Hands-On: Divinity – Original Sin

By Adam Smith on December 9th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Preview events often involve around half an hour with a game, while carefully chaperoned through its corridors. I spent sixteen hours playing Divinity: Original Sin over two days in Belgium last week and nobody told me what I should or shouldn’t do. I spent two hours looking for a potato because I wanted to make some chips and Larian’s founder actively encouraged me in that mighty quest.

If I hadn’t had a flight to catch, I would have played for another sixteen hours over the next couple of days as well. There are more technically impressive fantasy RPGs coming out next year and there’s a great deal of work still to be done, but Larian’s latest is living up the early promise and is right near the top of my most wanted list.

There’s a sign on the wall in Larian’s studio, almost lost among the concept art (some cheesecake bikini armour is in evidence, but more on that later). It reads, and I’m paraphrasing both Larian and George Mallory here, “Why can the player move a flowerpot? Because it’s there.” To a small extent, those words summarise why Original Sin might well be the most interesting upcoming RPG for somebody like me – somebody who likes to push at the boundaries of a game’s systems, bending them until they crack.

Some of the time I spent with the game was productive, in a questing sort of sense, but I filled the majority of the hours with playful diversions, and one particularly absurd and drawn-out battle that took up most of an afternoon. I’ll talk more about that latter escapade and combat in general later on, but first let’s talk about flowerpots. By which I mean, I’m going to write about flowerpots and hopefully you’re not going to fall to sleep or start looking at pictures of cats instead of reading my wise words.

Like my love of CRPGs, Original Sin’s particular systemic design goes all the way back to Ultima VII. Farther still, actually, but that’s the most significant milestone. Before we even arrived at the studio, Larian founder Swen Vincke had politely admonished me for my claim, in this article, that Thief: The Dark Project was just ahead of Ultima VII as ‘most important thing ever’ in my personal gaming history. He also referred to me as a ‘relic’ because he doesn’t meet many games writers who have played Ultima VII.

In my new role as an admonished relic, which I play very well, I sat down to play. I’ve been hands-on with Original Sin before but this is the post-Kickstarter version of the game and I was keen to see how much content and interactivity months of extra work had allowed for. A massive amount, is the answer. It’s a large game but it’s the density of each area and interaction that delighted me. In all the time I played, I didn’t venture out of the first of four large areas and, yet, I could go back and play for another sixteen hours and find entirely different ways to progress. Or to not progress, I suppose.

Unexpectedly, the game begins by placing the players in the role of investigators. There’s a murder and a mystery to go along with it, and the first major quest involves discovering the perpetrator. There’s a spot of turn-based orc bashing beforehand, as the heroic duo of Source Hunters head into town, but it’s entirely possible to spend the first four or five hours playing detective. Conversations – mostly comical and well-written – contain clues and accusations, and the flow of the investigation subtly pushes the player into the sizable town’s several districts. It’s a clever way to introduce characters and the different ways of interacting with the world.

For example, to find a way into one suspect’s house, me and my partner found that we could pick the lock, teleport inside using arcane magicks, talk somebody into giving us the key, or murder the person carrying the key. Everyone in the game can be killed and Larian have ensured that every quest can be completed using alternate means if an essential NPC dies. Many of these backup solutions are intentionally obscure and/or challenging, but that they exist at all shows Larian’s strength of commitment to this particular brand of sandbox/open world.

It’s a simulated place, with basic but functional behaviours for all of its inhabitants. Even the creatures out in the wilds have been hand-placed rather than spawning randomly and it was during a test of the ways in which monsters interact with NPCs that I created a catastrophe. I just wanted to know if orcs would attack guards if a group were lured close enough to the town walls. I ended up with blood on my hands. And on my clothes and coagulating on the soles of my shoes where I’d stepped through the rivers of the stuff that had spilled from all of the dead people. The dead people that the orcs had killed.

I instigated a massacre.

Yes, it turns out, orcs absolutely will attack guards. They’ll attack citizens as well, and let’s not forget cows and, most heinous of all, other orcs. Of all the deaths that I caused during my silly experiment, the first stung the most.

