Since finally finishing the main storyline in Dragon Age Inquisition this month, I’ve decided to compare it to another of the greatest video games in recent years, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, to see how each fares. I’ve enjoyed both games a lot, and they have tons in common. Both games are fantasy RPGs, the third in their series — and both try open world for the first time.
That last part is what I really want to discuss. The Witcher 3 goes full open world — you can travel everywhere without loading screens — while Dragon Age goes with a limited open world, where you select a spot on the map and then freely explore that large area.
What’s interesting to me is that these games, so similar in their approach, are very different in their execution. While The Witcher 3 really nails the open world experience, Dragon Age Inquisition’s attempt largely failed for me.
Let’s Play Side Quests!
For a huge, open world fantasy game that players are going to sink 50+ hours into, you need a lot of quests. There’s a main storyline, sure — but you’re also likely to have a lot of side quests.
It feels like CD Projekt RED had all of these quests in mind for The Wither 3 early — overarching storylines, little villages and characters with their own problems, political scheming, and more. And it just so happens that they had so many of these stories to tell, it takes 80+ hours to complete the entire game. That’s pretty cool. I’ll happily spend that much time on a video game if I’m completely immersed in what’s going on — even if that’s a silly side quest that has the grizzly hero Geralt trying to be an actor in a play.
But in Dragon Age Inquisition, it feels like BioWare created an empty open world game because they just really, really wanted to create an open world game. And it’s beautiful, which encourages exploration. But then they had to fill it with dozens of hours of side quests.
How Dragon Age Inquisition handles these quests is very different than how Witcher 3 handles them. You can feel how cumbersome it is when you see that many of these fetch quests are hidden in your journal, or found on the road in letters. As much as I love RPG lore, I don’t take the time to read every codex entry in a game. With so much hidden in text, Dragon Age Inquisition left me feeling detached from these smaller stories much of the time. If I’m playing a video game, I want to see and experience the story, not read about it.
Cutscenes are Critical
A lot of this comes down to cutscenes. They’re key for me to feel invested in what’s happening.
The Witcher 3 is full of them. Even if you’re just picking up a monster contract — one of the game’s side quests that has protagonist Geralt go kill a monster somewhere — you may very well speak to some villager who saw the monster. That leads to a level of investment that Dragon Age Inquisition hides in codex much of the time. These aren’t just distant scenes seen from an overhead camera — you actually get close-ups of Geralt and the character he’s speaking to, giving you the perspective of really being there.
Of course, Dragon Age Inquisition has plenty of cutscenes too, and they are my favorites among the game’s storytelling moments. However, with many side quests, Dragon Age Inquisition prefers to keep the camera up and behind your character as you discuss the quest, so you’re not really immersing yourself in the scene or conversation. It’s not a true cutscene, and it leaves the player feeling detached.
I also just wish the cutscenes in Dragon Age Inquisition were more frequent. Unless you’re trying to avoid them, you can’t go 30 minutes in The Witcher 3 without hitting a cutscene — but you can spend hours wandering around Dragon Age Inquisition waiting for something interesting to happen, as you check off one fetch quest after another.
Unlocking a Story?
What also didn’t work for me with Dragon Age Inquisition: you have to essentially “unlock” story missions by completing side quests. Various quests will give you Power points, and you might need 20 or 30 (or even 40-50!) Power points for a big story mission — a.k.a. the interesting stuff.
This makes Dragon Age Inquisition feel very “gamified” to me. That’s a pet peeve of mine. When I’m trying to immerse myself in a fantasy RPG, I don’t want to be reminded at every turn that I’m just playing a video game, which has these somewhat arbitrary rules. You can argue that Dragon Age Inquisition wants you to gain “Power” so that the Inquisition itself, which you are leading, is stronger. However, this doesn’t alleviate how gamified it feels. I got so tired of closing Fade Rifts trying to gain a Power point here or there, I found myself feeling blah at the idea of having to spend the next two hours trying to unlock a new part of the story. But that’s just how Dragon Age Inquisition works.
The Witcher 3 doesn’t have any similar “points.” Instead, I forgot I was playing a long game, because I was completely invested in each small quest that strings you along in the larger story.
Don’t get me wrong: Both of these games have amazing stories, and I have nothing against Dragon Age Inquisition’s quests at their heart! The problem is simply in the presentation. While I enjoyed Dragon Age Inquisition on the whole, it doesn’t compare to either Dragon Age: Origins before it (a game that wasn’t open world but told its story the best way it possibly could, and very successfully) or The Witcher 3 (which handles the open world concept with aplomb).
If Bethesda has set the standard for exploration-focused open world games with Elder Scrolls and Fallout, I think The Witcher 3 has really set the standard for open world RPGs that focus on storytelling.
As for BioWare games, I’m really hoping that Mass Effect Andromeda executes its open world concept in a more immersive way than Dragon Age Inquisition! I’m curious to see what happens next.