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Review: Spectacular ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’ Burns Bright

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Screenshot from Dragon Age: Inquisition

The most useful item I used while playing Dragon Age: Inquisition?

A bottle of eyedrops.

I probably should have used a few bottles, actually, because I don’t think I blinked more than a handful of times during the dozens of hours I spent saving the land of Thedas from demonic hordes in the latest role-playing masterpiece from genre kingpin Bioware. Marrying the best bits from the first two Dragon Age games, it’s a must-have for gamers with plenty of time on their hands.

It’s a daunting proposition for those new to the franchise, though. Inquisition is the third Dragon Age game, and while Bioware wisely tossed together a handy website that lets you quickly whip through the biggest decision points in the first two games to set up a “World State” for the new one, you’re probably best off playing through at least one prior Dragon Age before diving in.

It’s not required, however, as Inquisition features a standalone story and casts you in the role of a brand-new character. You’re the Herald of Andraste, the unlikely survivor of a calamitous explosion that tore a hole in the sky and killed off a collection of world leaders. That hole was just one of many, and through these breaches pours a steady stream of toothy unpleasantness. So off you go, gallivanting across the land as a member of the fact-finding, world-saving Inquisition in an effort to heal old wounds, unite warring factions, plug up the sky holes, and find out who — or what — is behind the apocalyptic mess.

Screenshot from Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s classic Dungeons and Dragons-esque stuff, letting players build a dwarf, elf, human, or bull-like Qunari hero using a shockingly powerful character creator. But where plenty of fantasy games let you cast spells and swing swords, Dragon Age: Inquisition lets you do these things on a scale not seen since the incredible The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

It’s not an open world, however; each of the game’s many explorable regions is zoned off from the rest, though they’re all expansive and filled with enough sidequests, lore, and random encounters to easily blow up a few weekends. The frustrating linearity of Dragon Age II’s smallish areas have been ditched in favor of big, unique playgrounds in which to roam freely. The developers even saw fit to add a jump button, encouraging you to leap off a ledge and scour the wilderness for goodies. It’s a bit too clean compared to the glorious messiness of Skyrim, but it’s easily the best world-building we’ve seen yet in Dragon Age.

You’ll spend the bulk of your time in the trenches, running missions, working through conversation trees, wooing possible mates, and fighting, fighting, fighting. The combat blends the fussy, pause-the-action strategy of the first game with the button-mashy action of the sequel, and it hums along nicely. Swapping between your four active party members (pulled from a much larger stable) is quick and easy, though most of the time you can just focus on your character and let the A.I. handle your companions.

While you don’t need to micromanage this stuff, you certainly can (and likely will). I torched hours tweaking the gear, abilities, and even artificial intelligence of my party. Learning the ins and outs of each mage, warrior, and rogue is super helpful when you get into the bigger, nastier fights. That dragon isn’t going to just let you whack it on the foot for an hour, you know.

There’s plenty to manage in Dragon Age: Inquisition. A war table lets you marshal spies, diplomats, and armies around Thedas to gather resources and open up new areas to explore. As the Inquisition’s influence spreads, you’ll gain permanent boosts and new dialogue options. Every ounce of energy you put into this game gives you something in return, and while it’s a little intimidating at first, soon enough you’ll find yourself joyfully flopping around in its myriad game systems like a kid in a ball pit.

Veering off the main story is so easy, in fact, that it speaks to Bioware’s trouble keeping the plot focused and sharp. While the game’s huge cast of characters shines, Thedas’ complicated sociopolitical landscape occasionally drags the narrative into the weeds. Some of the game’s brightest moments — and most essential missions — lie off the beaten path.

Screenshot from Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition’s sheer size also proves problematic, though I experienced relatively few glitches playing the Xbox One version of the game (PS4 players have reportedly had a rougher go). An interface stallout here or there required me to backtrack to an earlier save. The old “Save early, save often” refrain definitely applies here.

While it occasionally hiccups, Dragon Age: Inquisition is, at times, flat-out gorgeous. The creature design is terrific, recalling enemies from past games but dialing up the look and feel. The first time you encounter a dragon — in this case, a big, irritated one flying around, coughing up fireballs — you’ll marvel at its fluid movements and intimidating presence. Then you’ll die, because it’s a dragon, and you’re probably not ready for that yet.

You’re also probably not ready to dive into the game’s multiplayer. Separated entirely from the solo campaign, it’s a story-free cooperative dungeon-crawling sort of affair in which you kill enemies and gain loot and gold. It’s not bad, but it’s not enticing either. It’s a wisp of weird icing on a 15-layer cake.

Besides, you’ve got a land to save, a rogue to flirt with, a hole to fix, and a dragon to slay. Big, meaty, and unequivocally fun, Dragon Age: Inquisition improves upon the first two games in just about every way. Grab some Visine and give it a stab.

4.5 stars

What’s hot: Big and pretty; great combat; deep customization; epic scope handled well

What’s not: Main story occasionally drags; smattering of bugs; extraneous multiplayer

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