Hands up if you fancy playing one of the best RPGs of the last decade, because that's what we've got right here. I could spend 1500 or so words dissecting Divinity: Original Sin for you before delivering that conclusion, but frankly that's time that you could be spending playing Divinity: Original Sin.
Let's put it this way: if you like your old-school, isometric RPGs, if you've lamented the increasing tendencies of modern games (especially purported role-playing games) towards handholding and streamlining and other simplifications, if what you crave from an RPG is freedom and customisation and a combat system that makes you pause and think, this is the game you've been waiting for.
You should probably stop reading and go and buy it right now.
If you're still here, perhaps you need a little more convincing. Some proof, perhaps, or a little more specificity. We're back in Rivellon for this prequel to Divine Divinity, but it won't matter if you've never played a Divinity game before. You can jump straight in and starting questing to your heart's content, the only things you'll miss out on are a few "A-ha!" moments and in-jokes as previous characters make cameo appearances. You begin the game by creating two Source Hunters, who are on a mission to find the dastardly magical evil-doers that have been mucking about with the balance of things and so on and so forth. It's a fairly hackneyed story, one we've seen countless times before, but it's the way Larian tell it rather than the story itself that makes Original Sin such a delight. This game is all about freedom, choice, personality, and funny one-liners.
It's crucially important to create complimentary characters at the start of the game, allowing for as little overlap as possible. You can choose between three classes, but then micromanage all of your skill points accordingly to create the builds you like. Customisation is key, but don't expect too much guidance. If you muck up at the start, you'll find it hard going pretty soon afterwards. Original Sin is a game with an enormous box of tricks to its name, but it provides little by way of instruction for a game this size. For some, this means the game will prove a little disorienting; for others, all bets will be off. For us, it's a fine thing indeed.
The world is extraordinarily malleable. Not only to you have the choice of shaping your characters the way that you like -- taking different conversation paths, some of which open up possibilities for quests otherwise missed, or new items, new friends and enemies -- but the environment is changeable too. Piss off the villagers in a settlement and they'll run you out of town the next time you show up. But it works on a smaller scale too. Pretty much anything lying around can be picked up and moved, or acquired for later use. That bucket could make an excellent makeshift helmet, that explosive barrel of oil could be pushed closer to a target of your ire for explosive results. Little props and bits of scenery can be moved for a greater tactical advantage or smashed to bits to see if there's anything of any worth inside.
The tenet "leave no stone unturned" was made for this game.
Part of the joy of Original Sin is delighting in closed systems blown wide open. RPGs often tend to draw a line between combat and exploration, the skills for one kept apart from the skills of the other. As such, you could be forgiven for thinking that a fireball or a summoned storm might have little efficacy outside of battle, but Larian laugh in the face of such things. Early on in the game, when you come across the city of Cyseal for the first time, there's a ship burning up in the harbour. There are no prompts, nothing emblazoned on the screen to tell you that you've stumbled into a quest, it just happens. If you have access to water magic and can put it out, the townpeople will sing your praises and you'll get a healthy dose of XP. No handholding, no prompting, just sheer satisfaction if you have the abilities. It's the sort of buzz I'd imagine doctors get when someone shouts "Is anyone in here a doctor?" On the flipside, yes, you can hurl a fireball at that market stall and set it on fire if you so wish. Yes, you can pull a knife or a saucepan on that random bartender if you fancy a bit of a fight. Sure, you can flood someone's house and then electrocute everyone in it if you fancy.
But there will be consequences.
This freedom extends to the game's story and quest structure. There's no wrong way to go about things, and that's increedibly liberating. The first major quest you're given is a murder investigation, and how you tackle it is completely up to you. You can interview all of the suspects if you like and try to talk things out, you can break into their homes and try to rustle up incriminating evidence, you can make the situation ten times worse by starting fights with key story characters and doubling-down on the killing that's already happened. You could also just run away and go off and do your own thing.
There's a bit in Skyrim (SPOILERS!) where you're infiltrating an Elven shindig, only to come across some incredibly incriminating evidence to suggest that Ulfric Stormcloak is a duplicitous little shitebag. I was gobsmacked when I found it, rubbing my hands together with glee at the prospect of denouncing him and possibly taking his place. But no, there was never an option to confront him like that, and a really interesting piece of subplot was rendered utterly useless. That doesn't happen in Divinity. The freedom and potential Larian have equipped players with to craft their own narratives through gameplay is astonishing.
