A common line of thinking among modern video game fans goes something like this: Games have gotten dumber. Simpler. Game developers are sanding off the weird edges, dialling back the stats, making everything controller-friendly and aiming for the lowest common denominator. But if that's true, how do games like Divinity: Original Sin exist?
Check the Steam top sellers' list this week and you'll see Belgian game developer Larian Studios' role-playing game in the number one spot, where it has comfortably sat since the game came out on Tuesday. I've played a good five or six hours, and have been very much enjoying myself. In fact, it's getting to the point that I'm starting to feel like I'm living in an amazing alternate reality where game developers never stopped making hardcore CRPGs and in fact had spent the last 20 years hard at work coming up with cool new ideas for them.
It's not as though Original Sin came out of nowhere, of course. It's been on Steam Early Access for a good long while now, and a month or so ago I actually played through the opening tutorial and explored the town near the beginning. Our own Mike Fahey had played the game even before that, when Larian was still running their phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign.
Reading the Kickstarter pitch was enticing: A classic CRPG like the ones I grew up with, with modern graphics and an innovative co-op roleplaying system! A full toolkit for people to build their own RPG campaigns! Little bags in your inventory that open up in separate little bag screens that you can move around and organise! For a certain sort of gamer, that sounds like just about the greatest thing.
Larian's launch trailer is equally exciting:
I spent countless hours of my early teenhood playing and eventually beating Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle. I still remember how impossibly detailed that world felt, how you could walk around and pick up anything, how it always seemed like Iolo was hungrier than everyone else and I'd have to keep this bag of bread and meat just for stupid Iolo, because he was such a hungry whiner. How I got a full set of magical armour and it glowed on the outside and I felt so cool because I'd somehow managed to find this armour amid the other ten thousand things lying around in the world.
So when I saw Larian's Sven Vincke saying the name "Ultima VII" over and over to Rock, Paper Shotgun, I was immediately interested. Tons of stuff to collect? A party to recruit and maintain? A story that starts off with a murder mystery? Could this game really scratch that same itch?
Turns out: Yes, it can. Not only that, but it can scratch a whole bunch of other itches I didn't even know I had.
Well, wait, ew, that sounds gross. What I'm saying is, this game is good. After a handful of hours with the game, here are some impressions:
At first I thought it was going to be boring and rote...
The opening lore-crawl of Divinity: Original Sin is pretty goofy. Magic is called "source" and so sorcerers are called "Sourcerers."
My initial thought was that this would be another fantasy RPG that looks appealing but presents a charmless world that eventually loses my interest.
...but it is actually very interesting.
Turns out, nope, not the case. At least, not the case yet. Everything I've encountered so far in Original Sin is more interesting than I thought it would be.The lore is all still pretty lore-y, but the more I play the more self-aware the writing is, which makes the lore-pill a lot easier to swallow.
But what's really interesting is how you play it. For starters, the game can be played in single-player or in co-op; I've been opting for single-player, though even then you control two protagonists. The two-player RPG design is fascinating.
I just finished reading the third book in Scott Lynch's terrific Gentlemen Bastards fantasy series, and so I've named my protagonists Locke and Sabetha.
She's a readheaded warrior mage who leads with poise and authority, while he's a brown-haired ranger who follows her lead even as he's sometimes got ideas of his own. What's nice is, I'm not actually stuck with any real character "class" - I can choose any abilities I'd like for the characters as I level up. The starting attributes are really just sort of suggested builds, and you can tweak them however you want.
Stats are all well and good, but what about dialogue trees? What's remarkable is, in single-player, you actually get to role-play both characters. Early on the game, we met a clam who wanted us to throw him out to sea. Locke and Sabetha disagreed on what to do with him, which instituted a dialogue where I got to role-play both sides of their argument. In co-op, each player would argue with the other one.
Later in town, we met a mage who wanted to join our party. His only condition: That we foreswear any allegiance to any sort of demon. Obviously that could be a problem down the road, but while Sabetha enthusiastically agreed, I decided that Locke had some doubts. He and Sabetha tried to hash it out, but eventually settled the decision with a game of rock, paper scissors. Even that doesn't entirely come down to luck, though - players with a high charisma stat get a bonus in RPS, meaning that they're more likely to get their way. And of course, it seems like every decision we make will have consequences down the road.
Here's the thing to remember: This is all playable by two people in co-op. I'm having a blast role-playing Locke and Sabetha as characters that sometimes bicker and disagree, but ultimately respect one another. But the fact that I could play this entire game with another human and role-play that way... it sounds amazing, and I can't wait to see how it works.
Co-op roleplaying is just one example of how surprising and interesting Divinity: Original Sin is. I was expecting a throwback to the classic CRPGs of the 90s, and while the game certainly is that, it also presents a bunch of its own original ideas.
It's goofy, in a good way.
You know what? People are kinda goofs. People who play video games are also goofy. We like goofy stuff, because goofy is usually fun. Do fantasy tales have to be brooding and dark, so concerned with the fate of the universe that they can't crack a smile? Nah.
Divinity: Original Sin is goofy. It's got a kookiness to it that can be clumsy, and sometimes almost accidental, but in the end it's awfully endearing. The dialogue is loaded with overly involved wordplay and funky turns of phrase, and many characters converse almost entirely in puns and doublespeak.
Basically, it has that same dorky charm that we all associate with 90s CRPGs, and even the jokes that don't work still tend to earn affectionate eye-rolls, not annoyed ones. For example: That clam I was talking about before? His name is "Ishmashell."
