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February 19, 2015

RE: Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s times like this where I have to wonder: is there something wrong with me?  (You know, besides the obvious?)

I mean, seriously.  Right now it feels like I’m sitting in a confessional -- which is something I feel like I have to do every time the “latest and greatest” is out on those newfangled vidya gaem boxes.  Like -- okay, I didn’t like Destiny.  That’s understandable, right?  And I didn’t like The Last of Us -- not exactly a popular opinion, but I can actually explain why if given the chance (fully functional flamethrower, anyone?). 

But then I get to Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game that’s not only an RPG -- in my wheelhouse more than those shootgaemz -- but also a game that’s delighted plenty of gamers.  Earned solid review scores.  Made several GOTY lists, even if the bar was set within the bowels of the earth for 2014.  I should be able to dive in.

But I can’t.  I’m about a session away from swearing it off for good.  And I guess now I have to explain why.

I mentioned the story of DA:I in another post, but for the record here’s the setup.  You wake up in a prison, accused of some magical tomfoolery wherein there’s a demon-spewing vortex in the sky.  In a moment of desperation -- and with your player character branded with a mysterious green mark on his/her hand -- you’re dragged onto the scene in the hopes of sorting the mess out.  You do, eventually, but the problem’s not completely solved; the vortex (The Breach) remains, albeit quelled, while smaller Rifts have popped up and given rise to roving hordes of demons.

But that’s not all.  It’s reasoned that The Breach was opened (and a major religious/political figure killed) as part of a ploy by an enemy party, whose identity remains unknown.  Because of that, and with official support not an option, the Inquisition is formed to create a band tailor-made to deal with the world’s ills.  Close The Breach, find the culprit, unite the people, wreck the demons -- you know, the usual.  And guess who’s made into its chief figurehead?

Now, let me hit the pause button for a second.  See, I’d read a little about the game prior to release, and it had my interest; I’d never gotten too far in the other Dragon Age games (weirdly, the gun-heavy Mass Effect was my jam), but I was more than willing to give the third venture a good, honest try.  I was under the impression that it would be good just because it had BioWare somewhere on the box…even if that meant overlooking the EA logo issuing noxious black fumes right next to it.  Frankly, I was about ready to do a post and start off with “This.  This is the game that justifies the presence of the PS4.”  Oh, and I guess the Xbone, too.

BUT there was one big reservation I had -- one caveat that could burn all that goodwill away.  The impression I got from DA:I was that it would put you immediately and justifiably in a seat of power -- meaning that you could start enacting real change and being the hero Thedas needs.  The assumption -- if not hope -- was that in order for the game to be good, conclusively, within the span of one session, it had to keep the player from doing menial tasks straight out of any given MMO.  If I’m the leader of the Inquisition -- or even just a part of it -- then I want to do something that matters, especially when it’s established almost immediately that the world is in danger NOW.  I don’t want to piss away time hunting for twenty bear asses.

Thankfully, you don’t do that in this game.  You find ten pieces of ram meat.  Among many…many…many…many…many other things.

It really is as if DA:I was co-developed by Ubisoft, because the sheer deluge of sidequests completely overwhelms the senses.  Example: you start off by going to a place called The Hinterlands for a story-based mission, one that you can finish up pretty quickly.  But you’re still there once it’s wrapped up.  Strange, but fair enough. 

So you start walking, when suddenly you notice that there’s a quest on the map.  So you talk to the guy, take the quest, and move on.  The thematic idea is that you’ll be doing some sidequests so you’ll beef up your fledgling Inquisition -- taking a hands-on approach and whatnot so you’ll be ready for whatever challenge comes your way.  In terms of actual gameplay, you do those sidequests to gain Power points, and expend those to do big missions (story or otherwise). Honestly, I’m all for the thematic sense.  It can say a lot about the nature of a leader -- let alone a character -- when he/she personally goes out to get blankets to cold refugees.

But by that point, you’re caught in The Sidequest Trap.  Apparently, you’re actually supposed to leave The Hinterlands and go do some other stuff once you get enough Power.  But even if that’s true, the game is at least implying that you should spend time there and do quests.  Because…hell, why wouldn’t you?  It’s an area you haven’t been to, in a game that’s still plenty new, and lets you get your feet wet with the systems and mechanics.  That’s doubly the case because as you’re doing sidequests, you’re gaining EXP and prestige for your Inquisition efforts -- and it’s as good a time as any to build a Power surplus so you don’t have to interrupt the story when you go full tilt.