Just outside the town, along a beach, there’s a single orc crying, mourning his brother who died in a large battle against a gang of humans. He doesn’t want to fight anymore, just to grieve in peace, and when he mentions that his brother was buried close by, along with some fancy equipment, there’s a sidequest to follow up on. That could be the end of the story. He’s just a big lonely blubbering survivor of war and he doesn’t need to be dealt with in any way whatsoever. I had no desire to desecrate his brother’s grave so I carried on down the road.

It wasn’t long before I ran into an altogether nastier group of orcs. They were level 8, on average, and counted shaman and a giant crossbow-wielding bastard among their number. Me and my companion were level 2. No area of the game is off-limits and creatures don’t level up when the player does, so it’s entirely possible to wander into trouble. This area was only a few screens from the town and yet we found ourselves outnumbered and outclassed. We should have just fled, using a combination of our magical teleporting triangles and good old-fashioned sprinting, but I had other ideas.

“Why don’t we lead them back to town? Let the guards kill them. We might get loads of experience if we join in the fight.” Later, as it turns out, I realised that the players only receive experience if they strike the killing blow. I suggested letting the guards whittle the orcs down and then killing orc and guard alike, but my partner wasn’t too pleased by that plan. I suppose one of us had to make sure the other behaved.

But the initial plan? It was a great idea. We agreed to lure the orcs, using most of our action points each turn to flee far enough that we couldn’t be struck, and then using our various powers to create hazards between ourselves and the enemy. Elements play an important role in combat, far more interesting than the WATER COUNTERS FIRE kind of system you’re probably imagining. That comes into play as well, but spells also change scenery.

Rivers can be frozen, creating new paths. Rainstorms can be summoned to soak enemies, making them more vulnerable to electric bolts and lightning strikes. A cloud of poisonous gas might explode if a fireball passes through it and even pools of blood, created as enemies and allies fall, will freeze and become slippery hazards. And it’s slippery-slidey ice that turned the first part of the battle into farce.

We intended to slow the orcs down, so we could ensure they didn’t catch us before we reached town, but we hadn’t reckoned on how clumsy they are. As soon as they reached the small pond that I’d frozen over, they slipped, fell on their backsides and remained stunned for a couple of turns. Then, when they stood, they’d take a step, slip, fall on their backsides and remain stunned for a couple of turns.

“We really need the Benny Hill music here.” My co-op partner said. I think she was prepared to abandon the plan, happy to flee while we had the chance, but I was determined.

Eventually, they crossed the ice and there, right in front of them, was their grieving fellow-orc. They slaughtered him. Maybe they were in a bad mood because of the humiliating experience they’d just endured, or maybe they didn’t tolerate tears from their own kind, but their assault was swift and sure.

Sod Benny Hill, I remember thinking, we need some sort of requiem mass. I’d really grown fond of the big eejit. With revenge and fury on my mind, I continued to lead the orcs to their doom at the town gates, using a teleport spell to drag a shaman ahead of us, farther down the road, so that we could pummel him a little for good measure as we travelled in our bizarre conga line.

Of course, as you already know, it all went horribly wrong. Turns out the guards aren’t quite ready to face a mob of orcs and we had to lead them through the town, massacring as they went, to the barracks, where the final surviving guard managed to kill the last of them. It was a bloody disaster and a member of Larian’s team, watching over our shoulders, whistled through his teeth: “Nobody has ever done that before.”

That’s the brilliance of the game though. It was a daft thing to do and it took ages, but it was memorable in a way that only that sort of deviance from the ‘correct’ path can be. Original Sin is a heavily scripted game, with thousands of lines of dialogue, hundreds of quests and characters, and carefully constructed tactical encounters – but everything is built on flexible systems, starting with those flowerpots, and that means almost anything is possible within the very broad rules of the world.

With enough strength, a character can drag items of furniture, or just about anything else. A bowl could be thrown into a room to set off a trap, or a rat could be chased in to much the same effect (a worse effect from the rat’s perspective). Both of these events rely on rules set within the game’s logic – the bowl has weight prescribing how far it can be thrown and the rat has been programmed to run away from people. If a character were trying to lift a wooden chest, they may be told they needed to upgrade their strength. Empty it of its contents and the weight will change accordingly, however, and the problem might be resolved.

