Multiplayer RPGs. It’s a tough nut to crack when it comes to writing out my thoughts for them. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a conspicuous absence of any review of Divinity: Original Sin (the first one) despite the fact that I gave it my game of the year for 2014. This is because I find myself struggling occasionally to decide whether I loved the game quite so much because I loved the gameplay and story and characters, or whether the enjoyment stemmed from the fact that I was experiencing said gameplay, story and characters with Tim.
Multiplayer can be somewhat insidious like that. Just this year I’ve been playing Destiny 2 with Tim and you know what, I had a ball with it but I know for damn sure that if I were playing it alone I’d be bored stiff in fairly short order (yes, yes, the gunplay is as excellent as ever, but I digress).
Thus when it comes to Divinity 2, despite that it won my GotY for 2017, part of me wonders how much of this was due to it being multiplayer. I played the entirety of the game, over 80 hours of playtime, with Tim and Tim’s flatmate and loved pretty much every second of it. The question remains then whether I would have enjoyed it as much if I had played it on my own. Well, I have added it (along with Witcher 3 and Prey) to the list of games I wish to replay and if I ever actually manage to do so on my own, I will come back and update this. For now, I will review it as best I can from my current perspective. And that perspective is the one which says that it absolutely deserved to be my Game of the Year.
One of the easiest ways of showing just how much I enjoyed the game is in my reaction to completing it. Upon the completion of 80+ hours of play, we all sat back in our respective chairs and asked “well NOW what are we supposed to do?” It had that feeling of finishing a good book, and our lives were that much emptier now that it was no longer occupying a portion of our time and attention. Seriously, the next two Tuesday nights we would come online and spend time basically just trying to find something to fill that hole.
Briefly, for those of you not in the know: D:OS2 is an isometric multiplayer RPG in which you form a party of up to four characters (who now can ALL be other players) venture forth into the world from humble beginnings to become the Chosen Heroes of the Gods. It’s a fantasy RPG with magic, dragons, swords and all of the trappings of that in which you can play as a human, dwarf, elf or lizard or an undead version of all four of those.
The game follows on in some ways from the first Divinity: Original Sin, characters from the first game make appearances and the universe operates in the same way, although now the focus has shifted somewhat. The game centres around the misuse of Source, a form of magical energy which can be used by Sourcerors, an ability they are born with and reviled for. Now though, the use of Source is disrupting the natural barriers of the world with that of the Void, and so the world is in a war with the monstrous Voidwoken. One attempt to prevent this destruction of the world is by the Magisters, a group of zealots who attempt to corral and shackle all Sourcerors onto an island and remove the Source from them forcibly (saying that the Voidwoken only attempt to enter our world when attracted by Source). It is on this island that the game plonks you at the start and from escaping the island the game evolves to the beginnings of a revolution and a war against the Magisters, saving the world from the Voidwoken, all while trying to solve the mysteries of the Voidwoken’s existence and several large conspiracies at which the Magisters are the centre of.
There is a epic scope and intricacy in the world-building of Divinity, from the knowledge of Lucian the Divine (a Sourceror who essentially became a God capable of holding back the Voidwoken) and the existence of the far-flung Lizard Empire to the smaller things, like Elves who eat the flesh of their own species at their death in order to relive their memories, all of which I love. However, I will admit to finding it difficult internally to draw the line between the use of “Source” and “Magic”. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s ever actually explained adequately for me. Is all magic Source? Or just a specific sort of magic? For example, a character’s Source points are not used for casting fireballs and so-on and is instead only utilised in the really big spells. But what is the difference there? Where is the distinction? Does a fireball become a Source spell just if it becomes a reaaally big fireball? Or is all magic Sourcery but when it comes to the smaller spells you are only using a small amount of Source and as such it isn’t tracked?
Beyond this one aspect of confusion, it’s a world which has been beautifully crafted and is utterly compelling and rich. Already I’ve provided a few examples which have both real and imagined consequences in the game. The mechanic of reliving memories via consuming the flesh of the dead is particularly excellent because it adds a whole new dimension to solving puzzles and finding clues. For instance, eating the arm of the bandits who just ambushed you might lead you to find their buried treasure for your party. You can also interact with the ghosts of many NPCs, including those you kill, to draw more secrets and interesting lore from them. This is on top of the absolutely fabulous stuff already present from the first game, like the Pet Pal perk which allows you to converse with animals, adding so many layers and dimensions to the game that it just becomes almost overwhelming.
Incidentally, the undead aspect of this is another new element which again adds layers to the game. You are encouraged to not choose undead on your first playthrough because everyone will react badly to you while all healing spells now damage you instead. However you can cut off people’s faces and use them as disguises… So there’s that!
