"Battles are slow and full of clicks, pauses, and ponderings."
Lurid green orcs attack legionnaires on bright beaches, undead wizards pull rotting boars from the earth and animate them with necromantic secrets, and a murderer goes unpunished. These are the quests and side quests that have kept adventurers employed and heroic for decades now, and they're also the three conflicts at the heart of the Steam Early Access alpha preview of Divinity: Original Sin. Will there always be gamers willing to undertake these quests, that seem as dry and dusty as the books they came from, or are they no longer enough?
Larian Studios' Kickstarter success is a prequel to the original Divine Divinity: an open-world turn-based RPG for one or two players. Already you're probably surprised. Divinity can be played both alone and cooperatively, and combat is not
in real time. The former is encouraging and allows for one of the game's most inventive features, but the latter is potentially a nasty surprise for those expecting something different. That I was disappointed when the first battle began says more about my preferences than the quality of the game, but don't assume Divinity features Infinity Engine-style combat.
Battles are slow and full of clicks, pauses, and ponderings. Divinity uses an action point system akin to that of the original Fallout games: each combat action, be it movement, skill, item, or attack, requires a certain number of action points and those left over can be used the following turn. There are attacks of opportunity, interactive spell effects, and plenty of interesting items and abilities to complicate strategies that must also account for efficient movement, areas of effect, and the tortuous decision of saving or spending action points. This rather nuanced system complements the heavily detailed world.
Larian Studios hand-crafted a world, an antidote to the increasingly popular trend of randomly generated content and the hollow, means-to-an-end dungeon design of many Western action RPGs. Though it's impossible to know how large Divinity's world will be with the relatively modest alpha preview, it begs to be clicked. Tiny shells can be picked up, examined, and used or hoarded just in case. Books can be opened and read, their pages turned by dragging the mouse. Items that can't be put into the inventory can be moved about the environment. Combining coffin nails with a cudgel dropped by an enemy produces a more effective melee weapon. There are countless NPCs to be questioned, assisted, ignored, or murdered. There are doors to be broken, keys to steal, and secrets to expose.
Instead of using darkness to tantalize, Divinity uses light. The writing is lively (although there is currently no voice acting and probably no plans to include it) and laden with humor and personality. Much of the humor resorts to the funny gravestones and equippable "Dirty Panty" variety, but with this comes an unpredictability only allowed by a world this wacky and careless. One moment I'm investigating a murder case and the next I'm being transported to another plane of time and space by an absurd and raving goblin. This helps counter the generic lore and setting, even if the atmosphere isn't consistent and the world impossible.
Divinity doesn't hold hands as the quests and side quests flow in with disorder and chaos. The murder investigation that provided the focus of my preview, for example, unfolds with a hands-off philosophy. There's a quest log, a map, and even quest markers, yet none of them really give much direction. The only way to proceed is to explore, search, and question. One of the purposes of a game like this is to become lost in it, but with so much detail, there needs to be a more thorough record keeper instead of some fickle, cruel historian who gives guidance in the form of riddles and clues. I appreciate the refusal to insult a player's intelligence with kindergarten quests — tasks that involve no thought and instead only sight (see that glowing spot on the floor? it's a clue) and a little dexterity (click, click, click) — but there needs to be balance between dumb clicking and tedious searching.
I couldn't get into any co-op games or start one of my own, but this promises to be an interesting and viable option to play the narrative. The aforementioned inventive mechanic is co-op dialogue in which both players get to choose dialogue options and thus roleplay together. This is the kind of innovation that could enliven the genre. Even when alone, however, a player can still select different types of responses for the two protagonists. There aren't many dialogue options (usually only two), but apart from applying some customization to the story, they increase traits like independence and boldness that in turn increase stats and attributes.
Divinity: Original Sin is getting there. It's approaching the territory of the grand old CRPG adventures, but it has considerable distance yet to travel. That it's doing some of that journeying on Steam Early Access is probably for the best, as gamers can give the developers plenty of additional work. Thus far, the combat is sluggish and clumsy: spell targeting in particular needs adjustment to remove those instances of accidental self slaughter. Navigation, questing, and map markers need to be properly programmed, and the opening area needs considerable balance. When I gave up in frustration on the murder investigation and wandered out of town, I was beaten at every turn by enemy squadrons that discouraged exploration. Amid the admittedly disheartening flaws, there is a lovingly crafted world rich with detail and personality, but it will take time for it to come to light. For now, it glimmers.
