As we have shown and announced more of the gameplay features in Inquisition, some of our fans have voiced concerns about one feature in particular: the removal of healing spells from the game. Luke Kristjanson gave an excellent explanation of our designers' reasons for making this change, but because folks are still concerned, I asked if it would be helpful to give my perspective as someone who is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a hardcore tactical expert. Someone who is, many people would say, DIFFERENTLY COMPETENT in his play style. Someone who heard the initial plan to remove healing magic and went, "What, no, I need that for my healths and stuff, why are you doing this?"
My (Lack of) Qualifications
I played Dragon Age: Origins on Normal and considered dropping it to Easy on several occasions. I played Dragon Age II on Normal and could not beat the High Dragon in Act 3 because Isabela, Merrill, Aveline, and Double-Daggers Hawke is possibly not an optimized combat build. I also ended up saying, "Wow, dude, no," to single combat with the Arishok and had Aveline tank him while I ran around stabbing people in the kidneys. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the only way I beat Darth Malak was to pop stealth and drop a bunch of traps between me and him and then get him to run through them.
In Dragon Age: Inquisition, I tend to swashbuckle in real time without pausing except to use items. I only go into the Tactical Camera mode to closely manage fights after I've died at least twice, and even then, it's something that I turn on, make a few commands, and then turn off. I am by no means a tactical expert.
I've completed two playthroughs of Dragon Age: Inquisition on Normal, and I'm now working through a playthrough on Hard. Here were my concerns, and here is what I've found and how I've handled things.
Concern: I will be chugging health potions all the time!
Result: Nope. In what we call a "popcorn fight" (a small fight that is not meant to really threaten the party), I rarely have to use a potion at all. After a normal-level fight against wandering creatures (a single large enemy or a group of normal enemies around my level), I usually use one or two potions (total, not per person). During a particularly difficult plot-related fight (which will usually give me a chance to rest afterward), I might use one or two during the fight and then one or two after the fight, for a total of three or four.
Now, to be fair, I found initially that I WAS taking significant hits and drinking a lot of potions—in earlier areas, fortunately, where the game is forgiving about letting you heal up. Within a few hours, though, I had gotten to the relatively low level of potion use I described above. Here's how:
Barrier: If you have a mage in your party, and you SHOULD have a mage in your party, this single spell covers you a lot of the time. I've seen people say that it makes you immune to damage for a short time, which isn't really accurate. Instead, think of it as giving you an additional health bar that the enemy has to take out before they can actually damage your normal health. (For Mass Effect players, think of shields or biotic barriers; for d20 tabletop players, temporary hit points.) Barrier costs little mana and covers a reasonable area. Cast it at the start of the fight, and everyone on your front line has an additional health bar to soak damage.
Guard: Guard is similar to Barrier in its function: an additional health bar the enemy has to take down before they can damage your character's normal health. The key difference is that you gain guard from any of several different warrior abilities, not from a spell. You almost always only give guard to yourself, and you get less guard from each ability than you get from the Barrier spell, but there are several abilities that give you guard, and they stack.
Here's how most fights go for me:
- Cast Barrier on the party (or at least on the frontline combatants)
- My party tank (currently Cassandra) uses one of her abilities that generate guard for her
- Yes, guard and barriers stack—enemies have to break Cassandra's barrier AND guard before they damage her health
- When Cassandra's barrier gets broken, have her use another ability, so that her guard goes up even further
- If enemies are still up and dangerous and everyone's barriers are dropping, I make a snap decision about whether I want to turtle up (have folks use defensive moves to withdraw) or power through (keep hitting, with the expectation that I'm using potions later)
The rhythm is definitely different from "use healing spells during the fight," but I personally like it. Rather than forcing a grind, it rewards planning, where "planning" can be as simple as "use the ability that gives everyone something like shields, and the other ability that gives your warrior something ELSE like shields that stacks with the first thing." And with tactics set for party members to use their abilities normally, "planning" on easy fights looks a lot like, "Have a mage with Barrier in the party, and he or she will slap that bad boy on you as soon as you see the enemy. Just let Cassandra do her thing. That lady is like DA:O Alistair. She just. Does not. Die."
Concern: At high levels, those abilities won't be enough.
Result: True! At higher levels, you start running into enemies who clobber your Barrier and smash through your guard. Fortunately, much like our sister studio PopCap giving you the Wall-nut around the same time as it starts hitting you with the zombies who have the traffic cones on their heads, Dragon Age: Inquisition gives you a number of additional tools to use as you become more experienced and more comfortable with the game.
