If it was any other game, I would have given up. But I have faith in BioWare. EA, not so much, but the fact that DA:I has even a tangential relationship to the Mass Effect games -- i.e. it may not have the same team, but it comes from the same figurative country -- means that I can’t write it off just because of seven or eight bad experiences. I won’t.
So I went back in. And sure enough, The Sidequest Trap tried to ensnare me yet again; how a set of sandy canyons manages to pack in more random NPCs needing a gofer is beyond me. And contextually, they’re not on stable ground; imagine if you were there with the intent of scouting the area and ousting the demons, only to have someone try and strong-arm you into finding their ring. I may be playing as the more-or-less savior of the world, but I’m not a miracle worker. Also, I don’t care. And when a game -- no matter the genre, but especially for something like DA:I -- makes you stop caring about the world, it’s a surefire sign that something has gone wrong.
But as it turns out, I did find something to care about. That same something has gotten me thinking about more than just DA:I; it’s made me wonder if too many games in general are on the wrong track.
Like I said last time, in order to earn the right to continue through the story (and do other missions via the War Table), you have to earn Power from sidequests. So circumstantially, playing the way I did -- building a surplus of Power so the player can proceed uninterrupted -- is possible, but not recommended based on my time with it. Weirdly, even if it’s possible to have a continuous stream of sidequests going, thus far the game’s actual plot has a stop-and-go quality to it. You go to a place, maybe talk to some people, or fight off some baddies, and then it’s over.
Well, that’s a reductive way of putting it -- it’s about the quality and content of those missions, and to be fair there is something to them -- but there have been a few instances where I found myself asking, “Wait, that’s it?” My expectation was that (even if I’m at the start of the game), I’d be put into some weighty episodes -- chapters with a definitive start, middle and end. I’ll admit that I don’t exactly expect a drag-out fight toward a boss in every instance, but so far it just feels like I’ve traveled the land for conversations I’m practically sleeping through.
And I know, it’s early in the game, so I shouldn’t expect every scene or every event to go from zero to sixty in seconds flat. But even then, I’m struggling to keep “it’s only the start of the game” as the primary excuse. The game’s opening -- from the sight of your avatar wandering a green wasteland to the official formation of a world-saving Inquisition -- is solid enough to make me want to keep venturing out. I went in expecting to get more of that.
Sure, I probably will at some point, but the “story” stuff so far has felt so insubstantial. Have I made a difference? Have I done any good? Because the most I’ve done so far is find out that everyone who belongs to a named group is arguing and doesn’t want to work together. And in the interim -- before and after -- the game is still bombarding me with sidequests. A conversation with a damn religious leader fed into her roping me into a fetch quest.
But you know what? I get it. I figured out why I have problems with this game, and what it can do to fix them -- if it hasn’t already. It’s very simple, really.
It all starts with the characters.
I barely even finished a conversation with Sera before I internally screamed “Get in my party right now.” Is she the best character ever? No. But her presence at that point was extremely welcome. Her general glee and Deadpool-style rambling set her apart from pretty much everyone I met prior to that point. It wasn’t necessarily about her injecting some levity into the game (though that helped), but because if nothing else, she was different. As a character, and no matter her…well, character, she added something new and appreciable to the proceedings.
That’s more than I can say about the starting party. Chalk this up to me not having the downtime to have conversations with my party members (on this, my third file; I did talk to them on previous files, and wasn’t exactly endeared by anyone), but so far they’ve all been uniformly boring. I don’t feel the impetus to go back to the base and talk with Cassandra, or Solus, or Varric, because I feel like I’ve gotten enough of them just by having their non-presences in the party. Cassandra is tough and serious. Solus is calm and rational. Varric handles the snark. A part of me wants to keep playing the game just to get these people out of my sight. And this is coming from someone who gleefully did all of the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2. Zaeed wasn’t my favorite character, but I leapt at the chance to run through his little arc. As soon as I got Sera, I dumped Varric. I haven’t looked back yet.
