Okay, so I’ve been replaying Dragon Age 2, and I’ve played Inquisition through a couple of times, and I need to get something off my chest: Dragon Age 2 was more fun than Inquisition.
By most gaming standards, Inquisition is a better game. Its fights are more strategically interesting and its battle system is at least original by Western RPG standards, its world is huge and ambitious, and its characters are quite pretty. Your Keep, Skyhold, is marginally customizable, huge, and changes over time in a way that reflects the story’s progress. Etc, etc– there’s been enormous amounts of e-ink spilled on Inquisition already, and I don’t think I need to beat that dead horse.
Dragon Age 2, on the other hand, repeatedly uses the same dungeon layouts. The manor layouts are so repetitive that one assumes the Dwarven Merchant’s Guild must own Kirkwall’s equivalent of KB Homes. The whole game rarely leaves Kirkwall and the Greater Kirkwall Metropolitan Area, and you could probably fit all of its settings within any of Inquisition’s 10 or so explorable areas 4 or 5 times over.
Dragon Age 2, though, for all of its flaws, told a story that dealt with topics I’m deeply interested in and did it well. Everyone in DA2 had an established relationship with everyone else, and that story was told through cutscenes and banter both. It was likely that a visit to Isabella would show her talking with another party member; they all seemed to drop in on each other fairly regularly. More than that, they all seemed to hang around Hawke for little reason other than friendship after the first act, and because of the 3-year gaps between Acts 1 and 2 and again between 2 and 3, they all have between 6 and 7 years to get to know each other.
In Inquisition, though, most of the conversations between party members seems to just be them feeling each other out, figuring out how to get to know each other. Part of this is because the banter system isn’t very good and doesn’t fire often enough, so players don’t always get all the banter that the game actually provides. But the cutscene part that you get in Dragon Age 2 just isn’t there. Sure, there are a few times where you walk in and the advisers are talking to each other, and there’s that time Dorian plays chess with Cullen, but it’s clear that their relationship is mostly one of coworkers.
I think the most telling place where the differences between the characterization, storytelling and interpersonal relationships in DA2 and Inquisition is shown is with Varric. In DA2, we have Varric as the somewhat unreliable narrator of the whole game, and no matter who you romance, his relationship with the protagonist, Hawke, is the beating heart of the narrative. Varric’s exaggerations, his jokes, and his affection and love for Hawke shows through every time the game breaks away from the main narrative to show him telling the story.
His relationship to the Inquisitor is never really that well-defined, nor is his relationship to the rest of the Inquisition. The main person we see him interacting much with is Cassandra, and generally they just fight; the only relationship that his personality really shows through in is with the human-formed spirit Cole, who he sort of adopts.
The moments we get to see in Inquisition are spaced far apart, because the game is paced so slowly compared to Dragon Age 2, and though many of them are fun, they don’t have the richness that the interpersonal relationships in the previous two games had.
It almost seems like the scope of Inquisition means that there’s less room in it for what really made the Dragon Age series feel, well, like a Bioware game. Maybe there is as much of the interpersonal writing in it as there is in other games, but if there is, it’s stretched thin. A lot of the game content is in the kind of boring sidequests that I expect more of an Elder Scrolls game, and while some of those have the kind of interesting worldbuilding reveals that nerds like me adore, few of them were all that interesting ways to get to know the NPCs better. Even many of the quests done for the party members and advisers were just fetch quests.
I think one of the major problems with Inquisition is that it’s trying to be too many things at once. It adds in a totally new fighting system, horseback riding (and a full mount system that includes a few dozen different critters you can ride), the entire War Table mechanic, the entire system for customizing the base, and a really ambitious set of places to explore. It really feels like it’s trying to be a regular RPG that gets sold to people who like to play regular RPGs and not just the kind of weird character-loving romance-drooling-over fan-nerds who are so into the first two games, and I think maybe they’re trying so hard to figure out how to do all of this new stuff that they’re letting themselves slide on what makes their games so much fun.
Every time I step back into Kirkwall and am greeted by Varric’s sarcasm, Merrill’s wide-eyed amazement and Isabella fighting with Aveline I remember why I love these games: they’re stories about a bunch of dorks who love each other and sometimes help fight evil or whatever. In the end, I’ll take that over customizable castles and dracolisk mounts any day.