Divinity Original Sin II Review – The best RPG of the decade
Divinity Original Sin II ($44.99USD on Steam) is the type of game that when you set out to review, you expect to spend 40-60 hours on. My steam hours’ counter is now over 100, and I am still firmly in the middle of act 3, hours and hours from the end of the game. So I won’t be discussing the end of the game, or really even much about its story, instead I am going to tell you about what I think is the most mechanically sound, fun, and honest tabletop recreation of dungeons and dragons I have ever played. How this beautiful sprawling RPG from Larian studios has made me love RPG games again, and why you should play it.
The game starts off with you in prison, like so many good RPG’s do. You are a sorcer, a god-woken, and you have been captured and imprisoned and are now in ship on your way to Fort Joy which is a place where you will presumably receive a cure for your sorcery. A collar prevents you from using your source magic (more on source later) but not the more mundane kind of magic, and your on your way to a prison full of those like you. The land has changed much since Divinity, and now sorcers powers summon nasty creatures called Void Woken, that are terrorizing hte land. In response the Magisters are rounding up all of the sorcers of the land and imprisoning them on Fort Joy.
As far as RPG intros go, this one was pretty good, I spent the first 30 or so minutes of the game on a very small ship, exploring, and learning skills, and finding companions. The game is fully voiced, and has thousands of interactions with hundreds of character in it. Even this first section of game play is so stocked with characters’ new players might get overwhelmed! I spent over half an hour just wandering the first area of the ship talking to NPC’s, reading books that filled in the games lore, and finding items to pick up. My time was helped along by just how pretty Divinity II is. It’s done in a isometric style, so don’t expect any cutting edge 3D graphics, but its color pallet is wide and bright. My only real complaint is that many of the elemental effects (in particular lightning and blood) look hokey. This is not a deal breaker for graphics, but it does make me feel like a little more attention could have been paid to the effects. Other than some rough weather effects, the game is resplendent in 4K, with details popping out, foliage looking green and beautiful and characters all having unique appearances.
I think most vetran RPG players will find the games fist act to be a bit boring. The ship and Fort Joy are both filled with things to do, but in small confined area. This may frustrate some, but newer players are likely to be extremely grateful for the confined size of the early act map. After act I the map is basically wide open, and going to the wrong area will be punished with swift death. After a short tutorial section and some scripted scenes on the ship, you wake up on a beach, and well that’s just about all the game is going to give you. You’re going to get very little help in Divinity II, and I think that’s just fine. This is an old school RPG, and if you want to find quests you have to go looking.
It’s not all blind of course. There is the staple journal tab of any decent RPG game, but instead of coddling you and telling you where to go it just fills in as you uncover story. You do get some map markers, in the form of flags, but in this age of coddled gamers, this might be a shock to some. You won’t be needing a notebook and pen like you did with Myst, but you also won’t be lead from quest to quest. This is especially true of side quests, you can skip entire sections of the game by simply ignoring some side quests. This may come as a shock to some, but it was a staple in older RPG’s from the 90s. Personally I think its a waste to skip any side quests you are able to do, but it is an option.
Divnity II is full of moments that may be a shock to some. From permadeath of party members if you cant revive them, to talking animals that will give you hints about how to play the game if you have the right talent, to instant death caused by something innocuous looking in the environment never take anything for granted. Even after more than 50 hours in game, I still ended up having some real WOW and WTF moments. But, that’s a huge part of the charm of the new RPG from Larian studios, which is full of surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Whether you like surprises or not in your game, this is probably the best RPG I have played in the last 5 years. It’s a classic style RPG that will have RPG nerds pouring over their character sheets trying to min-max their stats and casual players scratching their heads in confusion at its sprawling stat system. It’s the kind of game that rewards exploration, and taking your time, while also allowing for a more casual play style. It is in essence as close to the perfect RPG that I have ever seen a game get.
