Divinity: Original Sin 2 Smartly Reinvents The RPG Party

Divinity: Original Sin is one of my favourite games of recent years. It’s a systemic toybox with the skin of a fantasy RPG. I spent an evening playing the sequel [official site] a couple of weeks ago and it improves almost every area. At the foundations, there’s a more interesting world, with a stronger set of characters, but there are also improvements to combat, and the smartest twist on cooperative multiplayer that I’ve seen since Dark Souls.

The philosophy driving the original Original Sin was based around player freedom. It’s a game that allows you to do anything, though not in the way that a massive open world life-sim might promise. You can’t seamlessly travel from the planet’s sufrace to an orbital space station and then pilot a fighter into a black hole, or chop down every tree in the world in order to gather enough wood to build a bridge to the moon.

Instead, Divinity has a very clear set of rules and boundaries, and it allows you to explore every possibility within those boundaries. It’s a game in which you can kill people and might find it useful to do so from time to time, and therefore it’s a game in which you can kill all of the people because having some be invincible would be inconsistent. It’s a game in which you can move furniture and other objects, provided your character is strong enough to lift them, because you have to pick up items to solve quests from time to time, so the concept of carrying and moving things extends to EVERYTHING.

At its most basic level, the design demands that the player be allowed to complete the game, no matter which quests they choose to follow or how they choose to complete them. That leads to some quest-specific design decisions that extend throughout the game. Plot armour is out of bounds so an essential character might be killed, intentionally or not, so Divinity allows you to talk to that character’s ghost in order to get the information you need. And if you can murder one person and speak to their ghost, then maybe everybody should have some kind of post-life possibilities.

Original Sin 2 has the same premise. Everything is possible, anyone can be killed, the world is a series of simulated systems, from crime and punishment to elemental tactical combat. The difference, this time around, is that party members have their own goals and knowledge, and whether they’re controlled by other players or not, there will be conflict at some point.

In the opening section of the game, which I played, the goal is to escape from a prison colony. Bound with a device that nullifies your Source powers – which are considered a threat to the world given some deity-related shenanigans in the backstory – you’re free to help or hinder fellow prisoners as you seek one of several paths to freedom. While it’s possible to design a character from scratch, the companions that are available to join your party in the game’s first area are also available for selection as your party leader.

I chose to play as an elf, an ex-slave who is travelling the world with a hitlist of people responsible for the scars that criss-cross her body. Elves, in this world, can eat people to steal their memories. That, like almost everything else, plays into levelling systems (learn abilities by devouring the dead!) as well as questlines.

As I was sitting next to another journalist playing the game, I was treated to the rather horrifying image of his party killing my elf when they encountered her half an hour into the session. We were playing singleplayer rather than working together, and almost every time I glanced across at his screen, I saw a different approach to a problem I’d already encountered or an area that I hadn’t discovered. Whether intentional or not, having the two screens side by side was a perfect way to illustrate the ways in which a relatively small area can contain such a diversity of options and experiences.

My route out of the colony took me through a cavern full of intelligent, flaming slugs and into a prison torture-basement, where I had a prolonged and tense fight against a gang of bastards who came very close to killing my elf and the three friends she’d made along the way. I say ‘friends’ but that might not be the right word. They’re companions, with the same ultimate objective in mind (in this case – escape) but with their own motivations and secrets.

When we first arrived in the colony, we saw a man being threatened and then killed by two thugs who had accused him of a petty crime. The penal colony has its own laws and the person in charge of dishing out brutal justice was in charge of the kitchen area. Food is power in the land of the starving.

I could have intervened during the assault but I didn’t want to start trouble. Not yet. Instead, I decided to build up my strength and learn as much as I could about the guy running the show.

That’s how RPGs work, right? You decide that you, or your character, would like to deal with a situation in a certain way and then you go ahead and deal with that situation. That’s not how things worked out for me.

When I met the cook/overseer (I can’t remember his name, so let’s go with Kitchen Bastard), he had a prisoner. Being locked in a cage that is itself inside a penal colony is harsh and I felt sorry for the poor soul, especially when I found out he had been locked up for stealing some citrus fruits. Hardly the crime of the century, even though they probably come in handy for overcoming the kind of vitamin deficiencies that are no doubt rife in the awful conditions I could see all around me.

