I’ve put 81 hours into Divinity: Original Sin 2 over the last 12 days. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about it, or talking about it. It’s brilliant and frustrating in turns, and occasionally both at the same time. I adore it, but for now I’m glad to be done with it.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a role-playing game in the classic isometric PC style à la Baldur’s Gate. While crowdfunded throwbacks like Pillars of Eternity have sought to recreate the designs of the ‘90s classics, Original Sin 2 feels like an answer to the question “What if people never stopped making this kind of RPG?”
The original Original Sin, released in 2014, evolved the isometric RPG formula in myriad ways. Instead of the painterly but static portraits commonly used for backgrounds, it featured interactive sandboxes with countless movable objects that could be used in and out of battle. The game also allowed players to split up party members and send them wherever they pleased to create devious strategies (or just run errands), or let them splash the ground with elemental surfaces (water, fire, poison, etc.) that could cause huge chain reactions when paired with spells.
Original Sin 2 keeps those features, refines them, and dials many of its predecessor’s pros (and a few of its cons) up to 11. It also tells a significantly more elaborate story in which you play as a Sourcerer, named after the “Source” magic you’re able to draw on, in a time when pretty much everybody fears and despises magic users because they believe they’re the reason monsters from The Void keep descending on the world and trying to usher in a gross, tentacle-ridden apocalypse. Oh, and there’s co-op multiplayer, which is seamlessly integrated and allows players to run around the game’s world as they please. I would not, however, recommend it for your first run through, as it tends to devolve into chaos—the kind that occasionally kills crucial characters. It’s cool that Original Sin 2 allows that, but it can also be a huge bummer.
I love Original Sin 2. It’s an enormous, complicated, strange behemoth of a thing, possessed by a swaggering confidence I’ve seen precious few games exhibit. When the smoke of Buckwild Game Year 2017 clears, it’ll probably end up being one of my favorite RPGs of the year, and possibly of all time. With a handful of asterisks.
It’s my first day with Divinity: Original Sin 2. I expected to enjoy it, but I can’t believe how many wild surprises the game is hitting me with—big things like a powerful enemy slipping and busting his ass on an ice surface I made, or small quality-of-life features like the ability to pick party members’ starting classes when they join me. The lore, while seemingly drawn from the stagnant high-fantasy well in the backyard of the Tolkien estate, reveals itself to be full of twists both humorous and legitimately interesting. My character, Fane, is undead, meaning he has to disguise himself by wearing a special illusion helm or, in a pinch, other characters’ faces so that people don’t freak out at him. Elves feast on flesh to gain people’s memories. A lizard prince tells me that, regrettably, I’m just not quite good enough to be his slave. Nobody bats an eyelash at any of this. It’s just accepted as normal in this world.
After hitting a wall against a tough enemy, I worry that I’m gonna have to start the game over and re-roll my characters, but I’m uncharacteristically fine with the idea. There are just so many options and systems and ideas at play in this game, so how could I ever get tired of it?
It’s my second day with Original Sin 2: Thursday September 14, the day of the game’s release., and Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton announces in Slack that he’s been playing the game too. I bombard him with questions: Who’s he playing as? Did he roll his own character or choose one of the premades like Fane? Who’s in his party? What abilities is he focusing on learning? How did he handle some tricky early game decisions? Has he used the game’s “Pet Pal” ability, which lets you talk to any animal in the game, to talk to a dog yet?
Kirk gently implies that I should chill out and notes that he’s only played for a couple hours. In the coming days, though, I check in with him and find out that he’s approached so many situations in ways I never even considered. He tried to kill a crime boss with whom I had parlayed for fear of aggroing an entire city. He brought a dwarf into his party who I never even found. He fought valiantly to keep a mystical lizard man safe, while I let my elf assassin, Sibelle, tear his freaking guts out.
Original Sin 2 is a story-driven RPG, but everybody’s story is a little bit different. Or at lot different, depending on whose guts get torn out.