I said last time that DA:I felt cold and passionless. I stand by that -- but I don’t feel like I went into detail as to why I felt the way I did. (Probably because that would’ve tacked on another 2000 words.) So once again, I have to assert that Xenoblade did it better. Gameplay and story alike came together in battles; when Shulk and Reyn fought together, they would talk to each other -- giving each other boosts in confidence and congratulating one another when they landed critical hits. Shulk set up enemies for a fall, and Reyn knocked them over so they could go to town. They worked together via chain attacks -- once they had a third party member -- and by the player’s hand they could resurrect one another, pick them up after a nasty fall, or just cheer them up if their performance in battle suffered. THAT’S TEAM SYNERGY, AND IT’S AWESOME.
In DA:I? Even with that borderline-useless Tactical Mode, it feels like my party of four is closed up in different rooms -- on different floors of a skyscraper. Oh, sure, they’ll chime in and say “Cassandra’s in trouble!” or “Solus is hurt!” when the time comes, but we’re effectively fighting in silence. I don’t know what my guys are doing when a fight starts, and I can’t bring myself to care as long as they’re doing their class-specific roles and not dying. I can’t perceive the importance of my party not just because they feel so far away from me; it’s because it doesn’t feel like we’re struggling together, be it with the story or in battle.
Though on that note, I have to ask: why is it that I’m doing an early-game quest at Level 4 and run into demons for that quest that are Level 8? And when I’m doing an unrelated quest at level 6 -- a quest that splintered off from the one at the top of my journal, and presumably one of the easiest -- I run into spawning demons that are Level 12? Why would the game even allow me to go to a canyon area that spawns Level 12 demons regularly when I’m Level 6 and haven’t even accomplished anything in the story? Why would the game spawn a dragon that one-shots you and almost your entire party when you’re just trying to go off on your way? Why does it feel like I’m punished for playing the game when all I want to do is play the game?
…I feel like I’m going off-topic here. And I know I am, but CHRIST. I wouldn’t have to go off-topic if there was something to keep me pacified -- if the game would give me the illusion of camaraderie, or adventure, or even progress in the hours I’ve spent with it. Is it so wrong of me to ask for cohesion and merit? Is it really? Can I not have one eighth-gen game that doesn’t piss me the hell off? Can I seriously not?
…Now I’m definitely going off-topic.
You know, I can’t help but think of the Tales games -- specifically, Xillia 2. I was probably nicer to it than I should have been, given that it’s ALSO a game that hides the main story behind sidequest-bred paywalls. To its credit, its gameplay is significantly more fun, but in the interim there’s more stuff for a player to sink his or her teeth into. A huge part of its battle system banks on linking with party members for both passive bonuses and unique combo attacks; even if it didn’t, the team of four still talks to each other on a regular basis mid-fight, maybe more so than any Tales game before it.
But even out of battle, there’s so much more to help build bonds between characters. In typical Tales fashion, there are optional skits that have the party members chat it up. Even if you ignore those, they’ll still speak while you’re out in the field. And in Xillia 2, their personal sidequests are so pronounced that they have icons signaling them in towns -- not to mention that said sidequests have multiple stages, with cutscenes (in-engine), that offer insights into who they are, and tack on bonus scenes to the main story once you reach the designated point. All of that helps to establish that the party isn’t just a bunch of jagoffs fighting demons and bandits; they’re a team. A family.
I’m not just bringing up Xenoblade and Tales so I can go “herp derp, JRPGS are better!” I’m trying to do a compare-and-contrast. You can probably guess which approach I prefer, regardless of a game’s area of origin, but I can still accept the styles of others. Again, I like how Mass Effect handled things. It had a major, overarching plot -- and while it didn’t necessarily go to as great lengths as the average Tales game to establish the whole “we’re a family angle” (not saying that it didn’t, of course), it did strive to have the player form a close personal bond with bunches of walking, talking pixels. And it succeeded.
