Much like The Witcher 3, the third Dragon Age game offers value in (1) storytelling and (2) its core gameplay loop in unequal proportions. In other words, the gameplay can’t quite keep pace. But while the proportions may be similar enough that DAI could invoke The Wild Hunt in my mind, less value is present in DAI all-around.
The Witcher’s story was phenomenal, but the gameplay was staid; refined, respectable, but by-the-book. Likewise, the better parts of DAI’s writing are its best quality: I have a lot of praise for the character writing, and its approaches to relationships, romantic and friendly. If that’s expanded to include the player’s relationship with the world they’re trying to save, and the tensions within the player’s organization, I think it’s even more true. At the same time, the story, the plot, is trivial; the bad guy is a monster of the week with no character, and your fate is to fight him, because, before the game started, you apparently walked into the wrong room while looking for the bathroom or something. Amnesia is involved, and not even as a device to explain the world to unfamiliar players. Placing that tripe on the same pedestal as The Witcher would be frankly unfair.
And that’s the good side of this story-gameplay dichotomy I’m pushing. The central loop of exploration and combat is mediocre, tedious, physically dissatisfying, even frustrating. To describe it, there are a few parallels with Dragon’s Dogma: both are content with some crude and absent systems playing out in their open-worlds, though DAI lacks even the passing of time. Both games have you loot and level up (and give too much influence to character level in a world where you’re ostensibly encouraged to explore for yourself and to be challenged and find useful rewards as you go). Both have you unlock skills and fight with a maximum of 6-8 abilities that can easily be mapped to a controller, along with those of some NPC followers, who can be dressed up to your liking. But in DAI, there’s no value in the moment of what you’re doing. Combat is a slow exchange of numbers. Shooting an arrow from a bow in DDDA had more impact than a big blow from a heavy sword has in DAI. Fighting a group of DDDA’s bandits was a vastly different experience from a pack of wolves, or any number of huge mythical creatures with distinctly targetable body parts. In DAI, you go about fighting anything the same. Sure, as a warrior, you might hook and drag an enemy over if they can be hooked. Kill the mages before the tanks if you can be bothered. But generally, you clash, dump the skills that are off cooldown, and let the computer do the math. (Then someone knocks you down, and you draw out a sigh for 4 or 5 seconds, unable to do anything with your active character.)
Mechanics in depth: combat & exploration
DAI was generally easy and unengaging, despite playing on Hard. My party got wiped out occasionally in some tougher areas, but I still never had to bother using the tactical view and controlling my whole party, which I thought was even more tedious, especially in trying to get my followers to avoid engaging enemies. I only played on Hard in the first place to avoid getting to a point where it wouldn’t matter if I was fighting 5 or 50 enemies, and losing narrative tension as a result (I talked about this a bit recently when talking about AC4). Usually these games are more enjoyable if you actually have to get invested in your party’s composition and skills, and I don’t regret picking Hard over Normal or Easy in what would have been some misguided attempt to blow through it faster. It rarely mattered in the moment of a fight, but even if it just got me to pay a little more attention to weapon crafting, that counts for something.
I did like the potion system, given that it was a little different, with its automatic refills and slots that could be used for either defensive tonics or grenades. There are some pretty cool options in the skill trees, too, and looking at a few builds online, while some options definitely come out ahead over others, players definitely had some room to be creative. I think that’s nice, but then I spent most of the game rolling into every enemy because it would do five times more damage than a big, slow swing from a two-handed maul while leaving me less vulnerable to enemy attacks. It felt extremely clumsy to have worked out that way, but “clumsy” is a recurring theme here. The controls felt unresponsive: I would try to turn off a buff that would drain my stamina while it was active, and I would have to hit it 3 or 4 times before it would finally turn off, possibly because my character was in some kind of subtle post-attack animation phase, possibly because the game hates its players. And the same button is used both for interacting with objects and jumping, which usually meant I would jump around like a lunatic when trying to open a chest. Occasionally it also meant I couldn’t jump onto a platform because there’s something interactive next to it, which is as ridiculous as it sounds.
