I am occasionally told that I get irrationally annoyed about video games, although my complaint in this instance is completely logical – I hate that some people hate Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Note my use of “some” there. It’s fine to dislike things, and there are certainly plenty of elements to critique in Inquisition. To be clear, I don’t mind when people claim to hate the game so much as I become frustrated when people fence it in with this idea of BioWare gone bad. I know you all detested Andromeda’s facial animations – which were fixed post-launch, it’s a great game now – and the fall of Anthem is tragic both on a human level and an industrial one. Inquisition is phenomenal, though, and has some of the best environmental design I have ever seen. Pigeon-holing it into a category of weak RPGs is ludicrous.
I think most of the hate for Dragon Age: Inquisition stems from the Hinterlands, the first open area you visit in the game. Back when Inquisition launched we saw a deluge of memes about the starting area being approximately ten million hours long, although you’re actually able to leave the Hinterlands pretty quickly. Sorry, it looks like you accidentally chose not to progress through the game at an optimal rate – oops! I mean, the Hinterlands is a late-game location as well as a sort of tutorial area – there’s a massive dragon you fight here in sweltering fields of fire.
I genuinely like the Hinterlands because they’re, well… actual hinterlands. It’s nice to have a remote region that’s almost completely exposed to the wilderness, making it a perfect no-man’s-land for opposing forces. It’s a very important narrative point for people who might not have played the first two games, as it communicates the Mages vs Templars conflict at the heart of Dragon Age quickly and effectively. I hate that you can’t jump over ledges that are five centimeters tall, but other than that, the Hinterlands are brilliant both in terms of storytelling and in setting the atmosphere.
Once you leave the Hinterlands, though, Inquisition is blown up into one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous games I have ever seen. You’ve got the windswept wastes of the Western Approach, the treacherous tempests of the Storm Coast, and the serene snowscapes of Emprise du Lion all offering dramatically different climates and landscapes across Thedas (which, in case you forgot, was derived from THEDAS, or “The Dragon Age Setting”, which is so pants that it’s good).
Emprise du Lion is the game’s magnum opus when it comes to environmental design, its wintery wistfulness perfectly capturing late-game tensions by juxtaposing the once-revered highlands of the Dalish elves with their new draconic inhabitants. It’s a very strange but sublime place to occupy in this virtual world – its vistas are magnificent, and you can take your time sauntering along its snow-laden paths, but the fights here are explosively ferocious. I think it manages to articulate the urgency of your quest in a way that is cleverly subtle beneath the ostensible theatrics of tussling with a dragon. Here you have a desolate place, beautiful in terms of nature but brutal in its depiction of what is to come should the Inquisition fail. You fight here of your own accord with nobody to watch you other than your companions, risking your life in a battle that people will never know outside of ever-mutable hearsay. It’s the first and last chance to beat back the encroaching dread, with the serene snow capturing vague hope as its lack of habitation implies reigning despair.
It’s probably to facilitate the camerawork necessary for having a roaming party traverse the overworld a la Baldur’s Gate, but the sheer scale of each region is remarkably impressive. While some of the more imposing bosses earn their own areas, the entire level design is made up of invisibly stitched-together arenas. Beneath all the glimmer and gloss, this is a deeply and precisely functional game that was rigorously and meticulously woven into a world. I think The Witcher 3 handles resolving unfinished quests and fail states better than any RPG in history, but Dragon Age’s sheer functional coherence earns it a place on the podium at the very least. Walking around that world at a snail’s pace so you can examine every single millimeter makes it almost embarrassingly obvious that you’ve been duked by good level design – very simple solutions are buried beneath very flashy aesthetics. It’s like a Porsche made by Volkswagen.
I understand that not everything is for everyone, and there are perfectly valid reasons for disliking Dragon Age: Inquisition. What I’m saying is that complaining about the Hinterlands falls pretty flat when you realize you can leave there almost immediately after starting the game, and the places you visit after… well, they’re absolutely incredible. Give the game another look, yeah?
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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