It’s my third day with Divinity: Original Sin 2, and I’m battling the game’s first real boss: the nefarious Bishop Alexander, one of the top dogs in the “divine” order that’s been rounding up, imprisoning, and conducting demented experiments on Sourcerers like me. Having just finished wrecking everybody at Fort Joy, the prison island where the game’s first act takes place, I waltz in like I own the place—and I basically do, because everybody else is dead.
I promptly get my ass handed to me. Not even by Alexander, who I barely touch, but by a monstrous Sourcerer experiment-gone-wrong called a Shrieker. “OK,” I figure. “Fair play. I should’ve prepared better.” I decide to take advantage of the fact that I can split up my party members and control them individually, something I haven’t been doing much before this point in the game. I have my archer, Sibelle, and my mage, Lohse, sneak onto one the ledge of the ruined structure where the battle will take place, like so:
Then I decide that my main character, Fane, will charge in the front, along with my tank. A classic two-pronged attack with the added benefit of two of my characters, my archer and mage, technically being “out of combat” until I have them break stealth, meaning that they both get free attacks, which are extremely precious in Original Sin 2.
This strategy almost immediately goes up in flames, literally. An enemy archer shoots an oil barrel sitting on the ledge where my archer and mage have just made their presence known, and then they light the oil on fire. The Shrieker leaps in, all sickly limbs and fury, and turns the place into a boiling stew of oil, blood, and corpses. It’s not pretty.
“Well, crap,” I say to myself. “Didn’t see that coming.” I keep my cool and try again. This time, I have Lohse grab the oil barrel and put it in her inventory before the battle ever starts. Problem solved! To top it off, I have Fane use an ability that lets him sprout wings from his back to leap up the other side of the ruined structure, sneakily positioning him so that he can quickly knock down a mage who’d been giving me trouble, taking him out of commission and bathing him in poison from a nearby ooze barrel. I pat myself on the back for taking advantage of Original Sin 2’s thin line between “in-battle” and “out-of-battle,” then it’s on with the show. I do well, until a giant worm shows up.
This wriggly nightmare from The Void immediately vomits on my tank, melting his armor and downing him in a single turn. This is when I start to feel angry. Don’t get me wrong: I understand the appeal of a surprise boss fight within a boss fight. It’s a big, dramatic reveal, and surprises are Original Sin 2’s stock and trade. Problem is, by this point I’ve already saved/reloaded this encounter a bunch of times, and now along comes something I literally could never have seen coming.
The trouble is this: fighting this battle normally, without the knowledge that a multiple-stories-tall worm will suddenly erupt from the ground like some dickhead diving headlong into your Twitter DMs, is basically suicidal. I manage to turn the Worm into a chicken, but die anyway.
Then I reload my pre-battle save again, because now I know what’s actually going to happen. I try positioning my characters in a handful of different ways to account for impending Wormaggedon, but still end up dying four or five more times before finally, I find a way to cheese the entire encounter.
Here’s what I do: first, I sneak Fane up the side of the structure like I had before. This puts a ladder and a giant wall between him and basically everybody else. This time, I don’t send any of my other characters in with him. This confuses the AI a fair a bit, and when it finally gets its bearings, Alexander and his group still have to waste turns moving to my position. By the time they reach Fane, enough turns have passed so that the Worm slithers out from its home between two tectonic plates.
It’s at this point that I look up from my copy of Sun Tzu’s “The Art Of War,” chortle gently, and make Fane fucking book it. I have him sprout wings and leap over both Alexander’s forces and the Worm, to the back of the area. The AI weighs its options and decides the Worm is a bigger threat than the mangy skeleton running for his life, so the divine order sets about getting sublimely slaughtered by the Worm. Welcome to the resistance, Worm.
