Divinity: Original Sin Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Larian Studios
Developer:Larian Studios
Release Date:2014-06-30
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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Introduction

Divinity: Original Sin is the latest title in Larian Studios' Divinity franchise, which began way back in 2002 with the oddly- but memorably-named Divine DivinityOriginal Sin is a prequel of sorts.  It takes place before the events of Divine Divinity, and it doesn't have anything to do with Dragon Knights, the Black Ring, or even Damian the Lord of Chaos.  Instead, it deals with the Source, a tainted magical force most commonly used by necromancers and demonologists.

As Original Sin opens up, you take control of a pair of Source Hunters.  Your job is normally to track down and kill "sourcerors," but in this case you've been sent to the town of Cyseal to investigate the murder of a local councilman because it appears that the Source was involved.  Of course, when you arrive in Cyseal you discover that it is also being plagued by orcs and the undead, and as you solve these local problems you become aware of a greater threat.  Someone calling herself the Conduit is behind everything -- and also has evil plans for all of Rivellon.  That leaves it up to you to end her machinations and save the day.

Character Creation

The first thing you do in Original Sin is create your two Source Hunters.  This decision might seem a little odd -- in all other RPGs you either create just one character or an entire party of four or more -- but Original Sin like the other Divinity titles uses the concept of "soul forging," which requires two people to form the link.  Conveniently, having two main characters makes it easier to deal with co-op mode, since each player can control one of the two hunters.

Each character is defined by a series of attributes, skills, abilities, talents and traits.  Attributes include Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Speed and Perception, which all do roughly what you'd expect.  For example, Strength increases your melee damage, your carrying capacity, and how far you can throw things, while Intelligence improves the effectiveness of your spells.

Skills are categorized into eight classes, including Man-at-Arms, Expert Marksman, Scoundrel, and five spellcasting schools (one each for the four elements plus Witchcraft).  Original Sin uses a classless system, so any character can learn skills from any class, and you have various ways you can put characters together.  That being said, you only earn a limited number of points while playing the game, so you're better off specializing rather than trying to be a jack of all trades.  As an example of the skills, Scoundrels can learn to Trip (knock opponents down), Lacerate (cause bleedings), Self Medicate (remove certain debuffs like bleeding), Walk in Shadows (turn invisible), and more.

Abilities control how powerful you are in certain areas of the game.  Each skill class has an associated ability, where the more points you put into the ability, the more spells or skills you can learn in the class.  Abilities also cover weapon proficiencies (including one-handed, two-handed, and bows), defense (including shield and armor specializations), personality (including charm and bartering), crafting (including blacksmithing and lore), and "nasty deeds" (including pickpocketing and lockpicking).  Abilities get more expensive the more points you put into them, and so you can't learn everything, or come even close.

Talents are what other games might call perks.  They're special bonuses you can select every four levels, and they include things like Pet Pal (which allows you to talk to animals), Opportunist (which allows you to perform attacks of opportunity in combat), Far Out Man (which extends the range of your spells), and Courageous (which makes you immune to fear).  Most of the talents have a prerequisite based on your abilities, and are often the "reward" for maxing out an ability.  For example, if you take Expert Marksman to its top rank, then you gain access to the Quickdraw talent, which allows you to shoot arrows more quickly.

Finally, traits are a special case for the two main characters.  They measure how you respond to the various choices you're forced to make during the game.  If you're altruistic, then you improve your reputation, which causes people to like you more.  If you're bold, then you gain a bonus to your initiative.  If you're considerate, then you become more charismatic.  If you're forgiving, then you can no longer be cursed.  There are 18 traits in the game, but they're all paired against each other, so you can only favor half of them (for example, you can't be altruistic and egotistical; you can only be one or the other).  The traits are sort of an interesting case.  Do you just role-play your character, or do you make your decisions based on which answers give you the best reward?


