Readers, slight change of plans. Originally, today, I was going to write about Pyrodactyl Games‘ first and recent release, Unrest. Fairly hot off their Kickstarter campaign, Unrest hit all the important points of the Jarenth Interest Trifecta: it’s a) an interesting-looking RPG game with a fairly unique setting and focus, b) made by people I kinda know and like, that c) I backed on Kickstarter while that was still ongoing. Indie Wonderland: Unrest seemed like a shoe-in.
But then, last week, my ninja cohort Justin suggested that we try our hand at casting pods sometimes. So, we did. And because we’d both played Unrest recently, and we both had Opinions on it, it seemed like a good topic for our initial foray in Talking Over Each Other On Mic. And (as far as I can judge these things) it was: the resulting podcast should, ceteris paribus, be available for easy listenin’ on this very website around Wednesday.
Of course, this did suddenly leave me without my review game of choice, and without a clear idea of what to do instead this week. Not for lack of games, mind you, hell no, I’m drowning in the things at this point. But none of the games I played beside Unrest this week, I played in my Reviewer Mode. I still have screenshots for most of them, because I’m an inveterate screenshot addict, but the normal Indie Wonderland storyline would be lacking.
Therefore, instead, I’m resurrecting an old Blue Screen of Awesome tradition: instead of talking about one game with single-minded focus, I’m going to ramble a little more surface-level about three. Welcome to Indie Wonderland, Three-For-One Edition! Welcome to the future past.
As luck would have it, I’ve played three games in the last week that left impressions I’ve been wanting to write more about: Divinity: Original Sin, Crypt of the NecroDancer, and Hoplite. In that order, but for no particular reason so. Divinity: Original Sin is featured on the rest of this page: if you’d prefer to immediately skip to any of the other games, you can find Crypt of the NecroDancer here and Hoplite here.
(Spoiler levels, throughout: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium-to-high.)
Divinity: Original Sin
Hot off of the heels of their successful Kickstarter, and thus fulfilling my Kickstarter mention quote for this article handily, my first run-in with Larian Studios‘s Divinity: Original Sin came when friends of me started badgering me about how great it was. I got in on the ground floor, gaining Steam Early Access to the game a mere one week before it went Regular Access. Which didn’t actually net me anything, but did give me just enough time to see that my friends had probably been totally right before the final touches were applied.
Ever since then, I’ve been playing Divinity: Original Sin in coop with my friend Desgardes. It’s… an RPG experience quite similar to other games. But also, a game quite unlike anything I’ve seen so far. If that makes any sense? It didn’t make sense for me, for the longest time, and I’m still struggling to find a way to coherently tell you about why I enjoy this game so much.
Divinity: Original Sin is a top-down party-based RPG chimera. It mixes and matches great elements from other games: Fallout’s action point system and barter-with-anyone ideas, Neverwinter Nights’ complete freedom in character creation, Dragon Age’s spell combos and reactive world, and (let’s say) World of Warcraft’s hotbar-based combat and cartoony visual aesthetic. Let’s open with that, actually: this is what Divinity: Original Sin looks like.
Divinity: Original Sin aims to shatter conventions right out the gate, by having you create not one, but two main characters. You get complete creative control over these characters, by the way: the game initially suggests something like one male fighter and one female rogue, but you can throw any and all suggestions in the wind and go nuts. Stats, skills, traits, spells, you name it. It’s a system that both gives you a lot of tactical freedom, and allows for interesting roleplaying for those of you that like that. Who will your characters be? A grim fighter and a carefree wizard, shackled together through the whims of fate? A pair of puckish rogues on the run from the law? A necromancer and her zombie companion? The stats, skills and talents give you plenty of room to play around with, so build the idea you want to build.
And once in-game, your characters aren’t static entities either. They talk to each other, at certain points: when you complete quests, when you achieve milestones, when you murder innocent civilians… every conversation generally has two or three dialogue options, and you select conversation paths for both your characters. Sometimes, this results in character-specific traits developing. Sometimes it’s just role-playing.
And in the case of your characters disagreeing on important decisions — which, I should remind you, in single-player, means you disagreeing with yourself on important decisions — the eventual outcome is decided upon through a spirited game of weighted rock-paper-scissors.
In coop, where each player controls the actions and responses of one character, this system makes a little more intuitive sense. A little.
Story-wise, tonally, Divinity: Original Sin is a weird game. It treats almost every topic with the same lack of reverence that made it decide to model dialogue disagreements as rock-paper-scissors. So while the main plot involves cities under siege, plagues of undeath, and black hole dragons at the end of time, you’ll spend equal amounts of time getting teleported into bathrooms, playing matchmaker for cats, meddling in the unlives of several groups of ghosts, reuniting separated wishing wells, and chasing down hopping chests.
Divinity: Original Sin has an incredibly open, reactive world, reminiscent of the best parts of Morrowind and Skyrim and of the better survival horror games. Almost everything can be picked up and stolen, everything that looks like it could be broken can be broken, and — given that you’re strong enough — everyone can be killed. Everyone. Those two imperial guards at the start? The annoying drunken guys who insist you go see the wizard? You can kill them. The other guards on the beach? Kill those too. The guards and people in the city? Go ahead, have fun. Farm animals, barrels, doors, civilians? If it exists, it’s a target.
(Not that this doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to wipe out an entire city, mind. But plot armor in Divinity: Original Sin is rare, and only really reserved for puzzle doors.)