Matters were made worse by the fact that the prisoner claimed to be innocent. That didn’t mean he was innocent, of course, but I made a deal with Kitchen Bastard, arranging to deliver the actual thief in exchange for the prisoner’s life. I was going to break my promise though – Kitchen Bastard planned to execute the thief and I wasn’t going to hand someone over to that kind of fate. And so I hoped to find the thief, ensure that the prisoner was freed, and then save BOTH of their lives by pushing Kitchen Bastard into his own cauldron of boiling stew.

In the end, I found the thief and killed him myself. Remember my character’s backstory, with the scars and the pain and the list of names? Turns out the lizard who had been stealing the fruit was on that list. No other character knows that he has such a horrific past and he seems fairly harmless – a prophetic junkie lost in a hazy dream – but I’ve seen the scars and I’ll be damned if I leave him to his reveries.

With the thief dead, Kitchen Bastard agreed to free his prisoner and I found that I’d earned what little respect he has to spare. I’d wanted to kill him since the moment I arrived and instead I’d ended up doing his dirty work. Funny how things work out when you’re roleplaying a character rather than a set of numbers with a sword or a staff.

And what characters there are in this game. From the superbly pompous Red Prince, an aristocratic reptile, to the rambling host of a hundred demons, a possessed lady who explains her attractiveness to demons by comparing her mind/soul to a pleasant inn that they’re all spending their vacation time in. The writing for all of them is fantastic, skipping between world-building and witticisms with ease, and sometimes within a single sentence. I played Original Sin for the systems rather than the story, but this time around, provided the quality is consistent, the characters and subplots will be a draw in their own right.

It helps that the most attractive of the new systems – those conflicts of interest that can lead to the death of the party – is a storytelling device. Perhaps all systems are but this one is impossible to separate from the writing and the characters that enable it. It sounds enormously complicated in concept: multiple characters who have reasons to cooperate AND compete, within a world that reacts and is fundamentally changed by their actions. The brilliance of the opening area is that you don’t notice the complications; you just play as you want to play, revealing stories and situations through your choices and the traits of your characters.

I’ve already written about how the game is supposed to work and in playing it for a few hours, it’s incredibly pleasing to report that it does work. As intended. On this evidence, it’s a smarter, funnier, stranger game than its immediate predecessor that neatly answers the question, “how do you expand a game where you can do anything?”

Because Original Sin’s design is to create systems and rules that form the boundaries in which to play rather than to present a blank canvas, the sequel works as a refinement of existing features with the addition of stronger characters and world-building, and a re-examination of how an RPG party behaves. Other games have introduced relationships and sidequests related to companions, but here, Larian are exploring rivalries, secrecy, deception and the pursuit of objectives that can deny other players their goals.

If the foundation of Original Sin’s design philosophy was to provide freedom but ensure that the game could be completed no matter how much the player diverged from the ‘correct’ path, Original Sin 2 explores the idea that the party can always succeed, but that individual members can fail. That central idea sits alongside much-improved combat (there’s a multiplayer arena mode and it is excellent), a superb spell-crafting system and a world that’s more convincing and beautiful than anything Larian have produced before. And I’ve only scratched the surface – there’s an undead race to play with, polymorphing, a city to visit, and lots of other things that I’ll gladly be surprised by. I can’t wait to explore.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 will be released into Early Access on September 15th.

From this site

28 Comments

  1. Sandepande says:

    Seems lovely. If only I wasn’t too lazy to get involved with party management…

    • blightor says:

      It has improved party management, combined inventory for all characters and a better way of presenting it.

      Inventory Image

      • jmags says:

        This corrects the thing most responsible for me bouncing of D:OS, and makes me pretty optimistic for the upcoming game.

  2. ShadoW865 says:

    I can’t wait for this game! Me and my best friend started the first one and were 60 hours in before his pc crashed and deleted the save file. We had so much fun! I remember one time it was like 3am in the morning and we were having trouble with this witch, we were starting the battle for the third time at that point, I had heard the same sentences 2 times already and was sick of hearing her laugh them again so without the knowledge of my friend prepared to attack and hit the witch with my strongest attack which actually crit(5% chance)!!! From there on she was at half health and we destroyed her. Yet our characters didn’t know what she had said the 2 former times because I had interrupted her. Yet her ghost was there so we asked it “nicely” and we still got the info.