Every item and character in the game has rules governing its behaviour and the player characters (solo is possible but the co-op allows drop-in play and adds a huge amount to interactions and combat alike – more on that here) can tease and twist those rules as much as they like. It’s an enormous challenge for Larian to make sure everything functions as it should and at the moment, balance is as busted as the scales of the justice system, and odd discrepancies crop up frequently.

There’s plenty of work to do and a lot of it is the mathematics that will calibrate difficulty levels, loot drops, combat frustrations and levelling. The content is all there though, as is the language by which that content is understood, and my concerns about clumsy interactions and occasional placeholder text are more than outweighed by the sheer pleasure of tinkering with such a vast and bonkers playground.

Within four hours of playing with a total stranger, we’d both named our characters and were bickering over every minor decision. And we were laughing while we bickered. As we pursued the murder mystery, I declared that the game was fantasy noir, and that we were the squabbling heads of the land’s foremost detective agency. At the time, I was wearing a pumpkin on my head and wielding a scythe, and she was wearing a bucket and carrying the biggest staff I’ve ever seen.

Both of the characters, one male one female, can wear just about any combination of items. A stylish bucket or cooking pot can be combined with a full set of armour or a natty set of underwear. Although there’s (currently) no physical customisation of the body itself, there’s a Saints Row feel to the goofiness of the dress-up, and it’s good to see the new cover art, with two sets of sensible armour, pinned up on the wall alongside the original, with its single exposed midriff.

Along with the enormous spreadsheets full of possible items to create (cooking, tailoring, smithing, fletching, herbalism, alchemy and much more) and the tactical anarchy of the combat system, Larian have also made a world that’s joyful and inclusive. It’s a silly world, more Python than Tolkien, and it caters for earnest nobles, noble warriors, arrogant villains, neurotic shopkeepers and total strangers.

On the second day, after the mishap with the town massacre, we acquired a skill that allowed us to speak to animals and, rather than trying to save the world or solve a crime, decided to help a shabby tomcat win the heart of the elegant feline he loved. He required our assistance and, adjusting our headwear, we agreed to take on the Quest of the Missing Collar.

“What are your names, kind humans?” I imagine he asked.

“Pumpkin and Bucket, private investigators,” we nodded as we darted off into the wilderness. It was the role we had chosen to play.

Divinity: Original Sin is out early next year.

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61 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Drayk says:

    This is starting to look really amazing. I am glad I backed this game from my dear countrymen !

    • Premium User Badge

      Carra says:

      Same here. Got to support our boys :)

    • DarkFenix says:

      Indeed, backed this one because it looked reasonably promising, but it’s shaping up to be a real gem.

    • DrMcCoy says:

      Let me guess, you’re a French-speaking Belgian?
      The plenking gave you away.

      • grimdanfango says:

        I would have thought refering to the French-speaking Belgian developers as his countrymen would have been the thing to give it away.

        • Voronwer says:

          No, because about 60% of Belgians speak Dutch and I would hope that regardless of the language they speak, they’re still countrymen.

    • ViktorBerg says:

      Sadly, I did not back this, but I am definitely going to buy it if this keeps up. Loved Divinity 2, and this sounds like it’s even better.

  2. Emeraude says:

    Damn (, sorry, but I need to swear the raging desire off me) I’m really, really loving every word of this.

    I am eagerly waiting for that one.

  3. Premium User Badge

    daphne says:

    I feel delight at having backed this, a delight mirrored by Larian in all their presentations of this game and its development.

  4. iDragon says:

    Sounds very very promising, glad I backed, too. Nothings quite hit that ultima vii ( pt2 ) sense of poking at the world since.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Anthile says:

    So, can you build a staircase or a bridge made of flowerpots?

  6. aliksy says:

    This sounds really promising. Especially the lack of level scaling. Fuck level scaling. Let me be clever and do things I’m “not supposed to” do.

  7. gwathdring says:

    I’m excited. :D

  8. Dave Tosser says:

    It may seem depressing to you, dear reader, that most games journalists* haven’t played Ultima VII. Now, think back to all the classics you spent your youth playing, the Realms of Arkanias, the Wizardries, the Pool of Radiances, the Morias- whatever garish mess of dice rolls, dragons and dangerous freedom you grew up with.