The two main characters can also have one companion each, meaning that your party can consist of up to four characters.  Oddly, there are only two official companions available in the game -- a two-handed melee fighter and a wizard specializing in air and water magic -- but there are also a variety of hirelings that you can purchase instead.  For some reason the official companions only add a handful of conversations and a single quest each to the game, and so they're not especially different than the hirelings, who don't add anything.  I found the companions to be disappointing.  They're so lightweight I sort of wonder why Larian bothered with them at all.

Overall, I found the character system to be functional but not very exciting.  There just aren't a lot of places where it makes sense to put points for characters, especially when you discover that the emphasis of the game is way more on combat than anything else.  As an example, if you're playing a rogue, you don't need to put any points into disarming traps (you can shoot them to destroy them), or lockpicking (you can bash open doors and chests), or pickpocketing (there isn't anything good to steal, and money isn't an issue after the first few hours).  You also don't need to put points into crafting skills (you can just find equipment with crafting bonuses on them) or personality skills (you get way more experience for fighting than talking).  So it's just a matter of picking out the offensive and defensive skills appropriate to the character, with maybe a few points spent elsewhere.  Ho hum.

Gameplay

Original Sin is played using an isometric view.  You move a single character using the mouse (and only the mouse), and the other characters in your party follow behind.  If you don't want your characters following each other, then you can "break" the chains connecting their portraits in the interface.  This is sometimes necessary for puzzles where you need characters standing in particular places, or you want them walking along a very particular path.  For me, a "don't follow" button would have had the same effect and been easier to manage.  There is also a hotkey bar for each character, and you can rotate it up to ten times for extra spells and equipment, but there isn't any way to show two or more bars at once.

When your party gets close enough to a hostile creature, the game switches from real-time exploring to turn-based combat, where the initiative of each character is used to determine their order in the round.  Characters get a certain number of action points to use, and unlike games like King's Bounty or XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you can do more than just move and attack during your turn.  Each action costs a certain number of points, and you can perform as many of these actions as you have the points for.  You can also delay your turn until the end of the current round, or you can end your turn without spending all of your points, which carries the points over (up to a maximum number determined by your constitution) to your next turn.

The combat in Original Sin is interesting and also frustrating.  This is due to elemental effects, which combine together in numerous ways.  As an example, if you call down a rain storm to make everybody wet, and hit your enemies with a chain lightning spell, then you have a chance to stun them for multiple turns, which is great.  The problem is that if your party is close enough to the enemies, or if your party is standing in a puddle of water connected to the enemies, then they might get stunned as well, which is annoying.  You can also combine fire and water together to form steam (which reduces visibility), fire and poison together to cause an explosion (damaging everybody nearby), or fire and water and electricity together to form an electrical storm (which again stuns everybody).  It takes a while to work these things out and also figure out what you can do to damage your enemies without damaging yourself, and so there is a learning curve to the game.

Along with the combat, there are also lots of books to read, NPCs to talk to, and quests to complete.  The writing for these things is pretty good, and there are some amusing sequences here and there, like when you help a tomcat to woo his lady love, or return a talking oyster to the sea (or keep it so you can sell it later).  However, while the local writing is just fine, the global writing, which is what should be drawing you through the game, is a little lacking. Original Sin took me exactly 100 hours to complete (according to Steam), but the main plotline is simple, and it was clear how things were going to turn out there well before the 50-hour mark.  Without any twists or turns or unknowns to keep things interesting, and without much storywise to urge you forward, Original Sin felt a little long and slow to me, especially at the start, where the combat is so difficult, and you're so unprepared for it, that it requires a lot of saving and loading and looking around for more favorable encounters in order to survive.  I probably would have liked Original Sin better if it had been closer to a 50 hour game.

Helping matters a little is the fact that there are several puzzles to solve, plus numerous sequences where you have to find buttons or stand on pressure plates or figure out how to avoid lava so you can continue.  And the puzzles aren't simple retreads of Towers of Hanoi like you see in other games (I'm looking at you, Bioware); they're thought-provoking and sometimes maddening, and you might actually need to seek help to in order to complete them.  I like it when games have challenging puzzles, and when you're rewarded for exploring carefully, and Larian has always been good about these things.


