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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Divinity: Original Sin

Something of a revival for the formerly low-key Divinity franchise and easily its most well-regarded game to that point, Original Sin touted "innovative" gameplay in a medium where that word is overused to the point of losing any actual meaning.  But does Divinity: Original Sin truly live up to its hype despite bad marketing, or is this just another crowdfunded game where fans' investment only went to buying glowing reviews?

Original Sin, 2014's 'revival' of an RPG franchise I never previously bothered with and only barely knew about (primarily because "Divine Divinity" has one of the worst game titles I've ever heard in my life), certainly got a lot of attention.  It was Larian Studios' first game to be crowdfunded, and when it was released some time later, it became the franchise's most successful and best-selling game almost overnight.  Moreso when it was followed up with an "enhanced edition" a year later that added more content and voiceover, and in 2017 by a sequel that somehow got even more praise and acclaim than its predecessor and is regarded as one of the best games of that year.

It wasn't hard to see why the game was touted as being "groundbreaking" and "innovative" either, even as those words have lost virtually any meaning in the modern gaming era.  Original Sin's combat and puzzle-solving makes use of some downright clever mechanics at times, with the player able to manipulate the environment with spells and objects and apply a surprising amount of common sense to puzzles that simply don't work in other games.  For example, to bypass a gas trap, one can move crates and jars over the gas vents to block it and pass by unharmed.  Or instead of having to find keys for chests and doors, one can simply smash them down with a weapon or burn the door with fire or craft a bomb and blow it down.

Following that, the game's crafting system is a surprisingly in-depth one as well, with the player able to do things I haven't seen since the 1990s with the Ultima series.  One can mix flour and water to create dough, then add apples or mushrooms or fish to make pie that restores HP, for example.  Sticking shafts and arrow heads together allows for rare types of arrows to be made, while cloth, leather and metal ingots can be used to make weapons and armor a la games like Skyrim.  But unlike many games that utilize such systems, Original Sin knows better than to get bogged down with this - while it can prove helpful at times, it is by no means an essential part of surviving the game; the player can just as easily repair existing equipment or make use of a large variety of weapons, scrolls and other equipment they find along the way to bypass this element entirely.

Other solutions show up in combat as well, with many spells synergizing with each other in surprising ways.  Earth-elemental spells include an ability to douse a part of the field in oil, for example, which a fire spell can then set ablaze, damaging all enemies within it.  A rain spell will extinguish fires, but temporarily leave behind damaging steam, and those soaked in water from rain are more vulnerable to electric-type spells, which can jump through multiple enemies and inflict significant damage to all of them.  Poison spells heal zombie-type enemies, but healing spells will damage them, and the player can take advantage of this by "curing" zombies of their Poison status via spells, stopping their HP regeneration and leaving them vulnerable.

Another new element comes in the game's dialogue system, with the two player-created characters frequently reacting to events that come their way as the story progresses, with each choice the player makes moving their 'traits' up or down one of numerous sliders; as these move further to one end of the bar, they will gain various stat bonuses.   For example, choosing "Righteous" dialog options will grant a bonus to the Leadership skill, while going the opposite route ("Renegade") will grant a bonus to Pickpocketing instead.  "Pragmatic" options will give a boost to Crafting skills, while its opposite, "Romantic", will give a boost to Luck instead.  It's clear that this was meant to be a feature of the game's co-op support, with two players roleplaying their own characters in the ways they wish in the vein of a tabletop RPG.  In a single-player game, however it just feels more than a bit silly (and tedious) to have two of your own characters having arguments over every inane thing that happens along the way; moreso when you're playing solo and have to choose both sides of the argument yourself (though, as I later learned, you can predefine your characters' personalities at character creation, automatically selecting many of these options when they come up).  