This is even evident when you first boot up the game, like most RPG’s you to create and customize your character. There are several main “story” characters that are already fully created with back story, race, and other details. The developers advise that you use one of these on your first run, but if you’re a real veteran I suggest creating your own character. Character creation is extensive, there are five races, human, elf, undead, lizard and dwarf. There are one each of these for the “story” characters, and if you don’t like any of those, you can choose to create a custom character of each race. There is a mind boggling array of pre-set classes, like metalmorph and battle mage, and if you don’t like any of those you can just design you own! Just like real table top Dungeons and Dragons you can create your character sheet from the ground up, setting stats, background and other things as you go. My personal favorite class is the Metalmorph, who specializes in transfiguration. My female dwarf metalmorph can buff herself, turn her arms in to lethal tentacles, and turn enemies in to chickens!
But character creation is only the beginning of Dvinity II’s class system. Anyone, can learn any skill in this game, its only based on stats. Stats which after act I, the game expressly gives you a chance to reset. I love this approach so much. Had I decided that my metalmorph was boring to play, I could have respeced her in to a ranger, or a powerful dual weapon wielder, or really anything. The only limitation is the price of the skill books you need to teach the spells to the character. The number of spells you can learn is also a stat, specifically memory, so if you want to be a spell slinging witch, just pump all your points in to memory and int, then use your gold to buy skill books. It’s a system that rewards creative and odd combinations,. Bboth the forums and subreddit for Divinity II are full of people posting non-traditional but very powerful builds. There are builds for solo adventuring, builds for healing, builds for support, and more off the beaten track builds, like one that specializes in poisoning everything around you as an undead (since poison heals you). This type of freedom and ability to create is a central theme of Divinity II from its mostly free form quest system, to its completely free form character builds, it’s all about the choice you can make and places you can explore.
Those places to explore are properly amazing as well. This is a fantasy world after all, and it’s a magic and swords one, you’ll explore forts, towns, underground crypts, and castles. Fight monsters, people, and a class of things that come from the void, and feed on your magical talents. Through it all Larian manages to craft a world that kept me engaged and wanting more. I chose to play on the classic difficulty, a sort of medium level, and while I did hit plenty of snags, I haven’t yet ended up in a spot that I couldn’t get past. The game offers several difficulty levels, including one where you can’t revive party members, but I found the medium one to be just difficult enough for me. If your a more casual player of a first time player, I recommend trying one of the easier difficulties so you dont become frustrated. You can always change it up later on.
I know I said I wasn’t going to talk a lot about story, but I do have to mention a few things. First, one major issue I often have with RPG’s like this that they require an entire book of reading to follow. Video game white text on top of black backgrounds can cause my already tired eyes after a day of work, to want to melt out of my head. Divinity however, has your back on this one. Its fully voiced. Every, single, line. From the NPC’s that only say one line, to the major dialog tree’s every line is fully voice acted, by a very competent cast. It may seem like a small detail but after a long day of staring at a screen it’s a very nice touch. Second, the story is just well, really good. I don’t want to spoil a ton about it, but in case you were wondering, you don’t need to play Divinity I to play this game, its set in the same universe but a long time later. I don’t think the story is going to win any major awards any time soon, but between the side quests, character loyalty quests, and main story line, there is an absolutely bonkers amount of detail in this world. A narrator fills out some of needed exposition, but the rest is left to in game NPC’s and almost every NPC has a role to play. As I mentioned earlier there is no hand holding when it comes to quests, so the best way to find them is to talk to everyone.
The games excellent story extends to even the smallest of its side quests. Whether you are looking for a lost child, or assassinating a duke, side quests feel fleshed out, and are a nice change from the typical “go get me something from somewhere” that so many RPG’s fall back on. Its not just in that sense that Divinity II breaks from the genres mold either, it also encourages exploration so much that it makes it a necessity. Sometimes a side quest will come to you, in the form of a fight or an obviously locked door or needy NPC, but the vast majority of the time your going to want to talk to every NPC you see. Not all of them are quest givers, but many are, and there are no floating icons to indicate who is and is not, so please just talk to everyone.
