Visit our sponsors! (or click here and disable ads)
RPG Codex Review: Divinity: Original Sin 2
Review - posted by Infinitron on Tue 6 March 2018, 23:54:44Tags: Divinity: Original Sin 2; Larian Studios
[Review by Darth Roxor]
In with the new, out with the old
Released in 2014, Larian Studios’ Divinity: Original Sin turned out to be a huge success. Surprisingly enough, the turn- and party-based tactical RPG even managed to win acclaim among mainstream media sources, perhaps mostly due to its top-notch presentation, but who can say for sure.
In fact, it was successful enough to spawn an “Enhanced Edition” just a year later. Unfortunately, most of the “enhancements” were lacklustre and failed to fix most of the issues found in the original – namely the stupid plot and terrible late game content – and instead introduced new problems of their own, including making the game much easier than it used to be. Not to mention the criminal change to the cheese vendor’s voiceover in Cyseal. But hey, at least it added voice acting to all the dialogues!
Still, fast forward another two years, and we now have a sequel on our hands. Divinity: Original Sin 2 had a very simple task ahead of itself. All it had to do was not screw things up, and preferably make some things better. Personally, I would be content if DOS2 were the same as its predecessor, just with a different paint job and campaign. The question remains whether it really ended up that way.
The man with very few cheeses
The character system in DOS1 was one of the more often criticised parts of the game. It had clear problems when it came to the relative usefulness of various statistics, and it just wasn’t very interesting or deep. Let us see how DOS2 compares.
Character creation is very basic. You get to create a single character (or a party up to 4 if you’re playing in coop with other folks), assign a bunch of stats, pick a talent and three starting skills. Selecting your background is probably the biggest choice, because there’s a total of 14 to choose from. 4 of them are basic races (human, dwarf, elf, lizardman), then there are 4 “undead” versions of the basic ones, and finally there are 6 pre-made “origin” characters, with their own additional in-game stories and quirks. Each background also varies in terms of two unique racial abilities. The last thing to choose are your two character “tags” – such as “noble”, “scholar”, “soldier”, etc. – that you can use to further flesh out your protagonist. The tags are primarily used to unlock new dialogue options, but they have a few other uses as well. Tags for origin backgrounds are pre-set and can’t be changed.
A word on origin characters – their implementation is a neat idea. Being able to adjust their stats at the start while keeping the potential quest and story benefits given by their pre-written backgrounds is the best of both worlds. It encourages you to dive in for the additional content they may bring without scaring you away with badly-made or unappealing stat profiles. Also, even though you only create one character (if playing solo), you will still be able to add three more to your party, and the odds of them being origin characters are high, since you get them before you are able to create new custom ones. Their builds can be tweaked to your liking even at the point when they are recruited, which lets you adjust your party profile as you see fit, without making story-related concessions.
This is roughly where the positives end when it comes to the character system.
Sadly, Larian’s response to criticism regarding character building was making the system even more shallow and uninteresting than it was in the first game. Almost everything in DOS2, every attribute and ability, has been degraded to 5% damage bonuses and hardly anything else.
To start with attributes – there are six of them: Strength, Finesse, Intelligence, Constitution, Memory and Wits. Strength gives +5% melee damage per point and increases weight carrying capacity. Finesse gives +5% ranged damage per point. Intelligence gives +5% magic damage per point. Constitution grants +7% max health per point! How amazing. Memory at least is something different, because it increases your skill memorisation cap – the higher your Memory, the more skills you will be able to use at once without swapping them out of combat. Last we have Wits, which increases crit chance by 1% and initiative by 1 per point. Looks fairly important, but you have no idea how wrong you are, though I will come back to this in the combat chapter.
And that’s it. You might be asking yourself, “hey, where’s my chance to evade hits? Movement range? Action points? Damage reduction? Saving throws? Hello?” The answer is “just forget them”, because they either do not exist at all, or are attached to specific “class” abilities (like Scoundrel) and increase by 1% per point.
Abilities are similarly terrible. Take weapons. All of them are +5% dmg/point with some added trinkets. One-handed is +5% accuracy (when you will hardly ever drop below 95%), Two-handed is +5% crit damage, Ranged is +1% crit chance and Dual-wield is +1% dodge (what the hell even). Things can get a bit more interesting for class specific/magic abilities, like Hydrosophist, which apart from damage also increases healing and buffs from water spells, but then we have Aerothurge or Pyrokinetic which are again just +5% damage.
