Yeah, I know. It’s last year’s game. The raves, the kudos, they fell on the 2014 side of the calendar. But Dragon Age: Inquisition is big enough to sprawl across more than a single year. Just this October, Bioware released the Game of the Year Edition, with all the downloadable content of the previous twelve months included alongside the original award-winning game. If you’re an RPG fan, or you know somebody who puts on the elf-ears before they sit down to play, this is a huge classic title well worth the time. More than the dungeons and yes, of course, the dragons, Dragon Age: Inquisition is about relationships. Friends, lovers and allies, the game’s at its best when you’re playing these roles. Funny how that works, with surprising charm and depth.
The third instalment in Bioware’s classic RPG series, Dragon Age: Inquisition picks up shortly after the events of Dragon Age II. A war between mages and religious templars has broken out. An attempt to reach a truce at the Chantry village of Haven is shattered by the appearance of a malevolent green rift in the sky. The Chantry’s leader, the Divine Justinia, is swallowed by the rift and only you emerge, your desperate attempt to rescue her cut-off in a devastating explosion. Mistrusted by her allies, you must first win them over, no easy task considering the glowing mark that’s embedded on your hand. The mark pulses and resonates with the baleful shimmering rifts overhead, and it soon becomes clear that you can channel its energy to close them. Sealing the rift is your first step on the path to becoming the leader of the Inquisition, an offshoot of disenfranchised Chantry leaders desperate to overcome the paralysis of civil war and restore order. Your fighting companions are also the leaders of the Inquisition, and its a big part of what makes Dragon Age: Inquisition so uniquely compelling.
All the usual RPG trappings are in place, wondrous vistas from storm beaten coastal areas to creepy undead marshes to parched dust-blown deserts and forbidding mountain heights. The sense of place is seamless and convincing, the sparse charm of hamlets giving way to the bustling façades of genteel capital citizenry. Throw in the clank and plonk of deep dwarven ruins and the dripping dread of dank caverns and yep you’ve covered pretty much all the worn pages in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The usual questing for this and rescuing so-and-so and recovering that artefact makes up a big chunk of the gameplay, but it’s all expertly realized and wonderfully acted. Yes there’s a big bad who ties it all together, a hideous being named Coripheus with some vague plan to become a god, and not one of those nice considerate gods that people are never talking about. The narrative of the main quest is a bit shaky on the details, but somehow it doesn’t matter. Like I said, the real show’s with the companions.
As you work your way through the countless quests and missions, you get to know your pool of party members pretty well. Dragon Age uses the same branching dialog wheel to direct conversations that the Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic games do, lending an interesting element of variation and control to nearly every interaction. Plodding through every dialogue option can get tedious, but there’s more than enough meat to sink your teeth into. The people themselves make it fascinating. Cassandra is the most loyal of the Inquisition’s Chantry warriors, Leliana its spymaster and keeper of secrets, while the former templar Cullen acts as general to the soldiers. The noble Josephine is your liaison with the court of Orlais and many other kingdoms, while the roguish dwarf Varric regales you with tales as the bolts fly from his trusted crossbow Bianca. Cole is a spirit that wants to atone for the harm he’s done in the past, Blackwall is a Grey Warden soldier, a sort of demon fighter, with his own set of skeletons haunting him still. There’s the elves, Solas, a mage enamoured with the mysteries of the spirit-dwelling Fade, and Sera, a punk rebel archer tweaking the nose of nobility through her mysterious network of ruffians Red Jenny. Dorian the foppish mage from the far-flung empire of Tevinter is contrasted with Vivienne, the haughty enchanter of the Orlesian royal court. And there’s the mighty Qunari Iron Bull, an impressive horned warrior who lives to fight. All these characters become your companions, and there’s great joy in getting to know them. Even picking a four-person-party each time you go exploring becomes an exercise in interpersonal discovery, as each individual brings out unique banter depending on who they’re teamed with. As the plot evolves characters’ actions have a genuine effect on how they behave toward one another. When Varric the dwarven author discovers the reserved Cassandra is a fan of his steamy romance novels, his teasing is merciless. The joy that Iron Bull feels should you kill a dragon in his company is palpable, and going drinking with his band of mercenaries is a quirky pub night you won’t soon forget.
The other element that helps define Dragon Age: Inquisition is its scale, especially through the use of the war table. The war table is a special room where you meet with your top advisors, Josephine, Leliana and Cullen. You can assign them and their factions various missions which will be undertaken with a specific timeframe. Send scouts to rescue lost soldiers in the marshes, or negotiate with the ornery family houses of Orlais. Each advisor will offer a different solution for a given problem, with its own time requirements. Each successfully completed mission grows the power and influence of the Inquisition, opening up perks for the player as you go. It’s a great way of expanding your influence beyond the dungeon-exploring party level; you get the real sense of commanding an army and the different levers of state while you still get to dirty your hands adventuring in the world.
Speaking of getting your hands dirty, if you want to be more than friends Dragon Age: Inquisition goes further than the usual RPG courtship, and I’m not talking about some softcore sex romp à la The Witcher either. One of the amazing things about the universe on display in Dragon Age is its blasé take on sexual orientation. You can do just about anyone you want, whatever your own character’s gender or race might be. I played through as the Qunari warrior Kaaras, opting to pursue a high maintenance romance with the warrior Cassandra. She wanted to be plied with roses and poems, and I had to wander the countryside finding these things before we hit it off. There was a wonderful interlude leading up to that involving getting a copy of the latest romance story from Varric the dwarf. The mix of thrill and embarrassment on her face when I presented her with the gift was astonishingly genuine. For a second I was like, I totally get this virtual chick. But you’re not stuck with such a classical romance. If I’d wanted to, many other options were open to me, from the commanding hauteur of the mage Vivienne to the chiselled good looks and rakish charm of Dorian. I could date a dwarven scout or the strung-out lapsed templar Cullen. Not bad for a dude with giant horns sprouting out of his head. (FYI, I only tried one relationship, but what was on view was pretty tame, a short PG love-making scene and mostly conversation. Bioware’s gone to the Game of Thrones school of boobs and butts, with decidedly less on view. Several of the combos offer funny vignettes, and not every character swings all ways, so you have to experiment to see who might choo-choo-choose you.) Many NPC characters have same-sex relationships, and in Iron Bull’s mercenary crew there’s a woman passing as a man, relishing the fight as the equal of her comrades. There’s even a coming out story of sorts, if you pursue the right story tree as the game unfolds. It’s hardly revelatory stuff, but it’s refreshing to have it all out there in the game so nonchalantly, especially in a post gamer-gate world. Who you like and want to spend time with is your business. Dragon Age‘s relationship stories are charming windows on the many places a heart can call home.
Spoilery, but to give you the flavour of coupledom in the game, here’s the gay romance option with Iron Bull. It’s pretty hilarious, a bit racy, but not especially NSFW:
Dragon Age: Inquisiton: Game of the Year Edition includes the original game, which is easily one hundred or more hours of play, plus three big DLC installments: The Jaws of Hakkon, Descent and Trespasser. The Jaws of Hakkon adds a new coastal area with warring tribes, Descent adds a mess of dark dwarven dungeons to explore called the Deep Roads and Trespasser delves into the next messy steps for the Inquisition after the end of the original main storyline. There’s also a pile of store and item expansions included, to add even more depth to an already huge game. It’s available for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC. Whether you’re a Mr. or Ms. Santa, shopping for an elf or maybe that picky Mr. Claus, there’s a hell of a lot of game here. Dragon Age: Inquisition is one RPG where there’s plenty of fantasy, but the roles play just a bit more like life.