This is where my other characters come into play. While Fane is using a bunch of turns to basically run a giant circle around the ruined structure, I have my tank walk in through the front entrance, get Alexander’s attention, and lure him to a secluded area away from the Worm. Then he and my other characters slowly whittle away at Alexander’s disconcertingly large armor and HP pools, barely staying alive until, like clockwork, Fane makes it around the map. Using Fane’s arsenal of stuns, we’re able to narrowly take down Alexander with a beautiful combo that involves turning him into a chicken to render him briefly helpless, and then permanently helpless when Fane cuts off his head with an axe.
By this point, the Worm and Alexander’s pals have done most of the rest of my work for me, nearly killing each other. My party descends and finishes the job. I blink and rub my bleary eyes in disbelief. Is it really over? Did my convoluted plan—half-cheese, half-actual strategy, all Hail Mary—really work?
It did, thank Divinity’s pantheon of highly untrustworthy gods. I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment wash over me. But still, I find myself conflicted. The game gave me this surprising, extremely memorable moment, but it spoiled its own surprise by seemingly expecting me to also have foreknowledge of the big reveal in order to actually succeed.
That battle sums up so much of what I adore about Original Sin 2—the sheer number of ways you can approach any encounter or situation, how the game’s systems basically invite you to cheese them, the way elemental spells and items often lead to surprising outcomes up to and including massive explosions—but also some aspects that frustrate me to no end. Combat can be difficult to the point of cruelty, often necessitating cheesy strategies unless you’ve used guides and built an optimal party.
Similarly, the game lets you purchase spellbooks, allocate ability points into whatever classes you please, and multi-class to your heart’s content, but it also smacks you down for doing it wrong while offering basically zero guidance on how to do it right. So on one hand, when you find cool ability synergies, it’s a legitimate, well-earned surprise, but on the other hand, it’s possible to create a party so ineffective that you basically have no choice but to start over. Original Sin 2 might look shiny and new, but in matters of structure, it’s a strict adherent to The Old Ways. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and is sometimes a very good thing, but over time, it can grate.
As I play more, I find that there’s echoes of this flawed philosophy—seemingly offer one thing, but limit it or block it off with layers of old-school complication—in many aspects of Divinity: Original Sin 2. Take maps, for instance. They’re massive and sprawling, but remarkably dense with quests and mini-stories around every corner. In that sense, the game reminds me of a completely different RPG, The Witcher 3, in that I’m constantly in awe of just how many cool ideas they managed to cram into this world, and I’m free to explore as I please.
Except I’m really not.. There’s an optimal route through each of the game’s four acts, and if you stray from it, you’ll come up against enemies who are a few levels higher than you, a deceptively wide chasm to bridge. For example, at the outset of the game’s second act, I got distracted by a sidequest and ended up in the second hub area of the fittingly-named Reaper’s Coast instead of the first. I then spent multiple hours barely squeaking by in battles (or just losing and giving up altogether) until I realized I wasn’t having fun anymore. When I finally found the first hub area, the one I should’ve been taking quests from all along, I found myself having the opposite problem: I was slightly overleveled, battles were too easy, and I kept getting gear that wasn’t as good as what I already had.
Original Sin 2's lack of signposting is a double-edged sword. It’s neat bordering on astounding that a huge, intricate game released in the year 2017 lets me make all these discoveries (and mistakes) for myself, but it’s a shame that it seems to offer certain options, only to punish players for going for them. It’s easy to fall off that optimal path, too. Quest descriptions are frequently vague, and they don’t come with “Hey, this one might kick your ass right now” warnings. Some are extremely fun to sleuth your way through. Others are infuriatingly tedious. I never find myself wanting the game to hold my hand, but I wish it would just be a little clearer about things. Just a little.
Combat, too, starts to lose some of its luster over time. In the wake of the Worm, I start taking advantage of fun out-of-battle positioning tactics more often. But I feel limited by each battle’s early goings. Everybody, my characters included, have armor and magical armor pools that have to be depleted before anyone can strike at their HP. That’s fine by itself, but these pools also let characters resist special attacks. If enemies still have armor or magical armor, many of the game’s more interesting abilities won’t work on them. My tank can’t even taunt enemies until their physical armor is gone! As a result, I start eschewing more elaborate strategies in favor of what works: burst damage of one type (either physical or magic) followed by lots of stuns to mitigate the numbers of advantages enemies tend to have. It’s satisfying to grow and evolve this strategy over time, but it feels restrained compared to what I feel like I could be experimenting with if so many abilities weren’t essentially blocked at the start of every battle.
