Divinity: Original Sin 2 Review

Way back in 2002, Belgium’s Larian Studios launched the legendary Divine Divinity, and with it the franchise that defined the studio for the next fifteen years. Since then, they have returned to the universe repeatedly with a handful of follow-ups and spin-offs. With each iteration, Larian has made significant changes to the Divinity formula. Some changes have been so profound that the different games in this series have borne almost no resemblance to one another. However, they have all shared some common DNA like old-school RPG design, extensive loot, memorable music, and Larian’s own brand of (mostly) innocent, lighthearted humor. Larian has never been one to rest on its laurels after success. 

The most resounding of those successes was, arguably, Divinity: Original Sin, the 2013 RPG that enjoyed an immense amount of critical praise. It earned that praise from both the games journalism world and from legions of hardcore RPG fans. Rather than reinventing their formula once again, Larian has returned to the turn-based, party-based, isometric RPG world of Rivellon with Divinity: Original Sin 2 – the closest thing to a true sequel that the Divinity series has had. On the surface (or in a few screenshots), Original Sin 2 looks like just minor iteration of the first game, but don’t let those appearances fool you. It is a highly ambitious undertaking that provides a lengthy and fresh campaign while making numerous tweaks to the first game. Although most of these changes are minor, the sum total of them makes Divinity: Original Sin 2 an improvement over its predecessor in many ways. Considering the reception of the first game, that praise should not be taken lightly. Original Sin 2 is an easy game to recommend, but there are, however, some minor annoyances that are worth noting that occasionally dull the experience.

Although this game is a sequel, of sorts, it takes place hundreds of years after the events of Original Sin, soon after the events of Divine Divinity. In this somewhat confusing timeline, Lucian (the name given to your character from Divine Divinity) has defeated his adopted son, Damien (the Antichrist figure of the series), and banished him from the world. The Divine Order from Original Sin still exists and, in this game, they are rounding up and capturing those who are gifted in Source magic (i.e. sorcerers). You play as one of these sorcerers, and the game begins with you on a ship traveling to a prison island, where you will be kept in a ghetto of sorts until you can be cured of your “affliction”. Naturally, the story involves you escaping from that prison, and then finding out more about your background and the greater destiny that awaits you. Along the way, you meet a motley assortment of fellow prisoners, whom you befriend in the process of your escape. These companions round out your travelling party.

Your companions are arguably the biggest improvement over the first game. For the life of me, I can’t remember anyone from my party in the first game, nor can I remember any interesting dialog, quests, or traits that they had. Your companions from Original Sin 2, however, are some of the most memorable NPCs that join you in any RPG of recent memory. There is a horribly arrogant red lizard, who is former royalty but is now disgusted that he has to interact with the common folk. There is also a bizarre undead character who can change his faces and a couple of well-written assassin characters. These characters have more unique backgrounds and personalities than they had before. 

They also have their own agendas and story arcs, which don’t align perfectly with yours. The dialog for interacting with them has been vastly expanded and improved. For instance, sometimes when a specific NPC is in your party, he or she will butt into conversations with other NPCs, even taking them over entirely and whispering dialog that you cannot hear. For fun, you can also have the other characters in your party take turns talking to random NPCs; occasionally they will have their own unique lines or those NPCs will treat them differently. Your own dialog has a lot of extra options here and there if you are of the appropriate race or background. Not all of these little touches are game changers, but they are the kinds of immersive details that transform your companions from meat shields into characters that feel like real people. The worst part about your party is that you can only take three companions with you at a time, which means that you won’t get to experience everyone’s story and dialog.

Minor changes abound in Divinity: Original Sin 2, but the basic look and structure of the game is just about exactly the same. You and your party of four explore the world, find loot, encounter monsters, and outfit yourselves with the best gear that you can find. The combat was one of the most universally praised aspects of the first game, and with good reasons. It was a great throwback to old Dungeons and Dragons style tactical fights, and it made extensive use of objects within the environment. Unsurprisingly, Larian kept it all intact for this game. Combat is still turn-based, where friends and foes attack each other with a wide variety of tanking attacks, crowd control spells, debuffs, and single use items. All of it takes place on an invisible grid, where tactics and positioning are highly important. 

