RPGs like Divinity: Original Sin were exactly the sort I couldn’t get my head round during my younger years. I tried to tackle cRPGs such as Baldur’s Gate II and Ultima with gusto and enthusiasm, yet it always felt a little overwhelming, causing me to retreat to the safety of simpler games after I wandered aimlessly for an hour or so of play. Time has made me appreciate the RPG genre so much more in recent years. I have more patience for them now, and a better time management system that doesn’t involve going to bed at 4am every night (sweet, dull adulthood kinda rocks). My enthusiasm is high, and my understanding of the genre better, but that doesn’t stop Divinity: Original Sin from being an intimidating prospect.
The game; a massively revised for console version of last year’s Kickstarted PC release, focuses on the land of Rivellon in a different era to previous games in the series such as Divine Divinity. You play as Source Hunters, investigating a grisly murder in the town of Cyseal. That’s merely the introduction though, as the story soon reveals a far larger threat to not only Cyseal, but Rivellon and beyond. It’s standard fantasy narrative that doesn’t really pop on paper, but in game it makes good use of the threads running through it to really set your immersion in the world. There is a level of daft humour that continually permeates the sometimes serious nature of the task at hand. It’s an interesting way of presenting storytelling, probably more so because we currently exist in an era of games that take themselves super super seriously or flat out silly, with little in the middle. Divinity plays like it knows its a videogame without resorting to a conveyor belt of in your face meta moments. It embraces the more ridiculous situations and helps to humanise characters in a land of wizards, orcs and zombies. It doesn’t stop there being a metric tonne of fantasy stereotypes and accents on display, but the very knowing, tongue-in-cheek manner in which they are portrayed leaves you rolling your eyes a lot less than you’d expect. As a result Divinity appears to be rather charming and twee on the surface, but give it half an hour and you’ll soon know that its core is a twisted, mean, complex thing that demands you give it your respect.
That’s because Belgian developer Larian Studio’s deep RPG evokes those classic cRPGs of old, even if it does try to put a simpler face on it. It’s a far cry from being deemed ‘accessible’ in the regular sense, yet it’s definitely not quite as brutally oppressive as its forebearers were. That may entice those weaned on simpler, more streamlined RPGs to at least dip a toe into Divinity’s vibrant world, but these small accommodations may annoy hardcore purists of the genre. Still, it’s an overwhelming prospect from the get go. Tutorials guide you through the first hour just enough to teach you the basics of your inventory, combat, interactions et al, before taking the next step up, but this doesn’t prepare you for what the game throws at you. Even the very first mission is far from straightforward, giving you a marker to head for initially until the case opens up and what you have to do next is left rather ambiguous, and this routine is repeated in nearly every mission from then on. Missing a single conversation or failing to read just one letter or note could be the difference between spending hours on a quest or minutes. Your attention is required constantly in Divinity, to be ignorant is to fail.
This could be a major detraction in any recommendation of the game, but Divinity makes it a pleasure more often than not. Instead of going from point A to B and beyond, you have to piece together the shards of information you have in order to figure out your next move and are able to drastically alter the way you receive and approach missions many hours later thanks to your earlier actions. There is never just one or two ways to complete a quest, there are many. Truly it allows you to actually role play your characters by shaping how they handle things dependent on your skills and your actions. Something as simple as leaving a door open can create an entirely new scenario. It enriches the world in ways not normally seen in modern videogames.
Ingeniously, you can argue and debate important decisions with your partner in game, with any disagreement being hashed out in a mini game that blends rock, paper scissors and Top Trumps (your ability in a certain skill determines how many points you get). It’s a really nice touch that develops your characters in a new and novel way. It Is clearly meant for co-op play -adding an almost D&D vibe to Divinity- but it works on your own too. The other thing in favour for Divinity here is that just wandering around Rivellion, with the wonderful musical score accompanying your travels, is so pleasing. Whether it’s just talking to the people, getting into scraps, finding loot or investigating something that caught your eye, the world is a dangerous delight to traverse. Again though, you’ll have to have your wits about you as you travel, because combat is as brutal as it is inventive, well, at least to begin with.
