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Dragon Age: Inquisition is all business

Do you remember the murder knife?

The most famous weapon in Dragon Age: Origins couldn’t be found in your inventory. It only came out in cutscenes: a plain blade the hero drew whenever you decided to kill someone mid-conversation. Players called it the murder knife.

The murder knife wasn’t an item, really, but an idea. Using it felt more rude than violent: it cut short the decorous back-and-forth speech of the RPG, which is a sort of spell itself. There was no need to stab the game’s wide-eyed monks and merchants and sick dogs. (That’s why it was funny.) But that option was the devil on your shoulder, a temptation that threw other choices into sharper relief. It was the kind of wild possibility you could find growing everywhere in Origins.

The Murder Knife is finally an item in Dragon Age: Inquisition, but it’s no longer an idea. It’s a museum piece, a reference collected in a quest included as a wink to fans in the know. The new game is steady, workmanlike entertainment. But it’s forgotten the sense of transgression, of true surprise, that the first game cultivated. That’s what the knife used to mean.

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The physical spaces of Inquisition are vast. The game gives you 10 potted wildernesses to explore, starting with an amble over the rocky Hinterlands, where you can watch the wind riffle treetops and listen to birds nattering above you and feel pretty legitimately outdoors. Later you’ll run up to the enormous white breakers at the Storm Coast and feel like you’ve stepped into an earnest seaside landscape hanging over a bed somewhere. Trevor Morris’ score, which blusters over the game’s main action, is beautifully subdued when you’re out taking a walk.

On the edges of the quest preserves you can stumble into charming economy-size dungeons: the flash-frozen halls of the Still Ruins, the haunted ballroom of the Chateau d’Onterre, the dwarven tunnels of Valammar. Take a look outside and you’ll usually find a dragon flapping around the zone knocking over parapets or bowling through dead pines like a big clumsy jackass. Inquisition operates in a more traditional fantasy mode than its predecessors, and it’s suitably stuffed with dragons. They armor up, spit lightning and ice, spawn dragonlings, and spam a tail swing move with a bullshit huge hitbox. They’re immense.

But most of the time, when nothing’s breathing fire on you, exploring Inquisition feels like work. You never get lost in a place, because you’re setting quick-travel points every few paces. Your character strikes a smug figure as he plays explorer, planting Inquisition flags across territory that he must know already belongs to the monarchs of Ferelden and Orlais. But he’s following a path already marked out, and it’s the same meter-filling, death-by-a-thousand-icons world design that many larger studios have copied from each other, as if by retracing each other’s steps they could make all projects converge into exactly the same game.

Many chores in this game have been mislabeled as quests. Close four rifts. Establish seven camps. Free seven villagers. Find 22 shards. Collect 48 copies of a book someone lifted from the library. Pick up a billion grains of sand someone left on the beach.

It’s clear that Bioware couldn’t scale its storytelling up to the world its artists made. In Origins, even a transitional area like the Brecilian Forest could hide a paranoid hermit and the talking tree that he hated. In Inquisition, you’ll scour the wilds in vain for a scene like that, finding only “kill the guy” or “collect the thing” tasks that nobody had time to work up into a story. There are no surprises, no complicating action, no conflicting agendas, no one to use your knife on. You greet people in these areas only to get a work order, and you return to deposit the result for a word of thanks. Having a conversation with them is like talking to a mailbox.

Inquisition feels slick but siloed. The story and exploration parts of the game are boxed separately, and the latter is full of prefab errands with few ties to the themes of the Dragon Age setting. Change a few names and you could drop them into any other RPG: here’s the forest zone, the ice zone, the desert zone. The two halves of Inquisition only talk to each other through the War Table, a big token-strewn game board back at base. A cat could run across the thing and destroy your whole campaign.

It’s awful, that War Table. You send one of your advisers out to a marker on the board, and they return after a set time (real time) with a reward. You ask yourself whether you should send Cullen out to get the job done in two hours, or send Leliana to get it done in 90 minutes, but put off the other job she could do instead. You ask yourself when you began thinking of a fantasy adventure in terms of man-hours.

There’s always a protocol to be followed, always a toll to pay in Power (one of several quest reward currencies). The game finds every excuse to pull you out of the wilderness and back to your desk to file the necessary paperwork before repairing a bridge or moving some stones out of your way. Returning to the War Table to approve these operations has all the thrill of running them by Legal.

You can’t do anything informally—there’s a protocol even for killing your foes. The Inquisitor prefers to have significant villains carted back to his base, so he can indulge in preposterous scenes where he passes judgment from a gleaming throne. Steepling his fingers in an attitude of sublime douchiness, the male Inquisitor musters all the gravitas of Jeff Probst judging a hot dog eating contest. When he finally arrives at his smarmy verdict, he shoots his finger at the culprit with reality-TV panache and has them hauled off to be executed or rehabilitated. (Horrifyingly, some of them cannot even be executed.) The first time I saw this was probably the moment I started hating my own character.

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Memory lane again. Do you remember how Origins began? Take the human noble origin: after a few minutes of chumminess, your parents are slaughtered by their treacherous friend Rendon Howe, who kills your childhood pal Gilmore for good measure. You escape your burning castle and join the Grey Wardens, undergoing an initiation that winds up killing the two other new recruits you’d been adventuring with. Then you’re swept up in the battle of Ostagar, in which another human betrayer causes the death of the king and all the experienced Wardens, including your mentor. That’s the prologue.

