God, this was not a good choice of game to get me back into the reviewing business. Original Sin 2 is a huge, sprawling monster of an RPG, in a way I’ve not quite seen since… well, since the first Original Sin game, but before that it was Ultima VII, a game which the Original Sin series pays knowing homage to. It took me sixty hours to get to the end, which should tell you two things.
- This is a really big game. Really really big. There are “only” four acts, each taking place in a single area of the game, but the first tutorial act took me 8 hours to get through.
- That I played Original Sin 2 all the way through to the end after ragequitting from Original Sin 1 because of increasingly unforgiving and unfun quest and encounter design indicates that Larian have made some significant improvements to their formula in the sequel.
The core theme of the Original Sin games is freedom. They are unique amongst modern RPGs in that they practically invite the player to break quest sequencing; where even a throwback like Pillars Of Eternity would have a strict progression through a questline — talk to the quest giver, go to a location, kill the monster, steal his treasure, go back to the quest giver, get reward, with all of these steps being required for completion of the quest — Original Sin instead lets you blunder into its questlines at pretty much any point. There’s almost no scripted spawning of encounters dependent on you tripping a bunch of narrative flags, with OS 2 preferring to set everything in the world up when it loads the map and then leave you to find those encounters organically by exploring that map. Yes, you will run into people in towns and by the roadside who’ll give you breadcrumbs towards one quest or another, but these are mostly for guideline and theming purposes only, and they are not mechanical prerequisites.
Original Sin can do this because most of the XP you earn during the game comes from killing things during combat encounters, which is another marked departure from recent trends in more mainstream RPGs. If XP (and loot) is mostly derived from combat with enemies that exist in the world with or without a certain quest being in the player’s log then the player is not penalised much by missing those breadcrumbs, and where additional rewards are to be had the game will usually find some way to let you turn them in later even if you didn’t talk to the guy who wanted you to retrieve a bacon slicer from Mordus the undead lich beforehand. Occasionally this gets a little bit flimsy as it spawns ghostly apparitions to expound plot at you when you exit the monster’s lair and explain what you missed, but I’m fine with a bit a contrivance in the aid of making as freeform an RPG as possible.
One hallmark of Original Sin’s general attitude towards quest solutions is its teleporter pyramids. These cropped up in the first game too; they’re handy little items that will teleport the entire party to the location of the pyramid, whether that pyramid is currently on a party member who just sneaked into an inner sanctum past a dozen patrolling guards or if you just chucked it over a chasm using your character’s Telekinesis ability. Original Sin 2 takes the concept one step further, however, as one of the items you pick up in the first hour of the game are some Gloves of Teleportation; these let you teleport a single party member to anywhere within sight range, including across otherwise impassable gaps or up sheer cliffs where you can just see a glimpse of the top. This flips the usual level design tricks on their head; where I was used to being constrained and funnelled through dungeons by walls, cliffs and canyons, bypassing them in Original Sin is merely a matter of getting your mage into visual range of whatever they’re blocking you off from. As I say, the first OS did this as well, but the sequel sets out its stall immediately by giving you such a powerful exploration tool practically as soon as you start the game. It also allows for some innovative solutions to problems, like avoiding a fight by surreptitiously teleporting a set of needed keys away from the stool they’re sitting on without arousing the suspicions of the six angry guards standing around it.
The last thing I should mention when talking about content is just how much of this game is genuinely optional – I don’t mean in the sense that listening to some questgiver dialogue is optional, but instead that there are multiple difficult monsters scattered around each of the world maps that are not required for any main or side quests. These are unique enemies with special powers tucked into the nooks and crannies of the map that are encountered nowhere else in the game, and who are genuinely quite tricky to beat if they’re the same level as you — think Kangaxx the Demi-Lich from Baldur’s Gate 2, if a little less cheesy1. They do drop pretty good loot, but mostly what they provide you with is an incredibly novel sense of breadth, variety, and mystery, as I had to find these enemies myself without the game leading me by the hand via copious hints from NPCs or the quest log that I should be going to Monster Fight Club. OS 2 also features another hallmark of of Baldur’s Gate 2: legendary weapons that must be crafted by an artisan blacksmith and whose unique component items require you to solve difficult optional puzzles or defeat challenging optional enemies, but which are very worth the effort once assembled. Finding these component items, as well as other unique items hidden about the world, provides an excellent incentive for exploring a game that’s all about exploration.
Now, that all being said, much of this was also true of Original Sin 1 – the sequel executes on the fine detail a little better, but in terms of general approach they’re very much alike. Why then did I succeed in playing this one all the way to the end when I dropped out of the first one halfway through? Well, it’s down to a few seemingly-minor but incredibly important tweaks that OS 2 makes to the mechanics:
- Many puzzles still rely on tiny hidden switches, and there’s still no way of highlighting interactive objects with the push of a button — Larian probably feel that this would take the joy out of a lot of the secret hunting that drives your exploration in this game, and I’d agree with them. They’ve found a happy compromise, however, by making hidden levers, switches and locks automatically appear out of thin air with an appropriate highlight and tingly magical sound once your character gets close enough, which knocks away one of the biggest pain points of the first game.
