Unlike my previous post, this is meant to be a more serious take on Dragon Age: Inquisition. Fair warning: it is pretty nerdy. Feel free to skip over it if you don’t have a significant interest in the lore of the Dragon Age franchise and such. If you proceed, know that I never pull punches with spoilers.
Yesterday EA sent out of a ton of new links and previews for DA:I. One of them involved an hour-long gameplay video in the Hinterlands that lacked any sort of voiceover commentary; I managed to watch about half of it before it was made private. (Finished it up today when it was suddenly accessible again. Yay!) It revealed a significant spoiler or two that whet my appetite. Thanks to this and other tidbits, we now have a pretty clear understanding of the initial sequence of the game. I’m not sure if there will be some sort of cinematic or such tacked onto the beginning; that’s for us to find out on November 18.
With that, DA:I goes for the cold opening: the Templars and Mages, after about two years of protracted war, are at a peace conference at the Temple of Sacred Ashes called for by the Chantry. I had wondered if this would include the Divine, as killing Justinia V off would have serious repercussions on the story, so I had my doubts as to whether or not Bioware would have her there. In in the Hinterlands, Mother Giselle reveals the Divine did indeed perish in the explosion, leaving the Chantry all but neutralized as a factor in the larger Mage-Templar War. Both sides find themselves without a viable third-party arbitrator they could turn to, not that either has been eager for a negotiated settlement since the revolt at the White Spire. The formation of the Breach utterly ruins any chance for the status quo to be maintained. The Templars undoubtedly blame the Mages for what has happened, inflaming their zealotry and suspicion towards them to new heights; the Mages respond in kind. So now the two factions have returned to open, merciless warfare, warfare we witness as we traipse through the Hinterlands. While Bioware is trying to maintain some sort of balance between the two, the Mages are clearly the underdogs in the conflict. Frankly, the only reason you would support the Templars at this point is if you agree with their dogmatic paranoia. Otherwise, there’s really no argument for the Order’s behavior.
I should stop and do a bit of analysis on the Mage-Templar War. Neither side really seems to have the upper hand after two years of fighting, partially due to realism and partially due to writer intervention, but let’s think about the two factions and outline who, what, and where they are. We’ll start with the Mages:
At this point, in 9:42 Dragon, the Circles of Magi are a memory. The War started with the revolt at the White Spire, which concluded at Andoral’s Reach. The College of Cumberland formally voted to declare independence from the Chantry. Dragon Age: Asunder leaves the situation on a cliffhanger: the Mages are a desperate, battered, weary lot hiding out at Andoral’s Reach, waiting for the Templars to march on them. Given the two-year gap between then and DA:I, we can assume a few things: the Templars never marched on Andoral’s Reach, or the Templars did, but their efforts did not result in the decisive victory they needed. I surmise the Mages successfully extricated themselves from their situation, with enough members and leadership surviving and escaping to continue their insurgency. Which is what the Mages undoubtedly resorted to: guerilla warfare. The Mages, as a faction, are few in number–perhaps a few thousand members on the whole continent at best. The Templars, if we make some basic assumptions, likely outnumber them anywhere from five- to ten-to-one. Mages are generally feared, outlaws by definition, and due to their relative social isolation are lacking in both a support network and robust intelligence capabilities. They’re also heavily divided. Such internal conflict is probably their greatest weakness, as it’s unlikely any of them have a coherent concept of what they’re aiming for beyond sheer survival at this point. It’s not as big of a liability in times of existential crisis, as now, but should their situation improve enough to where they can sit down and conceive of a post-Circle world, that division will threaten them greatly.
On the other hand, the Mages do have a number of significant logistical and strategic advantages. First, they aren’t aiming for much right now. All they really want to do is survive until they can negotiate a favorable revolution to their position, whatever that might eventually be. This simple goal synergizes well with the fact that Mages only need to be alive to be a threat. Since all their power lies within themselves, they have few logistical demands, something that allows them an incredible amount of flexibility in how they operate. Like any good insurgency, they are incredibly hardy as a group and very, very difficult to directly confront and extinguish. What’s more, unlike a good insurgency, directly confronting them is not necessarily a good idea. The greatest strength Mages have in their arsenal is their force multiplier effect: you only need a few of them to devastate an army, and they are virtually unstoppable when given any room to coordinate and maneuver. Keep in mind here that while we see Mages as weak and desperate in both games, remember that the tales of Andraste’s conquests are littered with references to divine intervention on the part of the Maker, along with the backdrop of a Tevinter Imperium devastated after the First Blight. When you consider that it took all of that to bring the Imperium to its knees, that the Imperium never actually fell, and that Minrathous, the ancient home of the Magisters, has never been conquered, the Mages suddenly don’t seem so helpless after all.
