As someone who normally balances college, a part-time job, and a hobby as a game critic, it has become more and more difficult to dedicate large chunks of time to long, hundred-hour epics. Time is a precious commodity, so signing onto lengthy campaigns can be a lot to ask for. When Dragon Age: Inquisition touted a playtime of over 100 hours, I was not too happy to hear it. After buying, playing, and beating the game, my opinion more mixed than I was expecting. It makes an interesting series of design choices, demonstrating a new philosophy for Bioware; one that I am still unsure what I think of.
One of these choices was to utilize mechanics typically associated with free-to-play, microtransaction laden game, without actually including said microtransactions. As the head of an organization dedicated to restoring peace and order, the player character has several advisors. Each member of this war counsel has their own specialties: They consist of the chief ambassador, the spymaster, and commander of the army. At the war table, each one can be assigned a mission to undertake in the player's stead, which they will accomplish in a given period of time. The trick is that these missions do not take game time, instead relying on real-world time. Many of them take only an hour or less to complete, which fits perfectly into what should be a standard session. Others take several hours, even a day to two in the most extreme case. Assigning these operations fits neatly into the average person's schedule, subtly encouraging the player to take a break and/or do something else for a time.
On top of that, quest design has been noticeably simplified. Previous entries in the franchise had fairly involved missions, with their own more personal tales from ordinary people. While some of them could be quick, many could take an hour or more. This is not the case in Inquisition. Eschewing the questing philosophy of the other Dragon Age games, Inquisition aims for conciseness more than anything else. Any one side-mission is designed to be completely quickly, within the span of about 30 minutes or less.
Even the dungeons in Inquisition seem to be made with this shorter running time in mind. Dragon Age: Origins included old temples and ruins that would take several hours to explore, up to 6 or 7 in the most extreme cases like The Fade or The Deep Roads. Although these places took a long time to explore, so much of that time is padded out with long corridors and endless fighting, without much in the way of meaningful content, making it difficult to keep the player's interest. Often, it would take several play sessions to complete one of them, whereas Inquisition's various old manors, ancient sanctuaries, et cetera, were compact in their layouts. Taking no longer than 30 minutes to fully explore any one of them, the locations were just big enough to have something interesting occur, but not enough to spend large chunks of time.
Another appreciable change that occurred in the making of Dragon Age: Inquisition is the new “open-world” structure. Unlike games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, Inquisition does not have one large, complete and dynamic area to explore. Instead, there are almost a dozen distinct, yet massive, zones of operation in which players can explore to their hearts content. Populated with the dungeons and quests mentioned above, along with a myriad of collectibles, these fields of play offer tons of things to do. Though it takes a lot time to complete everything in an area, one can quickly enter an area, find something to do, and complete it.
Lastly, character progression is not as fast as that of previous Dragon Age games. Unlike previous entries, Inquisition grants only a minor amount of experience when dispatching normal enemies. For example, at level 19, with a required 50000 XP to level up, a single soldier will only offer about 10 XP. Significant experience boosts, of 1000 XP or greater, will only be awarded when defeated strong monsters or completing quests. As a logical consequence, players advance more slowly than they ever have before in this series.
In a rush to play catch-up with everyone else, I binged for several days on Inquisition. However, as I sat on my notes and reflected upon the choices Bioware made for the game, I realized something: Bioware did not want me to squeeze 95 hours of play into my week off. In the context of the war table's subtle nudging to stop playing, bite-sized quests and dungeons, open-world design, and slow progression, it became clear that I was supposed to only play for an hour or so per day, over the span of months. In theory, I should be okay with this, since time is so hard to come by for many people who, like me, keep playing games as they start to mature into adulthood. To the game's credit, it largely succeeds at what it sets out to do. However, there were consequences to using this methodology, and I am not sure that Bioware's games are equipped to handle them.
Because of the focus on many faster, more compact quests, very few of them have the chance to leave an impression upon the player. Missions in Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 all told stories about the people and places involved in them. Even if they did not tie-in to the main story, each one says something, however minor, about what life is like in the world of Thedas. It is only because Bioware decided to give each quest enough time to develop, no matter how long that way be, that this was possible.
Inquisition changes this dynamic. With the more streamlined quests, there does not exist enough time to fully develop any one in particular. The result is that there is a lot of surface-level content, tasks meant only to serve as a minor distraction. This lack of deeper content, which tells its own story and connects with the player, makes it much less likely for one to become invested into the world and the plot. I barely connected to the people I was meeting when roaming through these large areas. Like a Diablo game, they did little more than give me an opportunity to find more loot and crafting materials. Rather than people, they felt more to me like bulletin boards telling me where I can go get a new shiny sword and/or what I can find in order to make them give me a new shiny sword.
Bioware also failed to realize that style also ruins the pacing of the main campaign. Many people report spending significant amounts of time, typically around 10 to 15 hours, in the Hinterlands before moving on with the story. In fact, these anecdotes are so widespread that leaving the area as soon as possible is one of the most common PSAs to new players. It is very likely that players will end up working on completing places like The Hinterlands nearly to the exclusion of the main quest. Since many other such locations open up once the main plot gets underway, this temptation is always looming over the player. For my playthrough, I went over 20 hours without advancing the campaign by even a single quest, and this happened to me on two different occasions after my experience in the Hinterlands. My old completionist instincts, honed after years of gaming, worked against me. Even though I was fully aware that these quests were unimportant, and that I was beginning to grow disinterested, I kept plowing through the optional content. Sadly, my experience is far from unique.
I once wrote that Dragon Age: Origins did not respect my time, especially given the context of Dragon Age 2. Inquisition makes a different mistake. Although it clearly acknowledges that I have other things to do with my life, it does so without addressing the issue of undue focus on raw game length. Because of this error, the content is on display here is purely surface-level, lacking the depth that Bioware was known for even at their worst. Despite my Inquisition playthrough lasting nearly twice as long as my nearly complete journey through Origins, it was not anywhere near what one could consider to be comprehensive. I cannot claim that I was “burnt out,” but nor can I say that much of the what I experienced was particularly interesting outside of the decidedly few main missions. Inquisition is not Bioware's worst game, but nor is it memorable.