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Divinity: Original Sin 2 verdict - face-robbing, limb-chomping, heart-breaking

Teaching animals about death

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Divinity: Original Sin 2 [official site] is out of Early Access and fully released. Adam and John have both spent many, many hours with the alpha, and are now beginning to chew their way through the full version. That makes it an ideal time to get together to chat about their thoughts on the game so far, the experience of playing an RPG before it’s finished, and how to break the news of a death to a baby bear.

John: Adam – I just murdered a sad dog because he got cross when I fed him a human leg.

Adam: I hope you’re pleased with yourself. Last week, I found a shark that appeared to be stuck on a beach. I was going to return it to the sea but we had a bit of a chat and then I…well, I decided to sample some of the meat it had stuck between its teeth, John. I ate the meat from the shark’s mouth.

And that’s how I found out exactly who the shark had eaten and later that day, I broke the news to that person’s friends. The shark, as far as I know, is still rotting on the beach.

Divinity is quite odd, isn’t it?

John: It is. But somehow incredibly tightly choreographed for such a huge and adapting RPG.

Adam: It’s probably worth explaining how you knew the dog was cross and why we’re feeding legs to dogs and eating human remains in the first place. It’s because eating body parts gives elven characters access to the memories of the deceased and because there’s a talent called Pet Pal that lets you talk to animals.

As you say, it’s a game that adapts to the players’ actions and tries to accommodate every strange decision you make, and it does that by piling up all kinds of consequences for all kinds of actions. Essentially, Larian know you might decide to kill the person who gives you a vital quest so they figure they should ensure you can get the information you need by eating that person’s corpse, or talking to their ghost, or through some other means.

It’s a game that refuses to acknowledge the concept of ‘plot armour’, that pesky stuff that prevents Important People from dying, and so much of the strange rules of its world stem from that.

John: I could probably go back another step and ask, did you play the first Original Sin?

Adam: Think harder and you’ll remember my excellent and thorough review of it. I’m sure you said it deserved a Pulitzer at the time, or whatever award people hand out to the likes of us (it’s a Peperami and can of Tizer – ed).

It’s a very good game but Original Sin 2 is better in just about every way that matters. Part of that is budgetary, I think. Both were Kickstarted but that’s a fraction of the costs involved – with Original Sin 1 there are areas that feel undercooked, particularly toward the end. The sequel is much more confident. It seems strange to say given how successful it became, but the first was quite experimental. A big, systemic RPG that didn’t have much in common with either of the Bethesda or BioWare poles that loom over the landscape.

It’s a different beast to the Infinity Engine inspired games that have come along recently as well – the likes of Pillars of Eternity – and I wasn’t sure it’d find an audience. In the end it found a big enough audience for the sequel to have much more money behind it and I’m hoping that means it’s solid right through to the end. I still haven’t finished it though so I can’t say for sure just yet!

John: Adam! Adam, if you go into the cave with the Royal Fire Slug with Pet Pal as a skill, she starts barking on at you about her falling out with Braccus! They were going to get married! I mean, she wasn’t a fire slug then.

This really rather extraordinarily captures for me just how good this game is. I played it through before, and this cave offered me one of the toughest fights in the game (playing on Explorer mode in the alpha was considerably harder than it is in the released version – I’m about to raise the difficulty as the fights are a bit dull now). But this time it’s a gamble of wits as I try to bluff my way through a conversation with this monstrous creature, right now faced with a 50:50 guess over whether he was left or right handed. You don’t know if Braccus was left or right handed, do you? (It’s a trick question.)

Adam: The main thing I remember about Braccus is that you absolutely should freeze Braccus. Freeze him until he is so frozen that you might accidentally mistake him for a iced lolly and eat him on a hot day.

Let’s not get back to eating people though. Let’s just say that I agree with you about how great it is to compare notes with other people who are playing. You know that old Austin Powers gag, that’s probably been used in many other places, where the henchmen are shown to have their own live away from the evil headquarters? Original Sin 2 is full of moments like that – you clear out a dungeon and then talk to someone else who went through the same place and made friends with all the people in it. They were just faceless, voiceless minions to one player, but another one might know their entire backstory and their favourite colour and everything.

John: Talking of backstory, let me set this up for those who haven’t had the pleasure. At the start you pick a character, either pre-made, which strikes me as fairly essential what with all the background they all have, or your own custom build. You’re all Sourcerers, people with magic, and have been rounded up, collared with an anti-magic neckpiece, and are on a boat sailing to the island on which you’ll be imprisoned. Along with all the other pre-built characters you didn’t choose! So did you go pre-built?

Adam: Yeah. I am an aristrocatic lizard, which is just about as far from Actual Adam as it’s possible to get, me being a scruffy urchin of a primate. When I play RPGs I tend to play ‘as myself’, in that I’ll do what I think is right and always try to romance the strong, silent type rather than the quirky one. Divinity has been odd because I’m genuinely trying to roleplay as this snooty lizard prince and it’s kind of liberating. I’m being a bit of a dick, John, and it’s very entertaining.

John: Heh. Being an aristocratic lizard, this is too easy for me. So first time I was Sebille, the assassin elf, and this time (save games don’t transfer across, to my horror) I’ve gone with new character Fane, a skellington who wears ripped off faces to pass as not a walking skellington. He’s apparently a bit more challenging, as you’ll send the NPCs into panic if they ever accidentally see your bony visage.

