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 2 covers gameplay, including Dialog options and the HUD during battle. For this last post, I’ll take a look at other screens such as the Options and Inventory Menus as well as outlying UI elements
(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!
Bioware had a nice idea here, to provide a way to read up on the lore and backstory that fills out this game. There’s a rich tapestry of content and not all users will actively go to the Codex section to check it out. Makes sense to also put it on the loading screens where the player will have to sit through many times during the game.
The tarot cards again are nice, and the ability to swap through three different ones allows some sort of choice in case one of them has already been read before. The background image is also a nice way to set up the next environment.
Unfortunately, Bioware sabotages their content by again placing it in small caps and making it uninviting to the reader. Also a deterrent is that the text just sits on top of whatever image is in the background. There are times when it’s just not readable. Why not at least place a semi-transparent box between the text and the background? It’s already done on the HUD objective.
There’s also another loading screen that’s pure black with a loading icon in the corner. Not much there, but the load times aren’t too long for it to be a nuisance for the player.
Loading Screen Grade: B+
Area Map and War Table Map
The area map generally works pretty well. The icons are clear enough. A line denoting the player’s recent path is actually very helpful at times. Objective text is again hindered by small caps but at least the amount of text doesn’t cripple user readability.
The ability to set an active objective or marker and the quick button to the Mission Journal are nice additional features. There’s again an issue of vertical depiction. Caves or items above you aren’t shown differently than items on ground level.
The war table is a nice element that isn’t the usual type of map you’d see in a game. It’s another way that the developer has found to make a unique part of the game.
You have to keep zooming out to switch to each half of the map which gets tedious, especially when you’re trying to decide between a few missions.
New missions and in-progress objectives are denoted respectively, but I found it frustrating that there wasn’t any indication if a mission was done or still open. I had to keep scrolling over and selecting missions to check them.
I also wished there was some way to preview how much time each mission would take without having to go select each one. At times, I wanted to set each of my agents onto a mission and make their times line up. Doing so required going through each map icon every time.
And on the mission objectives, again there’s the small caps problem. I know I’m hammering this into the ground, but it’s a serious UI issue. These aren’t optional background story tidbits, these are plot-centric missions and I never wanted to read the whole thing. I’d usually scroll to the end to see if I could figure out the gist of it.
Maps Grade: B
This is the screen a player gets to before each outing into an area or mission. Like the character setup at the beginning of the game, it’s not cluttered with too many things so is nicely clear and easy to understand.
The wonderful tarot illustrations are used again, and what was a cool surprise as I got further into the game was that the cards updated to different illustrations depending on what was happening in each member’s personal story.
In actual selection, the game allows the player to choose the order of the 4 person setup, which may not seem like a big deal, but does sometimes affect the gameplay in battles and I like that the feature was included.
Team Selection Grade: A+
Here, we’re going to start getting into some of the denser parts of the game UI. Starting with the menu that pops up when the player hits the Options button, the radial menu mimics the dialog system, which I think is a great way to keep a cohesive UI feel throughout the game.
I definitely used the Quest Map the most so it felt right to be in the center. However the other options are questionably mapped. Save and Load should be next to each other, as should Journal and Codex, and maybe Character Record and Inventory.
Options Menu Grade: A-
Character Record Menus
The first menu within the Character Record is the Ability Tree. This is where you can see and decide on your entire team’s skill set.
I didn’t find the system to be too hard to navigate, but I also feel that it could’ve been stronger or at least more in line with other UI elements established in the game. Bioware went with a tabbed tree branching system and maybe a radial system could’ve been explored.
A preview of the button mapping for the skills is provided and you can set up the skills right from this screen which is great.
The next tab shows all the unlocked skills and is probably meant to be the main screen for the button mapping. I liked that the game allowed me to do pretty much all of this in the Ability Tree menu though. It largely made this screen obsolete for me, but I appreciate the redundancy system.
Attributes is where you can see more of the raw numbers of your characters, but honestly I pretty much ignored this screen. The attributes are largely automated by the game and really didn’t affect my play. In other RPGs, the option to allot given points into each attribute made me pay more attention to the numbers. Even if I knew that equipment would help my fire resistance and I was going up against fire-based enemies, this area wasn’t so useful. I’d just equip the item and knew that it would do some benefit.
There are some infographics at the bottom which again, can’t be manipulated or viewed in more detail so brings up the question of if their existence is justified. For example, I see that my heart icon which I’m guessing is my health is almost 50% of the entire bar. Does that mean my health is only upgraded to half of its potential at my current level, or that I’m at the halfway point of the max allowed in the entire game?
The Inquisition Perks and Power charts to the right show a potential fix by including the current level as well as the amount earned over the amount needed.
I keep wondering what the balance of information should be. If it’s not actively helpful to the player, then it needn’t exist. But an RPG typically makes that data viewable if not accessible. Perhaps it’s a matter of making the presentation more out-of-the-box. If it’s going to be included, don’t just dump it in on a generic list screen. Make it engaging and inviting.
It is, however, easy to criticize than to implement.
Another tab that I basically ignored. The team AI was competent enough that I didn’t really feel the need to tweak their behavior. And perhaps I just didn’t tinker enough here to understand its usefulness.
