DA: Inquisition Story Review

So, since people keep asking me about this on Twitter, I’ll summarize my thoughts about this game, which I finished this past weekend. Emphasis on story vs other gameplay elements, so thus the post title. Spoilers herein, BTW, so a cut:

The short version: The gameplay was good. Lots of lovely environments to explore, though most of them were filled with pointless fetch-quests for too little reward. Everything was tiny and busy so I found the combat mechanics a little frustrating; I often couldn’t tell the Red Templars from the Venatori from the Grey Wardens, but ultimately if I just kept button-mashing until the sparkly things stopped sparkling and my companions stopped attacking, that did the job. Because of the tiny-text issue I couldn’t read many of the Codex entries, which is irritating because I usually like reading those, but clearly this game was aimed at people who have better eyes than me. And you know I was less than unimpressed with the character creator. Because of this I was unengaged with this game from the very beginning and that never really got any better. The music was as un-memorable as usual for a Dragon Age game, except in the taverns, and then it was at least pretty and unmemorable. Lots of glitches, but these were mildly annoying and not show-stopping. Overall, it was a decent way to kill time, but not anything I would recommend. (It’s sad to have to say that after I had this game on pre-order for almost a year.)

The really short version: Good gameplay, but ultimately soulless. It feels like they set out to make DA: Skyrim, and they succeeded… but that’s not a good thing.

The problem, for me, is the story. Bioware games are known for excellent writing; that’s the whole reason I was so excited about this game before it came out. Unfortunately DA:I’s plot is achingly predictable, full of cliches, and devoid of any real conflict or tension. Case in point: at varying points you have to decide the fate of the Chantry/Circle/Templar system — whether it will continue to exist and be somewhat reformed, or be replaced by something entirely different. But since the same people who screwed up the old system will be involved regardless, and since there’s never any judgment or reconciliation or acknowledgement of what caused the old system to collapse… what does it matter? It feels inevitable that everything will just end up like it was before, and fail again. So I chose at random. (Keep the Chantry, if you’re wondering; only because Cassandra asked me about it first. If I’d run into Leliana first I would’ve gone with her.)

The characters are a bigger problem. The Inquisitor is a literal nonentity, which is a frustrating step backward from the progress of DA2. In DA2 your Hawke could have one of three distinctive personalities, and each choice the player made resulted in some really delightful surprise reactions/dialogue on Hawke’s part. Here, I can’t see that any of the response choices really mattered. The rivalry/friendship system of DA2 — wherein you could actually have a companion who hates your guts, but respects you and gains different abilities and character development as a result — has also regressed to the simple approval system of DA: Origins. Approval gets you better dialogue; that’s it. The game is stuffed full of dialogue choices that became essentially meaningless to me because I had no reason to care about the character consequences.

But worst of all is the fact that the characters in this game are at best two-dimensional. Newly-introduced characters are each defined by a single characteristic, maybe leavened with a dollop of cliched complication: Blackwall’s stoicism hid his Secret Past; Solas was Terribly Mysterious ™ and… creepy; Vivienne was the grasping social climber with a momentary Heart of Gold; etc. Cole was interesting. The Iron Bull was a delight. The rest? Meh.

Even returning characters were strangely divorced from their previous selves, in ways that made them less interesting. For example: I chose to romance Cullen, a former NPC who has grown so drastically over the first two games that he basically got promoted to semi-playable in this one. Now, Cullen’s got issues, for those of you who don’t remember him, and I like that about him; it made him complex, believable, even if he wasn’t always a good person. In the first game he was an idealistic young Templar who dared to have a crush on a mage — whose infatuation was poisoned when he got mercilessly mind-tortured by some evil mages and desire demons. The result: in DA2 he became the harsh, paranoid captain of the Kirkwall Circle of Magi, where all sorts of atrocities (e.g. systematic beatings, rapes, magical lobotomies) were illegally inflicted on mages in the name of protecting them from evil. Effectively Cullen’s a former Nuremberg officer who was “just following orders” back then. And yeah, I went there. It’s an appropriate analogy given the oppression of mages in the DAverse; DA:O and DA2 went there too, and I respected those games for doing so. DA:I unfortunately handwaves the situation with a blithe “both sides are bad” argument that doesn’t really work, morally speaking. We’re left with the knowledge that Shit Went Down on Cullen’s watch in the last game — and all the evidence suggests that he (at best) looked the other way while it happened. I romanced him with my mage character in hopes of exploring this issue with him, but there’s no answer to this crucial character question in DA:I. Cullen expresses a vague regret for his feelings back then, but not for what he did, or allowed to be done. Worse, we have no idea whether he’s changed, since. So now in DA:I he’s willing to have sex with a mage — a mage he says he doesn’t think of as a mage, which is pretty much on par with “I don’t think of you as black” as pick-up lines go. (Hint for those of you who might be thinking of approaching a black person with that pick-up line: don’t.) Still, I guess this is supposed to indicate progress since he wouldn’t in DA:O… but ya know, lots of Templars in Kirkwall were all too happy to have sex with mages.* Given that context and without any development to suggest otherwise, Cullen suddenly being down with the mage chicks is… not cute. Kind of disturbing, actually.

