Dragon Age: Inquisition + Jaws of Hakkon DLC Review

Introduction

A follow-up to Dragon Age II. The real sequel to Dragon Age: Origins. The perfect pick-up point for new fans. The culmination of the plotlines seeded in the previous two games and their DLCs. I don't envy BioWare. Dragon Age: Inquisition was always saddled with enormous expectations. Fans expected Inquisition to keep everything they enjoyed in previous games and make it better. Meanwhile, many detractors hoped (some in the open, some in secret) that this would be the installment for them.

Credit where credit is due: BioWare clearly took all the expectations and criticism into account when designing the game. Gone are the copy-pasted caves and the waves of parachuting bandits from Dragon Age II. All the playable races from Dragon Age: Origins plus a new one, the Qunari, are in. There are even a few concessions that concern the combat system, the most notable of them being a new tactical camera that aims to provide more control over the full party, inspired by Dragon Age: Origins.

Of course, the story too aims to recapture what fans loved about the original title. It's an epic fantasy romp with high stakes, a cackling central villain, a clearer structure, and a grand sense of scope. And yet Dragon Age: Inquisition doesn't work. It's an enormous game, crafted with care to capture new and old fans alike, that is less than the sum of its parts and not terribly memorable. Why? Because it doesn't feel like a BioWare game.


The Story

By now, everyone familiar with the Dragon Age franchise is familiar with the conflict between Mages and Templars. In short, Mages are forced to live in "Circles" and guarded by Templars, who keep them on a tight leash because of their innate potential to cause harm. It's a simple security-versus-freedom dilemma that grew in scale so much that it turned into a full-scale war by the end of the second game.

A magical explosion of unprecedented scale interrupts a peace summit to stop this very war, and it's from that point that Dragon: Age Inquisition picks up. A tear in the sky, a great rift in the Veil that divides the world of Thedas with the Fade, the realm of demons and dreams, is open. The only person capable of closing it is the player character. This ability is the reason the player character is enlisted in the Inquisition, a resurrected independent institution from Thedas' past, with the intention to find the person responsible.

Here, already, Dragon Age: Inquisition shows promise and an uncanny ability to squander it. The game's fiction assumes, during its first act, that the protagonist isn't yet in charge of the Inquisition, but none of the gameplay systems seem to take that into account. Since the beginning of the game you are the de facto leader, even during the short sections where the character is a prisoner of Cassandra Pentaghast, one of the game's companions.

If that can be excused as a gameplay concession, the same can't be said of the way the game squanders another of its interesting aspects: the relationship between the Inquisitor and her title of "Herald of Andraste". Because of the circumstances of the Inquisitor's survival and her newfound powers, many characters assume that she received divine help. Deciding how to relate with that notion made for a very interesting experience that reminded me of Arcanum.

The mystery and ambiguity are cast away about halfway through the game, however, when a neat reveal explains exactly what happened. The game's back half is full of similar reveals that seem to build up to future Dragon Age installments, and that's yet another problematic aspect of Inquisition's plotting. The events of the story feel positively unimportant when measured against the future events that are foreshadowed. The game sells itself as an epic high fantasy story, and yet ends up feeling like barely a prologue.

The final nail in the coffin is the game's central villain. Built up as an unstoppable force during the first act of the game, it's actually one of the most comically ineffectual villains I've ever encountered in an RPG. I concede that this isn't, per se, a bad thing, but there's no grand point BioWare builds to with this choice, no interesting reversal. The lack of a credible threat also robs the plot of a sense of progression, the feeling of triumph over adversity. The game's epilogue was a lovely moment, but ultimately felt unearned.

Dragon Age: Inquisition's writing left a bitter taste in my mouth. Still, I'd be dishonest if I didn't mention what worked. BioWare has always been very good at creating charming banter and dialogue, and confirmed this quality in Dragon Age: Inquisition. The company's approach to dialogue isn't for everyone - the BioWare writers are certainly self aware, but that never tempers their love for melodrama and tin ear for inspiring moments - but for someone open to their approach, there's a lot to enjoy in Inquisition.

