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Though the 80’s and most of the 90’s were dominated by them, turn-based, tactically deep CRPGs fell out of vogue by the end of the century. Equating “turn-based” with slow and strategic with “boring”, the practice of real-time with pause became the only acceptable alternative to a money hungry industry that wanted the unapologetically niche genre of the computer roleplaying game to make the lucrative transition to the mainstream. Major publishers, perhaps seeing the success enjoyed by more fast-paced and less complex fare like Diablo, began pushing developers into dropping their turn based systems for more action-oriented real-time ones.
This was a change not taken lightly by folks who, in forums around the late 90’s web, began decrying this shift. Some, like myself, learned to accept that real-time Baldur’s Gate-esque combat was the new hotness and that the days of the D&D Goldbox games and their pleasingly laborious random monster fights were no more. Others, well, they clung to old DOS based PCs and spent their time complaining about what they deemed “modern garbage”.
Though some developers tried to fight their publishers to go back to the old style, very few won their arguments with the white shirts who controlled the hobby. Troika was forced to include a (broken) real-time combat option to Arcanum, Stormfront had their Pool of Radiance sequel all but abandoned by Ubisoft, and Temple of Elemental Evil’s last patch was withheld by Atari because (from what I heard in a post-mortem interview) the company bigwigs wanted the game to fade from sight due to them being ashamed of it.
To put it bluntly, publishers did not like PC roleplaying games to play like PC roleplaying games. It turned off the mainstream and therefore wasn’t very good for their bottom line.
I always had a theory though; One where I figured us turn-based fans were older and more affluent than the young folks who preferred simpler RPGs and that if we were somehow allowed to speak with our wallets and not just through long rants on nerdy forums we could prove that a market for classic, old-school turn-based CRPGs not only still existed, but was large enough to make money off of.
While it’s a bit arrogant to think one subset of fans has a thicker wallet than the rest, I believe the recent influx of classic CRPGs on Kickstarter proves me to be correct.
When you boot up Divinity: Original Sin, you’ll notice that there is a shout-out to the RPGCodex website. That’s there for good reason, since the old grognards who get laughed at on that board for being curmudgeonly relics are the same folks that helped get this old style of game back again.
A bunch of jaded, bitter, angry turn-based RPG freaks that managed to put up millions of dollars to get the CRPG genre back to its roots and have given this hobby one of the best games I’ve seen in years.
Unlike my long winded game review soliloquies, Divinity Original Sin is something you should not skip. This entry, the latest in the long running “Divinity” RPGs by Belgium’s own Larian Studios, is not just the best of its own continuity, but also one of the best examples of an RPG I’ve seen since the previous decade.
Lofty praise, I know, but Swen “Lar” Vincke, the brains behind Larian Studios, deserves every positive word I speak about his game. As a developer who has always been very friendly to his fans and very honest and open on his company’s official forums, Swen is well-liked in an industry that is infamous for spewing hate at its content creators.
This infatuation people have for him is easier to understand when you realize that Vincke is a man who is as passionate about making RPGs as he is about pleasing the people who are playing them.
As a risk-taking developer who always wanted to make a classic turn-based RPG but whose publishers wouldn’t allow him to, Swen saw an opportunity to make his dream game using Kickstarter and felt it only natural to let his fans guide him in the process along the entire way.
The end result? The best PC RPG I’ve played since 2003’s Temple of Elemental Evil.
I used the word “old” seven times so far, and if you were looking for one word to describe Original Sin’s gameplay, that would most certainly be it. Having the honor of being the first turn-based game in the Divinity series, Original Sin impressed me by not only getting the combat system down correctly but also *improving* upon it.
If you’ve played other turn-based CRPGS such as Troika’s Temple of Elemental Evil or the recently kickstarter-ed Shadowrun Returns, you’d probably think that all you need to make a good one would be an “end turn” button and a visible dice roll window. Technically, you’d be right, but Larian Studios had a loftier goal…
One thing that you’ll notice early on about Original Sin’s combat is that it has a lot of hidden depth and complexity. So much complexity that a lot of folks have been turned off by the brutal difficulty is creates. Instead of merely running up to an enemy and worrying about hit percentages or spell casting failures the way you would in, say, Daedalic’s January release of Blackguards, Original Sin forces you to worry about wetness, warmth, cold, electrical conductivity, fog visibility and steam.
