Divinity: Original Sin II Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Larian Studios
Release Date:2017-09-14
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Divinity is a long-running series of video games created by Belgian developer Larian Studios that began in 2002 with the original Divine Divinity. Over the years, it went through multiple changes and even switched genres a couple of times, until it finally grew its beard, so to speak, in Divinity: Original Sin. With the debut of Original Sin, the series went squarely down the turn-based RPG path, including a focus on cooperation and a high degree of freedom. And now, after a successful Kickstarter campaign and a year in Early Access, the latest chapter in the long-running series, Divinity: Original Sin II, has officially been released.

It is a game that could have come out in a world where isometric cRPGs of the late 1990s and early 2000s had never gone out of style, had never been usurped by third-person action-RPGs, and were still the gold standard of what every RPG should be. In that world, Original Sin II would be the next step in those games' evolution - more user-friendly and polished, but still as complex, compelling, and challenging. In other words, a true spiritual successor.

If you want the shortest possible summary of this review, here it is: go buy Divinity: Original Sin II right now. Or continue reading to learn more about the premise, mechanics, and what works and what doesn't in this behemoth of an RPG.

Divinity: Original Sin II – Shadows of Arx

Before you begin your Original Sin II adventure, you first need to create a character. As opposed to the previous Original Sin game, this time around you only need one. You can fill the rest of your party of up to four characters later, with either pre-made companions or a bunch of hirelings you get from a certain NPC.

After you've settled on your character's race, which all have some unique spin to them gameplay- and lore-wise, you can then pick one of the so-called "presets." In Original Sin II's classless system, these presets allow you to start your character on a particular path without much fuss.

Alternatively, you can distribute attribute points, skill points (represented by Combat and Civil abilities), and talents yourself, if you have some particular build in mind. Then, you can choose a number of "tags," that determine your character's background and give them additional dialogue options.

You can do all that, or you can pick one of the Origin characters. These characters come with their own story and pre-established connections to Divinity's signature world of Rivellon. Take Fane, for example, an Undead scholar from a bygone era. If you play as Fane, your story basically transforms from a fantasy adventure about gods and kings into an episode of some Ancient Aliens show.

A good thing about these Origin characters, is that only their tags and stories are set in stone. Other than that, you can customize their presets, attributes, and starting skills whichever way you want.

Another thing about the Origin characters, is that if you don't play as them, you're able to recruit them into your party as companions, and learn certain aspects of their stories that way. What's even better, is that your companions aren't just witty banter machines who tag along for the ride, and instead often interject in conversations and try to complete their own personal quests.

However, if you don't like these companions or their stories, you can always opt out of using them and create a party of agreeable hirelings who just follow you around without stealing your show. But if you do decide to play with a party of Origin characters, you can customize their starting presets in any way you like, so that you don't have to miss out on a companion just because they're a wizard and you don't need one for your party. And even further, starting from Act 2, you can respec at will and fine-tune a party that's fully to your liking.

And now that you have a character and are ready to begin your journey through Rivellon, the game greets you with a grim opening where you're pegged as a Sourcerer, shackled, collared, and shipped off to a remote internment camp. You see, Lucian the Divine, the protagonist of Divine Divinity, is dead, and without him there's a void in the balance of power, and something desperately wants to fill that void. Namely petty dictators, clueless monarchs, and the aptly named Voidwoken, Divinity's take on eldritch horrors.

The majority of the game's story will revolve around filling that void and replacing the Divine with the most capable candidate – yourself, which in turn should deal with the Voidwoken crisis. And because it's a Divinity game, that story will go through multiple twists and turns, constantly making you question what's actually going on and who you can trust.

But, before you get yourself involved in all that, your initial goal revolves around the prisoner's first obligation – to escape. If you're playing as an Origin character it's explicit, and if you're playing as a custom character – assumed, that you have other things to do, and your unfortunate imprisonment is quite inconvenient.

In my opinion, this is a great way to start a story – instead of a prophecy or a sudden revelation, you start by having a simpler goal than to become a god. You just want to stop your crazy cousin or get a demon out of your head, that sort of thing. And then, gradually, you learn more about Rivellon's woes and discover that your personal story is somehow connected to them. And after a vessel you commandeer takes you on a trip to the land of the dead and back, there's no turning around. You simply have to press onward, now completely embroiled in a vast web of conspiracies and intrigue.



You'll be unraveling this web over the course of four large maps, positively packed with settlements, dungeons, and quests. Fort Joy, the island prison you begin the game on, is one such map, and essentially, it can be considered the game's intro. An intro that can take you around 20 hours to complete. This creates a situation where going through Fort Joy, I wasn't really feeling it. The area seemed to lack a certain degree of cohesion and direction, felt a bit lacking.

