Introduction

Dragon Age: Inquisition was a shining exception to what was a depressingly lackluster year for video games in 2014. Having put approximately 140 hours into the game, one might think it would be hard for me to simply choose a single part and declare it its best moment. One level in particular however, made that choice easy. With the exception of some great story beats, the Dragon Age: Inquisition shines the brightest in the level Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts.

To understand why Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts is so great, one must understand what Bioware’s greatest strengths are. Bioware, in my opinion, has led the industry in storytelling for over a decade. While some may disagree with me, I believe that the dialogue tree navigation of their games is just as much a part of the core gameplay experience as the combat. For many of their games, however, the level design has been such that the player will go out on a mission, combat will ensue with minimal dialogue tree interaction, and he/she will return to a hub area where the majority of conversation will take place. Occasionally you would get a dialogue tree to conclude a mission, but other than that, conversation and combat are kept separate. This is where Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts breaks the mold.

Dragon Age: Inquisition was a shining exception to what was a depressingly lackluster year for video games in 2014. Having put approximately 140 hours into the game, one might think it would be hard for me to simply choose a single part and declare it its best moment. One level in particular however, made that choice easy. With the exception of some great story beats, the Dragon Age: Inquisition shines the brightest in the level Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts.

To understand why Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts is so great, one must understand what Bioware’s greatest strengths are. Bioware, in my opinion, has led the industry in storytelling for over a decade. While some may disagree with me, I believe that the dialogue tree navigation of their games is just as much a part of the core gameplay experience as the combat. For many of their games, however, the level design has been such that the player will go out on a mission, combat will ensue with minimal dialogue tree interaction, and he/she will return to a hub area where the majority of conversation will take place. Occasionally you would get a dialogue tree to conclude a mission, but other than that, conversation and combat are kept separate. This is where Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts breaks the mold.


Premise

The premise of the level is this: as the leader of the Inquisition, the player must go to a masquerade party being thrown at the capital of Orlais in order to win the favor of either the empress or her traitorous cousin, who is suspected to have her assassinated at the event. Rather than donning armor, players arrive in formal evening attire. Here, players must partake in “the game” as the Orlesians call it. As any Game of Thrones fan would assume, “the game” is the cut throat political battle that is fought with silver tongues and daggers, not swords and shields.


The Level

Upon arriving, players are introduced to a “court approval” meter. As approximately 60% of the mission takes place out of combat, this meter serves as the source of tension throughout the level. Reaching a court approval of 0/100 will result in a fail state. Getting a higher court approval will affect your conversations throughout the mission.

The first area serves as a tutorial for the court approval mechanic. In a humorous way of committing to lore, players who are playing as non-human or mage characters will receive an immediate deduction of court approval. From here players will encounter the primary method of gaining court approval. Various NPCs are scattered throughout the party that are interactable. Finding the ring of a panicked woman or giving the most flattering responses to a party goer in conversation are examples of methods of improving court approval. Before passing to the next area, players are also introduced to “halla statues”. One of the main goals of the mission is to uncover some of the secrets and scandals that surround the empress and her cousin, and locked doors that can be unlocked for x amount halla statues are the best way of uncovering these secrets.

The following area will see players meet up with their companions in order to present themselves to the empress and the court. After this cutscene has concluded, players are let off the leash with instructions of finding any evidence of wrong doing by the empress or her cousins. For anyone who enjoys Bioware’s writing, this is tons of fun. Players can chat up all sorts of characters, including their own companions who are scattered throughout the party (some of which are not too happy to be all dressed up). Some characters will provide players opportunities to gain (or lose) court approval based on what they say. Halla statues are sparingly scattered throughout the environment for players to collect. Things take a turn, however, when players find that they can climb a large fence to access a restricted area. This is where the fun begins.

Once a player enters a restricted area, they only have a brief period of time before their court approval begins to incrementally count down. However restricted areas contain the juiciest secrets, and are filled with fun areas to loot and halla doors to unlock. This is one of the main reasons this level excels so much. Bioware took the essential mechanic of looting (something we all enjoy in our RPGs) and added tension to it. In this level, a player CANNOT loot everything in restricted areas, nor will they be able to unlock every halla door. Players much choose whether or not they would like to spend their halla statues on a door, and some cost more than others. Due to the scarcity of halla statues, only a few doors can be opened throughout the level, and it’s up to the player which doors they would like to take a chance on. Because of the court approval countdown, players don’t have long to dwell on these decisions before they must return to the party, which will halt the countdown. Before players can go back and forth between the party and the restricted areas in perpetuity, however, a bell will ring and players will be summoned to the ball room. This forces players to wrap up their search immediately, however players who lag behind a bit before finding their way to the ball room will find that their court approval will be boosted by 20 points. Why? For being fashionably late, of course.