When you talk of tactics in Original Sin, you’re talking about setting up, exploiting and avoiding field effects to make it through each fight. With dozens of different status-inflicting arrows, nearly a hundred spells and a highly reactive environment, combat in this game is not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced. In fact, combat is a constantly evolving game of chess that pits you against enemies who frequently exploit these field effects and demand that you learn them too in order to survive.
Is the ground wet with pools of water or blood? Cast a lighting-based spell on it and you’ll stun anyone near it. Did you throw a fireball because you think it’s powerful and has no negative repercussions? Watch as it engulfs the grass in the area and spreads to your party by the start of the next round. Is it raining outside and you’re wet? Better find some way to warm yourself up because a well placed ice spell will freeze you to the bone.
Is there poison seeping up through the ground? Set it on fire and watch as it seers the flesh of everything around it. Did you cast fireballs on a wet surface? Now you can’t see anything because of the steamy fog it left behind. Or how about breaking water barrels and then freezing the puddles to cause your charging enemies to slip and fall? Is that enemy ranger cleverly avoiding your fire traps? Use your teleport spell on him and send him right on top of them. The options are truly staggering.
There’s such an insane amount of detail to the combat that even the attacks you use and the fluids that come out of everyone’s bodies are taken into account. Imagine my surprise when I used arrows against zombies and gasped in horror as the poison ichor in them spilled out and infected the ground.
That feeling was surpassed only by the realization that the amount of blood that pooled from everyone’s attacks not only healed people with the leech skill (A grisly but powerful optional trait to take) but if deep and wide enough could be used to conduct electrical spells throughout the battlefield just like rain water.
A good example of the system’s depth would be a fight about midway through the game in which I had to battle a large contingent of fire elementals led by a huge lava-spewing boss. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t come anywhere close to beating them.
It wasn’t until I realized how powerful water was that I threw up a rain spell and marveled as every fire-aligned beast in the vicinity became inflicted with a “weakness” debuff and fell prey to even the lowest level ice spells. It seemed so simple, but for me it was the moment at which Original Sin went from mild diversion to full on addiction.
It reminds me of what Stormfront’s 2001 Pool of Radiance sequel was meant to be. In that game, you were suppose to be able to block doors with tables and ignite wood and hay with fire spells. It was a goal that was never met, and until now I didn’t think anyone would attempt it again in a modern CRPG. Leave it to a kickstarter title to finally get it right.
You could write a ten page thesis on the combat mechanics in Original Sin and probably just barely scratch its depth, and while that alone is fine…it’s made even greater by the fact that it’s held together by a very flexible character creation system.
I’ve heard comparisons made between this and Dungeons and Dragons, and those observations aren’t without merit. The character creation and leveling system used by Original Sin is very similar to the 3rd edition of the ruleset used by the two Neverwinter Nights games in the way it doles out traits and ability score bonuses every couple of levels.
Which traits unlock are dependent on how you distributed your core ability points and they usually grant your character special abilities he wouldn’t get otherwise. Like the aforementioned leech skill that has you gain HP whenever you stand on blood, many of them add new layers to the already complex battle system and give you more options to consider when fighting your impressively tenacious AI controlled foes.
Further resembling 3rd edition D&D is the huge list of options to consider when making a character. Whether it’s weapon skills (one handed, two handed, tenebrium, crossbow, longbow) defensive skills (armor, shield, bodybuilding, willpower) Special abilities (spells and weapon talents) Personality skills (charisma, leadership, bartering, luck) or Creation (Crafting, blacksmithing, lore) and Thieving (Pickpocket, Lockpick, sneak), Original Sin gives you a ton of different avenues in which you can specialize and min/max your growth. It’s fairly straightforward though, and straddles that fine line between “Holy crap this is confusing” and “More games should do this”.
