Inquisitor Review

23 Sep 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Cinemax
Developer:Cinemax
Release Date:2012-09-05
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
At first glance, Inquisitor sounds like a game out of every RPG fan's hopes and dreams. Developed over the course of nearly ten years by Czech developer Cinemax, with the English translation and additional bug-fixing occupying several more after the original release, Inquisitor is an extremely ambitious RPG that feels like a blast from the past. Everything about RPGs from the late 90s and early 2000s is present in Inquisitor: highly detailed pre-rendered backgrounds, an extremely large amount of text dialogue to read, an original fantasy universe, an extensive character system full of skills and attributes, lengthy dungeons to crawl through, and roughly one hundred hours of gameplay (apparently a point of pride for the developer).

Unfortunately, though Inquisitor has all the right ingredients to put a smile on an RPG fan's face, Inquisitor is let down by some colossally bad design choices which result in a game which is one-quarter charming and engrossing, but three-quarters frustrating, repetitive and monotonous in the extreme. With some of the worst game balance I have ever seen in an RPG, overly linear quest design, a lack of player influence on the story, awful combat, and massive amounts of filler content, Inquisitor's ambitions never amount to anything that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the classics of the genre. While it does have its strong points, it will take an incredibly strong-willed player to endure the dozens upon dozens of hours of torturous gameplay it takes to reach the good parts.

The Devil's Calling

Inquisitor starts out very promisingly. The game takes place in a rather original setting - one which is based off of European history, specifically the Dark Ages, but blends it in with a more traditional fantasy setting. In Inquisitor's world, the source of evil creatures like orcs, trolls, undead, and so on is the Devil - that is, literally, Satan, the Prince of Darkness himself. The Inquisition, which is made up of the Holy Office and Brotherhood of the Righteous, the priestly and paladin orders of the land, is tasked with uncovering and extinguishing heresy throughout the populace and keeping the world safe from Satan's clutches.

Beyond this detail, the country of Ultherst, and the continent of the "Old World" as a whole, is not especially interesting. As it is based on medieval-era culture, expect to see a lot of stone walls and thatched roofs, huge ornate churches, and green-brown forests. The backstory of the land is rarely discussed, and while the world itself has all sorts of myths and legends, it's a bit under-explored with the most interesting part of being the Elenians, a long-dead pagan people based on the Roman Empire. You won't find as much interesting lore to sift through as something like Icewind Dale, but in general it's enough to keep the game going.

The story for the game revolves around the events taking place after the so-called "Star of Doom" appeared in the sky above Ultherst and meteors rained from the heavens. This was the herald of the end of the world in the eyes of many, as monsters began to encroach on the land in increasing numbers and cases of heresy began to climb. Your story begins with your rescue from an Inquisition prison in exchange for your help in a simple murder investigation into the death of Kurt Ollimer... but what begins as a simple detective job quickly unravels into a huge heretical conspiracy spanning the whole country.

This theme of investigation is one of Inquisitor's defining traits, and it's also probably its strongest point. Progress in the game and story is made by uncovering evidence against heretics and criminals in the various towns, either through dialogue and testimony or through exploring the world for physical objects left behind. There is a great sense of paranoia in the game world as witnesses (rightly) fear for their lives should they testify, and there's a sense that you can't trust anybody but yourself. There has been some talk about the themes of torture in the game, but truth be told, while you will have to use it a handful of times, and later burn criminals at the stake, the game does not revel or glorify this at all - if anything it presents these parts of the game with quiet discomfort.

There are a few complaints to be made with the story in Inquisitor. The big plot twists are pretty obviously telegraphed, and unfortunately the game actually reuses the same plot twists multiple times over, which leaves the game feeling predictable. There is also very little in the way of choice or consequence, which is a shame considering there's a lot to be done with a game that lets you arrest and execute the wrong people. Last, while there is an incredible amount of text, the translation is not up to par. Some parts are fine, but you will often come across awkward phrasing, grammar issues, and spelling mistakes; there is a sense much of the text wasn't proofread or verified with a native English speaker. Much of the text itself is also uninteresting, as every character can be asked, Ultima VII-style, about tons and tons of topics, but only about 10% of this text is really useful to you in any way, and the answers are often unnecessarily long-winded.

The quest design is a mixed bag, as most of them are simple fetch or kill quests without much to them. There is little deduction to be done during investigations, as the game often prevents you from making the wrong decisions and only lets you progress the plot when you have gathered enough evidence - in other words, the game does the rational thinking for you. Sometimes, the game isn't very good at explaining what it wants to you, either. One time, for instance, I had to escort a captured woman back to "the city", but I wandered around for twenty minutes before finding the exact trigger spot that would let me return her properly (the quest journal was also no help).  If there is one thing the game does quite well, it's that the distinction between main quests and optional quests is blurred, and many quests will affect each other, though only in pre-scripted ways, and the flip-side is that you will often need to complete just about every quest available to move the game forward. Occasionally you there are a few interesting solutions, like using the "destroy item" feature to destroy a quest item, like an immortal enemy's heart, but this sort of novelty is pretty rare.
Culling the Legions of Hell

With all the story stuff out of the way, how does Inquisitor actually play most of the time? The unfortunate fact is that while the game can call Baldur's Gate, Diablo, Divine Divinity, and more its influences, it only takes from them superficially. Outside of the towns, Inquisitor has the large world map and overland exploration of Baldur's Gate, as well as the deep dungeons of Diablo and related titles. Unfortunately, it is all marred by the excruciatingly awful combat and some of the most pointlessly over-long dungeons I have ever seen in a game.