While completing puzzles and defeating enemies, you find a ton of equipment, including blue (magical) items, green (rare) items, orange (legendary) items, and brown (unique) items.  Sort of surprisingly, almost all of the loot in the game is random -- there are only about a dozen unique items found in fixed places -- but if you feel so disposed, you can save before opening a chest or defeating a boss, and then load your game until you get something good.  There aren't any set items.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the equipment is the game's comprehensive crafting system.  Just about everything you find can be combined in some way to produce something new.  A knife and a branch produce an arrow shaft, which can be combined with an arrowhead to produce an arrow.  A knife and pillow produce a feather, which combines with a knife again to produce a quill, which combines with an inkpot to produce an inkpot and quill, which can be used to write out spell scrolls.  Flour and water produce dough, which combines with tomato sauce to produce pizza dough, which combines with an oven to produce pizza.  Any RPG that allows you to cook pizza can't be all bad.  You can also craft armor, weapons, jewelry, potions, and more, and add substantial bonuses to your existing equipment.

Unfortunately, the downside to the crafting system is that you find all sorts of junk, and the game doesn't give you too many hints about what you can do with it.  Even when you find a recipe the game isn't very helpful.  The interface stores the recipe book text for you, but you don't get any sort of Skyrim-style menu system letting you know what sorts of things you can manufacture.  You just have to write down the recipes that are important to you and hang onto any item that might be useful -- or everything, if you're not sure what's useful and what isn't.  Luckily, the inventory objects in the game are very light, so you can tote around a bunch of stuff.

Sound and Graphics

The sound and graphics for Original Sin are fine.  There isn't a lot in the way of voice acting, but the game has so much text that this is actually a good thing.  The cost of voice acting everything would probably be high, while the quality of the actors would probably be iffy, and by skipping actors Larian can now edit the text to their heart's content without worrying about re-recording anything.  The music and sound effects are competent without being notable one way or the other.

Meanwhile, the graphics get the job done without providing any "wow" moments.  But it's clear what everything is supposed to be, and there is some nice variety to the environments, including deserts, jungles, and even arctic regions.  One thing missing from the graphics is a good set of character portraits.  For some reason instead of just creating 2D versions of your characters on the fly during character creation, you have to pick from a set of pre-rendered portraits -- and hope that one of them looks a little like your character and isn't repeated too many times inside the game.  That's unfortunate.

Bugs

As I mentioned earlier, it took me 100 hours to play through Original Sin, and amazingly enough, I didn't encounter a single crash bug during that time.  If that's not a record, it's certainly a rarity.  However, while there weren't any crashes, the game had other minor problems, like a glaring absence of movement keys for characters, low level loot repeatedly found in high level dungeons, and overly basic AI decisions made by enemies (where, for example, enemies healed by poison still avoid poison patches on the ground).  The problems I noticed are so basic that I'm sort of surprised Larian hasn't fixed them already, though I'm optimistic that they'll get everything in shape soon.

Conclusion

I've seen lots of reports of people really enjoying Divinity: Original Sin -- including PC Gamer calling it the 16th best RPG of all time -- but I'm just not there.  I liked Original Sin, but I didn't love it, and it's not even my favorite Divinity game (it's actually third for me, behind Divine Divinity and Ego Draconis).  Some of the problems I had with Original Sin -- like the lack of movement keys -- will no doubt get fixed eventually.  But other problems -- like the storyline that is too basic for a 100-hour game, and the difficulty that starts out on "brutal" and ends up on "cakewalk" -- are probably here to stay.

Still, while you shouldn't necessarily believe that Original Sin is the best thing since sliced bread, it's still a worthwhile purchase.  The campaign offers 100 hours of content (which will only grow larger once modders sink their teeth into the game), there are some good puzzles and fun quests, and the combat engine is unique and interesting.  Plus, there's always that chance that I'm in the minority here and Original Sin really does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Baldur's Gate.  I'm just not going to be the one who does it.