It’s also very apparent just how little thought went into this system. Tell me, why would you raise One-handed, when the ability Warfare gives +5% damage with all physical attacks, and also governs warrior-type skills? Why would you raise Huntsman above the level required to unlock ranger-type skills, when it only increases damage made from high ground by 5%/point, while Ranged increases all ranged damage by 5% and also gives additional crit chance on top?
Defensive abilities are also a joke, to the point that they might not exist. Retribution reflects damage taken (5%/point), Perseverance restores your armour (more on this later) after you recover from status effects (5%/point) and Leadership increases dodge chance and elemental resistances to allies within 5m (+2%/3%/point). Some “defensive” stats, alright.
Apart from combat abilities there are also “civil” abilities, which encompass all sorts of Barters, Telekineses and Sneakings. Fortunately, they have a separate ability point pool, because they are mostly uninteresting and would hardly warrant investing any points that you could instead pump into 5% damage increases. One civil ability that deserves a bit more detailed mention is Persuasion. The problem with Persuasion is that it’s extremely opaque. It’s always checked with an attribute (so “Persuasion + Strength” to intimidate), but how the two interact and how they translate into your chance to succeed at a given roll is a complete mystery.
Last we have talents. These were already the weakest part of the DOS1’s character system, and here they are just as bad, if not even worse. Depending on your character archetype, a few of them will be must haves, and the rest will be either trap options or very minor boosts to pick once you’ve run out of the useful stuff.
Due to all of these changes and simplifications, one of the fundamental aspects of the RPG genre, i.e. advancing your character and levelling up, is made completely uninteresting in DOS2. Once you level-up, your reaction is not “yay!” – it’s “gee, where do I want my +5% damage this time. Surely not in the same thing that I’ve been raising for the last 10 levels”. There is no planning. No differentiation. No crazy builds. It’s only +5% damage all the way down, and all of it is dumped into the same two statistics because there is no point to invest in anything else.
The worst thing is that all this has also served to undermine the one thing I liked about the character system in DOS1. It still left decently much room for experimentation and “multi-classing” that needed care to pull off. Building my rogue/witch/pyro/hydromancer in the first game by carefully balancing the stat gains and pulling it off to great effect was one of my favourite aspects of that game. There were so many things for me to keep in mind: spell fail chances, spell penetration, stat requirements. Meanwhile in DOS2, while multi-classing is still very much possible, it’s definitely not rewarding or challenging in any sense of the word. There is nothing for you to keep track of, and accessing a different skillset is as easy as putting 1-3 points into its relevant ability, which will also let you pass the requirements for the "top tier" skills, no strings attached. Couple that with free, unlimited respeccing, and suddenly nothing you do with regard to your character has any weight behind it.
A natural consequence of character building having a diminished influence on progression is the increased importance of itemisation. This is another point where DOS2 is a downgrade, and another case where it’s a downgrade from an element that was already lacking in the first game.
That’s because all the items here are, so to speak, level-scaled. That is to say, each item has an inherent level, meant to correspond to your character’s level, and these levels determine the multipliers for the items’ statistics. Now the problem is that these multipliers are crazy high and introduce an exponential number bloat that leads to your gear being constantly obsolete. The differences in damage and protection between items that are just two levels apart are so big that what DOS2 really expects you to do is hit the vendors and buy new gear the moment you level up, unless you want to fall behind and get wrecked. Even more absurd, this is also true for unique items. For example, Chapter 1 has a hidden set of armour strewn around the map that requires quite a lot of effort to assemble. Bad news is that this long-lost legendary masterwork relic is going to become near-useless once you get to Chapter 2.
All the same, equipment in DOS2 also retains most of its flaws from DOS1. Loot is still random, unique items are still very rare (now in addition also terrible) and gear properties still follow the Diablo-like formula of “[prefix] [item] [of] [suffixing]”.
Now that we are done with the character system, please fasten your seatbelts, for we’ll be moving forward to discuss the combat mechanics, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Balance is not a function of firepower
If there was one aspect of the first game that didn’t need touching, it was the combat. However, Larian apparently disagreed, because they touched it in many inappropriate ways. So many that I don’t know where to begin.
Let’s start with the most conspicuous part – the armour system. Clearly inspired by classics such as Doom, armour in DOS2 doesn’t reduce damage taken or make you harder to hit, it straight up gives you an additional health bar on top of the regular one. Or two health bars to be precise – physical and magic armour, which both absorb damage from their respective sources.
But that is not all. Armour bars also count as forcefields against negative status effects. Worst of all, this functions on a binary basis. That is to say, DOS2 completely ditches any form of spell resistance or saving throws. As long as you have a single point of armour, you will shrug off all adverse effects from a particular damage source (physical/magical) as if they were never used.
