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RPG Codex Review: Divinity: Original Sin
Review - posted by Angthoron on Sat 16 August 2014, 23:49:39Tags: Divinity: Original Sin; Larian Studios
Divinity: Original Sin is the first game to come from the recent Kickstarter craze that has matched and even exceeded my expectations. In fact, Original Sin’s release is likely to taint the expectations for the other upcoming RPGs as it really sets the bar to something else than just the simple “Eh, as long as it’s not another AAA-grade RPG, I’ll be happy” levels of satisfaction. A lot can be said about parts of the sum that is D: OS, but what it all amounts to is a very solid game that comes with its own engine instead of running on the ever-present Unity and that delivers on most of its promises.
What did I expect a year or so ago when Larian Studios announced their Kickstarter campaign for Divinity: Original Sin? A fun, light-hearted isometric game with lovely music, lots of hit-and-miss humor, a fair bit of filler combat, hours of enjoyment to rival the chunk of my life that was torn out by Dragon Knight Saga and a meaningful co-op mode in which my partner would blow me up with well-placed fireballs and lightning bursts. Were my expectations fulfilled? Oh, yes. Granted, things like the absence of the mega-dungeon and the cut-short soundtrack are somewhat of a disappointment, and there seems to be a whole lot more than just a fair bit of filler combat, but overall, this is the game that all the subsequent Kickstarter RPGs will be measured against, and I admit that a part of me worries that some of the upcoming projects might not measure up quite that favourably.
The writing in Original Sin is by its nature fairly light-hearted and humorous as is common to Larian Studios’ style. It is noticeably different from the general trend of grimdark tones of the recent years, and this can either be appreciated by those tired of the endless rivers of blood and piles of guts and heavy-handed social commentary, or be found jarring to those expecting a more serious tone from a High Fantasy adventure. I believe that overall the slightly random tone is picked quite well, as having a tone does not mean it needs to be monotone, and even a town besieged by zombies and orcs should still be able to afford some measure of humour. In this sense, the writing is perfectly serviceable and competent.
It does, however, occasionally suffer from jarring tone deafness and anachronistic expressions. Being addressed with “Sup, mate” by a rooster, or have a ram admire a cow’s derriere is certainly amusing, but not quite appropriate in a context of high adventure in the enchanted lands. Such moments tend to fall flat and diminish the overall positive impressions of Larian’s world-building.
As before, Larian’s writing is very hit-and-miss, and with the sheer volume of text it’s far easier to find things to be annoyed with than with your typical game. Fortunately for me, I’ve found most texts amusing, or, at worst, inoffensive. Unfortunately, it is at times too long-winded for its own good, and the exposition infodumps can easily break the game’s pace. This becomes especially obvious on the first trip to the End of Time, which screeches the pace to a complete halt, and, in a co-op session leaves the second player doing absolutely nothing. Following the dialogue text is problematic, and with nothing to steal as per regular dialogue, one of the players ends up standing around, as the first player skips more and more text in an attempt to speed things up, resulting in both losing out on potentially important information. Skipping what seems flavour exposition results in as much as people not even knowing what the Star Stones, one of the focal points of the story, are needed for. As the rhyming mage Bellegar would say, Take heed – brevity is the soul of wit.
Similarly, after a tightly knit Cysealean experience, “Act 2” and onwards begins to run out of steam. The momentum isn’t quite there unless you manage to find just the right way of following the story, and even then, occasional halts in the pacing are certainly noticeable. This is where the great size of the game begins to play to its disadvantage – with as much as Larian had promised, and the need to deliver, there’d likely be quite a rush to create all the content, and spread it evenly across the zones. Cyseal, being the earliest, would get the best distribution. The rest… The rest would have to suffer a bit of filler now and then.
Equally unfortunate are the Persuasion checks. Built as a part of the co-op persuasion mechanic, the dialogue persuasion checks are actually for the most part fairly static, and the player usually has one obvious path to victory, with the rest of the options leading to failure. This would be fine if it were a simple dialogue choice, however, the addition of the (fortunately – and recommendably - skippable) rock-paper-scissors minigame just serves as an unnecessary distraction. If anything, the minigame should remain solely for the purpose of the in-party arguments.