NPC dialog is handled in somewhat similar fashion, with some skills and traits determining NPC reactions to the players (such as the "Know-it-all" talent causing a negative effect on many).  Frequently the player will have arguments with them as well; however, rather than resolving this through dialog options or simple chance, here it bafflingly plays out as a rock-paper-scissors minigame, unpleasantly giving the illusion of a skill-based mechanic while still leaving the whole thing up to luck and drawing it out far longer than a simple dice roll would.  Which, if you're apt to getting the best result for every quest or just want a particular outcome for one, means you'll be doing a lot of savescumming rather than involving any actual skill, which can be pretty frustrating.

In short, Divinity: Original Sin is a game with a lot of ideas that come into play in almost every facet of its design; puzzles, combat, roleplaying and character building in general are a step apart from anything I've seen in any prior CRPG.  Somewhere along the line, though, the developers somehow forgot to make the game fun to actually play.  While there is a bit of visceral thrill in dropping enemies into hazards with teleport spells and "disarming" traps by throwing objects into them, detonating them while you're safely out of harm's way, that quickly gives way to a myriad of interface and design flaws.  UI interaction feels unpleasantly slow and sluggish, with many button inputs, enemy highlights and drag-and-drops simply not registering properly, or causing me to "grab" an inventory/quickbar icon as if I'd pressed and held the button rather than simply clicking it once.  Combat is also not bound to a grid, meaning that many attempts to make a precise move just resulted in me stumbling into a trap or taking aim at an enemy, my target becoming un-highlighted in the split-second it took for my click to register and causing my character to run straight ahead at their target, wasting AP and putting themselves straight in harm's way rather than firing an arrow or spell.  I also saw a substantial amount of screen-tearing and slowdown when simply moving through towns and combat scenes with very little actually occurring on-screen.  Basically, Original Sin as a whole just feels poorly optimized, which, for a game barely more graphically advanced than 2012's Torchlight II running on a gaming computer I built brand-new in mid-2016, should definitely not be the case.  It certainly doesn't speak well of the game either when Ultima VII - a game made for MS-DOS near the dawn of mouse-based interfaces for games - has a more crisp, responsive and solid-feeling UI than a game released over twenty years later.

The game's mechanics just wear thin after a while as well, because when it comes down to it, that's all they really are - shallow gimmicks made solely to give a false sense of innovative design.  Sure, it's fun for a time to douse enemies in oil and set them ablaze or smash down doors with a zweihander instead of having to do tedious key-hunting, but when combat is so frequent and virtually every bypassable puzzle has a more traditional solution - and it's often far less of a time investment to go get the key behind an enemy group or proceed through the quest properly instead of wasting four broadswords and fifteen minutes of tedious clicking to brute-force your way through that Level 27 door - it all just feels pointless after only a short while.  Pair that with the fact that combat is so one-note for much of the game, pitting the player against the same few enemy types (and associated gimmicks) over and over again for several hours at a stretch, and I got bored of that very quickly too.  Even the dialog wears thin fast, feeling like some child's desperate attempt to emulate Shakespeare by heaping mountains of purple prose into every single character's dialog (and spelling several words wrong as they went).  That, plus the truly wretched voice acting which they were frankly far better off without in the original release of the game, makes the storytelling aspect grating after only a short while.

So, beyond a few clever gimmicks that might draw eyes and get some impulse purchases from players who only see the first hour or so of its gameplay, Divinity: Original Sin brings almost nothing to the table.  Once the initial awe wears off, it isn't long before its design flaws become irritating and you see just how one-note and shallow the game truly is, amounting to little more than a tedious monster-mash with an archetypal plot and few, if any, memorable characters or underlying gameplay elements.  The major, defining difference between this and the rest of the Divinity franchise, as far as I can tell, it's that they had enough crowdfunding money to buy a handful of 9/10 scores from gaming rags this time around.  And since people by-and-large will just take anything the first three or four results on Google say as gospel, never bothering to apply any discretion, critical thought or even their own senses in doing so... well, you can draw your own conclusion from there.

Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios, Focus Home Interactive
Platform: Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Linux, OS X
Released: 2014, 2015
Recommended Version: All versions seem to be more or less identical.