The alpha version of Divinity: Original Sin opens with the disclaimer that the game isn't "stable, optimized or balanced, but it is fun." Even beta tests can be buggy, unstable, and messy (not to mention full, final releases) so that the alpha version of Divinity is all those things and more isn't a surprise, but that disclaimer is still overly optimistic. Only if you want to be part of Divinity's development cycle should you purchase the game now. All others can wait to see if there's real magic here.
"The environments are heavily interactive, and it's important to effectively use anything that's not nailed down to your advantage."
Larian Studios is very proud of the world they've created for the Divinity series, and they have two games in the works that flesh the world out even further. One is a fun-looking RTS game called Divinity: Dragon Commander (due out Q1 2013) and the other is an action RPG called Divinity: Original Sin. Divinity: Original Sin takes place prior to Divine Divinity and Divinity: Dragon Commander takes place in an earlier era than Origins.
Divinity: Original Sin takes place in a steampunk world featuring magic and technology. The two main characters, out of four playable, are a tortured male warrior and a resurrected female mystic whose stories seem divergent but eventually overlap. The game is playable in both single-player and drop in/drop out multiplayer mode. In single player mode, the player controls the entire party of 4 and in multiplayer, each player controls one of the four characters.
A key component to the story and gameplay is the orcish Source Magic the aforementioned heroes use. This magic draws upon the elements of the world and can affect terrain. For example, using rain magic can make the ground slippery to move on, giving you an advantage in battle. A really cool use of the Source Magic I saw was in a boss battle against a giant robot. While he was charging a special attack, one character used water magic to expand a nearby puddle so the robot was standing in water. Another character's electricity spell electrified the puddle, effectively stunning the robot. There is also friendly fire in the game, so when one player was on fire, another used rain magic to put the blaze out.
As with prior Divinity games, the environments are heavily interactive, and it's important to effectively use anything that's not nailed down to your advantage. For example, barrels of oil. They will explode when struck with fire, but if struck with a normal weapon, they'll create an oil slick. This lends a point-and-click puzzle-solving aspect to the combat. Speaking of point-and-click, items can be combined in that style in the menus. For example, combining a poisonous mushroom with a sword creates a poison sword.
Unlike prior Divinity games, the combat is turn based, and each player has a number of action points to use when taking actions. This is why using the environment to your advantage is so important, because moving an oil barrel to the right place and setting it off uses fewer action points than a straight up assault.
The snippet of storyline we got was of the warrior and mystic looking for Robert, a wollock (an anthropomorphic lobster/fiddler crab style creature) who resurrects zombies and fits them out with technological enhancements. His modus operandi is to assume a human form, seduce women, then duck out and leave a "suicide bomber" zombie with a huge bomb on its back to kill the woman so he can resurrect her and use her for his own means.
The heroes find the house of a woman who recently interacted with Robert, but a "suicide bomber" is holding her hostage and threatens to explode. The closest character to the bomber is presented with a dialogue tree wherein he can either call the bomber's bluff (which will make him explode, leaving you to find a new lead) or talk him down and save the girl. Unlike the average RPG, this NPC you just saved does not appreciate heroes rifling through her drawers or chests, but while one player is interacting with her, another player can try to steal stuff from her house while her back is turned.
All four characters have dialogue trees, so even during the bomber extraction sequence, the second player could go along with the first player's dialogue decision or make a different one. The dialogue choices between characters affects their relationships, and it's cool that every player gets dialogue options, not just the leader. The way you pump your stats into characters affects the dialogue options they get. There are even moments where the enemy may engage the characters in conversation, and there is a possibility of talking one's way out of battle.
But if all that isn't enough, Larian plans to ship their level editor with the game so that players can build their own additions to the world and script their own quests. Larian boasts that the level editor players receive is the same one they use.
Divinity: Original Sin is slated for a Q2 2013 release.