BioWare has had to endure a rocky road of late. Mass Effect 3 didn't sit well with everyone, and although there was a decent game at its core, Dragon Age II missed the mark almost entirely when it came to being a worthy successor to the great Dragon Age: Origins. As a result, a lot rests on Dragon Age: Inquisition's shoulders: not only does it need to win back some faith from fans, but it also has to prove that its developer hasn't lost its edge after being on the receiving end of so much criticism. It's a heavy burden for one game to bear, but thankfully, Inquisition has some very, very broad shoulders.
It's no secret that the PlayStation 4 is in desperate need of a meaty, lengthy RPG that genre enthusiasts can really sink their teeth into, and BioWare's latest delivers in spades. The relatively linear structure of past titles in the series is gone, replaced by massive environments absolutely peppered with things to see and do, and it's the first time in the franchise that the Southern continent of Thedas has felt like the lore-ridden and dangerous land that's mentioned in countless codex entries and conversations.
Spread across the countries of Ferelden and Orlais, there are plenty of gorgeous locations to explore, from grassy hills and creepy bogs, to sun scorched deserts and storm lashed beaches. The release's world isn't quite open, however, as each environment is its own separate entity that's travelled to via a map. That said, many of these places are still gigantic in size, and if you added them all together, you'd likely have a map far bigger than most open world titles lay claim to. In that regard, the developer has done an impressive job with the design of each area; locations feel unique, grand, and practically beg to be explored.
But the spine of this massive creation is its narrative. Typical of BioWare, the game features an overarching plot that's very character driven, and once again, the studio's talent for writing brilliantly engaging personalities shines through. As the head of the Inquisition – an old, independent force that's revived as the world faces all-out war – it's your job to try and spread the organisation's influence and get to the bottom of what's causing this mass unrest.
Much like Origins, the story itself isn't anything special, and it's generally full of dark fantasy tropes, but a combination of superb writing and player choice elevates it far beyond its initial premise. As Inquisitor, your custom made character will be forced to make tough decisions throughout the tale, and again, like Origins, many of these choices have a large impact on what transpires. It's impressive enough that BioWare has crafted such an attractive, massive world that's steeped in lore, but to have a branching narrative that directly affects it as you progress through this 60 plus hour journey is a fantastic achievement not just for the game, but for the genre as a whole.
Meanwhile, on the character front, Inquisition plays host to some of the best personalities that we've seen in a long time. There are nine party members to acquire relatively early into the release, and it's a case where every player will have a different favourite. It's a testament to how well the allies are written that you'll no doubt come to be angered by some, while also pursuing romance with others – although the best part is that they're all completely different from one another without ever having to step into stereotypical territory. Cassandra, who's essentially second in command, is stern and logical, but she'll gradually open up to you if you take the time to get to know her. Varric, on the other hand, is a silver tongued dwarf who manages to steal the limelight every time that he's in earshot.
At the heart of the countless conversations that occur throughout the release is the developer's trademark conversation wheel. It'll pop up at pivotal points during dialogue, and you'll have to decide on your character's reaction to the current situation. You may be asked your opinion on religion, or allies might want to know how you'd tackle an upcoming battle. The wheel makes every conversation an engaging one, and you'll be making loads of hard choices with it, too, some of which will often have you sitting staring at your options as you weigh up the scenario. Because of how heavily involved your Inquisitor is, you'll soon come to realise that you're not only getting to know the personalities of everyone around you, but you're also forging your character's own identity through your chosen dialogue and actions. The title puts you right at the heart of just about everything that happens, and it's this sense of importance and belonging that really grips you as you descend deeper into what becomes a spiralling, sprawling, and brilliantly paced narrative.
Alongside main quests, there's a ridiculous amount of side activities and tasks to look into as well. Dotted around the vast locations are various smaller objectives to discover and complete, and while most are somewhat standard RPG busywork, the actual act of traversing the lovingly detailed landscape is so enjoyable that you'll want to explore as much as possible anyway. Movement is satisfyingly weighty, and stomping up a mountain path with your party in tow as rain lashes down really adds to the feeling that you're on a grand adventure – even if you're just returning a trinket to a local farmer.
Of course, you're not expected to simply run around as the land's local errand boy or girl, and for everything that you do – whether it's a tiny favour or a quest that takes you from one side of the map to the other – the Inquisition will gain influence and power, and you'll eventually end up controlling these locations completely. With the war table, which allows you to send out your forces on numerous timed missions that further increase your influence, the release does a great job of making you feel like you're at the top of a growing army, and when the continent's most esteemed nobles are desperately contacting you for assistance, there's a genuine sense that you've come a long way from being a bit of a nobody.
However, no one in power gets to that position without cracking some heads along the way. Dragon Age II frustrated many fans with its simplified, action-based combat system, and taking that criticism on board, Inquisition tries to straddle the line between that and Origins' more tactical approach. The result is a system that's both deep and surprisingly visceral, and one that offers a huge amount of customisation. With up to nine party members to play around with, creating the perfect team of four for a specific situation is a rewarding process, as you level up, acquire specialised equipment, and distribute skill points in order to transform your party into a cohesive unit.
