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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (382)

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Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
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Strange Brigade 4/5
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Divinity: Original Sin 2   PC (Steam) 

Tua Culpa    4.5/5 stars

The folks at Larian Studios have really made a name for themselves over the course of the last few years. From their earliest roots in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the Belgian studio went from an Indie outfit barely able to secure the backing of any Publisher, to a relatively consistent producer of B-rate PC gaming fodder, to a Kickstarter success story, to the new premier studio for official D&D-based cRPGs. The story of Old Larian vs. New Larian pivots largely on the Kickstarter-backed release of “Divinity: Original Sin” in 2014, which proved both that Larian was capable of making a highly-polished, story-drive, turn-based RPG, and that there was still a large and tragically-underserved demand for such games – in spite of what the big “AAA” swill peddlers and their focus groups told the gaming media.

Thus, with the release of “Divinity: Original Sin 2” (“D:OS2”) a mere three years later in 2017, Larian had its work cut out for it. The jankiness and questionable design of the pre-‘Original Sin’ ‘Divinity’ titles would no longer be tolerated, as the developer found itself one of the last few stewards (alongside the likes of Obsidian and inXile) of an entire genre. Expectations went from nothing to unbelievably high, and Larian managed to meet those expectations… mostly. Unfortunately, “D:OS2” implements a number of significant changes to the core gameplay that, while occasionally beneficial in streamlining gameplay, more often than not demonstrate a heavy-handed attempt at ‘nerfing’ popular features from the first ‘Original Sin’ game and not really considering the effect on the overall gameplay balance.

Presentation
“D:OS2” is built, by and large, from the same set of LEGO bricks as its predecessor: A proprietary engine cobbled together with some commercial game development software. However, while the original “Divinity: Original Sin” looked good, it lacked detail in the character models… something “D:OS2” makes up for in spades. Each and every facet of the game environment and each and every character model simply oozes detail and charm, while the overall vibe of the game’s visuals still manages to walk the balance beam of fantastical, whimsical, and grim, revealing that the Belgians are still in-touch with the fairy-tale roots of the Fantasy genre pioneered by nearby Denmark’s legendary Hans Christian Andersen.

Also like its predecessor, “D:OS2” is fully voiced, with each and every one of the copious dialog boxes receiving a full narration, alongside plenty of ambient audio spouted by NPCs in each environment. The soundtrack is, as before, an excellent and soaring Fantasy score, revolving around a rather pleasant and catchy central theme.

Like the first “Divinity: Original Sin,” “D:OS2” was released unfinished. In fact it occupied a spot on Steam’s Early Access section for roughly a year. Also like its predecessor, “D:OS2” received a Definitive Edition re-release a year after its initial ‘official’ release, when the game was ported from PC to consoles. This Definitive Edition included not only bugfixes and overhauls this time, but also the game’s DLC… which amounts to a single item. “D:OS2’s” DLC is, in a word, horrid. The single piece of DLC available is a squirrel companion who follows the player around, never does anything useful, tends to commit suicide at the least opportune times, and narrates an off-screen sidequest that takes place solely in the player’s mind’s eye. And Larian had the nerve initially to charge $3 for this thing! Fortunately, the Definitive Edition was also given away for free to all owners of the ‘vanilla’ version of the game. Like its predecessor, “D:OS2” is a mostly bug-free and solid experience, with ingeniously designed and implemented native Xinput support and nearly-flawless online multi-player.

Story
“D:OS2” takes place in the series’ traditional world of Rivellon, over a millennium after the events of its predecessor. The world is on the brink of war between the races, and Lucian the Divine – the agent of the Seven Gods in the world – has gone and gotten himself killed. The civil strife is further exacerbated by attacks by extraplanar monsters known as Voidwoken, which are attracted to the use of a type of magic called Sourcery, which relies on Source – that magical McGuffin that serves as the very fabric of reality within the series’ cosmology. Panicking and leaderless, the Divine Order, a very Catholic-style church consisting of both the Magister and Paladin sub-orders, begins rounding up anyone suspected of being a Sourcerer and imprisoning them on an island concentration camp ironically known as Fort Joy.

