Divinity: Original Sin 2 [official site] has just landed on Kickstarter but we've already played an early build. It's an ambitious sequel, supporting up to four players who will now be able to compete as their objectives overlap and diverge. As well as bringing about the life and death of the party, Original Sin 2 brilliantly overhauls its predecessor's turn-based combat and introduces multiple playable races and an origin system that defines each character's evolving place in the world.
Bold and inventive, it adds complex layers of overlapping narrative consequences to Original Sin's world of interlocking systems. This is how it works.
In the Fallout games, it's possible to reverse-pickpocket, using your sleight of hand to plant an item in an NPC's inventory rather than removing one. This unlikely skill can be used to arm NPCs or to mess with their dress sense by replacing one item of clothing with another. Most people don't use reverse-pickpocketing to leave a surprise gift in an NPC's pocket though - they use it to drop armed explosives into peoples' trousers.
Is that a stick of dynamite in your pocket or are you just pleas-
And so it goes.
For their sequel to the extraordinarily inventive Divinity: Original Sin, Larian are seeking to elevate reverse-pickpocketing and other chicanery to an artform. The stand-out fresh feature in Divinity: Original Sin 2 is inter-party competitive questing, which should not only allow for diversity in narrative and objectives, but also allows the studio to build on the systemic simulation of the world. I spent a couple of hours playing an early build set in a single town last week, and while the new origin stories and cleverly branching subplots are the big news, the changes to crafting and combat are just as smart and exciting. For crafting, the big addition is the ability to combine skills, allowing for the creation of a stealth spider (stealth + spider summon) or a rain of blood (rain + blood; heals characters with a vampirism skill). That, in itself, is exciting. There's a whole lot more to come.
A few quick paragraphs on combat before moving on to the main course. Fighting is still turn-based but there are two major changes. There are fewer action points to use in a turn. When Larian announced that, it seemed like a minor change but in practice it's akin to a rewrite of the entire system. Rather than calculating how many action points will remain if you choose to move or use an ability, now your characters speed determines movement range for a single action point while skills take up one or two points. It makes the game far more tactical, flexible and legible.
The second change relates to Source abilities, which are the strongest powers in the game. To use them, you burn Source points and these are hard to come by. We were shown three abilities that allow players to gain them. Bodies can be 'consumed', in and out of combat, which provides one Source point but also shifts the player's karma. What the consequences for that shift are, I can't say yet, but I can say that making corpses explode into a bloody mess during a fight is A Good Thing. The second method involves Channelling, which freezes the character and allows other characters (including Source-powered enemies) to draw points from them, chipping away at their health as they do so.
The last method we were shown ties back to the wider mechanics of the world. In the first Original Sin you could kill any NPC and finish the game without them. That's still true but now, dead NPCs leave behind a ghost and characters with the right trait can communicate with those ghosts. It's also possible to consume their soul, which will top up an empty bloodstone if you have one handy. Bloodstones, when charged, can be used during combat to provide a Source Point. Handy.
Talking to ghosts is fascinating though. It means that if we were playing together, I could kill an NPC that you were hoping to talk to, interrogate his ghost and then use the information I discovered to cause more trouble down the line. You see, even if we were to play together, we wouldn't necessarily be on the same side. Not all of the time, anyway.
It makes sense that Larian, the mischief-makers of the modern CRPG, would create an entire set of mechanics that enable trickery and encourage playful deviation from the usual roleplaying flow. That flow generally involves accepting a quest, going to the quest location, killing the thing or collecting the thing, and then returning to the quest-giver to receive a reward or advance the story. Swen Vincke, CEO of Larian, dismisses the word 'quest', preferring 'situation' - “A quest implies a definite objective, a situation tells you to be reactive and to improvise.”
Here's how it all plays out. When you create your character, you'll choose a race and an origin story. There are currently four selectable races – dwarves, humans, lizards and wood elves – but the game will include more at release. Your race and elements of your origin story ('noble', 'criminal', 'assassin') are tags that NPCs might be programmed to respond to in various ways. Many dwarves, for example, are economic refugees who have left their crumbling empire to carve out a life among the other races of the world. In many places, they're unwelcome and a dwarven character is likely to meet with hostility in certain quarters, while receiving support from his struggling fellows.
