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Divinity: Original Sin 2 Smartly Reinvents The RPG Party

Crash the 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.

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