So not too long ago, I did a post on Xenoblade Chronicles that took a look at its story. That’s fine and all, but I’m wary of the fact that I didn’t really talk about the gameplay -- which, you know, is kind of important in a video game. I admit that I was worried about the MMO style at first, and I didn’t quite get the combat system at the outset, but didn’t take long for everything to click. There’s a reason why people think of it as one of the Wii’s best games.
It’s actually pretty fortunate that Xenoblade is fresh on my mind -- but unfortunately, that means I have to go into “whining about popular games” mode. In this case? I’ve been trying my absolute hardest to get into Dragon Age: Inquisition. And I can’t; I’m under the impression that I’ve been playing the game wrong this whole time, but seeing as how it’s been more than a week since I last touched it, I’m not exactly eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Not with Xenoblade and plenty of other games behind me.
It’s because of Xenoblade in particular that I understand something extremely valuable -- something that Dragon Age: Inquisition lacks. But to be fair, it’s not just a problem with BioWare’s latest; it’s made me wonder if too many games in general are on the wrong track.
My understanding of DA:I’s flow is that in order to earn the right to continue through the story, you have to earn Power from sidequests, of which there are tons. So circumstantially, playing the way I did up to my stopping point -- building a surplus of Power so the player can proceed uninterrupted -- is possible, but not recommended based on my time with it…and the lack of progress therein. Weirdly, even if it’s possible to have a continuous stream of sidequests going, it’s felt like the game’s actual plot has a stop-and-go quality to it. You go to a place, maybe talk to some people, or fight off some baddies, and then it’s over.
Well, that’s a reductive way of putting it -- it’s about the quality and content of those missions, and there is something to them -- but there have been instances where I found myself asking, “Wait, that’s it?” My expectation was that (even if I’m at the start of the game), I’d be put into some weighty episodes -- chapters with a definitive start, middle and end. I’ll admit that I don’t expect a drag-out fight toward a boss in every instance, but so far it just feels like I’ve traveled the land for conversations I’m practically sleeping through.
I don’t expect every scene or every event to go from zero to sixty in seconds flat. But even then, I’m struggling to keep “it’s only the start of the game” as the primary excuse. The game’s opening -- from the sight of your avatar wandering a green wasteland to the birth of a world-saving Inquisition -- is solid enough to make me want to keep venturing out. I went in expecting to get more of that.
Sure, I probably will at some point, but the “story” stuff so far has felt so insubstantial. Have I made a difference? Have I done any good? Because the most I’ve done so far is find out that everyone who belongs to a named group is arguing and doesn’t want to work together. And in the interim -- before and after -- the game is bombarding me with sidequests. I can’t walk for thirty seconds down a road without getting a sidequest, even though I accepted another sidequest prior to it. There are dozens of little icons on the map begging to be tended to, with miniscule trinkets to be found just ‘cause; it’s to the point where it feels like I’m running through a checklist instead of exploring a brave new world. A conversation with a damn religious figure fed into her roping me into a fetch quest.
But you know what? I get it. I figured out why I have problems with this game, and what it can do to fix them -- if it hasn’t already. It’s very simple, really.
It all starts with the characters.
I barely even finished a conversation with Sera before I internally screamed “Get in my party right now.” Her general glee and Deadpool-style rambling set her apart from pretty much everyone I met prior to that point. It wasn’t necessarily about her injecting some levity into the game (though that helped), but because if nothing else, she was different. As a character, and no matter her…well, character, she added something new and appreciable to the proceedings.
That’s more than I can say about the starting party. Chalk this up to The Sidequest Trap keeping me from the downtime to have conversations with my party members (on this, my third file; I did talk to them on previous files, and wasn’t exactly endeared by anyone), but so far I’ve found them less than ideal. I don’t feel the impetus to go back to the base and talk with Cassandra, or Solus, or Varric, because I feel like I’ve gotten enough of them just by having their non-presences in the party.
