Divinity: Original Sin 2 Review

Divinity: Original Sin 2 (DOS2) is a tactical turn-based RPG, where players control up to four characters in a party. The concept is similar to old-school tactical RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, but with a unique style of combat and character progression. The result is a fresh take on tactical RPGs, unlike any others I’ve played before.

The combat is where DOS2 shines. Movement, attacks, consumables and skills all have Actions Point (AP) costs that subtract away from the four AP assigned per turn. Management of AP is complex, as different skills vary in their AP cost depending on potency, and turns can be postponed until the end of that combat round or limited AP stored until the next. Choosing which enemies to focus and with which skills is incredibly tactical, as every skill either deals physical or magical damage and has its special effects blocked by the corresponding armour type. For a Battle Stomp to knock over or Ice Fan to freeze the target, the player must first deplete the target’s related armour type.

The combat system serves to make each encounter feel unique and forces players to think on the fly instead of repeating the same working strategy every time. In some fights, you may want to focus down a single target, but in others, you’ll want to split focus on different enemies to remove their armour so they’re vulnerable to disruption and debuffs. Even healing characters is not as simple as you’d expect; you have to weigh up between healing their vitality or restoring a particular armour type to keep them safe from enemy disruption. Undead characters invert the regular healing interaction as they lose health from standard heals but gain health from poisons. In my current playthrough, all four of my characters each have 25 or so skills, on top of potions, grenades and other items that can be used in combat. DOS2 is overwhelming with depth and decisions to be made by the player, which is most notable in, but not limited to, the combat mechanics.

Character progression is the game’s second big highlight. There are no classes or roles, only presets for starting skills and attributes. Whenever a character levels up, they can choose to specialise in various skill trees or weapon and defensive bonuses. The skill trees allow players to unlock abilities and bonuses that represent a typical RPG class, such as Rogue, Mage or Warrior. This sophisticated specialisation system creates a tremendous opportunity for contemplating and crafting strategies by mixing trees to find skills and bonuses that synergise well together. For example, mixing Scoundrel (rogue) with Necromancy is a great combination, as health is then restored from dealing damage, while backstabbing helps create blood which the Necromancer can heal off. Instead of playing like a Rogue, a Necromancer could focus on Intelligence to cast powerful Necromancy spells. The classless system allows mixing specialisations in low commitment increments, I invested a single Scoundrel point on my mage so I could unlock the Adrenaline skill which borrows two AP from the next combat round.

Ability synergies can be spread across different characters. For example, a Warrior with a shield may forgo his weak attacks in favour of throwing a water grenade to apply the “Wet” debuff and enhance the damage dealt by the lightning mage, potentially causing targets to be stunned. Some skill trees also interact poorly; cast a fireball, and you may thaw a frozen enemy and detonate the poison used to heal your undead character. Mixing skill trees has its downsides, too; unlocking new skills requires the purchase of skill books, and characters have limited memory slots that can only be increased at the opportunity cost of other stats like Strength or Intelligence, so focusing on a single skill tree or neglecting them for mastery of weapons is another set of possible strategies. There are seemingly endless possibilities for play styles and synergies, but you have to work out the best ones as not all are created equal. In most tactical RPGs where classes are locked, certain characters like a healer are a necessity. Don’t want a healer in DOS2? You could instead rely on scrolls and potions, or, if you wanted a more radical approach, you could fill your entire party with undead and cover the battlefields with poison.

Unlike most RPGs where the only worthwhile gear is dropped from quests or item requirements might make gear too temporary, DOS2 handles economy perfectly. Traders are filled with powerful gear and items that you want but can’t afford, and every skill book you buy is partially a shiny new item that you now don’t have. Completing quests and killing tough enemies will grant epic gear, but there’s always other gear that needs upgrading between the various weapons, armour and trinket slots for all four characters. The process of choosing which gear to buy requires a lot of consideration; most items give points towards particular attributes or skill trees, so you’re often able to find gear that benefits a character or opens up new possibilities by allowing additional skills to be used. Choosing equipment involves lots of trade-offs. For example, the new helmet which includes the perfect bonuses for your mage may give the armour type which isn’t as needed, so now you have to decide what is more important.