Armour, along with all its elements, is a controversial addition for sure, but if you ask me, it is downright disastrous. First, it makes combat very repetitive and predictable – when none of your fancy tricks and disables work from the get-go, the start of every fight will look the same, i.e. you will have to bash everyone’s head in with pure damage, and then maybe use a few disables once their armour is down. This also extends to the feeling of safety as the player – you don’t have to fear a mass paralyze on turn 1, so the only early buffing you have to focus on is stacking up forcefields.
Second, it reduces the uniqueness and significance of both characters and skills. Damage in DOS2 takes precedence over everything, and while debuffs and disables still have their uses, they are no longer a primary aspect of combat. If every character has to focus on damage, every character starts looking the same. Furthermore, since debuffs are removed by restoring armour, specific cure or immunity spells no longer need to be a thing – whether you are cursed, slowed, burning, asleep, stunned, frozen or petrified, weep no more and use your miraculous cure-all in the form of Armour of Frost to restore some magic armour and walk it all off. What also bothers me a lot is that armour functioning as health effectively removes whatever difference there is between “soft” and “hard” targets. A scrawny guy and a stone golem, a fighter and a mage, they all take the same damage when hit with a sword.
Third, we’ve already established that numbers get bloated a lot in DOS2, and armour is the chief source of this. With no real resistances to be found, the only remaining power progression is in terms of pure damage and pure health. As you get farther and farther into the game, combined HP from health and armour can reach tens of thousands. You’d think something like this would warrant the introduction of damage abilities based on percentages, and yet there are none in this game. Everything that matters is the bloating of the most basic things – health, damage and healing.
Why this madness was introduced is a mystery to me, though from what I’ve gathered it was because some people complained about DOS1 being too easy to play using a “disable everyone, then kill them” tactic (or they kept getting stomped by turn 1 disables cast on their characters). I’m not sure how changing that to “make everyone a nuker” was supposed to be a valuable gameplay shift or remedy, but perhaps I’m missing something. All I know is that I really enjoyed playing a character focused on mobility and debuffing in DOS1, and in DOS2 I can no longer do that. Besides, it’s not like the game is devoid of its own problems with permastuns. Since all bets are off the moment you lose your forcefields, and the same applies to all enemies, even boss monsters can be dispatched with pathetic ease once you break through their armour and place an electric puddle under their feet that will re-stun them every turn.
With all the above in mind, I would now like to draw some parallels to two games that I’m particularly fond of, and though their overall styles might be different to DOS2, I think some of their design choices and principles are more than applicable.
First is Guild Wars 1, a party-based MMORPG with an extreme focus on team tactics. GW had a character class whose sole purpose was frustrating the enemy – that class was called the mesmer. The mesmer would interrupt and disable spellcasting, make spells backfire, force fighters to hit themselves in combat, and generally run around, being a huge asshole, while everyone else in the party was doing the killing. A few other classes, like ranger or necromancer, had similar abilities, but neither was as focused on them as the mesmer. And you know what? This was a fun and inherent aspect of the game, both in PVP and PVE, and nobody really complained about the mesmer being too “unbalanced”, “frustrating”, whatever. DOS1 was perhaps the first game outside GW that let me play the mesmer again, and losing this aspect in the sequel is a significant loss to overall design and gameplay depth.
The second game is Wizardry 8. Wiz8 can also have some very health-bloated opponents that would take forever to kill using conventional methods. However, what balances this health bloat out is the multitude of powerful spells and abilities that range from armour class reductions, through knockouts to instakills. These are also further balanced by specific magic resistances, and the fact that both the player and the AI play by the exact same rules. Wiz8 gives everyone a toolbox of gamechangers and says “now pick what you think is the best”. DOS1 may not have been as robust, but it tried. On the other hand, DOS2 keeps the health bloat, while also stealing the toolbox from you.
However, armour is by far not the dumbest aspect of DOS2. That award goes to the initiative system. This game is perhaps the first RPG I’ve ever seen where initiative is a dump stat. That is because the initiative queue functions as a round robin, where both sides take turns on a “you go, I go” basis – the initiative score only influences the queue arrangement within a specific side. Combatants on the same side can only move in succession if there’s more of them than the opposition, and this will nevertheless occur only at the bottom of the queue. So, in other words, if you have four characters with initiative 15, and you fight two monsters with initiative 5, those monsters will still take their turns before two of your characters. Even worse, the queue reshuffles itself each turn if a combatant dies. So if one of the initiative 5 monsters were to die, the other would now act before three of your characters. This gets particularly bad for big brawls, where strong monsters with low initiatives that you leave for last, in order to first dispose of their faster but weaker buddies, will keep climbing the queue with each turn, until they finally get to act first and bust your balls.