Granted, there are times when it all gets irritating — it was one thing when a townsperson in Serpent Isle would repeat the same dumb line about cheese over and over, but when you actually have to hear the line spoken out loud, as you do in Original Sin, it's a lot less charming. OK, dude, we get it. You like cheese. Relax.
Overall, though, the game's weirdness is surely a point in its favour. I was expecting a bland fantasy RPG, and I got something much sillier and more appealing.
Combat is challenging and unpredictable.
Original Sin isn't the first of Larian's Divinity games, though it is by their own claim the most ambitious. Mike described their games as "Diablo, only with branching dialogue trees and non-combat skills. So really, almost better than Diablo." Well! That sounds pretty great.
And you know what, it is great. Original Sin is an isometric RPG with a lot of loot to collect and (I'm assuming) a lot of dungeons through which to crawl. From a distance, it looks a bit like Diablo III, though I actually find its brighter aesthetic to be more appealing. But any similarity to Diablo goes away the moment swords are drawn and a fracas gets underway.
Combat in Original Sin is turn-based and tactical, and positioning and environmental factors play a huge part in determining the victor. All of the elements — fire, water, electricity, poison, etc. — interact with one another, as well as with characters. That means that you can break a water barrel to make a huge puddle, then electrocute anyone standing in it for extra damage. Or, an explosive arrow can set off a chain reaction, igniting a cloud in the air and laying waste to a poorly-placed enemy platoon. Characters can be wet if it's raining, dry if it's sunny, warmed by a fire, burning, and plenty of other statuses, and each one affects how they fight, how much damage they're taking, and so on.
Here's an official screenshot from the alpha that's better than any shots I've taken as i've been playing:
The end result is a battle system that feels highly simulated and unpredictable. Take this (amazing!) anecdote from that RPS preview article in which writer Adam Smith and his co-op partner attempt to lure a huge group of high-level orcs into town, hoping that the town guard would deal with them:
Of course, as you already know, it all went horribly wrong. Turns out the guards aren't quite ready to face a mob of orcs and we had to lead them through the town, massacring as they went, to the barracks, where the final surviving guard managed to kill the last of them. It was a bloody disaster and a member of Larian's team, watching over our shoulders, whistled through his teeth: "Nobody has ever done that before."
That's the kind of thing that feels constantly possible in Original Sin. According to the developers, any of the characters in the world can die, and if they die, it will still be possible to complete quests involving them, in a roundabout way. You can move just about any object, reposition it for tactical advantage, or break it open to look for secrets. You can wear a bucket on your head, or turn just about any other random item into an article of clothing.
It's all so surprising and goofy and fun, and it all flows so naturally from the various natural laws and elemental properties that Larian has put in place. The land of Rivellon feels like a real place that makes sense, in its own sometimes silly way. For example...
You can talk to a dog named Murphy.
You can talk to a lot of animals, actually. All you need is an ability called "pet pal," which I of course gave to Sabetha at the first opportunity. I then talked to Murphy, the dog. He had some interesting things to tell me that were helpful with a quest I was undertaking. He was also a total dog about it.
It looks really nice.
It may be old-school in sensibility, but Divinity: Original Sin is still a fine-looking game that takes advantage of the processing power of modern PCs. There does seem to be some technical crustiness going on, as it took me ages tweaking my settings on a fairly beefy new PC to be able to run it smoothly, but now that I've got it cooking along I'm regularly impressed with how lovely it looks.
Just look at that door, man! What a pretty door.
Shadows flicker and lights cast small shadows, and every little object in the world seems to take up space. It often feels like I'm looking down into a little fantasy dollhouse, a living toybox full of characters that move around at my command. Players can leave their party behind freely move the camera around the entire area, peering into houses and taking in the sights. I find myself doing this often, just to watch this beautiful little world in motion.
And I mean, your inventory looks like this:
I don't know about you, but that screenshot makes me get all "Oh man I want to move my mouse around in there." If it does the same thing for you, good news: This is probably your game.
I've only scratched the surface.
I've played five or six hours of Divinity: Original Sin and feel like I've only scratched the surface. And I should say that while I've been mostly positive here, I do still have many unanswered questions: The overarching story seems like pretty bog-standard Chosen One Parallel Dimensions Fantasy stuff, so will the game's goofy charm be able to sustain me through? Will the combat system hold up as I get to higher levels, and will it be as entertaining after twenty hours as it's been so far? How big is this game, and how much is there to do? If it's as big as it seems, will it be able to hold my interest?
Furthermore, I hope that Larian continues to polish the game and eliminate remaining bugs, as my time playing is occasionally hit with strange hiccups and burps in the game, and I'd love it if it performed a bit more consistently on my PC.
I don't know how all that will shake out. But I do know that I plan to spend much of this weekend finding out just how deep this game goes.
Divinity: Original Sin is a rare kind of a thing, a throwback CRPG that conjures equal parts Ultima VII, Neverwinter Nights, and Baldur's Gate while still managing to show up with a bunch of new ideas of its own. It gracefully joins other nouveau-retro RPGs like Wasteland 2 and the upcoming Pillars of Eternity at the vanguard of what I can only hope is a bona-fide CRPG renaissance. I'll almost certainly have more on the game as I continue to play, but for now: I really like it.
How about you? I know some of you are playing; what do you think?