I spent my first three hours of Divinity: Original Sin wandering around town. That’s not an exaggeration, I spent three hours of my life walking around town talking to assorted humans, an orc, two cats, a dog, and a giant clam named Ishmashell in an effort to solve a murder mystery. In that time, I’ve discovered the weaver of time, a knight who’s aching to come out of retirement, and a mage who offered to help me as long as I promised never to deal with any demons. I managed to wander around essentially accomplishing nothing for three hours, and I couldn’t be happier.
Divinity: Original Sin is a modern take on the old school RPG formula made popular in games such as Baulder’s Gate and Ultima. You’ll be met with that familiar isometric camera, complex menus, vague questlines, and a difficulty curve that might just catch you off guard. Right off the bat, I know this has the potential to run off some younger gamers who aren’t used to the days of old, but I strongly suggest sticking with it. This should turn out to be a very small price of admission for what’s being offered.
You’ll play as a pair of Source Hunters tasked with entering the city of Cyseal. Your first task seems to be a simple one: solve the murder of a councilor. However, very early in the game you’ll learn that there’s much more happening than just your little quest. Walking into town for the first time, you’ll hear a ruckus down by the docks that you could easily ignore (and truth be told, we missed it during our first time playing through), where sailors struggle to put out a ship that’s caught fire. There’s no one to tell you that you’ve stumbled upon a quest, and certainly no hints on what you’re supposed to do, but here’s your first chance to really experience what makes Divinity: Original Sin great. If you take it upon yourself to put out the flames with some water magic, you’ll not only get a nice boost to your reputation with the townsfolk, but a good chunk of XP as well.
That’s the beauty of Divinity: Original Sin: nothing is locked away from you. We’ve been trained by modern RPGs to believe that everything is context sensitive. That spells are only viable when aimed at an enemy, or that quests require you to follow a distinct set of steps to complete. In Divinity: Original Sin, you’re free to open up the game in any way you like. While searching for the councilor’s murder, you’ll have to track down a few NPCs to gather information. Or, you could simply break into people’s houses, steal everything that’s not tied down, and accidentally come across incriminating evidence.
From the combat side, everything takes on a much more strategic role. The combat itself plays out through turns, but it’s the way you’re able to interact with the world around you that really stands out. Destroying an oil barrel soaks the battleground, and all it takes is a fireball to set the world aflame under your enemies. Use that same fireball on a pool of water, and you’ll create blistering steam that acts as a dense fog that neither you nor your opponent can see through. Everything is open to interpretation, leaving you near infinite possibilities on how to attack any situation.
Of course, this open-endedness lends its hand to frustration as well. Those initial three hours I spent wandering the city? Yeah… that was simply because I hadn’t realized that I could leave the town through one of the other gates to fight enemies closer to my level before heading the way I needed to solve my current quest. Later, while I was playing around with my fully realized freedom, I managed to kill an integral character to the story. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve become spoiled by today’s RPGs, and without having so much as a quest marker I simply got turned around and lost in the world.
The actual narrative seems to switch between deadly serious and a tone usually found when sharing a drink with a few friends. It’s easy to compare Divinity: Original Sin to a game of Dungeons and Dragons since it really can turn on a dime depending on your actions. Once I unlocked the Pet Pal perk for my wizard, I was able to speak with a golden retriever mourning the death of his owner. The dialogue was snappy, sad, and funny all at the same time while still being helpful to solving my current quest. I couldn’t help but think this is exactly the type of thing I would have tried to write for my friends if I were designing a story for them.
Divinity: Original Sin definitely appears to have been designed with co-op in mind, but I have a hard time imagining two people playing through the 100+ hours together all the way. Each one of your characters can have distinct aspirations and goals though, allowing you to role-play both of them at once when playing on your own. This, of course, does lead to some instances where they would disagree on decisions.
When discovering the giant clam Ishmashell, he told my party how his only wish was to be returned to the sea. My knight, noble and proud, was ready to toss him back when my wizard stated that selling him at the market may be a better use of their time. Instead of just leaving me to make a decision one way or the other, I was able to play a game of rock-paper-scissors between the two characters to see who would come out on top. At this point, personality traits came into play, allowing your more persuasive characters to have a better chance at winning the dispute. It’s a novel way to handle this situation, and I hope it’s something we see more of down the road.
This is the point in the review process where I traditionally say “but,” followed by pointing out everything the game did wrong. The issue here though is that it’s very hard to find any actual wrong doings. After stressing myself over it for a bit, I was only able to come with a very select few. The first would be the games’s UI. It’s not horrendous, or even that bad, but it just seems like it could take on a few more modern cues to help it along. Trying to move items between your characters or manage your inventory is quite cumbersome.
The biggest flaw though is probably the lack of voice acting. There’s a decent amount, but a lot of the conversations you have are going to be told through text alone, leading to a tremendous amount of reading. This wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t leave the game feeling somewhat barren during conversations. It’s a bit hard to describe, but it can often feel lonely during the moments you’re supposed to feel anything but.
Divinity: Original Sin is a love letter to everything that was great about RPGs when I was a kid with just enough touched up to make all that is old, new again. I so desperately want to see this mentality come back into gaming, and I know many of you do, too!
RPGs where you have total freedom to attack your goals your own way, or even completely destroy yourself, are very rare these days. The freedom and power that a player’s decisions have in these games is astounding, and I had forgotten how badly I missed it. If you’re a fan of RPGs in general, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. It’s most definitely worth the investment.
Divinity: Original Sin is a modern take on the old school RPG mechanics, offering a level of freedom that many of us had long since forgotten. Fans of the genre should consider this a must-play.