It’s a good time to be a PC gamer. We might not have reached the heyday of the 90s yet but today’s PC gaming offers something for everyone. Computer RPG fans in particular are probably feeling quite relieved because they had to endure a number of rough years for the genre. Kickstarter gave developers the option of turning to their audience for funding, the first titles born out of that process were a success and the rest is history.
Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t Obsidian that took first place among the new age computer RPG developers. The developers of Pillars of Eternity will have to settle for the silver medal since Larian Studios went home with the gold by releasing the excellent Divinity: Original Sin. The sequel shows that Larian isn’t planning on handing over the crown anytime soon.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is huge tactical computer RPG set over a number of islands that the player will have to explore in depth to uncover all their secrets. The biggest question about the sequel to an already great is whether or not the developers managed to improve on the original in meaningful ways and if they were able to keep the experience fresh for fans of the series as well as welcoming for newcomers. Let’s find out, shall we?
Does the end justify the means? This question is at the heart of the game’s plot as the world of Rivellon is once again in turmoil. Bishop Alexandar’s Divine Order comes up with a brutal solution to the Sourcerer problem. Having already determined that the use of Source magic attracts the nighmarish creatures of the Void the magisters of the Divine Order decide that all Sourcerers should be arrested, their Source magic inhibited through the use of special collars, and sent off to the remote island prison of Fort Joy. We join the playable characters en route to Fort Joy when disaster strikes the ship and the survivors are washed ashore. Your number one goal as the protagonist is to find a way to get rid of the Source collars and escape Fort Joy.
Pretty soon you’ll find out that the stakes are quite a bit higher. Rivellon’s gods are in deep trouble, their former champion has fallen and the Void is once again threatening all existence. The inhabitants of Rivellon have their own issues that they need to deal with and at the center of everything sits you party of adventurers. The way you handle all these situations will determine not only the outcome of many people’s lives but your own destiny as well.
Overall I have to say that I was quite satisfied with the game’s overarching plot and the breadth of choices available to the player when dealing with various quests. I ran two separate playthroughs of the game using a different main character and party in order to determine whether or not the game’s apparent depth is real or an illusion. It’s real alright. Many quests’ course and outcome change in pretty dramatic ways depending on the skills and tags of your character or your own choices. Speaking of tags, their effect on dialogs cannot be overstated as the correct use of a character’s tag (Human, Scholar, Outlaw and various others) can solve a quest in a positive fashion while the improper use of a tagged dialog option can but you in a lot of trouble.
The only negative thing about the dialog system and the available ways to solve quests is that you can’t really roleplay a truly evil character. Sure, you can be an asshole to everyone and act in a selfish way but there aren’t really a lot of options for those who want to roleplay a true sociopath. In general I would say that Divinity: Original Sin 2 is better written than its predecessor and while I do very much enjoy Larian’s particular brand of humor, I think that this game has achieved a better balance between the serious part of the plot and the more zany elements. I was also quite impressed by the variety in the design of various quests, as practically every quest in the game has a twist, puzzle or special condition that makes it feel special and unique. In such a huge game that fact is truly impressive.
Sadly, the game’s journal system is once again sub par and I expected more of an improvement since the same issue existed in the first game too. If you’re a 90s RPG veteran you might have the necessary skills to keep track of everything but although I belong in that group I had a hard time following the development of specific quests. The main issue with the game’s quest journal is that in many times it fails to give the player solid and clear descriptions on what the state of the quest is and what he might want to pursue next. It’s really frustrating to have to effectively shelve a quest you find interesting because the journal provides no clues at all as to how you might proceed. I’m all about making the player think, I don’t like spoon-fed quest solutions and quest marker chasing but some quest descriptions are simply useless. Some little hints on whether I should pursue a quest now or wait until I explore more or reach a different area would have been more than welcome.
You might be the best smooth-talker in the world but sooner or later you will find yourself in a combat situation against Rivellon’s bad hombres. Combat follows a turn-based action point system for both movement and attacks. Each character has an action point pool which he or she can use to move, attack of both. The first game’s strong points were definitely the amount of interaction between the environment and various elements, the exploitation of choke points and of course the traditional method of save scumming by loading before a fight and pre-positioning your characters by hand in optimal places. Original Sin 2’s combat system follows the same basic principles but the developers have implemented some rather controversial changes to the formula.
The first big change is the revamped armor system. Armor doesn’t give a chance of negating damage or status effects anymore but in practice it works as a second or third health bar that is only vulnerable to specific types of attacks. Most characters have some amount of physical and magical armor which means that you will have to deplete at least one of them if you want to do damage to a character’s health or apply status effects. Physical armor is reduced through physical attacks (and some skills that do physical damage) while magical armor is vulnerable to spells. The best tactic in combat then is pretty clear: Examine your target, see which of the two armor pools is smaller and target him with the relevant attacks and skills so that you can expose his main health bar faster. If you remember Mass Effect’s three-tier armor system (Barriers, Armor and Health) it’s basically the same thing, with the difference being that you only have to drop one of the target’s defences to expose his health bar.
Another change is to the number of action points a character can have. In the first Original Sin you could raise your attributes and increase your total pool of available action points. That system is gone and every character has a fixed number of action points. I wouldn’t mind that change if the computer didn’t blatantly cheat! Some enemies clearly have a much bigger action point pool and can unleash multiple powerful attacks in a single round, before any of your characters have a chance to react. That’s a bit unfair but not game-breaking since most of the game’s combat encounters are balanced for that system.
