Role-playing aficionados have had lots to smile about during the last few years. Some disappointments, sure, but a plethora of solid to spectacular RPG titles have been released. Cult-hit and kickstarted Divinity: Original Sin by Belgian developer Larian Studios has now received an equally kickstarted sequel, creatively named Original Sin II. It mixes traditional turn-based combat with tabletop inspired elements in the intricately created fantasy world of Rivellon.
As per usual, you start with the character creation. There are four races to choose from: Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Lizard. If not content with that, you can also create an Undead variant of each for a total of eight (or five) races, depending on your point of view. Each has their own, rather special skills. Lizards can breathe fire. The undead take damage from healing but get better by ingesting poison from bottles or pools. They can also lockpick chests and doors with just their bony fingers without additional tools. The most interesting racial skill, however, is with the Elves. These corpse-eaters can gorge on body parts to heal and see flashes of the owner's life. This ability works both as a game mechanic, a narrative device, and for puzzle solving.
The visual customisation is more limited, but offers some options for making the character your own. The offered archetypes are more like suggestions on how to build the character as there are no strict character classes. Veteran players will enjoy the option of tinkering with all the stats and skill points. Be wary though, as nothing prevents you from making a "flawed" character and rerolling those early decisions will be possible only in the mid-game.
For the first playthrough, choosing one of the six Origin characters is highly recommended. They offer strong individual storylines to run alongside the main campaign. The sarcastic Undead Fane wakes up from a deep slumber only to realise he's the last remaining member of his race. Lohse, Rivellon's own version of Taylor Swift, has a demon living inside her. The arrogant Red Prince tries desperately to reclaim his lost Lizard throne from exile. All have their own motivations and objectives that clash with each other. Every Origin character is customisable aside from voice actor, name, and certain small visual cues. The Red Prince is always, well, red.
The long campaign is set a few centuries after the first Original Sin. The magical force of Source is now outlawed. You don't necessarily have to have played the original game, but veterans will appreciate the nods and references to its predecessor as well as other chapters in the Divinity franchise. The player(s) wake up on a prison barge on their way to Fort Joy, accused of "sorcery". The boat acts as a tutorial and lets the player get acquainted with the characters. Once you reach the fort, the game opens up via the numerous possibilities for an escape, and then the adventure begins proper. The grand scheme involves deities (as the name of the game suggests), but it branches out a lot. The nature of divinity is constantly debated and evaluated in an interesting if very high-fantasy manner.
The high-stakes fantasy world Larian has created is original enough and full of surprises, so you never quite know what to expect. Each and every character has their own story to tell and opinions to voice with shades of grey instead of plain black and white. There are moral dilemmas aplenty, with tough choices to be made, some of which might have unforeseen consequences much further down the line. Thanks to the ambiguous nature of the game's moral tone, playing as an antihero, scoundrel or a posh noble doesn't feel out of place. You'll anger some people for sure, but it doesn't feel like you're making wrong choices and gimping your character's power level by losing experience points.
The campaign and parallel Origin stories add more spice to the storyline while increasing the replayability as well. They also drive conflict between the players' characters both in single-player games and in co-op. The latter features some intriguing moments with "there can be only one" undertones. The game doesn't hesitate in pitting two (or more) human players against each other from time to time, so in addition to coordinating your moves during the many battles, you also have meaningful interactions on the talky side of things. While the NPC characters are very enjoyable to play with, there's also an option to pick the Lone Wolf perk and play just with your buddy without sacrificing too much efficiency.
The world is brimming with details to accentuate the story. Characters might look somewhat standard, but the environments are simply stunning. The entire colour palette is in use and the scenery keeps evolving throughout the game. In that respect, this is a masterclass in topdown world design and construction. Sometimes you wish you could pull the camera further away just to appreciate it all the more. You never feel like you're adventuring in a copy-paste world of recycled assets.
One of the complaints with Original Sin was the enormous amount of reading involved, and while Original Sin II has even more dialogue, the 70,000 voiced lines and 80 voice actors make sure it never gets overwhelming or dull. There are 1200 voice-acted characters altogether as well as a beautiful score from Borislav Slavov.
While many of the conflicts can be resolved peacefully, the wrong tone or move might lead to the familiar turn-based combat. Each character has a number of action points to spend on movement, skills or item use. The system is, while fair, also quite unforgiving. A few wrong moves might result in a party wipe, especially early on, where starting hitpoints are low and abilities far and few between. "Friendly fire" is also definitely a factor here. The core of the combat lies in the element-based combo system. One spell can create rain and other electrify it to damage and stun. You can teleport an enemy on top of oil barrels and follow-up with a devastating fireball. Incidental combos can result in unexpected, destructive and hilarious results. The combinations are near endless and are key to victory if you want to survive the tougher fights.
New to Divinity, all combatants have physical and magical armour protecting them from various effects, so the player has to break them to land the big hits. Physical armour, for example, protects you from knockdowns, while magical prevents the character from catching fire. The four difficulty levels should ensure both beginners and Sun Tzu disciples will have fun in Rivellon. Coordinating moves with your co-op buddy feels especially rewarding when they hit the enemy where it hurts, and simultaneously it affords some moment of laughter if a carefully planned move goes wonderfully wrong.
Unlike the original, this game is almost bug-free, which is naturally nice. The user interface could do with a bit more polish though, with a clunky inventory system and menus. The scale can play tricks on you as well; the "big and dangerous swamp" outside the fort is actually rather small while some seemingly small areas can take ages to uncover. Sometimes you also wish the battlefields would be a bit bigger - a couple of firestorms leave very little safe ground for the combatants. It might also provide interesting new tactical options. And if the tens upon tens of hours of campaign isn't enough, there's also the Dungeon Master mode where one of the players takes the mantle of the storyteller. There's even a small player vs. player mode.
Divinity: Original Sin II is one of the best releases of 2017 and hopefully will become one of the classics of a new breed of role-playing games. It's almost mind-boggling to think how much work has gone into creating this immersive world that's so full of possibility and detail. Even if it's not quite perfect and the learning curve can feel intimidating at times, anyone even remotely interested in the genre shouldn't miss it for the world. With the right company, it might just be the best alternative to pen and paper that digital gaming can offer, thanks to its immersive and unrestricted design.
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