Another character was secretly in the employ of a group of assassins and had a target on the island. The other players didn't know about this but could accidentally ruin the assassin's chances of success by interfering with the target. In a perfect example of the kind of intertwined branching objectives that can emerge, one character might follow a plotline that makes them reliant on the survival of the assassination target in order to leave the island, while the assassin has been promised safe passage if he carries out the job. The respective players might not be aware that they're locked into contradictory objectives but when they do become aware, they can either decide to work together for the greater good, or apply metaphorical (and perhaps real) knives to backs.
In the scenario I played, the four characters in the party had been shipwrecked and were trying to escape from an island. One of the two humans in the group was of noble birth and was a native of the settlement on the island, a place now divided along racial and economic lines. Original Sin 2 still has much of the silliness that helped its predecessor to stand out from the crowd – Pet Pal, the Dr Doolittle skill, is in glorious form during a conversation with an unhappily pampered dog – but there's a serious bite to the world. Racism, class warfare and fear of Source magic and those marked by it all play a part in the situations that arise during our party's attempts to leave the island.
Source magic is the one common element shared by our characters. They all channel it and, indeed, the meeting place for every character, no matter what their origin, is a prison in which they were to be purged of their abilities. This would leave them hollowed out, effectively lobotomised. Their escape places them in a predicament – when they meet characters who know of them, due to their chosen origin story, their Source abilities may be exposed. I chose to have one character lie, convincing people that she'd been freed because her apparent Source affinity had been a false alarm. It's also possible to threaten, boast and charm. Dialogue choices, as well as actions, might lead to new tags being applied to your character, opening up new NPC reactions and options during conversations.
It's exactly what I wanted from a sequel, building on the anything-goes nature of its predecessor with a narrative system that should produce controlled chaos similar to the elemental accidents and combinations that drive combat. There are whole sets of new behaviours that plug into the competitive party elements, including the ability to steal an item and then drop it in another player's inventory. Inform a guard that you've seen that player's character acting suspiciously and the alert status of the area rises in relation to that player alone. Next stop, a 'random' bag search, and either a fight, a bribe or a trip to jail.
Creativity is encouraged at every turn. Combine the new flexible crafting system with the ability to plant or gift items and you'll soon be providing your so-called allies with shiny red healing potions...that are actually bottles of poison with a dash of red dye added into the mix. There's a great deal of scope for murder between friends and Vincke says the possibility of constant grief and griefing will be countered in two ways. First of all, this isn't an MMO. It's a game for up to four people and those people will likely know each other and want to have fun. Sometimes the fun will involve murdering one another in sneaky ways but the penalties for intra-party slaughter will be slight. And that brings in the second point – characters who die will resurrect at the most recent waypoint they visited. There will be some penalty but the details of that will come later, when the world is complete and balancing begins in earnest.
What Larian are aiming for with Original Sin 2 is remarkable; an enormous RPG that adds four possible player-centred layers of systemically driven narrative on top of all of the complexities that were already in place in the previous game. Constructing a world that can support this kind of competitive and cooperative narrative is daunting, in terms of both design and workload (the amount of dialogue required just for the location in the early build is astonishing). If it all comes together, it could have many of the qualities of a social tabletop roleplaying experience with the benefits of a complex set of mechanics that begins with the finely tuned turn-based combat and runs right through to the tangle of overlapping objectives that make up the narrative.
The major challenges for Original Sin 2 might well relate to directing the player experience. Will the game effectively promote cooperation as the solution to major conflicts without placing artificial limits and brakes in place at key points? Will the singleplayer experience benefit from many of the new features? The building blocks are already in place and the strengths of Original Sin have been amplified. Vincke says every situation in Original Sin 2 has "N+1 solutions". Fail at every turn of the script and kill everyone who might have been able to help, and you'll find an escape route as you scrape the bottom of the barrel. That's the heart of Original Sin - for every problem, a thousand solutions. Larian know how to construct compelling situations that make use of their existing design and if they can master these new narrative systems as well, Original Sin 2 will be another triumph.
We'll have more coverage early next week, including thoughts on the Kickstarter campaign and the challenges ahead.