Divinity: Original Sin 2 updates the classic CRPG formula properly. Unlike Pillars of Eternity which seemed like much more of a homage to a by-gone era, Larians latest entry into their long-running CRPG series uses classic CRPG tropes as a base and builds on it with new, fresh ideas. Character-based roleplaying is brought out of the rose-tinted memories of the 90’s and into the here and now with some great new modern twists on the formula. Divinity: Original Sin 2 distances itself from Obsidians recent crowdfunded efforts by making them look like nothing more than derivative in comparison, and that’s quite a feat considering how polished and intricately detailed the worlds of games like Tyranny and Pillars of Eternity are.
Original Sin 2 is unity powered and boasts a bright and colourful visual feel coming close to Shrek levels of colour and visuals as a result, but this is a much darker story than the first Original Sin. Larian has created a godless world where players can take up the roles of several pre-written characters each with their own origin story which ample opportunity to actually role play as a character with a full backstory and history. This gives plenty of unique opportunities to mess around with the world according to a character’s outlook or personal history and gives the sense that players aren’t just populating some hollow avatar like in plenty of other more modern RPG’s – Original Sin 2 willfully ignores the dreadful silent protagonist trope that plagues many RPG’s by instead giving each unique character intriguing backstories and you’ll come to learn your character by way of making choices you think the characters would make, not what the players themselves would make. Rather than an avatar throwing out glib, fence-sitting quips every so often, players are given the opportunity to actually take a stand against things and pretty much talk to people how they see fit – consequences be damned.
And that’s what players will spend a lot of the game doing – the RPG systems are incredibly well defined. More than simple binary choices, a myriad of factors can come into play at any time and it adds to a sense of complexity and moral greyness that other games really fail to grasp. Each character has “tags” based on their character meaning they can apply their life experiences or unique worldview to a situation and really change how an encounter plays out. Characters in your party will also have their own stories to tell meaning that their goals may sometimes either intertwine or, indeed, interfere with the main characters own story. They’re not just droids that follow the player around and make cute remarks during combat – they will pipe up during certain points of the game to either encourage or dissuade other party members from what they’re doing. Keeping the party happy and checking up on their state of mind becomes one of the main thrusts of the game which makes key plot points much more exhausting when trust in fellow allies gets put to the test. With each party member having their own unique goals and agendas not everyone is going to be on your side.
Luckily, when discussions break down and party members draw their weapons to fight, a fluid and tough turn-based combat system underpin much of the RPG systems in the game. Combat isn’t a cakewalk in Original Sin 2, and most players will probably spend most combat encounters nervously tapping their foot hoping their carefully laid plans all work out. It’s overwhelmingly tough at first, pulling no punches when it comes to singling out important party members or, indeed, knocking out an entire squad of heroes in just a few short turns. To have any success at all in Original Sin 2 then the combined efforts of synergising party members, abusing the terrain advantages of parts of the map and funnelling enemies into deadly traps is certainly the way to go – laying back and taking damage simply isn’t an option. A hard lesson to learn at first, and indeed it’s entirely possible to restart the game a few times over to get the balance of allies to a standard that is bearable but eventually, the struggle ceases to be such a grind and instead begins to feel rewarding. Encounters, where it’s possible to become easily outnumbered and under levelled, can be turned around with the right spell in the right place, or with the correct positioning of your party. It’s less about higher stats beating lower stats and more about tactical prowess and scraping through on a wing and a prayer.
Though as rewarding and tough as the combat is, it’s easy to sometimes sigh at the sheer struggle of it all. By the 40th hour of playtime, having to scrape through each encounter on the skin of your teeth really begins to grate and the compulsion to reload every single fight to do it “properly” starts to feel a lot more like tedium as opposed to rewardingly tactical. It’s unrelentingly difficult and only really gets easier when over levelled by a considerable amount which, actually, gives a classic RPG feeling of going back to an area that was previously much too difficult and laying waste to everything in your path – a powerful feeling, sure, but the constant grind to get to those rare occasions starts to wear down in the much later stages of the game. This, of course, has a much more important role to play which is to dissuade combat altogether and focus on it as rather a last resort than an excuse to immediately throw down when things don’t go your way – this is a role-playing game after all, and playing a role is the most key attraction to this wonderful world. It’s almost a waste to have the wonderfully written characters meaninglessly slaughter their way through the story – each character has their own unique way of dealing with the world that doesn’t necessarily involve combat.
Experimenting makes up quite a hefty chunk of the game – Original Sin 2 boasts an immensely robust role-playing system that is loose enough to employ a myriad of paths through every single encounter while retaining a quality of writing and world-building that makes all of those choices seem much more worthwhile. These loose rulesets allow players to nearly break the game in really funny ways and Original Sin 2 will bend over backwards to accommodate some pretty insane decisions. For example, failing a speech check on a guard to gain access to a dungeon simply means you can throw a teleportation cube behind them as their back is turned and warp your party inside to continue adventuring, and the game will accommodate such trickery into dialogue later by either claiming devious sourcery was used to dupe the guard or that they simply never saw the intrusion happen in the first place. There is no convenient narrative death for the dim guard – the story will simply try it’s hardest to accommodate for everything. When you take into consideration the huge number of factors that can alter absolutely everything in the game, it starts to dawn on you that creating this world must have taken a back-breaking degree of work. To have an infinite number of solutions to almost everything in the game and yet still have a compelling and intricately detailed narrative is almost otherworldly. It’s brave too in an industry that pays through the nose to polish a game where designers often want to force the player to witness all the money that went into their set pieces. Here they can be skipped with a simple teleportation spell and it’s not only allowed but it’ll compensate somehow later on.
The story is no slouch, either. Picking up events on a prison ship carrying “source sensitive” prisoners to a prison island, a mysterious otherworldly force causes the ship to crash upon the rocks of the prison island. From here, the players chosen character begins to unravel a mystery that plays into themes of divinity and destiny that will pull on familiar fantasy RPG strands but it does so with such quality and surprising depth that it doesn’t ever feel derivative or unoriginal. Each quest has a million different outcomes and the writing standards are surprisingly high. Each line, too, has been voice acted, with the narrator of the story being of particularly high quality. The narrator is an important addition to the world, lending itself a feeling of a wonderfully acted radio play that consistently provides flavour to conversations and world events, filling in some of the more literary blanks left by the isometric viewpoint. Having each line voice acted could so easily have been a novel addition to an already excellent game, but the constant quality and almost literary feel of the writing comes to life under the excellent voice work of the cast of Original Sin 2. For a game that does a lot of talking, the fact that the quality is so consistent is even more welcome.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 seems almost unbelievable. The revival and simultaneous evolution of the classic Character Role Playing Game, it lands in the middle of a star-studded year of consistent quality releases and still manages to shine above all of the rest. An unrelentingly tough game at times is sure to cause frustration but the sheer quality of role-playing, experimentation, world building, excellent writing and character development see’s this game soar above the rest. In a year with sub-par efforts from the boring Mass Effect universe and it’s similar ilk, Larian tells us that classic genres can still stand with the big boys when done the right way.