More to the point, I found myself asking why there even was a jump button. There are no aerial attack skills. Jumping sucked. You run into invisible walls trying to climb onto rocks. You can’t climb steep surfaces except with a ladder. Open-world without any real means of traversing the environment — apart from walking, or trying to awkwardly parkour around the game’s intentions by rapidly jumping and rolling — is joyless and pointless. There’s one very beautiful landscape of an oasis among canyons in the desert, and all the verticality those canyons offered would have been really cool in a totally different game, like Breath of the Wild. In DAI, every surface you need to climb poses the most boring possible question: “Will it be less tedious to find a ladder/ramp if I try circling around from the left, or from the right?”
It’s also buggy — not just of the game-crashing sort (I did have my share of those), but even just a certain level of jank in the background. When 6 horses in a stable all lift their heads at once because nobody thought to insert some randomness into their animation timing, you notice these things, and it shows a kind of carelessness. Just as you’d (hopefully) notice the opposite in the Witcher 3, by no means a game without bugs, but staggeringly fine-tuned in its little details. Bioware is just falling behind on technical sophistication: I have some ridiculous M.2 SSD and not only was I getting load screens that were 15 seconds longer than I’d have been seeing in the Witcher 3, but they showed lore and tooltips for about 2 of those seconds, and spent the other 13 on a black screen. Let’s not get bogged down talking about the exploits, either, which practically fell into your lap and were never patched out. The only reason I didn’t have infinite skill points a third of the way through the game is because I showed what I feel was remarkable self-restraint.
I could write ten more paragraphs about problems in exploration, but it boils down to dissatisfying feel, and the vast emptiness of it all. It feels bad when you have to bend down and play an animation to harvest an herb, or pick up a tiny amount of gold. And it’s empty because there are no systems beyond yourself clashing in that space. Time does not pass; there’s no wrong time or untimely weather to influence your crossing of a bridge or hunting of wildlife. You aren’t worrying that your appropriation of a village’s goods will make them less cooperative to your inquiries. The lands you pass through aren’t changing hands as you make political decisions. Instead, most of the time, you collect trinkets, wiggling a control stick around to see the glimmer that gives away the location of a “skull shard”. It’s not as if I didn’t try to stop and smell the roses, either: I look at the grand vistas, and the old, crumbling statues. But it was worth little when I couldn’t enjoy moving through and interacting with these spaces. Who would think this is fun? Or that a completely isolated activity like drawing lines in the sky would be the one mechanic that would really tie the game together?
There was one thing in the exploration that I really appreciated, though. I have a fascination with the idea of “colonizing” wild spaces in a sense, by taking a place that is hard to traverse, and then making your mark there; imposing a little order. DAI actually (sort of) does this: you might come across a broken bridge or collapsed tunnel, and you can mark it for your Inquisition’s engineers to come by and fix up. I think they should have run further with the idea. The only limit is that it’s never used for shortcuts; just places that can’t be accessed at all otherwise. The act of making your way through some temple and then knocking down a few walls for the next time you have to come through can be strangely satisfying. Or even just kicking down a ladder after making your way up with a much longer route.
Some of the sidequests out in the wild are incredibly dull. If you’re familiar with “single-player MMO” drudge work, there’s plenty of it in DAI. I stopped taking requisition quests as soon as I realized that they repeated infinitely, just asking me to gather more junk, but even some of the quests with named and voiced NPCs can be kind of galling. One guy asked me to find and disarm 5 traps by sight, and then sent me back to rearm the same traps again. That was a low point. Not that there weren’t good ones: one quest tasked me to vanquish a demon (a member of a group who have apparently made an appearance in every Dragon Age game thus far), and when I cut through his minions and walked into his room, he started talking to me, out of cutscene, about how he could offer me a deal. I just started swinging my greataxe at him and to my surprise it actually interrupted his speech and flustered him, and started combat prematurely: that was hard-coded, the only time in the game I was allowed to do anything like it, but in that moment it was exactly what I needed to actually enjoy myself. The game can be good when it really tries: there’s just so little trying.