The quiet character moments wouldn't work if there wasn't a decent cast of supporting characters to deliver them, so it's a good thing that the cast of companions and supporting characters in Inquisition is very strong. All the companions have memorable personalities and expand on the story in some way. They either tie into the themes (questions pertaining personal identity and public personas are especially prominent throughout the game), or offer a personal voice or twist on the setting's factions and societies.


Characters like Iron Bull and Dorian offer a look into parts of the world that haven't yet been visited in the games, but do so without falling into the trap of being token characters, like Sten was in Dragon Age: Origins. Their companion quests and interactions cut right into the heart of their identities, while also offering commentary on the societies they come from. BioWare can do this partly because the setting is already well-established by now, but even so, the balance between worldbuilding and character writing feels a lot better than in Origins.

The best thing I can say about the cast of companions and side characters (Inquisition advisors have almost as many social interactions as the party companions) is that they are all appropriately fleshed out and consistent. This is something that can be recognized even in the weakest characters, like Sera. While the fact that she's insufferable isn't a writing flaw per se, Sera's dialogue is clunky and weak. In spite of that, there is a consistent emotional and psychological core that can be seen behind Sera's every action.

Dragon Age: Inquisition pairs a cast of memorable supporting characters with a shoddy story. Other BioWare games survived despite having weak plots, like Mass Effect 2, in light of their different focus, but that's another area where Dragon Age: Inquisition falters.


Quest Design (and more questionable narrative choices)

If you love fetch quests, I suggest you stop reading this review right now and just grab Dragon Age: Inquisition. The game is chock-full of them. It's actually really difficult for me to say anything insightful about the quest design, simply because of how bare-bones most of the quests are. For example, let's consider the quests about establishing the Inquisition's presence in wilderness areas, which open up resting camps. All of them involve reaching a certain location and clicking on a prompt. Some of them involve small navigational puzzles that requires the player to figure out how to reach a location. For the most part, though, only the player's ability to follow a quest marker is challenged.

Most of the activities in the game follow the same pattern. Clear a number of enemy camps. Free a number of prisoners. Close a number of Fade rifts. Sometimes the game is merciful and only assigns one objective, though rarely an engaging one. It's only on occasion that I was reminded that BioWare actually knows how to design engaging adventures. At times I was asked to make decisions that left me very conflicted, whether to let the Chantry or the elves learn about the true nature of a controversial event in their past, for example. Episodes like that were a breath of fresh air, but all too rare.

A quest can still be good even if its design is boring. A good story, a couple of solid lines of dialogue, even just a good cutscene, can sell an otherwise unremarkable quest. And BioWare has historically been very good at selling quests that would be otherwise unexceptional. That's why it's difficult for me to forgive the framing problems with the game's quests. Plenty of them aren't even delivered via conversations, but just added to the journal after finding an item.

A moment in particular stayed with me, a moment that made me realize BioWare had squandered almost all the potential for fun quests they had on their hands. I was exploring one of the game's vast open world zones, and found a corpse lying in a river. I prepared myself for an investigation quest of sorts. The game simply placed a map marker that led me to a note that explained the details of a suicide. There was a story here, an interesting one at that, but it had been treated with no respect.

And speaking of giving stories the respect they deserve, I was very puzzled by BioWare's decision to tuck a lot of its funniest, most interesting stories and hooks into the War Table. The War Table is essentially a time management minigame, where it's possible to select who of the three Inquisition advisors (Cullen, leader of the military, Leliana, leader of the spies, or Josephine, the Inquisition's diplomat) to assign to resolve a situation. The various situations are displayed on a map and explained with some accompanying text when selected, and each of the three advisors will usually offer a potential solution.

There are two different aspects that a player is required to consider when making a decision. One involves which of the available advisors is the best suited to deal with the situation. The second is the amount of time needed for each advisor to deal with the situation. We're talking about real time here. At first, War Table missions are a matter of minutes, but by the end of the game, there are missions that can end up taking three real time days. Thankfully, even time not spent in game is counted, so the mechanic isn't as punitive as it might seem at first.