This actually allows me to segue into something else I also struggle with a little in terms of style, but this is simply a personal issue rather than one with the game. I become almost a little paralysed with indecision due to the amount of choice one has in exploring and progressing through the game. It’s a somewhat famous selling point that there are at least half a dozen methods of escaping Fort Joy at the start of the game, some of them bloodless and some of them involving the slaughter of many. It all just depends on your play-style and how much loot you want.
At the same time, I often wonder how many of these broad variety of choices are ever actually utilised. This is particularly if one plays as we did, in which we were playing roleplaying a character to a degree but were primarily playing the game as if it were a game (that sounds silly but let me explain). We wanted to see everything, complete every quest, get every item, we didn’t want to miss anything (which at least once led us to actually breaking the game because we were determined to not leave anything). So that limited our choices in leaving Fort Joy (and in every interaction afterwards) for fear of missing things. Sure we could try and sneak out, but there’s all this loot and things going on in the Magister headquarters… Even after sneaking out we should still go back in and slaughter everyone in order to listen in. And looking back on it, I do wonder how much I would have done differently had I been alone.
It’s the sort of thing where I imagine those who will get the most out of it will be people who can really get into the roleplaying aspect. If you are the sort who will play through an RPG in multiple ways, trying to get into the mindset of a different person each time, deliberately playing with different alignments and different affinities, then D:OS2 is a paradise for you.
Of course, given just how many choices and quests and characters there are in the game, no playthrough will ever be alike, so there’s certainly plenty of replayability at hand, even for those who simply want to get all the lootz for the slootz.
Questing in the game can be a bit of a bitch actually. I would have killed for a slightly more interactive quest log and quest markers on the map. It has a bad tendency to give you a marker for a quest and then leave that there long after you have completed it. Equally you will regularly reach a point in a quest where it will say “And then I did the thing.” There will be an air of finality to that last statement, suggesting the quest is complete. And yet it will stay open in your log. This is one of the things which constantly preyed at my mind in the game. Sometimes this meant that there were other facets of the quest yet to be discovered wherever you were, but some of these missions actually only “complete” whenever you finished a chapter of the game, staying open until you left the area for the last time.
For a completionist like me, the very thought of leaving something behind unfinished just constantly grated on my nerves, so that was an aspect I didn’t like. I also think that very often the game could perhaps be a bit more lenient in providing clues and directions in where to go. A prime example would be a quest we had in the second (and largest) area of the game. The three of us had completed every single quest we could in our log but a few were eluding us. One in particular relied upon us finding a specific book in a specific area and we spent well over an hour pouring through the area and then every single book in our inventories until finally the quest progressed. And this was AFTER we Googled a guide to tell us what to look for. And also in spite of the fact that what the book contained was simply confirmation of something our characters would already have known.
Another example is in the final city of the game. A wedding is taking place which actually seems to have very little impact on the game and seems to be just a side-show to provide some flavour. Actually there is a way of activating a quest for it if you go to the house of the groom and move some flower pots in a specific order or something. And you are supposed to just DO this on your own I guess… I shit you not.
Listen Larian, we get that you are a bunch of very clever devs wanting to provide as many layers of intrigue and excitement for your players as possible… BUT a bit of indication for where to go in a great many of the quests would not have gone amiss.
Also, there were one or two quests which frustrate me on a purely mechanical level. One or two required that you have access to a party character with a certain set of traits, some of which could only be selected at the very start of the game. Without this very specific mashup of traits it’s literally not possible to complete some quests. While, again, this might make sense from a “realism” perspective, it’s simply annoying from a gameplay perspective that there would be absolutely no alternative routes for completing it.
With all of the above in mind, I loved the adventuring in the game. Questing felt both effortless and casual whilst still holding that above-all important trait of being meaningful. The quests felt important and exciting and like you were making a difference for your characters or in the world, like you were making progress. But half of the time you actually progressed through the quests simply by exploring through your world. You would get a quest to go to the other side of the map to do a thing and completely forget about it and then end up doing the thing simply because you wanted to do the thing and now you get some bonus experience for it and some lovely-jubbly story. Wonderful.
Interacting with the oh-so-many characters of varying importance was also a great pleasure. And surprisingly was actually not really overly hindered by the fact that we were playing multiplayer. One of the biggest issues I worried about with the game was that Tim has a bad habit of skipping through dialogue and cut-scenes, wanting to get to the next fight as quickly as possible and I worried this would mean I would miss out on important and interesting stuff. But for the most part it actually just worked out really well. I think it helps that the deeper we got into the game even he became immersed in the story we were being told and so he too would like to actually listen to all the various strings of dialogue, all wonderfully voice-acted.
