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.