This is the kind of flawed characterization that afflicted the whole game, really. Dorian was adorable until you realized he was a slavemaster who “never thought about” just what that meant; he’s lots of fun if you can ignore that little feature of his personality. I couldn’t. Sera was a cliched self-hating oppressed person — an elf who hated “elfyness”. There was no apparent reason for her self-hatred; if you question her about it, she just unironically parrots the same bigoted things that humans say about elves, true or not. I was playing as a Dalish elf who had some respect for her heritage, so I never earned enough of her approval to see if she got better. (I hear from folks who romanced her that she actually got worse.) Morrigan returned — but although she fought through hell beside Leliana in DA:O, there’s not a word of acknowledgement of that history between them. There’s also a passing mention of some of the DA2 characters doing things that don’t make sense: Aveline apparently leaves her husband and co-rulership of the city to go babysit Hawke’s younger sibling at his request, and meanwhile that sibling — who spent all of DA2 trying (successfully) to get out from under the elder Hawke’s thumb — apparently allows this. Varric, my favorite character from DA2, remains my favorite here, but that’s not from anything that happened in this game. (We learn who Bianca is. It changes nothing about him.)

This is the kind of thing that could have been repaired with brushstrokes: an additional conversation option here, a modified line of dialogue there. We’re not talking reams of added text or a whole other storyline, just some attention paid to continuity and camaraderie. DA2 did this well. The Mass Effect series did it beautifully. (I actually cry over some things that happened in those games.) So unless Bioware recently fired all its previously-awesome writers and replaced them with Taster’s Choice, I can only conclude that the failure to develop these characters was a deliberate choice on the company’s part.

Why? No clue. But the result is: I stopped caring. I’m usually a raging completist, but I got so bored with this game that I only did about half the quests and then skipped to the end. Not planning a repeat playthrough, either.

So that’s my review. If you want Skyrim with better writing, go for this one. If you actually wanted a Bioware game, though… pass.

* Coercive or nonconsensual sex, which personally I call “rape”, not sex. My point is that you can still be a bigot and happily fuck or even claim to love members of a group you consider inferior. Cullen’s dick is not proof of his progressivism.

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13 Responses »

  1. This is a bit disappointing, because while BioWare has had issues with plot before, characterization was always their strong suit.

    That said, there’s still this nugget of gold, if you play a male Inquisitor and romance the Iron Bull:

  2. Hm, sounds like it glitched between fantasy and realism, or the writers were writing beyond their experience, e.g. parallels that should have been between mage thing and real racism. It’s about the 1036843546846877 time I’ve seen this in fantasy, though, where they have an unrealistic understanding of the world and of racism.

  3. That’s so disappointing. I was a passionate fan of DA2, which in general is hated as terrible game by a lot of people. I thought it had a dark, gripping story with very compelling, flawed, lovely characters.

    DA:I sounds like it might have more game but lost the story that made the DA games so special.

  4. To me, it didn’t even seem like Cullen ‘dared’ to like the mage in DA:O in any commendable way. He had a creepy objectifying crush on her (unless I’m very much mistaken, when he’s being tormented by his desires in the tower he refers to the real person he had a crush on as an ‘it’ amongst all the ‘secret shame’ dialogue) and he continues to reminisce about how Surana/Amell was ‘unlike others’ in DA2 even as he blithely insists mages aren’t people. So the romance here in my opinion was pretty much a direct copy of prior interactions even as they claimed growth.

    You’ve really hit the nail on the head in so many ways, and expressed it more eloquently than I ever could. To be honest, DA:I made me miss Skyrim – the mechanics and flexibility of that game made up for a lot for me, especially given how much I always write in my head for story-light games, and the pretense of depth in DA:I with little follow through actually made me more frustrated than Skyrim’s open shallowness.

    Also, re: curly hair specifically in the unsatisfying character generator – on top of EVERYTHING ELSE, curly hair in my experience is rendered more immobile/less slippery due to mass and texture (obviously this varies) and thus it should in my opinion be EASIER to animate and not glitch out than straight hair which is kept short, up, or glitching through the character’s shoulder and/or cheek in games for that very reason. There’s this sour fundamental impracticality in my opinion that is the cherry on everything else.

  5. Siobhan,

    Yeah, I’m mystified as well as disappointed. I’m coming to DA:I just off another DA2 playthrough, and I’m stunned that the people who wrote that masterpiece — yeah, the gameplay had problems, but the story was brilliant — have now produced this… mediocrity. DA:I is not terrible. But saying that a Bioware game has a merely “not terrible” story is… sadmaking.

    I’d been planning to do another playthrough of DA:I at some point to try and romance the Iron Bull, but it’ll take awhile for me to feel like attempting this game again. I’m gonna go play another ME playthrough instead, and try to remember why I liked this company.