Spending one turn to climb up onto a high position may improve the effectiveness of your ranged attacks (the game has enhanced archery tactics and makes good use of elevations and distances). And, as before, use of your environment is frequently the factor that separates life from death. Elemental damage and status effects are more significant in the Original Sin series than possibly any other RPG series. There is oil that slows you down, weather that makes you wet or cold, fires that makes you warm, and a cornucopia of ways to exploit these effects. Fire spreads. Electricity stuns everyone standing in the same pool of water. Poison clouds explode. Ice makes combatants slip. Smoke obscures vision. All of these potential hazards and all of the game’s tactical choices provide for an endless string of chaotic and crazy battles. Sometimes one misjudgment on the placement of a fireball or failure to notice a stray barrel of oil can turn the battlefield into an inferno. You can fail at one battle, approach it a different way the next time, and succeed. This excellent combat is not limited to Divinity: Original Sin 2. Its predecessor benefitted from it too, but it is worth mentioning a second time. So much of the game’s value comes from its combat, which has yet to be replicated in any other story-based RPG.

If you have vivid memories of the combat in Divinity: Original Sin, then the game’s sometimes brutal difficulty is likely one of them. Original Sin 2 isn’t quite as difficult, mostly because the game’s major areas aren’t as open to you as they were before. Thus, you have fewer opportunities to wander into an area for which you are underpowered and get squashed. The game is not without its challenges, however. You will still have the experience of getting slaughtered on more than a few occasions, and you will likely experience battles where just one or two of your party members survive with but a sliver of health. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a game that forces you to rely on every ability that you can muster while using your consumables (instead of hoarding them throughout the game).

Larian kept what worked in the first game, but there are still a couple of minor changes to the combat. One of them is the aforementioned increased emphasis on elevation and distance. Archery is a little bit more powerful than it was before, as a result. The more significant change is in how armor works. Rather than affecting hit or miss percentages or acting as a damage reduction buff each turn, armor acts more like a hit point reserve. The first attacks of each fight take points away from one of two armor types (magical or physical) before they start affecting your health. In that manner, they function much like the regenerating shields in the first Halo game. In addition, and this effect is the more significant one, armor prevents you from being afflicted with negative status effects. Magic armor prevents you from burning and physical armor prevents you from getting knocked down. As a result, combat never begins with one side spamming the other with annoying status effects and essentially winning in the first round. You have to wear down your opponents before you can stun them or freeze them. The change in armor mechanics is a subtle and clever solution to an old RPG problem.

If there is any issue with the combat, it is that the groups of enemies that you fight are too homogeneous. There is a lot of variety in how they look, what they are called, and the situations in which you will face them. However, almost every single one of them, whether they are animals, monsters, or fellow humanoids, attack you with the same basket of skills and consumables that your own party uses. There are scarcely any special abilities in the game that make any of the enemy groups unique. The game’s implementation of battle tactics is brilliant, but almost every battle feels as if you are fighting some variation of your own party over and over again. It is possible to get burned out on the combat in the midst of a long play session. More variety in the tactics that your enemies employ against you would have been nice.

Along the same lines of “not having fixed what wasn’t broken”, Divinity: Original Sin 2 also retains the same approach to loot, gear, and crafting that its predecessor had. The approach that it generally takes is “more is better.” There is a lot of loot in the game, and in between all of the gear slots that you have for your characters (eleven each if you are using a shield), there are innumerable ways that you can outfit your party at any given time. The game does a terrific job of applying the carrot-and-stick mechanism that makes loot-gathering fun too. You frequently find new stuff to wield or wear that is an upgrade over your old stuff, but rarely overpowered enough to break the game. And, for all of the loot that you have no use for, the game’s interface for sorting and selling it is as slick and efficient as it ever has been. On the whole, the interface for the game is fantastic – one of the best ever in the genre. New abilities and usable items automatically add themselves to a huge hotbar at the bottom of the screen. This improvement is yet another one that probably does not sound significant, but it is a major time saver. With all of the special abilities that you learn and consumables that you pick up, there are dozens, if not hundreds of actions that you can take in any battle. Having the game put all of those actions onto the screen as they become available adds convenience by reducing the need for mouse clicks. Managing inventories between party members is a cinch too; when you open the inventory screen, all four inventories are visible.  A great interface is often an underappreciated feature of a complex RPG like Divinity: Original Sin 2.  Kudos to Larian for providing a great one here. 

