You know you’re playing a special kind of game when your hand isn’t constantly held, and you, the gamer, are trusted to discover what’s going on for yourself in everything from story to actually playing the game.
That element of discovery and experimentation has been largely missing from modern-day role-playing games, and it – and many other old-school gaming tropes – make a welcome return in Larian Studios’ Divinity: Original Sin, a PC and Mac RPG unlike anything else you’ve played… even if you’ve been gaming since the seventies.
The premise is of the game is that your party of Source Hunters is on the lookout for any evil magic, or Sourcery, so that they can stop it in its tracks. As the story progresses, you’ll make your way through towns, caves, underground warrens, fortresses, burnt-out churches and more as you pursue various Sourcerers, all of whom are working towards making some pretty unpleasant things happen to the land of Rivellon. You’ll fight the undead, mages, cult members and several bosses along the way (and more), all in glorious turn-based combat lovingly rendered in gorgeous 3D.
While none of that sounds like anything truly different from standard fantasy/RPG fare, it’s really the game’s mechanics that will hook you and give you that sense of “Just one more fight!” that will have you still playing at 1am on a weeknight.
Respect. It’s important
What kept me going for the sixty-odd hours it took me to finish the game was the fun and flexible turn-based combat system, the richness of the writing and the fact that I wasn’t beset on every side with stupid fetch-quests. I felt like the designers actually respected my intelligence, as every quest in the game felt hand-crafted and special in ways I haven’t experienced in years, with excellent writing backing each one up whether that was through character dialogue, the ideas behind the quests, or both.
Take for example [SPOILER ALERT] the forlorn ghost I found haunting the basement of a lighthouse he had once manned, stricken by grief over the fact that in a fit of unfounded jealousy he had deliberately caused a ship carrying his wife to sink. I found his ghost wife eventually, far away and at the end of a quest that I only did much later; I was asked for my counsel as to whether she should forgive or punish her husband for his actions, a decision that dramatically impacted how the quest played out [/SPOILER].
It was such a well-thought-out quest that it took but a second to think of it, so much of an impression it made on me, and that is but one of a plethora of well-written quests.
They didn’t skimp on the humour, either. Hammy acting, silly lines and quests like being asked to help a cat with his love life all helped to keep the game lighthearted for the most part, and even managed to elicit the odd chuckle.
Crafty, combatty goodness
It’s not just the writing that’s good: Divinity: Original Sin features one of the most expansive crafting systems I’ve seen in a game that isn’t Minecraft or its many clones, with what seems like a zillion ingredients to pick up that can be combined in a number of ways to make new things, be they potions, weapons, armour or food. You can even craft spells if you’re skilled enough, and the experimentation this inspired was a mini-game in and of itself. I haven’t been this enthralled with a world’s interactivity since the Ultima series.
And the combat. Oh God, the combat… it’s sublime. It’s centred around a clever elemental system that lets you use spells and arrows to explode, freeze, poison or electrocute your foes, and you’ll discover that the elements complement each other. Poisonous clouds explode when ignited, wet enemies freeze easier when hit with ice spells, enemies standing in water or blood can be electrocuted, and more. Those spells, combined with traditional RPG weapons and class abilities, gave me so many tactical options to consider that deciding how to approach battles became something to savour.
Do I stealth my rogue and sneak her around to backstab that pesky mage who keeps raining fire down on me? Do I create a poison cloud that damages multiple enemies over several turns and then ignite it with a fireball? Or do I make it rain, and then when my enemies are wet electrocute and stun them with a lightning attack or freeze them in place with an ice bolt? Decisions, decisions which, for a tactical-minded gamer is pure heaven.
I found the sheer depth of strategic options to be astounding, and figuring out how best to tackle each encounter turned into a mini-puzzle that I never tired of solving. Happily, I didn’t always win. Several battles forced me to re-think my strategy, and I loved how making changes had a noticeable impact on how encounters played out with things like scrolls (single-use spells I didn’t need to be a mage to use) and elemental summonses able to turn the tide when used at just the right time. I felt rewarded for being clever, and suitably chided for not making use of more effective options, earlier.
Best of all, those failures were all my own stupid fault and not the result of poor design decisions. I love how I was given a set of rules and tools and told to go and experiment, with the lessons I needed to learn being baked into the process of discovery. It made everything I succeeded at in the game feel earned, and therefore more meaningful. That’s not something I see a lot of in modern games outside of Minecraft and Dark Souls.
Flexibility is key
The game doesn’t shoehorn your characters into a specific way of playing, either. While the professions chosen at the beginning give you a set of starting stats and spells, you can put points earned by levelling up in other abilities that let them do things not specific to their class. Your fighter can heal and your elemental mage can fire arrows as well as fireballs if you want him to. Essentially, you’re free to mix and match abilities to suit your play style without being punished for it.
Your two main characters occasionally talk to one another. That lets you do a bit of role-playing by choosing to steer the conversation your own way, since you control both ends. Like peaceful co-existence? Choose the harmonious answers. Enjoy a bit of conflict? Go for the argumentative ones. Along the way you will occasionally unlock character traits like Romantic, Compassionate or Bold that can affect your stats according to how you answer.
That role-playing goes a step further during quests. You’ll occasionally have your characters argue over the best way to proceed, either between themselves or with certain characters which triggers a rock-paper-scissors mini-game that decides whose approach wins. When you’re playing the game co-operatively with a friend, with each of you controlling one of the main characters it becomes a fun way to wrestle for dominance.
And yes, you read that right: the entire campaign can be played co-operatively with a friend, either on your local network or via the internet. Right now it only supports two players, but there are plans to support up to four.
A few foibles
While D:OS is for the most part a wonderful game to play, particularly for fans of older RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, there are a few annoying quirks to its design. The inventory system is a mess that makes it a chore to manage, and the camera’s limited range of motion feels a little restrictive.
Fortunately you can unlock the camera so it gives you a full 360 degree view, but you will see more glitches and visual artifacts that way, as the designers specifically say that the game is best played from the point of view they limit you to. Neither of these are game-breakers, though, and Larian is still working on ironing out all the kinks so they may well be addressed in future patches.
Welcome back, old-school
In the end, Divinity: Original Sin is a beautiful, satisfying RPG that introduces new players to some of the things that made classic RPGs so amazing, while pleasing older gamers with a glimpse of what old-school ideas look like dressed up in new clothes. Ultimately it’s a beautiful marriage of old and new, and one that will please RPG fans no matter their age.
Divinity: Original Sin is out on Steam for both PC and Mac and costs just $39.99 (R440).