However, later on, near the end of the game, I thought back to Fort Joy and realized that I now appreciate it way more. It serves as a perfect intro that sets things up, while also giving you a taste of Original Sin II's open nature. And where the game truly gets going, is when you reach the main map of Act 2 – Reaper's Coast. There you finally realize just how deep Original Sin II is.

Here's an example. When you first land on the Reaper's Coast, you find yourself on the mainland and get the chance to see for yourself what the Voidwoken invasion is doing to the world. Before, you only saw yourself as a prisoner, unjustly captured and sent off to get experimented on by crazy robed maniacs. But when you see the destruction wrought by the Voidwoken first-hand, you begin to understand that people may be justified in fearing you and your kind.

And then you remember that you have a quest log full of entries that offer you multiple choices of where to go first. On a whim, I went West. After fighting some stray Voidwoken and stumbling upon an ambushed caravan that was also a part of the dwarven storyline, I noticed a raised drawbridge and a kid throwing rocks at giant venomous creatures.

Turned out his mother got stuck on the other side of the bridge, and he begged us to save her. Now, I don't know what was the intended way of solving this quest, but abandoning his previous objective, my dwarven protagonist sprung a pair of wings and flew across the river. He then teleported the rest of the party to him and rushed into battle.

After the Voidwoken terrorizing the poor woman were defeated, my party stuck around to explore her house, found a cellar that was larger than one might expect, helped a turtle profess her love to a rat, and then emerged in a mansion of a sinister-looking gravekeeper who was surrounded by zombies.

And this is where Original II shines. This endless sense of wonder where you never know what awaits you behind the next corner. You explore the game's world and gradually stumble onto more and more mysteries to solve, and it all feels extremely organic. The quests are oftentimes interconnected in surprising ways, and this creates a great illusion of a world that lives and breathes on its own and isn't just a theme park created for you and you alone.

The game is astonishing in how open it is, without being an empty open-world sandbox. Everything you do has a chance of coming back to haunt you later, and you can never tell beforehand how a quest may turn out. And with the game being this open, it's also amazing how it adapts on the fly to all the chaos you can inflict on it.

And sure, you may not be able to complete all of the game's quests in a single play-through, especially if you keep failing persuasion checks or blowing up quest-related NPCs, but that's okay. It just gives you a reason to replay it and experience something completely new, by simply turning right instead of left.

This freedom is aided by so many systems you can play around with. You want to craft potions? Go ahead. You want to cook a pizza? No problem! You want to enchant your items with runes? You can do that as well. Or don't, and rely on the stuff you find in dusty old chests, or even common barrels, if your character is lucky enough. There's always something new to discover, and the game manages to strike a great balance between combat, exploration, interacting with NPCs, and solving puzzles.

Now, in the previous Original Sin game, there was this widely spread complaint that the game was front-loaded and after the opening area of Cyseal, it experienced a significant drop in quality. In Original Sin II, I would say, three out of the four of its major areas are great, even if I do consider Fort Joy great only after the fact.

The game's final area, the city of Arx, is where you can notice a number issues in quest and level design, and by that point it becomes apparent that it's time to wrap things up. Yet even then, the questionable design decisions, for the most part, are overshadowed by the frequent displays of consequences to your choices from as far back as Fort Joy.

And on the narrative side of things, the game continues to exhibit Larian's signature light-hearted approach to writing about seriously grisly stuff. Sure, maybe most cellars in Rivellon are stuffed with freshly butchered corpses, not to mention all the closets with their respective skeletons, but the vibrant lively colors and the frequent moments of levity create this juxtaposition between the grim and the cheery that perfectly highlights both the highs and the lows of Original Sin II's story.

With so much to do, and realistically, no way to complete everything on your first go, Original Sin II begs for multiple play-throughs, even though a single one can take you around a hundred hours. It's a massive game on the scale of something like Baldur's Gate II, and just as enjoyable, so be prepared to get lost in the world of Rivellon for months at a time.

And apart from the main campaign, Original Sin II also offers a multiplayer PvP Arena mode that lets you fight other people online, which I personally found to be a bit of an afterthought, but you may enjoy greatly.

And even beyond that, there's the Game Master mode, that turns the game into a pen and paper RPG simulator where you can create a campaign of your own, or download one from the Internet, and then play it together with your friends. It's too early to tell right now, but depending on how popular this mode gets, we're looking at a game with a potentially endless stream of content. Think Neverwinter Nights and its modules.



Shields Up

And now, let's talk about Original Sin II's tactical turn-based combat. After all, this is your main way of conflict resolution in this game.