That being said, this all holds only if the Mages are on the defensive. Strategically, the Mages have few viable options for offensive warfare. Unlike the nuanced sophistication of Tevinter techniques, along with the sheer power that blood magic offers, Circle Mages have a very rigid education that doesn’t teach them much other than raw devastation. Their morality also precludes (most of) them from wreaking such havoc as their unscrupulous cousins in the north might. Their demographics, techniques, and popular position in the world precludes them from taking these advantages and turning them into a viable offensive strategy. Long story short, the Mages cannot achieve anything through conquest, nor should they want to. They don’t have the resources to hold territory like that: that’s the Templars’ game, and they are no match for them on that playing field. The Mages’ larger hope comes from demonstrating repeatedly that the Templars cannot bend their knee and that the only way to resolve the conflict is to give them what they want.
Let’s move onto the Templars, though. You can’t analyze one side without touching on the other, after all, since they influence how the other behaves. The Templars come to the table with numerous obvious advantages over their enemies. They are disciplined, experienced, organized, logistically capable, and have the moral high ground, so to speak. For all their crimes so far, their cause continues to hold significant sway among the people of Thedas, and they don’t have the capacity to create such immediate and wanton death and destruction as Mages do. Moreover, they are united. They believe it is for the good of Thedas that they prevail, and that the Mages, while holding some sympathetic complaints, crossed the line when they rebelled openly. Finally, they outnumber the Mages heavily, and due to their martial prowess, they have political leverage they can draw on to gather more resources and men across the continent.
And yet, the Templars’ position has deteriorated precipitously since the outbreak of the conflict five years ago, despite appearances to the contrary. Even two years ago during the incidents at the White Spire and Andoral’s Reach, they had the upper hand. The Mages were still corralled in the Circles, mostly accounted for, and, most importantly, isolated from each other. The Circles were built by the Templars as they were for a reason: they are precisely the environment Templars excel at versus Mages. They can limit their movement and prevent the Mages from becoming a force multiplier that could threaten them. Out in the open, however, the Templars lose their edge immediately. Templar abilities require close-quarter combat to be a factor, and they can only be used if they have a steady supply of lyrium. Take that out and the Templars will all go insane within a month’s time. This is their most critical logistical vulnerability, made all the more significant by the loss of the Chantry. Naturally the Templars will be able to secure supplies of lyrium from smugglers or such, but the Chantry’s network was second to none. Most importantly, it provided lyrium to the Templars at no cost. Without the Chantry supporting them, the Templars have to spend their own money to keep themselves in the game, which presents a sort of ticking time bomb the Templars always have to be wary of. The Templars have no source of revenue without the Chantry besides conquest and foraging off the land. Add to that their many other logistical needs, such as food, supplies, equipment, horses, etc. When all is said and done, the Templars are far from sitting high and mighty. They’re likely more desperate than the Mages are.
Simply put, the Templars lost the strategic initiative whenever the Mages managed to break out from the Circles and scatter into the countryside. Now they’re faced with a continent-wide insurgency they have virtually no hope of eradicating, the precise scenario they wanted to avoid, whether they realized it at the time or not. As such, they have two unpleasant choices left to them: throw the dice and try to crush the Mages with their own resources, or play the long game and hunt down the Mages with the help of the nations around them. This, however, would bind them to politics and interference, which they don’t need. Templar character is already incredibly suspect at this point, and their ever-intensifying brutality is not winning them any favors. Neither avenue is guaranteed to work, and each has significant problems. If they try to act on their own, they’re likely to alienate any support they have left, ruining their ability to keep fighting effectively. If they try to play the political game, however, they’ll have to make significant compromises, starting with throwing away any hope of maintaining the status quo. The Circles sytem is unsalvageable; the Mages would sooner die than return to that sort of life. The only way to save that system is if the Templars did manage to crush the rebellion unilaterally. Given how far the fanaticism of the Order has reached, I see the latter, more patient option as being very, very unlikely.
The Plot Thickens
Moving back to the larger picture, we can paint this basic chain of events for the beginning of DA:I: the Breach is formed. The Divine is killed and the peace summit is disrupted. The Inquisitor encounters a feminine figure within the Fade who gives him/her the Mark, an event other people witness due to the fracturing of the Veil; people hail your Inquisitor as the Herald of Andraste, even though this figure we encounter is likely to be related to Flemeth (if it isn’t Flemeth or Morrigan herself) or some other player, although I wouldn’t put it past Bioware to simply leave the nature of this figure unexplained altogether. As some crony of the Elder One quips:
“You [the Inquisitor] are a mistake. You should never have existed.”
Forward we go: Cassandra finds the Inquisitor, the lone survivor among thousands of burning corpses. She presumes the Inquisitor is responsible for it all and interrogates him. The Inquisitor protests they are not responsible,at least not consciously, and sets off with her to prove it. This presents us with our initial party: Cassandra, the Inquisitor, Varric, whom Cassandra dragged along with her, and Solas, who by chance is present at the summit and offers his services as a hedge mage possessing significant expertise in the Fade. At his suggestion, you go try to seal the Breach, but succeed only in halting its growth. This establishes your credibility in Cassandra’s eyes, and you emerge from Haven with the founding of the Inquisition, the final card the otherwise moribund Chantry has to play. Your next zone is the Hinterlands, which gives you a preview of the conflict between Mages and Templars, informs you on the larger geopolitical situation, and herds you to Val Royeaux. Here you meet Vivienne, Sera, and perhaps a few other party members.