But again, there’s just way too much to do, to the point where the amount of content is more paralyzing than pleasurable.  You get a laundry list of quests from the get-go.  You meet people on the roads who’ll give you quests.  You’ll keep walking down that road, and not even thirty seconds later you’ll find a guy who’ll give you another quest. 

And then while you’re trying to finish one quest, you’ll run into two more on the way to the last part of a quest, and another pair of quests while trying to turn in another quest.  And while you’re doing those quests, you end up collecting materials needed for other quests on accident, all while heading towards a new town on the map -- which you can’t even enter until you do another damn quest to “prove that you’re part of the Inquisition”…which you could do just by showing the mark on your hand, but whatever.

My guess is that The Hinterlands is just frontloaded so that players can see what is available in the franchise’s eighth-gen installment.  And again, I understand that this stuff is technically optional, so the player can move on with the story at any point without having to worry about sidequests.  (Then again, the fact that you HAVE to do sidequests to “pay” for story missions is its own can of worms.)

But based on my experience, I’m willing to declare that that was a terrible idea, for a number of reasons.  Those extra quests may be optional, but here’s the thing: the player can also decide when to restart the story in earnest.  In other words, if someone opts to do plenty of sidequests before anything else, then the expectation is that that content is going to be satisfying.  Meaningful, even.

So yes, I gave a cynical chef some pieces of ram meat.  I told a worried scout about his partner.  I delivered notes on medicine making to a frantic husband.  I went to work dealing with the rifts popping up in The Hinterlands.  But none of it felt weighty or substantial.  I got some Power to use at the War Table, and I filled up an Influence meter a little more, but that was like the game tossing me a peppermint for a job well done. 

When I do these sidequests, I don’t feel like a member of what might be the most important organization in the world; I feel like a gofer.  That’s especially true because you can apparently send people to do quests and stuff on your behalf (which takes real time, curiously enough).  It wouldn’t be so bad if these quests didn’t feel so shallow, but they do.  They absolutely do.

Listen.  I understand that sidequests aren’t where the game’s effort went (the sheer number of them aside).  There’s really only so much reform you could ask of a game convention that’s been around for decades.  Here’s the thing, though: my problem with DA:I isn’t just that they’re there, but how they’re implemented.  And more importantly, that implementation -- even in the “early hours” of the game -- is enough to make me, personally, never want to play again.

Try to follow my through-line here.  The game starts out with a solid (if a little tired) opening: you’re the only one who can close off the vortexes threatening the world.  You have your context, and before long you have your mission: build up the Inquisition, handle the demon infestation, and find out who’s responsible for this mess.  The immediate feeling that I got once the title card popped up was “Yes.  This is it.  I can do something that matters in this world.”  And then after a single mission, the game potentially -- if not effectively -- drops the plot, the context, and the stakes so that you can go do whatever

I don’t want to be that guy who just shouts “JRPGs are sooooooooooo much better!”  But even so, I can’t help but think back to Xenoblade Chronicles, a game that ALSO had a ton of sidequests.  At this stage, I think that it’s a much stronger game for plenty of reasons.  You get context for the world, with both the natures of the Bionis and Mechonis and the war between the respective humans and machines.  Shortly after, you get to know your first three characters fairly well, along with some other friends and allies.  You see tragedy that sets you in motion, and you claim a power that lets you start off on your (subverted) quest for revenge.

But more to the point, Xenoblade has much better gameplay flow.  The starting areas -- the colony, the fields and beaches around it, the bug-infested caves, and the now-infamous Gaur Plain before long -- are suitably massive, but there’s enough of an impetus to keep the player going.  That is, you CAN take time out to do sidequests, but the plot and the structure therein is always calling you back in.  There’s an omnipresent arrow telling you which direction you need to go for the next event trigger, and always tells you how many paces you are from it.  It’s a slight but important suggestion that “this is what matters”.  Because it kinda does, well before the world is at stake.  The game builds on a personal level before -- or rather, instead of diving headfirst into the standard “save the world” plot. 

On top of that, Xenoblade didn’t necessarily dump you into a giant area with dozens of little missions for you to complete.  That’s not to say that there weren’t any minor sidequests at the start (or the game at large), but that was counterbalanced by a strong push toward the next event, or the next new area.  With DA:I, I’ve spent multiple sessions across multiple days wandering through The Hinterlands, thinking to myself “What the hell am I even doing here?” or “What do I do now?”  I want to see the plot unfold, but I can’t because my gamer instincts -- and to a lesser extent, my stint as the ancient mage Blackules in Skyrim -- tell me to explore this area and go do all of the things. 