Origins started by overwhelming you with despair, loss, and black humor, introducing both a supernatural evil poised to overrun the world and human dickery that outpaced the worst that demons could do. The bloody-minded opening grounded the action in human costs, a showcase for the game’s commitment to be more than some old shit about wizards & warriors.

Two games later, and low fantasy has turned to high cheese. Inquisition is a story about a Chosen One with special powers fighting a big old baddie with glowing eyes, and it aspires only to be popcorn entertainment. (“You have been most successful in foiling my plans,” the villain intones at the end of the game, as his sort does.) The blood has been hosed off all the logos and menu screens, as well as people’s faces—they always did look unprofessional, walking into cutscenes like that.

Inquisition feels slick but siloed

Origins’ ideas are alive but diminished. The Whedon-inflected party banter from the original, once reliably loose and funny, returns as tame patter about where people come from and what they’re after. There’s nothing to match, say, the one where Sten starts asking Morrigan inappropriate questions about how strong her teeth are. But Origins’ cast was a rougher, more outspoken bunch to begin with. (Remember how some of them tried to kill you?) Inquisition’s companions are the most forgettable humanoids Bioware has assembled since the original Neverwinter Nights. I won their approval and helped with their personal quests, but I’d trade the best of them for Shale, Loghain, or Oghren.

Less fun than Shepard and less creative than the Warden, the Inquisitor is the blandly effective manager-hero this team deserves. First time through, I made the mistake of picking the half-interested British male voice, Harry Hadden-Patton; much better, on a partial second playthrough, was Alix Wilton Regan, who sometimes sounds truly fucking furious.

No matter who says the lines, you never feel ownership of them. Not long ago, the same studio made games where your choices shaped the protagonist—The Warden, Revan, or Jade Empire’s Spirit Monk were the sum of your wildly divergent decisions. The dilemmas and guesswork and outrageous overreactions in their stories were devices that forced you to invest in the character and world by making you a partner in their creation.

You don’t decide who your character is anymore; you play the same character in slightly different moods. It may solve problems with branding and budget, but it keeps you at a distance. You could watch the gulf grow over the course of the Mass Effect series, as the thoughtful moral quandaries of the first game eventually gave way to the glib action of the third, in which your choices seemed only to adjust the size of Shepard’s smirk. Our agency in Dragon Age has made a parallel descent. (There is one drastic, life-changing thing you can make the Inquisitor do, but it happens so late that you barely have to live with it before the game ends.)

At its best, the game can pull itself out of middlebrow fantasy and throw you for a loop. There’s a fantastic episode early on at Castle Redcliffe (if you choose to go there) that uses a sci-fi conceit to take you to hell and back. It winds up feeling grander in scope and more emotional than Inquisition’s real ending. It doesn’t lead to a choice as wrenching as the “kill the mother to save the son” bit at the end of Origins’ Redcliffe section—but hey, how many games have the guts to do that?

For all its war drums and build-up, the game ends hastily. For the glory of the Inquisition, I had recruited groups of cultists, tribesmen, and rebels; I took over keeps and improved them; I built a port; I saved towns from the risen dead. But all of my allies and agents seemed to exist outside of the story, which took no notice of my achievements. They didn’t even rate shout-outs in the game’s curt epilogue. By contrast, the climax of Origins brought you course after course of narrative payoffs, more than you’d dream of ordering. Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission tested your investment in and knowledge of your comrades, and even the wobbly Mass Effect 3 brought your War Assets into play for the final push. Inquisition’s finale looks modest—rushed, even—next to its blockbuster forebears.

The game’s plot doesn’t give you enough freedom to screw things up, which is why completing it doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment. Surprisingly, the combat suffers from the same issue. Inquisition is an absurdly easy game, one of those titles that’s so afraid of losing a sale that every potential pain point is sanded down to nothing. (The “tougher than Originspre-release claim is one of the all-time PR whoppers.) “Normal” difficulty is tuned for the person who would prefer that somebody else play the battles for them, but is too embarrassed to say so. Even on Hard, actually using the mechanics—pausing, killing enemies in a premeditated order, coordinating your Arcane Detonator abilities, bothering to use Focus attacks—feels like packing and loading a cannon aimed at an ant. (Optional dragon fights are the exception.)

Inquisition is clearly balanced with the third-person perspective and real-time play in mind. So it’s a shame that the third-person is sort of a poor man’s Dragon’s Dogma with an even worse camera and no sense of grip or weight. By the middle of the game, an AI-controlled sword-and-board warrior will be almost immune to single-target damage, and you’ll let them tank everything in real time as you mop up whatever enemies the computer hasn’t already killed for you. If you want strategy, go back to Icewind Dale.

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And yet I played Inquisition much more than I had to. I killed eight dragons. I reloaded conversations to see every branch. I restarted long missions when I realized I’d forgotten to bring a character who might change them. (Take an elf to the elf places.) I keep hearing the score in my head—the big stupid parts, not the subdued ones.

I’m still captivated by the structure the game is built on, the way it will give character priority over spectacle. Much of the choice and consequence talk is a bluff, but it can still surprise you.

Eventually, I even completed my own personal quest. I found seemingly the only person in the game I could use the murder knife on. It was really gratuitous: an unarmed victim, a whole crowd watching. Unbecoming of a religious figure. Everyone disapproved. I was ecstatic. Try sticking me with the paperwork for that one, I thought. Dragon Age!

Then the game truly outdid itself. I think it was setting up the joke all along. Apologetically, absurdly, it made me do the paperwork anyway. My adviser insisted. Back at base, I returned to my throne and sat in judgment over a corpse. Even when the choice means nothing, it must be made. Business as usual.