An exclamation point is used to indicate something dramatic, but its appropriateness lies in the eye of the beholder. Writing about the opening of a new neighborhood karaoke joint might prompt me to end a sentence with an exclamation point, but that probably wouldn’t be the case for, say, the president of the United States, who might save attention-grabbing punctuation for expressing his feelings on the opening of a new missile silo in Iran.
Likewise, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, if some hunter needs animal pelts or some poor soul from a tiny farming village wants a benevolent stranger to put flowers on a dead relative’s grave, these requests might deserve a symbol of heightened emotion in their eyes. But when you’re trying to save the world from a supernatural rift spewing angry demons everywhere, minor dramas in random people’s lives seem ridiculously frivolous. So why mark it on the map with a giant exclamation point? This no-task-too-small problem has plagued fantasy role-playing games since the dawn of time (the ’80s) but is more acute than ever in the third of BioWare’s expansive fantasy saga—a game that succeeds after you learn how to manage its many excesses.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, as the saying goes, but none are weightier than the crownless cranium of the lead character in Inquisition. The player-created protagonist begins with the singular (but juicy) role of action hero who must close the aforementioned interdimensional rift with a right hand mysteriously imbued with magical powers. After a clumsy opening sequence sets up the game’s overarching mystery about your possible status as a medieval messiah, you and a handful of rebels establish the Inquisition as an answer to growing strife between the Chantry, Dragon Age’s version of the politically powerful Catholic Church of yore, and a group of disenfranchised mages. The name of your organization is highly ironic considering the historical context of real-life inquisitions—overzealous judicial arms of the Church in Europe that punished people for crimes of religious heresy in rather hideous ways. You play the heretic here; bypassing the authority of the Chantry in order to create your own independent faction free of official religious ties.
Once a base of operations for the Inquisition is established, the realm of Thedas slowly begins to open up to your whimsical wanderings, and not coincidentally, the game grinds to a near screeching halt. Like many video games that offer “open-world” experiences, Inquisition is overstuffed with activities and side quests that glow on your map and beg to be accomplished, and the amount of hats you’re asked to wear pile up faster than the corpses of ghouls you’ve slain. Your hero, in addition to saving the world with sword or staff, can don the hats of oligarch, miner, diplomat, administrator, blacksmith, botanist, astrologist, interior decorator, armchair psychotherapist, judge, jury, and—well, you get the picture. There’s enough jacking-of-all-trades that you start to resemble a Dungeons & Dragons version of Teddy Roosevelt (speaking of presidents), without our former globe-trotting adventurer-in-chief’s keen sense of knowing when to pass the buck.
Light delegation does exist, but it’s largely illusory. Once you get down to the business of Inquisiting, you can head down to the war room and gaze upon a map of potential conquests and political conundrums marked like pieces on a chessboard. You then choose from three trusted advisors of your inner circle—a general, a spymaster, and a diplomat—to address each situation in their own way. Cullen, a former Templar, predictably favors a show of military might, whereas Leliana opts for espionage and assassination from the shadows. It’s an intriguing feature that rings hollow after realizing that you can’t actually fail any of the missions; they simply take a set amount of time to accomplish.
You also have the option to let your host of companions fight on their own during the game’s many small skirmishes against a host of enemies. Inquisition finds a sweet spot between Dragon Age: Origins’ cumbersome strategic combat system and the whiz-bang button mashing of the sequel. It’s quite possible to rush into most fights and win on brute force alone, but that’s a death wish against bigger baddies and bosses. The click of a button pauses the action and offers a top down view of the battlefield, where you can plan your strategy and play puppet master, carefully orchestrating every spell and swing of the sword.
The thrills of pitched battles with fire-breathing dragons and nefarious knights aren’t enough when its in service of Inquisition’s side activities—inconsequential fetch quests or hunting woodland wildlife for their skins so you can stitch together slightly better armor at the smithy. To survive certain story missions, you’re told you have to reach a minimum character level, so it’s necessary to grind through these petty tasks. As a result, the first eight to 12 hours of Inquisition can feel as exciting as sitting through a boring lecture about theology from one of the Chantry’s pedantic clerics.
But it’s not how you start that’s as important as how you finish, and particularly after a dramatic narrative turn I won’t spoil, Inquisition builds momentum and its magic bores its way through the chestplate and into the heart. It helps when the rich supporting cast has so much heart of its own. In the BioWare tradition, almost all manage to rise above the two-dimensional archetypes they represent—the soldier with an outsized sense of duty or the badass with a heart of gold. I particularly like Dorian, the suave mustachioed wizard whose clever wisecracks mask hidden pain. These characters aren’t the stuff of fairy tales but real adults with their own quirks and flaws, bolstered by the fact that the game isn’t afraid to explore same-sex relationships, the role of faith and politics, racial bigotry, and other weighty material. The writing isn’t perfect and things sometimes sag under the weight of all the arcane lore and political intrigue thrown at you, but it’s admirably handled.
Other narrative high points rely on Inquisition’s smart take on decision-making that thumbs its nose at oversimplified good-and-evil morality meters of other games. Yes, you’re ultimately in the business of preventing something resembling pure evil from taking hold, but growing strong enough to do so means making morally ambiguous choices that may hurt as much as help you. Choosing to ally yourself with a band of rebellious mages means cutting yourself off from a treaty with the Templars and could lead to defections from within your own party. Conquering a kingdom, as Inquisition proves, can be much easier than ruling one.
Conquering your own need to pursue all of Inquisition’s mind-numbing optional objectives? That’s a different kind of challenge that our 26th president incidentally had great advice about:
“The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
Someone hand that guy a broadsword.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewed on: Xbox One