The last purely mechanical thing to talk about is the war table, which is alright, I guess. You could consider it a different take on the war preparation mechanic from Mass Effect 3, being more hands-on, and used to unlock the main missions rather than just to get a better ending. Essentially these are assignments that are nothing more than a paragraph of text and a choice, and then a real-time countdown until the task is done, maybe 10 minutes, maybe 20 hours. I just went with my gut on these, rather than using a guide to extract the best treasures, as I might have driven myself crazy otherwise. What’s awkward about it is that you get quest chains at times, which are just another paragraph following up on the paragraph you read 20 hours ago. Naturally, by then I’ll have forgotten what the hell the job was about, in part because I was doing several others at the same time, but there’s no history of past assignments. The war table’s inclusion makes the game a little more unique, but had to have been a rushed feature. If it interacted with other mechanical systems — say, Leliana gaining too much organizational power over Josephine and Cullen, or Cullen’s brute-force approach changing the interactions with NPCs in the region the assignment involved, or having to fight denser packs of enemies because you sent Inquisition troops elsewhere — that would have been great. But once again, systems were not much of a consideration for DAI.
If this had been a shorter game, I probably could have written one or two paragraphs about the core loop instead of however many I’m up to now. I would rather talk about the writing. But it’s not a short game, and it would have been dishonest to keep the review’s focus off of where I actually had to spend the bulk of my attention and energy. If the gameplay had been sharper, I’d have happily wasted all that time on it, but if DAI had been 20 hours and called “Telltale Games Presents: Dragon Age Without The Combat And Exploration Parts“, that wouldn’t have been so bad either.
The writing: lore, dialogue, characters, & story
I wasn’t able to jump into DAI with the enthusiasm I had for Mass Effect 3 back when that came out. To put it in perspective, I was 19 and 21 when I played the last couple Dragon Age games, and only played them once each. I’m 28 now and just hitting the third. In other words, I barely remember this stuff. And it’s extremely dense with terribly dry high fantasy nonsense lore. I read a lot while playing this game, but I didn’t even attempt to read every last codex entry. My brain thanks me for making this decision. On the one hand, I feel that if you suffer through enough trivial crap about anything, you’ll be grounded in some sense, and it’ll be that much easier to be invested in the story the next time they bring up the Second Blight or Emperor Drakon or whatever. (This may be called Stockholm syndrome.) On the other hand, if I pick up a book and I see that it’s the third recounting I’ve found of some Orlesian succession dispute or that the constellation Fervenial may represent the elven goddess Andruil and the tenet of Vir Tanadhal, my eyes just kind of automatically glaze over in protest. They don’t make it easy to find the gems when the series is so dense with shit nobody cares about, but some of it is good, and even just knowing Nevarra from Antiva can help the player settle into the rest of the game.
The first real point where I took a deeper interest in what I was playing was probably after settling into my own base in Skyhold, and maybe not really until heading into the Winter Palace, a lengthy quest that mostly revolves around talking to snooty nobles and my own party members at a masquerade ball, while also doing some snooping around. Seeing Morrigan from the first Dragon Age there (and in the process realizing that there actually would be more of a thread of continuity between the games than I first thought) certainly helped, but it’s no coincidence that you spend most of this quest out of combat. I do think the main questline is better than the side-offerings, but even it has a terribly cliche structure. Most of my positive associations come from getting to interact with my party members in more substantive ways than I ever could while traipsing around the Hinterlands. Likewise, the final postgame DLC had several opportunities to just chat with your associates, and lacked wide-open areas, and it was quite good. That said, the Jaws of Hakkon DLC was the most open of the bunch, but since it had a little town to come back to and a lot of interesting characters to meet and see new cultural and historical perspectives from, I enjoyed it considerably more than the DLC set in the Deep Roads.