The perpetual need for more gold takes typically unnecessary and neglected features of RPG games such as bartering, crafting and pickpocketing, and instead, makes them invaluable. The mechanics of pickpocketing is fun and quite challenging at times as it requires actual interaction with NPCs. Pickpocketing requires sneaking, which hides the character as long as they avoid NPC vision cones. If you’re spotted, it reveals the character and raises suspicion. Timing out patrol paths or talking to NPCs with other party members to distract is often required to initiate the pickpocket. A pickpocketing attempt is only successful after your party have all fled the crime scene before the victim realises they have been robbed and look around for culprits. The act of running away is not difficult, but it creates a thrill of robbing some poor Blacksmith and getting away with it instead of just a generic video game mechanic. If you’re caught red-handed trying to rob someone, you’ll likely get attacked by the trader and nearby guards. But that’s okay, as you can kill the trader and every other NPC you want. I murdered several traders even after I pickpocketed from them because I needed gold and XP. DOS2 allows players the freedom to kill any NPC in the game, though there may be consequences like losing a quest or future gear. However, the option and short-term gain is always there. This generous flexibility helps the immersion, as arbitrary limits ruin the experience by slapping you across the face saying “This is a video game, and we don’t want you to do this.”

I have over 80 hours clocked on my first playthrough, and yet I’m excited to begin a second using completely different specialisations and strategies. There’s so much of the game I haven’t yet experienced. For example, I didn’t use half of the skill trees, I lacked an archer, and I barely used grenades. The level of strategic options significantly increases through a wide range of available talents that can be selected once every few levels. Some of these talents are minor and improve a particular play style such as grenade throw range, but others are significant and radically alter how that character plays. The Lone Wolf perk, which grants enormous bonuses when alone or with a single party member, begs to have a whole new playthrough based on it. A great feature which adds to the replay value of the game is the tags system, where NPCs interact differently with you and opens additional dialogue options depending on your race, characters and or in-game actions. There is so much substance and content to the game that gives it such a sense of immersion. Even animals can be talked to with the pet pal talent, and some will provide quests and clues, and dogs may let you pat them. The amount of stuff DOS2 offers may be intimidating from the outside, but it’s gradually introduced to the players over time.

DOS2 also features an elegant crafting system, where various ingredients can be combined to craft gear, potions, scrolls and consumables. Crafting is a nice way of gaining extra gold, as competed items sell for more than the sum of their components. There are also some neat interactions, such as adding nails to a pair of boots to add slipping on ice immunity. Most of the crafting recipes are not given to the player, so you are encouraged to dabble around attempting to mix ingredients to see what they come up with. Consuming a herb or food reveals the properties it provides, which can be used to work out the purpose of crafting it. If eating a plant gives you +1 Intelligence then combining that with an Empty Flask is going to craft an Intelligence Potion. It’s a fun system because it doesn’t hold your hand. It instead leaves you to play around with it and work things out for yourself, then rewards you for being creative with certain combinations. There are so many ingredients in the game that it always feels like there are other cool crafting combinations waiting to be discovered… or Googled. I did stop and Google things several times when playing, and I’m unsure if that’s a good or bad thing.

The visuals in Divinity 2 are another highlight, in particular, the spell effects. The screen lights up when huge fireballs erupt or chain lightning electrifies targets. The music is also wonderful; I often linger in the main menu longer than I have to because the menu music is so damn good. DOS2 has the substance and fidelity of AAA game. DOS2 is so budget efficient due to the protagonist’s perception and experience of the world being conveyed through a narrator instead of close-ups on objects that would require expensive polish, effects and animations, leaving the budget to go towards the heart and presentation of the game in parts which really matter.

