Dragon Age Inquisition: A User Interface Review (Part 2)

This is a continuation of examining the user interface for Bioware’s Dragon Age Inquisition. I cover the good and the bad, focusing mainly on the design elements and how it helps or hinders gameplay.

Part 1 covers the Setup and Character Creation, Part 3 will cover other Menus and outlying screens. This post will take a look at the elements during gameplay, including Dialog options and the Heads Up Display (HUD) during battle.

(Again, I don’t have a setup to take screenshots from my TV so will utilize Google for all images in these posts. So credit goes to those owners.)

Let’s do this!

Dialog Selection

Bioware's Radial Dialog Selector
Bioware’s Radial Dialog Selector

Here is one of Bioware’s marquee game elements: the radial dialog selector. It works generally as it has in their previous games, mostly because of the elegant simplicity of the setup.

You can quickly view and highlight any of the up to six options by just your left analog stick. It’s faster than if all options had been listed out and you had to scroll down to the one you want.

In previous ME games, options were highlighted in color to show if the selection was Paragon or Renegade (good or bad). Here, that element is eschewed and the choices are a little less clear cut.

Bioware’s wheel generally follows a consistent intent structure:

ME2_DialogueWheelHowever it didn’t seem as if the choices followed this setup as closely as other games in the past.

Another visual element added to the dialog wheel is the stained glass icon in the center. It gives some hint as to the tone of the choice (fist = aggressive). I found that helpful, but mainly I loved that Bioware again found a small way to inject more visual personality into the game. The style sets it apart from a Mass Effect sci-fi adventure event though they’re both using the same tool.

Dialog Wheel Grade: A+

 

Game Controls

The button mapping for DA:I is mostly solid, especially for Bioware. Mass Effect 1 was maddeningly inconsistent, and Mass Effect 3 over-relied on the A (or X for PS4) button to do virtually everything.

Here, the analog sticks work just as every modern game does. And while not as bad as ME3, there’s still a reliance on the Do-All-For-Everything A (or X) button. The A button is used to jump, loot, or interact with a person or object. There were moments in battles where I wanted to jump up to a ledge to confront or avoid an enemy only bend over and harvest some elfroot.

Bioware allows you to map out the character abilities as you see fit, which is a great freedom for the player. I generally don’t alter the game controls from default, but definitely made use of this for my favorite attacks and skills.

Control Mapping Grade: A-

 

In-Game HUD

Heads Up Display
Heads Up Display

Role-playing games (RPGs) tend to be notoriously heavy on game data because a player could strategically want to be aware of a lot of things at once. In a Mario game, you don’t necessarily need to know a Goomba’s hitpoints or weaknesses to status effects. In an RPG, those things may matter.

In DA:I, there are basically five elements showing on the HUD: your party status in the top left, area map in bottom left, enemy health in the top right, current objective just below that, and character abilities in the bottom right.

In non-battle situations, only the map and current objective stay on screen, allowing the game to have a pretty clean look. Fantasy RPGs tend to try to add visual flourishes such as torn paper scroll edges and whatnot, but I’m happy Bioware has gone for simplicity.

The Map
The in-game map or radar tends to work pretty well. It conveys what it needs to generally. Good guys and bad guys are easily discernible as are nearby landmarks and checkpoints.

It falters a bit in conveying verticality though. There were times when I painstakingly made my way across to a landmark notated on the map, only to realize that it’s actually below me in a cave. Yet it’ll tend to pickup on enemies regardless of level.

Another quirk that took a while to figure out is that the radar pings for items nearby, but won’t find loot that are behind objects. So if a chest is behind a hedge, it won’t ping on the radar, even if I can see it visually.

Current Objective
Despite the fact that it generally stays onscreen the whole time, I never found it too intrusive. There are times when there’s quite a bit of info for an objective too. Perhaps my TV screen was large enough to feel as if it wasn’t blocking anything, or that the transparent box is at just the right opacity level.

But again the use of small caps for the body text violates readability.