Finally, I think that the overarching plot with all-consuming chaos and other such things could have been left out altogether. Investigation of murders and cults is interesting enough on its own, and playing as some sort of a Fantasy equivalent of Mulder and Skully with a license to kill is actually a pretty fun idea that’s not been seen all that many times.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
The character system in Original Sin is a simple enough thing that most RPG developers in the recent years have managed to screw up. Fortunately, Larian hasn’t, and the result is a simple and solid system based on genre-standard ability scores, skill points, slightly less standard traits as well as minor boosts coming from playing the characters consistently in dialogue. Among the relatively generic traits, one can pick some of the more interesting things, such as the ability to talk to animals, which often gives the player hints and alternative quest solutions or even entirely new quests, or some realistic traits such as Politician, which improves a character’s Charisma but lowers the Intelligence by one point. Skill points that govern the characters’ various abilities ranging from utility to combat and are, just like Stat points, something that you would generally expect to find in an RPG.
Points granted at level-ups are scarce enough to not be able to become a master of all skills, frequently leading up to saving skillpoints for buying higher levels of skills. However, branching out is always a viable option, turning your warrior into a fireball-tossing battlemage, healer or part-time assassin. Learning skills outside of your character’s competences may incur penalties in form of lowered success chance, damage drop and higher action point cost, but the option will be there regardless and the skill point distribution is not restricted in any way, whether or not the result will be “viable”, “useful” or “competitive”. Certainly, this can lead to a situation of a completely messed-up character build, but an eventual introduction of a character to reset your point pool does in part alleviate this – presuming your misguided group makes it far enough to meet the character.
Gravity is a fickle mistress if you’re stupid.
The character will also learn various skills and spells, which are purchased from various vendors in the game. These are primarily connected to combat either as damage, utility or support skills, and while the selection is vast and the system is great, it does have a few issues worth improving, and this is mainly the lack of balance in the skill groups. Naturally, the game not being an MMO, balance is not as important to enjoyment, but it is quite frustrating to learn that your water mage will only be useful for heals and minor damage while the fire mage will soon be cleaning house within a pair of turns thanks to the massive amounts of flammable objects around the average battlefield. Spell scrolls help, but only to a point as each of them is decent money - money that the player will find scarce throughout “Act 1”. Additional spells that could rival the usefulness of setting everything on fire would definitely help the game lose a no-brainer choice.
Another issue comes from the method of acquisition of said skills and spells, which is completely random. Due to Larian’s choices in loot mechanics, the game randomly generates vendor inventories on every level-up. Thanks to this, some of the skill books will be seen just about as often as never, while others will appear in multiple copies over and over again. If you’re bad at winning your state lottery, you may find getting that skill you wanted for the last six levels a little frustrating.
However, these things aside, the character creation is great. Characters do feel more powerful as they level up, and the choices are varied and usually meaningful enough to make a player think. Some will even carry around a load of spare points on them for that moment where they absolutely need to invest in new stats or skills to overcome an obstacle – a feature recently quite well forgotten. Aside from some no-brainers, traits serve as a good compliment to the main stats, some of them, such as Lone Wolf act as a bit of a game-changer, while others, like Pet Pal, may provide alternative quest solutions and flavor texts. It’s an enjoyable system that offers lots of choice and flexibility without being needlessly cumbersome.
Absolution by Fire
The elemental combinations system is one of the more interesting additions to the otherwise fairly regular (although pleasantly quick) turn-based combat. As a spellcaster, you would be able to set the ground ablaze with a fireball, spread the fire with summonable oil spills, create and detonate toxic clouds out of poison puddles on the ground, extinguish all the burning with a Rain spell, then electrocute creatures standing in rain puddles, freeze them solid or create steam clouds with another fireball. Environmental effects will also affect the characters standing or passing through them, and teleporting a character that’s on fire into a puddle of poison will set off a handy explosion.
In addition to the already mentioned things, the game frequently showers the player with opportunities to further tip the scales in their favor by adding various environmental hazards, such as explosive barrels or even simple crates, to the battlefield. A creative player will be able to use or even abuse these things to their advantage, building piles of explosive barrels to take out an entire group of enemies in one shot, or creating a chokepoint out of crates, chests and furniture – or even break a boss’ AI as it appears that breaking a box is generally beyond the computer’s list of skills.
Melee combat, while lacking much of the versatility of mage’s or ranger’s arsenal, is solid, with a great number of skills to use, and certainly does not lack in power even with normal attacks. Higher level skills such as Flurry turn the fighter into quite the powerhouse, letting the character unleash their inner gourmand chef-slash-butcher side on an unsuspecting snowman in need of re-decoration.
