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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (322)

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The Yawhg 3.5/5
Dungeon Defenders II 4/5
Spelunky 0.5/5
Hard Reset Redux 2.5/5
Girls and Dungeons 4/5
Time Tenshi 2 3.5/5
Time Tenshi 2.5/5
We Are the Dwarves 1/5
Shadow Warrior 3.5/5
Torment: Tides of Numen... 4.5/5
Hammerwatch 1.5/5
Metro Redux 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 3/5
Diluvion 3/5
Seiken Densetsu 3 ( Sec... 2.5/5
Titanfall 2 2.5/5
Treasure Hunter G 3.5/5
The Legend of Zelda: Br... 4/5
Shadow Warrior 2 4.5/5
Treasure of the Rudras ... 2/5
Oceanhorn: Monster of U... 2.5/5
The Bard's Tale ( 2004 ) 3/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 4/5
Spore 3/5
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdo... 4.5/5

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Divinity: Original Sin   PC (Steam) 

Sinfully Divine    5/5 stars

Larian Studios, a Belgian developer that walks the line between single “A” and Indie, has been making ‘Divinity’ games since 2002. The series started off as an uncomfortable blend of ‘Diablo’-style Hack ‘n Slash-ing with a number of more mainline RPG elements. However, the fact that it was released in 2002 meant that I’d never heard of “Divine Divinity” or, if I did, I merely lumped it into the same garbage pile with all of the other PC games not made or published by Interplay, bolstered by the fact that I certainly wanted nothing to do with a game that would not run properly regardless of my computer’s relationship with the specifications printed on the game’s box or would require me to spend thousands of dollars on a new PC – as PC games had demonstrated continuously throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s.

It has been a long time since “Divine Divinity” first saw the light of day, and since PC gaming was a horrible experience. In the 20-teens, we need to embrace every new RPG that comes along, and even throw money at their developers via Kickstarter to prove that there is indeed still an audience for such games. After producing a ‘Divinity’ game every 2-5 years since their inception, in 2013, Larian launched a Kickstarter for a prequel to the whole shebang, “Divinity: Original Sin” (“D:OS”). I watched and I waited, not sure what to expect from this unknown-to-myself developer, but when I heard that “D:OS” would be a Turn-Based RPG instead of a bastardized Hack ‘n Slash like its predecessors, I had a feeling Larian was moving in the right direction. I expected “D:OS” to compare favorably to contemporaries like “Pillars of Eternity,” “Sword Coast Legends” and “Wasteland 2,” probably finishing near the bottom of that pack. Instead, I found myself awestruck, dumbfounded, and elated to experience what will most likely maintain its position as my Game of the Generation… unless its brand new sequel can dethrone it.

Presentation
“D:OS” lists a number of canned software packages in its credits, but none of them are the Unreal or Unity Engines, marking the game as somewhat unique among its peers. The visuals are entirely 3D, yet the camera angles and world layout hearkens back to the days of isometric 2D games. From a purely mechanical perspective, the character and environmental models in “D:OS” are clean, competent, and get the job done. However, the style that exudes from every facet of the game’s visuals paints a picture of a whimsical fairytale Fantasy world that isn’t quite as generic as many of its compatriots (complete with taking animals!). “D:OS” isn’t afraid to throw in splashes of color side-by-side with grimdark environments. Character models are somewhat lacking in customization, however, as are the character portraits that appear alongside a character’s speech in dialog boxes. Cutscenes, on the other hand, employ hand-drawn visuals with minimal animation.

There are a lot of dialog boxes! But nearly every bit of speech in the game is voiced, which is an impressive feat for a Kickstarter project. The voicework is well-done work by a cast of unknowns, who mostly maintain a steady British accent throughout. There are a handful of characters with an annoying Southern USA twang, but instead of finding these characters inconsistent with the world, I found myself wondering what awful region of the game world spawned these Fantasty Rednecks. Along with its quality voiceacting, “D:OS” features one of the better soundtracks to grace a Western Fantasy RPG, composed by the late Kirill Pokrovsky (who received a post-mortem dedication in the game’s credits). This music is far more noticeable and less subdued than typical Western games, and has much more of its own personality, rather than sounding like a cheap knock-off of the OST in Peter Jackson’s ‘Middle-Earth’ movies. There’s a mix of subtle vocals, lively rhythms, and ambience to the soundtrack that makes it memorable. Even better are the environmental modifiers applied to certain portions of the soundtrack, such as hearing muffled jigs emanating from a tavern, only to have that music come into full focus upon actually entering the building. Likewise, ambient voices for NPCs do a lot to add an air of authenticity, particularly to the game’s urban environments, where merchants repeatedly hawk their wares.