Talk to everyone because, exploration is the only way to get quests in Divnity II, or at least any worth doing. You can of course rush through just the main quests, and speed run the game. But, if you do this your going to miss a massive part of what makes Divinity II so good. I love how while out wandering the world I come upon a fight in progress and aiding one side or the other will kick off a quest. These moments make the world of Divinity II feel alive rather than static, and the combat is no slouch either. Some of these quests give great rewards, some just give notoriety and titles, but so far none that I have found have been completely useless. You don’t actually have to finish any of the side quests that you pick up, but doing so will help you level and give you better items. Plus its the best way to get experience in combat.
I wasn’t planning to talk much about combat in this review, but I have to at least mention it. Combat is turn based, and features a system that uses Action Points and initiative. If you have ever played tabletop games you know what initiative is, but in case you haven’t, its basically when your character gets their actions. Higher levels mean your turn is first. Lower, means your turn will be later. When it comes to what you do on your turn, If you are familiar with the idea of action points then combat in this game should make perfect sense to you. Your character can do X amount of actions this turn before their turn is over. Casting a spell might cost 4 action points, moving a short distance one, a long distance four. Most characters start out with just a few action points, but there are perks, and leveling up can add more. There are dozens of spells, potions, and weapon stats that effect AP and initiative, far too many to list out, but the variety is dizzying.
Combat is as diverse as the classes in game, primarily its based on a system that has two types of damage, physical and magic. Each character has three health bars, their actual health, their armor and their magical shield. Armor blocks physical attacks, magical shields block magic, and health can absorb both. Knowing this is key to combat, as many enemies have less magical or physical armor, so you should attack with that first. Some weapons can pierce through shields, but its one of the least common abilities in game. Nothing quite compares to taking down a heavily armored character with a barrage of magic spells because they only had 10 magic armor. Divinity rewards smart play and good positioning, much more than raw strength. The same is true of your characters and you will want to engage with this in mind. Don’t put your magically armored mage up against a sword fighter for example. Keep your ranged characters back, and make sure you always have revive scrolls and the ability to retreat. Combat is a constant dance of positioning and even on medium difficulties screwing up will often cause your entires parties death. Save early and often, because if you play anything like me, your going to need those saves.
There are also an amazing number of spells, skills, and various special attacks that can change the flow of combat. Every character has the ability to use magic, and there are several different schools of magic to choose from. Spells range from AOE effects like rain, to massive bursts of lightning, to a swarm of blood sucking mosquitos. Different abilities and spells have different effects, and a masterful player will use these to increase their odds of winning. Status effects like curse, petrified, and bleeding, or on fire, can serious effect the outcome of a battle, so be carefull with your spell slinging. Many weapons also grant powerful physical attacks, which can in one strike change the course of a battle. The Red Prince (one of my companions) is a spear wielding tank, who can jump straight in to the fight and create an AOE halo of fire damage when he lands. He can then sit out of range of most melee attacks and hit with his spear doing low damage, but absorbing many of the enemies attacks. This leaves my ranged caster (an undead) open to sling powerful spells from the back lines.
If it ended there Divinity II would still have one of the best combat system I had ever used in a modern RPG. But it doesn’t. It goes even deeper. Just like in the first game, elements can interact. Enemies standing in a puddle? Shock the puddle to damage the enemies. Barrel of poison nearby? Use telekinesis to pick it up and throw it towards the enemy it will break and cover them in a poison mist. Interactions like this leave the game open to a dizzying amount of non-traditional combat options. If you want to see just a sampling of the crazy things that can be done, check out some of the speed runs that are out now for the game. Players are clearing the game in 30 minutes and just using creative combat to kill bosses.
When I first got to fort Joy and had no idea what I was doing, I started wandering around. Through a series of bumbling mishaps, fights, and odd encounters, I managed to acquire a new companion, kill the forts chief bully, and learn how to craft basic potions, none of which had been goals marked in my Journal or on my map. That’s the true beauty of an RPG like this, it’s up to you to explore the rich vibrant world that Larian have created for you. To plumb its dungeons and gather its loot, to fight its creatures and baddies, and eventually reach your goal, having had as much fun on the journey as lies at the end. Divinity II does this masterfully, and I can say with a clean and clear conscious that this game is a 5/5 in my book.