As much as the munchkin in me would like to think otherwise, RPGs aren’t just about combat. Larian obviously understood this too, since they implemented a very clever conversation system in their game to give it a little more personality than you usually see in this kind of combat-heavy CRPG. Like Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, your characters often converse between themselves and initiate conversations when you reach certain key points in a quest.
Sometimes you may find that they disagree with each other in these spontaneous dialogs. During such incidents, a game of rock/paper/scissors is played, and the winner gets their demand granted while the loser is forced to capitulate. Your chances of beating the NPC in this little game are based on your charisma skill, which is a clever way of spicing up an otherwise staid and unchanging aspect of the modern RPG.
As if the rock/paper/scissors feature wasn’t enough, Original Sin, like all of Larian’s games, does have a fair bit of humor planted in what some may consider inappropriate places. There are plenty of goofy puns (A buccaneer skeleton boss called Pontius Pirate caught me off guard and made me choke) and some instances of outright silliness, but not enough to break the illusion. I’ve heard some complain about it, but I found it charming and believed it helped to alleviate the tense situations the combat often put me in.
Somewhat related to the conversation system is your inter-party banter and the judgement calls that are made during them. With each response your party makes to an NPC, a long list of personality traits are tallied. Depending on the severity of your leaning one way or the other, new skills will be unlocked. A good example would be the “immune to curse” skill you get which triggers when your “Forgiveness” is high enough.
Of course, go the other way in that particular social category and show the world how “Vindictive” you are and you lose the curse immunity skill and gain a trait that adds 20% damage to all attacks of opportunity. There are quite a few of these social traits that the game keeps track of during your conversations and their effects can drastically alter your party composition.
Deep combat, highly interactive environments, enough skills and traits to make any D&D nerd sit mouth agape at their monitor…what more could Larian have stuffed into this perfect RPG formula?
Taking a look at these screenshots probably gave you one of the answers to that question.
Original Sin looks absolutely gorgeous and is without peer amongst its modern isometric RPG brethren. The ambient occlusion, the subtle shadowing, the waving trees, the rays of sun peaking through the tree limbs…I found myself constantly stopping the game and taking screenshots just to admire the amazing atmosphere the engine had created.
It looks so good that this is the first game in a long time that even though it has a graphics mod available for it, I elected not to install it. Original Sin is already so beautiful in its natural and unmodded state that it really doesn’t need any help.
This high level of visual fidelity can also be seen in your character’s armor, which realistically changes with each new piece you equip. This even goes right down to the belts and skirts, both of which having their own unique designs and colors that change with each newly reached equipment tier.
So with graphics being one half of the answer, what was the other one?
Kirill Pokrovsky’s hauntingly beautiful soundtrack.
Pokrovsky’s music has been a mainstay in the Divinity series, and yet in this latest chapter he seems to have completely outdone all of his previous work. From the old Divinity Alerath theme hitting you in the face as soon as you enter your first game to the “Dum diggle diggle dee” goblin lyric theme blaring in the tavern, the music absolutely begs to be turned up to its maximum.
If Swen Vincke is the greatest thing to come from Belgium, then Pokrovsky is the best thing to come from Russia. His music completes the package and helps make an already enchanting game even more so.
The aforementioned tavern theme and the Alerath village tune come from the first Divinity, as do several of the game’s NPCs. Not to spoil anything but many of the other game’s characters are either met or alluded to within the main story. In some instances, even famous pieces of unique equipment appear, making this game a treat to longtime Divinity players.
Gushing over an RPG you’re hopelessly in love with isn’t going to help anyone, and while I do in fact enjoy Original sin, I have to admit there are deficiencies in the game that need to be addressed. As good as it is, there were a few bad choices that I still can’t believe weren’t fixed during the long early access play-testing it received.
Chief among these flaws would be the GUI, which at times feels like it’s fighting me rather than helping me. Sure, the design of it is slick and modern and looks fantastic, but clicking on portraits should, as it does in every other RPG, change the inventory bag *and* hotkey toolbar. As it is now, clicking on a portrait merely changes the toolbar and keeps you in the backpack of the last character you viewed. It took me a good fifteen hours until I got used to this and I find it hard to believe that after three launch week patches it still hasn’t been “fixed”. It could be deliberate, but I sincerely hope it’s not.
