Divinity: Original Sin Preview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Larian Studios
Developer:Larian Studios
Release Date:2014-06-30
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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Divinity: Original Sin is both a return to roots and, arguably, an attempt to explore new gameplay territories for Larian Studios. It's an ambitious title that attempts to recapture Divine Divinity's focus on world building and interactivity and, more surprisingly, attempts to perfect Beyond Divinity's co-op implementation, while adding a robust and intuitive turn-based combat system to the mix.

A mix enticing enough to convince 19,541 backers to give the title roughly $1 million of additional funding with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, but also a risky one, given plenty of developers have attempted similarly ambitious designs in the past only to flounder and produce less than desirable results. After spending some time with the title's alpha, however, I can say this seems like an unlikely prospect for Divinity: Original Sin. In fact, I'd venture as far as to suggest this might turn out to be Larian's best title yet.

For the sake of full disclosure, it's important to note that I backed Divinity: Original Sin durings its Kickstarter campaign, and as all backers I received a Steam key for the game's alpha build, which I based my preview on. The build doesn't include multiplayer which is why I couldn't comment on it at the time of this preview.

Quests and Story

The premise for Divinity: Original Sin is simple: two Source Hunters, the two player characters, are sent to investigate some mysterious occurrences in the town of Cyseal. A councilor has been murdered, and there is evidence that Source Magic (also known as Sourcery), the forbidden kind of magic their order is sworn to fight against, has been used. It might not sound terribly original, but Larian's humorous writing helps distinguish their world of Rivellon from dozens of more serious (and often more boring) fantasy settings.

During my time with the title I encountered all sorts of weird quests and vignettes, more often than not well-written and enjoyable. Their plots range from crazy (a love story between cats is probably my favorite, but there's also a quest involving viral marketing that is pretty entertaining), to more familiar fare (blood feuds, undead invasions, and crazy cults just to name a few), but throughout them all runs an undercurrent of ingenuity and self-aware humor that makes them at the very least amusing to play through.

Luckily, the design for these quests is good as well, and plenty of them feature multiple solutions that are implemented organically through the core gameplay systems, rather than with additional ad hoc mechanics. None of the quests I encountered were exceedingly complex, much less labyrinthine, and that arguably might be a negative for some. Larian seems to have preferred density and variety to branching complexity, and seem have filled the world with a bundle of enjoyable scenarios that are often connected together in subtle and surprising ways. I'm sure Larian is keeping a few surprises for the full title, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was indicative of their overall approach to quest design .

Just a quick example of what I mean when I talk about the organic implementation of the quests: arriving at the Cyseal harbor will put the player(s) face to face with a burning ship about to sink. Using a rain spell will quell the flames and earn you the gratitude of the ship's crew, but there's no indication you have to do so aside from common sense. Furthermore, in case you don't happen to own the spell or don't figure out what you have to do fast enough, the ship will actually sink. A lot of the quests still mostly involve dialogue and combat, but there were enough of these situations throughout the alpha to make me optimistic about the final title. In fact, the alpha version of Cyseal was one of the best quest hubs I've encountered in quite a while, and Larian's challenge will be to maintain that level of quality and ingenuity throughout the rest of the game.

Character Progression

Divinity: Original Sin employs a classless character progression system, which means that its characters are primarily defined by their attributes, skills and talents. Attributes determine the character's derived stats and affect a few of the skills. There are six of them in total: Strength (affects the kind of items you can lift, how much you can carry, and your melee skills), Dexterity (ranged weapons, Sneaking and Lockpicking), Intelligence (skill points, Willpower and Telekinesis), Constitution (resistances, health), Speed (action points and Pickpocketing) and Perception (sight and hearing, Treasure Hunting and sneaking). All these attributes go from 1 to 10, and can be raised as you level up throughout the game.

Skills follow three archetypes that roughly correspond to the classic Fighter, Mage and Ranger classes, though they can be mixed and matched.  The odd ones out are Social skills, which are used both to convince NPCs and when arguging with your co-op partner. Utility skills like Treasure Hunting, Lockpicking and Field Medic are divided between the three class archetypes, though I have to admit I didn't make much use of them in the alpha, and I'm sincerely hoping the final title will convince me to change my tune on them.

Finally, Talents are the equivalent of the now ubiquitous perks and feats of other systems, and right now are comprised of an odd assortment of numerical bonuses and new abilities. As of this build (and I should stress this is an alpha, so things are bound to change as development on the title progresses) I found most of them tepid and not enticing enough to make my choices really difficult, with only a few being really interesting because of their bizarre effects. An example of these interesting talents would be Pet Pal, which gives the character that selects it the ability to talk to animals. While it might sound like a simple easter egg, akin to Fallout: New Vegas' Wild Wasteland perk, it's actually genuinely useful and even opens up new quest solutions and questlines you'd otherwise not be aware of.

