Let's be honest now, the Divinity RPGs from Larian have hardly set the world on fire. There have been three of them (not including recent action-strategy title Dragon Commander) and despite being serviceable RPGs with nice ideas they're not very engaging. I actually tried to play Divinity II again in preparation for this review and I was quickly bored because nothing about the game felt like it was trying to keep my attention. After playing through the Early Access alpha for Divinity: Original Sin however I was gripped from the first few minutes and despite the game being unfinished I knew it'd be a strong contender for RPG of the year, even before The Witcher 3 got delayed. I didn't participate in the Kickstarter but I've been hugely excited for Original Sin, so let's hope Larian haven't dropped the ball at the goal line (does that metaphor work? I don't do sports).
Set inside Larian's original world of Rivellon long before the first game in the series (Divine Divinity), you control a pair of Source Hunters summoned to the port town of Cyseal to investigate a mysterious murder. Source Hunters are a type of police force assigned to track down illegal uses of a powerful dangerous magic called The Source and any mages who practice it, called Sourcerors (with thanks to Terry Pratchett for that pun, presumably). The local wizard Arhu suspects Source Magic was used in the murder so your Hunters are sent in, but it won't be easy since orcs are attacking the town, the undead surround it, several powerful cults impede your every move, and the victim seems to have gone missing. Oh, and there are a couple of cats who want to get married but are forbidden to because of outdated societal concerns.
Some of the views are superb... and yes, you can go all the way down to that harbour in the background
A number of points there. I'll start with the cleverest idea in Original Sin, that of there being two main characters. You get to customise both how you choose, they're both together from the start and earn XP nearly equally, and they can even have conversations between themselves with you choosing dialogue (and the personalities) for both sides. You can even have them disagree on a course of action, whereupon you play a round of Rock Paper Scissors to determine who wins the argument. It's fun, frequently amusing, involving, is the initial source of the immediate attraction I felt for Original Sin, and works just as well in single-player as it does in co-op. It's such a novel idea I'm amazed it hasn't been done in another RPG, but apart from Nintendo's Mario & Luigi titles I can't think of another with two main characters (and Mario and Luigi's personalities are already set). And hell, if you don't like the idea grab the 'Lone Wolf' Trait and play without a partner.
Apart from this wonderful innovation there are two surprises with the writing - one good, one debateable. The first is that, if you couldn't tell from the bit about the cats, it's surprisingly humorous. I absolutely cannot abide po-faced ultra-serious fantasy in my gaming, and Rivellon is half Middle-Earth to two-parts Discworld (they overlap). Expect pun-based gravestones, stuttering skeletons, books on how to make Invisibility Potions that go invisible halfway through, Smelly Pants that give you +1 to Charisma, and the aforementioned Cat Wedding that's actually a quest - make sure one of your characters has the 'Pet Pal' Trait immediately, it's worth it. Even pressing the 'Sneak' button is amusing, whereupon your character immediately disguises himself as a large bush and walks about on tip-toes. While plenty of serious stuff happens Original Sin definitely feels like an RPG that sets out to have fun, and fair play to Larian for that.
And the debateable part about story? Well, I'm sorry to say that the main story involving Jake's murder and the Sourcerors is a little lacklustre, and most importantly it feels like Larian have made little attempt to make it any more exciting than a regular side-quest. In my view this is bad, since I often play RPGs for the main plotline and whether it's Skyrim or Baldur's Gate I may screw around with side-stories for 80+ hours but at the end of the day I want to get back to the thrilling story that set me on the journey. Divinity almost forgets to introduce its plot and at the same time brings in about a dozen other stories that seem equally as interesting, and on more than one occasion it simply doesn't even vaguely tell you where to go next.
This is my second problem with Divinity: Original Sin: there are many moments where it doesn't give you enough information. While I adore the fact that the game doesn't lead you around and let's players find everything out for themselves even old-school RPGs told you roughly the right direction - I'm not after Waypoint Arrows on every quest item, just a general "go North to a beach" would work for me in one crucial plotline. Similarly though important items are equally badly pointed out. Unless you're holding the 'Alt' button all the time keys are damn near invisible, several times I was stuck and went on the forums only to be told "oh there's a key over there" or "there's a button on the wall". The isometric perspective is nice but it's often difficult to notice anything small. Furthermore while it's nice that your Journal tracks things it doesn't give you any specifics on where to go - not even where to find the quest giver once you're finished. You're even left to figure out important gameplay systems by yourself, like how to buy things or how to repair items. At least there's an optional tutorial for combat.
Electrify pools of water to stun everyone standing in it! No pools? Use a Rain spell and create some!
