If you’re wondering why things have been a bit quiet here these last couple of weeks, this is the reason: Divinity: Original Sin is one of the most impressive RPGs I’ve played in years, and it’s been able to scratch a twenty year-old itch left behind by Ultima VII.
The best thing of all? That’s not nostalgia talking.
I have to confess to not having played other games in the Divinity series, so I can’t say for sure which aspects of Original Sin are simply staples of the series, and which are new, but I can say that Larian Studios not only stretched a tight budget very far, but they also seemingly questioned every mechanic in every other RPG, and rather than blindly follow what everyone else happened to be doing, discarded things that didn’t work, kept things that did, and even found time to come up with a whole bunch of stuff I haven’t seen done in any game in the last decade.
Take the lowly crate, for example. As you might expect, a crate can be looted by clicking on it. But it can also be dragged elsewhere on the screen, prompting your character to throw it there. This is used to clear paths, but can also be used to trigger traps. If a crate is locked, you can bash it open. If it gets caught in an explosion, it will get destroyed. In combat you can use it for cover. If you do actually decide to just open the bloody thing the old-fashioned way (and it will actually animate to show it’s open), you can click the handy (but not labelled) “loot all” button to take everything, but you can also click on individual items for a context-sensitive menu that lets you choose whose inventory to put it into. Opened containers can be dragged around the screen, just like you could do in Ultima VII, but with the crucial difference that the items inside are all displayed in a grid. Oh, and when you close a crate with nothing in it, it gets labelled as “empty”. And now I’ve written a paragraph just about crates.
The stats and systems are similarly well-designed. Briefly, each character has a number of attributes (strength, perception and so on), ability levels (air magic, leadership, and so on), and perks, and then some stats that are derived from all that as well as their equipment, like vitality (hit-points to you and me). Any character can wield any weapon or wear any equipment, provided they have the requisite attribute level, although there might be some penalty if their character level is too low. The questionable CRPG staple, item durability (where items get worn through use, lowering their overall effectiveness) says hello in Original Sin, but at least here it’s given a purpose beyond being a speed-bump to your progress: bashing open chests and doors willy-nilly might be easy, but the trade-off is that it will ruin your gear in the long run.
Everything in the game, from a barrel to a tree, has stats like vitality (shown by hovering the mouse over it with ctrl held down), many have things like resistances to different things, and still others have statuses. So a level 20 coal basket (seriously) might have 50,000 or so vitality, some amount of armour, various resistances, and be “burning” (and precisely how much of this information is available to you is dependent upon the current character’s “Lore” ability). And yes, that means you can cast a rain spell on it, which douses it both visibly and in terms of its properties (removing “burning” and adding “wet”). And that means the game will accommodate you doing things like laying down an oil slick and then igniting it with a fire-based spell, roasting the poor bastards stood on it in combat, and effectively lifting the entire selling point from (sadly Windows-only) Magicka in the process.
Combat is completely turn-based, and there are only two resources to worry about. Each character has a number of action points (the exact number is based on several different stats, which I won’t go into here for the sake of brevity) and vitality. Each combatant gets a turn to spend action points on movement and/or activated abilities or items in an attempt to reduce the vitality of their opponents to 0 (death is permanent in the game, at least until you use a resurrection spell). Some abilities have a cooldown period of a number of turns before they can be used again, but there’s no mana to speak of, just action points. If you really want to, you can switch out your character’s armour part-way through the turn as long as you’ve got the points. Then you can save any unused action points for the next turn. It’s a terrific system.
Each of your characters (you can control up to four of them) has an independent inventory and set of skills. Some items boost your stats or abilities. You’ll have to actually find (or buy) skill books in the world to have your character be able to do anything new, and the number of skills a character can use is dependent on their ability level for that class of skill. Most of these skills work like spells (many of them are spells), usable at any time as long as you’ve got the requisite action points and it’s not on a cooldown. Alternatively, any character can use a scroll to cast a one-shot spell, at any time.
There’s a stealth mode, dependent on a character’s associated ability, and activated outside of combat by pressing c (at which point your character turns into something like a bush or a boulder, depending on where you happen to be), showing enemy vision cones, and perhaps for the first time, making the ability to sneak in an RPG actually interesting beyond simply making your character semi-transparent.
There’s crafting, whereby you can do things like combine a dagger with a stick to make a spear, or later on, more esoteric things like skill books. It works by dragging one item onto another in the inventory, but I have to confess I didn’t spend as much time with the system as I’d like (despite carting around an obscene amount of ingredients; I should add that another nice touch is that the inventory is lenient enough to let you do this without constantly having to agonise over item weights) because I found a little too cumbersome for my liking, what with having to constantly shuffle items around, and then hope your character has the required skill to do it, and that what you’re trying to combine is valid. To its credit, the game provides you with a section in the journal dedicated to recipes you’ve found in books, but it doesn’t record recipes you discover by accident, and in any case the “recipes” are actually just transcripts from the books themselves, rather than this plus this equals that.
But what I really want to try and get across here is the atmosphere. Playing Ultima VII in my youth, I was delighted to discover that you could do things that you really shouldn’t, like killing the king, and then finding a letter on his body that revealed a skeleton in his closet. The game was packed full of stuff like that. There was a bank, and you could actually rob it if you paid proper attention to what the guards were doing, and happened to spot the right key hidden under a pillow. All of this was completely optional, designed and put into the game without much care if the average player found them (hell, there was even an entire section that you could only get to by using a combination of cheat commands). It was a game you could truly get lost in, something that some games have tried to do since (Skyrim being one example, but failing miserably at actually making the player give a damn), and others just haven’t bothered to do at all (hello, BioWare). Divinity: Original Sin has succeeded. For the first time in years, I find my self playing a game and actually being enthralled by the prospect of searching buckets for wacky items, and seeing a locked door as a challenge, rather than a barrier or annoyance.