The dialogue isn’t without flaws. Of course, it is a Bioware game, and that means most of your interactions involve cornering someone to ask twenty questions in a row of “What can you tell me about [opposing political faction]?” “What can you tell me about [this city]?” “What can you tell me about “[You]”? It’s clumsy, and they never quite have figured out how to do exposition, or to get a specific character’s opinions without flat-out interrogating them.
I wouldn’t call the non-expository interactions perfect, either. Even putting aside Vivienne (who appears to be engineered to be the most unlikable one), the humor feels forced and cringey. Sera’s “wacky” character traits are grating, despite some good voice acting and the reasonably interesting ground-up commoner’s movement she’s involved in, a kind of anonymous network of Robin Hoods. (And thank the Maker it has no former power structure, as she’s far too unqualified to be making choices for anyone else.) The mage Dorian is charming, with an engrossing personal arc, but his “funny” lines were in the same vein as Sera’s; just when you thought he was a person, he’d suddenly say some wacky internet mainstream subreddit level shit. You could also take Cole, a great character, but whose disjointed dialogue is a poor and annoying introduction when the game still has earned little currency with the player, and feels like no more than a gimmick. I didn’t necessarily come to see a full eye-to-eye acceptance with every last member of the Inquisition, but they’re all at least highly interesting once you come to know them better (again, maybe excepting Vivienne): at one point I found myself saying, “Well, Blackwall is just a Warden,” and that was right before his character arc took a big step forward and proved me wrong.
I’ve forgotten most of the companions from the previous Dragon Ages, but I don’t think they were as complicated or endearing, nor do I feel as strongly on average about the party members in other Bioware RPGs, including the Mass Effect series, where the vast amount of time spent with some of the cast breeds some lingering affection that other games would have trouble finding. Mass Effect certainly had some legitimate high notes, but nonetheless had some real dud characters too. I’ve played quite a few CRPGs, from Bethesda and Obsidian and elsewhere, and I’ve come to expect gimmicks and clashing perspectives in every big party that assembles to save a world, but I really felt like DAI brought an unusually consistent level of substance there. Even your non-party member advisory team are fully realized individuals. (And Scout Harding is cooler than anyone who’s actually in your party, for whatever little that’s worth in terms of character substance.) And I have absolutely no complaints about the voice acting from any of them.
Apropos of nothing, I’d love to say something nice about the card art shown for each of the followers when you choose who to bring with you on an outing. The art changes as they go through momentous events in their personal lives, and I think there’s nothing quite like it to really drive the nail in on some of those changes in their circumstances, and how they might feel about the Inquisitor, or how they might regret getting involved in the plot at all. It’s a great touch.
There are numerical “approval” scores for each of your followers, which I think is unfortunate, but in my one playthrough, I didn’t get the impression that this system caused anything particularly unjustified or absurd to happen, such as being permitted to shack up with someone who opposes everything you stand for by racking up easy points with “Nice Guy” politeness. I still think this is a bad system, but I think a nuanced execution has mitigated the inherent faults of it here. The characters are well-realized; they tend to know the difference between the nicest thing you could say to them and the thing that might affect a change they want to see, and they won’t allow their grievances to be cancelled out later with gifts of flowers and chocolates. Some followers do have quests with options for massive approval gain to outweigh anything said to them, but crucially, that too is character-driven. You can probably more than make up for any bitter conversations with Blackwall by hunting darkspawn or taking him artifact-hunting, but it makes sense, because those things are clearly just more important to him than friendly words. The same can’t be said for someone like Solas, to whom ideology is paramount. I can’t say for sure if my experience was universal here, but I kept the respect of my entire party just by trying to apply my beliefs consistently.