Our heroes are erstwhile Sourcerers of many stripes, and, in a first for the series, have a variety of possible personalities attached to them. “D:OS2” gives the player the choice of choosing one of six ‘Origin’ characters or starting with a fully custom blank slate. Also, for the first time in series history, players are allowed to create characters from several of Rivellon’s Fantasy races besides humans, including dwarves, elves, and lizardfolk, as well as undead skeletal variants of each.

The six Origin characters, however, are a fairly diverse lot, featuring Ifan Ben-Mezd, an ex-bounty hunter who committed warcrimes under the command of the late Divine; Lohse, a lady bard who is possessed by a whole headful of demons; Beast, a dwarven pirate; Sebille, an escaped elven slave; Fane, an undead scholar trying to figure out why his culture disappeared from the world after he died; and The Red Prince, a lizardfolk nobleman at the heart of a lizardfolk prophecy who was also accused of consorting with demons. When playing “D:OS2” solo, the player is free to choose one of these characters to be their avatar or create a fully custom hero, and throughout the course of the first Act of the game, can recruit any of the other Origin characters as traveling companions (it’s also possible to hire generic NPCs from a guild a little later on). In a multi-player game, however, each player picks an Origin or custom character, and that creates a static party that can’t be changed.

Origin characters each have their own plot threads woven through the overarching narrative structure of the game. Sometimes, the player’s decisions will alienate these other characters, resulting in a permanent loss of the option to recruit them (which isn’t an issue in multi-player).

“D:OS2” plays out over four Acts, in which the player(s) learns why their character(s) were imprisoned in Fort Joy, that something seems to be rotten within the leadership of the Magisters, and that each Origin character is, in fact, a form of Chosen One known as a Godwoken, who have the potential – though not a guarantee – of rising to fill the role of Divine left by Lucian upon his death. However, in a bit of a step backwards, each Act in “D:OS2” is a self-contained location in-and-of itself, with points of no return barring travel to the regions where previous Acts took place, and making it entirely possible to miss out on side-quests and plot threads if the player is too hasty.

Because of the elaborate and detailed storylines and unique endings attached to each Origin character, “D:OS2” has quite a bit of replay value, with the only thing getting in the way of replaying it being the significant runtime. “D:OS2” clocks in at 100-150 hours, depending on how much dicking around and moneyhatting the player(s) does. With 8 different ‘main’ endings and numerous minor variants attached to the resolutions of side-quests, a dedicated player or Achievement/Trophy Whore will easily get their money’s worth out of “D:OS2,” even at full price (though getting it on sale is always better!).

Gameplay
At its heart, “D:OS2” is functionally identical to its predecessor. Characters are still free to split up and talk to NPCs individually (which can be important for Origin quests, but annoying in a multi-player group where one player is focusing on being a Persuasion machine and the other characters come off like stuttering buffoons in dialogs), and do whatever they want in real time outside of combat. Once a fight breaks out, though, characters have a set number of Action Points to spend during their turn, with movement, attacks, and skills each taking various amounts of AP.

Characters are still basically built freeform, with Attribute points going into Strength (melee damage), Finesse (ranged damage), Intelligence (magic damage), Constitution (total health), Memory (number of skill slots), and Wits (critical chance, initiative, and chance to spot secrets) to boost the attached traits, Skill Points going into the wide array of class archetypes (which now cap at 10 instead of 5 and include a small percentage-based bonus as well), Civil Points going into a handful of non-combat abilities (like Thievery, Persuasion, and Bartering), and rarer Talent Points providing characters with unique and potent perks. “D:OS2” further encourages players to fiddle with character builds by allowing free respeccing of characters starting in Act 2.

Loot is largely identical to the previous game, with a traditional ‘Diablo’ style color scheme for rarity (white, green, blue, three shades of purple, and gold), with higher rarity items having better basic stats and more randomly-generated bonuses. There is a fairly constant trickle of new loot coming in from environmental objects, slain enemies, thievery, quest rewards, and even shopping, but with the highly specialized nature of character builds, it can be very annoying to have to replace a piece of gear with perfect bonuses just because the characters have out-leveled it. But then, that’s the rub with most loot-based games. Fortunately, for those into modding, there’s a Steam Workshop mod that allows players to upgrade their equipped items to their current character level. Larian has been slowly-but-surely adding mods to “D:OS2” as an official part of the game over the past year, so I’m hopeful this particular mod will get picked up and legitimized as well.

