Over the last few months Dragon Age: Inquisition has been raking in Game of The Year wins (even our own Elton Jones gave the game a praiseworthy critique) and we’re currently enduring another game drought, so a couple weeks ago I set aside my better judgment and decided to give the game a shot. To be blunt, It’s been a rough journey. My save file tells me I’m around 60 hours into the game, which, admittedly in a game as large as DA: Inquisition still leaves me with a large portion of the game to play. But with this much time spent on the thing I think I can pretty confidently say that the combat feels terribly broken, and it makes the so-called best game of 2014 one of the most frustrating games I’ve played in years.
Some background before I get into this: I adore the Mass Effect series. Despite the clunky combat in that Bioware series, I found firefights could be thrilling and the gameplay loop – explore a planet, loot everything, shoot 20 – 30 people, talk to your crew for half an hour about what they ate for brunch – is well-balanced. While the game’s battle system is fairly rudimentary, you still have a level of control in how you dispatch your enemies, with a number of abilities and choices at play to help you more effectively blast alien scum off the face of… whatever planet you’re currently standing on. In a general sense, combat in the Dragon Age games is similar to Mass Effect. You still have a party of four to play with, and each of your party members have their own set of abilities to use mid-fight. The most obvious difference is the lack of a cover system in Dragon Age, but that makes a lot of sense considering the lack of guns in Thedas. So it’s not like I’m predisposed to dislike the way Dragon Age is designed.
Furthermore, both previous games in the Dragon Age series managed to do passably well in their combat systems. While I wouldn’t say the past two games are on the same pedestal as other fantasy RPGs like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, I enjoy them both for different reasons. What’s interesting about the previous Dragon Age titles, though, is how starkly different combat is handled in each of them. The first game, Origins, uses an isometric, strategy game-like system, giving direct control over each of the party members’ actions in something reminiscent of classic turn-based RPGs. Dragon Age II on the other hand has a more action-oriented combat style that keeps the camera on the ground and has the player issuing commands in real time. It removes some control compared to Origins but the revamped design gives the player a sense of urgency, and makes them feel more involved. They both work, to varying degrees, because the enemy encounters are more or less built around each of the games’ systems.
Enter Dragon Age: Inquisition, which attempts to bring both systems to the fold and let the player choose which method to use at the tap of a button. By default, when encountering an enemy, the battle will unfold using Dragon Age II‘s style of combat. You control one of your party’s members and exchange blows with the enemy in real time, launching standard attacks or special abilities unique to that particular class or character. But by toggling the tactical camera, the action will pause, allowing you to allocate commands and movement for each of your teammates all at once, and then resume the fight to let things play out. In theory, it’s a healthy balance of action and strategy. But the game fights against you at every turn, whichever way you play.
I will open myself up to hatemail from the start by admitting I prefer not to use the tactical camera. I didn’t love Dragon Age: Origins‘s combat and much preferred the way battles take place in DAII. I’m aware this is an unpopular opinion. But especially in Dragon Age: Inquisition, where you can’t march twelve feet without initiating a battle, swapping to the tactical camera and handing out instructions is incredibly tedious and prolongs what is already a pretty monotonous slog through shallow, uninteresting environments. On top of that, the commands I issue seem to be overruled over the half the time I use the tactical camera. See, there is a system within Dragon Age: Inquisition called the ‘tactics’ menu which decides how frequently your party members will use specific abilities. You can tweak each of these manually to put a powerful spell/attack down as a priority, or ensure they never, ever use a certain attack at all, but either way there is a set of rules your NPC allies will follow when you’re not directly controlling them. I don’t know if this what causes the problem, but inevitably when I’d be in a crunch, I’d issue a command and allow combat to resume only to watch my team do whatever the hell they like anyway. My enormous Qunari warrior would still charge headlong into an enemy far stronger than he. My sorceress would completely ignore my instruction and buff the party’s defence instead of the incredibly urgent area of effect attack I desperately needed and asked her to do. It’s annoying when this happens and they perform a different attack. It’s infuriating when you command them to revive a teammate and they choose to do something else entirely, dying in the process. I got stuck on an early boss fight due to this exact problem, and was unable to progress until I lowered the difficulty. More recently I came across another boss so unplayable that rather than attack the obviously evil demon-in-human-form, I agreed to deal with him and let him leave just so I could avoid the fight entirely. In an RPG that hinges on the very concept of role-playing, opting for a decision I did not want to make is a massive no-no, but I could not suffer through that fight one more time. So the tactical camera is dead to me. I can’t trust it to do what I tell it to.
