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.
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.
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.
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.
‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off
The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.
Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.
Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.
The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.
To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.
In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.
On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.
By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.
Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.
Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.
‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale
Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?
From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.
“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”
The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.
Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.
However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.
At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.
“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”
The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.
On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.
Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.
‘Remothered: Tormented Fathers’ Review: I Want My Remummy
There’s merit to be had if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, indie horror game, but with so many flaws, I can’t recommend Remothered.
It feels like a while since the ‘survival horror but you can’t fight back’ genre was at its peak, especially with the recent, tradition-tinged revival of the Resident Evil series, but back in 2017 when Remothered: Tormented Fathers was being developed for PC it was all the rage. Like any indie game that’s had even the slightest amount of interest or acclaim during the current generation, Remothered has received the now-obligatory Switch port. Although its modest technical requirements clearly made a successful transition to the platform more than manageable, they don’t help to hide the game’s very obvious shortcomings.
Players take control of Rosemary Reed in her attempts to investigate retired notary Dr. Richard Felton, who is currently undergoing treatment for a mysterious disease. Oh, and he has a missing daughter that he probably murdered. The plot of the game feels a little cliché, but it’s undoubtedly its strongest facet. However, suspending your disbelief at the ropy animations and dodgy voice-acting is needed to avoid being sucked into feeling like you’re watching Theresa May running around a big mansion trying to escape from a John Cleese impersonator with his arse hanging out. Alas, I clearly failed in this endeavor.
Remothered is essentially a game of ‘go there, fetch that, bring it here, use it’ with an added element of ‘don’t let the annoying old man kill you in the face with a sickle’. Yeah, one of those ones. The story takes place almost entirely within Felton’s huge mansion, and navigating the ol’ girl is by far the game’s toughest element. It’s made especially harder while you’re constantly on edge, trying to avoid the stalking lunatic without a map, weapons, or a proper objectives system. Be prepared for your bearings to be quite considerably lost.
There are a couple of ways to avoid that face full of sickle. There’s a dodge button (provided Rosemary isn’t too tired to actually dodge), a run button, distraction items, and defense items that will automatically be used to escape a grab attack if you have one equipped at the time. Remember those crappy bits in Resident Evil 4 where you had to play as Ashley? This is like that… for a whole game.
While a little tired in 2019, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formula of the weapon-less survival horror game – it’s just that in Remothered, it’s not implemented all that well. Enemy AI routing is weird, which should be grounds for an unpredictable fright-fest, but leans more toward the annoying and/or hilarious. It seemed like the stalkers would either sit directly outside the room I needed to enter – barely moving and refusing to be distracted for longer than a few seconds before returning immediately to their original spot right on my current objective – or simply bugger off to another floor and never come back.
Even with his penchant to completely vacate the area, and despite his advancing years, Dr. Felton possesses supersonic hearing. It seemingly doesn’t matter how far away you are – if you run in this game, he will hear you. To make matters worse, the sound design just doesn’t make sense. With every press of the run button, enemy dialogue would instantly change to indicate they’d heard you and then loud footsteps would permeate every room you enter as if they were right behind you, when they most certainly are not.
It’s either a cheap scare tactic to give the impression of enemies constantly being within touching distance, or the fallout from a combination of naff sound design and the limitations of my Switch’s Pro Controller not having a headphone port. What makes it worse is that everything is so campy that it’s seldom scary in any tangible way. When the man trying to murder you is constantly shouting about how he hasn’t got anything to eat that isn’t moldy while you hide in his cupboard, it’s not exactly bone-chilling.
As a result of the big-eared murderers and their impeccable radar tuned to the sounds of running, I spent almost the entirety of the game… well, not running. Unfortunately, Rosemary walks slower than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, and this made exploring the mansion a monotonous chore – especially when getting caught and subsequently having to run up and down floors to hide before slowly sneaking back to restart the investigation.
Puzzles are that old school type of obtuse where you’re tasked with finding everyday items to fix problems. The puzzle itself lies in realizing the item the developer decided should work, finding it in the giant four-floor mansion, and slowly returning to the its intended area of use without dying. For example, in order to get into an attic, you have to search rooms at random to find an umbrella to pull down the door’s previously-out-of-reach cord. It’s such a shame that Remothered eschews any type of self-contained puzzle for a string of confusing fetch quests, as everything feels more tedious than taxing.
It feels a little unfair to bemoan the lack of polish for a two-year-old indie game, but Remothered is full of niggling issues. Animations are janky, lip-syncing is non-existent, and the camera wigs out after the QTEs to fight off enemies have finished – always pointing you in the wrong direction. I also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs where Rosemary did her door-opening animation without the door actually opening, and I couldn’t enter the room without rebooting the game. Lastly, and I don’t want to be too harsh to an Italian developer, but the in-game English is pretty abysmal, and lots of the game’s expositional notes and articles border on illegible through their poor translations.
There are some people out there who can’t get enough of the whole hiding under sofas schtick, but I like my survival horror games with better psychological tension, a (limited) means to fight back, and coherent puzzle-solving. There’s merit to be had in the game’s labyrinthine setting and short length if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, campy indie horror game in the Haunting Grounds model, but with so many flaws and such a frustrating gameplay loop, I can’t recommend Remothered: Tormented Fathers outside of anything other than morbid curiosity.
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