Ironically, the narrator was one of my favourite things about the game. The detailed writing is fantastic, and his voice is poetic and enthralling, whether it’s describing the beauty of a hidden statue in a forest, a romantic encounter, or a confrontation with a monstrous beast. At times, the narrator goofs around and provides humour, so there’s contrast as it’s not taking itself seriously all the time. Unfortunately, as much as I loved the immersion from the narrator and the music, I found the narrative and characters mostly to be generic and uninteresting. Play enough fantasy games, and you’ll be familiar with most of the plot and tropes. The protagonists, who you can play as or have as companions, feel one-dimensional and lack enough conversation to develop their characters or bring out any quirks. Your experience with the narrative may vary to mine, but don’t expect to be captivated by vibrant lore akin to Dragon Age or be humoured by memorable characters such as Minsk in Baldur’s Gate.

My other main criticism relates to quality of life issues and the usability of the interface. Several area of effect indicators are misleading and not easy to identify, “If I cast this ability here, will I hit my own character?” “Is the high ground going to block it in this case?” etc. It’s incredibly frustrating when an ability doesn’t work the way it usually does, and you end up harming your own character without any warning or indication. Hovering the mouse over a character creates the same outline that appears when an enemy is inside of an area of effect indicator, misleading you into thinking that the character you have your mouse accidentally hovered over is going to be hit by an ability. Placing your mouse over a target as if to use a basic attack does not tell you how much damage your attack will do, so you’re often unsure if you should attack that enemy or not. Attacking an enemy and having it retain 2 armour may prevent you from using a particular skill, so it can be incredibly frustrating when you make the wrong move but weren’t presented with all the information to make an informed decision. My interface complaints are lots of little things, but they all add up.

Fortunately, you can quick save in combat and check if certain things will work if you’re not sure, but saving inside of combat feels like cheating and players shouldn’t have to go through this just to see if an ability is going to work or not. When enemies cast abilities on themselves, hovering over the buff does not always produce a tooltip, so many times I had no idea what a new ability was that an enemy had just cast. Learning the game is simply more difficult than it should be. There’s a journal which contains tutorial entries when they’re introduced to the player, but there are too few entries, and so many important things left unexplained. I was confused by several parts of the game and was forced to work them out the hard way, like how I was stunning myself because I was casting lightning abilities when standing in water. Working things out for yourself can be fun when you aren’t directly required to do so, like the crafting, but it’s frustrating when you’re punished by a system you don’t understand because it wasn’t explained. Skill descriptions can also be confusing as certain statuses aren’t explained. For example, “Applies Cripple” should link to a journal entry that describes what Crippled means. When a skill is cast, you can check what the debuff is on the enemy, but it should explain what it means in the skill description so you can decide if you want to buy a skill book or not.

On top of the campaign, DOS2 also includes multiplayer. Friends can start a co-op campaign together, or at any time join a single-player campaign to take control of a character or make new ones from scratch. Being able to play co-op caters to the excellent replay value of the game, by encouraging players to have multiple simultaneous playthroughs with different player strategies. Aside from co-op, multiplayer includes a PVP arena and an innovative new mode called Game Master which replicates the Dungeons and Dungeon interaction between a Dungeon Master and the players. The game master can create whole new campaigns and watch over the progress of its players, manipulating the world and interacting with the characters. I haven’t tried Game Master yet, but I think it’s such a cool idea with a lot of potential, so I hope future RPGs continue to expand on it.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 is the best turn-based RPG I’ve played in years. The combat is incredibly tactical due to the implementation of the two armour types and how they resist effects from skills, classless character progression offers an overwhelming depth and strategic flexibility which gives the game huge replay value, and buying new gear and levelling up requires so much consideration as there are lots of meaningful trade-offs. Personally, I found the narrative underwhelming, but it was of little consequence overall as DOS2 is a beautiful and immersive game, featuring a lengthy campaign with cooperative play and other multiplayer modes. It’s unfortunate the poor tutorials leave so much unexplained, and interface issues may cause frustration for some, but my time with DOS2 has been great, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in tactical RPGs.

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