    They haven’t played them. Smith isn’t an admonished relic, he’s a museum piece. He’s been recently excavated from a Roman burial site in Shropshire to tell us what life was like when all of England was Wales. Half of the people Kotaku has review shooters probably never played Wolfenstein.

    *Good journalism is like good turn-based combat. You don’t see it enough these days, but it’s worth its weight in… Oh, hold on, it’s all digital. Bugger.

    • Premium User Badge

      darkChozo says:

      Worth its weight in Bitcoins?

    • Skabooga says:

      Moria? I loved that game! It was probably my introduction to that particular genre, for the longest time, I didn’t even realize there were other morialikes out there.

  9. Premium User Badge

    darkChozo says:

    For anyone who follows this closer that I do: has Larian elaborated on when the backer alpha’s going to be out aside from “soon”? Pretty excited to get my hands on this even as a WIP.

    • DrRoxo says:

      There’s been a mention of possible alpha in two weeks time, though nothing is set in stone yet. The comment was made by Swen on KS page’s comment section.

  10. Premium User Badge

    RedViv says:

    Starting with a murder mystery is good. Very good. Oh so Ultima VII good.

    • Paul B says:

      The murder mystery gave me flashbacks to Ultima VII too. Hopefully you’ll be able to kill the ruler of Divinity’s land as well. I’m pleased to hear that Ultima VII is one of their inspirations – even playing it now in Dosbox, it gets so much right for such an old game.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I thought the same thing.

    • elevown says:

      Lol yup- I remember that :) I thought it would be mentioned since Ultima 7 was. Wasnt it a gargoyle that had been murdered in the stable or something? And you had to solve the murder as the first main quest to be let out of town?

  11. Jockie says:

    “Soon, very soon.” according to the last Kickstarter update.

  12. Blinky343 says:

    I was under the impression that you could also play two dudes or two ladies? NBD, just wondering if that changed (or was ever like that to begin with)

    Game looks fantastic, getting a town wiped out by mobs is old-school as crap and I love it

  13. RedWurm says:

    Oooooh. I was feeling a bit lukewarm about this after seeing some old footage, but this sounds quite delightful.

    • MercurialAlchemist says:

      The graphics look like nothing special. The way characters stand out is especially egregious. On the other hand, if the game has a decent story and the systems are half as well done as the article suggest, it’s irrelevant. As long as you can do quests for cats while wearing a bucket over your head.

  14. Cytrom says:

    They should really drop the “divinity” part from the title and just call it “original sin” instead. That alone would probably double their sales.

    I’m not familiar with the divinity series (is this even part of that series?), and this might sound like herecy, but that title just spells mediocrity, even though the game itself looks interesting.

    • Superpat says:

      Hey, it used to be Divine Divinity, so yeah :P

    • USER47 says:

      As far as I know it uses the same world as other Divinity games. I guess that’s about it.

      Pick up at least Divinity 2, it is good game with some brilliant funny writing and lots of good ideas…and how many games let you turn into a fuc*ing dragon?:))

      • Superpat says:

        The dialogue is indeed hilarious.

        • DrRoxo says:

          I will never forget the power rangers :D

          • ViktorBerg says:

            For me, the most memorable ones were Bellegar, a certain seductive chest and the skeleton shopkeeper.

            Oh, I almost forgot: Maxos!

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        Divinity II is great. It feels like a game from an alternate reality where old-school RPGs never became old-school.

    • Danley says:

      I actually prefer Divine Divinity (the first game) to Beyond Divinity (the second) because you’re forced to keep two characters alive in the second one — if one dies you both die. The first game very much had that sense of freedom described here where you could interact with most any object, explore most any area, and attempt to take on almost any enemy by involving higher level NPCs. Not like what is described here, but for its time it was like an open world Baldur’s Gate.

      Edit: but I just realized that Beyond Divinity and Divinity II are two different games. I haven’t actually played any of Larian’s 3D games and will have to correct that immediately.

    • Turkey says:

      I don’t know about Original Sin. Just seems like a new fancy way of saying Origins.

