Divinity: Original Sin Review

Divinity: Original Sin is a game that quickly becomes your everything, swallowing up every free moment you have and paying you back with one of the best mixtures of turn-based strategy and RPG ever seen in a game. That said, it’s not perfect; the early content had me thinking that this would be one of my top 5 games of all time, but some frustrating late-game content dampered my enthusiasm for it quite a bit. There are simply some astoundingly bad design decisions toward the end that are far removed from the polish of the early game, and while these aren’t worth avoiding the game over, they’re certainly the kind of thing you should be aware of going in.

The story alternates between being great and okayish

True to its cRPG roots, Original Sin drops you in the middle of a world with a general objective and invites you to explore. As you begin investigating the murder you were sent to look into, you quickly find yourself drawn into a struggle between existence and non-existence (which has more supporters than you’d probably think). The main story is okay enough as an excuse to send you all over the world, but it’s actually some of the minor characters and their writing that end up stealing the show. From a troll who has lost his passion for collecting tolls to the “weaver of time,” a goddess-type figure who has an understandably strange way of phrasing things, I found myself drawn more to the game for its minor characters than its actual story, and the occasional presence of these characters in the main story bolstered my opinion of it on several occasions. On the flip side, their diminished importance later in the game made the story’s home stretch seem far less compelling and interesting than what preceded it. At the end of the day, the story has its moments of greatness, but ultimately falls firmly into the realm of “just good enough.”

The Source Hunter of all evil

In the game you play as two “Source Hunters,” members of an order who hunt down practitioners of corrupt Source magic (who are not-so-cleverly called Sourcerors). Those who engage in such magic are known to go mad from the corruption, becoming evil wizard-types in the process, and it’s your job to determine whether or not a recent murder had anything to do with Source magic. There’s quite a bit more to the two Source Hunters than meets the eye, however, and you spend much of the game piecing together their “former life” identities. More important than any of that, they both have great senses of humor and timing and have a tendency to comment on just about everything happening around them. This helps them to seem like living characters with their own personalities despite your ability to customize them upon starting the game, and it’s a nice compromise between having fixed characters and those created by the player.

Divinity: Original Sin

Um… you sure?

There are also two optional companions who can join you on your journey, and while that may not seem like many, both Madora and Jahan are heavily interwoven into parts of the game’s story. They’re not so integral so as to be necessary, but having them in your party provides additional insight into several of the game’s villains and gives you a more personal stake in several boss battles. Even more importantly, they help balance the scales of combat in your favor; dealing with early enemies is no problem with your two Source Hunters, but you’ll soon find yourself facing far more challenging enemies, and having more characters with differing specialties means having more versatility in how you approach these harder fights.

This is one of the best combat systems in a long time

Between Divinity: Original Sin, Transistor, The Banner Saga, and Obsidian’s South Park game, 2014 has proven to be the year turn-based games return with a vengeance. I’ve always been fond of turn-based combat, personally—there’s just something about taking your time to plan out something elaborate that makes success taste so much sweeter than anything revolving around reaction time, and Original Sin has the best turn-based system seen in a long time.

Now THIS is how you disable troublesome mines.

It works a little like this: you’re wandering around the world in real time when you see enemies in the distance. When the two of you come into range of one another, turn-based combat begins. Combat is entirely “action point” based (much like Fallout 1 and 2) without any MP or mana to worry about, and special skills have a cooldown. If you don’t have enough action points for a certain special attack, you can end your turn without using all of them and have them transfer over to that character’s next turn, making combat a constant balancing of risk and reward.

You can approach combat as an archer, a warrior, a mage, or any mixture of the three thanks to the classless system that’s reminiscent of Divine Divinity. Still, spells are best used by characters with a high intelligence, arrows are best shot by those with a high dexterity, and swords are best wielded by characters with a high strength. Since you’re never given enough points to increase all three and many weapons have strength/intelligence/dexterity prerequisites, you’re best served having your characters all specialize in different things.