  3. Danarchist says:

    I am playing Divinity enhanced edition at the moment with a friend in coop on strategist difficulty and it is a blast! (pun intended). It very much reminds me of playing D&D with the same buddy many years ago. Especially when he comes up with things like “Tank bowling” where teleports me into the middle of the bad guys without warning lol
    I had a daydream when I was reading this of Larian doing Planescape or a turn based RPG take on warhammer 40k. Still drooling a little.

  4. TheAngriestHobo says:

    This… actually sounds pretty exciting. The original game had some very interesting ideas to it, although the fact that the devs compared the game to U7 prior to release set me up for some disappointment (it had a few similar features, but it lacked the fine details that Britannia always boasted). The whole “you’re a god or something” plot also felt a little clumsy. However, the systems driving the game were well thought out and intriguing.

    By contrast, it sounds like with the sequel Larian is now comfortable enough to flesh the game out into something truly unique and memorable in its own right, rather than a collage of inspirations and ideas. Provided it plays as well single player as it does co-op (can you play online coop or is it just local?), I think I’ll have fun with this one.

  5. Emeraude says:

    The philosophy driving the original Original Sin was based around player freedom.

    And yet it still had some of those weird gated content moments that would probably have been less jarring if the game wasn’t otherwise pushing so much for player freedom. I remember one door that could lead to solving the first major case in the game that basically broke rules to remain shut a bit longer.

    I had a weird time, and a love/hate relationship with that game.

    • Emeraude says:

      Oh, and that curmudgeon post notwithstanding, I’m really looking forward to what Larian can do with that game.

  6. Rizlar says:

    So excited, D:OS is perhaps one of my favourite games ever. Having backed it on Kickstarter it’s going to be hard to resist the early access version… but I want to play it when it’s finished.

  7. bandertroll says:

    Why EA? I already have Torment: ToN in EA, patiently waiting for the release. From my point of view, it’s all the fuss with EA unnecessary and pointless. I can just give them my pre-ordering, but EA…

    • Rizlar says:

      To be honest I also resist playing stuff before it’s finished but there are clearly a lot of benefits to early access. It’s basically a big beta test, devs can get more feedback and playtesting than they will ever really need. Streamers can give a game exposure and an audience it wouldn’t otherwise have had leading up to release.

      It can also go horribly wrong (although games fail in private too), it’s about how you use it.

    • Fry says:

      They’re committed to releasing a beta to kickstarter backers, anyway. Might as well make it available to anyone interested enough to pay.

    • Mokinokaro says:

      Much like with the first game, the EA period is for player feedback and testing.

      Quite a bit got fixed during the six months of early access for the first one.

  8. Sadfist says:

    I remeber how I was eager to play first Divinity: Original Sin because of how it reminded me of good games of old.
    Then I stopped playing it after just few hours because of.. the same reason.
    I really hope Larian will add some dynamics to the 2nd game.
    Going to buy it in any case just to support these great guys and their approach to making games

  9. FreshHands says:

    I have waited so long for the first game (pre-order, early access and all that) only to realise it wasn’t designed for my particular sensibilities.

    After reading this, it seems I will make the same mistake twice.

    At least I will have supported a company that I like, despite not liking their games.

  10. Renfield says:

    The first game wore out its welcome for me, but I’m excited about this one as Chris Avellone’s involved. An Avellone plot vehicle with the core gameplay mechanics from D:OS sounds like a real treat.

  11. RIDEBIRD says:

    I really dislike that they are releasing it to Early Access instead of finishing it.. I just hope the game is content complete, because I fear I can’t wait.

    • Mokinokaro says:

      The early access version only contains the first act (the prison mentioned in the article.) They did similar with original sin 1.

      It’s for player feedback.

  12. engion3 says:

    I backed the first one and got overwhelmed, mainly by the inventory. Pillars of Eternity on the other hand, my favorite game of last year by far.

