Getting to an ideal point to write this review has been difficult, because it’s taken dozens of hours to see the whole game and most of that time has been sunk into the side quests. The game certainly has its ups and downs, and when I really think critically about a lot of the gameplay, its repetitions do really start to bother me. Despite its problems, Dragon Age has an engrossing story and engaging support characters that help you to overlook its occasional flaws.
In the midst of the Templar-Mage civil war that broke out at the end of the last game, a conclave is called to try to negotiate an end to the conflict. Choosing to play as one of several races and classes, you are present at the council when a massive explosion opens a rift in the Veil, exposing Thedas to a demonic invasion. You are bestowed with the rather dubious gift of being able to close breaches in the Veil, and an Inquisition is declared to fix the breach and uncover who set these events in motion.
Most of the game revolves around the standard RPG trope of venturing around, killing monsters, finding treasure, and completing various tasks given to you by NPCs. This part isn’t bad because it’s livened up with enough flavor and plot to feel meaningful, even when it’s not, but it’s nothing groundbreaking. The second aspect is the operations you can carry out using your various agents. They range from assassinations to diplomacy and military strikes. It’s important to send agents whose specialty relates to the mission at hand. For example, Cullen, your general, is unsuited to tasks that lend themselves to diplomacy. Successful missions give you money, weapons, and influence, and some operations require Power, which you accumulate by doing quests.
Plot-wise, this world feels a lot more consistent than Dragon Age II. One of my friends astutely pointed out that while the second game expects you to be sympathetic to the mages and their demands, you spend the game constantly meeting mages who practice blood magic and turn into abominations. The plot of building a stronghold and an inquisition is very engrossing. Amassing followers, building a castle, managing little details, even sitting in judgment of criminals really works. Some of the characters are more interesting than others, and there were definitely people I never wanted to put in my party because I just found them to be too boring. But again, this is nothing unusual: the same things have been said about Mass Effect and Dragon Age numerous times.
The stronghold and operational aspect of the game is actually my favorite, largely because bits of it are reminiscent of the Suikoden franchise. For those of you who never had a chance to play these games, they focused on recruiting dozens of unique characters and building a castle and army, which you then got to use. It was a rare RPG that made you actually feel like a general. You don’t really get to do that here, as the number of agents you can hire is much smaller and most of the changes to the stronghold are cosmetic. I wish those under my command had a larger role in the plot and in-game presence. But still, it feels like you actually get to make the Inquisition into a movement of people, and it’s something I’d like to see more of in role-playing games.
The game does have a few bugs. I didn’t find anything on the scale of Dragon Age II, but what I did find was irksome. The game quit on me a few times, and there were a few minor graphics issues. Those didn’t bother me as much as the tactical issues. There were numerous instances where I would try to select a different target in combat, only to end up continually swinging toward the same guy I was hitting before.
However, the tactical bugs are balanced out by the fact that the combat system basically keeps its kiddie gloves on, even at harder difficulties (dragon fights are the exception to this). Targets are auto-selected for you and your companions, and the only adjustments you need to make in the companion behaviors are on who to follow in attacking. Bioware talked about designing more tactical combat, and there is a tactical system here you can use. It continually felt clunky to me, though, and I did what I did in Dragon Age II: switch back and forth between characters as needed. But even that doesn’t happen all that often, as most fights are easy enough to be resolved by holding down the “R” key and throwing in an occasional skill.
The only time the game broke with this (thus far) has been a section in the Fade, where you are perpetually short of healing potions and the supply caches you find are few in number. Even that didn’t really count, however, because you have not one but two AI companions with you who are impossible to kill. My companions would eventually get knocked out in combat, but my lone survivor would simply stand back (at one point, for ten minutes while the other two finished the fight) and revive the others when the battle was finished.
In general, the difficulty curve is pretty low. Plenty of RPGs have this frustrating trope of attaching urgency to a quest where none exists: you can come back and complete just about anything at any point in the game. Likewise, the operations you can conduct have no cost associated to them apart from the time it takes to finish one. It would be nice to see a timer attached to this to give the plot some extra urgency and force the player to make some difficult decisions about which side-quests to chase. Not everybody would enjoy this and it would drive obsessive completionists a bit crazy, but it would make for a more immersive experience.
Character building is sort of a mixed bag. Your actual character development feels pretty limited between being a nice person or a tough person. The option to be evil is conspicuously missing, and there’s no track like many of the other Bioware games to see where you stand. That will likely bother people who want to count the points of approval to maximize their relationship, but I like the feeling of having to trust your instincts with your companions and what they want.