I have no other words to describe this other than that it’s pure distilled stupidity. You will run into numerous occasions where finishing off an enemy is a bad idea, because in that way you will empower its stronger ally that is further down the initiative queue. Instead you are better off either ignoring them, or leaving them stunned as “initiative block decoys”. Before killing anything in DOS2 during harder fights, you always have to check the initiative queue and consider whether you will not be sabotaging your own planned courses of action for subsequent turns that way. This is not how it’s supposed to work, goddammit. Also, you can now scroll back to the attributes section of the previous chapter, and realise just how useless is the Wits stat – there is no reason at all to raise this, except maybe on one character that you’d want to move first among your own party, or to have a chance to open a fight instead of leaving that to an enemy.
But Wits and initiative are not the only things that suffer from the jumbled mess of oversimplifications that plague the systems in DOS2. Another is character archetype identity and skill “coolness”. I’ve sort of mentioned this already for the armour discussion, but it deserves repeating. When the mechanics are more or less reduced to “do damage”, “heal” and “debuff once armour is broken”, you significantly limit the breadth of skill functionalities, and also remove a lot of the craziness that made the combat in DOS1 so fun (which is further amplified by the big reduction of damage for all sorts of explosive barrels and other environmental hazards). It also doesn’t help that action points are very limited – base is 4 while the max you can hope for is 6, and that’s only with haste effects that are very short and hard to come by. In practice, this more or less limits you to doing 2 meaningful actions a turn at best.
To put it bluntly, the majority of abilities in DOS2 are boring, repetitive and samey. For example, take the “ranger” and the “warrior”. In DOS1, they had a number of stances, support and damage skills, and the ranger also had elemental arrows with various uses. In DOS2, the ranger is reduced to having more or less the same damage skill repeated ten times with slightly different flavours, while the special arrows are hardly more than generic magic projectiles to bust through some idiot’s magic armour. That’s it. As for the warrior – his bread and butter is a ranged multiple target nuke, a charge with multiple target damage and knockdown, a cone-shaped stomp with a knockdown, two suspiciously magical-looking teleports… and so it goes. When playing a warrior, I found myself casting more area damage spells than I would in most other games as a mage, with barely any chance to do regular attacks, which anyway were all inferior to the constant spellspam.
The only exception to this is polymorph – it’s the only skillset in the game that tries to do something more than big explosions, instead focusing on personal upgrades or transforming enemies into chickens. With polymorph, you can get yourself wings to jump from place to place, elemental skin grafts for added elemental resistances and weaknesses, spider legs to drop webs, etc. Another neat thing about these skills is that some of them are mutually exclusive, so you can’t have a medusa head and bull horns active at the same time.
Yet the list of bad things that plague the combat in DOS2 does not end here. Another significant flaw is the enemy AI. Now, you might say that the AI in DOS1 also had its hiccups, and I agree, but all the same those were not that frequent, and the enemies were capable of performing very advanced manoeuvres across multiple characters. I remember a time when the enemy synced a chain of some four actions that started with resurrecting a dead guy, having that guy de-stun his friend, who would then cast a spell letting the final, fourth guy mass-stun my party. Maybe that was accidental, but it was nevertheless impressive. And there is nothing at all similar to this that I’ve seen in DOS2.
In fact, sometimes I feel like the enemies in this game are hard-coded to do stupid things. The best example is their attitude towards attacks of opportunity. With regular frequency, I’ve seen enemies take two steps just to take an AoO to the face and end their turn. Or do it first and then attack, when this move gives them no benefit whatsoever – it’s only there for them to repeatedly eat free attacks. This also extends to behaviour such as disengaging, getting hit, and then engaging again in the same spot from which they’d tried to move away.
The AI has many such death wishes in general. It will deliberately run through negative surfaces and get disabled. It will run its squishies forward and place them next to your heavy hitters, then end turn. It will also waste action points on climbing up a ladder, just to climb it down again and end turn. But my personal favourite was when a scary void monster jumped on top of a wooden tower, and then couldn’t get down from it, which forced it to end turn 20 times in succession, doing nothing except grunting a frustrated “Hmm!” each time as it did.
I suspect the dumb AI is a direct consequence of the terrible initiative. When the queue is arranged in a round robin and can potentially reshuffle, the confused AI is not able to formulate long-reaching battle plans or chain skills into valid combos. Thus, the only thing it can do is operate single characters as if they had no allies around them. Although this still doesn’t explain the AoO death wish.