I should also mention that, right now, character abilities and spells are learned through skill books you can find or buy, rather than with the use of skills trees. Any character can learn any ability, but there are skill requirements for their actual usage. I don't know if this system will be maintained in the final release and whether it will be the primary system to learn new abilities, but I think the interplay with the game's economy, questing and looting has potential, and I wouldn't mind if it stayed as is in the final title.

Combat, Dialogue and Exploration

As I mentioned earlier, Larian decided to use a turn-based combat system rather than a Diablo-inspired one like their previous titles, which might have caused some trepidation due to their inexperience with this kind of mechanics. For now, I can say much of this skepticism is unwarranted: Larian's action-points-based implementation of turn-based combat is intuitive and plays well, and the developer appears to be aware of some of the most common failings of other turn-based titles.

Fights generally involve small groups of enemies and don't take long for the standards of turn-based combat, abilities seem to have very clear and distinct effects, and the UI presents the vast majority of the relevant information upfront in a clear way. Furthermore, most of the encounters take place in locations that include at least a few interactive elements, often oil or explosive barrels (which do exactly what you'd expect them to), but also pools of water (which can evaporate or be frozen), electrified floors and poisonous traps.

Battlefields can also be influenced dramatically by the use of magic, as there are plenty of spells that give you and your enemies the chance to create or remove long-lasting effects on the terrain. The mechanics for these occurrences are extremely easy to grasp and master, which is one of the biggest strengths of the title's combat system: water can be used to quell flames, fire to turn slippery ice into a pool of water and then make it evaporate, and so on and so forth. It all works remarkably well in practice, and might even convince a few to try the game despite their dislike of turn-based combat.

I had a few problems with pathfinding and the area of effect UI indicators, but hopefully this is stuff Larian will be able to iron out by the time of release. One thing that worries me more, however, is that the developers might rely entirely on exploding barrels and similar elements as a crutch, rather than focusing on encounter and monster design. The combat was also pretty easy throughout the alpha, but that's a minor worry given the title hasn't yet received the kind of balance work that comes later in development.

Another activity that will likely consume a good chunk of the time spent playing Divinity: Original Sin is dialogue. As far as dialogue with NPCs is concerned, aside from the fact that you can barter with most of them, we're dealing with fairly run of the mill dialogue trees with no particularly exotic features. In those moments where you'll find yourself having to make a choice, however, both characters will get the chance to choose, and should they disagree, both will choose what dialogue skill to use to convince the other, simulating the kind of arguing that happens at a pen and paper RPG table.

It's an interesting system, though inevitably one that lends itself more to co-op than single-player. I personally don't know how Larian will be implementing it in the final build, whether they'll decide to use an AI and whether it will be limited to dialogue or will take full control of the other character, but right now you simply make the choices for both characters. It's not quite optimal, but there's a measure of entertainment in being able to check all the lines Larian has prepared for those situations. And, of course, there's actually nothing wrong in the fact that the best experience with the title is potentially to be found in co-op, given there are so few RPGs that do it, let alone do it right.

Another aspect of gameplay that is dear to the heart of many RPG players is exploration, and the excerpt of Original Sin's world I had the pleasure to check showed nothing to worry about on this front. All locations seem to have a purpose and a distinct look, there's a wealth of secrets and incidental detail, and the game rewards finding those secrets (whether they take the form of loot, waypoint teleporters or locations) by awarding the characters experience points, actively encouraging players to take the role of full-fledged explorers. Most excitingly, there's an enormous amount of potential contained in the title's mechanics and the world interactivity: aside from the combat interactivity I mentioned earlier, which also applies out of combat, you can pretty much move and take everything that isn't nailed down to the ground (though the owners won't necessarily be happy about it), in a way that is reminiscent to the later Ultima titles. This opens new avenues for exploration (moving a carpet to find a trapdoor was an example Larian used before, I seem to remember) that don't seem to have been thoroughly explored (forgive the pun) by Larian yet. I suppose we'll have to wait for the full title to see if Larian makes clever use of these mechanics. 

Final Thoughts

Assuming Larian Studios manages to keep the quality this high for the full title, irons out the balance kinks, and is able to polish up the title for release, they might just publish one of the most interesting role-playing titles of 2014 and the last 10 years. There's still a lot that's not been implemented at this point, like day-night cycles and NPC schedules, and I'm eager to see how all the disparate elements that have been promised will inform the final title. True, there's no guarantee the title will hold up to the promise it's showing right now, but I'm willing to give Larian the benefit of doubt, and I'm excited to get my hands on Divinity: Original Sin again at release.