Speaking of characters and voice-acting. While, the three of us players all created a unique character for our game, you actually also have the option of around eight “story” characters to play as. These are characters who have their own back-story written into the game and who also all play parts of varying importance in a number of different stories which occur throughout the game. If you were playing alone this would mean the possibility of having four distinct and already pre-written characters in your party (while it isn’t possible to change their personalities, it is possible to build them pretty much however you like).
These characters provide some of the absolute best parts of the game. Admittedly some of them are stronger than others from a story perspective. For instance, one or two actually play an extremely important part in the overarching story of the game and can give you completely unique endings because of this and as such these are some of the most important characters. Then there are one or two whose stories seem to be primarily diversions of little interest.
On our playthrough, our party of the fire-slinging, demon summoning lizard wizard Luhka (me), the hamstringing, backstabbing human rogue Timus (Tim) and the all-healing, lightning-calling, tankiest elf alive Celebrimbor (Tim’s flatmate) were joined by the Red Prince. I was given control of our fourth party member and he provided me with some of the best moments in the entire game. From winning him over as a personal friend of my character, to helping him make decisions about the direction he would take the Lizard Empire in when he returned and was rightfully restored to the throne. He was also constantly and consistently funny, making me and the others burst out laughing with some of his arrogant and self-righteous words, but equally making us genuinely cheer him on whenever he said something supportive of us (because trust me, when he said some supportive it felt like we’d earned it!).
In fact even just developing the relationships with the various characters is a reward in its own right. Each one starts off with a certain point of view and specific goals and ideals, but you can actually mould them and shape them as people depending on how close they become with your main character and how you have helped them on their respective journeys. It’s just… It’s just really, really fucking good.
There is a potential barrier of entry for Divinity which I also noticed in the first game. At the start you will have access to only a couple of abilities and spells. This won’t really expand for a good few levels as you get to grips with where you are and explore and start finally earning money (as new spells and abilities usually need to be bought as books in order to be learned). This means that much of the early fights can become extremely frustrating and even a bit repetitive. It can feel like you are doing exactly the same thing in every fight, and you can often feel quite restrained by your lack of options which can actually prevent you from even being capable of winning some fights.
While initially frustrating, this set-up is rewarded as you can progress and learn an extremely broad variety of spells and combinations of abilities that culminate in extremely powerful end-game characters. You can build your party members in any way you want and the number of things you can actually end up learning and doing is really pretty excellent.
Thus, once you have more than one or two new abilities under your belt, the combat of the game can become really genuinely excellent. Just like the first, it’s tactical as hell. Positioning your guys at the start is of the utmost importance. Height gives damage advantages, rogues get damage bonuses for backstabs. It’s possible to get the jump on enemies by sneaking up on them, and it’s also possible to buff yourself and your party before jumping into the fight, and also actually possible to use conversations and the like to your advantage to provide further help in setting up. If you can avoid detection you can sneak right into the middle of fights already taking place and get a few free hits onto someone important as well. Not to mention all the variety of surfaces which can provide buffs and debuffs and block line of sight or simply do straight damage. There’s always a LOT to consider. And it’s GREAT.
I actually have heard that some criticism of the combat because of the armour system. Every character has their health but also magic and physical armour (which block magical and physical attacks). Some enemies will have lots of one but not much of the other, some have lots of both, some have lots of one but none of the other. Now I have heard some say that this means that you are forced to only select one type of damage in your group. Going half magical and half physical damage means you are splitting your damage between the armours of your enemies before you even can get to their health. And it is an argument I vaguely understand, for instance it would happen more than once that we would end up fighting enemies with no physical armour who Tim would be happily wailing on and killing, meanwhile I would be sitting back and pointlessly destroying their magic armour, doing nothing to their health.
However, I also disagree with the overall conclusion of this argument. In my opinion, the armour system actually encourages diversifying and spreading yourself between different armour types. As the game goes on you will encounter enemies for whom it is necessary you have some magic damage or some physical damage. It is important to be aware that some debuffs are blocked by one but not the other, and it can help in building your characters so that everyone has a role to play. And then when you get into the fight it is equally important that everyone focuses on the task that is most suited to them. It simply adds to the complexity.
