Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Literal Necropost (With Thanks to Dorian)

Hardly a fitting revival after two years of slacking, but I thought I'd throw my December Facebook micro-review of Dragon Age: Inquisition up here while getting to work on new content and fixing the comment system.

The Good:
  • Epic scope and tone; draws you into its world in a way that DA:O tried and failed to do, and DA:2 only accomplished on a small scale. BioWare’s finally made something unique and exciting out of this series, which no longer feels like a wannabe-Lord of the Rings vehicle or ersatz Song of Ice and Fire. Thedas has become a rich, developed world just bursting with personality and lore.
  • Excellent writing and sharp dialogue with the strongest BioWare characters this side of Mass Effect.
  • Stellar voice acting, including from the player character. Much stronger than Shepard and much less frustrating than Hawke, with a huge range of dialogue options that actually let you shape your Inquisitor’s personality and tone.
  • Solid combat, something in between DA:2’s and Baldur’s Gate. Battles never quite match the visceral, tactile feel of something like Monster Hunter - a fact of which I was unfortunately reminded every time I fought a dragon - but they’re far more engaging than DA:O’s left-click-and-yawn affair, and way less frustrating than DA:2’s thanks to (mostly) having removed that stupid enemy reinforcement mechanic.
  • Gorgeous environments that make you wish they weren’t littered with exclamation marks, endless enemies, and lootable distractions.
  • The music. Holy cow, the music. Scenes that were already moving or inspiring thanks to the writing were elevated to crazy heights by the score. There’s one scene in particular at the turning point of the narrative which gives words to the title theme - already one of the most memorable since Halo - and it’s just haunting in effect.
  • Blows up the maddening RPG cliche of boring opening sequences waiting for the story to start with a literally explosive prologue that hurls you into the action within seconds of character creation and keeps the adrenaline rushing for hours before it runs out of steam.

The Bad:
  • In keeping with the Dragon Age trend, the villain is utterly forgettable, and not at all credible as an antagonist. He's barely present for a good 95% of the game, and whenever he does show up the Inquisition kicks his ass so thoroughly that it’s impossible to take him seriously as a threat.
  • Despite the popularity of the distinct KOTOR and Mass Effect approaches to RPGs, BioWare seems to think what we’ve *really* wanted from them all along was a single-player World of Warcraft. While the scope of the game is its greatest strength, it’s also its greatest weakness. The Thedas that seems so huge and inviting at first quickly reveals itself to be a junkyard of meaningless fetchquests and faceless, throwaway NPCs. Even if you just want to ignore the seas of punctuation marks floating above people’s heads and all the “gather me fifteen mushrooms” or “kill ye forty-five hamsters" nonsense, you’re forced to plow through hours of these distractions if you want to advance in the main quest, thanks to the finite “Power” system required to move the plot along.
  • For that matter, even the primary and companion quests lack the creativity or thoughtfulness of pretty much any other title in BioWare’s library. Instead of facing trial for mass extinction of a species to save a planet, bargaining with a Desire Demon for a boy’s life and soul, or mastering the politics of a Sith enclave, you can pretty much always expect to be running from Point A to Point B to kill Target C. No real intrigue. No serious moral quandaries. No complex relationships to balance. Not even so much as a thoughtful puzzle unless you count one token Zelda ripoff in one of the final dungeons.
  • Other than the distinct (gorgeous) aesthetics and somewhat varied enemy skins, every place you go is exactly the same. Same mindless fetchquests, same whining faceless NPCs who expect the savior of the world to fill their grocery lists, same demons emerging from the same rifts to be defeated in exactly the same way for the six hundredth time. And occasionally there are dragons, who despite palette swaps are also exactly the same.
  • The plot never goes anywhere. It explodes into action with a phenomenal prologue sequence that makes up most of the first ten hours, then slowly peters into nothingness as it runs through the same basic set of motions over and over and over again until it finally just ends with a whimper.

The Ugly:
  • The game is an early beta-level mess that probably needed at least six more months of development.
  • Graphically, it’s a nightmare, at least on the Xbox 360. What looks gorgeous in stills just looks ridiculous in motion, with textures popping in and out and characters clipping through their own faces throughout every conversation. Entire landscapes disappear at random, your Inquisitor’s face morphs into a complete stranger’s at random intervals, and there’s not a single custcene that doesn’t break down into a 12-frames-per-second epileptic puppet show.
  • Bugs abound. The worst are game breaking; the number of times I had to force-restart the 360 to fix stuck dialogue or menu-created crashes numbered in the dozens. But even the glitches that didn’t fully freeze the system resulted in me reloading at regular intervals to get rid of some crazy problem or another.
  • Dragon Age Keep is broken. Despite spending a good hour inputting my choices from the previous games and assuring me that they had imported to DA:I after jumping through dozens of hoops, I realized about 15 hours into the game that my Keep file had either been corrupted or just never imported at all. By that point I wasn’t going to restart, but it was pretty frustrating to have had all my choices from DA:O and DA:2 thrown out the window to BioWare’s incompetence.

The Beautiful
  • Despite its colossal flaws, DA:I is the strongest entry in its series by far and my favorite RPG since Mass Effect 3. It’s got scale and ambition that I imagine BioWare will only continue to perfect in coming DLC and expansions, and I can easily see it becoming the flagship franchise of the new console gen in the same way Mass Effect was for the last.
  • Sera. Iron Bull. Varric. Dorian. These are the kinds of characters you remember forever, and the kind of conversations you don’t mind jumping through endless hoops to unlock.
  • More than Revan, more than Shepard, more than Hawke - the Inquisitor is a character you can make truly your own, and the feeling of “ownership” of your world, your personality, and your choices is the strongest any game has managed to generate to date.

Really liked it.

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