Even worse, the difficulty levels don’t do much to improve the AI. From what I’ve seen, the only difference between “normal” and “tactician” difficulty when it comes to enemy combat routines is their use of grenades – you won’t ever see that happen on normal. You might think even that is enough to make picking a higher difficulty worth it, but there’s one problem – you’d have to be mad or masochistic to play this game on tactician. Why? Because it increases all enemy health and armour values by a whopping 50%. Let that sink in. Need some perspective? Here you go: one of the boss monsters later in the game has an effective HP value of nearly 50000 (17k health, 29k physical armour, 32k magic armour) on tactician. I don’t think more needs to be said.
Finally, we get to the last item on this list of disasters. The encounter design. This, for a change, is a mixed bag, because there are still a few fun and hard fights here and there, but unfortunately, a lot of them also show inspiration with Doom. Except this time it’s Doom 3, by which I mean DOS2 is a game full of monster closets that are as lazy as they are shameless. I’d say that half the fights in this game are pop-up fiestas, where you first enter a very obviously arena-shaped area, surrounded by various elevations, and once you step into its middle, monsters jump out of the ground all over the place and start murdering you. Maybe I’m misremembering the frequency of these pocket mobs, but they made the most lasting impression on me, and certainly not in a positive way. Plus, I definitely remember that during my coop playthrough, the phrase that we’d repeat most often (other than “Hmm!”) was “battle stations” – i.e. everyone get ready and position yourselves at the top of this obvious arena while a sacrifice goes forth to trigger the encounter.
However, when speaking of arenas and elevations, one thing has to be mentioned, which is perhaps the only mechanical improvement introduced by DOS2. High ground matters in this game, not only applying a bonus to all damage done from elevation (this includes spells), but also increasing the range of attacks and skills. The range bonus scales based on how high you are in relation to the target as well, so getting on top of a large scaffolding can let you perform some interesting sniping action. Though you have to be mindful of line of sight, which I will address again in a later chapter.
Though to give credit where it is due, there is at least one aspect that remains more or less unchanged compared to the predecessor. The combinations of skills and environmental effects are still alive and kicking, and you can still change a combat arena into a playground of elemental horrors full of icy surfaces and shocking clouds. Also, getting stunned by electricity is a two-step process now (i.e. shock + water), which puts it on the same level as most other easily-accessible disables and contains the potential of permastuns. The fact that these environmental/elemental combos are all made weaker across the board due to being blocked by armour of course still remains an issue, but there's a bigger problem to be had. Namely, the introduction of "cursed" and "blessed" surfaces, which are characterised by additional negative or positive properties, such as cursed blood applying rot that turns all healing into damage or cursed poison applying acid that burns through physical armour. This wouldn't be a bad addition, except for two things. First, the cursed ones are much too common, because they are created by having voidborn daemons bleed on normal surfaces, and suffice to say, you'll be facing many daemons. Second, the only thing that differentiates a cursed surface from a normal one are the tentacles that appear over it, and given your standard DOS visual chaos in combat, it's much too easy to step into them without knowing.
Reflecting on what I’ve written so far, I must admit, it’s almost impressive that the DOS1 combat formula could be downgraded so much, and that someone, somewhere, actually thought some of these changes were good ideas. The sad fact of the matter is that the combat mechanics in DOS2 are simplified to the point of stupidity. Everything is near-deterministic. To hit rolls might as well not exist. There’s no damage reduction other than elemental resistances. Spell failure and penetration doesn’t exist, neither do saving throws. The only remaining “random” element are damage thresholds, and that’s hardly anything to write about.
It’s a phenomenon I’ve been noticing for a while now among turn-based “tactical” games – this strange desire to remove any and all randomness. If you ask me, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the genre is about. For starters, it’s well-known that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and randomness in tactical games is meant to simulate this. When everything can be solved by a Brilliant Strategy™ executed from start to finish without disruption, you are no longer playing a tactical game but a glorified puzzler, where everything is predictable and by extension repetitive. An important aspect of tactics is adjusting to unforeseen failures and complications, thinking on the fly how to turn a defeat around. In games like DOS2, that aspect is thrown out the window. Also, I think most importantly, unless Skynet happens, players will always have an advantage over the enemy AI when it comes to plan development and execution, which is exactly why the AI needs a little leg up in the form of RNG throwing a spanner into the player’s schemes. Though it’s important to remember that the player can benefit from RNG-induced failures on the enemy’s side too, which always leads to memorable and fun battles. But I digress.
