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VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Dragon Age: Inquisition, an engaging and contemporary-minded quest

(Courtesy of Electronic Arts Inc.)
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Dragon Age: Inquisition
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts Inc.
Available on: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One

If role-playing games are the marathons of digital interactive entertainment, the runner’s high I got from “Dragon Age: Inquisition” didn’t kick in until somewhere north of the 60-hour mark. Lest that sound like evidence of Stockholm syndrome, it is worth mentioning that at 60 hours I was just past the halfway mark. It took an additional 50 hours to hit the credits. My body still bears the stiffness of gaming for too many hours. And frankly, the thought of playing any game right now leaves me nauseated. But at least I can state that my perseverance was worth it and those last twenty or thirty hours were, unexpectedly, among the most interesting that BioWare has created since the first entry in its Mass Effect series.

Seven years ago, the Canadian studio’s space opera revitalized RPGs through its use of interactive cutscenes. What sticks with me from “Mass Effect” is that it was the first game in who-knows-when that made me rush through its frenzied parts so that I could enjoy its dialogue. Although the subsequent games refined the shooting mechanics, I never felt as taken as I did by the initial game.

I was reminded of all this about seventy or eighty hours into “Dragon Age: Inquisition” because it was then that I resolved to complete the side quests for all of the members in my retinue. A turnaround considering that I was underwhelmed by the game’s opening, and by dint of a firmware update for the PS4, it crashed on me countless times. (Seriously, I thought my console was going to croak.) Thankfully, the issue has been fixed. But while the game has run stably for me since the fix, I have continued to notice several instances of texture pop-in and erratic A.I. pathfinding. Glitches, however, are par for the course during the early days of blockbuster RPGs. With all of those technical subsystems tangling with each other and whatnot, expect lots of slapstick on YouTube.

Electronic Arts and BioWare released the launch trailer for role-playing game "Dragon Age: Inquisition," which launches across consoles and PC Nov. 18. (Video: Electronic Arts / BioWare)

A little comedy might have helped with the game’s opening, which is too abrupt. The intro takes place in a forbidding dreamscape that’s hospitable to ginormous spiders. Your character hurriedly makes his or her way up a steep incline towards an otherworldly figure that slips away right as you desperately try to clasp her hand. After the scene dissolves, we see some men roaming over flame-licked rubble. They stop when they see a person lying motionless on the ground. Cut to a prison cell – that ol’ starting post of RPGs – where your character looks disconsolately at her shackles before being startled by a spark of green light which issues from her hand like a snapped electric cable. Before you have time to give your situation much thought, people burst into the room and begin interrogating you. Cassandra, a knight with a scarred cheek, brusquely asks why they shouldn’t kill you since everyone who attended the Conclave is dead, save for you.

You can barely tell her anything, like where you got that magical gash in your hand. Instead you sputter something about being at a place where things chased you and where you saw a woman in the distance. It’s enough to get you unshackled and led outside by Cassandra, who explains that following the explosion at the Conclave, a breach appeared in the sky that exposed the world to a demonic dimension. This was followed by several smaller tears throughout the neighboring lands.

Solemnly, Cassandra explains that the Breach is growing at a rate that threatens to engulf the world, and that somehow it’s connected to your wound, which is slowly killing you. Believing that you are fate’s instrument, she enjoins you to help her remedy the calamity. Together you make your way to one of the smaller rifts where you come across Varric – a crossbow wielding rogue, who is also a dwarf and a man of letters – and Solas – a mage, who is also an elf and a melancholic intellectual. After circumstances reveal that you have the ability to seal the rifts, you set out with your companions to try to save the world. Over the length of the adventure, you encounter potential allies.

Is your character a vessel for the divine or are your superpowers the offshoot of chance? Despite the game’s fantasy setting, it’s impossible to miss that the developers want to hold a mirror up to our era’s competing world views. By substituting clashing ideologies for black and white morality, the game refreshingly accentuates ambiguity. The masochist in me loved the bad decisions I had to make – like when I chose to save the friends of one of my party members by allowing a greater number of anonymous people to die, which nixed my hopes for a diplomatic alliance with another powerful nation.

Speaking of politics, the developers behind “Dragon Age: Inquisition” seem to have internalized the ongoing debates about gender representation in video games. This is a game with a large cast of charismatic, powerful women. Inquisition is fond of flexing its feminist muscles with quips like having one of your female advisors tell her male colleague to “Hush, just look pretty” or – providing you selected a female protagonist like I did – having Cassandra confide that she is glad it has fallen to another woman to save the world. There is also a transgendered character, and your character has the option of pursuing heterosexual or homosexual love affairs.

In sum, “Dragon Age: Inquisition” feels like a game in which the writers were set free to craft a story for contemporary adults. As I listened to the poetic diction of Cole, a character prone to alliteration and utterances such as, “The air smells like rocks,” I wondered if the gaming industry might swell to provide a berth for poets as academia has.

This product of progressive politics at first earned my sympathies by using the narrative mechanics of successful television dramas: “There is the hero, there is the antihero, there is their love interest,” etc., and I was bored. Then to my delight, those character archetypes were complicated systematically and my prejudices were revealed for what they were. For post-“Breaking Bad” television, that narrative technique has lost some of its gloss, but for video games, where one’s prejudices are normally confirmed, the gold rush is on.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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