For the most part, if you played Original Sin, you'll find the sequel's combat to be quite cozy and familiar. During your turns you spend Action Points to do direct damage, inflict status effects and create various elemental synergies, and then you hope to survive your enemies doing the same to you.

Important to note here, is that Action Points work slightly different now and are based around a system where everyone starts with 4 AP and then gets them all back on their following turn. With most skills costing a set amount of AP, this creates a bit of a weird situation where stabbing someone with a dagger costs 2 AP and swinging a giant axe costs 2 AP as well, and both an agile rogue and a heavily armoured fighter can perform roughly the same number of actions per turn. You quickly get used to this, however, and it starts to feel quite natural.

A great change since the previous game is the added verticality in level design. Wherever you go, you can find a variety of ledges, rickety old structures, and low walls that all add a whole new layer to combat that was previously absent. Learning to think in three dimensions will transform you from someone who struggles with the combat into a true master of Divinity who always has the high ground.

And trust me, you'll need it. I played through the campaign on the Tactician difficulty and that was quite a challenge. I had to constantly reevaluate my strategies, use consumable items with no regard to the "too good to use" syndrome, and attempt many fights multiple times in order to win.

However, this is a game from Larian Studios and it employs Larian's signature difficulty curve, where you start extremely weak and everything is out to get you. But as the game progresses and you get more levels, skills, and your understanding of the game grows, things become much easier, and by the time you finish your journey, you're cutting through enemies like a knife through butter. So, if you're looking for something even more challenging than what the Tactician mode has to offer, you can also try the Honour mode that imposes Ironman rules on top of the Tactician difficulty.

On the other side of the spectrum, if something feels too difficult, you can always look for ways to cheese the system, so to speak, as the game provides plentiful opportunities to do so. How about teleporting the enemy leader away from his subordinates, beating him up while he's separated, and then fleeing from combat, only to later regroup, return, and deal with the remaining foes? After all, no one has as many friends as the man with many cheeses.

With multiple weapon types, skills and spell schools that synergize with one another, an abundance of consumable foods, grenades and potions, and a great encounter design, Original Sin II's combat is nothing short of spectacular. Or at least it would have been, if not for one thing. Armour.

You see, unlike Original Sin, both your characters and your foes have Physical and Magic Armour. And here's the thing – in order to inflict any sort of status effect, you first have to destroy your opponents corresponding armour type. To knock them down you'll have to go through physical, and to set them on fire, you'll need to preemptively destroy their magic shields.

And herein lies my biggest issue with Original Sin II's combat – armour makes no sense. Why would you create such a robust system of synergistic status effects, but then make it so that you can't use any of them for the majority of the fight? In order to do anything you will want to load up on destructive abilities to get through armour as fast as possible, but once you do, it's much easier to just keep bursting your enemies down, rather than trying anything creative.

Things do get better in the later stages of the game where your characters can destroy the armour of their enemies in a few hits and not turns, and they themselves can take a bit of punishment and don't get stunned if a light breeze blows in their general direction. At that point the armour system becomes less obnoxious and even grows on you a bit.

However, even with armour in mind, the combat has a lot to offer and there's a lot of versatility to it. In fact, after beating the game with a party geared towards dealing physical damage and turning enemies into chickens, I realized that I didn't get enough of Original Sin II. Right now, I'm thinking about a new party, one that consists of spellcasting shock troopers who wield magic wands and shields, and shower their foes with various elemental spells without doing any physical damage at all.

And this kind of metagaming and theorycrafting is exactly what makes an RPG system attractive to me, to the point of wanting to replay the game solely on the basis of trying something new with its combat. Pair this with a desire to experience another Origin story and try a different approach with some of the game's quests, and a new play-through is all but assured.

Sour Gripes

And now that we've opened that can of worms with the armour system, let's take a close look at all the other things I found lacking with Original Sin II. After all, reading the review up to this point, you might have thought that the game was pretty much perfect. This is not the case, of course.

Larian Studios feels pretty strong about randomized loot in their games, and I can certainly understand where they're coming from – when you have random loot, opening every chest is exciting, since you never know what you may find. And pairing that randomness with abundant unique pieces of gear sure seems like a great compromise.

The issue with Original Sin II's loot is in the game's linear gear progression, and how much of a difference a level or two can make. When that unique set of armor, you've spent hours trying to collect, is suddenly obsolete and blown out of the water by any common piece of garbage you find two levels later, you feel cheated, like you have wasted your time. And if you are to enjoy Original Sin II, you will just have to make peace with its neverending pursuit of better gear.