Party Status and Enemy Health
I’ve grouped these together because they generally work well as they are, but as a visual whole they present some UI problems.

That party status section shows all four of your active team members and their health bars. If a member has an active barrier or guard then extra visuals are laid over their health, which is a great way to convey what it is as well as how much of it is left.

This section is also doing extra data duty by showing each character’s next ability or skill in battle, as well as indicating if a character has an unused ability point. The ring around the character icons also signifies the character’s mana/stamina recharge. There’s a nice extra touch of the character profile pics changing if he or she is low on health.

All in all, the elements are presenting a lot of info to the player but is pretty clear about all of it. Good job, Bioware.

However, the health bars are problematic. You have green bars for health and they go down as damage is taken. The area without green is filled with red. It makes sense color-wise and the red helps as an alert indicator.

Yet if you look at the enemy health bar, it’s using red as the active health, not the absence of it. It directly contradicts the visual language established on the left side. If you’re translating the graphic using the signage established, you’d think the enemy has no health left. Instead, no health is indicated by no color at all. I get that the designers are setting a difference between your allies and the enemy (green = good, red = bad), but if so then why not just make the green bars with no background as well? Why use red again to show something totally different?

Character Abilities
Another area that is taking on a lot of information in a tight space, and it could’ve been a disaster. Yet somehow it works pretty well.

There are four abilities shown in the center with corresponding buttons, and swap for another set of abilities when L2 is triggered. It’s a nice way to have a lot of skills available without requiring screenspace or more buttons. There were times when I wish I had access to a skill that wasn’t currently mapped, but for the most part eight skills are fine. The icons are large enough and use color well enough to distinguish themselves, although it took a little time to learn each one. A little bit of text would have helped, but I get that it’s a small space.

Each ability icon also shows it’s cooldown status which works well, especially since each ability is recharging at its own rate. Where it gets complicated is the fact that there’s an overall recharge of mana/stamina that affects when each ability can be used. I didn’t even realize what this outer ring was conveying until I’d progressed much further into the game. There are no notches in the ring to show when abilities might become active again which seemed sort of random so I don’t necessarily see its usefulness.

Outside of the cooldown ring is yet another ring that indicates the focus recharge. This has three tiers and is indicated with dots on the ring. What’s confusing is why a chain of diamonds is used for the focus build up. Why not show the ring filling up? It would help simplify a section that is bursting with activity and info.

For the most part, I respect the challenge of making this system work and Bioware was generally successful in keeping it clear, simple and clean.

A quick note… good guys on screen are ringed in yellow, bad guys in red. Makes sense. My only issue is if an ally dies, the ring disappears. Several times I wanted to revive a fallen ally while in battle but couldn’t find them because of everything on the screen. I wish there had been some skull icon or something hovering over the ally’s body.

In-Game HUD Grade: B

 

Tactical Screen

Tactical Screen
Tactical Screen

While fighting, a player has the option to go into a tactical view, freezing the action and sending the camera overhead. The player can then strategically plan out the battle and assign moves to his team. It’s a nice feature that makes the game feel true to its RPG roots, yet a totally optional element that can be ignored if desired.

The camera gets a little wonky in this view; not always allowing you to position it in a helpful way. The cursor is also problematic, not easily traversing over vertical elements. I’d actually have to snake the cursor around trees and such to get to an enemy.

When you hover over a character, a dialog box appears showing the character name, level, defense, hit points and any status effects.

Again, the sin of small caps is in effect here. The text is just difficult to read. Especially the hit points sitting over the health bar. You could make a case that the numbers aren’t as important as the visual bar, but then neither is the level or defense. So if you have it there, might as well make it readable.

It’s nice to see the status information, yet it gets complicated and confusing. There’s no difference between an effect that’s good or bad or active or passive. It would’ve been beneficial to indicate the differences for the player, even with just color.

Tactical Screen Grade: C

So that covers the in-game UI for this part, which I think were mostly successful. Next, I’ll tackle the menus which have their issues. Go to Part 3 here.

Let me know what you think below!

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