Really, the biggest, and only, issue I have with “D:OS” is the fact that it was released unfinished. In 2014, Larian released the game, but then a mere year later, released an ‘Enhanced Edition,’ which was also ported to the 8th Gen consoles. I never touched the ‘vanilla’ version of the game, playing nothing but the so-called ‘Enhanced Edition,’ and I had an absolutely amazing experience. There are very few bugs and glitches outside of the cosmetic, apparently none of the voiceacting was included in the vanilla edition, and the game has native – and incredibly well thought-out – Xinput controller support. Larian even gave away free copies of the Enhanced Edition to people who Kickstarted or bought the vanilla version of the game… so I don’t see why the vanilla version even needs to remain in existence at this point. Much like D&D 3.0 rulebooks, it no longer serves a purpose.

Story
“D:OS” is a prequel to the other ‘Divinity’ games, which all take place in the world of Rivellon. As “D:OS” opens, we learn that Rivellon is plagued by a form of dark magic known as Source, which corrupts all those who attempt to master it. Our heroes, a pair of non-silent custom player stand-ins, are graduates from the Source Hunter Academy, which instructs its students in the ways of identifying the influence of Source and wiping it out at its… err… source. Our heroes, who default to a male/female duo, but can just as easily be made male/male or female/female, find themselves dropped off just off-shore of the city of Cyseal, where they have been assigned to investigate the murder of a local politician, the Academy higher-ups sensing the dark influence of Source magic in the death.

As our heroes pick their way through Cyseal, they discover cult activity, an undead infestation, and mysterious gemstones that abruptly transport them to the End of Time, where they learn that they are intimately tied to a phenomenon that threatens to hurl all of Rivellon into an all-consuming Void of nothingness. Their Source Hunter investigations are only the tip of a terrifying iceberg of corruption and not-quite-Lovecraftian insanity.

As their investigations into Source corruption in the Cyseal region and the looming end of the world continue, our heroes learn of a new religion calling themselves ‘Immaculates,’ who claim to receive wisdom directly from a vague and nebulous goddess through a powerful priestess calling herself ‘The Conduit,’ who promises salvation from all forms of Source magic and illnesses by utilizing the very same magic gemstones that revealed the End of Time to our heroes.

Investigating this multi-threaded narrative is fairly open, yet carefully directed. “D:OS” isn’t strictly an Open World game, but many of the plotlines that branch off the trunk can be explored in any order. Sometimes one thread might lead to a dead end, only to open up again after exploring another avenue and learning some new tidbits of information.

The world of Rivellon’s lore is presented mostly in-narrative, with very few ‘lore dumps’ via text heavy tomes or rambling monologues. Because of this focus on the immediate, however, I never really got much of a feel for what the rest of Rivellon is like outside of Cyseal and its immediate surroundings. Yes, there are very Romanesque Legions who keep the peace in regions like Cyseal, but I’m not 100% clear where the Legions are based, or to what monarch they owe fealty. Likewise, there are constant mentions of Seven gods, but most of them remain nameless (which is fine, since most of them have nothing to do with the story at hand). Personally, I was perfectly happy to only learn of game world lore that was of immediate importance, as the alternative would have been a Tolkien-esque “Silmarillion”-style glob of history and names so dense it would be impossible to sort through it all.

“D:OS” lasts almost exactly 100 hours, which is a fairly sizeable chunk of time to put into one game. Normally, I start to tire of the same game after 60 hours or so, but “D:OS” managed to keep me engaged and enjoying myself for its entire duration. It’s a well-crafted tale with a compelling, multi-faceted main quest, plenty of diverting sidequests, and a sizeable cast of well-written characters.