Cassandra is tough and serious. Solus is calm and rational. Varric handles the snark. A part of me wants to keep playing the game just to get these people out of my sight. And this is coming from someone who gleefully did all of the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2. Zaeed wasn’t my favorite character, but I leapt at the chance to run through his little arc. As soon as I got Sera, I dumped Varric. I haven’t looked back yet.
The game feels so cold and passionless. And I know, it’s not fair to say that at this point -- but on the other hand, it didn’t take plenty of other games nearly as long for me to get hooked. So at this stage, I have to say that Xenoblade did it better. Gameplay and story alike came together in battles; when Shulk and Reyn fought together, they would talk to each other -- giving each other boosts in confidence and congratulating one another when they landed critical hits. Shulk set up enemies for a fall, and Reyn knocked them over so they could go to town. They worked together via chain attacks -- once they had a third party member -- and by the player’s hand they could resurrect one another, pick them up after a nasty fall, or just cheer them up if their performance in battle suffered. THAT’S TEAM SYNERGY, AND IT’S AWESOME.
Confession time: because I was a clod who didn’t know how the game worked, I only got a small number of the Heart-to-Heart conversations littered throughout -- meaning that I missed a lot of bonding that could have made the game even stronger. But in my case, I didn’t really need that. The story did a fine job of selling Team Shulk as a team. Even if I skipped every cutscene, the gameplay would have been enough to prove that such a disparate cast needed each other. It’s not just about the power of friendship; it’s about the teamwork needed for a small unit to fight against a horde of mechanical killers. Cooperation and communication are kind of important -- which is probably true of real life soldiers, but I’ll withhold comment. Thankfully, life on the battlefield is beyond me.
On top of all that, the combat in Xenoblade is fun on multiple levels. It’s an audiovisual treat, even with the Wii’s lack of sheer graphical power; setting aside certain amazing tracks, the swirl of swords, lights, shots, and magic keeps the hype strong from the game’s start to its finish. Plus, the strategic options are exciting, no matter which characters you pick. It’s entirely possible to make a nigh-unstoppable Reyn -- one that can self-resurrect -- who tanks and builds aggro while readying his one-two combo of Magnum Charge and Sword Drive to deal tens of thousands of damage in one go.
And while he’s doing that, Shulk goes in with the sneaky hits to the sides and backs of enemies, and putting that Monado of his to good use. Even Sharla got to be more than just “the healer” -- her massive gun lets her tack on some extra hits, and she can throw in status effects to debilitate foes. It’s an active system with lots of flourishes, and (if nothing else) lets the game be an exercise in “press buttons to do cool stuff”. As it should be.
In DA:I? The combat feels like a fart in the wind. There’s no feedback when you’re shooting an arrow or firing a magic missile, and certainly not much in the way of visual flair (despite the mage’s staff-twirling shenanigans). I decided to stick with my archer -- the elven femme Suplex -- on the grounds that I should hang back and employ the tactics the game pushed me towards using, but I don’t see the need for that when my strategy has barely evolved from the first fight.
I hardly even need to pay attention to what I’m doing, let alone move; most fights I just spend watching the health bar empty. Frankly, the only way fights feel dynamic is if I lock onto an enemy and move the camera to a cooler position -- and even then it’s no guarantee.
And even with that borderline-useless Tactical Mode (good luck trying to snipe when the mode’s range is fixed!), it feels like my party of four is closed up in different rooms -- on different floors of a skyscraper. Oh, sure, they (i.e. Suplex) might chime in and say “Cassandra’s in trouble!” or “Solus is hurt!” when the time comes, but we’re effectively fighting in silence.
I don’t know what my guys are doing when a fight starts, and I can’t bring myself to care as long as they’re doing their class-specific roles and not dying. I can’t perceive the importance of my party not just because they feel so far away from me; it’s because it doesn’t feel like we’re struggling together, be it with the story or in battle.
Honestly, I can’t help but think of the Tales games -- specifically, Xillia 2. I’m probably nicer to it than I should be, given that it’s a game that shamelessly hides the main story behind sidequest-bred paywalls. To its credit, its gameplay is significantly more fun, but in the interim there’s more stuff for a player to sink his or her teeth into. A huge part of its battle system banks on linking with party members for both passive bonuses and unique combo attacks; even if it didn’t, the team of four still talks to each other on a regular basis mid-fight.
