RPGs May Never Top Ultima VII, but Divinity: Original Sin II Comes Close

Over at PC Gamer, Richard Cobbett wrote an article that compares Larian Studios' recently released Divinity: Original Sin II with Ultima VII, the game Larian's boss Swen Vincke considers to be an inspiration for the entire Divinity series. And according to the esteemed RPG scholar, the 1992 classic still has a few things to teach to those who attempt to follow in its footsteps.

Here's an excerpt:

What we fight for

Most of this is of course implementation rather than design philosophy per se, and again, D:OS2 is a massive jump over its predecessor. The same applies to the story. It’s a wonderfully simple concept where all your party members are competing to become the next Divine, against a background of wider political and metaphysical messing around. It’s a fantastic RPG story because it’s simple enough to grasp and appreciate the implications of, wide enough to allow more or less any smaller story within its confines, and feels both epic and personal. It’s not as complex as, say, Planescape Torment, but it works in a similar way.

So why does Ultima 7 still feel like it has an edge? A couple of reasons. The first is that its world of Britannia is a place that doesn’t simply have lore, but history. You’ve visited it as the same character, and adventured with the same Companions, and seen the same towns many times over. It’s like a virtual home away from home, kept interesting by the constant changes to the status quo in each game—in Ultima 7, the biggest being that you’ve been gone for 200 years and life has moved on without you. You see it as you explore, both in the stories you hear and the quests you complete, and in the incidental details as people go to work, go to bed, head to the local tavern, and otherwise show off all kinds of NPC scheduling fun that’s all the more incredible for how hard that stuff is for games even twenty-five years later.

That sense of life would of course be wonderful to see in Divinity. However, even excluding it and focusing on the sense of Home that Ultima 7 offered, it’s not hard to see how the series has squandered its potential somewhat and doesn’t have the same foundation. The big reason is that despite all the games being set in the world of Rivellon and having a few recurring characters, each game time-jumps and focuses on completely different areas each time. They’re connected by lore, yes, but that’s not the same visceral sense of returning to a beloved world that you get in long running series like, say, Tex Murphy’s Chandler Avenue and Monkey Island’s corner of the Caribbean, nor are there many familiar characters there to greet you and feel like old friends who are glad to see you back.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this approach per se, but it does mean that the familiar tends to be mechanical, like the Pet Pal perk, or mythological like its pantheon of gods, versus recurring characters to deal with on a more human level, like Bracchus Rex, Damien and of course Lucian the Divine.

The second is that while their success has arguably been overly glorified over the years, the Ultima games from U4 onwards were overtly About Something in a way that very few RPGs manage to be. Ultima 4 of course was about becoming a hero, Ultima 5 about the misapplication of justice, Ultima 6 about racism and tolerance, Ultima 7 about corruption and the power of religion, and Ultima 8 about a hero forced into a position of doing evil for the sake of the greater good.


A legacy within reach

The Divinity series isn’t quite at that level yet. But as I said at the start, that’s not intended as a criticism—talking in these terms, and about that possibility, is intended as a huge compliment. Nothing has ever gotten closer to beating Ultima 7 at its own game, and that includes its sequels. To accomplish that and still have time for ideas as great as Pet Pal, talking to ghosts, and a campaign that works just as well if you play it straight or if you team up with friends and murder everyone Diablo-style is nothing short of incredible.

The fact that there’s still inspiration to be taken from the classics is honestly exciting, especially after seeing the love and commitment in every part of the jump between D:OS and D:OS2. Maybe the next Divinity: Original Sin will finally push over the edge, or maybe the company will go in a different direction entirely—to take the vast amount learned so far and create something that’s entirely their own, as, say, Troika did with Vampire: Bloodlines, Toby Fox did with Undertale and BioWare did with, ooh, let’s say 2.9 Mass Effects.

But that’s for tomorrow. For now, let’s stick with what really matters. Whether Ultima 7 can ever officially be ‘beaten’ or not, nobody has come half as close as Divinity: Original Sin 2. It’s a great RPG on its own terms. It does the greatest RPG of all time proud. Most of all though, it should give RPG fans everywhere reason to be excited about the future of both the Divinity series, and the as-yet unknown promise of anything else Larian might have bubbling away over in its labs. Anyone else’s fingers crossed for urban fantasy?