Divinity: Original Sin 2 also retains the old-school approach to role-playing stats, using the traditional approach of character traits (e.g. Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, etc), skills (e.g. Necromancy, Bartering, Dual Wielding, etc), and feats (e.g. talking to animals, being able to regenerate hit points while standing in blood, etc). The system works mostly as intended, but there are some changes in this game that make it worse than its predecessor. Some of the skills, like blacksmithing and crafting, have been eliminated so that anyone can do it. And, your fundamental character traits have much less effect than they used to. In Original Sin, just about every character trait had some importance to each character. In Original Sin 2, your are strongly encouraged to min-max by making damage modifiers one of the few effects that actually matter.  Finesse (i.e. Dexterity), does not affect your ability to dodge attacks, so a Wizard has absolutely no use for it. Intelligence does not affect the availability of skill points, so nobody but a Wizard has any use for it. Memory only affects how many different skills you can use during combat, which means that once you have adequate memory slots, you never need to invest points in this trait. Gear seems to have a more dominant effect on your abilities this time around. On the whole, the role playing system in this game is a little bit of a disappointment when compared to the system in the first game. 

As mentioned before, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is an ambitious game, and that ambition shows in a lot of ways. One of those ways is in the game’s abundance of voice acting. In this game, every line of dialog from a party member or an NPC is fully voiced. It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that the voice acting quality varies tremendously from character to character. The performances of your party member pals tend to be decent, but a lot of the NPCs that you meet sound horrible. I will never begrudge a developer for trying hard to please the gamer, but the voice acting is probably one area where the game’s budget could have been better spent. Hearing a lot of poorly voice acted lines from every merchant, child, and talking animal in the game doesn’t add much value to the game.

This review also would not be complete without mentioning the absence of the great long time Divinity composer Kirill Pokrovsky, who passed away a couple of years ago, thereby robbing gamers of the chance to ever hear another of his lovely soundtracks. The soundtrack in this game is by no means bad. It has its moments, especially with some of its ambient tracks that play during its more peaceful moments. For the most part though, the soundtrack is not as remarkable as those of Larian’s previous games. 

When it comes to visuals, there are no perceptible differences between Divinity: Original Sin 2 and its predecessor. This lack of a change would not be a problem, were it not for the fact that there is a significant performance downgrade for this game from its predecessor. For some reason, even though there is no obvious reason that it should be the case, my machine (which ran the original game flawlessly) had major problems running this game at an acceptable frame rate. I could generally get more than 30 FPS when my party was indoors without a lot of activity, but outdoors or during combat, the frame rate frequently cratered to the mid-teens. This problem persisted even on low settings, and I could never get the game to run a solid 30 FPS without turning every advanced graphical option all the way off. Why this problem exists with the game isn’t readily apparent, but whatever the reason, the graphical performance of the game is disappointing. 

Up until this point in the review, it probably sounds as if Divinity: Original Sin 2 does not deserve a ton of credit for most of what it gets right. After all, the overwhelming majority of what makes the game so fun and addictive is something that it inherited from the first game. This criticism has merit, but it is nevertheless an unfair one.Divinity: Original Sin 2 still provides an epic campaign with a new story, tons of new characters with thousands of lines of dialog, new abilities, new areas, new ways to interact with NPCs, and new lore. With very few exceptions, the tweaks that were made to this game were the right ones. The new content combines with the old for a great experience. In a gaming world loaded with annual franchises, cynical cash-ins, and an abundance of sequels, this game is anything but. 

Larian studios has yet to make a bad game, and Divinity: Original Sin 2 is among their finest. As a sequel to such a beloved RPG, it gets about as much right as you can reasonably expect. The game doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t have to when you consider how much its predecessor already got right. It does have its issues – the frame rate could be higher and if you play the game for 50+ hours, there is a good chance that you will get a little worn out from the combat. These issues are easy to overlook though, enough to make the game a “must have” for fans of PC RPGs. Every year for the past few years at least one great party-based RPG has come out for the PC.  Fortunately, 2017 is not an exception