Like a massively multiplayer RPG, your party will often need to be balanced to survive the sometimes brutal encounters that crop up. With three base classes – warrior, rogue, and mage – all in possession of several skill trees which allow you to grow your allies in specific ways, the amount of depth on offer is sure to please the hardcore, while also being streamlined just enough for newcomers to get the hang of things relatively early on. Your beefy warriors, like Cassandra, keep enemies busy on the front line, while a rogue like Varric deals plenty of damage from the back. Meanwhile, your Inquisitor's role is entirely up to you. Picking your race and class at the beginning of the game, you'll always be building your team around your own style of play, and finding a formation that's especially effective is incredibly satisfying.
Combat itself can either be played like an action RPG, or a strategic one. On the lower difficulty settings – which can be changed at any time – wading into the fray and mashing out assigned techniques on your hotbar while letting the artificial intelligence handle your allies is usually enough to see out the smaller skirmishes, but on higher difficulties and against particularly tricky bosses, you'll be pausing the fight with the help of the tactical camera, and issuing commands to your party so that you're not overwhelmed. It's never quite as strategic as Origins was, but it's an accomplished, well realised battle system all the same, and manages to successfully meld the two types of combat.
Brawls are also a little bit tougher, due to the fact that there aren't any direct healing spells. Instead, when you're low on health points, you'll dive into your party's stock of potions and take a swig. At first, you can only carry eight tinctures at a time, but they're restored whenever you rest at a camp. This essentially means that a little bit of planning is necessary when exploring – you don't want to come into contact with a dragon when you've used up all of your potions – but it's a system that pushes you to win battles in an efficient manner, which means getting to know each character's role and applying them correctly.
Further enforcing this are new abilities in the form of guard and barrier. Like in the Mass Effect series, these additional layers of health will need to be depleted before your actual life bar is damaged, and they can be restored during battle. For example, guard is exclusive to warriors, and is applied when you successfully block an attack or taunt the enemy. The mechanic all but forces you to use your front line fighters as exactly that – tanks that soak up damage and keep foes away from your scrawnier party members. As such, keeping on top of the situation is key to success, and while the lack of instant healing means that you'll need to be spot on with your tactics more often than not, it gives combat an intense pace where you'll need to adapt to what's happening or face the consequences.
As you may have guessed, Inquisition isn't entirely accessible, but for a title that boasts this much content, it still does a decent job of gradually working you into the different systems. However, what it doesn't do is present a neat and easy way to fuss around with your team's equipment. Although skill tree menus have been streamlined and reworked from previous entries in the franchise, managing your gear is still a bit of a chore, especially since your inventory space is limited. Comparing items and freshly found loot is easy enough, but when it comes to moving, crafting, and modifying your equipment, it takes a lot of practice before you can navigate your way through the myriad menus without stumbling along the way.
Once you've got the hang of it, though, you'll realise that the amount of customisation on offer is rather staggering. You can add bits and pieces to your weapons and armour, further increasing their effectiveness through the use of schematics found during your adventures, and the crafting system allows you to use different materials gathered out in the wild to play around with various effects and combine different statistic boosts to forge gear that perfectly suits your needs. You'd probably go mad if you tried to keep on top of it all in its entirety, but the options that are here provide further proof that a colossal amount of effort has gone into BioWare's latest.
Surprisingly, all of the crafting, modifying, and general depth that's found in the single player campaign is present in the game's co-op component, too. Banding together with up to three other players, you're tasked with fighting your way through procedurally generated maps, gathering loot, gold, and experience points as you go. Similar to Mass Effect 3's superbly worked multiplayer, there are numerous preset character classes to choose from, and spending your well earned, in-game cash on packs of random gear proves to be just as addictive as it as in the sci-fi sequel.
However, that's where the similarities all but end. Where an accomplished player could carry a whole team in Mass Effect 3, coordinated teamwork is a must in Inquisition's offering. Tanky warriors will have to lead from the front, bearing the brunt of enemy assaults, while mages keep their allies' barriers up, and squishy archers will have to stay well away from their brawny aggressors. This means that while the component can be fantastic fun with friends, grouping up with strangers is risky business, as you can't expect every player to fulfil the role that the party requires. As a result, co-op can be unforgiving, and at first, when your chosen character is low level, near impossible.
Fortunately, even if you're all wiped out, you still gain experience and loot, so regardless of how you do in battle, the mode remains a rewarding, considerable time sink. And, if the developer plans on supporting it with free DLC as it did with Mass Effect 3's multiplayer, we see no reason as to why Inquisition's co-op can't be just as successful and enjoyable, if not more so, thanks to the fantastic amount of depth that's on offer.
With a gigantic single player experience and a co-op component that promises to be an equally massive time sink, you're certainly getting your money's worth with Inquisition, and it's all topped off by impressive production values and an unprecedented level of polish. Sure, some character animations can still look a little wonky – this is BioWare after all – but the game's gorgeous graphics, detailed character models, and solid technical performance ensure that you won't care too much when your Inquisitor's chin clips into their armour as they natter about political strife.
Speaking of which, the voice acting throughout is top notch, even to the point where the most ridiculous European accents will hardly faze you. That said, you'll definitely want to play while wearing a good pair of headphones. Together with a sweeping and majestic musical score that's more than worthy of its own individual release, the sound design is often stunning, and features an absolute ton of ambient noise that brings the world to life.
Set aside a good few weeks of your life, because the Inquisition takes no prisoners when it comes to your free time. An RPG that manages to successfully tie an engrossing, engaging narrative to a vast, explorable world, BioWare's fantasy epic is one of the studio's greatest achievements. With superb writing and rewarding gameplay, Dragon Age: Inquisition offers just about everything that you could want from a genre that's been sorely missed on the PS4.