Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Divinity: Original Sin - Thoughts

Divinity: Original Sin is a game about casting magic. People might claim that there's a story in the game, or that there's a large number of quests and puzzles to complete, or that you can get a skill that lets you talk to animals—but these are all distractions. Divinity exists to ask a single question of you: what spell do you use next? It might seem boring to repeatedly badger the player with such a simple inquiry—especially over the game's 50 hour runtime—but this question is the cornerstone of every role playing combat system. And as Larian Studios demonstrates, when you decide to make it your focus, you can produce a gameplay system that's deep, flexible, and spectacular.

I need to explain that when I say Divinity: Original Sin is all about its magic, this is both true and not true. Yeah, there's a narrative you can follow with plenty of locales and characters and sardonic quips, but it's not exceptional by any means. The world in Divinity is best described as goofy—it's rarely ashamed to poke fun at itself and skews more towards humor than grittiness with its writing. There are grim sections to the game but these are often counterbalanced by bouts of weirdness and silliness; Divinity's world feels like fan-fantasy, made by folks that adore Tolkien but prefer not being so self-serious. That, and there's rarely anything that breaks out of the stereotypical fantasy mold. Orcs are orcs and humans are humans—I think the goblin design is the only thing that struck me as particularly uncanny.

The puzzles and quest design on the other hand are a really mixed bag. There's a lot of sections in the game that are cool and well-done, but when you get stuck at a puzzle, prepare to bang your head against a wall over and over. The quest log becomes a mess of unhelpful text and it can be difficult trying to figure out how to accomplish your objective. It doesn't help that online guides are fairly inconsistent too, sometimes providing vague or conflicting information. I was able to beat it—thankfully—but there were a handful of rough patches that deterred my enjoyment (the stealth sections were a major drag).

To Divinity's credit, its boldness is admirable. It tries its damnedest to offer the player multiple avenues to solve problems, allowing them to attack, barter, or search their way into a solution. I also like the unconventional design of some of the puzzles, like the one that required you to balance weights via various knickknacks in your inventory. When Divinity works it works well, but when it doesn't you're often left confused and annoyed. The end of the game in particular gets very constrictive, requiring precise answers to its puzzles and punishing you should you choose to ignore the perception stat (which is largely useless for the majority of the game).

But ah, once you enter into combat, oh what a glorious landscape of death and destruction you'll weave! Divinity's four elements have the ability to affect the landscape, transforming the grassy earth into a sea of fire or a lake of ice. This, combined with the massive slew of buffs and debuffs, is what makes combat so immensely satisfying to partake in. Though you start with a meager list of abilities in the beginning, by mid-game you'll have a vast repertoire of spells to sift through, trying to consider whether it'd be better to summon a minion, stun an opponent, or lob an elemental grenade (the correct answer is "summon a minion"—ABS: Always Be Summoning!) There are eight schools of "magic" a character can learn from, each containing around fifteen spells, and most of these abilities will see a healthy amount of use on the battlefield. What's cool too is that you can decide whether you want to go "deep" or "broad" with each school, letting you build a battle-mage or necromantic-thief if you so wish.

The core problems a lot of RPGs face is how do you avoid the player playing in a "loop"—that is to say, how do you discourage them from making the same decision for every encounter? Divinity solves this by not only making every battle unique, but cleverly balancing its abilities such that you never feel there's an "optimal" way to handle each scuffle. So let's say you're fighting a troll, and it used its first turn to close in on your warrior and fortify itself, granting it additional armor. With a four person squad, you have a lot of different options to consider*: do you try and lower the trolls armor? Haste your wizard so they can fling numerous immobilizing attacks at it? Improve your warrior's damage & accuracy so they can tear through the heightened defenses? Or maybe you teleport your warrior backwards and create a field of oil, so the troll will waste his turn trudging through it, only to eat a fireball next turn, which will subsequently set the oil ablaze? All of these are equally viable solutions on paper, but it varies depending on unit positioning, turn order, and the gear they have equipped. Rarely will you find yourself wading into a brawl you've accurately foreseen the outcome to—expect some craziness every encounter.

The final feature of Divinity that I think really sells it is that you can play through the entire campaign cooperatively. It's fun not only to have someone to chat with, but to also have a second layer of unpredictability to the combat, requiring you to adjust your playstyle around your partner's actions. For instance, my brother controlled a ranger and a tank while I helmed two different wizards, forcing me to juggle between attacking and strengthening his characters depending on their position. Occasionally our tactics led to some impromptu-hilarity, like when we were surrounded by goblins and I asked him to "forgive me" right before throwing a friendly-fire shrapnel grenade at the feet of our characters (pictured below). There's also a cool mechanic where you can disagree with a player's choice and play a game of rock-paper-scissors to overrule them, though it gets old pretty fast.

Divinity: Original Sin is one of many examples of why CRPGs are far from dead. If you're like me, you might be put-off from the idea of playing an RPG in spite of its story, but Divinity's combat is something that should not be missed. It constantly challenges you to think wisely, pushing you to question the spells you've picked for grimoire and weighing the risk of one attack versus another. Could charming the boss's minion change the tide of battle? What about hasting your tank, even though it'll set them on fire? Should you fire that explosive arrow into cluster of bleeding zombies, which will do extra AoE damage but then obscure your ranger's vision with a cloud of smoke? The limitless paths each battle can take is what kept me coming back to Divinity, and what I will remember it fondest for.

*Just kidding—Always Be Summoning!

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