Before I sat down for a seven-hour session with BioWare's Dragon Age: Inquisition, I had my doubts. The Canadian developer hasn't become the Acclaim Entertainment of our modern era or anything like that, but, in recent years, they've dropped their unique, RPG-heavy house style for something much more in line with their contemporaries.
That said, if you crave the BioWare of old, Inquisition probably won't win you over. Where 2009's Dragon Age: Origins set out to be a modernized, spiritual sequel to Baldur's Gate, this latest installment takes the form of an honest-to-god action game with moderate RPG elements sprinkled in. And that's not a bad thing, per se, even if Inquisition's design feels more than a little familiar. After just a few hours with BioWare's latest creation, I couldn't help but get some serious Assassin's Creed vibes: All the hooks that grabbed me in Ezio's first adventure can be found in Inquisition, albeit dressed up in the trappings of Dungeons & Dragons.
In typical RPG fashion, Inquisition opens with a character creation screen which asks you to choose a race, gender, and specialization. If you have even the slightest familiarity with fantasy tropes, you can probably guess the specific strengths and weaknesses of the Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Qunari races, though the specialization category allows you to put a twist on these shopworn tropes by steering your character towards a specific play style. On a whim, I chose a female Elf, and gave her the Rogue: Archer specialization because, hey: It just makes sense. (After all, Elves receive a 25% boost in ranged defense.)
Inquisition's story begins with your character existing as the only survivor of an expedition into The Breach, a massive hellmouth-type thing that continually spews demons into the world. This encounter causes plenty of people to point the finger at you, but the scar it leaves behind on your hand acts as the only way to close the many smaller portals wreaking havoc across the world. After your character proves his or her worth and preternatural skills to the authorities, you're given a home base, a panel of advisors, and the titular inquisition—a desperate search for answers—can finally begin. And that's where things start to get all Assassin's Creedy.
Nearly everything you accomplish in Inquisition feeds into your team's efforts in fighting The Breach. Along with the standard character experience levels, your inquisition gains Influence as well (through completing quests and the like), and when it reaches a new level, you can unlock one of several bonuses from your panel of advisors. Some of these come in the form of expensive gifts (like useful potions), but others provide extra experience from fallen enemies, discounts in shops, and even new dialogue options.
The most important currency you'll be earning, however, comes in the form of "Power," a resource typically gained from completing quests. Effectively, it's Inquisition's way of gating your progress, since you won't be able to reach new lands (and move on to the next segment of the critical path) until you have enough Power to unlock them first. But BioWare's leash never feels all that tight, seeing as each of the absolutely sprawling areas offers plenty to do—I spent the majority of my time working through all the objectives I could find in the first location, and didn't even come close to finishing half of them.
If seeing a map dotted with quests, treasure, and various other worthwhile ventures does it for you, there's a lot to love about Dragon Age: Inquisition. BioWare's placed a real emphasis on exploration this time around, and the most fun I had during my session came from gradually charting uncharted territory. Even if you don't have an agenda—and I sure didn't—it doesn't take much wandering before you'll stumble into something fun. Just exploring at random, I gathered resources for crafting, set up camps to unlock waypoints, took on quests from NPCs around the area, explored mini-dungeons full of enemies more dangerous than the ones on the overworld, participated in arena style battles against demon-spawning portals, hunted for fresh meat, and ran from things that were far too deadly. And, refreshingly, my time exploring didn't involve me staring at a mini-map in the corner of the screen: If something looked worthwhile off in the distance, I headed in that direction, and my curiosity was usually rewarded.
Inquisition strives to be an incredibly streamlined RPG that still offers an enjoyable degree of depth, and this approach extends to the combat, as well. If you've ever played an MMO, the enemy encounters shouldn't be too surprising: Characters have their standard attacks, as well as special abilities that need to go through a "cooldown" period before they can be activated again. Even items are boiled down to their most basic forms: Instead of buying healing herbs and tinctures, you have a set number of potions that can be upgraded and refilled, similar to Dark Souls' estus flasks. And if you can't get a grasp on the particular character you created, Inquisition lets you switch to any party member on the fly. After just a few hours into the game, I could jump from archer to mage to tank and see for myself which one of these roles felt best.
No matter which race and specialization you roll with, though, combat in Inquisition never feels quite right. It gets the job done, but since BioWare's essentially turned this series into an action-RPG, I expected to have a much greater degree of control over the action. The Souls series and the recent Lords of the Fallen have really raised the bar in terms of enemy encounters in RPGs, and while Inquisition doesn't necessarily need to strive for the same level of difficulty, most fights with my archer didn't require tactics beyond holding in RT to continuously pelt my targeted enemy with arrows while using my special abilities as soon as they became available. Melee combat isn't much more complicated, and since characters don't have many defensive options, you really just trade blows until an enemy dies. Again, BioWare didn't have to make combat quite as measured as Dark Souls', but, in its current form, fighting enemies could stand to be a lot more engaging.
And while some players may view this as a blessing, your party doesn't require too much micromanagement. You can adjust how each specific character acts in battle—when to heal, when to use special abilities, which enemy to target, and so on—and, for the most part, the AI does a great job of getting your back. But if you're interested in taking control of an entire party rather than just a single character, Inquisition may leave you wanting. At any time in battle, you can freeze the action and switch to an overhead view, which allows you to give specific commands to your party and watch them play out at whatever speed you'd like. The only problem, though, is your lack of options: You can only tell the characters not under your control to attack a specific enemy or defend, and... that's it. It's a nice feature, but this tactical mode comes off as feeling pretty superfluous since the AI does a great job of adapting on the fly. I'm sure you could attempt to turn Inquisition into a more turn-based affair by relying on the overhead view for every battle, but it wouldn't be long before tedium set in.
Still, there's so much to do in Inquisition, I can forgive its combat for not aspiring to be anything more than functional. To be completely honest, Dragon Age never really grabbed me in the past, but during my hands-on session, I found myself getting absolutely wrapped up in exploring—which isn't always easy to do in the highly controlled atmosphere of a press event. I can sympathize with the old-school BioWare fans who see this developer as falling victim to EA's mass market desires, but with Inquisition, they've created a new kind of RPG that doesn't necessarily trade depth for accessibility. Unless things take a drastic turn after those first seven hours, I'm looking forward to losing myself in my first real Dragon Age experience—as soon as the fates conspire to allow me an unhealthy amount of time in front of my TV.