Gameplay
“D:OS” incorporates a number of different RPG mechanics ripped from drastically different games. While exploring towns, talking to non-player characters, solving puzzles, the game feels like any old Infinity Engine game from the late ‘90s. Dialogs with NPCs involve choosing options from a dialog tree, characters can steal things so long as they aren’t spotted, and so on. Interestingly, “D:OS” allows for far more freedom than most games of its type with regard to environmental objects. In most RPGs, if you find a locked chest and don’t have the key, you’re screwed until you come back later with the key. In “D:OS,” players have the option of picking the lock, destroying the chest (which fortunately does not destroy the contents), or simply picking up the chest and carrying it around until the key is discovered. One quirky addition to the dialog system in “D:OS” that I’ve never seen elsewhere is a Rock/Paper/Scissors minigame to determine who wins an argument when two characters disagree. Sometimes, just skipping the R/P/S game results in the character with the higher stat winning the argument (logically), however, sometimes it doesn’t, which left me a bit confused. With two player characters, the game also provides the option (which thankfully can be turned off in the option menu) to make every dialog decision into a R/P/S game between the two characters. I found this quite annoying, and didn’t really like the R/P/S minigame, but the ability to turn it off and minimize its impact in game meant that I was rarely bothered by it.

The freedom of interaction with the game’s environment comes into even sharper focus during combat. The core of the combat in “D:OS” is exactly like the combat in the first two ‘Fallout’ games (the ones before Bethesda turned the series into a Sandbox FPS): Each character/enemy receives a certain number of starting Action Points (AP). Each activity and quantity of movement consumes a certain amount of AP, and a small amount of AP can be saved at the end of a character’s turn to be added to their refreshed AP pool at the start of their next turn. However, that’s just the beginning! Environmental effects play a huge role in “D:OS’s” combat, with oily surfaces causing characters to consume more AP for their actions, icy surfaces forcing characters trying to cross them to make a saving throw with each step or fall prone, fiery surfaces that cause characters to catch fire and take damage over time, clouds of smoke that obscure line of sight, preventing ranged attacks. There are numerous ways to turn the tables in one’s favor simply by exploiting these persistent environmental effects that can be produced by objects in the environment (typically barrels of oil or poisonous ooze), magic spells that leave behind environmental effects, or magic arrows that do the same. Things get even more interesting and strategic when taking into consideration the way different environmental effects interact with each other, such as the fact that poison in the world of Rivellon is extremely flammable and does some very interesting things when combined with fire. One of my favorite strategies when dealing with a room full of human enemies was to diplomatically pretend to be their ally, then place a barrel of oil next to their campfire, before backing away and firing a poison cloud arrow into the mix, resulting in massive explosions and many dead/dying/burning/poisoned foes.

Items in “D:OS” are something of a hybrid of “Skyrim” and the ‘Diablo’ series. There is a fairly deep crafting system that allows players to gather resources and combine them together to make useful objects ranging from potions to weapons. However, crafting weapons is largely a waste of time, as they never start out magical, whereas magical gear drops from slain enemies and treasure chests as from a piñata. This magical loot runs the gamut of rarity colors, much like in any typical loot game (white, green, blue, purple, fuscia(?), gold), but the numbers don’t balloon out of control nearly as much as they do in a typical Hack ‘n Slash, so characters can hold onto a piece of loot with useful magical properties for quite some time. Unfortunately, because the loot is randomly generated, it tends to ruin itself with dumb rolls, like plate armor (with a Strength requirement to even wear it) that provides a bonus to Intelligence or Crossbows. Characters progress through levels at a rapid enough pace (with the soft cap set at level 20, though I’ve heard of min/maxing Munchkins killing every NPC in the game and making it to level 22) that new, more powerful loot will always be incoming, plus upon hitting the level cap, hitting up item shops (who refresh their wares – though unfortunately never get rid of the old crap the player has sold to them – every hour) will provide a sufficient gold sink for all the money made selling candlesticks, plates, baskets, and other junk. Tiresomely, items do have a durability score, however, a single point in the Blacksmithing skill and a cheap hammer in one character’s backpack reduces the prospect of broken equipment to an afterthough.