Asking for a little structure in games is neither demanding nor revolutionary.  Plenty of games have done it before -- BioWare’s Mass Effect well among them.  It had a good flow, balancing plot and sidequests while working time for something even more crucial: relationships.  It’s been a while since I played any of the games in the trilogy, but I feel like I could at least reliably count on my Shepard to go out and do a mission, then get a chance to return to the Normandy or the Citadel and chat it up with a crew mate whenever I sat down with the game.  With DA:I, I have yet to do that because if you’re doing a string of sidequests -- and you will, because they’re practically forced on you -- then you never get the downtime needed to chill with your pals.  And that would be fine if the gameplay was such that it made you not want to have downtime.  But it isn’t.

As you’d expect, the game has you fight in real time in an area alongside three of your comrades, attacking with the trigger and pressing the other buttons to use your character’s skills.  Those are the basics -- the stuff you’d see at the start of the game, and the building blocks for the higher-tier stuff you’ll be flinging around later.  The problem with DA:I is that even if I’m at the start of the game -- the part where the cool stuff is locked away for real adventurers -- you have no idea how desperate I am to get to that locked-away cool stuff. 

I’ve started three different characters now across three different classes -- first a mage, then a warrior, and finally an archer (technically rogue, but it’s a specialized branch).  I went in expecting to love playing as a mage, but was sorely disappointed; combat for them at the outset boils down to “hold down R2 to shoot magic bolts from afar, and occasionally press a face button”.  So I started over after getting caught in The Sidequest Trap and went with a warrior…and spent most of my time holding down R2 to slash enemies while occasionally pressing face buttons.  It’s the same with an archer -- hold down R2 until an enemy is dead.  Add face buttons as needed.

The combat feels like a fart in the wind.  There’s no feedback when you’re shooting an arrow or firing a magic missile, and certainly not much in the way of visual flair (despite the mage’s staff-twirling shenanigans).  I decided to stick with my archer -- the elven femme Suplex -- on the grounds that I should hang back and employ the tactics the game pushed me towards using, but I don’t see the need for that when my strategy has barely evolved from the first fight.

It’s worth noting that (on PS4) you can press the touch pad to enter Tactical Mode, where you stop the action and command party members to undertake certain actions.  It’s supposed to add a strategic element, I guess, but it seems more like an afterthought than a requirement.  Maybe if you want to micromanage every party member’s actions, then it’ll work for you.  But for me?  I’m the only one I need to pay attention to; the player character is the only one that can erase Rifts, but more importantly my Suplex can turn invisible at will -- meaning that if things don’t go my way, I can end the fight without a fight.

If anything, the Tactical Mode isn’t tactical enough.  As an archer, I was under the assumption that I was supposed to get high vantage points and snipe at enemies from afar, and I figured that the Tactical Mode could make that happen -- you know, to target distant enemies before they could even think of hitting me.  And in addition, I could position my units to make battlefield control easier; I could put my warrior on the front lines to draw attention, while my mage and another archer could hang back and help me whittle enemies to dust.  Sounds like a plan, right?  It would have been, if the Tactical Mode’s cursor could even let me reach that far. 

To be fair, I can still kind of enact my plan, but every fight ends up starting almost the exact same way: I spot an enemy first.  I start shooting.  Mage buffs.  Warrior goes in.  Enemy HP gets whittled down.  I fire the killing shot.  Other enemies try to get close to me.  I throw powder in his face and put him to sleep.  I move away.  Team works together to strip enemy of his HP.  I keep sniping at everyone.  Battle’s over.  Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Unlike a lot of other RPGs, you can’t heal yourself with magic; you’re stuck with using a limited stock of potions.  In theory, this means that you have to be mindful of your resources and do your best to minimize damage; in practice, this means that unless enemies are a much higher level than you, as long as you have enough potions you can pretty much win by way of not dying.  Worse yet, it means that you’re regularly forced to stop your adventure and go back to camp/your home base to restock on potions, making an already long trip even longer.  And it’s not as if there’s some penalty for it; all you have to do is walk up to some table and hit X to restock.  It breaks the flow of the game over its knee.

This being an MMO-style game, there’s not a dedicated guard button -- except for properly-built warriors, maybe -- meaning that if you want to avoid damage, your best bet is to stay out of attack range altogether.  But your party members aren’t so quick-witted; sure, they have moves that can help them avoid taking damage, but they’re not willing to weave through enemy attacks.  The AI doesn’t help; the default party makes half of your team fight at range, but I’ve seen both my mage and archer stand within hugging distance of demons after willingly dropping off a high vantage point.  Hell, in one instance my mage shot his bolts at a distant enemy…while a knight stood right in front of him and chopped away.

