Apologies for the spotty posts over the last month or so. Normal service should be resumed from this point onwards.
It’s possible that writing this review right now is a bad idea. I’ve just ragequit from Divinity after encountering yet another drastically unfair difficulty shift in the combat, and am seriously considering giving up on the game altogether as its frustrations have been outweighing its better qualities for quite some time now. This probably doesn’t put me in an entirely objective frame of mind for assessing Divinity as a whole, and so I am liable to put the boot in a little more enthusiastically than I might do otherwise. On the other hand, that I can even consider up and quitting after investing more than thirty hours into what had appeared, during the first dozen hours, to be the best game I’d played all year? That’s a situation that needs some explanation, and one which I think says a lot about Divinity’s darker side. You can read dewy-eyed coverage of the return of the old-school RPG at your other, more respectable gaming websites. This review is going to contain a lot of bitching, because god knows Divinity gives me a lot of things to bitch about.
A lot of people are comparing Divinity to Baldur’s Gate, but while they do certainly have a few things in common I don’t think BG is Divinity’s closest touchstone. To find Divinity’s inspiration you instead have to look a little further back to Ultima 71, a game which I think has aged badly but which took a truly original approach to RPGing that I don’t really think has been attempted since: namely that you should give the player the tools to do whatever they want. There are many game mechanics in Divinity that have direct analogues in Ultima, from the way the player interacts with objects in the world (did you like stacking crates in Ultima? You’ll love Divinity) to the quest system and inventory management. Divinity hasn’t quite replicated Ultima’s sprawling freedom in its entirety, instead choosing to cherry pick and streamline the best of it, but since I found Ultima 7 to be a little overwhelming when I played it that’s no bad thing.
Even so, up until about twenty hours in the opening hour of Divinity was one of the hardest parts of the game, simply because there were so many new or resurrected mechanics to take in. The tutorial dungeon throws feature after feature at you — dynamic elemental surfaces you can take advantage of in combat (use fire to burn away poison, electrify pools of water to stun enemies caught in them, that sort of thing); an actually pretty nifty party management system where you can split your group up into any configuration you want and move each character separately; the sneaking mechanic, which I haven’t really taken advantage of due to not having put points in the Sneaking skill; being able to break chests and doors to get at the loot inside if you can’t do lockpicking — the list goes on and on to the point where it’s quite difficult to absorb it all in one sitting. Divinity then compounded the problem by dumping me straight into the largest town in the game, chock full of people to talk to and quests to pick up. That first hour suffers from a pretty bad case of information overload 2 and is the very opposite of a soft landing, making Divinity a very, very difficult game to get into.
I stuck with it, though, and after that first hour I started to grasp how all of these new mechanics fit together and was pleasantly surprised to discover that all that complexity had a point. The first act of Divinity is flat-out fantastic, with a genuine go anywhere, do anything approach – that is, as long as you can defeat the monsters. Monster level is the only real limit on your exploration, and this is where the Baldur’s Gate comparisons come in; the effect of level advantage is such that even later on in the game a monster two levels higher than you is nigh-impossible to kill, and that’s something compounded at the start of the game where a level two monster is effectively twice as powerful as your level one heroes. It’s a harsh way to set your difficulty, and later on I’d point to it as the main culprit behind the game becoming so frustrating and unfun, but the opening area of Divinity is very well-designed and allows you a significant degree of flexibility in what order you attempt things in; there’s no sliding along well-greased plot rails here, just proper open world exploration and adventuring.