In my mind there were two aspects of the combat which actually could be a bit frustrating. First, by the end of the second chapter and map, which is essentially half-way through the game, you will now be quite close to your final builds of your characters. If you’ve been doing everything you will also be extremely overlevelled and find that most of the fights in the subsequent areas are actually a complete breeze. Destroying your foes becomes way too easy. To compensate for this, in the last section of the game Larian seemed to realise that they needed to escalate things. Unfortunately they did this in a very unsatisfying way by instead of making BIGGER and BADDER fights, they made them more infuriating. More than one of the toughest end-game fights (and I mean, real genuine end-game) were made so because all of your characters begin the fight clustered together on one spot, absolutely negating an entire game’s worth of learning how to carefully position yourselves. A few of these fights also involved a few unclear rules which took a very long time to figure out, without actually adding to the danger of the fight and instead simply making them annoying.
Actually, if there was ever an aspect of the game which left a bad taste in my mouth (and you can ignore all my other niggles, because they really ARE only niggles) it’s the ending of the game. The fights weren’t ever quiiiite as exciting as I would have hoped. There wasn’t really that proper sense of escalation that I think was necessary (no massive armies for instance). The climax of the story also annoyed me on a personal level because it was a bit too open and a bit too “there is no right answer” for me. I like there to be answers to things. I like conclusions and closure, and I just don’t feel like I was given quite what I needed.
With this in mind, I think that some of the best moments, both story-wise and combat-wise actually happened in the middle of the game. This is not to say that everything beyond the middle is terrible, far from it, it remained compelling, exciting and pretty-much brilliant up until the credits rolled, but I also don’t think the final hours ever quite matched the highs of the mid-points.
One particular bit which stands out in my mind is a fight which took place in an oil-field. You stumble into the area where there are a few Magister soldiers who take ire with your presence. However, beginning this fight prompts a bunch of oil voidlings to spawn out of the nether, joining the fight and complicating matters. Then another bunch. Naturally, you keep things under control for the first wave as the voidlings and Magisters square off against each other. The second wave includes some big-ass baddies, so it’s time to bring out the big guns. And because MY big-guns involved setting fire to things… In an area filled with oil… Well, the amount of fire which filled the screen might’ve made an arsonist tell me to take it easy. I was having a great time. And then a bunch of fire immune voidlings spawn into the middle of the greatest inferno in the history of the continent and suddenly everything is out of control VERY VERY badly. I mean, just because I can set things on fire doesn’t mean fire doesn’t burn me. And these things get healed by the fucking fire, which is LITERALLY EVERYWHERE.
It was fucking amazing. I’ll remember that fight for years.
Story-wise I think it was pretty great, I also think that it’s something where there is so much depth to it that you could keep replaying it and keep finding new angles to examine it from, new bits and pieces of background to slot into place to build up the overall “story”. I also think that you can really get by with only the barest understanding of what’s going on around you, like a trio of adventurers who are really only here because they want fame and riches. It also ties in to that “meaningful” bit I mentioned earlier. The all-important immersion of the game is added-to because every single quest and side quests feels like it is genuinely worth doing and exploring, not just for the monetary gain, but also for what it adds to the world.
Having said this, playing with friends can often kill the most emotive of moments in a game. For all that there were quite a few moments of genuine laughter and one or two of anger, or excitement or even revelation as we finally worked out what was going on, some of the subtler aspects of emotion never really work in a setting like this. For all that there were tales which could have been tragic, none of them ever really tugged at the heart-strings and there was never any moment that felt properly sombre or disquieting. I think that’s just one of the simple disadvantages of multiplayer, that it’s harder to feel these more subtle emotions while one of your friends is stacking barrels and corpses off in the corner.
For what its worth, the multiplayer is also extremely satisfying to use. It never felt like it held me back from exploring the game and the story at my own pace and it also allowed me to work my way through an intricate and detailed world with my buddies. Plus it meant we were throwing more minds at the tactical combat. In short, it was pretty awesome.
Having said this, we did not have the best of times with the multiplayer set-up. I’ve examined forums and spoken to others who have played it and honestly we seem to be fairly rare in this regard, but we also had a rather unique set-up. I was playing along with Tim on our respective rigs, but then we also had Tim’s flatmate playing locally along with Tim. First of all, every impression I got said that setting up Divinity with the controllers was a nightmare. It became a practised nightmare as the sessions wore on, but a nightmare nonetheless. We also experienced constant and regular crashes, and I think it was the local multiplayer which was letting us down there (as Tim was hosting). Specifically we would always have to remember to save before going through a point of no-return to the next area, because inevitably the first attempt would always crash the game. I know that this is less an issue with the game and more one specific to us, but given that it happened so regularly, I can’t help that it has somewhat affected my overall opinion.
This same overall opinion though is a positive one. A deeply positive one. I think the game has its flaws, occasionally fairly gaping ones actually. Flaws, which prevent it from taking a place amongst the true favourite RPGs of mine. However it was an absolute joy to play and one of the few RPGs that I personally feel is well worth replaying, alone or with friends.