But even out of battle, there’s so much more to help build bonds between characters. In typical Tales fashion, there are optional skits that have the party members chat it up. Even if you ignore those, they’ll still speak while you’re out in the field. And in Xillia 2, their personal sidequests are so pronounced that they have icons signaling them in towns -- not to mention that said sidequests have multiple stages, with cutscenes (in-engine), that offer insights into who they are, and tack on bonus scenes to the main story once you reach the designated point. All of that helps to establish that the party isn’t just a bunch of jagoffs fighting demons and bandits. They’re a team. A family.
I’m not just bringing up Xenoblade and Tales so I can go “herp derp, JRPGS are better!” Case in point: I like how Mass Effect handled things. It had a major, overarching plot -- and while it didn’t necessarily go to as great lengths as the average Tales game to establish the whole “we’re a family angle” (not saying that it didn’t, of course), it did strive to have the player form a close personal bond with bunches of walking, talking polygons. And it succeeded.
It had that “save the universe” plot. It had sidequests. But its characters had enough charm and charisma to make you want to take time out to talk to them -- figure out what they were all about. I wanted to learn more about Miranda besides the amount of stress she puts on the backside of her pants. I wanted to hang out with Jacob and do cool black guy stuff. Hell, I’m still reeling from the death of Kaidan, and he must be the most boring of the bunch. The combat in those games was good enough (invisible sniping and freezing rounds, yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaah), but the characters? That’s what’ll bring me back for Mass Effect 4.
With DA:I, it feels like -- even at this early stage -- I’ve jumped right over some of the rungs on the ladder, and I’m dropping back to the ground because of it. I don’t feel like I’m anchored in the world; sure, I’m trying to protect it, but I don’t have a firm grasp of what it is. Chalk that up to me not spending a lot of time with the earlier DA games, but even if most of the bond was established back then, I should still be able to feel something for this new world. I should care about the struggle between the mages, the Templars, the Chantry, and the rebels. But I don’t.
Speaking strictly in story terms? It seems like the game is aiming for concepts and conditions, but those are the higher-level elements. Those are what you go for after you lay down the ground floor -- and there’s no element more basic and more vital than the characters. Sera is the only character introduced so far who made me feel that BioWare magic. As soon as I met her, I thought to myself, “Hey, things are finally looking up.”
So I guess the question I have to ask is this: can you care about anything before you care about something first?
That sounds like a weird question, I know. But let me put it this way: it’s been nearly a year since Infamous: Second Son came out, and at this stage I’m inclined to think that I was too hard on it. I think it’s flawed as all get out, of course; I’m not backing down on that. But the personal stakes and bonds that main character Delsin Rowe has -- and more importantly, establishes at the outset -- go a long way towards giving the motivation to start caring about everything else that happens. Whether it’s his brother Reggie or his ailing tribe, there’s someone out there that matters to him, and helps sway his actions.
I’ll admit that I would have defaulted to the Good Karma path no matter what, but Reggie’s presence -- a big brother and man of the law who’d want to do the right thing even without his badge -- made the choice a lot easier. Even so, I wanted to bond with him, and I felt the world a little bit more because I had a guy like him alongside me. So on a personal level, I enjoyed SS; what I didn’t enjoy was how it almost immediately fell apart in terms of its poorly-explored themes of personal freedom vs. security. Yo, Sucker Punch? Maybe a superhero game isn’t the best place to try and make a political statement, especially when your game features destruction porn that proves the mean ol’ government right.
It’s just baffling that games keep trying to aim for these high-minded concepts, but don’t have the execution needed to do anything more than say “this is a thing that exists” or “look at how deep and meaningful this game is”. Watch Dogs tried to be “about something”, but couldn’t even give us one decent character. DmC tried to be the next stage of video game narratives, but had a plot that could’ve been out-written by an office chair. Year after year, Call of Duty fails on every front, as if its developers refuse to learn from past mistakes.