The combat system is very satisfying, though at times far from being balanced – as mentioned before, certain spell schools are significantly more powerful than others for significant periods of time, both with direct damage and buffing and utility capabilities. Air, for instance, often feels like a fairly underwhelming spell school aside from the excellent Teleport, while Fire is an absolute no-brainer pick for any mage. Ability cooldowns, too, are a questionable decision, as characters can often end up using some of the more generic abilities waiting for the better spells and skills to become available again – however, there is some reason to this, as without cooldowns to prevent it, the player could easily build a group to chain stun and destroy everything in their path.
That said, an occasional difficulty spike can cause a great deal of frustration to certain party builds – encounters with some of the “bosses” often hinge on a successful disable spell, and the game is not always particularly generous with these, leaving the players to circumvent the difficulty curve with spamming summons and otherwise abusing the mechanics and AI – or turning tail and coming back to complete the encounter at a later time, with better equipment and higher levels.
Conveniently, the AI is generally good at using the elemental mechanics as well, frequently dropping toxic clouds on the player’s group and then detonating it with a dash of fire, all the while trying to avoid the various ground and air effects – sometimes to comic results of taking a ten-turn detour in order to avoid some burning ground, or certain large-sized creatures getting stuck behind some well-positioned crates... In general, the AI is fairly good at what it does: healing, collecting health potions from the ground and even resurrecting its teammates, however, it can be taken unfair advantage over, and is prone to an occasional fit of confusion.
Combat turns play out quick, and battles rarely extend for as long as to become boring, even with a party of up to four characters to manage. This lends itself well to the co-op mode, where the players do not end up waiting for minutes to get a turn, keeping the fights interesting for everyone involved. The AI usually goes through its turns quickly, though a rare bug can cause them to freeze up and stand around inactive – fortunately, a built- in timer ends the AI turn after a while and saves from reloading.
Overall, the system is fun, the mechanics are interesting and the encounters are largely hand-placed, with much of the filler combat being completely skippable should the player wish to do so. Alternatively, the game also presents possibilities for additional combat encounters – killing the NPCs that you’ve just completed a quest for is very much possible. For many, combat will be what will ultimately carry this game, whether they do it straight or cheese the hell out of it.
The loot system suffers too much from what has become somewhat of a standard for the recent Larian Studios RPGs – most of the items are generated randomly at the time of dropping, opening the chest or talking to a vendor, and are generally scaled to the player’s character level. This system can be easily abused by a series of savegame reloads until the items are to the player’s satisfaction. Considering that the vendor selection refreshes every level-up as well, this is a pretty good example of random numbers generator going wrong.
The interface and aiming still need more work – occasional complete impossibility to directly aim at the opponents for no apparent reason, in plain sight on what seems to be an open field is bewildering; mis-clicks due to camera positioning or screen shaking can be a proper cause for a reload, and the lack of proper log window for Player-NPC dialogue makes it difficult to follow the conversations in co-op. This is especially true for situations when the co-op party is in town – while talking to one of the many plot-critical NPCs in Cyseal, the second player will likely learn more about the correlations of cheese and friendship than, say, magical stones with strange healing properties. Lack of proper dialogue logging is less of a problem for groups where voice communication is available, as you would be able to voice act the lines to your partner, but in a text environment, this can quickly become a problem. Skill descriptions can be rather vague as well, and while the player is meant to experiment, it may be better to experiment with some proper information at hand.
In terms of graphics, the game is once again somewhat of a hit and miss – some will enjoy the light-hearted, stylized and slightly cartoony look while others will claim it looks too much like World of Warcraft and complain about the lack of grimdark imagery. Regardless, the world is well designed, with distinct locations, appealing vistas and high attention to detail. Characters and objects clearly stand out from the backgrounds, effects are almost always obvious and visible and the secrets are obscured within reason. The side character models are also more detailed than certain models from Dragon Age 2 despite the isometric perspective instead of third person, so there’s also that. If it’s better than a game from the masters of the RPG genre, it’s gotta be good. Fans of vibrant colors and visual clarity will enjoy this game – it almost gives a feeling of a scale model landscape filled with various cheery elements and various monsters to wreck your lovely scale railroad.
Unfortunately, the light-hearted visual presentation can also result in tonal confusion. As the characters comment at the beginning of the game, the beach, and indeed the world, look a little too placid for a cursed stretch of land filled with zombies, orcs, bandits and giant crabs. The township of Cyseal is constantly bathing in the sun, even as some of the areas just beyond the walls are drenched with rain, and a ruined cathedral looks to be more on the side of the cute than foreboding. The visual tone does shift as the game goes on, however, and this type of disparity becomes less common, but this is one of the aspects that would’ve really benefitted from additional Kickstarter funding – the unreached stretch goal promised weather systems, day and night shifts and NPC schedules that could’ve added tons to the atmosphere of the game.