So, at a certain point in the game, you will realize that you're getting knocked around in fights, and your healing IS coming up short. That's the game pushing you to develop some new strategies to improve your healing ability and decrease your damage taken. Fortunately, when that moment hits, you should already have some of the tools to develop those strategies in your inventory, assuming that you are kind of a pack rat like me and pick up every piece of elfroot you run across.
Here are some of the strategies I picked up while playing:
More Potions: If, like me, you are worried about running out of potions, you can use the Inquisition's influence to gain an upgrade to your potion supply. This is a choice on your part, and that choice may not be as easy as you think (prepare for me to say that a lot as we go down this list). The perks you gain from leveling up the Inquisition are good, and if you spend that point on more potions, that's one less point you have to spend on perks like rare weapon and armor schematics, getting bonus XP from every creature you kill, or gaining unique dialogue options you won't otherwise have access to. I passed up this perk on the first playthrough and took it on the second playthrough. If I played Normal again, I wouldn't bother taking it, because after two full playthroughs, I'm pretty good at Normal, but I definitely took it when I started playing on Hard.
Items: Using the crafting system, you can craft weapons and weapon upgrades that actually heal you for a small percentage of your health every time you kill an enemy. If you find the right rare masterwork crafting materials, you can even build armor that generates guard every time you hit an enemy. These are also choices on your part. The slot you use for a sword hilt that heals you for killing enemies is a slot you could have spent building up fire resistance or a chance to stagger enemies who hit you, and if you choose the masterwork crafting material that gives you guard, you're passing up the chance for your armor to do something else, and some of those something-elses are FANTASTIC. For me, though, gaining guard easily and automatically was an easy choice for my frontline folks.
Ability Improvements: If you rely heavily on Barrier, there are upgrades that improve its power, shorten its cooldown time, stun nearby enemies when your barrier drops, or even strengthen your barrier when you damage enemies. Warriors have similar options for reducing incoming damage and increasing their guard generation. Again, these are choices and options. Sinking that many points into improving your barriers means that you haven't as deeply developed your ability to throw lightning or fire as you might have otherwise. In my first playthrough, I relied more on items than Barrier, letting Solas focus more on crowd control. On my second playthrough, I had two mages in my main party. My mage Inquisitor focused on offense, while Dorian became our Barrier expert (and still packed a heck of a punch with his helpful Wall of Fire).
Resurgence: This is our healing spell for the game that doesn't have healing spells. Resurgence is a focus spell, which means you get it a bit later in the game, and it's not something you can expect to use in every fight. That said, it heals the party, revives fallen party members, and continues to heal them for several seconds. It's a great spell to turn the corner on a difficult fight, but like all these other options, it's a choice. Honestly, because I hit items and Barrier upgrades so heavily, I ended up not using Resurgence. Focus is a precious resource, and I liked using it for "And now I do a ton of damage" effects rather than for healing. That said, my play style does lean toward "overplan, overequip, and then swashbuckle", so your mileage may vary.
You will note that I said "choice" a lot up there. You have a wide variety of options for how to not die. As a guideline I am making up while sitting on my couch with less than ten seconds of thought, assume that if you are playing on Normal difficulty, you will be fine if you focus on two of these general options (Easy probably only needs one, Hard might need three, and Nightmare, man, I don't even know). Have you chosen a couple of talents that upgrade your guard and barriers and taken the perk to upgrade your potions? You're going to be fine. Don't want to spend that perk for more potions? Maybe consider crafting or buying a weapon that heals you when you kill stuff with it.
Do that, and you will still use potions here and there, but you don't need to worry about running out every five minutes.
Concern: I still only have a limited number of potions, though. What if I run out halfway through a big dungeon?
Result: You won't, unless you ignore every possible warning and deliberately try to do this to yourself.
Difficulty Telegraphing: First, our major missions give pointers about what level you might want to be before starting, so if you're level 12 and see something that says, "Intended for Level 16-19," well, that's probably not the best major mission to dive into right now. Even dungeons that don't formally tell you the difficulty beforehand are going to hit you with fights early that give you a sense of how hard it's going to be. If the first fight nearly kills the party and burns through half your potions, you'll want to come back in a few levels. Enemies that are much higher-level than you are have little skulls next to their names. I learned that one the hard way.
Restocking Options: Most large dungeons and missions give you the chance to replenish your potions before particularly difficult fights. If you're going through a dungeon and you see a potion-restock table sitting beside an imposing door covered with ancient runes, this is our friendly level designers saying, "We love you, players. Have some more potions. Also, maybe consider saving your game here."
As I said, I almost never ran out of potions. When I did, it was because I had tried to push through a dungeon that I knew early on I wasn't ready for yet, and even then, I was able to limp bloodily through the last fights. I never EVER hit a dungeon that was too hard for me to complete that did not give me the option to retreat... and the way that dungeons were set up, I have not once gotten halfway or more through a dungeon and then had to retreat to restock my potions. Either I realized right away that I was in over my head, or I powered through and finished.
