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Ascended: ‘Divinity: Original Sin 2’ is an Absolute Triumph of RPG Design

Since the creation of games, the RPG genre has been struggling to replicate the feeling of pen and paper gaming. It seems no matter how advanced the games get, no matter what features they add, they just can’t equal the reactive and dynamic nature of a few friends, some musty books, and a handful of dice. Many have tried, with Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights both heavily steeped in DnD 3.5 rules, Temple of Elemental Evil was a straight conversion of a Greyhawk campaign in addition to countless other homages and attempts in other forms.

By far one of the better representation of tabletop gaming was 2014’s Divinity: Original Sin by RPG veterans Larian Studios. It did a commendable job of combining deep turn-based combat with exploration and interaction, where seemingly every possibility the player could come up with was scripted into the game. Now, after a very successful Kickstarter and some time in Early Access, Larian has returned with Divinity: Original Sin 2. With the game’s return, it still begs the question, is this a session worth sitting in for or a campaign best left on the shelf?

The differences begin right at the character selection screen. This time around you’ll only create a single character, no more of that awkward 2-person role-playing that occasionally hampered the first title. More importantly, there are now different races to choose from, letting you pick from Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Lizardmen, and undead variations on all of these. Creating a custom character is all well and good, but the best way to play is choosing one of the six origin stories, which gives your character a unique background, interactions, and quests specific to that character. Any origin character you don’t take can later be recruited as a companion, so you’ll still be able to see their stories as well.

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There’s a much greater sense of scale this time, and the game’s world goes up and down as much as it goes left and right.

After you’ve made a character, players are confronted with a second major change. While the first game was all about hunting down and halting the use of Source Magic, this time you’re a practitioner of that very power. Your character has been arrested for the misfortune of having these powers and sent off to Fort Joy to either die a prisoner or get “healed” by the warrior-monks of the Magisters. Eventually, you escape the Fort, receive a mission from on High, and get told you need to become the most powerful Sorcerer possible. All the while you’re getting chased by not only everyone that wants your head, but also an ancient evil known as The Void that feeds on Source and pops up wherever you go.

From there the plot opens up considerably. While the first one had a very directed story that kept you moving around, Divinity 2 is more content with letting you uncover the plot as you go, sprinkling it in as you explore and complete quests. You’ll sometimes wander into a location for one reason and walk out having advanced the main plot and not really realizing it. This works both in favour of and against the game since there will be times where players have very little direction to go off of and find themselves wandering around completely aimlessly unit something happens.

Thankfully, the overall writing is fairly strong, with quests almost always having multiple paths based on your actions and interactions with NPCs. Don’t like the way an NPC is talking to you? Break out some violence and the game reacts. It’s rare that you can outright fail a quest and it often seems like any idea you may have had, so did the designers. There are a few quests that fall flat or just come off as boring and needless, but these are the exception and the majority of quests are enjoyable and encourage replayability.

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Fights often leave environmental damage in their wake, small flaming reminders of your actions.

Other than conversation there’s a lot of fighting throughout Divinity 2, and the turn-based combat from the first game returns with some tweaks. Most of the abilities from the previous title return, although almost all of them have been changed in some way, and there are several new ability types as well. There are still the elemental powers, but now there’s also the ability to transform, control the undead, summon powerful creatures, and more. There’s also a greater use of the environment in battles this time, with ranged characters gaining a bonus if they’re above targets, adding some great verticality to fights. All of this adds up to some of the deepest and most satisfying combat in a long time and every fight feels memorable as a result.

Aside from new powers, there’s also the new armor system that plays into combat. Each piece of equipment, as well as every NPC, has separate magic and physical armor that needs to be broken before damage of that type will affect health. While physical armor is easy enough to figure out, magical armor not only blocks against spells as well as the environmental effects that are lobbed around during battle. This means that with high enough armor your characters can walk right through a blazing fire or field of poison for some time before they take damage. The different armors also block against status effects, meaning you can’t always rely on the same tactic over and over again. This makes what was already a deep and tactical fighting system even more so and greatly encourages experimentation on the fly as you figure out what attacks to level against which enemies.

There are a few minor issues with the game that do occasionally hold it back. First is the UI and inventory management, neither of which could be called good. As you gain new abilities, slotting them into the all-too-small quick bar on the bottom becomes annoying, and it’s easy to forget which abilities are set up where. While it does keep the UI smaller when you’re flipping through page after page of abilities and items it does make you wish you could add additional bars or extend the one on the bottom for faster usability. Inventory management is similarly a joke, with each character having their own backpack to manage. Thankfully this time gold can be shared across the party no problem, but moving stuff from one character to another is a pain and it makes you wish they had implemented the inventory screen from Pillars of Eternity, which looked better and worked much faster. It can get really bad when you’re returning to town to upgrade your party and have to juggle items between all the characters, making what should be a simple shopping trip take longer than necessary.

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There’s a much greater variety of locations this time, with dark forests, industrial sites, ancient ruins, and other dimensions to name a few.

Graphically, Original Sin 2 is best when taken in from afar, but there are plenty of minor details you can pick up if you zoom in. Character models look decent enough, though there are occasionally a limited number of them and you’ll see repeats in some enemies. The variety of locations and characters is much greater than the first game and that’s definitely a good thing. Finally, there are the effects, with several new ones added like cursed ground that changes with different environmental effects. Overall, this game looks great and runs at a smooth frame-rate with no crashes or issues throughout gameplay.

However, the audio side is a bit less polished. The good news is there’s voice acting throughout almost every line of dialogue, something that was only revealed shortly before the game’s release. Considering how much dialogue there is it’s impressive, even more so thanks to the variety of VO actors they used. It’s a far cry from something like Skyrim and you’ll rarely find yourself talking to the same person twice. Music is largely serviceable, with mostly generic fantasy tracks while exploring and weightier battle music when a fight is on. It fits the mood well but there’s not a whole lot to talk about.

Unfortunately, audio is also where the game seems to suffer the most. Sound effects are largely generic, ripped from any online archive and applied wherever. Combat doesn’t always feel like it has any weight to it and while some special attacks have better sound design on the whole it’s mostly lackluster. Worse, audio is where the game seems buggiest, with audio cutting out randomly from time to time or certain dialogues missing their voice acting. Like the other issues mentioned above, these are mostly minor and don’t detract from the game, but its certainly a lot more noticeable.

As if the lengthy campaign wasn’t enough, the entire thing can be played in co-op with three friends, which makes things more hectic but also more enjoyable. This also does a lot to alleviate issues with inventory management as each player manages their own character. Then there’s the PvP mode, which lets you challenge your friends to battle in the game’s arenas, fights that reach levels of insanity the AI can’t imagine. As if that wasn’t enough there’s the Dungeon Master mode, which lets you use the game’s assets to build your own campaigns through a relatively simple interface, and you can upload these campaigns to Steam workshop for others to play, meaning that over time there’s bound to be plenty of content from the community.

Divinity Original Sin 2 isn’t just a great game or a great sequel, there’s a serious argument to be made that it may be one of the best RPGs of this generation. The level of depth, the amount of content, the sprawling nature of the game, and its faithfulness to pen and paper gaming while also utilizing the inherent tools of a CRPG elevate this to a new level of amazing. RPG fans owe it to themselves to play this game, but so do fans of tactical combat or engaging narratives. If you’ve been waiting for a game that gets what RPGs are supposed to be like, then this is definitely the game you’ve been waiting for.

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