Tame the elements

I had my two main characters set up as an archer and a mage. This worked remarkably well; with the addition of Madora and Jahan, I had two magic-users with different specialties, a ranged fighter, and an up-close warrior. Jahan’s job was to freeze and/or electrocute things while my other mage was focused on fire and (flammable) poisons, so I was able to take advantage of just about every weakness I saw.

Everything acts the way you’d expect it to in real life. Casting a rain spell will cause puddles, and shooting a lightning bolt onto that puddle will electrify the water. Enemies standing in the water will likely be electrified (though they get saving throws and it’s not guaranteed), while enemies not in the water will largely be smart enough to avoid the electrified puddle. Electricity and water is hardly the only combination you can employ, too; getting enemies wet with the rain spell and shooting an ice spell at them will often freeze them. The great thing about enemies that are stunned and frozen is that they’re unable to dodge, so your archer and warrior-type characters will have a 100% chance to hit. This is invaluable in certain boss fights where you may normally only have a 30% or so chance to hit.

If your enemies are strong against/immune to ice or electricity, there are always fire spells at your disposal. These won’t disable your enemies, but it often causes them to burn, inflicting damage over time. Poison has a similar effect as fire, and casting poison into fire (or vice versa) causes an explosion that can deal a huge amount of damage. However, casting a fire spell at a frozen enemy will unfreeze them, and shooting fire at a puddle of water will create a steam cloud that obscures the enemy. Learning the best way to use all of these elements to your advantage is the key to succeeding in combat, because while many encounters are challenging, they’re never so much so that they feel cheap. In fact, with the right plan going in and a little luck, you can take down enemies several levels stronger than you without any problem.

Original Sin is a full-blooded RPG

Each of your characters have individual stats that can be a bit overwhelming in the beginning, but it’s all actually surprisingly simple. Strength dictates how much you can carry and your accuracy with weapons like swords, while dexterity determines your ability with bows and knives. Intelligence is important for mages (spells often receive a bonus when you have a high intelligence), constitution determines your hit points, speed affects the ordering of characters in battle, and perception allows you to notice hidden things like mines and buried chests. All of this is fairly run-of-the-mill, really.

What makes it interesting is how those stats affect your action points in combat. For example, your constitution determines the maximum number of AP you can save up in combat, while speed and perception affect how many points you begin combat with. Speed also allows you to gain more action points per turn and move farther in a single action point, so you’re balancing all of these stats with the ones most helpful to your character’s approach to combat.

Leveling up

Gaining levels in Original Sin is most like Fallout games in that you gain points to put into certain proficiencies (such as specific branches of magic or that character’s ability with certain kinds of weapons) every level, with special perks coming every few levels. These perks can increase your resistance to certain elements, give you the ability to heal when you’re standing in blood (especially helpful for up-close fighters), and can even grant your characters the ability to talk to animals. You’re also occasionally given points to put into your primary stats (strength, dexterity, etcetera), so leveling up has a nice sense of progress that allows you to feel stronger without having it be a night-and-day difference.

Putting points into the aforementioned profiencies allow you to use a certain number of skills that belong to it. For example, putting a single point in aerothurge magic (electricity and air magic) will allow you to memorize 3 spells of that type. Similarly, putting a point into the archer-oriented “marksman” proficiency will allow that character to memorize 3 special archer skills. Physical and magical skills function identically like that. It becomes more and more expensive to invest points into these proficiencies, however; leveling one up to level 1 costs a single point, while level 2 costs two, and so on. This is worth it because that second point will allow you to memorize 5 skills, while a third will allow you to memorize even more. Once you’ve raised a skill to level 5, you’re allowed to memorize as many skills of that type as you want.

