Saturday, July 8, 2017

DAI (Part 2): A Gaming Experience Gone Literary

If you read my previous post, now you know about my nerdly origins—as well as what these games came to mean to me, especially Dragon Age: Inquisition.

DAI offers stunning landscapes but it's the story
that will stay with you in the end.
But that's the thing: Dragon Age: Inquisition is so much more than a game. Even if it didn't build upon the beautiful and formidable foundation already presented in Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II, the sheer amount of story, character development, language, design/visual creation, background, culture and history to DAI is simply an astonishing achievement, one I fully set within reach of Tolkien's legendary appendices to The Lord of the Rings. It's fantasy as a multi-volume set, not as the usual sketchily plotted game universe or standalone short story. Encompassing literally millions of words of dialogue, lore and codex entries at this point, DAI is gaming fantasy as you always wished it could be; it's a playable book (or playable multiple books); it's fantasy presented as a series of satisfyingly thick volumes, as a month or two of campfire tales and legends, not as a flimsy tale of a single night.

In Thedas, as in Los Angeles, you're nobody
unless you have a really big door
The thing about Dragon Age: Inquisition's worldbuilding is that it's complete, expansive, exhausting, and ultimately astonishing. It includes vast areas that are all exquisitely rendered and absolutely gorgeous. The game offers a breathtaking range of settings and experiences, and can be easily tailored to accommodate a multitude of playstyles. I'm one of those who likes to really do at least the majority of the quests and immerse myself, so at about 85 hours of gameplay on my first playthrough, I was still only at maybe 60% of the main plotline. When I finished my first playthrough, I'd spent over 150 hours in DAI—and I'd still missed huge amounts of content that included several quests, collections, areas, and opportunities. I've since completed five more playthroughs, and even on playthrough six (and at over 1000 hours played total), I'm still discovering new content constantly.

It's All About the Experience

Ultimately, DAI simply isn't built for the usual streamlined, linear "run to the final boss battle" approach, as something you can check off your to-do list. Instead, it's all about the experience. You can lose yourself for dozens of hours in each of the game's 10-12 regions alone, just wandering, doing minor quests, looting ore and materials, gawking at (or battling) dragons, and more. 

It's always a relief when playing Dragon Age to meet
an actual dragon. Suddenly, the stakes just got higher
My suspicion with games like DAI and so many other RPG titles from Bioware is that, sure, it's created to provide a satisfying game, a great series of mental and technical gaming challenges. But to me, in their secret hearts, each of these games is truly created to provide story, to tell the tale, to provide an immersive "choose your own adventure" experience that will vary from person to person, from choice to choice. 

And this most of all is the secret of the game's addictive qualities (and to those of the entire series), that realization that each and every playthrough can vary in a hundred different little ways that are built upon a vast, intelligent and often poetic foundation of lore.

Gameplay Nuts and Bolts

Combat in Dragon Age: Inquisition is fun, slightly simplified from DA2, and challenging in part for its limitations: You can only use eight skills from your skill tree in playing your character and companions. Another challenge to DAI combat that's new? Healing powers are kaput. This means, for mages, no more fast, easy healing abilities. Boom.

The lack of healing powers was a learning curve at first, but it was a strategic developer choice I actually really enjoyed once I got into the game—it made me rethink my mage, and caused me to revise the way I played her abilities. Suddenly, I was no longer just a magical Duracell constantly filling up health and mana in my companions, but was instead focusing on kicking ass and causing damage, striking terror in the digital hearts of my enemies. Without healing powers, and with only eight health potions available among myself and my three companions, combat strategy played a huge part in how we got through battles and survived them. Best of all, suddenly I was playing my mage as the battlemage she'd always secretly longed to be.

DAI combat is ultimately cleanly presented, logical and easy to master (and as always with Bioware, you can tailor gameplay from "Casual" to more hardcore combat settings like "Insanity" to win specific in-game achievements).

Making Choices and Charting Your Hero

Meanwhile, the quests and storylines of DAI are terrific, and several times, and, as with DAO and DA2, you'll be faced with complex and incredibly difficult choices that will have big in-game repercussions and that will permanently change your own story's progression and outcome.

Building your hero involves a variety of tough choices.
After this scene, should you put on sunglasses and
walk away in slow-mo? (Yes. Yes, you should.)
Each quest on the Inquisitor's main path contributes a new step forward in your campaign to defeat the evil Corypheus and the Rifts across the world, and each is ushered in with gorgeous montages, animations, and fanfare.  Some key primary quests in the game's main storyline that moved or surprised me most included the gorgeous, gobsmacking early milestone "In Your Heart Shall Burn," in which everything changes for your hero and their companions, and the witty and elegant "Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts," which takes place at the Winter Palace in Orlais, and which is far more about charm, strategy and intrigue than combat. I also loved the elegant gothic-horror atmosphere of "In Hushed Whispers," a time-bending  challenge in which you find yourself trapped in a castle with a strange and dashing new companion, Tevinter mage Dorian (whose mustache is practically a character on its own), while navigating a hellish alternate-universe timeline (if your companion The Iron Bull, one of my favorite characters in the game, is present, he looks alarmed when faced with Dorian's magnificence, growls, "Watch yourself. The pretty ones are always the worst.") By the end of that quest, especially, I was a mess, profoundly moved by a final sacrifice by a familiar character who gives her life—without hesitation—so that our Inquisitor can live.

There are also several worthwhile loyalty missions and secondary quests for companions throughout DAI that offer similarly moving or emotional moments, and all of those moments underscore the fact that, when it comes to the world of Dragon Age, while the gameplay is important, it's the story and its characters that always reign supreme. 

Check out my next post (number three of three) for the final section of my initial big-picture overview of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

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