  6. Nu,

    Yeah, that’s why the “both sides” argument fails, really — a failure to delve into the systematic nature of mage oppression as the source of the conflict. Nobody’s been propagandizing Templars as “cursed” for a thousand years, and the Templars aren’t systematically disenfranchised and treated as subhuman. There’s some handwaving at the issue, like I said: Leliana apparently wants to completely reconstruct the Chantry system. But again she says nothing about justice or reconciliation. Without those things, the conflict will simply continue, and a war will probably happen again. Neither she nor Cassandra has a sustainable plan.

  7. Kadomi,

    Yeah, that’s exactly how I’m feeling about DA:I now. I think its core problem is that Bioware overcompensated for the criticisms of DA2. The environments are frankly amazing… but I came for the emotional fulfillment, and it’s just not there.

  8. HGM, I don’t remember Cullen referring to the female mage as an “it”, but I’ll play through that scene again to check. His feelings back then felt like a crush to me, and fairly innocent, especially given that he refuses (and flees) if the mage tries to invite him to have sex. But yes, you’re right in that he still obviously hates mages even as he makes exceptions for a few of them being decent people, in DA2. That made sense in DA2, which is only a short while after the events of DA:O; he’s still traumatized. But ten years later in DA:I, I’d hoped he would’ve worked through all that — especially before he starts a relationship with a mage. Well, nothing says the relationship will be healthy or long-lasting. :(

  9. Thank you for this review. I already bought the game and will play it once I have a good enough computer to run it (I’m not mad at Bioware for that, I didn’t check the specs) but now I don’t mind nearly as much.

    So disappointing. I was really hoping my decision to support the Mages in DAII would matter in DAI, but apparently it won’t, really.

  10. I’m left feeling about the same way. In terms of storytelling mechanics, I think they tried to meet Origins and II in the middle and fell short of both. The more ‘blank slate’ character worked better as a voiceless 4-7 choices per dialogue, with a good range of options that affect your roleplay more than the game itself. Hawke as a defined character with 3 choices that tweaked his or her outlook, but not their past or relationships — Hawke, good or evil, was ‘friends’ with Anders and Varric and Isabela and Sebastian, but how they handled those relationships was up to the player. The Inquisitor is a blank slate you can’t roleplay off of, with a voice actor and the same 3-4 dialogue choices as Hawke, often left with non-humans having to say ‘I can’t speak for the Maker’ without the caveat of ‘because I don’t believe he exists’.

    This is also the only game where I really was just sort of meh on some of the companions. Oghren was the closest I came to that in the old games, but even he had moments of depth and deconstruction of the ‘drunk womanizer’ trope he personified. Iron Bull, Vivienne, and Cassandra all had some depth and intrigue, but even my favourites of the rest (Blackwall, Cole) felt a bit hollow compared to… anyone, really, from DA2. Including Varric, his character lost a lot of his charm, which is criminal.

    And Sera. I wanted to adore Sera, romance her, and I ended up booting her from my party. I *never* do that. The self-hating thing was bad (particularly if you romance her as an elf or bring her and Solas out together), her fetishization of my Qunari character was gross, her throwing a punch at her bordered on triggering, and to top it off, she’s got some lines that are transphobic and cissexist — in a game that had Krem, that’s just so disappointing. I ended up romancing Josephine, which was a great little romance but the NPC romances are never quite the same and lack all the little extra content of a party member romance (see: Traynor in ME3).

    But on the plus side, the Western Approach is like the best desert level in a video game, so there’s that.

  11. Peter,

    Well, the fact that it’s made not to really matter in the game doesn’t mean it can’t have personal meaning for you. :) But yeah, gamewise, it’s just a question of which sidequest and boss battle you’ll have to play through before returning to the main storyline. I wish it had been made to mean more; I’m mage-inclined myself. (And actually it was an accident that I sided with the Templars; I went to visit the mages first, then Dorian told me to come find him somewhere else, and before I went there I decided to go see what the Templars were up to, and then whoops explosions.)

  12. Alexandra,

    Whoa, even I didn’t dislike Sera enough to boot her. (But I never selected her for battle, didn’t bother to keep her equipped or upgraded, and rarely went to speak to her in Skyhold, so I suppose I de facto booted her. Huh.) But I’ve been hearing a lot of people who actually tried to get to know her complain that she’s just as distasteful beneath the surface as she initially seems. Well, at least she’s consistent.

    What I don’t understand is why they chose to insert a character who was such a poster child for internalized bigotry if they weren’t going to do anything with her. Develop her past it — or, hell, have her join the Thedan equivalent of the Tea Party and start campaigning to “take our continent back” from those uppity elves and mages. Either would’ve been at least interesting, if unpleasant. But just having her sitting around talking smack about people, sans consequences (because in real life, somebody woulda smacked her back) or progression? What was the point?

    I liked the Hissing Wastes better, actually; hauntingly lovely. If there’s one saving grace which might ever make me want to play this game again, it was the sheer beauty of the environments. It’s just that that’s not enough — especially not when what I hoped for was the emotional rollercoaster of DA2 or ME3. Ah, well.