I could be overlooked if it weren’t for the sheer boredom of its gameplay and combat. Tanks get some tweaking: tanks get armor when they successfully taunt enemies. As little sense as that makes from any logical perspective (and wargaming grognards are surely spinning in their graves), it does make combat with a tank a bit less annoying. That said, it’s the only tweak to a system that has little to recommend it. In DA:O, the choice of which companions to bring often presented interesting tactical options: bring Wynne along to play defense, or play all-in offense with AoE heavy hitters? Furthermore, many of the characters from DA:O have personalities and tactical roles when you meet them. The “characters” in DA:I largely lack any such niceties beyond their basic classes, which means Vivienne could be either a offensive badass or a defensive force; which role she might prefer or be better at, I have absolutely no idea. If the game is going to give you utterly generic NPCs, why stop at four? Why not allow the flexibility that comes with full, D&D-style parties?

Carefully defined tactical roles are unlikely to be a concern, however, because the difficulty level of the game is broken: most combats are entirely too easy on normal difficulty. The next difficulty level up does not change the character of combat much, but means that you’re going to burn through your (limited) potions and maybe see an NPC or two get knocked out in the fight because of their idiotic AI. This seems like a minor flaw, but a core feature of mainstream RPGs has been taking a character from impotent rat killer to demigod (or god– cf. Morrowind): how did they miss that?

Furthermore, DA:I eschews the dragon shouts and perks that add flavor to the experience of Skyrim and the modern Fallouts. But the broken difficulty level means that any time thinking through skills and specializations is wasted: who cares if your tank can tank incrementally better? Who cares if your mage has a slightly beefier attack?

If the tactical system weren’t hugely tedious to use, you might want to manage combat a bit more carefully. Overall, though, it’s best to just turn the difficulty level down and get through the combat as quickly as possible.

My feelings for this game don’t rise to the level of hatred; like a lot of Bethesda games, it pretty clearly represents an effort to split the baby, with some pandering to the market, a handful of things for Bioware diehards, and some experimentation around the edges. It is surely disappointing, however, especially in a franchise that had a lot of potential at the beginning.

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