Ah yes, combat, the meat of the game and one of the best things about Original Sin. Once you head out of the towns you'll encounter battles regularly, although fortunately there aren't any random encounters, and every single one will be different. They're turn-based, everything you do (including moving, attacking, casting spells and even changing equipment in-combat) is based on how many Action Points you have, generally you have to think tactically and use a combination of melee, ranged and magic fighters to defeat your enemies. All very standard stuff, so what's new? First off every battle seems to be against a unique group of enemies or in an interesting location - if I face two sword-wielding skeletons straight-on next time it won't be the same, it'll be a group of them with a necromancer with better cover surrounded by poisonous clouds next time, and that's before I get into the huge array of enemies on offer here.
The other clever new addition to combat is the focus on the elements. There are of course four main elements - Fire, Air, Earth and Water - and each one has both a different branch of magic attached to it (with both offensive and defensive spells for all four) and enemies that react differently to each one. A Fire-based enemy won't be damaged and might actually get healed by a usually-devastating Fireball, but it'll be particularly weak against ice/Water-based attacks. There are also clever combinations you can pull off too - at first Rain doesn't seem to do anything but get everyone wet, but it'll put out fires and leave enemies susceptible to being frozen or electrocuted, especially if you get them in that pool of water you just made. It's a simple but wonderful idea and is implemented perfectly, meaning you have to reconsider your tactics in every single encounter and so every fight in the game feels fresh. Utterly superb.
By far the best thing about Divinity: Original Sin though is the world. If you just pick any direction you'll find something interesting within moments, whether it's a cool fight, some cowardly skeletons, huge statues dedicated to the elements, a talking riddling fungus or some travellers down on their luck with a giant monster carrying their stuff. Dig up the right patch and you could find some loot, a Legend of Zelda-style secret entrance, or a huge explosion that kills your entire team and some nearby sheep (save often by the way). Larian have carefully and meticulously packed every part of Rivellon with interesting things to do and find, to the extent that even Skyrim isn't as fun to explore as Divinity: Original Sin. Yes the game may not point you in the right direction often enough but it also doesn't treat the player like an idiot, and that's refreshing. It's amazingly rewarding to be able to figure things out for yourself, but Larian still expertly give you enough to go on. Even if you get stuck in one quest there'll be another just as interesting around the corner. This is a game where you'll never ever get bored.
Murphy the pants-sniffing dog is all kinds of awesome and talks like a less irritating Scooby Doo. Oh, I wish he could come with me...
And I haven't even talked about the aesthetics yet. Divinity II was more than a little drab to look at and that's part of the reason I was put off so fast, but Original Sin is colourful, vibrant, and exquisitely detailed - look look, there's a mailbox on that rabbit hole! Ha! Um, yes, graphically lovely, and I love how the backgrounds just melt away if they're blocking your view. Audio is similarly good, with a lot of fun voice acting (the animal voices are particularly great), some beautiful and fully orchestrated music, and all the effects feel weighty. While as mentioned the main story never really gains traction the writing is always snappy and entertaining, with some really entertaining characters to find. Sadly though this doesn't include your companions. You can have a party of four but there are only two NPCs who can actually join you (although you can buy "Henchmen" if you're not interested in backstory and reactions), Jahan and Madora, and while useful both are a little annoying. Certainly there's no-one to match the mighty Minsc and Boo, which is a shame. I wish Jake's sniffer dog Murphy could come with me, or Zixzax the time-travelling goblin historian, or Arhu the wizard who prefers to spend his time as a cat.
DIVINITY: ORIGINAL SIN VERDICT
While in my opinion it has a few flaws that hold it back from true all-time-classic status Divinity: Original Sin is an excellent, beautifully designed and engaging RPG that absolutely never gets boring. The main story could be better told, companions could be more interesting (and just more), and while refreshingly free it could at least offer some better directions for important things or highlight crucial items. Nevertheless the inventive and always unique combat, the witty and humorous writing, the two player characters, the thoroughly engaging world and the sense that you’re allowed to do whatever you want to keep Original Sin in the realms of must-play territory. It’s also absolutely huge: it took me 23 hours just to discover the next area of the map (and I hadn’t even finished exploring half of the surrounding area of Cyseal)! Whether playing single-player or co-op it’s utterly great, and while not quite RPG of 2014 (South Park: The Stick of Truth is already a little better in my view, and that’s before we get the likes of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity) any self-respecting RPG gamer absolutely has to buy this game. There’s a She-Orc Librarian who talks like an upper-class British school mistress for god’s sake…
TOP GAME MOMENT
So many it’s hard to choose, but the two cats proclaiming their love to each other after you found the male cat’s special collar is my personal favourite.