The details of what happen after this are uncertain and rather unimportant right now, in my opinion. You get to and capture Skyhold, which may or may not involve Corypheus. At the very least, we know from spoilers that Corypheus has been corrupting the Grey Wardens, which explains why the Inquisition was fighting them in the some of the older trailers. It’s also almost certain Brialla, Michel de Chevin, Empress Celene, and other players in the Orlesian Civil War and other places will show up, along with the confirmed Hawke, Morrigan, Flemeth, and a few others. We might have some passing appearances from the romance options in DA too, though I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.
However, we know next to nothing as to what the rest of the plot entails. We know at some point you go to confront Alexius, leader of the Venatori, and it’s here that we have some tantalizing hints as to what awaits us, mostly in the form of two quotes, one from Leliana to Alexius:
“I want the world back.”
And one from Sera, looking upon a tear in the Veil you’re trying to repair with Dorian’s help:
“That’s how they won. How It won.”
Both quotes are made in a very despondent tone. The gameplay we saw at E3 clearly shows Leliana in a cold, broken rage. Her willingness to defend the Inquisitor and Dorian against an unceasing horde of foes from the Fade, in which she possibly ends up dead, demonstrates an uncharacteristic reckless abandon and desperate anger from her. What’s more, I don’t think people picked up on just how desperate the situation around them seemed in those videos. The Fade was spilling into the physical world. Both Iron Bull and Sera were quickly defeated by the Fade monsters. Alexius was dead. Leliana was wounded or about to die. There didn’t seem to be any real way out. Given what Leliana said and all the other elements in play, my suspicion is that some point midway in the plot, the Elder One manages to enlarge the Breach on a sudden or something and significantly damages the fabric of the world, if not ruining it entirely. I’m hoping this will put the Inquisition in a situation similar to the endgame of Final Fantasy VI, with the plot focusing on picking up the pieces of this broken world or somehow reversing what the Elder One has accomplished. As much as I would love the former, I’m leaning toward the latter, with a possible element of time travel or (more likely) Fade shenanigans that allows the Inquisition to undo the damage they find. I suspect this might involve the eluvians; the leaked Xbox One achievement list shows a collection of eluvians centered around a circular pool of water, and we know Morrigan is present in these scenes. What I don’t want is an idiotic reset button a la Star Trek: Voyager. I’m perfectly fine with rewinds or such as you fight the Elder one for control of the fabric of the Fade or something, but please make these events mean something permanently, Bioware.
As for who the Elder One is or what he’s trying to accomplish, his basic motivations and aspirations have already been made clear: he’s some sort of ancient being who wants to be the new god of the world. I don’t know or care to speculate much on anything beyond that. My personal suspicion is that he is “Fen’Harel,” or rather the being the ancient elves called Fen’Harel, but who knows. There’s really nothing to base that on. Frankly, I don’t want to know. I want to be surprised. The thrill of the unknown is priceless: it only happens once.
All That Remains
There are other conflicts in play, such as the Orlesian Civil War and the potential uprising of the elves, that will influence the events of the game. All in all, though, I’m cautiously excited about what I see. Dragon Age: Inquisition has such a wealth of material to work with, and even resolving half of these conflicts will satisfy me. But let’s talk a little bit about what I don’t want to see:
- The Mage-Templar Conflict not being resolved.
This is, frankly, the most important plot element besides superficially simple conflict with the Elder One, and the one Bioware has been building up since Dragon Age 2 without reservation. They need to deliver here, with the Inquisition making some significant contribution to its ultimate conclusion. If it’s not finished by the time DA:I is over, “disappointed” will hardly describe my feelings.
- The history of the elves not being expounded upon significantly.
I respect Bioware so much for both refusing to reveal the ultimate questions regarding the nature of the Dragon Age Universe and for having them written down and established somewhere in secret. (Hello, Lost.) Still, there’s only so much time you can stall before you have to tip a card or two. There’s concept art posted by an artist on the DA:I team that strongly hints Arlathan or some aspect of ancient elven civilization will be seen. This had better not be some stupid ruin in the woods. Show me that sunken city, or something as astounding to match. Some of the deeper mysteries of Thedas need to be experienced.
- Mass Effect 3 II: Abandon All Hope.
The ending of Inquisition needs to be like Dragon Age Origins: satisfying and appropriate, but it also needs to be something more than text set against low-resolution backgrounds. It must not be The Instagram Roulette, some absurd cliffhanger, or another lame variation on this same concept. I know resolving storyline trees and putting everything together while maintaining some level of choice and volition is a horrible nightmare, but that’s the price you agree to pay when you declare these kinds of ambitions. We, the players, have every right to excoriate you for not putting up.
As you can see, I’ve been waiting for this game for four years. The level of interest and excitement I have is making me feel like a kid again. It’s going to be quite a ride, but I have hope I won’t be disappointed this time. The wait will soon be over. The real challenge lies beyond it.