BioWare’s plan backfired.  They could have gone with a slow drip of content, letting the player slowly acclimate to the game while keeping up a strong pace and then opening up the world once they had enough established.  But the format so far hurts the game in the short-term and the long-term.  I’ve spent so much time screwing around that I feel like I have a handle on how the game is going to play out.  Will the game get better?  Probably.  But based solely on my experiences, I don’t feel like it will.  And right now I’m wondering if I only have that faith because I like Mass Effect.

I would be fine with it -- The Sidequest Trap, the combat, whatever -- if it didn’t feel so rote.  But it does.  Again, I can’t help but think back to Xenoblade, where everything was so strange and unique, and made me want to venture out.  Gaur Plain had scale, but it also had bizarre landmasses, towering creatures, and a fucking god-Gundam looming in the background.  The Hinterlands is…just a forest.  It’s got a couple of towns and a couple of towers, and a farm, and a forest; the most exciting thing I’ve seen so far is a bunch of ice from enemy mages.  Even if it looks leagues better, the starting area in this eighth-gen game barely feels like a step above the starting area in World of Warcraft…pre-expansion.

It all just feels so cold and passionless.  You’re lucky to hear any music when you’re out adventuring save for a few minutes at a time -- unless you go to certain areas where there’s generic, drum-heavy orchestral music that keeps pounding long after you’re in a tranquil area.  You’re travelling as part of a party of four, but the most you’ll hear from them are generic grunts in battle, if that.  You can’t even reliably count on them to talk while going from A to B -- and when they do, it’s (with the starting party at least) generic “I’m here because X” reasoning that barely gives insight to the characters.

And all of that is on top of the technical issues that plague the game, even after FOUR SEPARATE PATCHES.  There are all of these weird blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments where you’ll spot something that doesn’t look/act right, but those can be ignored by the stuff that shows up right in front of your face.  I’ve already run into that glitch where you can’t proceed through a conversation.  Voice clips trigger seconds after you jump. 

You may climb a ladder, but your party members will climb the air a yard to its left.  You can walk through empty areas, only to have enemies suddenly spawn feet away from you -- and in one instance, a knight materialized an inch away from my character.  I talked to a guard on duty and ended up frozen in my jump animation…and once the conversation ended, I glided across the road while wobbling in midair.

And all of THAT is on top of DA:I showing that BioWare has a long way to go towards mastering the new consoles’ technology.  The characters’ faces look good, sure, but animations are abused to hell and back in the span of a single conversation -- that is, you’ll be talking to a character, and you’ll only see them in one position with one camera angle, making the exact same motions no matter what they’re saying. 

The motions at large (when they appear) still aren’t the best around, and it’s not uncommon to see the framerate take a dip.  Even the menus are far from ideal, not only forcing you to micromanage everyone and everything, but do so with some clunky systems.  Even some of the skills and their descriptions are off; one default fire spell boils down to “set an enemy on fire and make them scream in agony”, while the other says, in slightly different words, “set an enemy on fire and make them scream in agony”.

I don’t get it, guys.  I just don’t.

I’ll be honest here.  I know I’ve got high standards, and I can raise complaints over the tiniest things.  I took heat on Reddit for complaining about Watch Dogs, to the point where someone called me an “overly sanctimonious asshole”.  I know that there are counterarguments to pretty much everything I said here, up to and including the big one: “If you don’t like doing sidequests, don’t do them.”  That’s a valid complaint.  It’s entirely possible that this whole time, I’ve been playing the game wrong.

But here’s my question: if I really have been playing the game wrong, then why would BioWare make playing the way I have an option -- the first and most obvious option -- in the first place?  And more importantly, why do I have to feel like I’m playing the game wrong when all I’ve done for hours is play the game?

Based on this post, you’d think that I have every right to give up on DA:I.  And…yeah, I kinda do.  I’ve considered giving up.  But I want to see the actual story.  I want to make Suplex into the best archer I can.  I want to see the actual inquisitions of the Inquisition.  I want to believe that the next patch will fix everything.  I want to go on a big whompin’ adventure.  I want to say “This is the game that justifies next-gen consoles.”  I want to like this game.

But if I can’t?  Well, it sucks, but I guess that’s fine.  There’s other stuff I could play, after all.


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