But the more conventional combat system is equally broken, because when you’re not watching over your party members like a helicopter parent they’re prone to doing nothing at all. I’d call the party AI broken if it seemed to exist at all. Let me break down one of DA: Inquisition‘s more interesting elements – dragon encounters: Unlike almost every other enemy in the entire game, dragons are dynamic and impressively reactive to the state of a battle. They have several different attack states that you have to be mindful of. When they’re grounded, they operate like standard enemies, and you can unload your collective arsenal at the monster until your stamina runs out. However, at any time a dragon can lift off the ground and begin circling the area by air, spitting projectiles at your party as it flies by. It’s simple enough to keep moving and dodge these blasts… if you’re the player. The rest of your team, not so much. As soon as the dragon lifts off the ground, your NPC allies will stand in place and admire the particle effects on the fireball hurtling toward their face and do nothing to avoid it. And because you can only control one character at a time outside of the tactical camera view, there’s nothing you can do to stop your lovable idiot friends from taking the aforementioned fireball facial.
Here’s another example. This is incidentally the straw that broke the camel’s back, and caused me to turn off my console and start writing this article. There is a species of dragon that roosts in a hot spring in the northern region of the Exalted Plains, one of the many same-looking, closed off hub environments that make up Inquisition’s ‘open world’. As soon as I heard the telltale sounds of its wings overhead and saw it fly past overhead I beelined straight for it because, aside from building your home base and hanging out there with your party, slaying dragons is the only thing about this game I seem to enjoy. However when I arrived at the place and began my showdown with the dragon I learned that it turns out DA: Inquisition features some interesting minor environmental effects: This particular species of dragon breathes lightning instead of fire, and for the first time I discovered that when its lightning attacks hit a pool of water, it electrifies the entire pool. Very cool! And as mentioned before, we are fighting in a hot spring. Water is kind of their jam. This could have been an interesting element to make this particular encounter unique and challenging, but there’s a difference between a challenge and causing headaches beyond your control. Once again, my party’s AI was entirely oblivious to their surroundings and happily wandered in and out of electrified bodies of water, rendering the entire dragon fight unplayable. Either I spend all my time babysitting my party and directing them away from electrical hazards, which gives me no opportunity to actually damage the dragon, or I ignore the fact that my closest allies and romantic partners are doing belly flops into thousands of volts of electricity while I try to slay a 10 ton legendary lizard monster with a single bow and arrow. The alternative of course is I switch to the tactical camera and dish out commands, which my party will promptly ignore so they can resume forcefully feeding themselves to the dragon in the messiest, most painful method of committing suicide in history.
The only solution to the godforsaken combat in the game is coming back to the difficult battles when you’re way overpowered, but this is the something the game subtly tells you it doesn’t want you to do, because apparently when you’re three or more levels above a particular enemy the game stops giving you experience for defeating them. The game will passive-aggressively tell you this by slipping it into the game’s loading screens between codex entries about the game’s lore (“Psst, hey I know you’re reading about the history of the chantry right now, but FYI we’re not going to give you credit for killing these monsters because you didn’t put in the work, k byeeee”). It doesn’t actually prevent you from leveling up and coming back to win these fights, but it certainly takes the wind out of your sails for doing so. Compare this to other open world games that use this as a gameplay incentive. Hell, Demon’s and Dark Souls pretty much built entire franchises off of the satisfaction a player feels when they’re finally able to overcome a previously impossible challenge. It’s also why it’s possible to beat every enemy and boss in those games without armor, weapons or levelling up your character, if you’re skilled and patient enough. Their combat system is robust and it works. The games are notoriously difficult, but they’re fair. The obvious difference is that Demon’s and Dark Souls are beautifully designed with that structure in mind, while combat in Dragon Age: Inquisition is a complete and utter mess.
Perhaps what’s most disappointing about Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s combat is that while the bosses and more powerful enemies in the world are impossible to defeat with the game’s mechanics, the regular enemies you face are extremely boring to fight. I find myself more often than not letting my three NPC partners deal with low-level grunts in the open world, while I ignore the fight entirely and look for plants to harvest and corpses to loot. Or, being a rogue, I’ll trigger my smoke bomb which renders my character invisible for a few seconds, and just walk right past the enemies until I’m out of range. This isn’t the way the game is meant to be played, but it’s far better than listening to the same plodding ‘thwock, thwock, thwock’ of my bow for the millionth time while I stare off-screen at my game collection, wishing I had anything else to play.
…Like, for example, the curly moustache dating simulator this game should have been (NSFW: Mage booty).