I am not sure at what point it was that I realised just how good Divinity Original Sin II is, but somewhere between swapping war stories with rat (of the Rattus norvegicus persuasion) with delusions of grandeur, and my Elvin companion devouring the face of a recently decapitated head in order to acquire his memories I thought to myself, "This game might be something rather special."
Divinity: Original Sin II, is the latest in a long line of traditional western RPGs from Larian Studios dating back to 2002, although perhaps 'traditional' is not quite accurate here. The Belgian developer has made a habit of removing the rote and rot from the old-school RPG template, while injecting more than a little quirk into the mix. All the while, the studio demonstrates a deep commitment to and adoration for the genre, and this shines through in all of its titles.
Divinity: Original Sin II demonstrates this commitment in every scene, every interaction, and every slightly off-kilter interpretation of a classic RPG trope. This is a team that loves the genre, but is not afraid to take it in an unexpected direction. Genre fans need not fear, however. Everything you love about RPGs is here – the conversations, the characters, the combat, the quests – and all are exceptional no matter how many developer cheeks had tongues firmly lodged within during the game's creation.
OSII is set in a time of religious zealotry, lead by Bishop Alexander of the Magister order. The Magisters seek to put an end to what they consider the greatest threat to the land – 'Sourcerers'. These magic users wield powers unlike their common brethren, and can tap into the wellspring of creation itself called 'source'.
Due to the nature of their magic, Sourcerors have been blamed for the emergence of the Voidwoken – demonic creatures and perversions of nature who exist in direct opposition of the powers of creation, those that wield it, and even the Gods themselves.
As one of these Sourcerors, you will unravel your own destiny and its link to the Divine, encountering horrors, hope, tragedy, and triumph along the way. You may perpetrate some of these horrors yourself, either accidentally or by design. You could be the hero the people need, or their worst nightmare. Despite your best intentions, you might accidentally destroy lives and legacies. Similarly, you could inadvertently mend a generation's worth of personal rifts with a seemingly selfish act.
Your actions are always your own, and in most cases the outcome will be as you expect, but in others you will likely discover that there is far more under the surface here than first seen. You could change the course of history, rewrite it completely, or maybe just rescue a distraught hen’s stolen egg.
The world of Rivellon is painted in countless shades of grey, which really is a huge part of its appeal. There is a moral complexity here that is unrivaled in any game I have played. Even a certain dual sword wielding monster hunter’s choices feel almost binary in comparison. Motivations in Original Sin II are seldom what they first appear. This holds true for characters you would in any other game simply label good or evil, and even party members have their own agendas which may compliment or conflict with your own.
How their stories unfold is directly affected by your actions, and not always in the way you might expect them to. Your actions have weight and importance, and they always feel natural no matter the outcome. Sometimes these outcomes may be less than desirable, but they are always completely consistent with how you reacted or responded. This alone makes Original Sin II Game of the Year material, but we’re only scratching the surface.
Larian’s commitment to player freedom shines through in every facet of the game. Character creation is where you first get a taste. There are four available races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Lizard) which may seem limited compared to some titles, but you have the option to play as an undead version of each, and there are important game changing options and skills for each race. That makes these choices have weight far beyond the aesthetics and almost arbitrary racial bonuses seen in many other RPG titles.
Your race and ‘life status’ will affect how some NPCs react to you. These things also open up conversation and interaction options, as well as a few new tricks that I found particularly morbidly delightful. The ability to speak to the dead provides a surprising number of additional dialogue options, NPC interactions, and even quests. It’s also completely optional.
Likewise, the Elvish ability to absorb the memories of the dead by eating them is a fantastic – albeit disturbing – revelation. Again, it's completely optional, but can gain you additional skills or otherwise undiscoverable information about an NPC, treasure location, or quest objective. It also helps that gnawing on a foot provides a nice healing bonus.