The combat system is one of the primary drivers behind this flexibility. It’s turn-based, with each character retaining a stock of action points they can use to move around and execute abilities to blow up their enemies, and the elemental surfaces and interactions allow for a great deal of tactical experimentation. I cheesed a couple of my first fights by luring the undead plaguing the town into a pool of water I’d created by smashing a water barrel and then repeatedly zapping them with lightning bolts; this stunned half of their group while my other three characters dealt with the remainder. A little later on I had to venture through an area that was covered in burning surfaces, so I used a Rain spell to put out the fires and then summoned a Fire Elemental to tank the attacks from the fire-themed baddies, and an Ice Elemental to deal extra damage to them. The character system is pretty fantastic and lets you build just about any archetype you can think of; the effectiveness of skills is limited by the number of points you have in the relevant talent, but there is absolutely nothing stopping your plate-clad mace-wielding cleric from taking a few points in Pyrokinetic so that he can literally burn people with righteous fire. It’s a completely open setup that doesn’t penalise you for not min/maxing your characters; my main character who started the game as a cleric now has a hodge-podge of points in Bartering, Lockpicking, water magic and fire magic, and still remains combat-viable as long as he’s fighting monsters who are the same level as him.
The combination of these excellently open combat and character systems leads to a pretty wide variety of options available to you in a fight, and a simple change in tactics can scrape you through a battle that seemed unwinnable the first time you tried it. Nowhere is this more true than at the start of the game where there’s several “right” solutions to a given combination of enemies, and so playing it smart stands in admirably for experience grind. I did much of the first act out of order — I managed to skip one of the sub-bosses and even an entire dungeon entirely – and while it was certainly challenging it never felt unfair, or that I needed to go somewhere else to grind my level until I was powerful enough to face a certain baddie. Couple that with competently implemented puzzles, quests that required some brainpower to finish and writing that was consistently entertaining if not exactly Obsidian-quality storytelling, and the end result was that for all of the first act I felt in control and that I was playing the game on my terms, which is exactly what this Ultima style of RPG sets out to do.
So where does it all go wrong? Warning: some minor spoilers are coming in this next part, although nothing to do with the story.
The answer to this question is “as soon as you enter the second area”, since it’s here that the quest and area design starts to break down. You enter the second act with two major quests still in progress, and the moment the level loads a man runs down the road and lays out some fairly heavy breadcrumbs towards the cult that’s taken over a mining town called Silverglen. If you try to pursue the other quest chain, you discover that the NPC you’re supposed to talk to has been sealed inside a magic bubble with no clear way of getting inside. I naturally assumed that I was supposed to tackle the Silverglen cult first and come back for the magic bubble later, only to discover that nearly all of the enemies in this area were 2-3 levels higher than I was. As previously covered, this is not something that can be compensated for by clever tactics in the combat; it’s an unassailable advantage for your enemies and a pretty clear sign that I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I couldn’t figure out where else I was supposed to go since I’d cleaned out the first area and there were no other exits from that map. I spent probably a full hour traipsing around, backtracking through the first area in case I’d missed anything and combing through the for clues that would tell me what I should do next, before breaking down and looking up the answer on the internet.
It turned out that instead of this second area leading on naturally from the first, what I was actually supposed to do was bring down the magic bubble by killing some random mushrooms (I don’t know how the fuck you’re supposed to figure this out) and enter a magic mirror, when then teleports you to a third zone that you have absolutely no idea exists but which contains several of hours of play that make up the missing levels. You have to do this in order to progress; there is no way of shortcutting this sequence, and so it’s at this point that Divinity’s amazing open world starts to collapse in utter ruin. Past this point you’re straitjacketed more and more by your level versus that of your enemies, and you end up scrabbling for every scrap of XP so that you can level up enough to do the next bit of what becomes an increasingly linear quest chain. The quality of the encounter design also starts to deteriorate dramatically, transitioning from the fun, challenging fights of the first act to battles where the odds are stacked against you so heavily you basically have no option but to cheat in order to win. For example, I just got done with a fight where the enemy leader cast Slow on all of my characters every single turn. This basically meant I only got to move every other turn, and I had to somehow kill four very tough demons plus the leader who also healed himself every single turn. I eventually ground my way through it after about twenty minutes of skipping my turns to conserve my action points and watching the demons punch me in the face during the enemy phase, but it was an awful, awful slog and did a great deal to set me up for the ragequit about an hour later.