There are a few other positive changes to the core of the game that streamline things and remove unnecessary busywork for the player. These include the removal of the Rock/Paper/Scissors minigame for Persuasion dialog events (it’s now just based on the Persuasion stat added to one of a choice of Attribute scores), the removal of durability meters for all pieces of equipment except melee weapons, and the removal of Crafting as a stat, with characters able to craft any recipe, so long as they have the ingredients.

Unfortunately, the single biggest thing that will stick in my memory when I think back on my time with “D:OS2” isn’t the fantastic presentation, or the epic narrative, or the handful of streamlined gameplay mechanics. No, the thing I’ll remember – with significant annoyance – is the new Armor System. In the original “Divinity: Original Sin,” armor acts like you’d expect it to act, reducing the damage taken from each enemy hit. In “D:OS2,” however, armor has been rejiggered to fit a fairly unpopular Player’s Option rule from D&D, acting as a pool of additional hit points on top of a character’s actual hit points. Each piece of armor in “D:OS2” provides a blob of Physical Armor and a blob of Magical Armor, while accessories provide one or the other. Different types of armor provide these blobs of protection in different quantities, with Finesse-based armor providing a fairly balanced allotment of the two (though favoring Physical slightly), Strength-based armor providing a huge amount of Physical but a pitiful amount of Magical, and Intelligence-based armor going the opposite route, with giant Magical and tiny Physical armor blobs. Moreover, this new armor system didn’t just supersede the traditional damage-reduction purpose of armor, but also replaced saving throws to resist status ailments/debuffs, with nearly every debuff in the game automatically failing if the target has any of the corresponding armor left and automatically succeeding if they don’t.

This new Armor System completely changes the dynamic of the game, and I believe it’s for the worse. Parties of characters need to focus on either physically or magically damaging every enemy in the game to avoid chewing through twice as many faux hit-points per opponent as necessary, while magic users still have to deal with elemental resistances on top of their target’s Magic Armor. However, the way weapon stats, skill damage, and all the other moving parts in combat work tends to create characters who are good at doing physical damage OR magical damage, but not both. I was aware of this new system ahead of time, and thus was able to design a team for my friends to use that worked fairly well focusing on physical damage, but on the few occasions where we really needed to dish out magical pain, we struggled. I would think a player going into the game blind would find the balance that was so meticulously crafted in the previous game to be completely out of whack in this sequel.

The other big, annoying change in “D:OS2” is the addition of Source Points. Because each of the player characters is a Sourcerer, of course they can learn Sourcery skills. The vast majority of Act 2 involves mastering the Source and earning up to three Source Points, which can be spent just like Action Points to use specific Source-Only skills in combat. Except, unlike Action Points, Source Points don’t regenerate, and up until the absolute end of the game, it’s terribly annoying to keep the party’s Source topped-off. What does this mean, in practice? Nobody in our party ever bothered to memorize or use Source-based skills until the bitter end of the game. And a lot of these rarely-useable skills that suddenly require the very fiber of the universe to work were the best high-level skills from the original game. Spellcasters have been heavily nerfed by this, as have archers, as the skills from the previous game that allowed players to clean-up end-game battles in a turn or two have been cut-off at the knees. I understand that this is an attempt at balancing by Larian, as those skills were incredibly powerful before… but there’s got to be a better way than telling players, “You can use this once per battle, then you have to go dick around recharging it before you can use it again.” I think the ‘once per battle’ thing would have been enough.

Overall
While the presentation and narrative are, almost impossibly, even better than the first “Divinity: Original Sin,” certain major changes to the gameplay – such as the Armor System and the Source Point System – combined with points of no return between each of the game’s four regions, reveal cracks in Larian’s seemingly-immaculate façade. But just because “D:OS2” isn’t an absolutely perfect game doesn’t mean that it’s not a very good game, which it is, and I highly recommend it to any and all RPG fans.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 5/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5

 

 


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