I’ve hated the first ten hours of every Dragon Age game, and Dragon Age: Inquisition is no exception. Ten hours is a long time to hate any game and still recommend it, but Dragon Age boasts over 200 hours of content, and once you’re 50 hours in, that first ten hours feels like a distant memory.
I can’t tell whether the first ten hours of this game actually are bad, or whether it’s just that it always takes me about ten hours to get into a Dragon Age game. As for whether this particular Dragon Age game is a good place to start if you haven’t played the previous two, well, sure, why not. I wouldn’t necessarily say that all three games are the same, because they have huge differences (particularly when it comes to combat), but the beginning of this game is about as inscrutable and inaccessible as the beginning of the other two, so if you think you can get through that first ten hours, you’ll be fine for the rest in any case.
“The rest” refers to a massive pile of content so convoluted that delineating it here would be boring for both me and you. I’ll sum up this game’s mechanics by saying that Dragon Age is a role-playing game with every last possible trapping that the genre entails. This time around, the combat system includes a top-down mechanic that allows you to control your party from a bird’s eye view, as opposed to hacking and slashing your way through enemies. The top-down view on the PlayStation 4 felt out-of-place to me, like a feature meant for a PC player using a mouse and keyboard, not a console player with a controller. For the trickier boss fights, using the top-down form of fighting worked better, since there was only one big bad red reticle to keep my sights on. For battles with multiple weaker enemies, however, I found that getting up close and personal felt easier, swapping characters on the ground as I went. As for the rest of the game’s features, it’s the ol’ RPG autopilot: assigning skill points to ability trees, collecting weapons, fast-traveling to merchants to sell and modify equipment, giving all the characters in my party the best possible armor, blah blah blah. If you’ve played one of these before, you know the drill. If you haven’t, this game is going to teach you the drill—and then really drill it.
There are a couple of mechanical missteps. The PS4’s X button serving as both the action button and the jump button made for some frustrating/hilarious moments: pressing X to climb a ladder and instead jumping off a huge precipice and taking fall damage, as well as jumping like a goofball whenever I tried to do anything else in-game like talk to people, pick up items, open chests, etc. I ran into a couple of game-breaking glitches, as well, mostly when I tried to switch characters while walking around a town. The game expects you to want to play as the protagonist the entire time, and if you try to swap out, the world of Dragon Age gets a bit confused. This may be hard to remember, because you’ll need to swap characters when you’re in battle—but as soon as you aren’t in battle, be sure to hop back into the main protagonists’ body again. Luckily, I made a character I liked, so I didn’t have much trouble remembering who I should inhabit any time I wanted to make conversation.
So, what makes Dragon Age different from a Diablo or an Elder Scrolls or even a Final Fantasy? My answer is “the writing,” but I have to add in a few qualifiers to that. There are a lot of the same cliché narrative trappings here as can be found in other classic RPGs: no matter which gender or race you select at the outset, your protagonist will turn out to be the chosen one (specifically, in Dragon Age, you’re “The Herald of Andraste,” but “chosen one” would serve just as well and requires me to do less explanation of the various in-game MacGuffins). I went with the Qunari warrior, since the other options (human, elf and dwarf) bored me. If I could do these dozens of hours over again, I might pick “mage,” since I hear that choice ends up with a more nuanced narrative, given that mages are an oppressed class in the Dragon Age universe. Anyway, I booted up my game and turned out to be the Chosen One, and just like in previous Dragon Ages, every person I met in-game needed my help.
The process of being a “chosen one” in this game also means being a CEO of a new organization—the Inquisition. Even though I kept making my player character deferentially insist to the other characters that I wasn’t the one in charge and I totally wasn’t the chosen one or whatever, I still had to do all the work. Between every mission, I’d have to check back in at the War Room to assign my comrades to different quests around the world; then, I’d clock in at a new territory myself to clean up a bandit problem, seek out magical items, broker deals between warring factions, re-enact the ultimate colonialist fantasy of building a ton of campsites everywhere I go, and so on. Dragon Age dumps out a lot of responsibility and a lot of information with very little preamble or instruction, expecting the player to automatically care enough about the world they’re in to want to save it.
For the first ten hours, as always, this drove me up a wall. I am not a “lore” person. I don’t like listening to expository dialogue; I’d rather hear characters talk like people. I hate reading all the in-game books, and I have steadfastly refused to read most of them in Dragon Age (sorry, writers—blame whoever set your font settings to be in all capital letters, with white text on black, in a tiny box in the middle of the screen that cannot be enlarged … but also, blame me for not being the type of person who cares to read that much text in a videogame). The first ten hours of every Dragon Age game I play involves a lot of sighing and eye-rolling and telling myself that I will never play another one of these because I am bored and I don’t care and I don’t want to pick up a bunch of citizens’ dirty laundry or deliver their mail. Then, somewhere around hour ten, I fall in love. Head over heels in love.
I mean with the game itself—which I do need to clarify, since the player character can also romance half the people you meet in this game. Okay, not half, but the list is long enough that I had a lot of trouble deciding who to set my sights on. (Of course, the character who I’ve most wanted to romance since Dragon Age 2 is still not available, because apparently BioWare doesn’t think anybody wants to be with snarky dwarf Varric but I do.)
As in every other Dragon Age, I started out feeling neutral towards this diverse cast of unlikely friends, but then I ended up adoring each and every one of them. I’m not praising Dragon Age for its story, nor even its narrative—those elements I couldn’t have cared less about, to be honest, although I was happy to go through the motions. For me, Dragon Age is always about characters; the game’s creators have done excellent work, once again, at making this band of weirdoes as real and relatable as in every other previous Dragon Age.
For the characters alone, I can recommend Dragon Age: Inquisition, but there are some aspects to the game that gave me pause even on this score. For example, the character Krem—a trans man lauded by many as a great example of the developers’ endeavors towards featuring diverse characters—will put up with some rude personal questions from the player character, should you choose to ask them. The reaction of your character, as well as the other characters overall in this scene, didn’t quite work for me, since Dragon Age purports to take place in a world where gender equality is a non-issue. It seemed like the developers felt the need to acknowledge that the player of the game might be an ignorant person from “our” universe—but the lines don’t make as much sense in the context of the game itself. Dragon Age also has a rocky history with this particular issue, although I do give them credit for being one of the only triple-A developers to take any risks at all in this area. It does mean that we’ll have to endure a few months of ignorance about how a trans character doesn’t belong in “a high fantasy setting”, though.
Speaking of “high fantasy settings,” there are quite a few holdovers from Tolkein that I’d personally love to see disappear in all fantasy games, and I was sad to see a shadow of them here as well. Dragon Age struggles with racial diversity; there are some characters of color here, but not many, and the character creator has yet to introduce any textured hair options for the player character. All of the hair options are pretty terrible, but for whatever reason, the only cornrows styles available are for the Qunari, and also, there are no other options for textured hair besides cornrows. I’m not wild about the implications of only allowing the Qunari to have a textured hair option. The human, dwarves and elves should have this option as well, not to mention better hairstyles than “completely bald,” “oily pixie cut,” and “shellacked bob.”
Aside from a few nicks in its armor, Dragon Age: Inquisition has impressed me yet again with twisting conversation trees, tricky choices, and a refreshing level of believability and realism for a “fantasy” game. High fantasy doesn’t have to mean confining a story’s tropes to fit the narrow views of chivalric romantic poetry, nor an overwrought Tolkein lens. I love when Dragon Age subverts my expectations. Now if only it didn’t take ten hours to convince me to take the bait.
Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.