Divinity: Original Sin review: Old-school absolution

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Divinity: Original Sin review: Old-school absolution

Divinity: Original Sin is an unashamed timewarp, a beast unrestrained in dragging old-school RPG values into the modern day. The concessions it makes are often by-products of the things it pursues, qualities like agency, depth and challenge. The game is so loaded with depth that, like an inventory-laden hero, it's almost crippled by it, teetering over the abyss of complexity and perplexity. What keeps Original Sin grounded is turn-based combat that's consistently a joy. Its symbiosis with the sheer scope of the game raises the whole thing to heady heights that harken back to another age.

You can tell Original Sin's different from modern fare when you start by creating two characters. This isn't just a confusing quirk, but a product of the co-op capability. Another player, be it a friend or someone random, can drop into your game and control the second hero. The second player is like a visitor, able to fight and interact in some dialogue - more on that later. Otherwise you control two heroes, as well as up to two other companions.

When you reach the first town, Original Sin starts showing its old-school colors. You soon realize questgivers aren't marked, and could be anyone - or anything. The journal offers vague info on quests, and certainly no golden breadcrumbs. While the game quickly establishes the main plot - there's been a murder and it looks like forbidden Source magic is to blame - it's difficult to know what to do next, a familiar feeling throughout the game. The world is naturally level-gated, so on normal difficulty you can't just pursue what you want. In any case, quests overlap including the main one, something else that's not clear from the start.

I'm a seasoned RPG player, but I found the first few hours a bit overwhelming. It's not like, for example, you're led naturally to prospective companions, who are a necessity in your party. There are a cavalcade of rustic quirks, things like having to open a door by selecting the party member holding the key, or having to trade with just one hero's resources at a time. There are clear reasons or at least arguments behind those design decisions, but they don't make the results any less fiddly.

There is method to the madness, though, because the madness allows you an inordinate amount of flexibility. First off, you can develop heroes with no set class restraints, leaving you free to make all-rounders, bow-wielding clerics, or whatever. Building up your hero is simple too, with leveling up limited to attribute points, skills and perks.

Then there are the multiple ways you can go through quests. A high number of quests offer at least binary choices, but others can be completed numerous ways. A particularly memorable one involves a toll-demanding troll on a bridge - the troll offers you multiple dialogue options which take things in a variety of directions, some peaceful, others less so. You can even, if you've not found the troll translation book, go through the whole sequence in gibberish and still make it out unscathed.

The freedom extends beyond dialog choices; early on you find a ship that's burning, and the game simply leaves it in your hands to find a creative solution to the problem. It sets the tone for a game where, if you think you can do something, you can probably do it. That, Larian says, includes killing everyone in sight and still being able to finish the game - I've not been mad enough to try.

One of the game's most appealing freedoms is that it lets things go pear-shaped. You can screw things up easily in Original Sin, be it failing an escort quest or being reckless with exploding critters. If it bothers you you can always re-load - you'll soon be well-versed in quick-loads and quick-saves anyway - but the game cultivates a willingness to deal with adversity and the consequences of your actions. It never beats you over the head with the morality stick, and you rarely miss out on too much by getting things wrong.

One interesting side to that comes in the standoffs between the two main heroes. Certain dialogue choices will require the two main heroes agreeing. If you're playing co-op, you're relying on your partner to think like you think. In single-player, if you've got AI personalities turned on then it's the same deal. If there's disagreement, a rock-paper-scissors mini-game starts and the winner gets their way. So, there can be situations where you want to spare someone's life or take all the treasure for yourself, but if the other hero wins out, no dice.

It's an unusual - and optional - way of creating adversity, veering away from the project management-style systems other RPGs sometimes go for, where you have to try and please everyone. As with the botched quests, shit happens and you just have to deal with it.

This helps make the side stories enjoyable, often funny diversions - you do everything from chasing talking treasure chests to dealing with statues designed to troll you. Sadly, that enjoyment isn't reflected in the main story, which begins with a murder mystery that takes far too long to get really going. Also, the game underuses what are some interesting companions on paper - for all the dialogue options, your party interaction is far removed from, say, a BioWare game. The overall result is you don't feel invested in the world and its lore.

Luckily, there is glue that holds Original Sin together, and it's the combat, the part that keeps me coming back again and again. In a departure for the Divinity series, Original Sin features turn-based combat, with each hero getting one turn per round. In each turn, your hero has a number of action points he or she can spend, allowing you to make multiple moves. Think some kind of weird amalgam of games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Valkyria Chronicles with a dash of Bravely Default's twist-or-stick, but a lot simpler than that sounds.

And that's the joy of the combat, really. It's easy to pick up, serving as a humble but brilliant platform for the game's depth. Moreover, the game's enemies vary enough to make you not just want but have to explore different combat options, as you work out which strategies to use. With some enemies you'll get your melee troops in early while healing from afar, with others you might set up rainfall in advance and chuck down electric attacks to keep foes stunned. As you level up, learn new moves and further develop your characters, the fighting only seems to get better - it's easy in a RPG to fall into familiar patterns, taking down enemies in the same way. Original Sin avoids that problem, keeping you constantly on your toes.

Divinity: Original Sin could be more straightforward and more modern in other aspects and perhaps maintain its allure. After 60 hours of deep, challenging and often confounding role-playing action, I'm willing to forgive its sins, original or otherwise.

This review is based on a Steam copy of the PC version of Divinity: Original Sin, provided by Larian Studios.

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