    • Premium User Badge

      Foosnark says:

      Agreed. Divine Divinity was mediocre right up to the point where the main quest utterly broke for me because of an item I’d dropped or sold (I don’t remember which anymore). At which point I howled, uninstalled the game, and briefly considered reinstalling it just so I could rage-uninstall it a second time.

      I have ignored any games with the name until I happened to see this and read it out of bored curiosity.

  15. MellisaGSaunders says:

    my best friend’s aunt makes 80 dollar an hour on the computer. She has been out of a job for 6 months but last month her income was 14926 dollar just working on the computer for a few hours. look at these guys.. ………………………….. W­­­W­W.FB­­4­­­9.C­­­oM

  16. lautalocos says:

    so, i can actually make people slip on the blood of their brothers? that is pretty cool, and dickish, but mostly cool.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    So glad I backed this.
    And while I never played any of the Ultimas (I was more a Dungeon Master kinda guy), that bit about quests being completable even after the death of critical characters struck a strong Arcanum vibe with me.

  18. Runs With Foxes says:

    There are more technically impressive fantasy RPGs coming out next year

    The Witcher 3 is an action game though, not an RPG.

    • 65 says:

      Don’t you start.
      Or I guess you did, so shame on you for starting.

      • XhomeB says:

        Oh, what now? He’s right. There are proper RPGs and action-RPGs with twitchy combat systems.

        • Ich Will says:

          Do you play a role? Yes, you play the role of Geralt. Action games can be RPG’s too.

          • Noviere says:

            So every game is an RPG then.

          • alseT says:

            And in Call of Duty you play the role of Soap! What now?

          • Emeraude says:

            You’d think the discussions at the Forge and the GNS critical theory (and how it then relates to video games) never happened…

          • Ich Will says:

            In Cod, you play yourself. Your soldiers skill at aiming plays no part in whether you are good at the game or not. If you are shit at aiming, you do poorly at the game, thus not playing a role and not playing an RPG. It really is fucking simple.

            Is it the players skill or the characters skill that is relevant to success. If player = not an RPG. If character = RPG. This does not preclude you from having to play the role.

        • UncleLou says:

          People still think “RPG” and “turn-based” are synonyms? It’s like it’s 1983 again, because I am pretty sure I first had that discussion when Ultima III was released.

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  20. Joey Fudgepants says:

    Orcs are scary enough. I don’t even want to think about fearsome hordes of ITALICS orcs.

  21. Zepp says:

    Shouldn’t npcs react accordingly if you are wearing a pumpkin/bucket on your head (or you’re only in your undewear)?

  22. Love Albatross says:

    Is this closer to the original Divine Divinity, then? Because that remains one of my favourite RPGs ever.

  23. XhomeB says:

    This is easily one of my most anticipated games in recent memory, that kind of approach to world design is something we pretty much haven’t seen since the original U7 and just the fact Adam mentions it here makes me go “weeee”.
    I’m pretty excited to see the night/day cycle and NPC schedules in action – it’s things like these that, if realised correctly, can make the world seem alive.

  24. Noviere says:

    I backed this thanks to the original article that compared it to U7. I can’t wait to play it :)

  25. The Dark One says:

    This preview would have convinced me to buy the game if I hadn’t already backed the kickstarter.

  26. fish99 says:

    Eddie Izzard on original sin-

  27. The Random One says:

    So this is a MALE AND FEMALE CRIME SOLVING WORLD SIM, and you should expect FLOWERPOTS TO PLAYERS.

  28. DuneTiger says:

    U7 was the very first thing that popped into my head when I read the “Why… because it’s there,” bit. That is entirely the premise of the U7 engine. Forget solving the mystery and tracking that Ben Franklin-wannabe throughout Brittania! I’m going to the pub and I’m going to start a riot by moving everyone’s bread around!

    I think it’s unfortunate that so many people have not played U7. It is that kind of game that you will just never ever see again… although it sounds like this one is getting pretty close.

  29. Premium User Badge

    NationOfThizzlam says:

    Subject/object pronouns.

    “Me and my partner found…”
    “Me and my companion were…”

    [7-day-late grammar nazi showing himself out.]