Then, we have the quest log. With all the freedom you have, your journal struggles to keep up with you and properly document your travels through Rivellon. It kind of sucks to be running around, trying to find a way to finish a quest, when you've actually already finished it and your journal is just lying to you by keeping it as an active entry.

Of course, in a game this massive, there are some bugs. Especially, after you leave the area that people could play through during Early Access. Thankfully, for the most part these bugs are minor and more annoying than game-breaking.

Another thing that struck me as odd was the dialogue. The NPCs talk like you would expect in an RPG, and their lines are fully voiced, which is a nice touch for those who don't enjoy reading that much. However, when your character gets to respond, your options are presented in a second-person point of view for some reason. So, instead of it looking something like, "Yarr, matey!" it's more along the lines of, "You yarr at your matey as a salty old pirate." It looks weird and out of place.

I also have some other minor assorted gripes, like the clunky barter interface, or the rather cumbersome inventory management, or how the tags your character have can at times conflict with one another, but none of these are exceptionally heinous.

And here we come to my biggest complaint about the game, apart from the armour system. While the game is usually exceptionally open and allows for multiple approaches to solving even a basic task, one of the story-critical quests near the end of the game is so baffling, in how poorly it is designed, that I could probably write a separate review just of it alone.

As such, I'll try to be as brief as possible. The Path of Blood quest line is a perfect storm of convoluted quests you have to do in exactly the right order or risk locking yourself out of ever completing the game, with multiple complicated puzzles, poorly-written journal entries, occasional bugs that make things even more confusing, and so much pixel hunting that not even the adventure games you remember from the 1990s can compare.

In fact, if someone creates a mod that allows you to press a button and just skip that entire quest line, I would heartily recommend it to everybody, even those on their first play-through.

And now, after having an entire section of this review dedicated to all the gripes I have with the game, I want to stress one thing. Divinity: Original Sin II is the kind of game that's greater than the sum of its parts. I enjoyed it immensely even with the aforementioned flaws. It's an experience that can last over a hundred hours, and on such a long road, some bumps are simply inevitable. Be aware that they exist, but I implore you to keep an open mind. Underneath the jank, there's a real gem of a game.

Technical Information

The game mostly runs pretty well. Your framerate may dip when the screen is covered with fire or explosions, or in the unfortunate city of Arx, but other than that, it's pretty stable and quick to save and load.

Speaking of saving, Original Sin II has one of the best quick/auto save systems ever. You have two sliders that determine how many slots should be allocated to those functions, and you can decide for yourself how many save slots you require on top of the manual saves.

Bugs aside, the game is extremely well-polished, clean-looking, and responsive. You have tooltips where you would expect tooltips to be, tutorial messages pop up when you first discover some new concept, and so on. My only complaint there is that you can't resize the UI, which is quite a useful feature to have, but not a critical one.

And on the audio side, the game sounds pretty nice. Some of the many lines of voice acting feel out of place, weirdly mixed, or don't exist at all, but that happens extremely rarely.

The soundtrack is an eclectic collection of fantasy tunes that do a great job of conveying the game's atmosphere. Larian Studios' previous in-house composer, Kirill Pokrovsky, had unfortunately passed away back in 2015, and I feared that whoever Larian would find to replace him, will try to emulate his style and fail miserably at doing so. This was not the case, and Original Sin II's music has a distinct feel to it, unlike anything we could hear in the previous Divinity games, but it's very good in its own right. You even occasionally get personalized tracks based on the instrument you pick during character creation.

And as for Kirill, he got a subtle heartfelt tribute, where at a certain point in the game a ghostly pianist can play you some of his old tunes.

Conclusion

They said it couldn't be done. They said it was just nostalgia talking. They said we were just easily impressionable kids and/or grognards, and that was why we enjoyed those old RPGs so much. And before Divinity: Original Sin II, there was some truth to these faceless nay-saying claims. Even when I enjoyed RPGs in recent years, I always had to admit that they could never quite reach that bar set by the games that came out 15-20 years ago. But not anymore.

Original Sin II is not a perfect game, not by a long shot. But even with those imperfections, it's still a shining example of what a modern RPG should be.

Yes, there are some bugs, some quests are janky and rough around the edges, and some of the mechanics make little sense. But a classic like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura has all those things, too. And you know what? None of that has stopped Arcanum from becoming one of my favorite games of all time, and as a result, I can't help but proclaim Larian Studios' Divinity: Original Sin II one of the finest RPGs of all time, as well.

As I write this, I'm thinking of starting a new play-through, co-op perhaps, seeing what else the game has to offer, trying new things, and once again immersing myself in the magical world of Rivellon. And that, in my mind, is the mark of a great RPG.