All fighting in Divinity is done in a turn-based manner, with any movement or action costing you action points, of which you have a relatively small amount. Obviously more powerful, effective moves will cost more of your action points so finding the right formula for each battle is another layer of thinking on top of the already large amount needed to invest in the game. Early encounters are winnable, but soon turn unforgiving as enemies can deal out massive damage from the start. That continuing theme of complete concentration is as relevant here as anywhere else. Battles become increasingly like a chess match, with one wrong move having a massive impact on your chances. Helping (and hindering) you is the smart elemental environment damage that can be inflicted. You can use oil to cause extra fire damage, freeze water beneath your enemy to see them pratfall, or maybe even use lightning to charge a cloud of water and fry the bad guys. Obviously this works both ways, but if you play smart then using the right combination of magic and environment can end a battle swiftly. Problem with that is that as the game goes on, it’s entirely possible to exploit this system a bit too much, making for some underwhelming fights. It doesn’t always affect combat so heavily, but there’s a certain level of enemy that are rendered a non-threat if you learn the system right. Overall though, the challenge largely remains high, and maintains the same sweat-inducing tension even as the game gets many tens of hours old. This would all be moot if this PC game wasn’t adapted in a suitable manner, luckily, this is no lazy port.
To Larian’s credit, it’s done a sterling job on making Divinity work on a console at all. It was always going to be a mammoth task considering the sheer number of menus, commands and inventory pages you have to get through. The hardest job was condensing all those menus and inventory systems into a cohesive, simple whole, and that hasn’t quite been achieved. A grand attempt has been made to streamline your navigation between each page, but it’s just too much for a controller to contain. Sadly this means the game’s already lengthy running time is drawn out further in the most laborious way possible as you spend far longer trawling screen upon screen of menus than is enjoyable, meaning that entering them in the first place becomes something you’ll second guess, rather than pore over as is intended and necessary. This is only made worse thanks to the gargantuan amount of reading you’ll have to do. It is a blessing that voice acting has been significantly upped from the original version as it does dampen the potentially numbing effect so much text could cause.
Personally, I’m a sucker for reading about a game world’s stories and lore, I can safely say the average player will not be quite so thrilled by it. Combat fares much better, with a toolbar to assign your most important spells, items and equipment for quick easy use, and targeting can be done either manually with the right stick or cycling with L1 and R1. The only minor issue is that it can be difficult to tell where an enemy is sometimes because they blend in with the scenery a little too well, resulting in the odd cheap death. Divinity is definitely a fine attempt at bringing a classic RPG style to consoles, with more care and attention to detail put into this version than most companies would bother with, but at its heart, Divinity is a PC game, and that’s where it will feel most comfortable to play. The biggest draw for a console owner is that these types of games are a rarity, with only this and Wasteland 2 representing the old school RPG style to a credible degree. It’s a major plus that both are two of the finest modern examples of it and that the PlayStation can add more variety to its ranks.
It’s worth touching upon that co-op mode I mentioned earlier. With the right person it brings a whole new level to Divinity. Two players, sitting on the same couch and not taking it seriously, will have an absolute hoot as they play off each other. It adds so much to even the most menial of tasks when you are bickering and joking with a friend in game and out. Having the debate system to finalize any in-game argument is a work of genius as well. In fact, of all the games with co-op I’ve played this year, this is by far the most surprising and definitely one of the most enjoyable.
Divinity is easily one of the better games I’ve played this year; no mean feat considering the competition and the difficulty of the game itself. The way it marries a light-hearted, daft charm with serious peril and punishing gameplay is the stuff videogames could do with a bit more of nowadays. Divinity stands as a proud and fitting tribute to cRPGs of the past whilst having a wonderfully eccentric personality of its own. If you’re hankering for a modernised blast from the past that will swallow your free time whole if you succumb to its wares, then Divinity: Original Sin is a great way to scratch that itch.