The impact of Gary Gygax’s and Dave Arneson’s brainchild on the world of RPGs can be felt even today. Larian Studios’ latest, Divinity: Original Sin, owes more than just a few nods to its predecessors, yet it steps out from their shadows to establish itself as one of the finest CRPGs in some time.
It has only been within the past year and a half that I have actually delved into the world of Dungeons & Dragons myself. Though I am a long-time RPG and fantasy fan, the realms of Faerun, Greyhawk, or Barovia never interested me much outside of books and other forms of entertainment. I’ve heard mention and praise of titles like Planescape:Torment, Baldur’s Gate, and more, but these have never been a part of my gaming catalogue. For me, Divinity: Original Sin is my first venture into a world inspired by D&D, and I have found myself utterly immersed within it.
Just as D&D allows players to choose the class and abilities of the character they’ll be stepping into, Divinity: Original Sin allows you to pick from 11 different character classes for the two main characters. These classes vary from straightforward melee, to spellcasters that specialize in a couple different elements, to hybrids that utilize skills from both physical and magical skill trees. These classes can then be further customized by making adjustments to the three main characteristics. A character’s attributes define his or her strength, speed, dexterity, and the like; abilities grant access to melee/ranged skills, magic, and defense; and talents are special skills that provide various benefits, like talking with animals. Attributes not only determine what type of armor you’re able to wear or how many action points you get in battle, but they also will provide bonuses to many of the magic and melee/ranged skills you use.
Once you’ve determined who you’ll be playing as, you’re introduced to where you’ll be playing: the world of Rivellon. This particular incarnation is set in the earlier times of the fantastical land - before people turned into dragons and used jet packs - and focuses on two Source Hunters who are tracking down reports of the use of Source, i.e., “evil” magic, in the city of Cyseal.
The initial investigation actually puts you into the role of a detective as you try to track down who’s responsible for murdering a noble and whether or not Source was used to perform the deed. You’ll look at the body, talk to witnesses and suspects, and try to gather evidence. It’s a different start to a game (no big battles or calls to glory), but it serves well to put you into the roleplaying aspects of the title. You’ll explore a town, meet different characters that have their own worries and personalities, pick up a bunch of side quests, and eventually decide to venture beyond the city walls. The starting town and its surrounding area are vast enough that it is easy to spend a few hours there without even touching much of the main quest. That exploration and side-questing will eventually entail having to fight some zombies, demons, and more.
Divinity: Original Sin’s combat is an isometric turn-based affair. There’s a roll for initiative (behind the scenes) at the start of every battle and each combatant is then ordered appropriately. Everyone is given a certain number of action points (APs) that can be used for moving, attacking, and using skills. Ending your turn before all your points are spent allows you to store them for the next turn so there’s a certain balance of going all out and holding back for bigger moves.
For the first few encounters you come across, walking up and hitting your foes or shooting them from afar works fine as they are few in number and fairly weak. Surrounding an enemy actually provides you with a flanking bonus, allowing your characters to do more damage to them, so rushing in and wailing away makes perfect sense. All of that goes away fast, though, as every encounter after the first few “tutorial” ones will place you in situations where you’re outnumbered by at least three to one.The only way to a surefire victory is by combining magical effects.
See a pool of oil? Set it on fire to create a patch of burning ground that will constantly damage enemies walking over it and maybe even apply a “burning” effect that damages them further. Maybe throw some poison in there to create an explosion for a quick burst of damage and to clear the ground to make it safe for you and your allies. Few spells or abilities by themselves provide the “crowd control” options you find in other RPGs, but mixing and matching them helps to create favorable situations for your party. Casting a rain spell and then a freezing spell on a particularly difficult foe - or just freezing the ground beneath its feet so it slips and falls - can help ensure it stays out of combat for just enough turns to deal with other lesser threats.
Larian keeps things interesting, too, by varying the types of enemies - some of which are immune or resistant to different elements - and how they’re grouped up across an area. No battle is ever a guaranteed victory and you should be prepared to save and load your game quite often. That small group of enemies that appear to be an easy win may actually turn into a trap that places you into a much larger encounter.