It had that “save the universe” plot. It had sidequests. But its characters had enough charm and charisma to make you want to take time out to talk to them -- figure out what they were all about. I wanted to learn more about Miranda besides the amount of stress she puts on the backside of her pants. I wanted to hang out with Jacob and do cool black guy stuff. Hell, I’m still reeling from the death of Kaidan, and he’s gotta be the most boring of the bunch. The combat in those games was good enough (invisible sniping and freezing rounds, yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaah), but the characters? That’s what’ll bring me back for Mass Effect 4.
With DA:I, it feels like -- even at this early stage -- I’ve jumped right over some of the rungs on the ladder, and I’m dropping back to the ground because of it. I don’t feel like I’m anchored in the world; sure, I’m trying to protect it, but I don’t have a firm grasp of what it is. Chalk that up to me not spending a lot of time with the earlier DA games, but even if most of the bond was established back then, I should still be able to feel something for this brave new world. I should care about the struggle between the mages, the Templars, the Chantry, and the rebels. But I don’t. Not yet -- and I’m worried that it won’t happen at all.
It seems like the game is aiming for concepts and conditions, but those are the higher-level elements. Those are what you go for after you lay down the ground floor -- and there’s no element more basic and more vital than the characters. Sera is the only character introduced so far (and even then, I would have missed the chance to recruit her if I didn’t wander around some city) who isn’t just a mouthpiece for grim determination, exposition, snark, cross-organizational disputes, or just details about missions. She actually tries to be a fun character, and as such ends up being more of a character than everyone else. As soon as I met her, I thought to myself, “Hey, things are finally looking up.”
So I guess the question I have to ask is this: can you care about anything before you care about something first?
That sounds like a weird question, I know. But let me put it this way: it’s been nearly a year since Infamous: Second Son came out, and at this stage I’m inclined to think that I was too hard on it. It’s still flawed as all get out, of course; I’m not backing down on that. But the personal stakes and bonds that main character Delsin Rowe has -- and more importantly, establishes at the outset -- go a long way towards giving the motivation to start caring about everything else that happens. Whether it’s his brother Reggie or his ailing tribe, there’s someone out there that matters to him, and helps sway his actions. In a lot of ways, the player feels the same way.
I’ll admit that I would have defaulted to the Good Karma path no matter what, but Reggie’s presence -- a big brother and man of the law who’d want to do the right thing even without his badge -- made the choice a lot easier. Even so, I wanted to bond with him, and I felt the world a little bit more because I had a guy like him alongside me. So on a personal level, I enjoyed SS; what I DIDN’T enjoy was how it almost immediately fell apart in terms of its poorly-explored themes of personal freedom vs. security. Yo, Sucker Punch? Maybe a superhero game isn’t the best place to try and make a political statement, especially when your game features destruction porn that proves the mean ol’ government right.
As you can guess, the problem I have with DA:I isn’t unique to DA:I. It’s just baffling that games keep trying to aim for these high-minded concepts, but don’t have the execution needed to do anything more than say “this is a thing that exists” or “look at how deep and meaningful this game is”. It’s the perennial case of trying to run before they can crawl; Watch Dogs tried to be “about something”, but couldn’t even give us one decent character. DmC tried to be the next stage of video game narratives, but had a plot that could’ve been out-written by an office chair. Year after year, Call of Duty fails on every front, as if its developers refuse to learn from past mistakes. And how many games trying to be “epic” haven’t been able to deliver? How many of them will continue to be unable to deliver?
What I’ve said here isn’t some revelation. It’s common sense. People get attached to characters, first and foremost. The setting plays into preferences, too, and a strong plot can only be beneficial. Characters create opportunities on a small scale and a large one; putting a hero or heroine through their paces and having them interact with other elements -- other characters, story-specific conflicts, whatever -- is what allows for interesting stuff to happen. I’m not saying that I need every character to be a laugh riot, or for every game to take time out for friendship, romance, or good cheer. All I ask is this: whatever a game decides to do, it has to do it well.
And I’m inclined to say that DA:I doesn’t.
