"Dragon Age: Inquisition" is the kind of game I love to play, but hate to review.
In 80 hours with BioWare's latest action RPG, I did a lot. I killed the bad guy. I got the girl (as a girl). I read enough lore about gods and lineages to rival Tolkien's appendices.
Yet so few games have left me feeling so far from discovering their limits — especially after so much time with them.
In "Inquisition," that harmonious stage of completion we all pursue — doing all there is to do, experiencing all there is to experience — is probably still another 80 hours away, at least. It's a testament to this game's greatness that I already look forward to plunking down that time with a big, slavish grin.
No, Thedas isn't quite as huge as Tamriel, but it's close. Among "Inquisition's" 10 open areas, the verdant Hinterlands alone dwarfs the hunting grounds of "Shadow of Mordor," and the moonlit dunes of the Hissing Wastes give "Red Dead Redemption's" frontier a run for its money.
There's also a majesty to these places, a willingness to mix up the terrain or just get weird with it, that brings to mind FromSoftware's "Souls" series. Artistically, the game draws more from "Fable" or "Kingdoms of Amalur." That is, it has colors.
But "Inquisition" is big in almost every regard, not just looks.
First, you create your character and learn — surprise, surprise — they're yet another Chosen One tasked with Saving the World while also Solving Everyone's Stupid Little Problems. Specifically, they're the sole survivor of a temple blast that kills a bunch of mages and templars who'd been negotiating peace, and also rips massive holes in the sky for demons to invade Thedas. Guess what? Only you can seal them. And that's all the resume you need to lead the Inquisition in sealing those holes and solving those problems.
Questions abound: Why did you survive? How did you get that power? Who are all these people, anyway? (I skipped "Dragon Age II.")
You'll spend the first few hours also making sense of the game's many upgrade systems: What skill trees to climb with each character, where to craft weapons and armor, how to augment them with spiky things and magic. Before long, it'll be routine to return to base from the wilderness and spend 10 minutes just crafting, trading and pawning crap until your party of 10 is wielding and wearing the best crap it can, with room for whatever crap you grab on your next outing.
Around then, you'll really start getting to know that party.
"Inquisition" has not only some of the fiercest companions to take into war, but the most fun ones to chat up in peace. Together you'll knock back booze, discuss deep issues like religion and transgenderism, and make some of the hardest decisions of your lives — and that's just with Iron Bull (voiced with impressive bass by Freddie Prinze Jr.).
Giving these companions as much actual character as visual character is "Inquisition's" natural, lively dialogue, which finds BioWare in peak form compared to previous "Dragon Age" games and the "Mass Effect" series. Sure, with as many uniquely layered romance options as this game serves up you're bound to cringe — but not as much as usual.
As you cozy up to your soldiers, you might feel ready to truly tame your surroundings in Thedas.
Here, "Inquisition" is a bit longer than it needs to be, padding its areas with astrariums (fun connect-the-dots constellation puzzles), shards (decidedly not fun collectibles to fetch) and demon rifts to seal (also fun). Then there's the activity that doesn't require your party of four to set foot anywhere: From the Inquisition's war table, you can dispatch spies, build bridges and scrounge for crafting materials in timed missions that add yet another page to the Inquisitor's day planner.
This familiar open-world mosaic of icons to erase from the map can stunt your progress when you begin the game at the Hinterlands, which also happens to be among "Inquisition's" biggest areas. You could spend 50 hours there and, topographically, touch little more than a tenth of the game.
The sooner you leave the Hinterlands, the sooner you'll advance "Inquisition's" story, which eventually introduces Corypheus, one of the milder bad guys to haunt an epic game in recent memory. He does make a hell of an entrance. As he and his pet dragon burn down your home base of Haven, you have the chance to save some folks. Your window to do so, however, is so small that you'll more than likely lose some amid haunting screams.
But that bold bit of in-game storytelling is all the heat BioWare puts on Corypheus. After you recover, with a stirring group sing-along on a snowy mountaintop, you just kind of shut the guy down. He looks cool, and he talks cool, but world-destroying Reaper he is not.
Softening the sense of danger is "Inquisition's" low default difficulty. In the 80 hours I spent with the game, I died maybe five times. I genuinely struggled with 2009's series-establishing "Origins"; in "Inquisition," I could hold the button for my two-handed warrior's spin attack, calmly whirl around the battlefield, loot the corpses and move on.
The lack of challenge can also leave an otherwise well-rounded combat system unexplored. The ability to press the PlayStation 4's touchpad to bring up a tactical menu where you can calmly queue actions for your three companions is nice, but unless you bump yourself up to hard or nightmare mode, it's not needed. I raised the menu even less than I died.
If you're looking for a challenge, there are the game's titular beasts. Unlike those of "Skyrim," the 10 high dragons of Thedas actually feel like dragons: massive, fire-breathing, steel-skinned creatures of legend it takes a good 10 to 20 minutes to slay. Still, don't expect to sweat.
With so many different kinds of activity, though, enjoying the combat isn't crucial to enjoying "Inquisition." Fun and full-time a distraction as it can be, romance isn't, either. No one thing is. BioWare's third "Dragon Age" game is so full-bodied a world that, provided you have the time, you can fulfill any number of fantasies.