In the last year the rise of Kickstarter brought to us what I could only define as an “Isometric rpg renaissance”, if not in quality (which is hard to define since most of the games are still in development) at least in quantity. Thanks to the huge quantity of “old school gamers” attracted by the promise of re-living the games of their youth, projects like Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity were able to be funded with impressive budgets. It’s exactly from this wave of crowfunded nostalgia that Divinity: Original Sin, the latest game by counter-culture rpg director Swen Vincke, comes from.
While Vincke’s love for classic isometric rpg has never been a secret, Divinity: Original Sin is his first attempt at a “pure” example in the genre. Where Divine Divinity was more akin to a Diablo-style hack and slash and Divinity II took an action-oriented, almost Gothic-esque, route, Divinity: Original Sin’s inspiration comes quite clearly from the Ultima series, particularly, as stated by the same Vincke in his blog, from Ultima VII.
We start the game by creating our two avatars (dual protagonists being a theme already explored by Vincke in Beyond Divinity and that sees a return in this game) choosing among a fairly vast number of classes and a limited but comprehensive set of aesthetic customizations. We are then immediately thrown into the game and instructed on our role as “Source Hunters”: members of an order that aims to rid the world of Rivellon from “the Source”, a kind of evil magic wielded by “Sourcerers”.
We will do so by commanding a party of up to four characters from an isometric perspective, beating up enemies in turn base combat, freely exploring the lands of Rivellon in search of quests worthy of our heroicness, crafting objects, looting barrels, picking locks, increasing our skills and doing all those other things that come to mind when one mentions the word “Ultima” or the word “rpg”.
As the game progresses the narrative centrepiece will be taken by the murder of Jake, the councillor of Cyseal. This apparently simple quest will spin quickly from a down-to-earth medieval murder-mystery to a full on magical epic, with our heroes fighting to save the world from a whole array of supernatural threats.
The juxtaposition between this serious world-threatening menace and the “job” of the bad guys being a quite terrible pun, is the type of dissonance that will recur through the whole experience. While roaming the four world maps in which the game is set, thanks also to their design resembling more a theme park than an actual living world, we will flip constantly from silly and nonsensical quests to obvious clichés being developed with no hint of irony. Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t ever decide if it wants to be a parody of that nostalgic pulp fantasy or if it wants to completely embrace it. The result is a weird overall tone that almost makes you wonder if the comedy highlights are there just to cover a lack of confidence in the “straight” plot, which admittedly chases its own tail for a while just to then end with not much narrative momentum.
This indecision also reflects on the gameplay, which never seems to find a definite focus. We are first presented with a complex and carefully designed combat system, that mixes a really slick isometric turn-based structure (not since The Temple of Elemental Evil I’ve seen isometric combat so immediate and precise) with a really interesting freeform approach to environment interaction. This will allows us to mix and match our elemental magic with weather and terrain in order to rain destruction on our enemies in very immediate and intuitive ways (for instance by freezing them using cold spells while they’re wet).
Despite the incredible care behind the combat system the game is not structured around it, but is instead driven by a questing system that tries to follow in the steps of freeform adventure games, like the aforementioned Ultima series. It also adds to the mix plenty of puzzles, a decently complex multi-choice dialogue system, and many other gameplay features. But that’s where Divinity: Original Sin fails: every single aspect of is infused with so much complexity that the game itself falls from its weight.
A game like Ultima IV is still regarded as one of the best rpgs of all time not simply because of its freeform exploring, but because that freeform exploring had a design context. Everything else, from the combat to the itemization, had its complexity toned down in order to make the exploring the more relevant part of the gameplay and the thing the player “wanted” to engage with. Divinity: Original Sin goes the completely opposite route by introducing plenty of complex mechanics but never giving them a proper ludic context. And while most of the design works fine on a purely mathematical standpoint, it crumbles when played due to the lack of meaning behind it.
The major example of this is the leveling system, one of the many elements of gameplay that feel like are there just because “rpgs have it”. Normally leveling systems are designed to either be a way to make the player feel rewarded or to give him a sense of growth, Divinity: Original Sin does neither of those. Mechanically it deals with level ups with a simple point buy approach, but as the game progresses it will be more and more clear that to make his characters effective the player will need to sit on spending its points through multiple level ups (the higher a skill is the more it will cost to increase it), making most of them feel quite meaningless (this feeling is not helped by the fact that the bonuses gained by increasing skill are almost never immediately noticeable). The whole level up systems ends up feeling more like an hindrance than anything else, a system that “takes” things away from the player (equipment pieces have level requirement, and some early zones are deadly if not done at the right level) instead of “giving” him things.
Admittedly around the 30 hours mark (midway through the Hiberheim map) the game’s pace picks up: the focus finally switches on some interesting combat situations, level ups start granting a more reasonable quantity of skill points and it becomes easier to learn new spells; but even then some poorly placed puzzles and a couple of exaggeratedly convoluted quests ends up repeatedly halting the game in grotesque ways.
This would be bad enough, but it's made worse by the fact that, apart for the misguided structure, the game also suffers from lots of smaller imperfections that end up piling up during the game, becoming unbearable towards the end. The lethality of overleveled enemies makes advancing through the game a chore of trial and error to find a suitably leveled area; too many puzzles focus on pixel hunting; Lots of quests are awfully “closed”, usually needing specific objects to be completed, with little room for alternate approaches; and even the combat by the end starts feeling a little “cheap”, with enemies absorbing an insane number of elements (The Tainted Knight above all was particularly tedious to engage, absorbing poison but also bleeding poison when hit).
The worst of it all is that even after having finished the game I still can’t really tell what the intent was with it, apart from “let’s make a vintage rpg”. Although it’s the best thing it does it surely does not want to be a turn based strategy game, passing most of its time trying to steer the player away from combat; the lack of confidence in its own plot and the absence of any real narrative choices suggests me that it definitely doesn’t want to be a narrative game; and the structure of the game points away from it wanting to be a game about exploration. It definitely wants to be Ultima, but it seems to go about it in the wrong way, replicating superficial elements of the series without a real understanding of what made those game “click”.
In the end the only thing I can say is that Divinity: Original Sin is sadly a big mess, a game that tries to do everything and collapses under its own ambitions. And it’s a shame because when the game is not trying to “be just like the olde tyme rpgs” it surely shows off potential.
4 / 10