It's still a bizarre mechanic, though, that seems to be designed solely to pad total playtime and remind players that they are in charge of a large organization, while they are out in the wilderness doing chores. And yet many of the stories contained in this War Table interactions are good. In fact, a lot of them have more personality than the actual quests in the game. Some of them even have major consequences, though unfortunately the fact that the player only learns about them via reports makes them feel much smaller than they should. This makes no sense, obviously, as the bulk of a player's time is spent doing quests and the War Table missions are a diversion at best.


Speaking of consequences, the way Dragon Age: Inquisition handles choices is interesting. Almost every big story mission ends with a choice of some sort, and some of them are enormous in scope. It's possible to single-handedly replace the political leadership in Orlais, for example, but the choice falls flat because the player isn't offered valid reasons to care about Orlais. True, some of the zones in the game are part of Orlais, but the change in leadership is unlikely to affect the lives of the people there directly. In Dragon Age: Origins the ending slides made sense because they involved people and communities you had interacted with frequently during the game.

Dragon Age: Inquisition does that too at times, and that's when it works. Being asked to decide the fate of an old character works because there's history and weight behind the interaction, but also feels manipulative, because it takes into account the player rather than the character that is played. Which is why ultimately the game's best choices always involve the characters met while adventuring. Some of these choices are naturally implemented in quests (the companion quests are a highlight because of their story content and all end on a satisfying note), other play out as "Judgments", where the Inquisitor can get to decide the fate of a captured character.

There is on exception to this general trend, however. In an otherwise workman-like game, BioWare managed to find brilliance in an unlikely place. At the end of the game, a new Divine (a figure much like the Catholic Church's Pope) is chosen for the Chantry, among a selection of candidates that are all part of the Inquisitor's close circle. The fact that all the best candidates are people that the Inquisitor knows isn't particularly believable, but it makes for a very interestingly constructed choice. Players are required to weight their personal interest with their ideological stance on many issues, and ultimately it's their past actions throughout the game that determine who becomes the new Divine.

A really interesting scenario. The only one that made me feel like I was playing a "next-generation BioWare RPG" rather than a single-player MMO with a few minigames borrowed by Assassin's Creed. The less is said about those, the better.


Character Progression, Itemization and Combat

Many fans mourned the loss of the RPG progression mechanics from Mass Effect in its sequels, me among them, but there's something to be said for a series that has a confident direction. After the original title, BioWare decided to focus on refining the shooting mechanics of the series. The choice was likely based on fan feedback, but it was something they always stuck with. It's true that they implemented some more granular character building with Mass Effect 3, but it was never done at the expense of the gunplay, which was actually fine-tuned even further in the final game of the trilogy.

The Dragon Age series would benefit enormously from a similar clarity in direction. Dragon Age: Origins was very much inspired by the Infinity Engine titles, but the smaller party, slower pace, and abilities and progression inspired by MMOs made it a different take on RTwP party-based combat altogether. Dragon Age II sped up the pace and catered mostly to the console crowd (the first Dragon Age's console versions are notorious for being poor), though it also made a few good changes to the ability progression and combo set ups. Dragon Age: Inquisition is its own beast. It takes aesthetic cues from both titles, sure, but it doesn't really play like either.

For example, the attributes from Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II are back, but there's no manual way to raise them anymore. Instead, certain abilities and equipment pieces grant bonuses to the attributes. The same three classes are back, and they are all designed to be played very actively, because the game is played in third-person by default. It's possible to open a tactical camera that stops time and gives the player a chance to give orders to every member of the party, but playing the whole game using that mode would be impossibly tedious, so it's best reserved for the hardest encounters.