After a cutscene ensues that sees the return of a fan favorite Dragon Age character, players will return to the hunt for clues. A lead presents itself rather quickly, and players will follow it to the palace gardens. This entire area is restricted, so every moment spent here will slowly reduce court approval. However unlike the rest of the level up to this point, players will gain three companions and an opportunity to unequip their evening attire in favor of their armor and weapons. It’s not long before players will encounter assassins that have been sent to deal with the empress. Players will navigate and fight (quickly!) their way through the gardens and into one of the nearby buildings, where a new party is then added to the empress/empress’s cousin dynamic in the form of the empress’s handmaiden. Once this cutscene plays out, players will return to the party through a door that gives them access to a new restricted area. They won’t have long to pour over every inch of the room, however, as the bell will once again ring to return to the ball room.

A fairly lengthy cutscene will play out in which players will be given the option to dance with the duchess. If players choose to accept, a fun sequence begins where players will converse with the duchess as they dance. The key is to choose dialogue options that are as vague as possible, with the player refusing to show their hand about how they feel about the current political situation (despite the evidence they might have found). Once the scene is done and successful players have gained their court approval points, the duchess will direct the player to investigate the royal wing of the palace.

The royal wing portion contains several different skirmishes with human enemies, loot chests and halla doors to encounter. It isn’t long before players discover the duchess set them up, and a battle ensues. This is a tough one, as players must now face demons alongside human opponents. Once the enemies are defeated and the rift to the Fade is closed, players will return to the ball room for the last time to meet up with their companions and to confront the duchess.

The level’s climax can play out in several ways, interestingly. One of the player’s companions will offer two methods of handling the duchess: seizing her immediately, or allowing her to first assassinate the empress before confronting her. Either way, a boss battle with the duchess ensues. This (at least on the higher difficulties) is pretty tough, and is also where my only quarrels with the level lie. The layout of the area in which the fight takes place lacks any geometry that would break line of sight, plus the only elevation that can be found for ranged characters to utilize is located at the entry to the area where it is easy to get trapped. Because of this and the additional enemies that spawn and surround players throughout the fight, I found my weaker party members near impossible to keep alive throughout the duration of the fight. It is possible, however, to completely avoid this encounter.

If a player has a court approval of 85 or above by the time they confront the duchess, they are given the option to simply “talk” with her. Players will once again don their formal garbs before approaching the court and party guests in the ball room. With a smug smile, players will reveal the duchess’s crimes to the court, and she’ll be seized by palace guards. For a mission so designed around keeping up appearances, this is the most satisfying outcome in my opinion, and I admire Bioware for being willing to simply omit the boss fight with no cheap substitute.

Regardless of how the duchess is dealt with, players must then confront the empress (if she’s still alive), her handmaiden, and her cousin. This is an extremely well written and executed pay off for the entire mission, as players will get to present all of the evidence that they were able to uncover and watch as each party squirms as their dirty laundry is aired. Based on how much blackmail material players were able to gather, they will get to choose who will rule Orlais and the fates of the others. After this is decided, the mission is concluded with a final reconciliation with the player’s companions before returning back to Skyhold.


 Summary

That’s a lot of text to say this: I love this level. It has pitch perfect pacing that alternates between combat and dialogue gameplay in addition to unique mechanics that were created for use in this level only. It forces loot hungry players to give up their “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality by implementing a time limit, while also forcing them to choose wisely how they wish to cash in their hard to find items. Additionally, because the level offers so much content in the way of clues and evidence to be found, players will have different experiences from one another based on which doors they wish to unlock and which areas they choose to search. Those decisions result in a variety of story outcomes that give players the feeling of having a really unique experience. Take all of that and add on the highly entertaining writing talent of David Gaider and the rest of the writing team, and you have yourself an immensely fun experience to play, and the best level Dragon Age: Inquisition has to offer.