Larian’s partially-crowdfunded RPG Divinity: Original Sin has been out for a week, and has rarely left the upper reaches of the Steam best sellers list. You won’t find many full reviews of the game out there right now though. Partly because review code was only available on the day of release and partly because the game is something like 80 hours long. Anybody who has reviewed it at this point most likely didn’t finish it (or binged through 15 hour chunks at a time, which would actually be quite understandable with this game.)
I’ve not finished it myself, but there’s already plenty I want to write about the game. I’m normally extremely cautious about gushing over games, particularly because this industry suffers from a dangerous excess of unmerited hype, but Original Sin deserves major plaudits. Most of them can be summarised as “Holy crap, Divinity: Original Sin is an outstanding RPG.” Here’s why you should play it.
Solving Crimes by Committing Your Own
The first quest to take up the bulk of your time in Original Sin’s opening area is a murder mystery. Councillor Jake has been offed in mysterious circumstances and the local shape-shifting wizard man-cat has called you in to investigate. In other, much more rubbish, RPGs, this would trigger a sequence of linear “go to Place A and talk to This Guy” quest arrow trails with no deviation until the case was closed.
Not so in Original Sin. In Original Sin you … investigate the murder. You go around town to the major points of interest in whatever order you like, gathering details from relevant parties who may or may not have been involved, talk to any suspects you have (which generally gives you more information) and make decisions about your next move based on what you’ve learned. The player is trusted with being smart enough to figure out useful actions that might advance the case, and Original Sin provides enough freedom for that to work. It’s all incredibly refreshing.
At one point I was chatting with Jake’s former wife (and the prime suspect) in her shop and decided to involve myself in a bit of rogue detective work. One of my pair of characters attempted to distract the shop’s security guard, while my other did a bit of sneaking around in the back rooms. As it happens I messed this up a bit, but although the guard was a bit pissed off at my snooping (resulting in a bit of a “this guy doesn’t like you much now” reputation hit,) he didn’t immediately force me to leave.
Left to my own devices in this lady’s house I was able to find a few useful items, possible bits of evidence and a couple of valuable paintings with which to further fund my investigative operations. Yes, the initial road to riches in Divinity: Original Sin lies in ripping off as much NPC art-work as you can lay your paint-pilfering fingers on. Bonus bastard points if you sell them back to their original owners.
Just Enough Information to be Dangerous
The game didn’t tell me to distract people and (which does work by the way, when you don’t cock it up,) I just inferred it from the ability to split up the party characters and Original Sin’s subtle design cues nudging me towards distinct, guarded areas. Distraction isn’t the only method, incidentally. If you have a sufficiently Rogue-ish character build or an invisibility potion, those work too. I strongly suspect you could just go around killing people who stand in your way too, as long as you make sure there are no witnesses.
Original Sin’s tutorial dungeon gives you just enough information about the game’s systems to prod your brain in the direction of devious deeds. Locked doors need not be a problem, as you’ve already learned that crude bashing can work as long as nobody’s around. Spells like teleportation aren’t just handy to have in combat, you can also use them to snag things from under people’s noses, bring a chest within reach, or transport one of your characters to a difficult to reach place.
Actions follow a simple logic. If you think something should work within the framework Larian has presented, it probably will.
Barrels: The Deadliest Weapons
This freedom of action and the straightforward rules of logic extend to Original Sin’s turn-based combat encounters. If you come across some foes in a rain storm, they will be wet. Wet things don’t react well to electricity, so any zap-happy magic you have will prove very useful at that time.
Relying on the inclement weather to provide that set-up is for suckers though. You can just force the issue instead by casting a rain spell, or by blowing up a nearby handy water barrel (the overt distribution of helpful barrels is a bit “videogamey,” but it all helps with the theme of environmental crowd control so it’s fine.) Water is just one option though. Blood also conducts electricity.
Poison clouds will burn, extinguished fires will generate steam (another electricity conduit) and you can always rely on the low-level teleport spell for dropping enemies on top of one another. If you have the time and inclination, you can set up an extremely elaborate chain-reaction of barrels before a fight even starts and give yourself a delicious advantage.
More melee-centric skills like knock-downs and stuns are important too, so it’s not all magical mayhem.
Positioning and environmental awareness, as well as an appreciation of how your party’s skills work together in harmonious bursts of destruction, are paramount. Aside from a few current bugs (like enemy archers still being able to see through objects that block your own line of sight,) it’s an elegant expansion to the type of turn-based encounters found in everything from the older Fallouts to contemporary titles like Blackguards.
Role Petting Game
Pet Pal is the greatest single trait you can bestow upon a character. While Divinity 2 dabbled in the entertaining world of mind reading, Original Sin goes one better and lets you talk directly to animals. Sure, the Councillor’s bizarre death needs solving, but first I need to sort out the complicated love life of pub cat Unsinkable Sam.
I’ve already met a “psychic” bull, a rat who gave me some tips about a secret door and an incredibly enthusiastic but depressing pet dog named Murphy who hangs around owner Jake’s grave because he smelled “so awesome.” Murph has also been a valuable forensic expert in the murder investigation quest, so it’s not all just match-making for sassy cats.
Larian’s sense of humour ensures that none of their games fall into the all-too-familiar trap of being Grimdark Serious Darkness RPGs without the competent writing chops to back it up. The team play to their strengths: oddball, somewhat absurd characters inhabiting a world where talking to pet cats is a normal thing for people to do.
Not everything is laugh-out-loud funny (only Barkley: Shut Up & Jam Gaiden holds this distinction in the RPG genre,) but plenty of jokes hit the mark. Slight gag spoiler coming up here, so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to see it but … the point at which you ask a talking statue how your quest will end and it cuts to the game’s credits is one of the videogame jokes of the year.
There’s a flippant treatment of expected RPG tropes behind almost every quest and character, from the ‘Fabulous Five’ adventuring group who operate suspiciously like a pyramid scheme to the fact that the bad guys are quite literally called ‘Sourcerers.’ I mean. Really.
Dancing With Myself
It can do co-operative play, too. I’ve yet to try that out with dependable IncGamers colleague-chum Tim McDonald, but will be doing so in the near future when I figure out whether people will really want to watch an hour of us wandering around town being art thieves.
Weirdly, even when you’re playing on your own there’s still some pseudo co-operative play between the main duo of characters. During major ethical or philosophical decisions, they’ll have to discuss matters between themselves with you role-playing the viewpoint of both sides of the argument. You can have your people agree or disagree at your leisure, and each decision will impact the personality (romantic, pragmatic, forgiving, etc) of the character and provide various related stat bonuses. If perspectives clash, it triggers a strange Rock, Paper, Scissors game which you, uh, play against yourself to determine the outcome.
With Dark Souls 2 already out, Wasteland 2 shaping up well and Pillars of Eternity (possibly) on the way later this year, 2014 is looking tremendous for RPGs that respect audience intelligence. Divinity: Original Sin will demand that you do some attentive reading, put up with the odd quirk (I’m not at all sold on the way crafting works with the inventory) and are prepared to explore and investigate your surroundings, but in return it’ll give you some of the most rewarding freedom of action found in an RPG in quite some time.
Now stop reading this guff and go play it.