The interface is a delight too, with the ability to switch between party members at will, and forming groups (meaning they will follow each other) by dragging their portraits around (which is visualised by forming or breaking chains between them). I ought to mention that there’s drop-in co-op too, where someone can join your game and take control over one of the main characters, which is enjoyable in and of itself (there’s a built-in chat system, so you don’t have to use the Steam overlay), and a rather novel feature is that the game lets your two main characters have dialogues with each other, with each player choosing a response for their character.
It’s an RPG and of course that means that the story is an important element of the game. Here again Original Sin is an unbridled success, with the central storyline revolving around your lead characters’ task to track down evidence of the magical energy “Source” being channeled for ill purposes, but more than that it’ll take you on a quest to solve a murder, infiltrate a cult, and more. And that’s just the main quest line. There’s things to do at every turn, a homestead to discover and its secrets to unlock, and a world spread across four huge, detailed maps.
Everything is well-written, and even the little vignettes and minor quests are more entertaining than anything you could find in most big-budget, modern RPGs, and above all there’s an undeniable charm to all of it. Little things, like the vendor who calls out “no one has as many friends as the man with many cheeses”, made me chuckle far more times than seems reasonable.
If I’m to grumble about something, it’s the lack of a respec option (until very late in the game). This in itself isn’t much of a problem, but the game doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why you want some stats over others, and there’s no way a new player would figure out how best to design their characters when starting out, without consulting a guide (MacGamesCast has an excellent series for new players). I myself found that I was unexpectedly having so much fun just trespassing and stealing stuff, that I wished I could switch my knight build for a more roguish one (though in truth, for every lock there’s a key somewhere). I could have restarted the game of course, but I was already 6 hours in and wasn’t particularly inclined to start over at that point. Still, the system is flexible enough that actual character classes are somewhat meaningless, once you’re in the game you can pump points into any abilities or stats you want, meaning that even a high-level fighter can learn a basic fire spell or two if desired.
I was also fuming at not understanding how upgrading abilities worked until several hours into the game, in that you have to spend extra points to raise them past level 1 (Larian, if the user interface puts a “1” next to an ability when I spend 1 point, I expect to be able to spend 1 point to get it to level 2, unless you indicate this to me somehow other than a tooltip that only shows if you can upgrade the ability). This means that you should stockpile ability points rather than spending them when you get them, which is contrary to the nagging blip on the interface.
There are some other problems, but nothing game-breaking. I would have liked to be able to tap space in order to pause the action and issue commands. Combat’s turn-based, but things have a habit of moving about in the game world, and trying to talk to a moving person (or creature) was tricky at times. Even within combat everything has idle animations, and on a few occasions I clicked to target an enemy just as it moved, causing my character to walk instead of bludgeon.
Really, the only thing I have to wonder about (and wonder I shall, at least until I can summon the endurance for subsequent playthroughs) is how much impact your choices really make. I didn’t see much evidence of it, but then I didn’t exactly go on a killing spree and wipe out an entire town (which seems perfectly valid, if that’s how you want to play it). There’s no day/night cycle, which I daresay might upset someone, personally I didn’t miss it, and actually it seemed to lend the game a more delicate tempo.
Looking back at this list of features, I can’t help but think that Larian really overreached in a lot of areas. The thing is, somehow they managed to make it all work, and work together in a coherent way. It’s one of those rare games where I will try to sneak in an hour or two of play whenever I can (the turn-based nature of the game, along with considerable attention to the Mac version of the game means you can just leave it running in the background), and perhaps rarer still, I might find that after an hour of play, my characters haven’t moved an inch; I spent the entire time reading item descriptions or examining loot.
In fact, it’s with a sense of dismay that I felt I had to “rush” the game to some extent (and yet I still clocked up 60-odd hours in the process) in order to get this review written and be able to get on with my life. There’s a load of quests and secrets I’d still like to go back to finish off, like the enigmatic “Last Chest”, and that’s even before I get acquainted with the assortment of mods that will doubtless crop up over the coming months (the game has been designed from the ground up with support for mods).
A while back, I said that I thought that The Witcher 2 was the best RPG “to ever grace the Mac platform”. That crown now belongs to Divinity: Original Sin, and if you have any interest in the genre (as well as a good deal of free time) you’d be doing yourself a disservice by overlooking it.
Performance & Quality
The game has a top-down aesthetic, though there’s some degree of rotation and zooming of the camera available. There’s a variety of settings and decor in the game, and just roaming the maps is a treat for the eyes (it’s crucial to ensure you have the gamma set correctly, as very important elements like switches might be hard to spot if the screen is too dark). The ears are not forgotten either, with incidental spoken dialogue, and an exceptional soundtrack.
The Mac version is rock-solid, barring some graphical glitches that were both rare and extremely minor, I encountered no issues playing the duration of the game in Mac OS, until at the time of writing (ver 1.0.81) a patch update has wrecked the save game files of Mac users (I’m told a fix is being worked on).
In the weeks that I’ve been playing the game, there have been numerous updates to fix bugs and improve functionality (indeed as I write this, there’s been an update that adds AI personalities to the game).