The only change that I am completely opposed to is the new initiative and combat order system. It sucks. In the first game investing points into specific attributes gave your characters the ability to act first in the battlefield. If all your characters had high Initiative then they would play first, one after another if all of them were faster than their opponents. Thi system has been scrapped and the Wit attribute basically only decides which party will get to go first. After the first move the combat order becomes player-enemy-player-enemy and so on. It doesn’t matter if your whole party has higher Wit than your enemies, you’ll still play in that order. Again, it sucks because it practically turns Wit into a dump stat. There’s no reason to invest in Wit for more than a single character. In this case balance was gone a bit too far and took some fun out of the equation.
I believe that these changes were made because Larian set the design goal of removing the element of randomness out of the game. All the new systems and changes seem to be aimed at making sure that you can reliably know which character will play next, when your abilities and skills will hit and when a status effect will be applied. Percentages and invisible dice rolls matter a lot less since you can now know when you’ll get the maximum effect out of using your special abilities and items. It’s not really a bad design goal but it is different from the original game and in the case of Intitiative I do believe that the developers should have come up with a more elegant system or leave the original one intact.
Anyway, the levelling system hasn’t been changed a lot from the previous Original Sin title. As soon as you achieve a level up you’ll receive a massive boost to health and damage, which means that character level is the number one factor when deciding if your party can handle a combat encounter or not. If your squad is under-levelled by more than a single level then you’d better leave because you most likely won’t survive. Equipment scales massively as well between levels so you often have to spend gold in stores for equipment upgrades if you don’t want to lose the arms race against your opponents. This becomes less of a factor in the late game once divine items come into play but it never really goes away. Make sure that at least your weapons and chest armor are appropriate for your level.
There are a lot more details to talk about but this review is already too long so let’s wrap it up. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is an impressive RPG that offers tens or even hundreds of hours of quality role-playing. It is fun, tactical, deep, well-written and almost endlessly replayable. Since I started playing the game it literally took over my life as I couldn’t put it down even after two playthroughs. It is that fun, that well-made and that reactive to your choices and play style. I may not believe that every change from the original was for the best but in the grand scheme of things all of these issues are small niggles that can’t tarnish the image of a phenomenal game. It is a must-buy for every RPG fan.
And now here’s as second opinion from our own Pavlos “Northlander” Geranios who is also spending most of his free time exploring Rivellon:
“Let’s check it out for 20 minutes to get a rough idea of what’s it about this time” was my first reaction to the official release of Divinity: Original Sin 2. I had supported the project on Kickstarter and I had the fortune of playing a little bit during the beta when it was still rather unoptimized resulting in my PC working its fans overtime.
Two hours after the creation of my character (Fane origin), with no PC performance issues whatsoever, I was giggling to myself with how much the game was rewarding my out-of-the-box thinking for every encounter. Due to severe obligations and the looming backlog my contact with the previous game, Divinity: Original Sin, has been only fleeting and restricted to me reaching the first main hub before I stopped playing. For one reason or another, I never felt motivated enough to continue playing in order to see what the game will unfold next, possibly overwhelmed of all the choices I had to deal with in such a limited time. This is the main difference which elevates D:OS2 to a higher level: even though the “carrot” you’re chasing is quite simple, it leads to a domino effect which compels you to play a little bit more every time. You want to see how you can solve a problem with predetermined variables but with 5-6 possible outcomes. This is what makes Divinity: Original Sin 2 magical.
As far as game design is concerned Larian Studios has delivered a work of art. D:OS2 has every quality an experienced Dungeon (Game) Master should have when running any pen’n’paper RPG session. Usually in a conventional cRPG the player may encounter an invisible wall which funnels him/her to a certain path. However, D:OS2 instead of punishing/restricting the players, it rewards them for innovative thinking. We would be lying if we said that we can impose our every whim on the world of D:OS2, but as an ideal DM would give the illusion of infinite choices in his/her session, so does D:OS2. This design trick is the Holy Grail for any game/session designer who wants to be taken seriously and tell their story without spoiling the experience for their players.
As I have already mentioned D:OS2 achieves everything through mere simplicity. Although during the start its mechanisms give the impression of being overwhelming, due to the sheer number of choices, in their essence they are quite simple. The origin characters may seem to have uninteresting backstory hooks or very simple archetypical motives at first, but as the game progresses a complex, beautiful net starts to unfold; a characteristic of Avellonesque writing; it is the delivery and abstract thinking which inspires and hooks the player. In a nutshell, the game does not hook you with a fishing line, but provides you with an intoxicatingly sweet smell of a pie resting at a window ledge forcing you to levitate towards the source.
In my humble opinion it’s crystal clear that D:OS2 will stand as an instant classic besides legends of the isometric-RPG genre from either the distant (Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate series) or the recent past (Pillars of Eternity). The turn-based combat is satisfying, the dialogues balance neatly between serious and comical with a very whimsical adult yet teenage humour. If we’d want to be strict and pinpoint the game’s negative issues then those would be focused on two points:i) the inventory management, ii) the targeting during combat sometimes feels inconsistent. In the first instance, the player is expected to invest quite a few hours on micromanaging items between characters’ inventories. I’d rather if there were two separate windows so I could transfer items from one character to the other, instead of being forced to constantly drag-n-drop or use the drop down menu. In the latter occasion, there were instances in combat when I thought I had targeted properly only to find that the projectile (arrow, spell, grenade) fumbled on a column or a surface.
The last two points can only be considered minor faults at worst when put in perspective of the experience that D:OS2 offers. Stellar mechanisms, writing which does not take itself all too seriously, interesting little stories scattered all over the world, a vast duration contribute to what is the best RPG in 2017, with the serious candidate of GOTY 2017. I started playing as a 20 minute test drive, before I’d put it in the backlog queue. I got stuck for 25 hours and still playing. These releases are examples for imitation. Congratulations Larian, you should be proud!
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- Tons of content
- Good main story and sidequests
- Fun and deep combat system
- Lots of replayability
- The Initiative system is not great
- The quest journal needs improvement
- Some bugs