Although crowdfunding for video games is less than a decade old, the process already has a chequered history. Some developers have used Kickstarter and Fig to produce fantastic content without the oversight of a major publisher, while others have under-delivered, creating much-hyped projects that fail to live up to expectations. With 2014’s Divinity: Original Sin, Larian Studios used the almost-$1,000,000 raised from backers to craft an RPG that was widely regarded as being able to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age in terms of depth. The project was among the rare few that prove the value of crowdfunding for independent ideas in gaming, and the developers returned to the platform for the sequel, ultimately creating a title that surpasses its predecessor and stands out as one of the must-have games of 2017.
One of the most refreshing things about Divinity: Original Sin II is the independent spirit that abounds throughout the adventure. The focus-tested and finely-tuned features of traditionally-funded projects are buried beneath a simultaneous desire to call back to turn-of-the-century RPGs, such as Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, and add new twists on established ideas. This dual goal grounds the project in the excellence of the past while providing ample room for innovation. While the story largely adheres to well-trodden fantasy tropes and concepts, the gameplay flourishes with myriad touches that put a premium on environmental interaction and player agency. True freedom is often difficult to find in games, but Divinity: Original Sin II sidelines spectacle to ensure the player holds the reins.
The title lacks the sense of excess so prevalent among contemporary open-world games, instead ensuring that every interaction and idea sparkles. Beginning with the humble character creator, which does not match up to the robustness of that found in other titles, Divinity: Original Sin II exudes personality. The cheery narrator breathes life into the histories of the pre-built characters, while the freedom to build an avatar from scratch into a being with a positive patchwork of skills and abilities is thoroughly enjoyable. Then, after a brief tutorial sequence, players are loosed upon the fantasy world of Rivellon, beginning on the prison island of Fort Joy where the true colour and spirit of the game take shape. Although a suitably epic high fantasy story is included, each protagonist has a seemingly more immediate personal goal to work towards, and the path through the game feels unguided by any directorial hand. The sense of openness is bolstered by an enormous number of dialogue options in most interactions, many of which can lead to non-violent outcomes from threats of hostility. Divinity: Original Sin II, then, is a true RPG, with the libertarian design philosophy eclipsing even the much-vaunted freedom of Bethesda’s offerings.
Nevertheless, the tried-and-true structures of RPGs demand conflict, and Larian Studios’s latest obliges with aplomb. The tactical turn-based battle system ignores immediacy in favour of immersion and complexity as the environment becomes integral in every combat scenario. Chipping away at foes with basic physical and magical attacks is viable, but utilising the ever-growing array of skills at the party’s disposal is far more enjoyable. Those abilities range from the expected healing spells and special attacks to more novel abilities capable of fundamentally reshaping the battlefield through environmental status effects. More importantly, almost every combination of elemental magic (water, fire, ice, air, poison, and oil) creates different hazards that can either aid or hinder the player’s efforts. This intense level of environmental interactivity, in concert with the diverse and ever-growing array of special skills, makes battles into an endlessly dynamic proposition, with additional engagement coming from the often punishing difficulty. Enemy scaling is absent from Divinity: Original Sin II, and, while the design generally segments tougher content into dungeons or behind quests, stumbling into stiff challenges remains possible. A flee option is present for such moments, ensuring that players are never forced into a losing battle and a hard reset, maintaining the principles of open-endedness.
However, the focus on player agency brings several minor drawbacks that are capable of hampering enjoyment. Among the greatest sources of frustration is the sheer volume of mechanics and GUI elements, some of which could be explained more effectively to avoid confusion and consternation. Despite the occasional lack of clarity, the secondary interactions of bartering and crafting are complex enough to not seem like afterthoughts implemented to pad the adventure. Another aspect that can grate is the isometric camera. Although Larian Studios has done an admirable job in ensuring that the player’s vision is generally clear, some environmental artefacts do impede sightlines. Most of the time, the issue can be resolved by either swivelling the viewpoint or switching to the overhead tactical camera, but neither solution is a catch-all. Thankfully, these gripes are minor and easily overlooked while exploring the world of Rivellon.
Unfortunately, the brilliant mechanics serve a mostly traditional fantasy setting and story. Rivellon is a colourful, diverse land, but the swamps, forests, dungeons, and ruins are all long-established trappings of the genre and fail to inspire no matter how lovingly crafted they appear. Meanwhile, the overarching quest to free the world from the tyranny of overlords and fight back the forces of darkness is tired. Even with this relatively pedestrian fibre, the writers at Larian Studios have woven a fine narrative tapestry that sparkles with wit. Where many RPGs are content to have dialogue provide little more than quests and lore, the NPCs of Rivellon are chatty folk, with conversations made to feel more realistic thanks to the branching options and character tags that can offer new points of discussion. Some of the wonderfully-voiced dialogues do revolve entirely around questlines, but many others touch on ordinary problems and quibbles, helping to ground the world while simultaneously highlighting just how unfair the game’s society can be. This dialogue system is yet another manifestation of the design sentiment that puts players, rather than the stories that the developers have included, firmly at the centre of the game.
Systems-led approaches to game design are seemingly becoming more prominent as time goes on and the cinematic styles that have heretofore been most highly praised fall to the wayside. Divinity: Original Sin II is an unabashed result of the design philosophy of giving players control and a masterclass of the form. The plot is too familiar to match the inventiveness of gameplay and brilliance of the writing. While a few minor issues tarnish the experience, these shortcomings cannot hold the title back. Even with the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon: Zero Dawn, RiMe, and Persona 5 already out and offering stiff competition, Divinity: Original Sin II is a bona fide Game of the Year contender. Simply put, Rivellon is a world full of mostly horrible people doing mostly horrible things to one another, and it has no right to be as enjoyable a place to visit as it is.
Reviewed on PC.