It’s the middle of the week after Original Sin 2 came out, and I’m at a bar. It’s the first time I’ve been out of the house in days. My schedule, largely, has been “work by day, play Original Sin 2 by night.” This is in part because I’m on review duty, but I recognize that this is pretty much how I’d be playing it even if I wasn’t. Steam tells me I’ve been playing for more than 50 hours, and my brain tells me I’ve been thinking about ability combos and strategies for far longer than that. A bit of time off from the game that’s become my life, I figure, will be healthy.
A couple drinks later, my friend is showing me pictures of real-life dogs on her phone and I respond by showing pictures of dogs I’ve talked to in Original Sin 2. Another friend thinks I’m joking when I tell him that a point he made reminds me a lot of Divinity: Original Sin 2, then he stares at me with a mix of pity and disgust when my long-winded explanation of the game’s combat system affirms that, no, I am not joking.
I have become That Guy. When I’m not playing the game, I’m thinking about it. When I’m not thinking about it, I’m talking about it. This compounds on itself. My bar conversations get me thinking about the things that make Original Sin 2 stand out. I realize that it’s a game whose partial appeal I can demonstrate with pictures of funny talking dogs, but whose full appeal hinges heavily on knowledge of everything from arcane PC RPG mechanics to obscure sci-fi and fantasy cliches to Dungeons and Dragons. It’s crammed full of inventive, modern stories and ideas, but gated by old-school difficulty and mechanics. I wonder, by having one foot in nostalgia’s never-completely-closed casket, does it get in its own way? Or would these inventive, modern ideas and characters be fundamentally less interesting in a game where the edges weren’t so sharp?
Divinity: Original Sin 2 has a big, epic overarching plot about chosen one(s) and gods, as well as racism, wrongful blame of a minority group for a society’s problems, and other relevant topics, but this main plot goes a bit too broad and kinda loses itself. The game’s best stories involve seemingly inconsequential side characters you can just stumble across, or who you might never meet.
In that spirit, and because a portion of the game’s appeal is so fundamentally, willfully inaccessible, I present an article within an article.
17. The bridge troll who barely charges anything to begin with and gives you a huge discount if you tell it a good story.
16. The other bridge troll, who can’t compete with the first bridge troll’s “ridiculous prices.”
15. The rat who speaks in rat puns.
14. The cat who follows you through the game’s entire first area, unless you kill it or let it die.
13. The fire slug who takes his job very seriously.
12. The dog who’s incredibly concerned that it might hurt someone.
11. The crab who believes itself to be an all-powerful magician (and might actually be).
10. The wizards who used to be people, but crossed A Real Asshole and got turned into pigs who are also on fire (eternally).
9. The guardian of the aforementioned Real Asshole’s tomb, who is himself a Real Asshole, and who really knows how to keep a joke about “peckers” going.
8. The decaying head on a stick who I nearly drove insane with dad jokes.
7. The dog who thought his dead master was just sleeping, and who I didn’t have the heart to correct.
6. The woman who just wanted somebody to sit and listen to her talk about her husband and son, now deceased, who she misses dearly.
5. The rat who wanted me to come back on a regular basis and tell her stories of my adventures (so she could steal them and claim they happened to her).
4. This very good boy:
3. The beached, dying shark who just wanted me to put it out of its misery.
2. The turtle who was in love with a rat who was in love with food.
1. The evil dog who thought he was death incarnate… until I, an undead character who, by definition, was already dead, killed him and made fun of his ghost with a series of brutally passive-aggressive remarks.