With 14 class archetypes, you have more than enough width to create your ideal character, but again Larian has given you additional freedom to play how you want. Your Rogue can evolve into a polymorphing Berserker, and your Knight can pick up points in Pyromancy in order to add a little spark to his combat prowess. Not only are you open to evolve any of your party members however you see fit, certain skill combinations can unlock new hybrid abilities further expanding your build options.
Of course, you can stick to original build parameters in order to specialize, if you desire. Spreading yourself too wide may limit your character in the latter stages, but almost any build is potentially viable as long as you take the time to consider which progression path or paths you want to take.
Where all of these skills come to bear is during combat. Original Sin II's combat is a strategy gamer’s wet dream. Larian’s take on turn-based combat may at first seem pretty familiar, but OSII is not going to be gentle with you – every encounter is a real battle for survival. Some fights may need multiple attempts, but many can be won by careful use of the environment and synergistic interactions between your party members.
Whatever the case, this is some of the most dynamic and rewarding turn-based combat I have encountered in recent memory. It's another perfectly constructed layer that helps to create a wonderful whole – you know, like a parfait.
As with its predecessor, elemental interactions are key to overcoming the odds. Water can be turned into vapor in order to obscure the battlefield, and then poisoned to create a choking gas cloud. Oils can be ignited into massive conflagrations. This barely scratches the surface of the options you have at your disposal. One of my personal favorite tactics is to use my Rogue to bleed a group of enemies, then electrify another foe and teleport its twitching form on to the spreading blood pool to zap them all. There is an ever-increasing number of combinations and chained effects available, and they can dramatically turn the tide of any battle, because it’s not just you that has these abilities.
In addition to the elemental skills and the requisite melee, magic, stealth, and ranged abilities you would expect in a fantasy RPG, there are a few talents that are unique to the series or seldom seen elsewhere. One of the most interesting is the polymorph skill, which allows the polymorph to transform themselves, party members, or enemies in a multitude of interesting ways – into a chicken, for example. How you approach and resolve each battle is completely up to you. There really is no absolutely correct approach, just be prepared to die fairly often in the early stages, and to have a blast while doing so.
There is so much more I could talk about, and I could fill paragraphs more with the minutia and meta you can exploit, embrace, and explore in the game. From its smart in-jokes to its soul crushing revelations, Divinity: Original Sin II is everything and more an RPG fan could want. And that's only the single-player side of things.
There is also two player split-screen co-op, four player online co-op, and the most powerful Dungeon Master and Adventure creation tools to ever have been included in a computer RPG. I expect that over the coming months and years we will see a slew of custom adventures, alongside re-imaginings of classic RPG modules popping up on the game's Steam Workshop page. This is the most complete cRPG package to ever be released on PC. It takes the idea of Neverwinter Nights and expands it far beyond even that game's lofty aspirations.
Now that I have done all the gushing, I do need to address a few issues I have, and a few that may be problematic for new players. First up, the game is hard. Early battles will test you, and its depth might see newcomers finding the first few hours a chore. It also takes a few hours for the story to really kick in.
On the technical and design front OSII is mostly rock solid, but the camera does feel too restrictive, your top speed is about 20% slower than ideal, and the UI can be a nightmare to navigate for a good couple of hours. Apart from that, I have experienced no issues.
The engine scales extremely well, and even on lower settings OSII is a gorgeous game, with a high level of detail given to both the world and its denizens. Coupled that with quality voice acting and a rich and diverse soundtrack, and you’ll have no trouble whatsoever being completely immersed in this lovingly hand-built world.
What Larian has achieved here cannot be overstated. This is the pinnacle of video game role playing. An epic story filled with personality, adventure, and depth. A combat system that is second to none. More ways to play and progress as you see fit than any RPG I can think of. All found in a world brimming with discovery, nuance, and freedom of choice.
Divinity: Original Sin II sits peerless at the apex of the RPG genre.
◆ Note: Chris backed both Divinity: Original Sin games on Kickstarter.