In recent years, western RPGs have seemed eager to embrace the action RPG format, favoring faster, primarily reflex-driven combat. In the face of this trend, Divinity: Original Sin II by Belgian developer Larian Studios shows that modern RPGs don’t have to abandon their old-school roots. The latest installment of the long-running Divinity series, Original Sin II is a turn-based tactical RPG that supports two-to-four player local and online co-op.
Players have the option to choose one of six Origin characters or create a new custom avatar. Each preset character comes with a short introductory cutscene explaining their backstory and setting up their personal questline. While the name, race, and gender of Origin characters are fixed, extensive customization options are available to the player. Players can even select different musical cues for each character. It’s a feature I didn’t know I wanted until I got it.
Origin characters have access to unique dialogue options in conversations. NPCs have different responses depending on which character speaks to them. Creating a custom character opens some additional cosmetic options. However, as fun as being an undead female lizard sounds, it comes at the cost of story content.
Speaking of story, the writing on display is solid. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Fable II in tone, combining a serious story with witty and humorous text and dialogue. The six leads are a mixed bag and a few lean more heavily on archetypes than is ideal. But, all are reasonably well-rounded. I ended up choosing the possessed bard Lohse as my protagonist, a decision I stand by. She and the undead scholar Fane have a habit of taking the scene and running with it.
Players take the role of the Godwoken, magically gifted adventurers in the land of Revellion. Hopefully, one of them will ascend to godhood and save the land from the encroaching horde of demonic Voidwoken.
That is eventually the plot, anyway. The first act revolves around escaping the island of Fort Joy, a prison colony run by the fanatical Magisters of the Divine Order. This creates a minor pacing issue: the first 15-to-20 hours end up feeling like a prologue to the main story. But, as far as prologues go, it’s a good one.
If there is criticism to be leveled against the storytelling, it’s in how the party members interact with each other. To put it simply, they don’t. The player can have lengthy and often engaging conversations with members of their party. But, communication between party members is almost nonexistent.
Compare this to Dragon Age: Origins where everyone talks to each other and expresses an opinion of everybody else. Meanwhile, the party members in Divinity: Original Sin II barely acknowledge each other’s existence.
As a result, I never felt like I was part of a team so much as one-half of five unrelated partnerships. While this is by no means a deal breaker, it’s a strange omission in a story-driven RPG with an emphasis on individual characters.
The gameplay is split between free-roaming exploration and turn-based combat reminiscent of games such as the original Fallout. Every action in combat consumes a varying number of action points, with unused points carrying over to the next round.
What distinguishes combat in Divinity: Original Sin II from other turn-based games is its emphasis on terrain. While this includes things like line of sight and elevation bonuses for ranged attacks, the most significant impact comes from how the game handles surfaces. Floors can be covered in oil, water, toxic slime, or blood, and all can be interacted with in some way. Oil and slime can burn. Fire can be put out with water to create an obscuring wall of steam. Wet or bloody floors can be frozen or electrified. Bloody floors can even be cursed, dealing damage and reversing the effect of healing spells on characters standing on it.
Interaction extends to more than just manipulating the battlefield, as most objects can be picked up, moved, or even thrown. This ability can be used in combat, such as by throwing a lit candle on an oily surface. But, it can also be used to solve puzzles throughout the world, and adds additional depth to exploration. Can’t find a key? A barrel of oil and a fire grenade will get the job done just as well. While players can’t pick up every bit of set dressing, the world presented in Divinity: Original Sin II boasts a reactivity few other games can match.
The game can be quite daunting at first, especially for a player not well-acquainted with old school RPG mechanics. There are a lot of stats and abilities to keep track of, so it’s a good idea to read the descriptions of everything while setting up your character. While the option to re-spec each character exists and is free once unlocked, it’s not available until several hours in. New players may therefore find it useful to start the game up a few times until they find a class they like.
The controls are definitely better on PC than consoles. While Divinity: Original Sin II doesn’t have as many quick bars as some games, they’re still awkward to use with a controller. It’s also a little tedious to have to go searching for your unassigned party members upon arriving in a new area. Allowing six to a party would have solved the problem nicely.
Similarly, the game can be a bit stingy when it comes to player training. While it’s one thing to let players figure this out on their own, the tutorial skips over important mechanics like setting formations and how to create and merge teams, the latter of which is critical for anyone who intends to split control of the party between multiple co-op players.
Still, the problems the game has are mostly minor and ultimately don’t detract much from the overall experience. Divinity: Original Sin II probably isn’t for everyone, and if old school RPGs aren’t your thing, it isn’t going to change your mind. However, it’s a must-have for anyone looking for a deep and engaging tactical RPG experience and is an excellent introduction for players new to the genre.