Divinity: Original Sin 2

Although this game has a reputation for having a wacky Discworld-esque tone, the overarching plot goes to some dark and heavy places. The path to divinity is covered in blood – gaining and maintaining power necessarily involves war and murder on a grand scale. The game’s bad guys do terrible things, but it’s all in the cause of averting even more terrible things from happening. There are no good options really. To govern is to choose between horrors. 

The original sin of the title does not refer to the burden humanity lives with for disobeying god. The gods are the original sinners, destroying their own race to acquire power and worshippers. The creation of different creatures in their image is not an act of benevolence, but selfishness. Our souls are food. We are farmed animals with the illusion of freedom. The game sets you up to escape this false consciousness and follow in these footsteps to godhood. And it has you killing things every step of the way.

Combat really is integral to the game – there aren’t many peaceful options like in other RPGs. Thankfully combat is the USP of DOS2. Things like elevation, positioning, environmental effects and objects on the map significantly affect each encounter. Winning a fight isn’t just down to the items and abilities you use, but how these interact with elements in the arena. The range of options and tactical possibilities are extraordinary, and pretty daunting when you are starting out. But DOS2 rewards you for understanding its systems and figuring out its exploits.

Although the combat borrows ideas from immersive sims (barrels of various dangerous materials you can move around and blow up, for example), the game is not actually that immersive. Where the developers had to choose between realism and keeping the play as engaging and challenging as possible, they pick the latter. For most people, that's probably the correct choice, but it does make the artifice very apparent, and for me that has downsides. 

The best example is the way the game maintains its difficulty curve all the way through its runtime. Most RPGs get easier as the player amasses more experience and better items. The more side quests you do, the more overpowered you become. In DOS2 on normal difficulty, you have to go everywhere and fight pretty much everything in order to get enough experience and levels to keep up with your enemies, and if you’re not a completionist like I am you will fall behind. Thankfully the fighting is never dull and most of the storytelling is not embarrassing. But it's still a pretty relentless XP farming treadmill to have to keep on. In fairness to the developers, the explorer difficulty setting seems to be designed for players who prefer to have that more traditional RPG experience, where you can pick and choose what you do and still make it through the game.

A more prevalent point of dissonance is equipment, which is assigned a level and gradually loses its utility as you encounter stronger enemies. If you’re not constantly upgrading, again, you will fall behind. Although there is a slight justification for the low-level items at the beginning and the OP ones at the end (you start off in a prison and end up in the literal city of god) it doesn’t really hold together. There’s no reason why Orivand’s mace should be so much weaker than Lothar’s hammer. It just is because it’s in Act 1. In a more freeform RPG like Fallout 2 the journey from periphery to centre makes the shift from pistols to laser weapons feel more consonant.

Those older games also provide opportunities to sequence break and acquire awesome loot early. In Baldur’s Gate you can get the best long sword in the game outside the first dungeon. It’s a tough fight and you have to throw everything at it, but the treasure you get as the reward is very satisfying. In DOS2 every bit of loot you find has an expiration date, which devalues the satisfaction you get in acquiring it. I actually kept the level 2 Gloves of Teleportation on Fane all the way through to the final fight, but I really shouldn’t have. The game doesn't encourage a sentimental attitude to your stuff. To be fair, again the developers seem to have thought about this and added an optional mod allowing existing items to be upgraded for a price, which would significantly reduce the amount of inventory management required to keep your party battle-ready. 

Rivellon itself never feels like a coherent place in the way that the Sword Coast or the Fallout universe does, where the player is a small part of a big world with its own dynamics and developments. DOS2 trades in the more traditional linear hero's journey narrative for a tangle of storylines akin to something like Game of Thrones, where your party turns out to be at the centre of every web of intrigue. You don't exist in the world, the world exists for you.

It's a big game, with so many plot strands to pursue that it becomes a struggle to really care about any one of them. Characters like the Shadow Prince, who would be the overall villains in a different game, are met and dispatched very quickly and are used to tie together several arcs in quite an artificial way. With so much stuff happening, the individual story beats lose their impact, even though most are actually well-written. Sebille's romance is unexpectedly sweet. She ends up trusting you enough to teach you the magic that turns her into a slave – an apt metaphor for how love is about being comfortable with your vulnerabilities around another person. Lohse's quest to rid herself of the demon in her head has well-observed overtones of an abusive relationship. And Fane's resolve to document the world with a sense of wonder unavailable to its inhabitants is quite touching.

All of these moments are buried under an avalanche of game-spanning narratives involving a heap of not very distinctive factions, all of whom – elves, dwarves, lizards, magisters – are planning or committing atrocities of one kind or another. By the time you get to the ending slides, it's difficult to care about the fates of these people or places, whereas in a good Fallout game that would be one of the highlights. The politics of this world is just great power competition, which you can put a stop to in order to fight an extra-dimensional Satan figure. The choices are not very interesting, and neither are the results. The game doesn't really pass judgement on your actions. It's for you to reflect on the power you've gained, and whether the mayhem and murder along the way was worth it.

All of this nitpickery is an attempt to justify why I've not fallen head over heels for a CRPG that by general consensus is one of the best things to play right now. Because the play really is exceptional. A DOS2 fight is more stimulating than the complicated rock-paper-scissors nature of a Baldur's Gate 2 encounter – which at higher levels is just about buffing, debuffing and countering the enemy's immunities. Encounter design in DOS2 is better than anything else out there. The variety never lets up, and while there are duds (those respawning necrofire lizards in Act 4 are a pain), generally every battle is a new puzzle that's a joy to solve. And yet ultimately I still care more about the fate of the world in Fallout and my character's story in Baldur's Gate. Those games are intellectually and emotionally richer than DOS2, where the writing is serviceable and mostly serves to get you to the next brilliant bit of combat.

No comments:

Post a Comment