It doesn't help that the tactical camera isn't very well implemented. It gets stuck in geometry often, and it makes it impossible to properly use a number of abilities that require proper timing. Which leads me to another of this game's problems: there is a conflict between the game's twitchier, action-y side and the attempts at being tactical. Abilities that emphasize positioning generally work better in the tactical camera, while abilities that require reflexes are better executed from third person, almost as if they belonged to two different combat systems. Playing solely in third person isn't a great solution either, though. The party AI in Inquisition isn't good, and the behaviour options are very disappointing when compared to the Tactics menus of Origins and II.


There are other niggling problems with the combat. The targeting in third-person is extremely imprecise, to the point where I missed enemies at point-blank. The game showers the player with active abilities, but it's only possible to keep 8 of them equipped at the same time. Active ability loadouts have been quite popular as of late. They only make sense if a player is encouraged to swap abilities often to deal with different situations, or, to the contrary, if abilities can't be swapped very often. Dragon Age: Inquisition does neither. Abilities can be changed at any time, but the player is never encouraged to try new loadouts. The resource system is also quite inelegant and baroque: Mana and Stamina regenerate over time, but each ability also has its own separate cooldown. Both can be modified by abilities and items.

The game is also bogged down by a few of the problems the series has always had. The ability and stat descriptions are strangely opaque and never give the player a good sense of what's going on under the hood. I raised my armor level because I was under the impression that it would be good, but I still don't know what that value meant. Is it a flat damage reduction? That doesn't make sense based on what I saw on screen. A percentile reduction? Probably not. A special case system that takes into account the enemy and player's levels in addition to their damage and armor values? Most likely, but I'd have appreciated a chance to learn exactly how it worked. And frankly, while it doesn't bother me much, it's worth mentioning that the game still has a lot of overpowered ability combinations.

I did appreciate a few elements of the game's combat and character system, however. The encounter design is never inspired, but it's always at least decent. The game tends to mix different enemy types to force the player to separate the party and mix up tactics, though it's disappointing to see the same archetypes used for pretty much every different faction in the game. Focus is a new resource that is consumed when using special abilities, and gained every time anyone in the party inflicts damage. Every character has an individual resource pool but benefits from the work of everyone in the party. I'd prefer the focus to be on something other than DPS, but it's still good to see teamwork rewarded.

I also appreciated the way healing was handled in Inquisition. Healing spells and abilities are fairly limited and tend to use Focus. The number of healing potions that can be carried is also very limited, starting off at 8 and capping off at 12. The game instead expects players to use abilities that generate Barrier and Guard, which are essentially additional HP pools. Actual HP damage is more relevant than it's ever been in the series, because there's barely any post-combat regeneration. While the mechanic's tuning could use some work (potions can be refilled far too often, and there are item combinations that grant far too much Guard), I appreciate the intent. It's good to finally see designers move away from regenerating health to reward long-term management and skillful play.

Finally, a few words on itemization. It reminds me of a mediocre action-RPG in the vein of Diablo. The game showers the player with middling magic items, and the few unique handcrafted items are often inferior to anything the player can craft. The game would have been more fun if crafting was removed or made far less powerful. Being able to create such powerful items removes the thrill of finding new, unique loot. I was only ever excited when I found crafting schematics in a chest. BioWare made an earnest attempt to bring back customization (companions can wear different armor types with their own visuals again, for example), but not enough time was spent considering how the systems would interact.

Ultimately Dragon Age: Inquisition's combat fails because it's not good enough. Despite all its flaws, it actually coalesces into something eminently playable (I had a surprisingly fun time fighting the game's dragons, which feel like greatly simplified MMO raid bosses), but it's never engrossing. More than anything, it lacks a sense of clear direction.


Open World?

Prior to the game's release, EA talked about Dragon Age: Inquisition as an open world game. This isn't strictly true, given how compartmentalized the game is, but many of the game's zones are very large and do feel very open. Compared to Dragon Age II's oft-mocked single cave, this is an enormous victory. BioWare clearly put love and care into the game's areas. Each of them has its own topography quirks and lends itself to the use of the game's new traversal options, which include the addition of a jump button and less stiff, freer movement. BioWare also made some clumsy attempts to introduce features that are expected in open world titles. For example, there is some really light world simulation, with creatures interacting with one another and occasionally fighting between themselves. They feel strangely out of place in a game that doesn't make any other attempt to simulate a world. NPC schedules are absent, for example, and there is no trace of a day/night cycle.