No enemy scaling here

This is important, too, because Original Sin isn’t one of those Elder Scrolls-type games where enemies magically become more difficult as you level up. Here you’re given free rein to wander anywhere you want from the very beginning, which means having the option to go up against some of the later-game content early on. You’re bound to regret it when you try, of course, but good planning can occasionally see you through, netting you valuable items and experience in the process.

Divinity games always have the best tricks

One of the things I love about Divinity games is how there’s always a crazy trick you can exploit to have a leg up. I even devoted an entire section of my Divinity: Dragon Commander review to a method of playing through the game entirely in turn-based mode for those who don’t enjoy real-time strategy gameplay. Original Sin is no different in this regard, and I found a number of fun tricks that helped me to get through the toughest situations.

Above: candelabra trick

First is the candelabra trick. There are candelabras everywhere on tables, and you can drag and drop them into your inventory. They don’t weigh much, so walking around with 20 or so candelabras is always a good idea. Why, you ask? Because while many things in the game are destructible, there are a few doors and items that are “level 20,” which is code for “can’t be broken unless you attack it with a certain kind of late-game weapon for several hours.” Candelabras are level 20, which means that they can be set end-to-end to form a barrier, and since enemies never move the things you set down, you can create walls that melee enemies are unable to walk past. Of course, this doesn’t stop them from targeting you with arrows and magic, but the opposite is also true and this can occasionally tip the scales just enough to let you squeak by in a fight you’re otherwise unprepared for.

Second is the exploding oil barrel trick. There are all kinds of barrels littered around the game world, one of which being “oil barrels” that are, true to their name, filled with flammable oil. These can be used against enemies in certain areas, but you’ll sometimes fail to utilize them in combat. Why waste them, though? Just like candelabras, these can be picked up by dragging them into your inventory—though they’re incredibly heavy and will probably only allow you to carry a couple—and used whenever you wish. Is that not trick-ish enough for you? Fine, then how about this: try putting two oil barrels and a candelabra next to an unsuspecting NPC. Maybe that NPC is about to become an enemy, or maybe there’s an enemy faction you’ve infiltrated that’s all bunched together into a large group. Whatever the case, you’re about to reduce them to ashes, because casting a single poison spell into the flames will cause an explosion as the poison touches the fire from the candelabra, that explosion setting off a secondary explosion in the oil barrels. “Friendly” NPCs won’t attack you immediately for this, either, instead engaging you in dialogue to warn you that you’re on thin ice. However, enemies can’t initiate combat while you’re engaged in dialogue, so everyone but the one person you’re talking to (who becomes invincible while you’re talking) will take burning damage until they perish. This is a great way to get easy experience, though you should definitely be careful not to kill anyone you may want around later in the game. Merchants, for example, are best left unexploded.

Above: exploding oil barrel trick

Finally, the “free stuff death blow because stuff is expensive” trick. Say you’ve met a merchant (or maybe just a random nobody) and only want one thing in their inventory, but don’t have the cash to pay them for it. The solution is simple enough: kill them and take it, because killing someone causes a portion of their inventory to drop onto the ground. Problem is, doing so will cause nearby NPCs to engage you in combat and turn the whole thing into a bigger problem than it’s worth, so what can you do? The solution is elegantly simple: apply special buffs like potions and skills/stances that increase your strongest character’s damage output, sneak up on the character in question, and attack them while still sneaking. If you do enough damage to kill them in a single hit, you’ll shift out of sneak mode and the targeted character will be dead, but no one nearby will notice or care. This is a great way of acquiring items if you’re sure you won’t need a character at any point down the road (like the nameless “miner” and “citizen” types). Naturally, you should save beforehand in case the item you want isn’t one of the ones that drops.

Speaking of the save system…

Divinity: Original Sin has the best save system in existence. Other developers, take notice. In this game, you’re given the option to choose how many quicksaves and autosaves you want the game to make before it begins to overwrite them, and this is so absolutely brilliant that it’s depressing that it hasn’t become a gaming standard. I mean, you can save absolutely everywhere in this game. Walking around in the wilderness? Save. In the middle of a difficult battle? Feel free to save, because you can come back to the specific turn you were on without any problems. Naturally, you can also make manual saves that aren’t ever overwritten. This kind of save system is heaven for a save addict like myself and needs to be implemented in more games, period.

