Take “The Lord of the Rings,” ”Game of Thrones,” ”The Wheel of Time” and pretty much every other epic fantasy of the last century. Throw in a shelf full of “Dungeons & Dragons” manuals and a library of classic role-playing games dating back to 1981’s “Wizardry” and “Ultima.” Mix vigorously, and you have some idea of what to expect from “Dragon Age: Inquisition” (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox One, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, $59.95).
The latest RPG from BioWare, the Canadian developer known for such landmarks as “Baldur’s Gate,” ”Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” and “Mass Effect,” is a sprawling creation that builds on all those successes. It has vistas of eye-popping grandeur but allows for quiet moments between characters. It lets you compete in fast-paced battles or idly pick out drapes for your castle. It offers a cosmic good-vs.-evil apocalypse along with more mundane struggles between its flawed, mortal heroes.
The main protagonist, who becomes known as the Inquisitor, can be male or female, one of four races (human, elf, dwarf or the bull-like qunari), and one of three classes (mage, warrior or ranger). The continent of Thedas has been beset by rifts that allow demons to enter from another dimension; the Inquisitor alone has the mysterious power to close them. What’s behind the rifts? The answer comes about 30 hours in — at which point “Inquisition” is only about one-third of the way done.
The Inquisitor can’t save the world alone, and a huge part of the game’s appeal is in its supporting cast. My favorites were the rakish mage Dorian and the haunted assassin Cole, but each of your cohorts has such a distinct personality that you’ll want to spend time getting to know all of them. You can take three of them on each mission, and it’s fascinating to watch them interact.
They usually fend for themselves in combat, though you can pause the action to give them orders. Once your characters build up some skills, the battles are usually over in short order — but defeating one of those thick-skinned dragons requires the ability to switch quickly among your four fighters.
While the missions and the overarching plot are compelling, simply roaming around Thedas is pure delight. It’s a huge continent, and the only way to see it all is to start walking. It’s thrilling to discover an ancient ruin in the middle of a desert, or a mysterious shrine in the bowels of a cave — and then realize you’ve stumbled upon another mystery that could take hours to solve.
This is the work of a studio at the top of its game, and a huge relief to those of us who worried about BioWare’s future after its founders departed in 2012. Having invested 100 hours in it, I’d be happy to keep playing for another 100. Four stars out of four.