And for a game that puts the emphasis on side content and exploration, Dragon Age also gates new zones by the way of a new currency, called "Power". To open new zones, it's necessary to spend a certain amount of Power, and the requirements increase as the game goes on. Power is usually earned by completing quests and similar activities. This leads to a really strange conundrum. It's easily possible to beeline through the game and only complete the main quests, but to explore more areas it's necessary to do more side content first. It's an annoying mechanic that takes the wind out of exploration's sails in an attempt to encourage players to play even more side quests. I really wish the side content was more engaging in the first place.

For that matter, I also wish side content was better integrated. The game's main missions feel walled off and disconnected, as if they had been surgically removed from another game and inserted into Dragon Age: Inquisition. They're the closest the game ever feels to a BioWare title, but never seem to acknowledge the fact that the Inquisitor can spend days and days hanging around doing quests for the small folk. In fairness, no part of the game seems to acknowledge the extreme amount of pointless side quests.


Nods to the Past and an Awkward Present

There are a couple of odd design choices that I'd like to mention in this review. Some of them are attempts from BioWare to stay true to the first two titles' designs, others are attempts to establish Inquisition as its own thing. For example, given Dragon Age: Inquisition doesn't have skills anymore, BioWare decided to implement a special action for every class. Warriors can destroy walls, Mages can energize to rebuild some structures or solve puzzles, and Rogues can pick locks. Of those abilities, the most useful is without doubt the Mage's, while the other two can usually be skipped. It's a poor substitute to actual character skills, and it has the side effect of punishing non-traditional party compositions.

Dragon Age: Inquisition also introduces Inquisition perks. These perks are party-wide and can be gained by leveling up the Inquisition's Influence, which is usually done simply by completing side quests. At every Influence level it's possible to select a perk. These range from dialogue-based to perks that supply crafting materials. It's a smart way to reinforce the feeling of leading an organization (something the game usually fails at) and introduce some additional customization. Unfortunately, the perk selection's balance is hilariously bad. Having to choose between gaining new dialogue options or some crafting materials that can easily be found while exploring for 5 minutes is no choice at all.

Finally, there is a multiplayer mode, presumably introduced because Mass Effect 3's multiplayer mode was very popular. It feels vestigial, but has the benefit of showcasing how the combat flows much better when it only focuses of one of its two sides (in this case, the action-based third-person side), rather than as a hybrid. The multiplayer mode also includes an option to buy new loot chests, which contain randomized loot, with real money. As far as micotransactions go, this is a pretty tame implementation and can safely be ignored, though the principle is still worrisome.


Presentation

Dragon Age: Inquisition reinvents the Dragon Age art style yet again. The brown Lord of the Rings-style fantasy of Origins is a mere memory at this point, but the drab watercolor look of Dragon Age II don't make a return either. Instead, Dragon Age: Inquisition opts to couple bold, exaggerated shapes with realistically rendered textures, and marries this look with saturated colors and high contrast lighting.

This works well as far as the environments are concerned. The game's huge areas are lovingly crafted and striking to look at. The static weather conditions hurt the impression of a living and breathing world, but help the visual identity of the game's areas. The game is full of towering buildings, huge statues, massive cliffs and vistas. None of the environments is particularly original, but they're all well-crafted.

The character models, on the other hand, are very hit and miss. Several of them have very odd proportions and are just ugly to look at, and not in a way that feels realistic. I have no problem with characters that are meant to be ugly, and I'm more than open to characters that are meant to be unconventionally attractive, but when I look at Iron Bull's comically tiny head or Solas' odd facial proportions all I see are artistic mistakes.