That’s just a fraction of the procession of oddball characters I met in the game’s early goings, themselves an even smaller fraction of the full game’s cast. Maybe you’ll meet all of them, or maybe none, depending on where you go and who you talk to.
It’s the weekend of the week after Divinity: Original Sin 2 came out. I’ve finally made it to the game’s fourth act, after doggedly pushing through the unevenly paced second and third acts, which, given their varying tones and how walled off from each other they are, felt almost like different games. While I’ve met some great characters and embarked on some remarkably involved sidequests along the way, I find myself missing the relative simplicity of the game’s first act. It had a punchy central goal (get off the island by whatever means you deem fit) and connected many of its sidequests to it. Goals in other acts, I’ve found, are more diffuse, and while the game still clearly prioritizes tying sidequests to overarching goals, things get complicated. When the pacing falls to pieces, so too does my emotional connection to the game. “Why are my characters doing this, again?” I wonder. Then I remember: “Oh, duh. To get experience points and gear so they can go do the things they actually care about.”
A lot of the time, the game’s battles and quests are interesting enough that I don’t mind. But some quests are too vague, and the game’s inexcusably poor quest log and inventory interfaces don’t do them any favors. Both become wildly cluttered as the game wears on, and you’re not offered much in the way of organizational tools.
These things aren’t deal-breakers, but they get more and more annoying each time they impede my progress. I’m somewhere around the 70-hour mark when, after hours of sleuthing, I finally figure out a vague sidequest hint, only to find that the end of the quest is glitched in my game, and it’s all for naught. I’m irritated, but it’s not even the first time something like this has happened. Mostly, I just feel tired.
After playing for most of a day, I decide to put the game down and go to a concert with a friend. We get to the venue, and she introduces me to a couple of her friends, one of whom mishears something I say. She quickly apologizes, but I find myself feeling irrationally annoyed. By all accounts, I shouldn’t be in a bad mood, but residual frustration from the game is still clinging to me like dryer lint, and little things keep getting under my skin.
It sucks. There’s so much I love about Original Sin 2, but I’m also ready for it to be over already. I’m tired of too-vague quests that are easy to lose track of. I’m tired of saving and reloading battles until I figure out a strategy where I don’t get slaughtered. I’m tired of micromanaging my inventory. I’m tired of stopping every hour or so and spending 10+ minutes meticulously re-gearing my characters, plotting out their progressions, and wondering if I’ve taught them the right abilities. I’m tired of realizing I forgot who some character is, or which faction did what. I’m tired of feeling like I’m supposed to know something when there’s no way I could know unless I’d already played that part.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is enormous and complicated and strange and brilliant, but it’s also goddamn exhausting.
The next day, I finally beat the game with 81 hours on the clock. I feel a lot of things: triumph, joy, and pangs of sadness, because I’m really gonna miss going to this place and hanging out with these characters every day. But I also feel relieved. I have a save file named “phew.” It’s the last one I ever use.
It’s only been about 24 hours since I beat Original Sin 2, and at this point, I wonder how I’ll remember my time with it in a year or two, or even by the end of this one. Will my fondness for its wonderful world and characters, as well as the impressive number of possibilities the game offers in and out of combat, slowly wash away the ugly plaque of resentment stuck to my teeth? Or will I always look back on it and feel ever-so-slightly annoyed, wondering what it could’ve been if it’d shed some of its bloat and felt less obligated to replicate obtuse elements of games from the classic role-playing canon?
I wish I had a definitive answer to that question, as well as a couple others I posed in this review. I don’t. I think time and, eventually, a replay or two will clear things up, but I also think it’s telling that Divinity: Original Sin 2 prompted me to immediately start thinking on these terms at all. It is, on so many levels, an incredible achievement, packed with enough heart, intelligence, and confidence to sustain ten lesser games. It’s a testament to its form, even as it’s held back by it in places. It still feels premature to declare Original Sin 2 an all-time classic, as some have, but I imagine plenty of future games will borrow ideas from it. It’ll be a crying shame if they don’t.