[3 January 2010]
Larian Studios had a pretty good thing going for it with the Divine Divinity series. The first game and its sequel (slightly more sensibly called Beyond Divinity—the sequel is less well-regarded than its predecessor) looked like Diablo and played like a cross between Baldur’s Gate and something a bit fussier. They were a nice change from their sycophantic Western brethren (every one of them a true Diablo clone) and far more adventurous than any JRPG. They were complicated, obtuse, and strangely humorous.
There hasn’t been anything like them since (Piranha Bytes’ games are far too pointlessly obtuse) until the release of Divinity 2: Ego Draconis. It’s definitely a change for the studio. Is it a good thing for us, though, or is Divinity 2 going to go down as the game that broke Larian’s streak?
The game starts off by making it clear that Larian’s taste for the old as seen through the lens of the new (or possibly just the plain bizarre) is still in full effect. It is a sad and pervasive video game trope that RPG heroes lose their memories (and thus their skills) at the beginning of each new game. Not happy to leave this notion well enough alone, Larian has your character, a Slayer (they slay Dragon Knights, of course) trainee, undergo an initiation ritual (think Dragon Age’s ritual but slightly less dangerous) that strips of them of their old skills and memories. You are a Slayer now (and a voluntary amnesiac)! This is just one of the many little twists that Larian applies to the most tired of RPG conventions (not to mention fantasy conventions), all while embracing the genre’s past for good or for ill.
In terms of third person action controls and usability, Divinity 2 is somewhere ahead of the wretched Risen and the improbably inept (from a third person perspective only) Oblivion and is somewhere behind games that really understand the genre (most anything from Ubisoft, the Max Payne games, etc.). Then again, maybe asking for a third person action RPG to have fun, tight controls is just outrageous. Regardless, once you get your head around them, the controls and interface are effective if somewhat troublesome.
They work in tandem with the game’s awful graphical optimization to distract you from what must be the most interesting non-Bioware RPG I have played recently. This is an RPG that refuses to force you into one kind of play style or another. Sure, some work better than others (sword and shield builds just aren’t able to take hits like they should), but you can do any of them at any time. There isn’t a respect option, but the game does absolutely nothing to penalize you from multi-classing. In fact, Divinity 2 takes the admirable approach of completely ignoring classes, simply classifying (but not separating) classes into different and entirely cosmetic “schools.”
This isn’t the mealy, meaningless “freedom” of the Elder Scrolls series, and it isn’t the branching, overly MMO-centric (but ultimately confused) Dragon Age. Divinity 2 lets you play the game as you please. It gives you plenty of levels and skill points to do with as you please, and as long as you think ahead, you will never have that “horrible build” moment with which almost all games confront players.
As welcome as this blameless, classless system is (and it can produce some truly delightful characters, avatars fluent in disparate methods of death-dealing), equally as welcome is the game’s offbeat, whimsical take on the tired, tired fantasy landscape. Dragons, Slayers, and Dragon Knights, Goblins (single-eyed tribal creatures, again showcasing Larians commitment to just-a-bit-different fantasy creatures), and more all appear in a beautiful, winningly self-aware (and at the same time quite earnestly fantastical) fantasy world.
The game’s graphics actually do much to aid in this atmospheric endeavor. Far-off objects are subjected to a Borderlands-like comic book outline as well as some pretty subtle motion blur. When combined, they create hazy and engrossing set pieces. And they really are quite impressive, those vistas. The opening area alone is massive. The central Tower, a place of ancient and dangerous magic, can be seen from most anywhere, and the game only grows and spreads out as your character progresses.
I haven’t even talked about the Dragons yet. If you think back a ways, you might remember Drakan: Order of the Flame. Drakan was a game that cast you as Lara Croft in Dragonheart, essentially. It was also pretty bad. Divinity 2 delivers on all of our Dragon controlling fantasies. Dragon flight is fun and just ponderous enough, and the world is just as breathtaking from the air as it is from the ground.
It’s breathtaking at least for the most part. The game is horribly optimized. I couldn’t even play for the first hour after installation, thanks to issues involving drivers and graphics settings (recommended by the computer). Even after that issue was fixed, the game still skipped uncontrollably until I (thanks to a forum post) changed the name of the .exe file. It really is sad to see this kind of quality failure present in a release like this. I have no doubts that as a 360 game that the myriad powers and menus would be unpleasant to navigate. People looking for a PC release shouldn’t be saddled with this kind of awful graphical implementation—pretty though it may be.
Despite the game’s issues, I love it to death. It is not as serious (and thus, allows for a lot more levity) than Dragon Age, yet it calls to mind older, more endearingly complicated CRPGs. This is the kind of game that doesn’t get made anymore. It might be fully 3D, and it might be over-the-shoulder, but Larian has produced a firmly self-absorbed, refreshingly focused RPG offering. It doesn’t pander to anyone but itself, and it is the better for it.