People get attached to characters, first and foremost. The setting plays into preferences, too, and a strong plot can only be beneficial. Still, characters create opportunities on a small scale and a large one; putting a hero or heroine through their paces and having them interact with other elements -- other characters, story-specific conflicts, gameplay roadblocks, whatever -- is what allows for interesting stuff to happen. I’m not saying that I need every character to be a laugh riot, or for every game to take time out for friendship, romance, or good cheer. All I ask is this: whatever a game decides to do, it has to do it well. And I’m inclined to say that DA:I doesn’t.
Once more, is it fair to judge the whole game based on a tiny snippet? No. But here’s the thing: regardless of the medium, everything needs a hook. DA:I’s gameplay isn’t nearly enough to provide that hook at its outset (which isn’t as unreasonable a demand as you’d expect), and hasn’t yet, making for a weaker game. Fortunately, as an RPG it can offer up that hook via its story; unfortunately, that doesn’t really come through. The beginning is solid, but it’s still just that -- a beginning. There’s a steep drop-off because the game pretty much tells you to run errands instead of figure out who ripped a hole in the sky.
The thing about DA:I -- and other RPGs, no doubt -- is that it’s built to make the player selfish. It starts with you being labeled as the chosen one, but it doesn’t stop there. Everything that happens is more or less in relation to you, and how it affects you. I can’t imagine Varric and Solus having a conversation with each other, and don’t feel like they enjoy each other’s company during their once-every-hour random chat in transit. Instead, they can only develop if you’re around, as if they suddenly take the stage.
You’re pretty much the only one that can solve the world’s problems (as its gofer), but you’re essentially its last sane man/woman who has to tend to the squabbles of enemy factions -- whose conflict, unless you’re entrenched in the lore, doesn’t affect you in the slightest. Why should you care about the mages or the Templars when you’re just some doof that A) is technically a blank slate, B) was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and C) can only have a history with those factions if you choose it via your backstory -- which you can’t really choose in the first place?
The implication is that the world is under fire, and you and your organization are going to keep the peace -- but the gameplay stands in contradiction to all of that. The tutorial area’s got some dead bodies, but once you clear that, it’s off to a place called Haven -- and true to its namesake, it’s pretty peaceful. As is the area around it. Same goes for The Hinterlands; it’s a forest with outlaws roaming around and pockets of enemies, but huge swaths of it have nothing going on. You visit a town where you might hear people talking about the “troubled times”, but there’s no visual evidence of it besides arguments between two factions firing jibba-jabba at one another. And then you can go to the canyons and find -- beyond the occasional demon-spewing rift -- even more nothing.
If there is a threat, it could simply be a thousand years away -- meaning that you’re invited to stroll at your leisure, doing whatever you want, with barely even the concept of immediacy. You’re free to do what you want -- and by default, what do you want in an RPG? To get stronger, and learn new skills, and get cool stuff (i.e. loot). That’s it. And sure, the prospect of a new level is thrilling, but it’s shallow. It can’t compare to the prospects of worlds and battles that get your blood going. Because it can’t compare, it isn’t long before even the thrilling becomes the routine. When you don’t have that anchor, you just end up floating adrift -- lost in a sea of cold, passionless, non-demanding misadventures.
Now, I’ll be fair. I feel silly for even thinking it, but just to be safe I’ll go ahead and say it: what I’ve said here is pretty much my opinion. So I can’t say that (right now) I like DA:I, but that doesn’t mean it’s objectively awful. It just doesn’t line up with my tastes. I’m the sort who’ll gladly hold up Reyn Time -- an engaging unity of gameplay and story -- over anything that makes me refer to its core conceit as “The Sidequest Trap”. So what does that mean for me and DA:I?
We’ll see. Maybe I will play it some more. Or, alternatively…
You know, sometimes I can’t help but think that more games could be improved by taking on some mechanics from fighters. Then again, I’m partial to the mere prospect of a well-placed Phoenix Smasher.