The audio side is fairly good from the special effects to the soundtrack. Voice acting is overall as good as it could be produced at what seemed like a fairly short notice as well, however, the looping of the voices results in a somewhat unintended amount of distraction – the mentioned looping lectures on cheese and friendship will be branded into the player’s mind after the several hour spent in Cyseal, and visiting the tavern a few times will likely have you memorizing the classic lines like “Please, do keep shouting in my ear!”. It’s hard to say what should’ve been done with these looping conversations aside from having them loop a little less frequently in the future. As it is, they speak a little too much.
The music of Original Sin is largely excellent, as is usual with Kirill Pokrovsky’s work. However, it is quite disappointing that he was unable to utilize the $700000 stretch goal fully – during development, he apparently suffered from health-related issues and thus the soundtrack had to be cut short and some of the audio in the game had to be been recycled from Larian’s previous titles. It is not really a bad solution, though some tracks, like Dance of Death could be more tone-appropriate to a game like Planet Alcatraz, and some others are really begging for a more developed version – particularly the main violin theme of the game, which is already quite amazing. I do wish that perhaps Kirill will be able to revisit the soundtrack at some point.
Sinful Co-Op Experiences
The co-op multiplayer mode in Original Sin isn’t just a hasty afterthought – it’s one of the game’s major hooks. Larian’s intentions from fairly early on have been clear: they wanted to make an RPG that could be played together by friends, couples and strangers alike, where all parties involved would have their say at critical moments, and where all would find something to do. With but a few minor issues, their intentions can be considered a success. The multiplayer experience can be a great amount of fun thanks to the chances for distracting the NPCs (and stealing all their paintings), creating unexpected scenarios in combat and arguing through loads of dialogue, which occasionally results in a match of rock-paper-scissors, the game’s impartial arbiter.
The co-op dialogue that determines the course of many quests and permits the players to both argue (or agree) with each other is a clever idea that can be seen in single player but properly shines only when playing in pair – it gives the joining player a sense of agency and even add an additional layer of character building, as minor bonuses are given as a reward for consistent behavior. Sadly, the dialogue text is still very difficult to follow by the player not conversing with the NPC, as the floating text disappears too soon, and the text log does not reflect the player characters’ lines. The log also has a tendency of being filled by various filler conversations from nearby NPCs, making it even harder to follow. Fortunately, in most cases the second player will be too busy stealing from the distracted NPCs to mind.
Combat takes everything fun that it already had to offer and gives the element of randomness that playing with another human being generally brings, with unexpected brilliant solutions and equally unexpected dazzling failures. The party can be divided by the “server” player in any way they wish, and the redistribution is done on the fly so the players don’t need to argue over who gets to have all the NPCs and who really doesn’t.
The multiplayer is a solid fun experience and the systems set up for co-op are excellent and easy to use – however, the actual experience you’ll be getting out of this may vary greatly. Find someone with a similar playstyle and you’ll have dozens of hours of fun, even if you’re crawling through the game at a pace of a saddled tortoise, find someone that clashes with you and nothing’s going to salvage the hours you’ve wasted trying to adjust to the confusion. A two-person game with lots of dialogue, exploration and turn-based combat can easily be broken by a mismatch in styles and interests. My personal experience with co-op has been very positive and might be something to further discuss at a different point.
Despite much of the obligatory Codexian nitpicking, I have to say that I loved the time I spent with Original Sin. Sure, it has some flaws, but overall, it is exactly what I wanted from it - or in fact more. Focusing on the flaws is like missing the forest behind a couple of trees. The game is amazing, and the sum of its parts is far greater than the parts themselves – and that’s not said to diminish the parts. Divinity: Original Sin is a great package filled with amusing stories, great combat, satisfying exploration and many hours of general amusement. Plug in a co-op partner that you’re well compatible with, and the fun you’re likely to have will be greater than following the Codexian Bioware thread – and this is taking into the account the fact that Original Sin actually costs money.
Briefly put, Original Sin is what gaming is supposed to be about: it’s about having fun. It’s a game I hoped for but didn’t quite expect. It’s a game that gives hope for the genre, that it does not have to be split between the AAA-type mass-appeal titles and niche 2D sprites. It gives hope that Kickstarter RPGs will end up at least as good as they were promised to be without involvement of third-party publishers and other hidden strings.
It was a great ride, and I’m looking forward to the mods that will follow. Not the nudity mod though, thank you very much.