Adam: I had a little go at being a skellywobble earlier and a man saw me and shouted, “THE DEAD ARE RISING”, so I killed him and was instantly annoyed that I’d sort of proved his point and probably made it much harder for every other undead person who wanted to integrated into society. I was part of the problem.

We should mention that we could be doing all of this together, in co-op. I talked about how much fun it is comparing notes with other players, but imagine if you had befriended a bunch of brigands who were more like Merry Men than pillagers and plunderers, and then I met up with you later that same day wearing the face of their leader and started bragging about how I’d wiped out “some real bad sorts”.

You’d be outraged!

John: Imagine knowing someone else and having enough overlapping time. Imagine such a world.

I need to share the strangeness of voices being added in this released version. The alpha had just text, which was odd at the very start, but then settled in to normality for me – indeed, even your Pillars and the like are only sporadically spoken. But now everything and everyone has a voice, and because I’ve already met them, THEY’VE ALL GOT THE WRONG VOICES. It’s such an odd experience, like watching a film of a book you read and their matching nothing of how you’d imagined it.

Adam: I’ll turn off the voices. I’ll take out my headphones and unplug the speakers if I have to. If voice acting isn’t absolutely top notch I’d rather go without it, and I have very exacting standards. And it’s not even just about quality, as you say, it’s that I already know a lot of these characters.

But there’s another level as well: the writing is brilliant. It’s witty and it’s clever and occasionally it’s even quite moving as you come to the end of some of the major plotlines that have their hooks deep into characters you’ve come to care about. But so much of that writing feels like it was constructed to be read from a page (or screen) rather than performed.

John: Yeah, it’s very pleasant to read, in a way RPGs really usually are not. It’s not turgid purple prose lore guff nonsense, but pleasing writing. I think it’s a bit less pleasing to listen to. Which isn’t a slight at (most of) the voice actors (the person who did the little girl elf’s voice can maybe not do that again please), but more that – I dunno – I don’t think I’d even consider switching it off if I hadn’t played the alpha. Still, clicking past it as I read right now.

Also, Adam, Sebille just learned first aid by eating a man’s head.

And oh no, I’m just remembering the time I broke it to a baby bear that his mummy was dead. I mean, this is a game in which I explained the concept of death to a dog, but the bear scene really stands out to me. Because it wasn’t part of something else. At one point I’d found a dead bear. At another, this cub. And I could choose to lie to the poor wee thing, or I could tell it the cold miserable truth. And you can’t lie to anyone about whether their mum’s dead or not. That’s just never ok. And this poor little creature. And that was that, the game didn’t refer to it again. It was just a deeply peculiar moment, not even accessible if you don’t have the right skill.

Adam: There’s an important lesson here. Sometimes a little tale to tell is its own reward. I don’t need every little thing to have consequences down the line or to be a Decision Moment that affects how people view my character or the ending that I get.

There’s also a lesson about the line between a white lie and a cold hard truth, but we won’t go into that. We should talk about combat instead. I love the combat but then I’m a sucker for almost anything turn-based, and all the elemental trickery delights me. You were finding it a bit cumbersome, I think?

John: Yeah, I’m not such a big fan. It’s better balanced now in this released version, but it still doesn’t have the right sweet spot between too easy, and just watching as the enemies get infinity turns in a row because all their attacks are disabling and it’s literally impossible to do anything other than sit there and watch as they murder you one by one. I think the game gives opponents way too many ways to steal turns, and it’s pretty boring when it does. So why do you lurrrrrve it?

Adam: I actually agree with you on the pacing. It can become a real pain when there are interrupts and steals all the time. It’s like a neat language with horrible grammar. But I like that there are so many possibilities, and that you can end up with a complete mess of a battleground because of all the different fluids that get spilled.

And as with the stories we’ve been telling, I like how daft it is. “Remember that time I made it rain knives and then electrified the blood of the people caught in the knife rain?” “Yes, and what about the time you blessed a fire so that it healed everyone and then somebody else made it rain actual water but the water was poison and we didn’t know what was hurting us or healing us anymore?”

Now that I’m thinking about it, I think all of the abilities – and there are so many, with craftable ones on top – might add a little too much noise and take away from the fun of the overlapping elements a bit. I’ll need to examine it all for another thirty hours to be sure.

John: It’s still far more interesting than the combat in the recent BioWare-alikes. And yes, it’s lots of fun to deliberate blow up a barrel of oil near where the enemy is standing, then set it on fire with your next character’s move. It feels much more involved, especially as those barrels never feel staged – they’re all over, and this is just where the fight’s happening. Although I do wish the otherwise amazing pathfinding (you can drop a marker the other side of the game map and have your crew make their way there on their own), during combat it’s a bit of a pain that they won’t run around oil or whatever, and so sacrifice action points to Slow, or get sick from Poison.

Adam: I should get back to playing the damn thing because apparently that is my job. It’s not a bad job, all told.

John: I’m playing it between typing sentences. I just chloroformed my own guy.

Adam: I’m so happy that you’re enjoying it. For a while back there I thought I was going to be levering it into our end of year calendar again, looking around for support and finding that NOBODY had time to play a sixty hour RPG. Outrageous.

And we’ll definitely have to play together at some point so that I can chloroform you and save you the effort of doing it to yourself.

John: Yes! Also, next week I’m going to explore the DM mode and try to make a little game for us all to play together.

Adam: Make sure there are plenty of woodland creatures and lovable pets for me to break bad news to. It’s the only way I can level up.

John: You will have to explain cancer to a kitten.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 is out now for Windows, and is available from gog and Steam for £29.99.

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