How quickly our favor turns; praise transformed to bitterness and curses. Had you asked me two weeks ago what I thought of Divinity: Original Sin, I would have said it is a brilliant, frustrating, difficult, wonderful game. All those things might be true, but if asked again today, I’d add that it’s an unbalanced, tedious, and repetitive game as well. Original Sin’s second half diminishes all that is great about the game while aggravating its flaws. And yet there’s just so much to love about Larian’s Kickstarter success that I can’t help but want to start all over again.
Original Sin’s flaws are there in the beginning, but they’re not as apparent, like the imperfections of a lover during the early infatuation phase. I was too distracted by what the game does right to notice all that it does wrong. Too few games give us a world in which we can truly play, but Original Sin does just that. The brilliant execution of hands-off game design philosophy — the fanciful freedom to do it your way, explore, experiment, and play — has an almost poetic quality to it: gamers will still be talking about this game at the end of the year and into the next. The world is yours to wander, destroy, and crack open, see what’s inside. Nearly every object can be picked up, thrown, used, crafted, or consumed. Each problem — how to get a key out of a pool of lava, how to overcome the next boss battle despite a chaotic elemental landscape, how to talk or steal or cheat your way through conversation — can be solved numerous ways. The reward is in the accomplishment, doing it your way. Sure, there’s probably experience points or gold or loot, but the real treasure is finally beating that seemingly impossible enemy because of your own ingenuity and imagination.
Initially, Original Sin feels limitless and unpredictable. Almost anything could happen. An imp might appear from nowhere and take you to another realm. There’s the feeling, early on, of secrets everywhere yet to be revealed and that special tingle of having an entire game full of discoveries ahead of you. It’s joy. The main mechanics, navigation, and combat function surprisingly well, with all the finesse of a AAA RPG. This is a mechanically sound game, despite how complicated it is, and I encountered very few bugs for such a sprawling adventure. Combat is fast despite its turn-based nature, and each encounter is an experiment in environmental devastation and elemental affinity. The dialogue is sharp and clear and amusing. Everything looks crisp and colorful, and the soundtrack is lively and impressive. Original Sin is a toybox, a treasure chest, an attic full of adventure and mystery.
But there are cockroaches in the cracks and spiders spinning orbs in the corners. Floorboards creak, break, your leg falls through. Original Sin’s charm wears thin around the halfway mark, about twenty or thirty hours along the game’s massive main quest. Its enchanting perfume wafts away. Infatuation is over, and you’re left with all the flaws and asked to take it or leave it.
Original Sin changes in all the wrong ways as it carries on. Some things never change, and what was once an unpredictable and wild adventure becomes patterned and repetitive. Even the game’s humor and style of storytelling become wearying. Worse yet, mid to late game combat is astonishingly easy on the normal difficulty setting and the frequency of combat increases, as if the developers ran out of other ideas. I started to do stupid and strange things in battle just to make it more interesting. As I became more aware of the game’s building blocks — the four elements, pixel hunt puzzles, demons and undead — I felt my wonder draw back.
I also became more aware in the second half of a few poor design decisions. Classes, abilities, and talents are poorly balanced: some are nigh useless while others make certain characters almost unstoppable. The interface is tedious for the amount of inventory management required. And the story becomes yet another tale of nihilism as villainy, salvation through destruction. I found most of the side quests enjoyable, but the main quest bored me at every turn. The plot is playful when it’s not striving to fulfill the requirements of epic fantasy, but it lacks emotional potency and strong characters.
Even the environments become dingy and blood soaked: depressing gaseous fens and temples of death. Everything really falls down a hill. But so much of the game is colorful and cheerful and fun. There were times when I wanted nothing more than to play the game for hours and hours. The game’s opaque and unfamiliar mechanics made me a kid again, if only temporarily. I was in wonder, as if I were playing Baldur’s Gate II again without ever having heard of Dungeons & Dragons.
Starting a new game with fellow editor Stephen Meyerink in co-op mode made me wish I had been playing that way all along. It’s a smooth and elegant system that allows for all the freedom and chaos of single player. While Stephen went about town stealing, selling, and looking for new spells and equipment, I picked fights, ended up in jail, and killed Murphy the dog, only to have the guards harangue me for the little murder. In conversation, players can roleplay. Each player controls one of the two main characters and they can agree, disagree, and even argue if the players so desire. There are only ever two choices, however, for every situation, each leaning toward one end or the other on a spectrum for parameters like Pragmatic/Romantic and Bold/Cautious. It’s a phenomenal idea executed timidly, and the Rock/Paper/Scissors mini-game used to settle disputes is silly and poorly implemented. The only other drawback from playing the game co-op start to finish is the added down time while your partner takes his or her turn. Just bring a snack or a glass of wine.
Divinity: Original Sin will test your patience, skill, and the limits of your love for flawed creations. If you can get past the brutally difficult and mechanically confusing opening, you’ll find a rewarding experience created in the tradition of old computer RPGs. One that, for all its wonders, manages to be maddening at times and soporific at others. If you’re tired of hand holding and exclamation points above NPC heads, if you want a challenge, if you grew up playing classic computer RPGs and haven’t been properly sated in years, you might find a new addiction with Original Sin. Just be warned that its enchantment grows dim at times, though any brush with wonder is worthwhile.