- Original Sin’s surface-based combat returns — where mages flagrantly disregard the Geneva conventions by throwing around persistent napalm and poison gas like there’s no tomorrow, and running through/across these surfaces will cause damage or apply a status effect — but the instant-kill lava surface is used in all of two places in the entire game, and the other surface effects are mitigated by OS 2’s clever armour system where you’re immune to negative status effects just so long as your ablative pool of Magic/Physical Armour hasn’t been depleted. Put together, this means Original Sin’s godawful pathfinding is far less of an issue than it was in the past as it’s impossible to do yourself too much mischief by moving to the wrong place.
- Probably most importantly of all, after you finish the first act of the game (which essentially functions as a tutorial) you get access to free, unlimited respecs of your character builds via a magic mirror in the hold of your ship. This complete changes the tone of the game, as instead of having to choose between smashing your head against an encounter that’s artificially difficult because you built your party wrong or dumping the last twenty-plus hours of progress to start again with a new character, you can now react to difficult encounters by heading back to the magic mirror to tweak your party build.
This respec-driven iteration loop is key to fully realising the breadth of Divinity’s character system; it’s so freeform that it’s almost guaranteed you’re going to fuck up your first party build (especially if you make assumptions based on experience with other RPGs), but as long as you’re open to a little experimentation — and, occasionally, completely remodelling a character as I did about halfway through the game when it became apparent that my Necromancer Cleric was totally useless — this is merely a necessary step in your party’s evolution towards something that can beat the crap out of end-of-act bosses without breaking a sweat instead of a game-ending blocker. Because OS 2 applies the same anything-goes philosophy to its combat that it does to everything else it’s inevitable that there’s a ton of ways to build characters who are hugely overpowered, but this time the game gives you the tool you need to figure out what those are without ragequitting the game. And it absolutely doesn’t hurt that experimenting with different party builds like this is an excellent advertisement for how good OS 2’s combat system is either; it’s probably not something I’d have appreciated without the respecs letting me figure out the full range of what was possible within that system.
Original Sin 2 is a much more confident game than its predecessor. These days game devs are getting quite good at making their sequels what the first game should have been — not deviating too much from the formula but learning from their mistakes and doing it properly this time around — and OS 2 is the most recent proof of this. It’s such a sprawling game both in terms of content and general philosophy, though, that it can’t help but remain heavily flawed in places. Some of these flaws may have been less of an issue if I hadn’t spent the last decade playing far more restrictive games — for example, about a third of the way into the game you get an ability called Spirit Vision that lets you see and interact with ghosts, and this is key to solving several of Original Sin 2’s trickier puzzles. Unfortunately you’re never given any hint that this is the key, and so if you keep forgetting that you have the ability, as I did, it’s very possible to spend 10 minutes scouring the surrounding environment for the switch that you’re sure you must have missed. Hand-holding the player through the game is exactly what Original Sin 2 isn’t about, of course, but I feel it’s definitely possible to knock off some of these rough edges without compromising on the spirit of the thing. They’ve done it with the magically-appearing switches, after all; Larian just need to extend that approach to everything else.
Still, these micro-frustrations are exactly that: fleeting moments of annoyance that are easily solved by a trip to Google if you don’t fancy wasting your time. I think Original Sin 2’s biggest flaw is a much deeper structural one, and it’s one that was present in the first game too: the way enemy stats (and yours) scale with level. The ridiculous scope of the game presents Larian’s designers with a tricky conundrum: given the enormous range of options given to the player and the high likelihood that they’re going to find many overpowered combos that enable them to faceroll any equivalent-level combat encounter, and given that combat is both the main source of player XP and the main gate on player progression through a chapter, how do you stop them from cheesing these higher level gating encounters and completely ruining the game in terms of progression and challenge? The answer has been to make level scaling of stats exponential. If I had to guess the scaling factor is around 1.5 – so a level 14 baddie will be 50% more powerful than a level 13 baddie, and a level 15 baddie will be 125% more powerful than the level 13 one. No matter what OP strategy you come up with you’ll still have to chew through double the hitpoints while they also do double the damage to you, and this makes engaging enemies who are more than one level above you almost certain suicide.
This restrictive approach is somewhat at odds with Original Sin 2’s emphasis on player freedom, and by “somewhat” I mean “It flies in the face of everything the game is about”. You can go anywhere and do anything, just so long as you have the levels. If you don’t have the levels, the only conventional2 way to progress is by finding things that are the same level as you and killing them until you level up. In other words, despite the apparent freeform philosophy there is still going to be a fairly strict route through a chapter because at the very least you need to grind up XP in the lower-level areas before you can tackle the higher-level ones. It’s not quite as bad as in the first game’s almost linear progression as the pool of available XP in the sequel is larger; finding equivalent-level enemies can still be tricky since, as I said earlier, the usual breadcrumb quests are a) optional and b) not all that clear anyway, but if you invest a bit of time during Act 2 to scour the map of the majority of XP you can leave it a whole 2 levels above where the game thinks you should be, which makes this gating in the latter parts of the game substantially less onerous.