Combat makes up approximately 70-80% of the time you will spend with Inquisitor, and it is not good. It superficially resembles Diablo, or perhaps Lionheart or Arcanum's real-time mode - you click on monsters and hack and slash at them until they die (or cast spells, or shoot arrows as the case may be). Party members are available and pretty much indispensable, not so much for their damage output, but because they will absorb incoming damage from enemies and keep them distracted. On a basic level, it sounds alright.

Where it all falls apart is the "feel" of combat and game balance. Character movement can be very floaty and imprecise at times. Even though Inquisitor is a point-and-click game, characters will often "slide" and "bump" each other around, especially in close quarters, which can sometimes make targeting enemies frustrating or will lead to mis-clicks which send you running to your doom. Due to the size of battles, the visuals can also become very cluttered as you will routinely have 10 or more characters duking it out in close quarters, in which case it can be nearly impossible to tell what is actually going on.

But the real sin of Inquisitor's combat is game balance. I do not exaggerate when I say that have never, ever seen such a poorly balanced RPG, in everything from the character system, to enemy stats, to equipment and items, to the magic and spells available. To start, one of the reasons combat is so incredibly frustrating is that enemies have far, far too many hit points and resistances. On the normal difficulty, many enemies can individually take anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds to bring down, each. Combine that with the fact that often just about every dungeon room you visit will have 5 to 10 of these enemies in them, and then consider that the average dungeons might have 10 to 20 rooms all full of these numbers of monsters, and you can now start to see why this game is indeed "100+ hours long".

Inquisitor is also not a very challenging game, or at least, when it is challenging, it is rarely because of difficult encounter design or enemies with interesting spells that need to be countered, like some other classic RPGs. Rather, many enemies are loaded with extremely annoying abilities. Area-of-effect spells that damage and stun all your party, leaving them stun-locked with no effective counters? Check. Debilitating status effects that prevent you from regaining stamina? Check. Slows that make you attack at half speed? Check. None of these have any reliable resistance whatsoever, and the enemy AI ensures that they will spam these abilities constantly.  The enemy AI itself is very primitive too, and they have no real behavior beyond "cast all spells until mana is depleted, then follow the player and keep attacking with primary weapon" which also adds to the repetition.

Instead of a puzzle to be figured out, combat is more like a grueling gauntlet. Inquisitor's challenge comes less from the gameplay mechanics and more from the simple question of "do you have potions?" If you do have potions, you will be able to constantly quaff them down and keep your health/stamina/mana levels up. If you do not, you will die, usually very quickly. Party members also like to consume potions far faster than they actually need to, and they always drink the best ones first, so you will likely have to micro-manage their potion-drinking habits. If you run out of them and don't have a Magical Box to summon a djinn and open a shop interface, usually your only choice is to slowly walk back to town and restock, wasting 10 to 20 minutes of your time in the process. It's surprising Ultherst doesn't have a potion-based economy, as they are basically the only items of value worth buying.  Speaking of, equipment available tends to be pretty poorly balanced as well - you can buy the best items in the game even in the first act, and the stuff you find in the world, including unique artifacts, rarely competes with what you can get by re-rolling the shops around town, so there is almost no equipment progression once you have collected a decent amount of money.
The balance issues also extend to the character system. The class balance in particular is very, very poor. Paladins are melee attackers, Thieves are ranged attackers and smooth-talkers, and Priests are magic-users. Paladins are by far the most powerful and easiest to play early in the game, but around halfway through the enemies begin to outpace them and combat becomes the brutal slog I mentioned above. Priests, meanwhile, are pitifully weak early on, relying on companions to do all the fighting for them, but after a certain threshold the spells they gain access to are immensely powerful and render combat a complete joke as they are able to unleash spells with effects such as "instantly kill all undead." Thieves find themselves constantly struggling unless they specialize heavily in magic as well, as ranged attacks do not deal enough damage to be worthwhile in the later stages of the game.