Character development is a mix of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ standbys of the RPG genre along with a rather novel skill system. Characters gain experience by killing enemies and completing quests, as one would expect. However, instead of simply gaining skills in a character class, characters receive a varying number of points per level-up that the player can spend however they wish. These points come in 3 different flavors: Stat Points can be used to increase one of a character’s ability scores, Ability Points can be spent on character skills, and Talent Points can be spend on passive perks. The really intriguing part of this character development system is the Ability Points, as they come in much greater quantities than the other two types and really help determine what a character can do.

Ability Points can be spent on weapon/armor proficiencies, saving throw bonuses, personality proficiencies, thief skills, crafting skills, and class skills. Upon starting a new game, the player is given their two player characters and presented with the opportunity to pick from a number of starting ‘kits’ with two class skills each from the following (fancy names removed for the sake of simplicity): Air Magic, Water Magic, Fire Magic, Earth Magic, Archery, Melee, Roguishness, and Witchcraft. Beyond first level, taking a level of any skill costs a number of Ability Points equal to that skill level, thus becoming a Jack of All Trades with 1 level of every class skill is easy (it only costs 1 point each), but hitting level 2 costs 2 points, level 3 costs 3 points, and so on up to the cap of level 5. With a low skill level in any given class skill, characters can only use Novice rank skills (all skills are learned by reading consumable books, which can be bought in shops or found), with level 2 unlocking the Adept rank of skills and level 4 unlocking the Master rank. While it is possible to combine any set of class skills on any given character, character stats have a significant effect on how well those skills will perform, with most magic skills requiring high Intelligence, Melee skills requiring high Strength, and Archery/Rogueish skills requiring high Dexterity and a specific weapon. Thus characters do eventually fall into a specialized niche, but it’s always possible to splash in some Novice rank skills that don’t rely too much on a high ability score in order to unlock surprise tactical advantages (such as my melee tank character with a single point of Air Magic who could teleport enemies or allies to key strategic locations during battle). Out of all the classes skills, I found Archery to be by far the most impressive, with my dedicated Archer character (outfitted with a huge pile of magic arrows of various types) able to wipe-out most end-game battles (excluding the final battle) in a single round.

Speaking of the final battle, while avoiding spoilers as much as possible, this was the only portion of the game where I felt that balance went a bit out the window. While most of the game is painstakingly balanced with engaging, fun, and non-frustrating encounters, the final battle changes the rules a bit by adding a squishy NPC who must be protected to avoid getting the BAD END (which is, itself, somewhat amusing). This NPC and the final boss itself are stationary, and it’s impossible to teleport or otherwise coerce the NPC to move somewhere safer. After two failures where this NPC bit the dust, I focused on protecting them during my third attempt, only to have the boss randomly teleport right next to the NPC and one-shot them. To be fair, it did require some new strategies to ultimately prevail in “D:OS,” but waiting until the final confrontation to throw in an annoying escort quest could have left a bad taste in my mouth if I hadn’t enjoyed the rest of the game so thoroughly.

I do find it incredibly odd that I’ve seen so many people complaining about how ‘difficult’ “D:OS” is. In many cases, these are the very same Souls Trolls who can’t stop praising From Software’s piles of fake difficulty up one side and down the other. “D:OS,” is, as I said, perfectly balanced on ‘Classic’ (Normal) difficulty. Maybe the people who find it too hard are trying to play on ‘Tactician’ difficulty (Hard) with ‘Honor Mode’ (permadeath) turned on for their first attempt? Regardless, anyone of any experience level should be able to enjoy “D:OS,” as it even has a ‘Story’ mode (Easy) to take the pressure off.

Overall
“Divinity: Original Sin” turned out to be a huge sleeper hit from Larian. I never saw it coming, as I didn’t expect much from an obscure, Belgian, PC-only developer, but the result is an incredible classic RPG that combines a beautiful Xinput control scheme, pleasing presentation, well-written narrative, balanced turn-based combat, and significant (but not total) player freedom into a truly glorious, memorable experience. Anyone who loves RPGs owes it to themselves to play this game, and those who merely think they like RPGs owe it to themselves to see how the genre is actually done. This game sank its hooks into me from the moment I started playing, and provided the type of rare experience where I simply didn’t want to stop, even when it was hours past bedtime.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 5/5
Gameplay: 5/5
Overall (not an average): 5/5

 

 


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