The game's audio department is far less interesting to analyze. The voice acting is mostly fine. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a huge game, so a poorly acted line is bound to pop up in places, but overall the cast turned in a solid effort. There are even a couple of voices for both the male and female versions of the Inquisitor. They aren't enough to cover all the possible character concepts, but they at least cover a spectrum of them. Incidentally, even after several games with the dialogue wheel, BioWare occasionally fails to paraphrase the dialogue lines correctly. At least from that point of view, the game feels distinctly BioWare.

There is also some music. I wish I had some feelings about it, but composer Trevor Morris (known for his work on History Channel's Vikings) took a very subtle approach with sound design. Music creeps in only occasionally and in the subtlest of ways, and only swells during rare instances, which usually coincide with important battle or cutscenes. It's not a bad soundtrack by any means, but it's too vanilla and doesn't add character to a game that really could have used some.


Technical Issues, Interface and Controls

Dragon Age: Inquisition's interface is poorly designed. Inventories are presented as lists nested with lists, information that should be grouped together is presented in separate tabs, and even the font and color choices are peculiar at best. On the upside, the PC version has a separate interface with an action bar, hotkeys, and shortcuts for the various menu tabs. It's not perfect, but it does go a long way to make the game feel at home on PC. Switching between gamepad and mouse and keyboard isn't as seamless as it should be, however, and requires a reboot of the game.

There are plenty of opportunities to restart Dragon Age: Inquisition anyway. The game crashed very often during my playtime, and even all the patches released since then haven't helped too much with the game's stability problems. The game is also full of minor bugs (I lost count of the NPCs I've seen float in mid-air), but those are much easier to excuse and ultimately don't detract too much from the game. 


Jaws of Hakkon

Jaws of Hakkon adds a new area to the world of Dragon Age: Inquisition with its own central and lengthy storyline and a number of sidequests and activities. As such, a lot of what can be said about the main game can be repeated for this DLC, and the things that Jaws of Hakkon does differently are what characterize it.

The DLC follows the Inquisitor's hunt for the remains of her preceding Inquisitor in the Frostback Basin, a region controlled by the Avvars, nomadic human tribes with a unique culture and very different beliefs from the Chantry. Storywise, it touches on many of the same themes as the main game. There are ancient histories to uncover, and the past is less convenient than anyone would like.

The relationship between common people and spirits is also explored, and provides what is the most interesting narrative material of what is otherwise a very plain DLC story-wise. There is, at least, a surprising amount of new banter and dialogue, and some of it even acknowledges whether you've finished the game or not, confirming BioWare's knack for small-scale interactions.

Frostback Basin is one of the highlights of the DLC but the first impression isn't good. Visually, it's a disappointment, a well-crafted area that doesn't really do anything that the original areas don't already do. But past first impressions, there's a lot to enjoy. The area makes mindful use of verticality and provides a lot of variety, so much that it could arguably be divided into a number of connected mini-zones.

Jaws of Hakkon also provides a few fairly challenging encounters that buck the players' expectations concerning encounter composition, and some actually good loot that isn't immediately superseded by crafted items. The side quests also feel slightly more interesting than in the main game, by virtue of better framing, stories and variety. I don't want to oversell this: we're still talking about activities that fit in the framework on the main game. Still, it's incredible what a little more dialogue can do, and how much more interesting a quest can be when it's exploring a foreign culture.

Ultimately, I can only recommend this DLC to the real fans of the original game. It offers more of what the game already offered with some slight improvements. For most, Dragon Age: Inquisition is already big as it is.


Concluding Thoughts

Re-reading this review, I can't help but wonder if I've been too harsh. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a surprisingly relaxing pastime, and there's a lot of it. Played one or two hours a day, it can last for a very, very long time. In many ways, it reminded me of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, another game that left me very little, but was very easy to play for long stretches of time.

But that's not what I think games should strive for, and that's not what BioWare's games strove for in the past. While the developers often fell short of their reputation as master storytellers, they always tried to craft interesting universes and fill them with stories that would resonate with people. I genuinely hope they weren't trying this time, because Inquisition would be a spectacular failure.