Bottomless bags for the deepest lore
I think everyone can agree that the story and its presentation in DOS1 was the game’s worst aspect. The story was bland, the writing was boring and the characters were kind of stupid. It also employed Larian’s trademark tongue-in-cheek style, but this time, without actual quality writing to support it, it ended up dumb instead of funny.
The studio promised to improve this by hiring a bunch of new writers and promising to make the game “less whimsical”. I’ve always been sceptical of this, because to me it looked like acting on wrong feedback. It wasn’t the whimsical style that was the problem in DOS1 – after all, the same style was fine in all the other Divinity games. The problem was that it was just not good. Unfortunately, my scepticism proved well-founded.
I don’t think it’s fair to complain or go too deep into the story itself here, because it’s near-identical to every other Larian game in existence. That is, your character, a Special Person, turns out to be an Even Specialer Person, and embarks on an Epic Quest to change the Fate of the Known World™©®. The reason why this particular iteration of the story comes out bad is in the presentation and, again, in the lacking writing quality.
The chief problem is that despite the writing team switch, the writing remains largely the same – boring, long-winded and without flair, complete with my favourite boast of “over one million words of voiced dialogue”. The only major difference is that the dumb whimsical aspect was replaced by a dumb maturegrimdark aspect, plunging it even further into generic fantasy crapola territory. Not to mention that the writers appear to have some concerning mental issues related to various deviations.
One is the alarming ubiquity of all manner of sexual content. It’s like every second character just can’t wait to pinch, lick, kiss, smell, caress or have other questionable interactions with your protagonist, or describe said interactions with other people, to the point that it makes you imagine the writer as some sort of overly excited dog trying to hump your leg all the time.
Although likening the writer to a dog might be risky given the second, much more disturbing deviation, which is the rampant animal abuse in this game. I swear there is not a single animal in DOS2 that wouldn’t be subjected to torture, torment, mutation or madness, and probably half of those either die after your conversation with them concludes, or beg to be mercy killed.
Also, when it comes to the main plot, there is one thing I can’t really understand. The game gives inexplicable importance to Braccus Rex, an early game boss monster from DOS1, whose characterisation was limited to laughing a lot and throwing fireballs around. Out of all the bad guys in the Divinity series, they really had to pick someone as featureless as this? It’s roughly the equivalent of having The Butcher as one of the main villains in Diablo 2, although even that would make more sense.
Apart from that, perhaps the biggest problem with the story presentation is that the dialogues treat the player like an idiot. All the main story-related characters seem to know exactly what’s going on, but they will never tell you anything. In fact, they will keep laughing in your face, wondering how can the protagonist be so oblivious, all the while withholding all and any critical information. Even more so, if the story-related NPCs happen not to know something, they will probe your protagonists for answers in the most gloriously forced fashion. Below, you can find a picture of one such conversation, where you must tell the near-omniscient Malady everything you know, or she won’t let you out of the dialogue loop. Notice how the writer didn’t even try to make the dialogue nodes look different.
The same treatment also spreads to all manner of choices in quests, particularly when it comes to killing various quest-related characters. I don’t think I’ve seen any NPC more important than a nameless mook that would just lay down and die when defeated in combat. Beating them will always result in a dialogue that can be described as “hold on, do you really want to kill this person?” followed by additional confirmation nodes with “do you REALLY REALLY want to kill this person?”. If I decided to shank them in broad daylight, I’d assume my intentions were rather clear, so what gives? Also, odds are that the slain NPC will miraculously survive the multiple coups de grace and appear later down the line anyway.
DOS2 is no stranger to fake choices in dialogues, although it takes that to the next level by also putting in fake skill checks. There are numerous occasions on which you’ll run into “persuasion checks” that lead to the same outcomes no matter whether they are passed or failed, and that outcome is typically someone trying to clobber you.
Similarly, what really bothers me about quests in DOS2 is that none of them give you any directions to their objectives. Everyone just marks everything on your map, even when it’s a short stroll away from the quest giver. The most absurd example of this is probably a chicken pecking your map to show you the location of some monsters that stole its eggs, even though the directions to them could be described as easily as “They went that-a-way, just turn right past the gallows”.
The objective marking is also something that contributes to the dialogues not feeling like characters are having a conversation with you. Instead, it’s like they are dialoguing at you. Though the biggest factor here is the way player responses are structured because they are written descriptively, and not as dialogue lines. At first it seemed like a good idea to me, because that way you can drop a lot of unnecessary baggage and also make sure that the responses fit all player characters, including the pre-made origin ones. However, DOS2 does not drop the baggage at all, and the responses are instead just veiled dialogue lines, but with even more superfluous garbage on top. For example, a dialogue option like “Tell me about X”, in DOS2 could range from “Ask them to tell you about X” to “Steel yourself, gird your loins and pick the most gracious words to convince them to tell you about X”. And that is not just good at all.