Character Menu Grade: C
The first big issue I had with the Inventory menus was the “Valuables” section. Misleadingly named, these items tended to have no value to the game other than filling up the too small inventory limit. However, some items actually could be used by requisitions and the animal/enemy evaluation lady. Nothing really tells you that. I had to go online to find out that the items in yellow shouldn’t be immediately sold, but nothing in-game guided me to this insight.
Once into the submenus, a slew of information is presented. The top left shows a tabbed sub navigation (so Weapons is broken down into weapon types), which is helpful due to the amount of different weapons amassed as the game goes on. The submenu also notates new items which was a godsend.
What wasn’t helpful was the system to cycle through your teammates. The L analog stick scrolls through the items, the L and R bumpers tabs through the subnav, and the D-pad up and down buttons are used to go through the characters. I tend to think that the L analog and D-pad are interchangeable so found it annoying that they were mapped differently. I could forgive that issue if the mapping were explicitly displayed on-screen. But muddling the issue is that the top right shows to sideways arrows to prompt the user to flip through the characters, even though you press up and down.
My suggestion would’ve been to map the character toggling to the L and R triggers and graphically show the roster listed above the sub nav.
Once an item is selected, the option to view details is available. The information slides in, covering up the character displayed on the right. Not really an issue since the character isn’t providing any important info and is just a nice graphic to show the character equipping the item. It becomes a problem though when the player taps the Square button to bring up a comparison between two items. Then some of the vital info on the left becomes obscured.
I’m not saying to not do the comparison feature though because I found it to be very necessary. The info there is pretty clear, showing what is better or worse, using color very clearly. This is where some of the numerical data was useful to me. I would deliberate over the benefits of +9 Willpower over +6 Cunning, etc. The text below the Requirements is again in small caps and unreadable, but it tended to be unhelpful info anyway and I never bothered to read it.
The attribute graphs are again presented on the bottom left. It shows when items add or subtract to an attribute but again, it’s not providing me with much useful info so I ignored it.
Moving down into the Armor menu shows a consistent UI structure, which is a good thing. But it also sheds more light on the aspects that aren’t working.
Again, toggling through characters is an issue. You start to wonder why the characters are in a locked order or listed in such a haphazard way. Why aren’t the mages grouped so that if I’m in the Staffs subnav, I don’t have to go past other characters that aren’t relevant? Or at least allow me to switch up the order as I like, similar to the party selection.
This becomes even more baffling because any weapon and any armor will be displayed on the character showcased on the right. My mage can’t equip a two-handed axe but if highlighted, it’ll pop in on my character’s back. It’s a weird inclusion that just causes confusion.
I could see it as some UI oversight, but then in the armor section, any item you highlight will be shown on your character even if they could never equip it. Bioware went to the trouble of designing and rendering every item on every character even though it’s not available to the player. It’s a big question of why.
The Crafting menus worked in pretty much the same system but sometimes lacked critical data. The attribute rating was displayed showing the potential range of what you could craft but then bizarrely some items pushed you above the range listed. Strangely, the crafting menu highlights new items in your Inventory menu but not in the menu where you actually craft. You’d just have to remember which was new.
The highlighted item also didn’t specify to which character or class it was limited to, causing a lot of guess work. Usually I could figure it out but sometimes figuring out items within a category was impossible. There was no way to figure out if Mage Mail Arms were better or worse than Mage Coat Arms, etc.
Once you get into actually crafting an item, much of the information is presented like the other sections. I would’ve appreciated an ability to see what my characters currently had equipped before finishing crafting. Sometimes I’d use up vital materials to craft an item that turned out to be not as good as what I had anyway. The only way to prevent that was to go through the craft set up but then back out and head into the weapon or armor menu and find the relevant character and display the analogous item. Just too many steps and too much work for the player.
I’m quickly reviewing the Vendor menu as well since it works mostly like the other option menus.
However, the weapon and armor items are consolidated into one icon each in the subnav. It’s already proven in the other menus that those sections are expansive and have a lot of different items that require being denoted into sections. So why lump them all together here? There were instances when I bought a sword that I thought was one-handed only to have it in my inventory and realize it was two-handed and thus useless to my character.
It could be due to the lack of space for so many items. But the game is dedicating a ton of screen space for the character, which while nice to see, isn’t really helpful. Especially when about half of the subnav categories don’t even affect the appearance shown.
Inventory Menus Grade: D+
I think I could be a little too hard on the Inventory menus, but a player ends up spending a lot of time there. The system handles the weapons and armor okay, but breaks down during the crafting and vendor screens.
The continued use of the tarot cards and the radial wheel are strong points in the UI. Bioware also for the most part kept the HUD clean and simple especially when it could’ve quickly gone the other way.
The mystifying adherence to small caps is a big downside for me.
Overall Grade: B-
That’s it for this in-depth examination of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s UI (and UX I guess). It probably went on longer than it needed to, but I ended up enjoying really studying the game.
It’s making me think about writing about more game UI. If you liked this review, you can check out my overall review (not just UI) of the Mass Effect trilogy here.
Let me know what you think!