The sneaking/stealing system is also amazing

My archer was also a thief, so I made a point to steal as much as I possibly could. This meant becoming intimately familiar with the sneaking system, which is simple but effective. All you do is hit the C key in order to shift into “sneak mode,” at which point the world becomes black and white. Other people’s vision is represented by color, so you can actually get a sense of how far you can sneak before being discovered, and you’re free to steal “owned” property without repercussions while in sneak mode and unseen. Additionally, pickpocketing is as simple as left-clicking your target. However, since many characters have a tendency to move around, you can sometimes be spotted while stealing and pickpocketing. That’s where your other characters come in—you can actually control each of your characters separately and use each of them to distract the people in the room.

For example, there was a store that had two guards and the storekeeper, who was suspected of murder by the citizens. I decided to have a look around by trespassing and stealing anything that looked suspicious (or valuable, naturally). Since the guards would see me if I lockpicked the door leading deeper into the house, I used my other three characters to engage the two guards and storekeeper in dialogue, which immobilized them. From there, my thief walked out of sight and switched into sneak mode, lockpicking the door, sneaking downstairs, and finding valuable evidence while stealing everything remotely valuable. Once I was done, I had my three distractions exit dialogue, and I proceeded to sell the store all of the stuff I just stole from it for a tidy sum. Ah, freedom.

There’s the perfect blend of seriousness and humor

Another thing that I found just about perfect was the tone, which effortlessly blends human sacrifice with comedic moments. For example, the first city you find yourself in has a hard-of-hearing mayor, and when you ask him about the various sects around, he proceeds to (embarrassingly) attempt to explain how sex works. Little stuff like this makes the game world feel so much richer than it would if it took itself entirely seriously or existed as one big punch line. Instead, it avoids both extremes.

Miscellaneous facts that don’t deserve their own section

There are some elements in the game that really aren’t interesting enough to have their own dedicated paragraph, so I’m going to put it all here as an info dump of sorts. You guys like info dumps, right? Okay, so first off, the game has fast travel, but only to the “waypoint portals” that you find all over while exploring. These are usually located near important areas, so it’s no less convenient than any other fast travel system. Another fun fact: before enemies see you, you can initiate combat and get a free first strike in. While a single attack or spell may not seem like much, charming or setting an enemy on fire before combat even starts is a great way to tip the scales in your favor. Another thing you should probably be aware of is that much of the game’s loot is random, so if you find something awesome in a chest and die two seconds later, there’s a significant chance that the awesome thing you found will be replaced with something nowhere near as cool. Lastly, fire resistance is a seriously big deal. Sure, air resistance and earth resistance and all of that is helpful to have, but many sections of the game have lava, and lava deals hundreds of points of damage to you, often killing you outright. However, if you have 121% or more in your fire resistance, the lava will actually heal you by that much every step. Why 121%, you ask? Because the “burning” status inevitably caused by lava lowers your fire resistance by 20%, so 120% fire resistance would leave you at 100% resistance, at which point you wouldn’t take damage or be healed by it. Anything above 120%, then, heals you when you’re burning.

Crafting is also a thing

As though Original Sin didn’t already have enough going for it, there’s also crafting that allows you to make/customize just about anything. While you’re able to do a lot of crafting stuff, I actually found the magical crafting to be the most useful; you find “scrolls” throughout the game that are basically one-time-only spells destroyed by using them, but these can be turned into reusable skills through crafting. You can also craft armor so that it resists certain elements. The higher the item’s level, the higher the resistance. This means that a level 10 item is better than a level 3 item even if their stats are otherwise identical, because the level 10 item can have a stronger fire resistance crafted into it. Crafting may not ever be necessary (I ignored it almost entirely), but it’s a fun distraction that can pay off big time if you’re willing to spend time scouring the world for ingredients.