Combat-wise, Divinity: Original Sin takes most of its cues from Fallout and from MMO games. Combat is divided in turns, based on speed and initiative. Every character has a stock of action points, which are used for everything: walking, item use, attacking, spellcasting, the works. Characters can burn through all their action points in a single turn, or save some for later, based on another stat-cap. Go nuts.
Next to basic attacking, all characters can have access to a whole bunch of abilities, based on eight-or-so ability schools. Straight melee, rogue melee, ranged, fire magic, earth magic, water magic, air magic, witchcraft. It’s worth pointing out that resources like mana aren’t a thing in this game: the only resources involved in abilities are action points and cooldowns. Which means that, yes, theoretically, everyone can learn to brawl and everyone can learn to magic. In practice, it’s not unlikely that everyone will learn to magic. There are benefits to specialization, regarding ability success rate and the number of spells you can learn in a school… but every character can have (at most) one summoned ally running around, and one giant spider is better than zero giant spiders.
Still, it’s hardly necessary. NPC allies are cool too, sometimes.
Summons aside, combat in Divinity: Original Sin is pretty notable for its use of status and ground effects. Remember that part in Dragon Age: Origins where you can cast Grease, and then cast a fire spell, and the grease catches fire? Divinity: Original Sin has that, except in like ten different permutations, and consistently applied across spells, weapons and enemies. Oil catches fire, creating burning ground and smoke. Poison gas explodes. Water can be frozen to be slippery ice, or heated to be obscuring steam… which can then be electrified. Or you can just electrify the ground water directly, that’s fun too. Certain effects make enemies Warm, which makes them more conducive to being caught on fire, or Wet, which makes them more conducive to electricity. And freezing. Unless they have an anti-freezing spell up, of course…
All these things, these status effects and ground effects and elemental influences, all reside in many different weapons and spells. All earth-aligned weapons and spells create poison clouds or coatings. All water-aligned weapons and spells make enemies wet, which all air-aligned can exploit for freezing or stunning. Even for non-magical characters, there are water sources and oil barrels and fire arrows galore. Even effects like charming enemies can be found in multiple places.
The effect is that these elemental combos become less of a gimmick and more of a standard part of combat. You’ll learn to recognize and use these tricks whenever you can, both because you’ll need to and because it feels natural after a while.
And make no mistake: you’ll need to learn the ins and outs of this system. Because if it sounds like these magical tricks are skewed in favour of the player, you’ll be glad to hear that Divinity: Original Sin has taken that age-old video game solution to restoring balance: making enemies powerful, many, and mean.
I’ve lost count of the number of fights Des and I either clutch-won or just disabled entirely with a single clever application of magic or trick arrows. Massive tribe of overleveled Orcs, standing in a puddle of water? No problem! Zap the puddle, stun them all for a few turns, and pick off the more dangerous ones in that time. Then summon a fire elemental and explode the oil barrel in the back of their formation, taking out two more that way. The one guy taking the long way around can expect to stumble onto one of their own hidden mines, which we ‘cleverly’ left lying around.
Divinity: Original Sin’s open and reactive world does come at the cost of some player guidance and direction. We ran around like headless chickens for the longest time, unsure of what exactly we were supposed to do. The quest log is awful, direction are vague, and the game is more than happy to just let you flounder. And in keeping with old RPG design aesthetic, not all directions are created equal, and not all challenges are beatable at any level. None of your level scaling here: if we’d had run into that giant fire guy two levels early, we would have been cinders. And if you think Divinity: Original Sin has any sort of guard against you selling quest-important books without reading them, I invite you to start again from the top of this paragraph.
And the story… honestly, the less said about the story, the better. I’ll provide the following teaser: ‘the imp historian at the end of time’. That’s an integral part of the story, and I am 100% not joking here.
And a little internal world consistency is lost in the same way. The current Skyrim approach of player thievery, locking off sales of stolen goods everywhere expect the One Accepted Outlet, is obviously no fun. But Divinity: Original Sin is the kind of game where you can steal a merchant’s paintings by teleporting them just outside his sight range, then dressing up as a wooden barrel and stealing them, and then sell those paintings back to him. If all doors can be broken down, and all items can be stolen by judicious application of the invisibility and teleportation spells you can get at character creation, something of the world’s inherent solemnity is lost, I feel.
Divinity: Original Sin itself seems to be in two minds about this. Half of the time, it tries to ignore the world inconsistency, in order tell its story of evil blood goddesses and time voids and the history of the fictional universe underlying all other Divinity games. The other half, it gives you quests where you convince crowd pushers to support another act, or you talk to rats to get tips for fighting a zombie pirate, or you get the town’s beloved dog blown up by skeleton suicide bombers that look more or less exactly like Jeff Dunham’s Achmed. And let’s not forget the whole rock-paper-scissors thing, which is funny if your characters are arguing, but a little morbid if you’re talking about whether or not a horribly atrocious pervert ghost should be allowed to continue haunting an abandoned doom church.
Unsurprisingly, Divinity: Original Sin works best when it’s not too serious about itself, and when the excellent tactical combat takes center stage. A better story, a tighter direction of player experience, and a less buggy implementation overall could have helped it out…
…but overall, I still have a lot of fun with it, and I definitely consider it one of the best coop games of this year so far. If you’re looking for a good excuse to blow up skeletons with a friend, or if you want good material to write a decent character-based Let’s Play in madness land, Divinity: Original Sin is a pretty good pick for the (admittedly somewhat steep) forty Steam-bucks it asks.