The game starts out after a tragic explosion that took place during a peace conference between a mage faction and officials from the Chantry, a religious organization that also regulates the use of magic. As the only survivor of the explosion, the remnants of the Chantry and the Templar Order assume you are responsible for loss of life and the appearance of rifts throughout the land. These rifts are portals to another realm and demons begin pouring out of them at an alarming rate. The player's character has been granted a strange mark that connects her to these rifts and she is the only person with the ability to close them. This event also unites key members from the Chantry and the Templars to reestablish the Inquisition, a force formed to deal with this threat without any of the bureaucracy or infighting currently plaguing these organizations after the peace conference tragedy.
"... the entire game is meant to be engaged with on your terms."
The story moves fast, and it feels like no time at all passes before you go from being a prisoner to a key member of the Inquisition who makes decisions about the course the story and where the Inquisition will spend its resources. The Inquisition itself is almost like a character unto itself and the War Table is how that character interacts with the world. Much like the Galactic Readiness mechanic in Mass Effect 3, just about everything you do in the game affects the Inquisition. For example, when I started exploring the first zone in the game, The Hinterlands, just about every side quest in the zone gave me power points that I could spend on the War Table to open up new areas or complete other tasks.
This meant that every side quest I engaged in felt more meaningful on a larger scale. It's an interesting trick to turn the somewhat frivolous side quests into tasks worth completing. For example, in just about every zone you are given the task of setting up new Inquisition camps. The camps really function as fast travel points so you can quickly traverse these large open zones by going to the marked location on your map. The trick is that establishing these camps also increases your influence in the region. Another example is that each zone has a raw materials collection quest to benefit the Inquisition, something that is easy enough to do while completing larger, more important quests. Gathering these materials rewards your group with new gear that increases your power or influence. It can feel like busy work, but the bigger picture of increasing your army's power and influence does provide motivation.
In fact, quests feeling like busy work is probably one of my biggest complaints of what I saw early on. Two examples quickly come to mind. The first happened while I was making my way across the map and stumbled upon an Inquisition scout who warned me of some mysterious bandits up the road. I was excited to check it out, so I quickly made my way up there. All that happened was I got into a fight with a few mercenaries, read a brief note about how they were hired by someone, and moved on. The other was when I came across an Elven mage who was fighting off monsters. I quickly moved in to help her, and she thanked me by telling me about her quest to find an Elven artifact in the region. She led me to a one room "mini" dungeon where I killed a couple of monsters and activated an artifact. I was informed that the zone was now safer, received some power points for the War Table, and the woman wandered off. I could go on and on like that about the various side quests I came across in these massive zones, but most of them felt decidedly small and unimportant culminating in a quick fight or an collected item.
However, while the side quests felt small, the two zones I visited did not. Each zone is a large, self-contained, open world area. You can fast travel between the areas anytime and will often have to as you jump from your home base to talk to your companions or engage with the War Table to advance the story. Compared to Dragon Age: Origins, which mostly offered large, linear dungeons or zones, these wide open areas of Inquisition were filled to the brim with optional content to engage in. Thankfully, you can unlock a mount fairly early on to make traversal easier, not to mention the fast travel I mentioned earlier. In my time with the game, I visited the mountainous forest region called The Hinterlands and a rainy, coastal forest known as the Storm Coast. Both were open enough to let me engage with the story and quests on my terms. It was a shame that the load times were so long, as it slowed me down quite a bit during my time with the game.
When I really think about Dragon Age: Inquisition, what stands out to me is that the entire game is meant to be engaged with on your terms. How many side quests do you do? How much of the codex and lore do you dig into? How deep do you dive into the War Table or the crafting system? The story can be approached in much the same way. During my five hours with the game, the story and character interactions were fairly light. I quickly learned that if I want to know more about this world and the people in my party that I would regularly have to travel back to my base and talk to each of my companions and the various other characters who have moved there.
While many of the side quests feel frivolous you don't have to engage with them much at all to unlock enough power points to move on. In a sense, you can make this game as long and deep or as short and shallow as you want. When I spoke with Executive Producer Mark Darrah, he told me that the game can take anywhere from thirteen to 125 hours to complete. Of course, the thirteen hour figure is only engaging with the main story and knowing exactly what to do and where to go and the 125 hour estimate would be for die-hard completionists. It does go to show that there is as much or as little RPG in this game as you are willing to commit to.
I played the Xbox One version of the game, and it played very similarly to prior console versions of Dragon Age. It was very action oriented, as you need to hold down RT to attack and use the face buttons for skills. I found the combat relatively easy, and while not boring, it also wasn't super exciting. I will say that combat with my Qunari sword-and-shield warrior did get more engaging as I started filling up my skill tree with new abilities. You can also pause combat at any time and issue orders from an overhead view, as well as switch between any of your three party members on the fly. Combat with my Qunari was direct enough that I never felt the need to issue orders or switch to my other characters other than to drink the occasional potion. Overall, combat was totally serviceable in the limited amount of time I got to spend with it.
I'm of two minds on this game from my five hours of gameplay. On one hand, the levels feel more open and free than they did in DA:O. On the other hand, what I was doing often felt shallow. I liked how much control I had over the development of my character, party, and Inquisition, but also felt like I had to remember to seek out the story and character moments that I loved from previous BioWare games. I'm curious to see how the game will develop and to see how much more engaged I would have been in the side quests if it were actually my character and save file. I liked what I played enough to want to spend more time with the game to see how it turns out, but I am not without my doubts.