There are potential negatives to this, however, depending on your perspective. You can skip the plot ahead in some fairly large chunks at times if your exploration off the beaten path sends you further down the scripted narrative than normal. Sometimes that feels awesome, sometimes it's a little annoying and you feel like you've missed out on something. The game can also be a little fiddly at times, the UI isn't the most user-friendly, and it's all too easy to spend your time worrying about inventory management than enjoying the experience. Additionally, straying from the beaten track means you're likely to find difficulty peaks and troughs, and the combat can frequently be rather unforgiving. You have to be a little savvy, careful with your upgrades and the specialisations of your characters. I started the game again three times until I was really happy with my character setups, and that hasn't really happened to me since the mid-90s.
The broad, fairly generic story is alleviated by some humorous writing and lashings of Larian's trademark tongue-in-cheek comedy. Make sure one of your party has the Pet Pal perk because it allows you to talk to animals, and there are several scene stealing turns by the animals in the game, a handful of whom have some of the best lines in the whole thing. The distinct tone to the writing and the sense of humour about the world in general make it feel like you're in on the humour -- as if you were playing a grand tabletop game with Larian themselves, sharing in the jokes and the asides. The downside to the levity, however, is that the story never proves gripping in the same way that Chris Avellone's work on Planescape Torment did, for example. Divinity: Original Sin is a timesink, to be sure, and an excellent one at that, but I don't think it'll be a game that stays with me the way that games such as the aforementioned Planescape or the likes of Baldur's Gate or Chrono Trigger or KOTOR have.
Original Sin does excel when it comes to turn-based combat, however, leveraging its impressive AI and environmental factors to present combat that is always cerebral, tactical, and lifelike. It feels like you're playing against an adaptive foe when it comes to enemy encounters, with the adversaries that you face in the game able to use items and spells just as you can. It's rare to find two battles that play out the same way, and no encounter should be taken lightly. To their credit, Larian have crafted a combat system that allows for strategic depth without proving overly complex. It all boils down to action point management and using the right tools for the job. Reading the battlefield and using the environment to your advantage is crucial too, as is making sure you're not standing in a puddle or a pool of blood when deploying a electrical attack.
Having two main characters (you can expand your party to four later on) is an absolute treat, allowing for co-operative play, but also giving solo players a chance to role play the relationship between the two characters. I tended towards a pragmatist and a Romantic, a Zen warrior and a hot-head mage, and having them play out conversations between themselves was a real treat. If they don't end up agreeing, there's a variation of Rock-Paper-Scissors to help decide, or a good old-fashioned roll of the dice. That two character dynamic adds so much to overall experience, permeating every facet of the game, making combat more tactical, and enlivening exploration and conversation. Every encounter arrives with two reactions, always changing depending on the way you've set up your characters.
Divinity: Original Sin is a masterpiece, it really is. It's an unashamedly old-school RPG that prizes player freedom over heavy-handed storytelling and leading people by the nose, and it goes about its business extremely well. Games this ambitious and expansive in scope will always have their flaws, and there are flipsides to the design decisions that Larian have taken here. It might not necessarily be a game that you look back on five years from now and pronounce one of your favourites of all time, but for however many tens or hundreds of hours you put into Divinity: Original Sin, you're still going to have a fantastic time.
- Huge, malleable open world
- Dual character approach works wonders in co-op and solo
- Turn-based combat is challenging, yet utterly rewarding
- Larian's flair for the humorous elevates generic story
- Enormous amounts of player freedom and free-form quest solutions
- Dev tools and modding community make for limitless potential
- UI is a little clunky at times
- The game does a poor job of explaining some key elements
- Generic story lacks punch, fairly forgettable
The Short Version: An incredibly deep and engaging RPG, Larian have delivered one of the finest RPGs of the last decade in a paean to player choice and freedom, all presented with the knowing smile and cheeky wink we've come to expect from them. Divinity: Original Sin might prove a little overwhelming for some, but old-school RPG fans will absolutely adore this.