Even this generosity creates its own problem, though; since the same scaling is applied to your party’s stats, having 2 levels over a given enemy makes fighting them trivially easy as it’s you who’ll have the double-length health bar for them to whittle down. And possibly the most unfortunate outcome of this system is the way it makes you treat your equipment as totally disposable; aside from unique items, loot stats are automatically generated based on the level of the area in which you find it, and since the stat scaling is applied to equipment as well it means that anything you find that isn’t the same level as you — or at least a higher level than the equipment you currently have — is functionally useless, as a level 15 item will be a 50% improvement over a level 14 one. There is no special property or stat bonus that’s going to induce me to give up a 50% increase in my armour value, especially given that Physical and Magical Armour are responsible for blocking so many of those negative status effects that can swing a fight. If you outlevel Original Sin 2’s intended experience curve, as I did, you spend most of your time picking up underleveled items whose only useful function is as bartering material for merchants — since merchant inventory is generated based on your current level (and regenerates every time you level up) they’re by far the best source of equipment in the game, and most of the non-unique stuff you pick up when you’re actually exploring Original Sin 2’s vast and densely-packed world is relegated to vendor trash status. Which takes a lot of the fun out of it.
I can’t help but feel that this is a self-inflicted wound caused by an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. With these exponentially-scaling stats, Larian have attempted to balance the game so that players can’t break it. For me, though, half of the appeal of a game like Original Sin 2 is figuring out the best way to break it. The fact that I eventually managed to do so in spite of this stupid stat scaling indicates just what a failure it is; the net effect on the game is almost entirely negative, and it would have been far better if it had been replaced with something more conventionally linear. Baldur’s Gate 2 had linear stat scaling, and while it definitely had issues with power creep at the end of the game3 and wasn’t even remotely balanced, it was no less fun because of it and allowed for far more nuance in things like equipment stats. In Original Sin 2 it’d have the added benefit of letting the player stretch their legs a little more; it would have been really nice if preparation, positioning, and use of consumables all added up to being able to crack an area of the map you weren’t necessarily ready for yet. Right now they’re basically only relevant in boss fights, and while Original Sin 2 has a fairly high volume of monsters that would count as bosses it still means that typical combat encounters are stripped of a lot of their potential depth.
I’ve seen Original Sin 2 getting rave reviews from nearly every gaming site I pay attention to. I haven’t read these reviews — for things I already intend on playing I try not to as a rule, since I like to try and form my own uninfluenced opinion of a game before seeing what other people think — but I’m not for a moment going to say they’re not well-deserved. If nothing else Original Sin 2 is an RPG that’s quite unlike anything else on the market today, and unlike the first game it actually feels like a worthy update of the best bits of Ultima VII. Given that near universal praise, though, I do feel the need to temper expectations a little; Original Sin 2 does excellent work in fixing the parts of Original Sin 1 that caused me to ragequit and is an unarguable improvement over the first game, but design-wise it feels rather lopsided and the various tweaks, while successful, have also caused me to focus on other issues that I might not have given enough weight to before. While I’m never going to pull up a game for not being perfect, I feel like there are more than a few places where Original Sin 2 feels rather under-par – there’s definitely a lot of room here for future improvement, and if they make Original Sin 3 (which, given the sales numbers of this installment, is looking very likely) then fixing the structural contradictions that it has and getting the entire game pointed in the right direction is going to take a far bigger leap than the series has made from 1 to 2. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is definitely a success, and one that I’ve spent more time playing than any other game so far this year. But it’s still a very qualified one.
- For those who haven’t done 5 separate playthroughs of BG 2: Kangaxx is off in a super-secret crypt in the bridge district of Akathla, and to fight him you first have to recover his body parts from other dungeons in the city. Once reassembled he turns out to be one of the most bullshit enemies in the game as he’s immune to all weapons lower than +4 (there are maybe five of these in the base game) and can cast the Imprisonment spell that effectively erases party members from existence regardless of HP with no save allowed. The key to defeating this bullshit enemy is to deploy your own bullshit: by casting scrolls of Protection of Magic on your party beforehand you make yourself completely immune to every single one of his attacks bar his weedy physical one, and reduce the encounter to the simple matter of putting out enough damage to kill him before the scrolls wear off. ↩
- i.e. you’re not this guy. ↩
- Where the town guards were all carrying around those priceless +3 enchanted weapons because this was the minimum level of weapon required to pierce your sorcerously-thickened hide. ↩