And now, the game’s bad side

I was almost certain while playing that this was going to be one of my top 5 games of all time. As I continued playing, that eventually dropped down to top 10, then top 20, and then I stopped thinking about where it’d rank entirely. Part of this has to do with pacing, because the game is exhaustingly long and at a certain point it starts to feel like there’s unnecessary padding. There are also a few occasions where the game is buggy, either crashing or having friendly characters suddenly attack you without any reason, and there’s also a thoroughly unpleasant tomb with insta-death lightning that requires you to either have a high perception or use teleporter pyramids to guess (and quicksave) your way to the other side of the room. Far worse than any of those, the infrequent puzzles are a huge negative against this game.

Divinity: Original Sin

Seriously. Screw this door.

Of course, “puzzle” barely describes what they are: hunting down tiny little buttons that are barely visible. Early on, there’s always something explaining that “the switches are behind the paintings” or wherever else they are. Toward the end, however, you’re left hunting down these impossibly small buttons that are purposefully hidden in hard-to-see places. In a particularly egregious example, there’s a room with four buttons. Two are obviously visible, one is hidden behind a candelabra, and the last one is hidden on a torch where it’s nearly invisible. Just finding the buttons isn’t enough, though—no, you have to also hunt down a cookbook in the room and use its author’s name to determine the order you should press the buttons in. This makes absolutely no sense, and more importantly, isn’t fun in the slightest. I’d go so far as to say that my biggest problem with the game is its reliance on tiny, hidden buttons.

A close second is the non-opening door. All throughout the game you find these magical stones that reveal small secrets to you, and you eventually come across a door that refuses to open until you’ve discovered enough of these stones during sidequests. Never mind that you’re an unstoppable killing machine capable of beating Zeus in an arm-wrestling match who’s currently in a race against the game’s villain for the fate of all of existence. No, this door thinks you don’t know yourself well enough, telling you to come back later once you’ve found more of these virtually meaningless stones. At this point, you have two choices: sit there for two hours attacking the door with a special kind of weapon that does a hilariously small amount of damage to otherwise-invincible obstacles, or acquiesce and run around finishing sidequests even though doing so makes zero sense in terms of the story. Not cool, door.

Music, on the other hand…

Kirill Pokrovsky is a genius, full stop. This game’s soundtrack is everything I ever wanted in a game soundtrack, being memorable and musical and moving while fitting the game’s atmosphere perfectly. There are even returning themes from Divine Divinity (and possibly the other games, though I’ve yet to play through Beyond Divinity or Divinity 2). Here’s how amazing Original Sin’s soundtrack is: it’s number 2 on my mental “best soundtrack ever” list behind Chrono Cross, and that’s only because of the huge amount of nostalgia I have for Cross. If I had to judge the two equally and without my nostalgia-tinted glasses, I honestly have no idea which I’d consider to be the better soundtrack. Either way, this is one of the finest soundtracks in gaming.

The graphics are also pretty great

This game isn’t as pretty as the soundtrack is musical, but that’s not really a realistic bar to expect it to clear. The graphics are pleasing across the board, and you can’t really ask for more than that. The characters all have a really unique kind of look to them, almost like they were molded out of clay, and the only reason I bring that up is that there’s something distinctly un-game-y about the way characters look. Environments are also a strong point, being unique enough that you can find yourself just about anywhere and instantly recognize your location without having to consult your map. There are also environmental effects that are nice, though a bit overused. These include embers floating around the screen when you’re near lava and leaves floating across the screen when you’re in the forest, and while they’re pleasant enough effects that help to drive home the location you’re in, it becomes a little overwhelming after you’ve played for 50+ hours. I mean, those trees can only have so many leaves on them.

Here’s what you should do:

Divinity: Original Sin

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