Finally, even if I DID end up in a fight I could not retreat from with no potions left, I would have the option to lower the difficulty.
Concern: I will have to go back to camps in the wilderness all the time.
Result: Yes and no. Yes, because I do return to camps a lot. No, because returning to camp did not end up bothering me. The camp system is a tool, not a punishment.
Camps are good for all kinds of reasons. You return to full health, and your healing potions instantly restock, yes, but the biggest benefit I've found to claiming camps is that they serve as fast-travel points for our large wilderness areas. I quickly learned that when I entered a new wilderness area, the first thing to do was look at where all the possible camp spots were on the map. Assuming that I was not trying to sneak through a level that was clearly meant for higher-level characters (which I MAY have done because I heard there was great loot to be had if you didn't get horribly mangled, and yes, I make terrible decisions sometimes), I ended up hitting wilderness areas the following way:
- Mark the nearest camp on my map
- Fight my way to that camp, closing Fade rifts or handling quests only if they were mostly on my way
- Reach the new camp, claim it, and instantly heal and restock all my potions
- Wander out from the new camp site to tackle quests I found in the area, returning as needed
- As soon as I get the slightest bit bored, go find a new camp site or fast-travel back to an old one with some stuff I missed near it
Our level designers did a wonderful job of spacing the camps out so that there's a lot of content around each of them, but not making it too hard to fight your way from one to another. In some areas, I used them more for fast-travel than I did for healing. "Oh, I'm supposed to find an ancient ruin over to the southwest? Okay, there it is on my map, and the nearest camp is... great, a short jog away. Off we go!"
Concern: Even with that, I'm worried I won't be able to play the game.
Result: Totally fair. Removing easy mid-fight healing in DA:I does change the dynamic of combat a bit, in much the same way that Mass Effect 3's "shields and barriers regenerate fully, health only fills up to the next line segment unless you use medi-gel" system changed the dynamic from Mass Effect 2's "I can get almost killed and will be back at full health a few seconds later." On Mass Effect, the combat folks wanted to encourage a little more planning and a little less "just wing it, you'll be fine in a second anyway" because making fights challenging when you can easily return to full health an unlimited number of times is brutally hard and results in a lot of un-fun "This enemy one-shots anyone it hits, haha, where is your healing now?!" I was initially worried about Shepard's health not fully regenerating in ME3, but the result was combat that was a lot fairer and a lot more fun.
The Dragon Age combat folks have the same goal of changing the dynamic of combat to reward planning and create fights that are challenging without being automatic death sentences for anyone who doesn't have just the right build. They didn't do this casually, and they didn't just strip out the healing spells and changing nothing else. They added guard, Barrier, and other items and abilities to encourage and reward pre-combat planning and mid-combat reaction.
I only vaguely understand how all these checks and balances work, because I mainly just write dirty jokes and song lyrics with occasional moments of pathos, but after two playthroughs and part of a third, I believe that they hit that goal admirably. When I come to a low-level area as a high-level character, I rarely if ever need to break out the healing potions. When I'm in an area meant for people around my level, I enjoy exploring the area, and I have never felt tied to the camps for my potions.
Counter-Concern: So you're saying it's super-easy, then?
Result: Hahahaha, no. Well, okay, it depends on what difficulty you're using. As Luke said, his seven-year-old son beat the prologue on Easy, so yes, if you're on Easy, I think you OUGHT to be all right. Most players will have a good time on Normal, hitting that sweet spot where they are pushed to improve their strategy without being frustrated by the punishment the game dishes out. I still feel happily challenged by Hard difficulty, though, and for Nightmare, you will want someone more like Sylvia "Man, I wish there were more dragons in the world, you see, I killed all of them already" Feketekuty.
I presented all of the things I've picked up above as though it is magical information transmitted into my brain and executed with no challenges at all. I have, even on Normal, seen the You Died screen more than a few times. Sometimes, it was because I thought I could sneak into an area that was out of my weight class. Sometimes, it was because I was trying to hurry and didn't do the upgrades that I normally rely upon to clobber enemies without having to manage my tactics carefully. And sometimes, it was the game trying to teach me that wow, I need to learn how to mitigate damage from ranged attackers and, until I did, any fight with archers was going to be brutally punishing. So I died, and then I learned, and then I took revenge (and then I took their banners and used them to decorate my throne room).
For those of you who were concerned about the changes to how health and healing work, I hope this was reassuring.
Thanks to Cameron Harris for making sure that my words made sense.