Speaking of the toolbar, another annoying aspect of it is that if you drag an item off of a hotkey to “clear” it, the game drops the item it pointed to instead of merely deleting the hotkey. I lost a good number of arrows to the bushes of Rivellon before I got used to this little quirk; a hard-to-forgive oversight due to how hard special arrows are to craft early in the game.
Which brings me to crafting, which on the surface seems fun and complex, but in reality is quite limiting. Though there are a lot of recipes available to those brave enough to place points into it, crafting is a very un-fulfilling affair. Instead of putting a newly forged Steel bar onto an avil and deciding what you want to make, you instead are forced to accept a two handed axe. A rare silver bar can only be made into silver arrowheads. Leather scraps? Metal scraps? You take the one kind of item it forces on you and that’s it.
Steel bars won’t craft you the new mace your cleric needs nor will those five silver bars you stockpiled make you the weapon of your dreams. Even with a blacksmithing of 5, my character’s crafted two handed axes and metal plates were significantly weaker than what I was getting from the game’s randomized chest loot. Of course, it doesn’t help when the recipes you unlock are often worded in a very lackadaisical way that sometimes requires trial and error (and a good FAQ) to make sense of.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the lack of day and night schedules, something that I could have sworn was mentioned as an obtained stretch goal on Original Sin’s kickstarter campaign. Unfortunately, the game has an eternal day that only turns to night in small sections of the overworld where it is needed to enhance the mood.
This creates an awfully jarring effect where the time of day changes from day to night and back again by merely stepping a few feet into the cemetery or haunted village locations. I understand that kickstarter games have had a tendency to be a little slapdash in some areas, but this is one feature that needs to exist in an RPG if the developer wants to create a sense of realism in his realm. It makes the world feel cardboard-ish and remains the only really big gripe I have with this otherwise fantastic RPG.
Another shortcoming is the lack of recruitable NPCs. While there are two storyline based characters that can join you early in the game’s first town, they are unfortunately all you’ll find. It’s possible to instead pick from pre-made characters sold by a trainer that unlocks after the first few hours of gameplay, but his hirelings are mostly voiceless and make no comments about your actions. If there were other NPCs that could be hired, I didn’t find them.
There are other minor little gripes, such as the unfathomably hard-to-solve quests that require finding tiny (and nearly invisible) switches. Oh, and those chatty NPCs that repeat the same line of spoken dialog every five seconds. Though really, that’s just nitpicking.
So is Original Sin worth your money and time? If you still play Temple of Elemental Evil and pine away for the days when you would spend a half an hour on an RPG fight and play it with one hand on the keyboard and the other on a cold drink, then yes. Original Sin is, for this curmudgeon anyway, my new go-to turn based CRPG.
I’m so confident in that statement that I’ve already begun planning what my second trip’s party composition will look like. Original Sin is a strategic, deep, and rewarding oldschool CRPG that ticks nearly all the boxes needed to make the kind of game that the 30+ crowd has been clamoring for during these past 15 years.
On the other hand, for those who hate tedium, high levels of difficulty and lots of micro-managing, Original Sin will be the game whose forum you flood with “How can anyone enjoy this?” posts.
Even with Original Sin being such a niche CRPG that would turn off nearly all of the mainstream, it seems to be gaining a tremendous amount of popularity. With 160,000 copies sold so far and the top spot on the Steam charts completely taken over, it’s starting to get a little hard to use that old “turn based games don’t sell” excuse that was parroted so often in the previous decade.
If I was Swen Vincke, I’d make sure to work on this engine and release a few more games using the same exact gameplay scheme. What he has here is the basis for a very lucrative new (old?) breed of CRPG and it would be criminal to not take advantage of it. Original Sin is his masterpiece, and with it he has filled a void that a lot of old school RPGers came to Kickstarter looking for.
Congratulations Larian, you did the impossible.
Now make more.
Divinity: Original Sin was reviewed using a digital copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.