• First Look: The Emerald Graves & Emprise du Lion

Each tree in the Emerald Graves is a reminder of a life lost during the second Exalted March. The area changed greatly in the years that followed, and at the helm of creating the region for Dragon Age: Inquisition is senior environment artist Andrew Farrell.

Andrew set out to design an area that paid homage to the rich history of the land while also making it a fun place for players to explore.

"The Emerald Graves are a mix of the old elven burial ground and a noble, Orlesian playground," Farrell said. "You've got the lower section of the forest, which is a bit more civilized with road signs and abandoned Orlesian estates, and then as you get higher up, you come to the ancient elven areas."

The elves may have moved on, but the forest is still teeming with wildlife. Explore, and you're bound to encounter black wolves, great bears, snoufleurs, halla, and even nugs if you venture underground. However, Farrell warns that they're not alone.

"While adventuring through the upper regions of the Emerald Graves, you'll come across some rather large caves. Don't be surprised to find some 'gigantic' enemies using them as their homes."

Well, that sounds rather ominous, doesn't it? Should we be frightened?

"You may not be a high enough level to take down everything you'll encounter at first, but you can sneak around and continue your exploration," Farrell explained. "When you are strong enough, however, this is exactly the kind of place you'll want to come back and do battle in search of better loot. You never know, there could even be a dragon nearby."

Designing a large open area with a high tree line definitely came with its challenges. Specifically, where do you hide all of those ancient elven secrets?

"You want to reward players and provide them with that sense of discovery from finding well-placed points of interest," Farrell said. "I really enjoyed hiding elven refugee camps around the area, and placing caves. You'll even see old elven carvings on the walls if you step foot deep enough inside."

From the trees and waterfalls of the Emerald Graves, we shift our attention to the craggy, snow-covered highlands of Emprise du Lion, also created under Farrell's watchful eye. Was it difficult to switch between such dramatically different environments?

"Emprise du Lion was an interesting change of pace from the Emerald Graves," Farrell said. "The forest is very open, and the player can cover every inch at their leisure. There is still a lot of exploration to be had in Emprise du Lion, but there is a core story element that drives you there."

We subjected Andrew to a barrage of questioning regarding said story element—even threatening to temporarily "misplace" the coffee machine—but he didn't flinch.

"The red templars are up to something, and the Inquisition comes in to check it out," Farrell finally offered. "When you arrive, there's an area for you to explore, but if you want to get to the heart of what's happening, you're going to have to push through an army."

Game world producer Liz Lehtonen added, "For anyone that has read Patrick Weekes's book Dragon Age: The Masked Empire, they will really enjoy the connection to this area. This is one of the key locations where you can strengthen the Inquisition, and there is a massive keep! Not only is it one of the most challenging structures to reach, but it's also the most difficult to take."

"It's an ancient elven stronghold, high up within the mountains," Farrell said. "It's definitely one of the largest fortifications in the area, and it's incredible to look at."

"Absolutely!" Lehtonen continued. "There are these amazing, Roman-style coliseums with hot springs all around them, and what do we know about hot springs? Dragons love them."

Speaking with Andrew and Liz makes it hard to ignore their genuine excitement for this particular area.

"Building this location was a true collaborative effort," Farrell explained. "We had things that we wanted to accomplish from the very beginning, and the more people we talked to, the more it changed. We still ended up where we wanted to go, but within a week we had done a complete 180 in how we got there, and the game is better for it."

The harsh, icy conditions of Emprise du Lion are in stark contrast to the Exalted Plains and Emerald Graves that also make up the Dales. Of course, Andrew didn't need to go far for inspiration.

"I think this area was completed toward the end of an Edmonton winter," Farrell laughed. "Sometimes art imitates life when you're cold, angry because it's cold, and building a level."