Enough about the story nonsense though, and let’s discuss the gameworld.
There are a few ways in which Larian tried to up the “simulation” aspect of DOS1. One of them is more advanced reactivity to thievery – if you steal from NPCs, whether it’s pickpocketing or grabbing stuff from the world, they will now actively go around and look for the thief. If you’re caught, they will search you, and then call the cops. Once that happens, you can talk or bribe yourself out of the situation, go to jail or just kill them all. It’s an okay idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. It’s much too easy to drop the stolen goods nearby and wait for the NPC to stop searching, or simply teleport away to one of the many map waypoints. Another questionable thing is that stolen items count as stolen even as you progress through story chapters and move between cities. So a guard in a fishing village can smell the stench of stolen potato that you nabbed from a prison island 20 hours ago, and react accordingly.
Also, despite the previously mentioned perils concerning killing blows on NPCs, it has to be mentioned and commended that the vast majority of characters in DOS2 can be slaughtered as you see fit, without breaking the game. There is a downside to this, however, in that murdering folks en masse never feels like a “big deal”, so to speak. You kill the citizens, you kill the guards that come help them, and that’s it, with no real long-term repercussions, or at least none that I’ve noticed. The rest of the city will still trade with you, guards will salute as you pass, etc.
A major reason behind this, I think, is that DOS2 tries to present itself as an open-world game when it isn’t one. In fact, it’s very obviously zoned and railroaded. You can say this was already a problem in DOS1, and again, I agree, but the issue is even greater in the sequel. DOS1 still gave you some degree of freedom as to what area you’d like to go through (e.g. whether to go to Hiberheim or stay around Silverglen), and its broader mechanical depth also allowed you to go to some “higher level” zones and try your luck. This isn’t true in DOS2. Though the maps may look big and open, in reality they are arranged almost like an MMO, in “level-specific” zones that will kick your ass if you enter them too soon. Thus, the developers more or less force you to go on a trip that was pre-planned by them almost from start to finish.
This worldbuilding principle also has a big impact on reactivity and simulation, because specific zones are there only to be cleared and abandoned. There is hardly any reason to get back to them, and you can see how it influences the level design from the point of view of terrain structure and arrangement.
My most favourite example of the above is Fort Joy, the prison island in Chapter 1. It’s supposed to be a secluded concentration camp for super-dangerous sourcerers. But the way it’s built is about as leakproof as a sieve. In fact, it might be the only prison I’ve seen that you can escape from by accident. Even better, the prisoners keep lamenting about no ways to get out, even though it would take about five minutes of swimming to get from its beach to another part of the island, especially since there are no guards watching over those places as well.
Finally, once you kill all the guards in Fort Joy and open all the prison gates, you’d expect the prisoners to do something about it, but nothing ever happens. They still remain in the prison “slum” area and lament about no ways to get out. A far cry from a game like Gothic to be sure.
To close the chapter, I would like to address a few things about coop gameplay. Before the release, “player rivalry” was touted as a possible central aspect of multiplayer, but from what I’ve seen, there’s less of it than in the first game. You can say what you want about the rock-paper-scissors way to resolve arguments in DOS1, but at least it had arguments that needed resolving to begin with. In DOS2, these don’t exist, and when a choice is presented during a dialogue, it’s only the player that initiated the conversation that can do something about it. The other player will never be able to intercede and force another outcome.
Also, when Big Events™ happen, the party members may chat themselves up to give their perspectives on what has transpired, similar to how it worked in DOS1. However, these conversations are different now based on one major thing – the alignment bonuses from being pragmatic or emotional etc. have all been removed. On the one hand, it’s a good change, because the bonuses in the first game led to the necessity to min-max opaque dialogue choices, which didn’t work very well at all. But on the other hand, now those dialogues feel a lot more inconsequential.
Good times, bad times
Obligatory tech chapter before we head to the summary.
If there’s one thing that DOS2 retains from its predecessor, it’s definitely the high production values. The graphics are gorgeous, the environments look very nice and everything about the game is big and bombastic. At the same time, the engine is optimised well enough that the eye-candy doesn’t result in any stutter.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the multiplayer and the net code. This might be just me, and who knows, maybe it’s not even valid anymore, but back when I played, DOS2 was very unstable in coop. It would often happen that my coop bro would get kicked on connection, and the kicking would persist until both of us restarted the game. And given that loading times can get obnoxiously long down the line, this was never a fun thing to do.
