Divinity: Original Sin
What you’re told at the beginning of a quest is all you get; it’s up to you to figure out the directions you’re given
Publisher/developer Larian Studios Format PC Release Out now
Divinity: Original Sin is the direct descendant of the original CRPGs and the pen-and-paper games that inspired them. It’s the product of nostalgia in a measurable sense, as evidenced by the thousands of Kickstarter backers who made it happen. As you might expect, it’s a game that doubles down on the strengths of its genre – but that’s not the key to its appeal. Divinity deserves notice because it celebrates ideas that fell out of favour as the RPG matured. This is a game about lateral thinking and providing the player with options. It’s about consistently implemented game systems that encourage creative problem-solving over following waypoints, and memorable dialogue options that allow the game to function as an adventure game as well as a combat-led RPG.
Dialogue is, in fact, where Divinity’s most prominent innovations are found. The game stars two protagonists rather than one, and in singleplayer you have equal control over both. You choose their appearance, names, gender and class as you would in any other RPG, but you’re not required to create duplicates – or even friends. Every decision in the game is made collectively, and you’re encouraged to roleplay these interactions and create disagreements from time to time. These interactions are used to establish the personality of each protagonist as well as their relationship with each other, and this has a knock-on effect in terms of stats and the progression of the plot. The system also has clear benefits in co-op, where it allows both players to participate equally as lead characters in the campaign.
Those first two heroes establish the basis of your party, and it’s your party that defines the way you’ll progress. This isn’t just about combat – although that’s part of it – but how you overcome all of the obstacles placed in front of you. Divinity: Original Sin has an old-school open-handedness when it comes to quest objectives, and if it seems like your characters’ abilities should allow them to solve problems in unorthodox ways then the game will, more often than not, allow you to make good on that. A forbidding burning ruin patrolled by flaming skeletons can be made more hospitable by a mage specialising in water magic. An early murder investigation is made easier if you have a few criminal proclivities of your own, and at least one character who can crack locks and confirm a suspect’s guilt or innocence with a bit of aggressive espionage.
You are provided with almost no direct guidance. What you’re told at the beginning of a quest is all you get, and it’s up to you to figure out the directions you’re given. This can lead to frustration, particularly when instructions aren’t quite clear enough. Early on you’re directed to explore a beach to the north-west that is inaccessible if you head in that direction; instead, you need to reach a cave farther north. It’s possible to intuit this if you pick up the right sidequests and pay attention to everything you’re told, but miss one or two details and you’re liable to lose a couple of hours battling in the wrong direction.
Much depends on how you respond to feeling a little lost, a little out of your depth. That sense of precipitous complexity is one of Divinity’s chief draws, and it is of totemic significance to the genre advocates who supported the game’s development via crowdfunding. Complexity is arguably inevitable when the player is afforded this much meaningful freedom, but there’s nonetheless a sense of inelegance that comes when game systems pile on top of each other.
Another example: every character in your party has their own inventory and their own reserve of gold. You might loot a magical suit of armour and give it to your warrior, only to find that your warrior can’t afford to have it identified by a merchant back in town. This means swapping the item to your rogue’s inventory so that they can pay the fee, or transferring gold from your rogue to your warrior instead. Either way you’re likely to spend twice as many clicks performing basic tasks as you need to. Extrapolate this thinking across the game as a whole and it’s not surprising that you’ll spend upwards of 20 hours running around the game’s first town. But this school of design has practical and tonal benefits too, playing to Divinity’s particular sense of realism and the notion that you’re free to navigate the game in your own way.
This is a difficult game, with a turn-based combat system that punishes mistakes hard. Trial and error is the rule, and success often means unlearning something that you’ve been trained to do by other games. Conserving resources like spell scrolls and special arrows is an easy way to lose key battles. Standing around in a water is a good way to get electrocuted. Fighting in the open against a complement of archers is a terrible idea when you could be barricading yourself in a farmhouse. Adapt your thinking and this is an excellent strategy game in its own right, where each victory is built using tools that you create yourself. Divinity is very good at providing you with a sense of ownership over your approach to the game.
You’ll likely feel a stronger attachment to your party than any of the characters you meet or the broader plot they play a part in, however. Divinity is a colourfully written and often funny game, but one that doesn’t deviate much from the fantasy rulebook, an area where a more substantial break from the past would have been welcome. The draw of new challenges is enough to keep you moving, but it’s ultimately a setting that you’ll like rather than love. It’s this that holds Divinity back from joining Baldur’s Gate or Torment at the genre’s peak, but the fact that it warrants that comparison at all is a testament to Larian’s achievement.