My approach might have varied a little more in the one-on-one conversations, allowing myself to swagger and claim to chase glory a little more with Iron Bull than say Cassandra, where it was all for the righteousness of the cause. But I think that level of changing yourself depending on who you’re talking to is normal, and I didn’t go directly lying to anyone about what I felt was the right thing to do. Sometimes there were great disapproval penalties, and I didn’t always want to suck up to Vivienne, or Sera when she was being petulant, and I was never punished for being true to myself in this sense. I romanced Cassandra despite my generally acting in the interests of mage rights and being open-minded about interactions with spirits and demons. But because I respected the vision she presented as a reformist of no half-measures, and because I took responsibility in my own dealings as well, I neither saw it as out-of-character for my Inquisitor to be interested in her, nor out-of-character for her to reciprocate (although it might have taken longer to get there as a result of some of my choices). And I would like to believe that the various individuals and histories encountered while travelling with her in my party helped her own perspective grow as well. Anyway, she’s a fantastic character, and has the best accent too, whatever the hell it is. (German? Austrian?)
When I used to play these sorts of games, I felt more pressured to save-scum for the best outcomes. It would take someone out of my party if I was going to do something they didn’t like, which is manipulative, but also unrealistic, seeing as you’re making choices with peoples’ lives and entire countries, and word is obviously going to spread. (Thankfully in DAI, a person doesn’t have to be in your party to take approval penalties.) My approach with DAI from the outset was to jump through no weird hoops to minmax everyone’s love for me, and if that meant I ended up hated by a character, all the better. If anything, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get at least one person bailing on me, but I did feel like I had a healthier relationship with the game this way. Ultimately, I still prefer an approach like The Witcher’s, which never reduces your relationship with a human being to “+20 points”. At times, talking to non-party members like the advisory staff felt like “purer” interactions, because you aren’t getting “Slightly approves” messages popping up in the corner of your screen. If I didn’t just happen to like Cassandra more than non-party characters like Josephine, I’d have rather avoided the points-based romance entirely.
Another flaw these games often stumble into is a halt in the romance after a “courting” phase, as though getting to fuck someone was an end goal and there was far less of value to explore with that partner afterwards. Mass Effect 3 had been partly forced to confront this by setting an entire game after you’d already been through these decisions with your (second) party, meaning they had to at least try to do something interesting with existing relationships from the start of the game. DAI introduces a new protagonist and new characters, but it didn’t have much of a problem here: you can hook up with a companion well before the endgame, and the real opportunities to chat with them in cutscenes after major missions contain spouse-locked dialogue choices that do help flavor the relationships afterward. There may also be entirely extra cutscenes for romanced characters, but this is unclear to me, as not every member of the team would get a new cutscene at the same time. Bioware also previously had the issue of some companions’ scenes running out early because they weren’t romanced, while unromanceable characters continued on with content until the end of their games. I would not be entirely surprised if this happened in DAI, but if so, it wasn’t as overt. The postgame DLC definitely had some interesting content about the romance my Inquisitor had with Cassandra as well, particularly as I supported her in becoming what was basically the pope, which kind of got in the way of the relationship, but seemed to be the right choice both for her and for the state of the world.
I couldn’t possibly talk about Dragon Age without talking about the way it addresses inclusivity, and matters of sexual orientation and gender. I never felt like the game was pandering or just checking off boxes for the sake of it: I suppose the difference would be if I felt that Krem (a non-party member) had no value apart from his being trans, but I thought that the player character’s gormless reactions and questions to his trans identity coming up as a subject was interesting in itself, even in not taking them (I often liked exercising my right not to ask dumb questions just because they were on my dialogue wheel). Apart from Dorian, I basically had no idea who was gay and who wasn’t until after beating the game and looking it up, as I made my pick and didn’t try to play the field beyond that. It was interesting to find out that my flirting options wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere with Sera, because she was gay, or Cullen, because he wasn’t. In Dragon Age 2, I think they just made everyone bi. That was interesting, but limiting in a ludonarrative sense: if you wish to make a no-judgments wish-fulfillment fuck paradise, go ahead and do it, but the real world has people who will say no to you on the basis of what you are, and that’s something to explore in itself. Most fascinatingly here, as a Qunari or dwarf you have a couple fewer sexual options in the Inquisition than a human or elf does, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to see attempted. It would be ballsier yet if the skin tone you picked during character creation could restrict you like this, but I could see how it would kind of suck for some players.