  13. Stillquest says:

    I do wonder how the whole “cooperative, but with differing goals and lots of ways to mess up your friends’ plans” thing will work out. Then again, I have a lot of faith in Larian, and D:OS was a blast.

  14. Carra says:

    The first one was easily my goty. Loved the humor, puzzles and the amazing combat system. Excited for the sequel.

  15. Taear says:

    Original Sin was one of those games that I got to the end of and never wanted to touch it again. It had so many nice ideas, I liked the character system and the spells and the locations.

    The destructable backgrounds were fun, things like lying acid on the floor and exploding it gave the combat a lot of different possibilities.

    But the puzzles in the game were horseshit. There’s one where you press some buttons in a certain order. They’re well hidden and there’s nothing to tell you what order to do them in, I had to google it. Nowhere could I find an explanation of how to do it “properly”.

    Tonnes of other parts of the game worked this way too. A good example is the visit to a witch’s cottage early in the game. You smash through a barrier. It’s empty inside. Downstairs is a little room with no exit. As the game has a few other bits where you get to a point and have to backtrack and do other stuff you think no worries, I’ll go somewhere else.

    This next area is quite high level and quite punishing. I persevered and carried on but felt like it was a strange jump: why make it so hard out of nowhere?
    I looked around and a lot of people were saying the same thing.

    It turned out that on the bottom floor of the witch’s house was a small button on the wall. It blends in pretty well but that button opens the wall and takes you to another dimension where you rescue the witch.

    There’s so many examples of this in the game and it drove me absolutely mad. I was constantly having to google what to do because it was so stupidly hidden with no clues and it went against the way the rest of the game had worked. I really REALLY hope they’ve got over this in the next game.

    • MercurialJack says:

      Maybe you didn’t have a character with high enough perception in the party? If I remember correctly, when one did, the character would stop and point out things like buttons or traps or suspicious statues etc. But I might be remembering wrong – it’s been a while.

  16. Cederic says:

    Yeah, playing the game a year late with all the guides on the internets available made it much less frustrating.

    There were several fun and interesting fights, which I greatly enjoyed, but the puzzles weren’t engaging and there was a bit much running around.

    Admittedly most of the running around was due to the worse aspect of the game: Inventory, crafting and needing to transfer all your gear to the guy with the best shopping skills to get a decent rate from the merchants.

    Sharpen a sword before selling it, 30% higher price? Of course I’m going to stock up on swords until I get to a whetstone. My skilled smith isn’t the charismatic haggler? Great, now I have to transfer all those swords to him before I can sell them.

    It’s lunacy not to do that, in a game that supports it, and so by merely building it into the mechanics the game largely forces a level of grind to assure that the nice stuff for sale is affordable because the economy will be balanced around people doing the insane stuff to earn more cash.

    That’s not fun. Make life easier ffs.

  17. Chillicothe says:

    “Elves, in this world, can eat people to steal their memories. That, like almost everything else, plays into levelling systems (learn abilities by devouring the dead!) as well as questlines.”

    Digital Devil Saga 3: Steal Everything What Ain’t Nailed Down Edition!

  18. Tayh says:

    Has there been any word when it will be released drm-free and/or on gog.com?

    • Samuel Erikson says:

      “Has there been any word when it will be released drm-free and/or on gog.com?”

      It will be on GOG eventually, though it looks like it’s coming to Steam earlier. Here’s the relevant section of the most recent KS update:

      “The key that you claim is going to be the same key that applies to your game. You can’t play Early Access on Steam and then get the game on GOG.
      We can not swap Steam keys for GOG keys in the future.
      We’re working with GOG to get let people who claim GOG codes get early access ASAP, but for now early access is available through Steam only. We’ll let you know once the GOG versions are available.
      So, if you want to play your copy of Divinity: Original Sin 2 using GOG, DON’T claim a Steam Key just to get into Early Access faster. We can’t swap it for a GOG key later.

      link to kickstarter.com

  19. gwathdring says:

    This game seems to be doing something I’ve been thinking/yammering about for a while: taking lessons from tabletop RPGs and board games other than raw numerics or mechanics and applying those lessons to video games. :)

    I’m quite excited!