Coming up with a strategy for dealing with those enemies, utilizing everyone’s skills, and making careful judgments about when to advance and when to hold back reminds me of just about every encounter I've faced in D&D games. What’s more, victory in Divinity: Original Sin by no means feels like a guarantee, but it always feels well-earned. Just as in D&D, too, your rewards for defeating your foes means more experience to help level up and it also means better gear. Much like action-RPGs, killing enemies and searching through lootable objects will yield gear that ranges in green uncommon to orange uniques. Unlike those games, don’t expect to see too much gear that boost your damage to such a degree that you walk on nothing but a carpet of fallen enemies. Boosts from these items offer slight increases to your attributes, your resistances, and may even give you points into your abilities, which will let you learn more skills in a particular melee/magic tree, but you’ll still need to treat every encounter like it could be your last.
From the turn-based combat to the immersive world and variety of NPCs, it’s easy to lose yourself in Divinity: Original Sin for a while. My biggest issue with the game thus far is the lack of explanation for some of the mechanics. The tutorial dungeon explains the general idea of how to interact with the world and do things like open locked chests or sneak, but after that you’re on your own to discover things.
For example, new skills aren’t learned automatically from levelling up. Instead, skill books are mainly acquired by bartering with a variety of NPCs. Once you see that’s how you get them, you start bartering with everyone you meet. Until that point, though, you might go for hours and through several levels wondering if your basic “poison arrow” spell is all you get. There’s also a crafting system in the game that lets you make your own arrows, spell scrolls, and even weapons and armor, but knowing how to make them comes from recipe books that are scattered throughout the game. These books will provide you with the ideas of “combine this and that to get this other thing,” but some of those recipes require other objects, like a stove or a campfire, that may lead you to wonder “well how do I make those” and it’s not until you stumble across one that you realize you’ll have to track them down.
It’s good that there isn’t extensive handholding and Larian allows players to experience much for themselves, however, a little more pointing in the right direction would go a long ways towards making the game more approachable. Certain elements are instantly familiar to anyone who’s played D&D (or possibly even Baldur’s Gate), but for many other players, it may feel a bit like jumping into Dark Souls for the first time.
Originally, we were told Divinity: Original Sin would support up to four players online or through a LAN connection. The final product, however, only supports up to two for the entirety of the game’s campaign. Four players are supported through mods to the game, using the Divinity Toolkit that comes with it, but so far there aren’t any mods with that feature. In the end, this may be a good thing as progression through the campaign and any experience/loot you acquire is only saved to the host’s game, meaning anyone who joins you will not reap the rewards of their efforts back on their side. This also means you’re basically scheduling your play time with the game in order to progress with your friend. Doing this with one friend is relatively easy, but coordinating four peoples’ schedules usually means someone is going to get left behind.
All of that aside, teaming up with friends to tackle foes and lose yourself in a fantasy world that is, in part, of your own making is fun; and that’s really the intent behind Divinity's co-op. There aren’t any special team up attacks that become available when playing with friends, or better loot drops; you just get a friend to join you in your quest and share in the victories. The only actual in-game impact is seen through the cooperative dialogue choices.
Throughout the course of the game the two main characters will engage in dialogue with a variety of NPCs, their mercenary allies, and each other. Many of these conversations will allow you to shape the type of people you wish the Source Hunters to be by choosing their responses separately. Maybe one decides that the man stealing a fish to feed his family has every right to do so, while the other hunter believes it is wrong no matter what the circumstances. When playing with a friend, these decisions are made separately; you make your choice, and your friend makes his or hers. If you disagree, then prepare yourself for mini-game that is the ultimate decider of worlds and fates: rock-paper-scissors. It’s an odd mechanic to include (should this person live or die? best two out of three to determine), but one that can be skipped in favor of randomized dice rolls.
The choices each character makes have in-game effects, as well. If you find your choices lean towards more the Spiritual side than the Materialistic, your character will be immune to Fear. If you’re more Righteous, your Leadership ability is increased. Heartless? Enjoy a backstab bonus. It’s a small mechanic to toss in, but it’s one that really lets both players get into the spirit of things.
Divinity: Original Sin is all about the experience of the game. That experience can be done alone where you craft and shape each of the Source Hunters into the kind of people you feel they should be while at the same time devising your own strategies for how to overcome the myriad of foes that await you. Or, that experience can be cooperative, with each player expressing their own thoughts and feelings onto the Source Hunters. That cooperative aspect is what’s helped to make Dungeons & Dragons such a popular game over the years. What better way to tackle incredible enemies than with a friend?
The Co-Optimus review of Divinity: Original Sin is based on the PC version of the game. A code was supplied by the developer for review purposes.