The character system also reveals problems in having unique skills between characters in a single-character game. As a Paladin, for instance, you gain access to Enemy Estimation, a skill that lets you view the detailed stats of an enemy (provided the skill is a high enough level). This information is critical... but it's almost useless to a Paladin, who relies primarily on physical damage and can't really take much advantage of the unique weaknesses of monsters in the same way a Priest can. Thieves are the only class who can actually disable traps and pick locks, which are a constant source of frustration for other characters, who have to just put up with taking fireballs to the face and getting poisoned.  Priests are the only ones who can mix potions, which also comes in very handy as the ones you buy from stores are pretty low-grade and cannot otherwise be improved, but they arguably benefit from them less than other classes.

Putting some points in magic is nearly mandatory for any character, as well, again due to poor balance. The Levitate spell is required to avoid a fiery or acidic death due to conveniently-placed pits of lava and acid in dungeons which are necessary to cross. The Shatter spell will unlock any door instantly, otherwise you will have to spend anywhere from 10 seconds to 2 minutes bashing it down. The Sixth Sense spell will identify all items in your inventory, and as it is a Novice-level spell it renders the separate Identify skill completely and utterly useless (which requires 16+ points just to be able to identify more powerful magic items, vs. the 1 point the spell requires). The only way to revive companions (and they will die constantly due to their poor AI) is to invest several points into Divine Magic to get the Raise Dead spell.

I could go on, but the fact is that there are problems upon problems with Inquisitor that only become more and more obvious the longer you play the game. They wouldn't be a huge issue if the game had chosen to focus the majority of its time on investigating and questing. However, by forcing you into spending 75% of your time completing lengthy, repetitive dungeons against copy-pasted monsters, they become all-too-apparent and pretty soon the game ends up as a frustrating, monotonous mess. You'll always look forward to going back to town to get to the good stuff, but enduring the boredom of the game's dungeons simply is not worth it.

The End of the World is a Beautiful Thing

Inquisitor does get one thing right, and that is presentation. Though the game is hardly a technical showpiece, it does feature fully pre-rendered visuals and richly-detailed backdrops that could easily fit in with games from 15 years ago.  In a nice touch, the game also has unique menu themes for each of the character classes. Occasionally the visuals fall a little flat, as the beautiful town areas give way to fairly repetitive and generic-looking forests and valleys, not to mention the extremely repetitive tile-based dungeons. Character animations are also not very good, and there is no separate running animation which means that your character constantly looks like he's power-walking everywhere. Still, these are ultimately small blemishes, and for the most part Inquisitor is quite pretty to look at.

The same can be said of the music. The soundtrack is not quite as memorable, distinctive or focused as some classic RPGs, with a variety of musical themes and styles of instrumentation, ranging from church organs to ambient pieces and orchestral tracks that wouldn't sound out of place in Diablo or Baldur's Gate. Sound effects are not so good, as almost all of them appear to be stock sounds taken from a mishmash of sources. They get the job done, but there is a lack of impact in the weapons and spells, and some of the ambient sound loops can become rather obvious and irritating after a while.  Still, the music especially is great at setting a slightly dreary, hopeless mood throughout the game, which is fitting with its dark themes.

Unfortunately, despite being a PC-exclusive game, Inquisitor does not really have the technical stability or wide range of options you would expect from one. Frankly, these are a major blemish and I have no idea how the game was released in such a state. First off, there is no way to rebind keys. This means that, for example, while I would have loved to take advantage of the pause function, I never did because reaching for the Pause/Break key during combat was just too awkward. The hotkeys are all fine, but the usability of the game is negatively impacted by the lack of options here, and those with physical disabilities may have to use third-party software to get key configurations they like. Second, there is no way to change difficulty settings once you have started a game, which is frustrating especially because of the poor quality of the combat. Last, Inquisitor is a bit buggy and unstable. After a couple of hours, the game routinely begins crashing and suffering from graphics corruption issues - these are fixed by a restart, but it's still annoying. I also experienced corrupt save files a few times, which resulted in a couple of hours of lost progress.

Conclusion

It's easy for nostalgia to take hold of you, especially as RPGs seem to be coming back in full force thanks to successful Kickstarter campaigns left and right and pledges by developers like Obsidian, inXile, and more to go back to their roots. Inquisitor taps into that vein with a presentation and style of gameplay right out of the past, and I think many players are going to be attracted to it for that reason alone. But the unfortunate fact is that while there are a lot of things to like about Inquisitor, mostly related to the story, world design and investigation-style quests, it's undermined by the developer's own philosophy of quantity over quality. With over a hundred hours of gameplay, Inquisitor will take you a long time to get through, but what does it matter if the combat is terrible and the game balance leaves a lot to be desired?

At $15 on GOG.com, Inquisitor is a decent buy for fans looking for a classic-style RPG to tide them over until some of those Kickstarter campaigns start producing real products. However, I cannot in good faith recommend it to most players, and I think anyone interested in it should go in with the understanding that there are large parts of the game that are, simply put, bad. Hopefully, mods will be able to fix the balance problems, and in such a hypothetical case I might recommend Inquisitor more enthusiastically, but I can't rate the game based on potential. As it is, Inquisitor should have spent more time in the confessional.