Once more, is it fair to judge the whole game based on a tiny snippet? No, and I’m ready to be proven wrong -- if not expecting it. But here’s the thing: regardless of the medium, everything needs a hook. DA:I’s gameplay isn’t enough to provide that hook at its outset, which isn’t as unreasonable a demand as you’d expect. Fortunately, as an RPG it can offer up that hook via its story; unfortunately, that doesn’t really come through. Not entirely. The beginning is solid, but it’s still just that -- a beginning. The sheer steepness of the drop-off from that beginning damn near negates everything that came before it.
The thing about DA:I is that it’s built to make the player selfish. It starts with you being labeled as the chosen one, but it doesn’t stop there. Everything that happens is more or less in relation to you, and how it affects you. I can’t imagine Varric and Solus having a conversation with each other, which throws out a bunch of good opportunities; instead, they can only develop if you’re around, as if they suddenly take the stage.
You’re pretty much the only one that can solve the world’s problems (as its gofer), but you’re essentially its last sane man/woman who has to tend to the squabbles of enemy factions -- whose conflict, unless you’re entrenched in the lore, doesn’t affect you in the slightest. Why should you care about the mages or the templars when you’re just some doof that A) is technically a blank slate, B) was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and C) can only have a history with those factions if you choose it via your backstory -- which you can’t really choose in the first place?
The implication is that the world is under fire, and you and your organization are going to keep the peace -- but that’s in contradiction to what you see around you. The tutorial area’s got some dead bodies, but once you clear that, it’s off to a place called Haven -- and true to its namesake, it’s pretty peaceful. As is the area around it. Same goes for The Hinterlands; it’s a forest with outlaws roaming around and pockets of enemies, but huge swaths of it have nothing going on. You visit a town where you might hear people talking about the “troubled times”, but there’s no visual evidence of it besides arguments between two factions firing jibba-jabba at one another. And then you can go to the canyons and find -- beyond the very occasional demon-spewing rift -- even more nothing.
What you’re told doesn’t really match what you see. If there is a threat, it could simply be a thousand years away -- meaning that you’re invited to stroll at your leisure, doing whatever you want, with barely even the concept of immediacy. You’re free to do what you want -- and by default, what do you want in an RPG? To get stronger, and learn new skills, and get cool stuff (i.e. loot). That’s it. And sure, the prospect of a new level is thrilling -- my brother used to look to me to grind through RPGs on his behalf -- but it’s shallow. It can’t compare to the prospects of bold new worlds and lovable new characters. Because it can’t compare, the thrills are short-lived; it isn’t long before even the thrilling becomes the routine. If that. When you don’t have that anchor, you just end up floating adrift -- lost in a sea of cold, passionless, non-demanding misadventures.
Now, I’ll be fair. I feel silly for even thinking it, but just to be safe I’ll go ahead and say it: what I’ve said here is pretty much my opinion, albeit one I’ve tried to back up with reason. So I can’t say that (right now) I like DA:I, but that doesn’t mean it’s objectively awful. It just doesn’t line up with my tastes. Granted, that’s a strange thing to say, because Mass Effect is arguably JUST as selfish (maybe more), but one franchise did it better, and that’s the one I’m putting my faith in. As for the other? As for this game?
…Yeah, I might play it some more.
Or I might not. I want to give it the chance and the time it deserves, but I don’t want to play apologist and keep at it just so I can delude myself into liking it. Besides, what I’ve said here can’t be easily taken back, even if I put thirty hours into the game. Much as I hate to admit it, my instincts (or opinions, rather) make me think that DA:I is a flawed game by design. It tries to be big, but can’t support its own weight. It tries to be meaningful, but doesn’t have the patience to hold back its biggest and most unwieldy tools. And as it stands, I don’t care if Morrigan is in the game. I need a strong cast of characters, not just one person I remember from an earlier game.
Besides, there’s only one Morrigan that really matters -- but you didn’t hear that from me.
So. I guess the quest for the game that justifies the PS4 continues. This would normally be the part where I segue into the next game I’ll look at next, but…well, I think I’ll hold off for now. Unless it’s on the Wii U, I have my doubts that there’s anything out now or later that could possibly --
YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHnow DA:I’s gonna feel even more boring…