Generally, there are a lot of parallels in the series with real human rights issues, which is another thing that helps ground the series and make the moral choices thrust upon the player feel important if they care about these causes in real life. At the same time, mage rights thankfully aren’t a direct substitute for talking about gay rights. Nor do elves represent a skin color. Sure, it’s clear to see that people are born as mages; it’s not a “lifestyle choice”, and they’re often locked up, mistreated, even lobotomized. That said, crucially, the real gay rights analogue is simply gay rights: Dorian’s dad actually tried to use some fucked up magic spell to make his son less gay, like some fantasy electroshock conversion therapy. If you’re going to address the subject, who needs nuanced metaphor or layers of tactful abstraction? After all, it’s still a medieval setting where every old man of means is obsessed with siring heirs. It’s going to come up.
Choices & consequences
I don’t intend to play DAI a second time, but I have looked up a few things, and there have been some notably different outcomes to some of my choices. It was pleasantly surprising to see that I wouldn’t actually end up travelling into a hypothetical future where we didn’t save the world, for example, in siding with the templars over the mages, which really did have some reactivity — my expectations here were so low that I thought they would have cheated me around even that being unique to my playthrough. But even that choice doesn’t put you in a different place in the end, and no choice ripples out with meaningful consequences. Many options won’t even necessarily affect a single conversation; they’re the kind of illusory choices that I think can at best feel meaningful in the moment, as long as you don’t think too hard about what they mean. It’s not Alpha Protocol, and that goes without saying, because I can beat Alpha Protocol in 5-8 hours, and this game took me more like 140. But you can still import history from the earlier games, and the protagonist of Dragon Age 2 (who cannot die) even shows up for one mission. Just don’t expect anything to come from it. In the original Dragon Age, the player could die nobly or impregnate a witch with an ancient god and cheat death, which sounds like just about the most earth-shattering divergence you could possibly have, except that it of course means nothing, and the writers probably now regret ever allowing the player that choice at all. According to what I’ve only seen on youtube, if a save is imported, the ancient god baby really does come back into the series in DAI, finally, only to have his godhood neatly stolen away in one cutscene that has very little to do with the player’s quest. Still, it was good to see Morrigan again.
Mass Effect 3’s big trick was to have all these knock-off unkillable characters waiting in the wings — like understudies in a theatrical production — to jump in whenever you killed off the A-listers. Wrex had his brother Wreav, while Mordin had Padok Wiks, his fellow STG operative. That kept the story from ever having to diverge. DAI, on the other hand, is even more flippant in its disregard for your personal history: I completely forgot, or never knew, that the player could kill Leliana in the original Dragon Age by making evil bastard choices. Turns out she literally gets resurrected from the dead, which would make her about as much of a mythical Christ figure in the Dragon Age world as it would if it happened in the real one, and yet goes more or less completely uninterrogated. That’s staggering.
Conclusions, and the future of the series
Ultimately, as much as I may spit on this game for all its mechanical emptiness and filler, extolling other titles like Dragon’s Dogma as I do so, I still believe there is a very clear place in this world for DAI. DDDA, after all, was the game that clumsily invented a slave caste to solve a problem that didn’t really exist, and would make your fated significant other literally just about any NPC you had the best relationship with, including children and old shopkeepers who became your true destiny because you regularly bought goods from them. Great as it was in some respects, it wasn’t the game to tackle social issues, and it’s heartening that there’s at least one major developer making this a priority, and doing so with a bit more tact every time around.
Dragon Age 2 still had the best narrative structure of the series so far, and while they wore out the one city map where the game was set, it was a breath of fresh air to just be embroiled in local events instead of preventing the whole world from exploding. In the next Dragon Age, I wouldn’t mind a return in that direction, paring down the shallow-breadth approach, but with more of an emphasis on the feel of play in the moment. If they could do so, sticking to their strengths in character writing, while putting even half the effort into structural systems bigger than loot or crafting, they’d be off to a great start. There are already too many big franchises doing the open-world thing just to chase trends, and my advice to Bioware would be to avoid competing on a field where they can’t win.