As Divinity continued on its downward spiral throughout the second act the UI and pathing annoyances I had been putting up with because the rest of the game was so awesome started to become more of a pressing issue. The pathing thing is pretty simple: while the enemy AI will path around damaging surfaces if it can, the same isn’t true of your party members. For example, there’s a lava surface which will instantly kill anything that touches it unless you’ve got fire immunity. If you give one of your party a move order that even brushes the lava they’ll happily traipse across it only to be burned to a crisp, and I have to wonder about a game that assumes I’d want to kill my own characters rather than acting on its own initiative and drawing a path around the lava. The UI is a little harder to explain, but mostly revolves around two issues. One is that there is no double-click confirmation for movement or attack orders, meaning the slightest misclick will lead to your character walking around an enemy rather than hitting them in the face and probably eating opportunity attacks as they do so. It’s also a problem with spell selection; selecting a spell from the hotbar will ready it to be cast and enter targeting mode, but if you change your mind, decide that you want to cast a different spell and click on that spell’s icon, the game will instead assume that you want to cast the first spell underneath the sodding hotbar, often resulting in your fireballing your own party. The second UI issue is that enemies don’t have hitboxes; you must instead click directly on the enemy model in order to attack them, and this can be tricky at times because a) the enemy model is constantly moving in an idle animation and will often move out of the way of your cursor just as you click, leading to one of the comedy misclicks I just described, and b) the encounter designers are dicks and love to intentionally hide baddies inside bushes like this where you physically cannot target them because the bush is in the way. Like, the bush won’t fade out to make your job easier or anything, you just won’t be able to hit them except through targeting them via the initiative tracker at the top of the screen. Which only works for spells. Goddamn.
These are seemingly minor issues but they have collectively led to more deaths and reloads than fights I genuinely couldn’t handle, and at times I felt like I was fighting the game’s UI more than I was the actual bad guys. Taken on their own, they’re an annoyance. Taken in tandem with the bullshit combat encounters you have to deal with in the latter half of the game, though, they turn what had been the best RPG I’d played in years into a dreadful ordeal that I still can’t muster up the will to go back to. The plot is still engaging and I do like the world they’ve set up, but I just can’t face the idea of ramming my head against yet another one of these frustrating, criminally unfun battles. Oh, and to add insult to injury the puzzles also go from from “Work out what to do based on these clues!” to “Push each of these four tiny grey buttons set into grey stone in a specific order that you have to figure out through trial and error, and also you don’t even know the buttons are there in the first place.”
It was while Googling the solution to one of these puzzles (I didn’t even care any more) that I came across a better description of the latter half of Divinity than I’ll ever come up with: “The dungeon master for this campaign sucks.” It’s exactly right. It’s vindictive, petty design that substitutes sheer difficulty and obtuseness for challenge and fun, reminiscent of a power-mad GM who loves torturing his players and made all the worse because it ruins something beautiful. For the first fifteen hours I was ready to call Divinity the best RPG I’d played… oh, probably since New Vegas. Up until the end of Act 1 it’s vibrant and refreshing and a pleasure to play in spite of the UI issues. After that, though, you’re in the hands of a moronic sadist who seems to delight in breaking down everything good that Divinity accomplishes and replacing it with a series of rote, unimaginative puzzles and combat encounters with the Obtuse Difficulty dial turned up to eleven. I wouldn’t play D&D with that guy and I don’t want to play his take on Divinity either, and so that’s where my odyssey into Original Sin has ended for now. I’ll probably go back in a few days because I don’t like the idea of just abandoning that thirty hour time investment, but I’ll do so very grudgingly.
- Divinity even kicks off the plot by having you investigate a murder in a clear homage to Ultima 7. ↩
- To be fair to Divinity, this is only because it makes the effort to explain to the player what is going on. I’ve played more complicated games that sidestepped the problem by not giving the player any information (hello, Dark Souls), which is an even worse approach.. ↩