Judging from the number of HD re-releases on consoles in recent years, it’s no secret that tapping into gamer nostalgia is a successful business strategy. So when Larian Studios crushed its Kickstarter goal for Divinity: Original Sin with a cool million bucks in funding last year, it wasn’t exactly a huge shock. The question a lot of people had was whether Larian would be able to fully realize its massive vision for the game, even with the excess cash.
Gamers were promised the freedom and player choice of a game like Baldur’s Gate, but with an extra level of complexity and detail that would take advantage of modern gaming systems. Every NPC and item can be interacted with, every decision you make can have long-term and unforeseen consequences. Veterans of the RPG genre will note that other developers have set these goals before, only to let fans down in the end. (I’ll pause here to allow any gamers still scarred by Peter Molyneux’s Fable hype to collect themselves.)
Judgement day for Larian Studios arrived on June 30 after a prolonged Early Access period on Steam. You can put the pitchforks away. Divinity: Original Sin is a deep, modern RPG that feels like an old classic. Its open exploration and complex combat and crafting give the player a freedom of choice rarely seen in the genre over the last decade.
Divinity: Original Sin tells the story of “Source Hunters” in a world filled with “Sourcery.” The basic plot is standard fantasy RPG fare, but even here Larian has found opportunities to add their own touch. You play the game not as one protagonist, but as two different Source Hunters, creating two characters right from the start. There are countless opportunities to interact with NPCs, mobs, and the environment at large, but some of the most interesting interactions are between your own two heroes. They’ll talk, debate and argue with each other about the right course of action and the outcome of these conversations can have an impact on which direction the story takes.
In fact, just about everything you do in Divinity: Original Sin can change things up. If you see a flower pot, it’s not just an inanimate object created to flesh out the background. It’s an object you can pick up and smash. Gamers who are used to breaking things inside random NPCs houses with no consequences are in for a rude awakening in this game. Break someone’s valuables and you’ll lose reputation or even have to fight them off.
Even knowing that, it can be hard to resist clicking on everything in sight. Divinity encourages open exploration to the extreme. There is a main quest here, but the game almost never holds your hand to keep you on track. You really can go anywhere and interact with just about anything you see, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with your current quests. In fact, many of the quests aren’t even labeled as such. You’ll find yourself in numerous scenarios where the objective might not be immediately clear but will reward you with experience points if you manage to figure things out. You’ll want to click on as many things as possible, just to see what kind of surprise you might stumble into next. The only real gating system here is combat difficulty. Go too far off the beaten path and your party will get destroyed in short order.
The combat system is just as open and complex. The turn-based battles that play out under an isometric camera have a seemingly endless number of possibilities. The game features a robust spell system where various elements either compliment or are at cross purposes with each other. If you run into a poison cloud, you can cast a fire spell to take it out. If you’re standing in a pool of blood or water during a battle, you better not cast a lightning spell or you’ll electrocute yourself in addition to the enemy. The environment often plays a key role in combat, allowing you to take cover or to turn the battlefield itself against the enemy.
Speaking of enemies, some of the monsters in this game are wicked smart even at the lowest difficulty. The monsters know how to use the different elements and the environment to their advantage, just like you do. This makes the battles feel dynamic and engaging even after you’ve been playing for hours.
The game’s crafting system compliments the combat nicely, but just like everything else in this game, you’re on your own. Most items are simply created through trial and error, there’s no preset list or interface to tell you which items create what.
If you know what you’re doing, you can probably finish the main quest in about 60 hours, but good luck with that. The game intentionally does such a poor job of steering you in the “right” direction that you could easily hit triple figures on the timer before all is said and done. To be clear, this is not a bad thing. Some of the side quests you’ll walk into are far more entertaining than your main adventure and Larian’s writers have done a great job of inserting humorous scenes and pop culture references to keep you laughing and engaged throughout. I should note that the game is also still in active development by both Larian Studios and the community at large. The game features a level editor and tool kit that will allow players to create hundreds of hours of additional fun in the months and years ahead.
It’s not all Happy Fun Time, though. As much as I’ve said the lack of hand holding is welcome, there were times when I felt like the game had gone too far in its quest to allow total freedom. I’ve gotten lost and confused while playing Divinity: Original Sin perhaps more than any other game I’ve played. Finding the place you were supposed to go to after wandering around aimlessly in the woods is a great feeling, but those long lapses can sometimes cause you to play for hours without really accomplishing much story progression.
The first dozen hours in particular will be a hard slog for some gamers. It takes a little bit for the story to really ramp up and unless you cheat and look it up online, the only way to learn the finer points of combat is through making mistakes and trying again, and again, and again.
With that said, it is refreshing to a point to a see a game that is so unapologetically old school in 2014. Over the last 10 to 15 years, far too many RPG franchises have focused on streamlining their games in order to attract more casual gamers and the extra money that comes with them. Player choice is something that has been lost in recent years and Divinity: Original Sin does a superb job of scratching that particular itch.