Also, there are a number of minor bugs here and there that don’t matter much, but may be annoying. The worst of these are probably journal entries for quests that refuse to close even after you’ve completed an assignment, or even better, they do close, but say that you’ve failed the quest, even when that’s not true.
Speaking of the journal, despite all the spit and polish that went into the game, it’s definitely not true of the UI. The DOS2 interface must have been made in hell, because it serves only to frustrate you. The inventory is inconvenient and opaque. The crafting interface is slow and takes way too many clicks than it should. Hotkeys on the quick bar tend not to trigger. The journal is a mess. Everything is clunky, unresponsive and all over the place.
But by far the worst is the line of sight calculation, which makes playing any ranged character nothing short of a lottery. I’ve had enemies count as “obstructed” when standing next to me in plain view. I couldn’t shoot at enemies below me, from higher ground, when they could shoot me. I’d get hit by touch attacks from enemies standing on top of tall ladders (the Doom inspirations just keep piling up). Really, the amount of action points that I wasted in this game just to reposition from “obstructed” places was insane.
Next up, we have the voiceovers. Everything in the game, from dialogues to narration, is voiced, and most of this voice acting is unnecessary. It was a waste of resources in DOS1: Enhanced Edition, and it’s just as much of a waste here. None of the VO stands out, and the actors just sound kind of bored, although I can’t blame them, given the material that they had to work with. Also, I think they are mostly the same folks who have voiced Larian’s games since Divinity 2, especially the narrator, but I might be wrong. However, the most ridiculous voiceovers in the game are the “unit barks” that play when player characters do things. This is because they are the same for all characters, they are not segregated in any “thematic” groups (like attack, defence, support quotes, etc) and there’s maybe a dozen of them at best. Seeing Fane the undead champion drop to the ground and play dead while hissing “Prepare yourself!” or anyone else chug a healing potion and yell “Glory is mine!” gets old very soon.
And finally, the biggest decline of all in the game – the music. I guess it might not be fair to bring it up, because nobody’s discovered the cure for death yet, but the lack of Kirill Pokrovsky is very, very apparent. His new age-ish compositions that mixed orchestrations, electronics, folk and rock always fit the zaniness of the Divinity series like a glove. The music of DOS2, on the other hand, is just generic fantasy orchestrations, which might be competent perhaps, but it sounds completely forgettable to me. None of the tracks grabbed my attention – they are elevator-music tier, meant to play in the background and be non-intrusive. A wicked shame too, because the game introduces a few dynamic music tricks that make it change depending on what’s happening during a fight, but that doesn’t matter much when the audio material itself is not particularly interesting.
They changed it, now it sucks
I don’t know what else is really there to say that I haven’t said already. To me, Original Sin 2 is a disaster on every front, and a textbook example of an attempted fix of something that wasn’t broken in the first place. Almost everything about it is a clear step down from Original Sin 1, and I can’t for the life of me understand how the designers could consider most of these changes to be good ideas.
In case it wasn't obvious by now, I've never finished the game. I gave up after some 40 hours of deluding myself that it’ll eventually get better, even though I was playing it in coop, which should have ramped up the fun by itself. Instead, my coop bro and I kept wondering whether we weren't somehow scammed into getting a Chinese knock-off version of the game, while everyone else was enjoying the real deal.
The game is oversimplified, dull, scaled down in the worst of ways, and simply much less cool than its predecessor. I would hope for at least some of its ridiculous design decisions being withdrawn in future Divinity games, but I feel like it might be the voice of the madman calling in the desert. Everything points to Original Sin 2 being Larian’s most successful game yet, and I know too well what that entails, especially when you take this interview Swen Vincke did with PCGamer.
I mean, this is a perfectly sensible business attitude, because if you have a successful product, you’d have to be dumb to change it to appease the angry minority. But on the other hand, here’s a daily reminder that the initiative idiocy was implemented late into early access, and nobody even seemed to have noticed it before long after the game was released.
Which brings me to my final point. I hope that Original Sin 2 was successful not because but despite all those changes. That people played it more or less on autopilot, ignoring the fact that it’s mechanically about as shallow as a puddle, because the pretty graphixxx, undead lizardmen player characters and battle teleportation managed to effectively distract them. Although the cynic in me can’t exclude the possibility that the pre-release hype campaign, with its constant barrage of big words including “Improved story! Better everything! Like the old game but expanded! More tacticool!” managed to condition everyone into fully accepting that view a priori, while the post-release exuberant echo-chamber that followed in the media only served to cement that conditioning.