When asked to do a preview for Divinity: Original Sin 2, I have to admit to being a bit conflicted. While I consider the first game (and the entire series, really) to be one of my favorite games of all time, I didn’t want my opinion of its sequel to become tainted by the unfinished nature of a Steam Early Access “alpha” demo. The idea of being forced to go through a buggy, incomplete, feature-deprived version of a game that I had such high expectations for didn’t seem too appealing.
Of course, my eagerness won out and I agreed to give it a playthrough.
I’m glad I did too, since quite a few big changes have been made to the first game’s award-winning CRPG formula, not to mention a very uncharacteristic change in theme for the entire series as well.
The first and most far-reaching change over its predecessor are the character creation and growth systems, which have been heavily tweaked and re-balanced. While the basic core of the character sheet hasn’t changed, the way you level the statistics and skills certainly has.
In the first Divinity, skills were similar to the pen & paper Shadowrun system, where to raise a discipline, you had to spend one more point than what was its current total. So in order to raise a skill from 2, you needed 3 points, and to raise it from 4, you needed 5. This meant that you needed to “spec” extra diligently, which forced players to essentially create “dump skills” that were deemed off limits and were usually relegated to non-playing recruit characters that they’d set up with those abilities and only knock the dust off of them when needed. It was an obtuse system that just created more opportunity for exploitation and caused players to avoid certain aspects of the game entirely.
With this new system in the sequel, skills are not only divided into combat and social categories, but you also get one point every level to put into each. This singular point will, regardless of how high a skill is, increase it one level. So instead of spending 15 points to get a skill from untrained to level 5, it now only takes 5 points total. Combined with the separation of combat and non-combat disciplines, the developers have essentially removed the necessity to “over-specialize” your characters and created a more open and friendly-to-experimentation style of role playing.
This is the same with core physical attributes as well, since you are given two points to put into your statistics every level up, resulting in a much more satisfactory feeling of growth than what was given to players in the first game. As much as I loved the previous Divinity title, it was a very slow progressing game where it felt like you hadn’t gained much during a level-up and growth was measured on a much shorter stick.
This means no more leaving points un-used during a level up so you can get the skill you need two levels down the road…a feeling that I am very glad Larian did away with.
Adding to the roleplaying opportunities is the ability to roll a non-human race this time, with the game giving you elves, dwarves, and lizard people as an option during character creation. These new races all come with their own bonuses and advantages but perhaps best of all is how the game handles its elves. Interestingly, elves have the ability to devour the flesh of corpses to gain that person’s memories, which can result in something as innocent as a bit of the background plot being revealed to the player or an entirely new skill being added to the elf’s spellbook.
Roleplaying opportunities seem to be the focus of the sequel, since there is also now a special background history referred to as “Tags” during character creation that allow you to further tweak your hero by giving them personality traits that can be called upon during dialog with NPCs. These “tags” will open up new pathways in quests and can sometimes get you out of a fight and avoid bloodshed by successfully navigating your way around tense situations.
Even in this small, 10 hour first act of the game I frequently ran into situations where my characters “tags” were called upon during dialog. I could even take advantage of my recruited character’s own tags and use that to my advantage as well. It proves to you how serious Larian has become about “playing a role” when you find out that you can manipulate an NPC just by having them speak to one of their own race in your party.
There was one scene where a lizardman stole oranges (stuffed with drugs) from the camp’s chef. No other party member could get him to give it up, and each time I took a character to that point, I had to fight him in combat (or pickpocket him) to get the stolen goods back. Now, when I talked to him with the lizardman prince, he gleefully handed them over when commanded to.
This drastic change in role-playing depth (which is saying something, since the first game already gave you quite a bit to play around with) is also seen in the game’s over-arching theme. Gone is the silliness and light-heartedness of the previous game, instead being replaced with a very dark and depressing introductory area that is the exact opposite of the feeling players received from Cyseal.
The game starts in a quiet, bleak beachfront area where blood, “voidwoken”, and violent prisoners fill the landscape. There is nothing hopeful, exciting, or positive about the game’s first 7 or so hours. It’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow if you came in as a hardcore Divinity series fan that expects the colorful weirdness these games have always been known for. Still, after a while, it felt right. It was a change I grew to enjoy.
As I said, this is a huge shift for the series, since every Divinity game has had massive amounts of puns, foolishness, and “joke content”. Now, at least in this early version, that’s severely toned-down, if not outright removed.
Taking place 1200 years after the original game and falling in between Divine Divinity and Beyond Divinity timeline-wise, this sequel has you playing a “sourcerer” who was on a prison ship that sunk in the waters off of a small island. This island, which is now a makeshift prison camp, is where you and your other captive spell-casters prepare for battle against the religious zealots who are hunting them down.
What this creates is a weird feeling of being on the “wrong side”, since you are essentially fighting forces presumably loyal to Lucian the Divine. While they are obviously misled and possibly being manipulated, the game treats your character like an anti-hero and tends to reward you for bloodshed. Combine this with the depressing atmosphere of the first “town” and you may – like me – be taken a bit off guard when you first boot the game up.
Though after sticking with it, I love the new change of theme. It’s a much more serious, darker game than any other title in this series and feels completely new. The only thing that hasn’t changed much is the combat, which is probably on purpose.
I will say that the low level spells and abilities the game starts you off with seem to be a lot more powerful than you’d expect. Normally “trash” abilities like shocking hands and crippling blow now do immense damage (on any difficulty level) and are also frequently employed by your enemies. This makes battles a lot quicker and “higher damage” than what I was used to in the first game, which also took a while to get used to.
There are other little changes I noticed which impressed me, such as the new animations and better textures/models. I have to admit I still laugh whenever my elf climbs a ladder and makes a full front flip when she reaches the top. It’s little touches like that which stood out in my mind the most.
Overall, I believe Larian is on the right track here. The increased opportunities for roleplaying, the better character creation and growth systems, the darker storyline – it all adds up to a game that appears to be significantly better than its predecessor in every way. Heck, for what it’s worth I’m going through the early access demo with two more characters later this week just to try a few different things.
The only downside would be the music, which lacks the auditory impact that Kirill Pokrovsky always contributed (Editor’s note: he passed away last June). All respect due to new composer Borislav Slavov (who worked for Crytek), but his tunes just don’t evoke the same wispy, medieval, fanciful feeling that Divinity games have always been known for.
In the end though, I think if you’re a fan of the previous game and don’t mind spoiling yourself, grabbing the early access edition might be a good idea. They already have a nice frame to build around, and if they can add a bit more balance to the fights (That last fight with Bishop Alexander is crazy) they have a genre classic on their hands. I for one am excited to see where development takes it in the coming months.